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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

What We Genrify When We Mean to Talk

Posted by Ray Davis on 03/11/06 at 04:57 PM

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes
by David C. Rubin

I'm no blurbing brook I think all a publisher ever fished from me was "... courageous ..."— but I'm tired of writing about stuff I can't recommend, so here goes: Memory in Oral Traditions is as good as interdisciplinary scholarship gets. That is, Rubin has shown how the mysteries of one discipline mutually solve the mysteries of another. The peculiar traits of his three poetic forms explain how they were carried across time and space, which in turn explains how we come to find the peculiar traits. And he demonstrates this correlation with full self-deprecating awareness that the job of a historical scientist is not to manufacture just-so stories but to anticipate and meet objections.

Rubin's admirably cautious with the "E" word, but what he describes and documents (through folklore collections, Homeric scholarship, field recordings, surveys, and lab experiments) can be fairly compared to Darwinian selection. Given an initial varied population, a means of reproduction, and death, natural criteria predictably influence which variations survive into the next generations, leading to local pools of convergence.

Darwinian evolution doesn't winnow the biosphere down to a single perfect specimen of a single perfect species, and Rubinian evolution doesn't reduce oral culture to a canon of one unforgettable jingle. (Although the worldwide ascendency of "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo" now seems to me one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.) There'll always be variation, outliers, imperfect local attractors and opportunity for competition.... And, as with reading Darwin, most of the pleasure of reading Rubin comes from seeing the traits and selectors described and watching the contraption's assembly.

But prior to any notion of variation or selection, the contraption depends on reproduction and death.

Reproduction: Darwin didn't know about Mengelian heredity or DNA, but he could be fairly confident that sex was involved. We don't know much about the workings of mind, but one thing that's become clear is that behind all mental activity, including the sliver we name "consciousness", behind all human accomplishments and blunders, lies the emergence of pattern. In human culture, repeated encounters with performances drive (re-)emergence of patterns called genres. Replication of a single performance relies on those generic patterns for implicit support and implicit betrayal.

Death: As Rubin writes, "verbatim recall" without literacy just means no one notices the changes. What lasts over time aren't the most brilliant and original performances, but what's transmittable. "Oral traditions maximize memorability so that information can be stored without external memory aids for long periods of time. The cost of maximizing mnemonic efficiency, however, is in not maximizing for other purposes."

Recording changes everything. Once performance becomes artifact, it remains fixed while social context flows around it, prods, tastes, absorbs, mimics , rejects it, returns.... What was only knowable as forest becomes a collection of trees, and genre becomes the unsteadier partner in this dance.

[Shift to Jon-Stewart-end-of-interview voice:] The book is in print, in paperback. The bibliography is eclectic and deep; the endnotes hold sweet marrow. I guess I could find something to grouse about, but I don't really feel like it. If you're the author and want to know what some shlub thinks of something you wrote over a decade ago, drop me a line.


You might look at, for example, Bruce Jackson “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me", Harvard 1972 (and recently re-issued in paperback). It’s a collection of toasts, oral epics in an Afro-American tradition. Jackson has many versions of the same toast, so you can see what elements are constant in the tradition, and what are up to the skills of the particular performer. The book also contains a CD containing recordings of the various toasts.

I don’t remembert Rubin as saying much of anything about evolution; it’s pretty much cognitive psychology all the way—at least as I remember it (I read around in it a few years ago). But of course, “what’s transmittable” is absolutely critical. If there is to be anything at all to “culture” it must be stable; that is to say, it must be reliably transmittable. Only when that has been achieved does it make sense to consider transmission with (systematic) variation.

You might also look at:

Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity Oxford, Oxford University Press.

It’s about distinctly different socio-technical means of reconstituting religious ceremony from one occasion to the next.

By Bill Benzon on 03/11/06 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe your post should have been called - ‘Genrification - or - Here comes the neighborhood’.

By John Holbo on 03/11/06 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the Bruce Jackson tip, Bill. I’ve wanted a copy of that book a long while but didn’t realize it’d been reissued. With a CD, too! Can’t wait to do some compare-and-contrast between that “Titanic” and Snatch & The Poontangs’ “Hey, Shine”....

And you remember correctly: The “evolution” label is mine, not Rubin’s. I just thought it was amusing that the one person I’ve read lately who’d earned the right to throw it around chose not to.

By Ray Davis on 03/11/06 at 09:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I studied with Jackson in graduate school.

Don’t know anything about Snatch, but you should check out Rudy Ray Moore:


He recorded lots of those rhymes some time ago, long enough ago that the parents of many hip-hoppers could pick up his records. “Shine” is particularly germane in this post-Katrina world. Here’s a transcription of a version recorded in New Orleans:


It’s quite a remarkable little critique of (white) technological arrogance.

By Bill Benzon on 03/11/06 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve checked out Rudy Ray Moore myself, but it’s always a good idea to get his name out there.

To do something that would make Rudy Ray Moore want to check out me, though—what a dream....

“Snatch & the Poontangs” were the Johnny Otis Show under a nom de plaisir. Illegal MP3s available from the usual sources.

By Ray Davis on 03/11/06 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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