Friday, July 22, 2005

Institutionalizing Rhizome: How Oral Traditions May Have Inhibited Hierarchy Formation

Warning: This article may contain references to concepts or theories rejected by orthodox archaeology. Those people who may be offended by such language should go back to reading The Economist.

Yesterday Julie (my wife) and I were discussing the pyramids, Mayan astrology, Graham Hancock and other such nonsense. Without getting too deep in the murky waters of cryptoarchaeology, we discussed a theory of some interest to the hierarchy vs. rhizome issue:

The importance of Oral Tradition in ancient cultures may have been an intentional attempt to inhibit the advance of hierarchy.

Viz., The prohibition against writing down the Rig Veda; the prevalence of oral tradition among Nordic people despite a fully functional runic alphabet (it was taboo...); the emphasis on the memorization and oral recitation of the Quran.

Runes were sacred because the power of such symbolic representation was understood. Presumably the Rig Veda was passed on for thousands of years exclusively orally because the dangers of writing it down were understood. What was the danger of writing it down? Was this an intentional attempt to prevent the social escalation in to hierarchy, agriculture and "civilization"? Certainly a culture capable of producing the Rig Veda was already quite civilized, by some definitions. Did they have a model of a previous, much older culture that had taken this path, and that they wanted to avoid?

The oral tradition model seems to be a rhizome-creating institution. Stories will drift, change and adopt, and the absense of a singular written record ensures that there is no one right way. There is no singular power center (Pope, Patriarch, High-Priest) because everyone has general access to the lore (the masses couldn't read, but they heard the stories told over and over).


Jason Godesky said...

Funny--probably the tamest thing you've written all week, and this is the one that gets a warning label! Still ... interesting. I wonder how much of it was intentional, and how much dumb luck. I doubt the !Kung custom of "cursing the meat" was put together consciously, yet it may be why they still exist today as an example of egalitarian society. I wonder how much of that is at work here.

James Cape said...

While I can see a prohibition on writing down religious texts serving as a means to avoid dogmatism, I think the examples you give actually work against your argument of oral tradition as a block to hierarchy.

The Pope exists in spite of the written works of Christianity. One would think that the hopefully obvious symbolism of the curtain separating the Jewish priesthood from the people being torn from top to bottom when Yeshua was crucified -- if taken to it's logical conclusion, it would seem to be the final word in anti-clericalism.

Further, I think that "rhizome"/radical egalitarianism is less a consequence than a pre-requisite of a strong oral tradition. With freedom of thought, comparatively strong community and greater amounts of free time, memorization and personalization of stories is not difficult -- this describes my experiences in a college dormatory, where the crew was all on an equal footing and we effectively developed our own "oral tradition," of unwritten knowledge about school, politics, crime, morality, etc.

Our knowledge was comprised of a mixture of our own experiences and those of our social circles, as well as the written traditions of the society. But, that oral tradition could not have developed without at least some pre-existing sense of community (the tradition also served to strengthen the community, BTW). It's also of note that our tradition didn't really emerge until a mutual respect had developed among the crew.

Jason Godesky said...

Hmmm ... no, it seems to me that the historicalyl hierarchical nature of Christianity owes itself to text. The Jesus Movement was very rhizomatic (see John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant), and had it remained at the level of Aramaic proverbs, it's unlikely any hierarchy would ever have formed. Once those proverbs were formulated into written gospels, they could be memorized and manipulated. Verses like the cornerstone of the papacy, Jesus giving the keys of heaven to Peter, could be inserted. Et cetera.

candy said...

levi-strauss wrote that writing was essential to subjugation and "man's exploitation by man". derrida does a number on that in his chapter on "the violence of the letter in OF GRAMMATOLOGY:

"...the colloquial difference between language and writing, the rigorous exteriority of one with respect to the other, is admitted. This permits the distinction between peoples using writing and peoples without writing. Levi-Strauss is never suspicious of the value of sucha distinction. This above all allows thim to consdier the passage from speech to writing as a leap, as the instantaneous crossing of aline of discontinuity: passage froma fully oral language, pure of all writing--pure, innocent--to a language appending to itself its graphic representation as an accessory signifier of a new type, opening a technique of oppression. Levi-Strauss need this "epigenetist" concept of writing in order that the theme of evil and of exploitation suddenly coming about with the graphie could indeed be the theme of a surprise and an accident affecting hte purity of an innocent language from without. Affecting as by chance...

In this text, Levi-Strauss does not distinguish between heirarchization and domination, between political authority and exploitation. The tone that pervades these reflections is of an anarchism that deliberately confounds law and oppression."(120,131)

nonetheless Deleuze and Guattari have a similar idea (from Pierre Clastres) that primitive societies were concerned with warning off "the state":

"Not only does Clastres doubt that the State is the product of an ascribable economic development, but he asks if it is not a potential concern of primitve societies to ward off or avert that monster they supposedly do not understand. Warding off the formation of a State apparatus, making such a formation impossible, would be the objective of a certain number of primitive social mechanisms, even if they are not consciously understood as such. To be sure, primitive societies have CHIEFS. But the State is not defined by the existence of chiefs; it is defined by the perpetuation or conservation of organs of power. The concern of the state is to conserve. Special institutions are thus necessary to enable a chief to become a man of the State, but diffuse, collective mechanisms are just as necessary to prevent a chief from becoming one. Mechanisms for warding off, preventive mechanisms, are a part of chieftainship and keep an apparatus distinct from the social body from crystallizing...The chief is more like a leader of a star than a man of power and is always in danger of being disavowed by his people." (357)

Heirarchy put to the ends of rhizomatic freedom?

gilemon said...

Comments are nice indeed, but you need to give us rights to edit your blog ;)
Go full Open Source, go CVS!

wbb said...

Literacy is a technology. When it is introduced, those who master the technology will have put themselves at an advantage over those who don't.

But there is nothing unique about literacy that makes it especially hierarchising. Driving a car is also very empowering. As are many technologies including internet usage.