Havelock on the ‘oral-literate equation’

Eric Havelock died on April 4, 1988.  Less than a year before, in June 1987, he participated in a 3-day conference in Toronto on ‘Literacy and Orality’.1 

Havelock’s lecture, titled ‘The oral-literate equation: a formula for the modern mind’, amounted to his last word on this topic. This 1987 lecture forms a book-end to Havelock’s introduction, almost forty years before, to his translation of Prometheus by Aeschylus (1950). In the lecture, the “modern mind” is said to be undermined by “the dilemmas posed by the deconstructionist methods of interpretation” (17-18).  This corresponds in the earlier essay to “the crucifixion of intellectual man”, which is depicted as deconstruction on a universal scale:

Our relationship to time and space is no more a matter of metaphysics but of precise [scientific] calculation, and the calculation yields an equation which crushes us by its reduction of our stature. This is the new burden we bear. We learn not only that we are alone, that in time we are a temporary event, but also that the territory on which we have a foothold [namely, earth itself] is like a boulder on a mountainside, not to be distinguished from a thousand others; capable of being kicked [down the slope at any time] into insignificance. The knowledge is too much for us, and it may yet kill us. We may end ourselves (…) because we think we have nothing left in ourselves to respect. In any case, our species will come to an end [at some point, having been merely] a tiny insignificant event (…) — so utterly ephemeral is our whole story. To know these things, and to live with this knowledge, is the special burden of our age.2

Seventy-five years before, Nietzsche had set out a comparable vision:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. (…) It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate, and ephemeral beings merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence. 3

In his 1987 lecture, Havelock suggests that “the rediscovery of the rules of orality may be part of the answer (…) to the dilemmas posed by the deconstructionist methods of interpretation” (17-18). The great question is, how might such an “oral-literate equation” or “formula for the modern mind” function as an “answer” in the face of the Nietzschean concerns Havelock set out in 1950? Havelock’s response to this question is given in his lecture as follows:

The competition between orality and literacy continues to flourish: It is announced in a growing chorus of publications. But has the chorus any concordance? Is there not a need to construct some overall pattern into which these various perceptions can fit — some overarching body of theory covering the oral-literate equation both as it has operated historically and as it may still operate in the present; a theory that will state certain fundamentals of the situation to which all investigators can relate themselves? (19, emphasis added.)4

Havelock also gives some clues as to the sort of “oral-literate equation” which might present such an “overarching body of theory” or “fundamentals (…) to which all investigations can relate”:

The two, orality and literacy, are sharpened and focused against each other, yet can be seen as still interwoven (…). It is of course, a mistake to polarize these as mutually exclusive. Their relationship is one of mutual, creative tension, one that has both a historical dimension (…) and a contemporary one (…). The tension can sometimes be perceived as pulling one way in favor of a restored orality and then the other way in favor of replacing it altogether by (…) literacy. (11)

There are two keys to this suggestion:

First there must be insight into the plurality of time: “theory covering the oral-literate equation both as it has operated historically and as it may still operate in the present”, “both a historical dimension (…) and a contemporary one”.  Crossing times like these function in all scientific explanation.  On the one hand there are unfolding events in linear time, like rust accumulating on an iron fence; on the other, there are chemical laws which account for these events in an ‘if>then’ chronology of their own: Fe + O => Fe2O3 . The time of the accumulation of rust and the time of the laws governing such oxidation are different — but, as Havelock, says, they are “interwoven”.  So the accumulating rust on the iron fence occurs gradually in clock-time; but in doing so it exemplifies the chemical laws of oxidation which express themselves in a kind of ideal chronology and set out what always occurs given certain conditions. Havelock’s suggestion is simply that a comparable sort of explanation, situated at the crossing of historical and theoretical times, be exercised in and on human experience.

Second, the prerequisite to such explanation is the isolation of “fundamental” theoretical structures “to which all investigations can relate”.  The law-governed interrelation between these structures constitutes that ‘if>then’ chronology which crosses the time of historical events and provides their background explanation. Havelock’s suggestion is that the set of possible oral-literate relations be taken as fundamental to social change and that this set be envisioned as a spectrum stretching between pure orality at one end and pure literacy at the other. All the points along the spectrum between these poles would represent a correlative “tension” of the two together where “the tension can sometimes be perceived as pulling one way in favor of a restored orality and then the other way in favor of replacing it altogether by (…) literacy”.  In the middle of the spectrum, the oral and literate ‘sides’ would be evenly balanced, with neither of them having “favor” over the other. (Cf Coleridge, The Aeolian Harp: “A Light in Sound, a sound-like power in Light”.)

How this sort of explanation might function is described by Havelock in terms of his own experience:

Observing (…) that Plato’s text contained an explicit rejection of both Homer and Greek drama as unsuitable for the curriculum of higher education that his academy was designed to offer, I concluded that a great divide in Greek culture had begun to occur, perhaps at the time when Plato was born [c. 425 BC] or a little earlier, which separated an oralist society relying mainly on metrical and recited literature for the content of its cultural knowledge to a  literate society that was to rely in the future on prose as the vehicle of serious reflection, research, and record. (23)

This break, which has a rough analogy in the life of any individual who learns to write, showed that

the narrative requirement, the activist syntax, and the living agents required for all oral speech held in the memory could also be laid aside, replaced by a [literary] reflective syntax of definition, description, and analysis. Such was the prose of Plato and all his successors, whether philosophic, scientific, historical, descriptive, legal, or moral. European culture slowly moved over into the ambience of analytic, reflective, interpretative, conceptual prose discourse. (25)

On the one hand there was the flow of unfolding events in the Greek world between, say, 900 BC and 400 BC; on the other an underlying set of oral-literate ratios.  Havelock’s intuition was that as these ratios changed, so did Greek culture in correlative ways. It followed that such oral-literate ratios could be used to map the course of social and cultural events, just as proton-electron ratios (constituting the different chemical elements) can be used to map material events.

Havelock proposed that the work of Harold Innis was dedicated to just such a goal:

[Innis] saw the forests of his native land [being] converted into a moment’s reading on a New York subway. Recalling his own upbringing in a small town, where communication besides being personal was economical, unhurried, and to a degree reflective, he leapt to the conclusion that the mass media of modernity did not give modern man time to think. Instant news robbed him of historical sense, to look backward, and of the power to look forward, to envisage a probable future of consequences that follow from present decisions. This was the bias of modern mass communication. The technology itself encouraged a state of mind that he regretted. He set himself the historical task of pursuing the ways in which previous technologies of the word had worked to produce their corresponding social and cognitive effects. (14)

It is notable that Havelock brings together Innis’s regret at the loss of “historical sense” (the ability “to look backward and (…) forward to envisage a probable future of consequences that follow from present decisions”5) and the need for an “overarching body of theory covering the oral-literate equation” (the “task of pursuing the ways in which [oral and/or literate] technologies of the word had worked to produce their corresponding social and cognitive effects”). This  loss of an “unhurried and (…) reflective (…) historical sense” was exactly a reduction of the plurality of time as times to a singular “moment’s reading” or “instant news”, which gave no “time to think”.  The rediscovery of the plurality of time and the formulation of an “overall pattern” were therefore each necessary for the other. Neither was possible alone.

Such an “historical sense” needs to be made explicit today when “the mass media of modernity [do] not give modern man time to think”.  For time was, even in the recent past of Innis’s youth, and continuing more or less unnoticed even into the present, when “communication besides being personal was economical [ie ecological], unhurried, and to a degree reflective”. For the most part, indeed, even for “intellectual man” and the “modern mind”, life is always already lived in the crossing of times where we are all able, to greater or lesser extent, “to envisage a probable future of consequences that follow from present decisions”.

Just as chemistry did not invent new elements that were not already at hand, but instead represented the discovery of how to see what was already present before us, so Innis and Havelock proposed that we learn to study the “technologies of the word”, conceived as oral-literate ratios, as already functioning “to produce their corresponding social and cognitive effects”.

Such study would combat the “time-denying”6 effects of modern media (which include continuous war and authoritarianism); it would bond us to our past (and so exercise piety) by giving us a new respect for the “small town” thinking of our grandparents; it would relativize nihilism by exposing its presuppositions; and it would institute progressive research into human experience which would revolutionize our understanding of it as much as our understanding of the physical world has been revolutionized in the last two centuries by the discovery of its “fundamentals (…) to which all investigators can relate themselves”.

Is there not a need to construct some overall pattern into which these various perceptions can fit — some overarching body of theory covering the oral-literate equation both as it has operated historically and as it may still operate in the present; a theory that will state certain fundamentals of the situation to which all investigators can relate themselves?7 (19)


  1. Papers from the conference have been printed in Literacy and Orality, ed David R Olson and Nancy Torrance, 1991. All page references below, unless otherwise noted, are to this volume.
  2. The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1950, 6. Both Innis and McLuhan took specific note of this essay by Havelock: Innis in The Strategy Of Culture (1952); McLuhan in his unpublished lecture ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’ (1954).
  3. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘, 1873.  The German original is given here.
  4. Havelock has ‘investigations’, not ‘investigators’. But ‘themselves’ would seem to require ‘investigators’ and ‘investigations’ would seem to require the passive:  ‘to which all investigations can be related’.
  5. This sort of backwards and forwards prognostication is, of course, just what scientific law enables.
  6. Innis, A Plea for Time, 1950.
  7. Cf McLuhan to Pound, January 5, 1951, where he declares his aim “to open up inter-communication between several fields. To open eyes and ears of people in physics, anthropology, history, etc. etc., to relevant developments in the arts which concern them so that they in turn contribute their newest insights to the arts (…) to ideogram important new books in such wise as to indicate precise bearings of techniques involved in other fields. To ideogram single issues of Life, Vogue, Satevepost occasionally in order to indicate interrelations between popular and serious culture.” (Letters, 218)

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