Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Institutions, Collaboration and Orality in Clark

I really like the balance that Clark offers in terms of how institutions shape thought vs. how the mind takes advantage of external scaffolding. His discussion of how language may have actually evolved "so as to be easily acquired and used by beings like us" (212) and his discussion of public language (208) really got me thinking about the collaborative nature of knowledge. I didn't need to be persuaded of this idea, but Clark frames it very well.

His ideas about how institutions/scaffolding can constrain thought seemed to question our traditional forms of agency in a very useful way (maybe more useful than more nihilistic theories?) - Clark talks about "the power of institutional settings and external constraints to promote collective behaviors that conform to the model of substantive rationality" (184). That is, institutions don't hold us back or strip away our agency, but they do very carefully guide us down certain paths.

This talk of institutions leads me to Clark's discussion of orality and literacy. He quotes a study by Merlin Donald that claims

"Before the Greeks...various external formalisms were in use but were deployed only in the service of myths and narratives. The key innovation of the Greeks was to begin to use the written medium to record the processes of thought and argument" (206).

Donald goes on to claim that oral culture passed on "myths or finished theories...relatively unaltered." Clark seems to buy into Donald's distinction between "mythic" (oral) and "theoretic" (literate) scaffolding. However, I'm not sure I do. In what way are myths and narratives "theoretic"? Walter Ong's work on orality and literacy would seem to prove that such claims are reductive - that oral thought is just as "complex" and "unfinished" as literate thought. Also, why is it that words on papyrus are any more "external" than the spoken word? The claim here seems to be that oral culture passes things on wholesale while literate culture puts things on paper that are partial - then we argue about the stuff that's on paper. I don't think I buy this.

To link back up with what I mention above. I think the "institutions" of our literate culture have constrained the way we think about orality/literacy, and any claims that oral culture is somehow less collaborative and more stable would seem to ignore that all knowledge (regardless of whether the scaffolding is oral or literate) is collaborative.


Blogger mdl said...

Great post, Jim. You seem to have a love/hate thing with Ong? I am interested in talking with others and learning what folks think about this "blithe institution" theory. Assuredly Clark must be using this in some qualified way? I don't think, from my personal experience, that corporate instutitions necessily "evolve" (as he writes) through singular actions in some kinds of progressive or organic way? What about things like profit, product, hierarchy and power, the way certain kinds of knowledges are privileged, etc.? If institutions are comprised of such things, how can we assume that they aid our cognition in a position way? Or, maybe, the answer is, he wouldn't append this statement with the "in a positive way," and just state that this is the way it works? In which case, he's not too far from the post-marxists? ideological state apparatuses, man. They're in your head.

11:45 AM  
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