Oral Hermeneutics During the Transition to Literacy: The Contemporary Debate

Essay Excerpt

In Way with Words, Shirley Brice Heath tells the story of a black preacher's reaction to her annotated transcript of his sermon. When he saw his sermon and accompanying chants in transcribed, annotated form he said, "It's dead. You can't do that" (Heath 1983:389). The preacher's reaction prompted Heath to dis­ continue  the practice  of annotating her transcriptions. An ethnographer and scholar of black homiletics who is himself a black preacher cites only the dialogue as it actually occurred and not, "what it might become," or "how it might be heavied up for the intellectual expectations of a reader rather than a hearer." Ultimately, he proposes, the dialogue sermon indigenous to black preaching cannot survive the translation into writing.” A free black dialogue cannot be written until it has taken place, and reduced to writing, it loses the essence of what it was. Anything else must be classified  as written for reading" (Mitchell 1970:16). These examples suggest the complexity of all discourse: oral, written, and, as often as not, compounds of oral and written such as those exemplified by black preaching. In what follows I will argue that one of the longstanding problems posed by oral discourse is first and foremost a hermeneutic problem. A transcription of oral discourse, regardless of its precision and faithfulness to the original, creates a text--"something written to be read"--out of what is not a text.

C. Jan Swearengen is Professor of English at Texas A&M University

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