The invention of writing around 3000 BC transformed oral tradition, transmitted through storytelling, bardic epics, mythical re-enactments and performances, into textual tradition, handed down by scribes. The culture of text, as exemplified in the Chinese scribal culture, passed on its wisdom not through reading, but through the faithful copying of texts. It was through the rewriting of fixe texts in one’s own handwriting that the truths of ancestors got embodied anew into generations. Copying texts was the major way of getting at the texts’ meaning, and of obtaining the social prestige that came with a literate education.
The culture of the text and its respect for and obedience to textual authority was also central to the Judaic and early Christian traditions. In these cultures, revelation was to take place through commentary, exegesis, and translation. The implication was that through the study and interpretation of the sacred texts it would be possible to recover the original truths dispensed in oral form by god, angels, and the prophets. The simultaneous desirability and impossibility of this goal have been the subject of many a scholar’s concern. It was the ultimate focus of the Kabbalah, a twelfth century school of Jewish mysticism named after the Hebrew term for “literary tradition”. What Kabbalists looked for in the Bible was not primarily philosophical ideas, but a symbolic description of the hidden process of divine life. Viewing written language itself as a micro-representation of the universe, Kabbalists built an elaborate system of meanings based on numbers and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, in an effort to accede to the unwritten secrets of the universe. So, for example, the four letters of the Hebrew name of God, Yod he vav he (Yahweh), have in Hebrew the numerical value 45 from their position in the alphabet, as does the word Adam. The God who can be apprehended by man is himself, they claimed, the First Man. One can readily see why the Catholic Church condemned the kabbalah as a heresy.
Textual cultures illustrate the dilemma represented by the invention of writing. Writing permits record-keeping, and thus can be an aid to memory; by fixing the fluidity of speech, it makes tradition into scripture, which can then be easily codified and made into norm, a canon, or a law. But writing, uprooted from its original context through the passing of time and through its dissemination in space, increases also the absurdity of the quest for the one true “original” meaning. Ancient texts can only be understood through the multiple meanings given to them by latter-day commentators, exegetes, translators. Even legal documents, that try to control and legislate people’s lives, have to be re-interpreted anew for every particular case.
Print and power
Institutional power has traditionally ensured cultural continuity by providing a safeguard against the unbounded interpretation of text. In medieval times, monks, scribes, and commentators served as the gate-keepers and interpreters of tradition against cultural change. With the advent of print culture, the need to hand copy texts disappeared, and so did the caste of scribes. At the same time ecclesiastical authority itself was on the wane. The combination of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440 and the translation of the Bible into vernacular German by Martin Luther in 1552, made the sacred truth accessible to all, and not only to the Church-educated elite. It opened the door to the unlimited and uncontrolled proliferation of meanings. Soon, the Church monopoly on meaning was replaced by the interpretive authority and censorship of secular powers, i.e. academy, the press and the political institutions. Whereas oral culture has been seen as exerting a “prophylactic”, or invisible, censorship on its members through the conservative pressure of the social group; textual culture because it is more able to express the particular meanings of individual writers, has usually been censored by external powers, like The Church or the State. Thus, while the written medium has been viewed as potentially more subversive than the spoken medium, in reality it has also been constrained by institutions like the academy, the law, the publishing industry, that have always been in control of new technologies.
The academic monopoly over the meaning of written texts has manifested itself up to recently by its definition of literacy as merely the ability to read and write. The importance given to the formal linguistic aspects of texts, to the etymology of words and literal meanings, to correct grammar and accurate spelling, ensured attention to, and compliance with, the letter of texts, but not necessarily with their spirit. Traditional academic practice, that emphasized form over meaning and had students interpret texts as if they were autonomous units, independent of reader’s response, implicitly imposed its own context of interpretation on all, claiming that its norms of interpretation were universal and accessible to anybody’s intuition.