The Orality/Literacy Heuristic (seminar)

For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a late-spring 2013 faculty weekend seminar led by Adam Fox and Paula McDowell.

Recent decades have witnessed powerful revisionary challenges to scholarly models of “orality and literacy.” Whereas anthropologists and media ecologists such as Jack Goody and Walter Ong theorized profound differences between oral and literate societies and linked reading and writing with progress, civilization, and even rational thinking, more recent scholarship strives to distinguish claims for the consequences of literacy from its real significance for particular social groups and attempts to move beyond binary thinking in conceptualizing human communication. Yet many of these debates lack a strong historical dimension; furthermore, “displacement” models of human communication (the idea that one media form displaces, rather than transforms another), though widely acknowledged as problematic, have themselves still not been thoroughly displaced. This seminar allowed an interdisciplinary group of up to sixteen scholars to examine the legacy of the “orality/literacy” rubric and its continuing implications for research in the early modern humanities. Faculty with research projects that advance these debates were encouraged to apply. While participants had the opportunity to share their projects with the group, the seminar’s focus addressed the “orality/literacy heuristic” itself—its past, present, and future—and shaped the field of study that this profoundly influential cultural narrative has generated.

Directors: Adam Fox is Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. He is author of Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500–1700 (2000) and co-editor (with Daniel Woolf) of The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain 1500–1850 (2002).

Paula McDowell is Associate Professor of English at New York University. She is the author of The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678–1730 (1998) and Elinor James: Printed Writings (2005) and is currently completing a book titled Fugitive Voices: Print Commerce and the Invention of the Oral in Eighteenth-Century Britain.