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November 19, 2012 / Lee Skallerup Bessette

Orality, Performance, and Laferriere

Some preliminary thoughts about my upcoming MLA presentation on Laferriere. These idea about orality and performance have been turning around in my head for some time now and will probably inform much of the theoretical underpinning of my book. I’ve been doing some ebook reading (which, by the way, ebsco ebooks are the WORST) and I think I’ve finally managed to gain some shape or form to my ideas around how DH can be used to reclaim certain forms of orality and performance found in postcolonial writers such as Laferriere. It also helps me to explain why Laferriere writes, rewrites, adapts, and transmediates so much of his work.

The first book I browsed was The Power of the Written Tradition by Jack Goody, a respected anthropologist who has spent his career studying oral cultures. While he posits that that literate cultures are superior to oral cultures, he nonetheless, through his writing show how performance is an important element of the oral, as well as how religious practices that weren’t written down were more malleable, evolving according to the requirements of the particular culture and circumstances. Certainly, I can see how this relates to Laferriere insofar as his adaptations seem to be reactions to changes in time and audience. Instead of stable meaning, we are constantly shifting our view and understanding of his work. I’m excited by this find, even if it is an ebook. He also authored Myth, Ritual, and the Oral, which I have ordered through ILL.

The next is Orality: The Power of the Spoken Word by Graham Furniss which takes the exact opposite view of Goody in regards to the importance and (ahem) power of the spoken word/oral tradition. I’ve ordered the book through ILL, but I can tell that this book will further my understanding of the nature and features of orality, features that I hope I can find/match in Laferriere’s own work. According to one review, Furniss deals with the “magic of the moment” and this idea of performance. I also discovered theorist Walter J Ong (a student of Marshall McLuhan), and shockingly our library has some of his work. I’ll be off to check that out this afternoon.

Finally, I came across Kimberly Blaeser’s book George Vizenor: Writing in the Oral Tradition. Vizenor is a Native-American writer who is shockingly similar to Laferriere, down to the use of Haiku and other elements of Japanese arts and culture in his writing.  Vizenor manages to recreate some of the performative elements of oral traditions in his writing, using (among other things) the trickster figure. I have argued in other papers (albeit briefly) that Laferriere sets out to use/recreate the trickster of Voodoo spirituality, Papa Legba (going so far as to name one of his characters Legba, but also referring to him in some of his books). I’m hoping that some of her critical insight can help inform my interpretations of Laferriere’s work.

But, in the spirit of Digital Writing Month, I also wonder if some of what I will be reading about orality and performance isn’t also useful in understanding digital writing. Recently, when discussing #TvsZ, Jade of Jadedid suggested The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies so we can all brush up on our performance studies theory and understanding the performative nature of online writing. I think that some features of orality have come back through digital writing (impermanence, malleability, contextual nature, performance) that weren’t possible with printed, static text. This is why even though Laferriere eschews digital writing, I’m reading so much theory on it to inform my understanding of his work.

Blending the old with the new. That’s why I love this project so much.


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