HAUN SAUSSY opens The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies with the story of how we discovered Pluto. Astronomers deduced the dwarf planet’s existence by the atmospheric ‘wobble’ it pressed onto neighbouring orbits, although no one could locate it through a telescope. For Saussy, this discovery represents ‘a rare kind of triumph’: to understand an entity exists even though you cannot find it. In this spirit of indirect investigation, Saussy explores the oral tradition by focusing on its ‘wobble’, or how orality perturbs the wider orbit of literary culture. Thus The Ethnography of Rhythm offers not a definition of orality, nor a survey of oral history, nor a bid to usurp written culture with orality as its antithesis. Instead, Saussy pitches oral literature as its own strand of writing—an inscription like any other, but with our bodies as receiving and transmitting technologies. The Ethnography of Rhythm sits apart in Saussy’s bibliography, which is otherwise dominated by studies of poetics in ancient China. Although this book visits the subject of Chinese folk poetry, in particular the Shijing or Book of Songs, Saussy broadens his study to include a diverse series of cases—from the Malagasy hain-teny to the Druid oral tradition, Christian Gospels, and Homer, whom Saussy names as this book’s ‘protagonist’. By selecting The Ethnography of Rhythm as his title, Saussy highlights the ‘constitutive distance between orality and its observers’ and insists ‘it is only through an overlay of different media (since ethnography is an overlay of different cultures) that oral poetry emerges into view at all. The book is a working out of the ethno- and the -graphic sides of the problem.’ This last sentence summarizes the preoccupation of the book, which reverberates in the subtitle: orality and its technologies. Saussy’s examples of orality come from the ‘overlay of cultures’, as he indicates, and the technologies are graphic, as we understand the word’s origin from graphein (γράφεω), ‘to wound lightly, to scratch, to sketch’, and eventually ‘to write’. However, a final word from the title does not reverberate elsewhere as much as hover throughout the book as its spectre: rhythm. Saussy invokes rhythm to explain the techniques of orality, the inscription of our bodies as receiving and transmitting ‘surfaces’, but he never rummages through the concept of rhythm in its own right. Perhaps we are meant to understand rhythm by the same technique we are meant to understand orality—by its wobble. But Saussy does not articulate rhythm as a ‘perturbing’ force. On the contrary—his study takes for granted the Platonic understanding of rhythm as order, symmetry, balance, alternation. On the Shijing, Saussy writes that these poems reduce to ‘the formulas of male and female role-playing in the dance and in the joust, and this reduces yet again to sheer alternation: yin and yang, complementary positions, rhythm’. In the same chapter, Saussy describes rhythm as ‘precisely this recruitment and organization of movements in the service of memory’. I am not sure, frankly, whether this lack of ‘rummaging’ is a deficit. Where we draw the boundaries of rhythm is a philosophical question—the same as what we include in the definition of ‘writing’. But I do resist the notion that rhythm is mere order or didactic tool, mere instrument or technique of orality. This hesitation notwithstanding, Saussy’s broader findings on orality and its technologies are convincing. The book wends between ethnographic accounts of oral literature and instances of orality’s mechanization through technology. Saussy’s example of the phonoautographic instrument, which translates human voices into literal wobbles on the page, is particularly fascinating for its implication, by way of Rousselot, that speakers of a language are tuning forks: we ‘emit, receive, and calibrate one another’s speech vibrations … not consciously', but through “a process independent of our will,” one of imitation and propagation not unlike the “sympathetic resonance” long investigated by physicists.’ Perhaps this notion of sympathetic attunement, or ‘body-to-body resonance coupling’ as Bergson describes it, is one of the broader features of rhythm that Saussy reveals by directing his lens askance. A youngster learning to finger-paint her name, a Second World War veteran typing for the first time on an iPad, a film student operating a new camera: these are bodies aware of their technologies. The moment we in-corp-orate such techniques, we forget them. The technology drops from our minds to muscle memory. And so, it makes sense that oral literature is another kind of writing—that we humans perform ‘acts of inscription’ on each other, and that oral composition is itself a ‘technique of the body’. Saussy progresses elegantly through his examples, be they ethnographic accounts of oral cultures or studies of relevant (even resonant) machines. His interaction with other theorists, from Ferdinand de Saussure to folk scholar Marcel Jousse and Homer scholar Milman Parry, is always empathetic—a demonstration of the ‘sympathetic attunement’ described above, which meets the thinker on his or her own register. On the whole, The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies perturbs not only our notions of ‘what counts’ as writing, but also the modes we use to theorize literature in the first place. Saussy challenges the reader to turn her head a fraction, to tune her senses to the environment in search of what cannot at first be seen. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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