Friday, October 5, 2012

Julia Roberts and Chinese Opera

I’m walking through the fancy Olympic-built Beijing airport and Julia Roberts is smiling at me, enticing me to buy some fancy French perfume. Heading to the gate, Tchaikovsky is serenading me with The Nutcracker Suite. I can’t help but wonder why I don’t hear Chinese Opera playing in Chicago airport as I pass photos of Diana Xu, the current Ms. Universe contestant from China, selling me ginseng.

Of course, I don’t really wonder. I know enough of the ways of the world to know how those with the big shoulders of power and money take up more than their share of room. And interestingly enough, so much of it comes down to alphabetic literacy.

A decade or so ago, I had a private festival of reading about the advent of literacy in general and the Western phonetic alphabet in particular. Preface to Plato, Orality and Literacy, The Singer of Tales, A Is for Ox, The Spell of the Sensuous, The Gutenberg Galaxy are just some of the books I can recall without looking them up. The latter, written by Marshall McCluhan a half-century or so ago, touches directly on this matter:

•"The phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste… it creates  a sudden breach between the auditory and visual experience of man. Only the phonetic alphabet makes such a sharp division in experience, giving to its user an eye for an ear, and freeing him from the tribal trance of resonating word and magic and the web of kinship."

"...from the invention of the alphabet there has been a continuous drive in the Western world toward the separation of the senses, of functions, of operations, of states emotional and political, as well as of tasks..."

• "Only alphabetic cultures have ever mastered connected lineal sequences as pervasive forms of psychic and social organization. The breaking up of every kind of experience into uniform units in order to produce faster action and change of form (applied knowledge) has been the secret of Western power over man and nature alike."

"The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures...any society possesing the alphabet can translate any adjacent culture into its alphabetic mode. But this is a one-way process. No non-alphabetic culture can take over an alphabetic one; because the alphabet cannot be assimilated; it can only liquidate or reduce.”

Because my daily bread is buttered with “resonate words and tones and magic and forming a web of kinship,” these insights are of great interest to me. I work with—and take delight in— oral learners called preschoolers, get newspaper-reading screen-addicted adults to slap their bodies, vocalize grunts and make eye contact with their neighbors while dancing in body-beating bliss. I see how my music teacher tribe members are fighting, and often losing, a battle with the t-crossers and i-dotters who insist that we deal only in the coin of uniform units producing predictable results that can be measured by machines. The lineal sequences of efficient factories still dominate school cultures, the breaking up of every kind of experience into the fiction of school subjects run by clocks and timetables transforms the freedoms and freewheeling imaginations of childhood to the humdrum world of class schedules. I know—and have to accept as a trade-off for hotel reservations, running water and terrorism protection—that a man in a uniform in Passport Control has the power to make my life miserable if a single paper is missing, but I have no power or invitation to make his life joyful by teaching him some music.

Not that I entirely object to linear organization. (This particular blog entry certainly could use some.)
I think I’m finally over my naivete about local tribal culture steeped in oral tradition as the model par excellence for human culture. I still find much to recommend it, but when conservative traditions from clitorectomies to widow-burning continue unopposed because no one has encountered the kind of alternative viewpoints that reading can provide, it reveals that not only is the return to tribal culture impossible once Starbucks has moved in, but not wholly desirable. What is desirable, and what I aim for in my teaching and educational vision, is the personal and collective re-balancing of the senses, the kind of thing I touched on in a long-ago blog titled “Dance, Sing and Read.”

So I hoped this has helped the patient reader understand why they’re unlikely to encounter Chinese opera over the loudspeakers in Chicago Airport and why Julia Roberts is following me everywhere. 

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