Back to Oral Culture: The World of Hypertext

Robert Fowler has penetrating observations about What Hypertext Can Teach Us About the Bible, and confirms some of my own ideas which have been brewing for years. In a series of posts I will be using Fowler as a springboard for drawing out certain comparisons between hypertext and oral/biblical culture. Do computers make us more like the ancients after all?

Let’s begin with his seven-point summary, From Orality to Literacy to Hypertext: Back to the Future?, based on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

1. Orality is evanescent, not permanent. “Hypertext returns us to fluid, shifting, open-ended, evanescent communication of an oral culture.”

2. Orality is additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic. “Hypertext resurrects the associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical organization of information of orality.”

3. Orality is close to the human lifeworld. “Hypertext returns us to an immediate, hands-on approach to communication and to other dealings with the world around us… and to a classical, rhetorical model of education and social existence generally.”

4. Orality is agonistically toned. “On the Internet, the phenomenon of ‘flaming’ — heaping bitter invective upon one’s interlocutors — is wide-spread.”

5. Orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced. “In hypertext, as in orality, the distinction between author and reader once again melts away in the midst of the collaborative effort of navigating the hypertextual network.”

6. Orality knits persons together into community. “Hypertext, like the spoken word, knits people together into community.”

7. Orality is homeostatic. “With the resurgence of ephemeral communication, hypertext culture begins to undergo a constant, slow, and unconscious metamorphosis, like oral culture.”

These are all important (be sure to read Fowler’s web-page for full explanations), but (4) is of particular interest to me. The internet is a perfect medium for conflict-based communication, mirroring in many ways the challenge-riposte phenomenon seen in honor-shame cultures. Chat rooms are “halls of flame”, list-serves and blogs the battlegrounds for our contests of wit and intellectual superiority. The web is saturated with an “art of invective” which surely does the biblical writers proud.

The other six points are closely related to one another and best summarized in (6) and (7). They underscore a community-based culture open to change (if slow and unconscious), against the tendencies of a print culture to “freeze” traditions and thereby facilitate a hunger for dramatic (but artificial) changes involving fads and in-vogue paradigms. Fowler thinks the electronic age may return us to a “vibrant” communal culture rooted in more heritage and tradition.

It’s possible. Watching my work environment evolve hypertextually over the past decade has been interesting. Today patrons visit their public library for “an experience” as much as to “check out a book”. Teens come for social networking (Myspace, chat rooms, etc.) more than anything else. You don’t tell people to “hush” in a library as much as in times past, because of their increased communal dimension. Functions, concerts, exhibits, films, and special programs have become as important as circulation. The hypertext culture is definitely leaving its mark.

In the next post we will examine the phenomenon of internet flaming in more detail, compare it to the challenge-riposte strategies of three particular oral cultures, and then assess whether or not flaming can sometimes actually be a good thing.

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Witherington Protests Too Much

Regarding Witherington’s strident attack on the Jesus/Talpiot tomb, Jim West calls attention to commenter Joe who writes as follows:

“If Witherington can be such a zealot about his own wacky claims about his own phony ossuary, it would only seem sporting that he would cut Simcha Jacobovici (Witherington’s former partner in crime. He was the man who helped Witherington create and hype his documentary on the phony ‘James Ossuary’ about 4 years ago — shown on, you guessed it! The Discovery Channel!) and James Cameron some slack.”

I agree. Precisely because Witherington was hoodwinked about a fake he found so attractive, he is now over-reacting to the new claim which he finds odious in the extreme. In his recent book he also hailed Stephen Carlson’s book as a devastating critique of Secret Mark. He’s right about that, of course, but it’s not hard to see that he’s “evangelically” thrilled about it. All three of these — ossuary, tomb, and secret gospel — are as authentic as the Donation of Constantine. It’s when a scholar is duped by one but over-bashes the others that his credibility and objectivity are called into question.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre raises the same question as “Joe”, but more tactfully: “One element that puzzles me about the single-minded nature of Ben Witherington’s criticism of the new claims is that they contrast somewhat with his thorough endorsement of the authenticity of the James ossuary and its connection to the James of the New Testament…” In comments Mike Grondin responds as I have above.

"An Eye for an Eye, With a Rock Through the Head as Well"

The “eye for an eye” proverb (Exod 21:24) sought to curb feuding in a violent world of honor-shame. The problem is that it escalated conflict in the name of limiting it, more often than not leading to “a rock through the head as well”, as I like to think of it. Jesus saw this hidden contradiction and counseled turning the other cheek (Mt 5:38-39) to break the cycle of violence.

Turning the other cheek is one of the many so-called “antitheses” from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The sermon-antitheses (Mt 5:28-42) served the same function as the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Torah. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh should be cited at length:

“The purpose of the Ten Commandments, historically, was to prevent feuding and thereby to halt internally generated group annihilation. Honor-shame societies are agonistic (conflict) societies; hence challenges within a group can escalate and actually lead to such annihilation… What the scenes described in the antitheses [of Mt 5:21-48] offer is a way out of the honor-shame impasse that requires taking satisfaction. If repentance, reconciliation, generosity, or the intervention of third parties exist, feuding rooted in the defense of honor need not mar the social landscape of the Jesus faction… Given the situation-based quality of Mediterranean moral sanctions, it is doubtful that such strategies involved the inward, psychological healing that U.S. persons imagine. But they would provide freedom from the in-group feuding that is pervasive in agonistic societies.” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd edition, pp 43-45)

The Torah and Sermon both addressed feuding and violence, though Jesus one-upped Moses either by intensifying prohibitions internally or reversing those that backfired. Intensifications like “do not get angry” and “do not lust” took the law a step further in the way prophets like Jeremiah urged: if you don’t get angry, you will less likely murder; if you don’t lust, you will less likely commit adultery; etc. But reversals like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” turned the law or cultural norms upside down. These reversals foster a misleading perception that Jesus was somehow against the system of honor-shame, but that’s not true. Malina and Rohrbaugh continue:

“It is important to understand, however, that Jesus does not call the system of honor itself into question. He does redefine the quality of behaviors deemed worthy of honor and thereby offers a new assessment that leads to a reversal of values or worth. But the social-psychological pattern of claiming worth (honor) and having other persons second that claim remains intact… What is called into question is the way in which the honor system is made to work, and the way it is made to fuel feud-based satisfaction.” (p 45)

Indeed, if Jesus thought conflict should be avoided physically, he loved escalating it verbally, as much as any macho man of his time. When confronted by adversaries like priests and Pharisees, he never responded directly to their questions (answering questions is a sign of shame and defeat in agonistic cultures), preferring to “burn” them with counter-questions, counter-accusations, scriptural one-upsmanship, and nasty insults.

Jesus was an honor-shame man to the core. The question was what constituted honorable behavior. Just as peasants operated out of a different code than elites (to peasants, for instance, wealth was dishonorable thievery; to elties it was a sign of honor), so Jesus operated out of an honor-shame code particular to him and his followers. The Sermon on the Mount invoked elements which would later find a home in integrity-guilt cultures, but Jesus favored these elements for different reasons. We “love enemies” and avoid vengeance (or try to) for the sake of integrity and inner peace — because it’s the morally superior thing to do, regardless of what others might think. Jesus advocated doing so to prevent group annihilation. “An eye for an eye” wasn’t honorable in the long run (in his view), because it was self-destructive.

To Rebuild the Temple or Not (Thom 71)

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion over at April DeConick’s blog, in comments under posts about meta-narratives, sexism, and the temple saying of Thom 71. Regarding the last, in response to April’s claim that “the Gospel of Thomas is preserving the oldest, harshest, and least popular remembrance of this saying, that the temple would be destroyed unconditionally [without being rebuilt],” I responded as follows:

April wrote:

“Since the Temple did indeed fall, the account that Jesus predicted its fall certainly would not have been embarrassing, but it very well could have been unpopular.”

It’s the part about rebuilding which was embarassing/unpopular, since it never happened. If Thomas’ version — which lacks any reference to the rebuilding — were original, how did the embarassing idea of rebuilding enter the tradition to begin with, necessitating the damage control in Mark/Matthew (where it’s denied) and John (where it’s spiritualized to refer to Jesus’ resurrection)? Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus predicted the temple’s destruction and rebuilding, and that Thomas’ version controls the damage as much as Mark/Matthew and John?

“Bear in mind how Matthew, Mark, and John labor to revise it in light of Jesus’ death, suggesting that the saying referred to Jesus’ body, its entombment in the earth for three days, and its resurrection on the third day, NOT the actual destruction of the Temple.”

As I understand it, Mark and Matthew do no such thing. They simply deny that Jesus predicted that he (God, more likely original) would “destroy the temple and rebuilt it in three days” by placing the prophecy on the lips of false witnesses. (Mk 14:55-58/Mt26:59-61; Mk 15:29-30/Mt 27:39-40). Only John revises the prophecy by applying Jesus’ resurrection to it (Jn 2:19-22).

“The opinion that such a saying could only be explained in a post-Jewish war context is nonsense, and does not take into consideration the rich Jewish expectations about the Temple at the End of time – its destruction, either temporary or permanent.”

There wasn’t much precedent in Jesus’ day for the temple’s destruction without being rebuilt. You call attention to many passages involving rebuilding (Jub 1:29, 23:21; I En 14:8-25, 71:5-6, 89:73, 91:13; II Bar 4:2-6, T Levi 5:1, 18:1-14; 4Q266 3:20-4:3), but only one where it is not (T Moses 5-10), in Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (p 142). But even in the last, the temple’s actual destruction isn’t made plain.

“So it may be that the Gospel of Thomas is preserving the oldest, harshest, and least popular remembrance of this saying, that the Temple would be destroyed unconditionally.”

I don’t mean to imply that Jesus was slavishly unoriginal — he was capable of manipulating his traditions in many cases. But in this case, for the above reasons, doesn’t it seem rather likely that he predicted the temple’s destruction and its rebuilding, and the latter half was later denied (Mk/Mt), revised (Jn), and dropped (Thom) on account of post-70 embarrassment?

To rebuild or not, ’tis the question…

The "One Asshole Rule": Can a Little Yeast Be Good for the Dough?

(First half of this review here.)

“A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (I Cor 5:6)
“A rotten apple injures its neighbors.” (Chaucer)

In his excellent book Robert Sutton argues that a “one asshole rule” can complement the no asshole rule (pp 84-87), based on studies of norm deviance. “Decades of research on how human groups react to ‘deviant’ members implies that having one or two assholes around may be better than having none at all…one conspicuous rule-breaker can spur others to do the right thing” (p 84). For instance, while people are less likely to litter on a clean surface than a messy one, they are even less likely to litter on a surface with a single piece of garbage than on one with no garbage at all (pp 85-86). The norm violation sticks out like a sore thumb and reinforces good behavior. “A token asshole reminds everyone how not to behave” (p 86).

Or at least in theory. In a recent blogpost Sutton second-guesses himself based on an article written by William Felps and Terrance Mitchell:

“Their analysis of 20 published studies suggests that ‘one bad apple’ is enough to push a group into a downward spiral, as a Science Daily put it,

‘They found that a single “toxic” or negative team member can be the catalyst for downward spirals in organizations. In a follow-up study, the researchers found the vast majority of the people they surveyed could identify at least one “bad apple” that had produced organizational dysfunction.’

Sutton notes, however, that

“It seems that the authors focused on small groups, where bad apples are especially like to have powerful effects. So perhaps a bad apple in a bigger group might still help crystallize ‘no-asshole’ rather than ‘pro-asshole’ norms. And another factor might have to do with the power of the ‘bad apple,’ so if the nasty person widely seen as behaving badly and plays a marginal role in the group, then perhaps they do less damage.”

So in other words, a token asshole in a large group with little power loses contaminating potency, but in a smaller group with more power is probably going to poison the group.

Sutton’s revised approach squares with my own perception, though I suspect that size of the group is the stronger determining factor. But I think there’s a third factor too. Some people are just more asshole-prone than others. I’ve known people whose personalities shift amazingly accordingly to the company they’re in: sunny and positive when around like people, nasty and negative as soon as an asshole walks in the room. They seem to be just looking for an excuse to lash out and cause trouble, and one asshole is all it takes to trigger their appetites for discord. (Maybe their jobs aren’t exciting enough as is.)

I’d be inclined to say that after the size of the group, malleable (asshole-prone) personalities become a greater factor than the power of the asshole per se. Aside from managers and supervisors, lone assholes have only as much power as their colleagues give them.

The one asshole rule, as Sutton notes, is thus a double-edged sword. A rotten apple can work wonders if carefully monitored in a large enough barrel, and if the other apples are exceptionally fresh and healthy. But under less than ideal conditions, we should probably listen to Paul and Chaucer, and assume that the tiniest bit of rot will poison the mass.