A field of study popped up on my radar screen recently: soundscape studies. I’m not exactly sure how or if this field might be relevant to my work on orality and literacy, but I’m going to investigate. I heard the term while attending a great panel in Philadelphia at MLA 2004:
Sounds in the Eighteenth-Century City
- ìMother Shipton Speaks: Sounding Oracles in Eighteenth-Century Print Culture,î Laura E. McGrane, Haverford Coll.
- ìPope, Print, and the ëWondírous Powír of Noise,íî Paula J. McDowell, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick
- ìSounds in the Theater,î Paula R. Backscheider, Auburn Univ., Auburn
All three papers were great but the one by Paula McDowell was particularly interesting to me. (Full disclosure: McDowell was on my dissertation committee.) If I followed her talk correctly, her current book project, Fugitive Voices: Literature and Oral Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, traces attitudes towards oral traditions from the late seventeenth through the late eighteenth century in England. While we find a skeptical, or even antagonistic, attitude towards oral traditions in earlier writers such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, there is a more nostalgic view in place by the time we get to James MacPherson and William Wordsworth. In short, McDowell is researching the ways in which our current attitudes towards orality and literacy developed, including the invention of such concepts as “oral tradition” and “oral culture.” This is, it seems to me, extremely important work that is not only carefully researched and deeply historicized but understandable by the layperson.
Too bad some reporters cannot be persuaded to leave the confines of the newsroom in order to actually see what’s going on at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, offering their readers instead a tired retread of stereotypes and uninformed sniping.