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Twyla Gibson (Toronto) The Translation of the Word: Homeric Formulas, Platonic Forms, and Media Theory

The theory of media associated with a group of scholars known as the Toronto School of Communication—Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter J. Ong—relied on the arguments of Milman Parry and Albert Lord concerning the oral-derivation of Homer's formulaic poetry. Innis built on the Parry-Lord method of comparative history and warned that predominating technologies produce a distorting bias. Havelock argued that Plato's dialogues mark the division between orality and literacy in ancient Greek culture. The advent of the phonetic alphabet promoted changes in vocabulary, syntax, and basic categories of human thought that entailed centuries of development time and a long period of tension and interaction. For McLuhan, Plato "straddled the old Homeric world" and a "new, rational civilized world," and served as the paradigm for examining changes in thought, language, and culture that came with innovations in media in subsequent eras. These themes were reinforced by Ong's observation that Plato's dialogues represent a "disruption" and discontinuity in the "transformation of the word" from oral formulas to literate categories. In the decades since these pioneering researchers penned their arguments, there have been extensive revisions to oral-formulaic theory. Scholars have also uncovered formulaic patterns in Plato and there have been significant new findings concerning connections between Greek and Near Eastern literature and cultures. Raoul Schrott's (2008) recent research, Homer's Heimat, for example, presents a challenge to basic premises of the theory put forward by members of the Toronto School. Bracketing as speculative Schrott's geographical claims, his identification of formulaic patterns in Homer that parallel those in Gilgamesh suggests that oriental poetics influenced the Iliad and Odyssey and that the claims for the origin of the epics in primary orality may be exaggerated. The combined weight of this evidence indicates that the theoretical foundations of the arguments articulated by the Toronto theorists need reassessing. I point to an inconsistency between the premise of a prolonged period of tension and interaction and the arguments concerning an abrupt shift to literacy with Plato. The assumptions of a great divide in the tradition and of Plato's literacy are not consistent with the theory of a gradual change or the evidence. I propose that the theory is accurate but the assumptions concerning the Greek philosophical texts require revision. With a re-aligned theory, the supposition of a great divide gives way to the more nuanced view of media changes as encompassing cultural borrowing, continuities, and smaller fractures in the tradition. The view of communication and cognition as an evolutionary ladder of progress, with Plato's literacy delineating the date when humanity stepped up to a higher, more rational, civilized—indeed superior level gives way to a view of the dialogues as a hybrid medium that translates the technologies associated with the previous medium into a revolutionary—but not evolutionary—new form. Plato's writings are a bridge and a break-boundary—not a break—between old and new media Thus, the division that justifies viewing our technological civilization as more "advanced" than cultures of the past, and the rationale for the domination, control, and often near-extinction of less technologically-oriented cultures in the present dissolves into recognition of the complexity and value of other languages and traditions. The presence in Plato of formulaic technologies with communication significance that went unrecognized by scholars in the modern era—including Parry and Lord and members of the Toronto School—is consistent with both the theory of profound changes in mentality as well as the blindness to the powerful distortions produced by media. Refinements make the premises of the theory consistent, both internally and with the evidence, so the model provides a more accurate and powerful lens for reviewing media history and philosophy, and for generating hypotheses and predictions concerning the change to digital media presently underway.