Text as Codec in Oral Culture

While I do some copy-editing on several essays by Joanna Dewey, I'm struck by the ways that texts actually functioned, and analogies that fit their oral-culture role better than the modern concept of the text.  And the one that best appears to me is text-as-codec.  An auditory event is recorded, encoded, conveyed, decoded and performed elsewhere as an auditory event.  Nobody reads an MP3 file as text, unless they're using it for audio steganography.  Likewise with a JPEG file, only for visual images -- those of us who are old enough to remember when mail clients used to accidentally inline the "text" of a JPEG attachment will understand.

Those particular choices are telling, too -- and exactly wrong!  Both are means of "perceptual encoding," minimizing data size by mathematical formula representations where such representations reasonably approximate the same auditory or visual characteristics as understood by the human brain.  My first thought is that I should edit that to read WAV files and TIFF files, as these are capable of being bit-perfect representations of the original out to the requisite precision of the file.  And one could actually manually encode one's own linear PCM data and have it come out as sound, thus serving as a plausible written language.  But that, too, is not what texts are!  Not only are they not arbitrarily-precise descriptions of an auditory event; as reductive abstractions from that event for the sake of portability, they are de-perceptually encoded.  All of the perceptual encoding is carried in a side channel: the performer.

And here is where we fall back on the oldest analogy in use: manuscript culture.  And this is what manuscript culture is -- and every musician knows it, in the dark recesses of their trained selves.  We call the sheets "music," as though we were to call the text "speech."  (And occasionally we do refer to texts as speeches, generally when they are apparent transcripts.)  As arbitrarily precise and artful as we may be in rendering a musical performance in notes on the page, or a speech in text on the page, neither representation conveys the soul of the event.  And both systems have developed fantastic amounts of extra notation to enable greater precision in encoding nuance -- compare a Greek uncial and the early Medieval musical notation of chant, with polytonic Greek and Masoretic Hebrew notation and a Bach score, and then with a manuscript of Barth's Church Dogmatics and a Hal Leonard "fake book" of jazz standards.  We had to get more and more precise in conveying nuance in textual encoding when we became a textual culture.  All that perceptual information had to find its own "side channels" within the text.

And the development of these codecs into languages in their own right, with all of the requisite upgrades, is part of the process from oral to written culture.


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