- Revenge of the Spoken Word?:Writing, Performance, and New Media in Urban West Africa
Why would any verbal artists bother to strongly identify themselves as writers when their own works circulate exclusively in a performative mode? Why would they bother to identify with writing in settings where literacy levels are low, traditional orality remains widespread, and electronically mediated forms of orality are fairly accessible? In short, what kind of significance could writing have for composers of creative texts as electronically mediated performance becomes more widespread? These are the questions that I wish to address in this article.
As is well known, Walter Ong speculated on a possible re-oralization of communication, or what he termed a "secondary orality" among literates sustained by electronic technologies. Since then, the point has been argued even more forcefully by George Landow (1997) and others with reference to computer-mediated communication. Observers like Jan Fernback (2003), for example, have highlighted particular features of digitally mediated communication such as instantaneity and interactivity that relate to orality.1 Scholars of African cinema like Frank Ukadike (1993), as well as Keyan Tomaselli and Maureen Eke (1993), have long foregrounded the ways in which African film directors appropriated strategies associated with forms of orality. For somewhat different purposes, Sheila Nayar in her studies of Indian cinema (2004) likewise emphasizes the debt that textual formatting and organization in electronic media such as film owe to traditional forms of orality.
Here I will not be further pursuing this line of inquiry, which consists of uncovering how orality intervenes in electronically and often digitally mediated textuality. Rather, my intentions are to investigate what kind of significance writing might have for verbal artists whose creative texts reach the wider public only through digitally mediated or live performance. In parts of the world where the dissemination of printed texts has been limited historically for a variety of reasons, the increasing access to digital media has made performance of texts both more cost-effective and "modern." As a consequence, we are seeing many more literate verbal artists in these contexts develop reputations as performers rather than as writers, hence my title: the revenge of the spoken word. However, this does not necessarily mean that many such verbal artists disregard the contribution of writing to textual production or cease to identify themselves as writers. To the contrary, a number of these figures foreground writing in their self-definition as verbal artists. My goal in this essay is to consider several of the reasons that some verbal artists in this situation prefer to highlight their activity as writers rather than their role as performers despite the fact that they create textual genres that circulate almost entirely through performance with almost no opportunities for print publication.
The specific instances of live and digitally mediated verbal arts performance to be considered here are drawn from the West African country of Mali. Over time, Mali's oral traditions, especially those of the Mande cultural area,2 have attracted considerable scholarly attention.3 Indeed, a certain type of traditional verbal artist associated with Malian culture, known in the Mande languages as jeli or jali and often described as the griot in European-language texts, has become the iconic figure of African orality, both within scholarly circles and outside of them. My intention, however, is not to revisit the well researched oral traditions of Mali but instead to explore perceptions about newer verbal performance practices that are either digitally mediated or influenced by increased access to digital media. Several of these instances amount to a new type of orality, and often, in fact, to writing for performance.
Scholars like Eric Charry (2000), Mamadou Diawara (1997, 1998), Lucy Durán (1995), Paulla Ebron (2002), Thomas Hale (1998), Robert Newton (1999), and Dorothea Schulz (2001b) among others, have examined the impact of electronic media on traditional Mande orality and on the Malian public sphere as a whole. My focus on what such media might mean for creative writing and writers, at a time when electronically mediated performance has become even more accessible, sets the present study apart from theirs.4 Furthermore, among the different types of electronic media available in Mali...