- A Model of Defiance:Reimagining the Comparative Analysis of Concealed Discourse in Text
This paper proposes that texts produced in diverse oral-traditional environments exhibit similarities in their disguise of subversion, particularly social or political resistance to the status quo. The disguise used in a particular text reflects the relationship between the text and its referents, or the cultural environment in which the text is produced and used. Cross-textual similarities reflect the similar processes used to disguise subversive ideas. This paper explores the following questions: 1) How might a particular text have been used to disguise resistance to the dominant hegemony? 2) What is the nature of that resistance as it is presented in the text? 3) What comparisons might we find among textual disguises of resistance from various literatures? I introduce a new model for the comparative analysis of veiled discourse in text and then reflect briefly on what this analysis can tell us about the nature of the relationship between textual disguise and cultural environment. By encouraging us to map the relationship between textual features and their cultural referents, the model offers us a window into the human capacity to disguise subversive discourse in various forms, to innovate new ways of sharing information, and to renegotiate power relationships in what may otherwise seem to be a stable hegemony. That disguise processes may be similar in diverse cultural and textual traditions suggests interesting possibilities for our understanding of the role of authority (and author/ity) in human intellectual evolution.
The new model builds on political scientist James Scott’s (1990) concept of “hidden resistance” and the “hidden transcripts” of subordinate cultures. But where Scott conceives of the hidden transcript as a figurative representation of the subordinate group’s private communication within the public sphere, I have interpreted the concept of “transcript” more literally, querying how writing and text themselves might be used as a vehicle to preserve and transmit a concealed, subversive discourse. I am not the first to do so: scholars from various fields have applied Scott’s ideas in their reading of texts for evidence of concealed discourse.1 But I take the conversation in a new direction: the model I propose enables a comparative analysis of disguise processes across time and place. I argue that we can observe a set of universal—or, at least, pan-cultural— principles at work in the creation of textual disguise. By emphasizing how the disguise processes manipulate or utilize the relationship between a text and its oral-traditional referents, the model opens another window onto the relationship between oral tradition and written text and, potentially, the evolution of human intellectual development. I do not seek to suppress the dissimilarity among such diverse groups as those I discuss here, for example: the rabbinic sages, the Greek oral-traditional poets, and the Catholic peasantry of eighteenth-century Ireland. But insofar as these groups, and others, navigated environments that limited how they could express particular viewpoints without incurring the disapproval—or worse—of the dominant hegemony, we can recognize common features in the ways they employed writing and text to conceal certain ideas.
The study is informed by the work of John Miles Foley (1990 and 1999), who argues that “oral traditions work like languages, only more so” (1999:20), in that they are idiomatic and referential. The degree to which one understands the meaning of an oral tradition depends on the degree to which one is familiar with the tradition’s cultural context.
In view of this, any comparative analysis of literatures from diverse cultural environments is naturally limited due to the difficulty of drawing cross-genre comparisons (Foley 1990:3):
One simply cannot expect a cogent analysis to come out of a comparison of, for example, riddles and epics; the generic assumptions implicit in the forms must be at variance, and this variance seriously reduces, if not actually invalidates, the legitimacy of the proposed comparison.
Foley goes on to argue the importance of an analysis that respects “the principle of genre-dependence” (3), wherein comparison texts are, “as far as is feasible in separate poetic traditions, precisely the same genre” (8). A comparative analysis of diverse...