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UN Banner In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2001 as the “United Nations Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations” to foster tolerance, respect and cooperation among peoples. To further this aim, Rattapallax Press together with the United Nations Society of Writers, will present a series of literary programs around the world. This essay by Erminia Passannanti was written in response to this event and to participate in this dialogue.

Universal Net-Meetings and Private Poetics:
an Excursus into the Future of Cyber- Culture.

By Erminia Passannanti

In Book X of the Republic, (Theory of Art), Plato announces that poets are to be banned from the polis. They were derogated for being incapable of separating the content of their verse from the context of the real world and accused of creating a dangerous intimacy between men, the deities and their passions. Conversely, the speculative God conceived by Plato is, in his nature, completely different than the anthromorphic gods of the Greek poets, who mirror and justify all human vices. And certainly, the information that a poet such as Homer passed on to his audience did have the quality to be fully immersed in the vital and conflicting oral narratives it originated from, namely, the irrational myths of creation and ancestry. For that reason, to prevent wrong ideas being expressed, Plato asserts that a strict censorship should be imposed on the bards’ “theologies”. In Theogony (“The birth of Gods”), a didactic poem (VIII-VII sec. a. C.) by Hesiod, the author gathers in a systematic structure innumerable oral tales about divinities. Like in Homer, the divine world of the Gods reflects, at times in an extreme and terrifying way, the culture and the hierarchy of human societies and cities. Though, unlike Homer, Hesiod is more inclined to speculate on the anthropological power of his mythical tales. At the present, how can we interpret Plato’s proverbial aversion to poets? And in what sense is poetry liable to corrupt people’s views through its misleading use of language?

To understand Plato’s attitude towards poetry, it is useful to remember his ideal of a strictly authoritarian State. And in fact, in The Republic, he presents political issues as closely related to cultural and pedagogical ones, implying that the liberty of both the citizens and the polis are closely connected to the quality of their knowledge. According to Plato, such an elevated grade of awareness can be achieved primarily through a rigorous period of intellectual training. In this light, the task of the poet should be equal to that of the wise thinker, in other words, to present a world purged of passion, infused with the idea of good and freed of evil. In “Theory of Art: the effect of Poetry and Drama” (Book X), Socrates, speaking of poetry, says: “ It has a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters.” And adds: “Poetry has the same effect on us when it represents sex and anger and the other desires and feelings of pleasure and pain which accompany all our actions. It waters them when they ought to be left to wither.” (Plato, The Republic, Book X, 606, d.) In the last fraction of Book X, towards the end of “The Myth of Er”, Socrates speaks again, exhorting us, as readers, to “always keep our feet upwards way and pursue justice with wisdom” (“tes ano odou”, 621, c).

In our western literary and philosophical tradition, the voyage to the afterlife (Odysseus, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Dante), as a rite of passage, is always supposed to bring about awareness and wisdom. And in fact, the knowledge that Plato’s Er gains by descending to the Afterworld is conquered symbolically by confronting himself in a ponderous and erudite way with the dead: rich people, sophists, aristocrats or the diplomats which once belonged to the stratified social texture of the polis. He comes back to life as the perfect example of what a virtuous man should be like.

Also Xenophon attacks the poets, stressing that “Homer and Hesiod attributed all events to the Gods, even those created by men and their ability to violate and vituperate, stealing, fornicating, deceiving one another “(7 K., 10 D., 2 W.) No surprise that such an authoritative thread of criticism finally managed to impose on men’s history its majestic institution. We can also understand better how, as a consequence of this line of pedagogy, and because of the profound influence of the platonic principles on Christianity, we find ourselves entrapped in the fatal gap of becoming alien to our real humanity, namely all the emotions and passions so soundly rendered by poets.

The present

Centuries have passed. European literary heritages have endured the transition from Bardic to written poetry. What is, in our western societies, the current approach to the world represented by these misleading creatures, the poets? Of course, in tolerant and politically democratic countries, poets are no longer subjected to the kind of censorship that Plato wished to impose on the aedos, accused of falsifying men’s experiences by means of deceptive linguistic representations.

Professor Ong, author of a remarkable analysis of the changes in our thought processes, personality and social structures, at various stages of the development of speech and writing, has shown how, since the advent of the print, texts have progressively detached themselves from their living contexts, becoming documents, verifiable sources for systematic studies of past events and forms, their hypothesis open to speculation. In Orality and Literacy, Ong establishes a comparison between two dominant cultural forms which both coexist in the present world, one primarily oral and the other based on writing and printing. We learn how poetry lost its immediacy, which was characteristic of the face-to-face oral transmission, and gained the status of a highly intellectual activity.

Deprived of context, the text entered a claustrophobic dimension. Consequently to acquire meaning, it had to rely for a long time on one concrete thing: its formal features. The assumption is that, during the last two Millennia, poetry has been increasingly relegated to the written form as to a cell of confinement. It is evident how, as mediums of meaning, poetic forms bring about (even when extremely daring, as in the case of the various avant-gardes) coherent structures and the possibility of a distancing look, which imposes rationality on “inspiration” and standardizes the poet’s obsessions. In close association with McLuhan’s theory of the media as not being merely passive carriers of content but powerful shaper of people’s consciousness, Ong lets us imagine what it would be like to live in a culture that had never experienced writing: in other words, to exist in a society which would be deficient in the basic forms of practical writing which dominate our daily lives, such as calendars, indexes, telephone directories, lists of every kind, clocks. Writing outlines every single aspect of our individual and social actions. It strengthens individual identity and structures communities in terms of their cultural heritage. Making a neat distinction between pre-literate cultures and literary ones, the author writes: “Oral statement can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality. (…) In literate cultures, for example, words may not carry the same power of action that they do in oral cultures – they are a supplement to action.” In connection with McLuhan’s idea of the “global village” and the electronic age of computers, Ong's notion of secondary orality shows how postmodern mass culture is possibly creating the foundations for the return of a society based on spoken words and performances. And indeed, the resorting to oral means of communication, such radio, television and cinema, presumably has fostered the return of some feature of primary oral cultures, which make written texts unessential.

It must be added that, of the existing three thousand spoken languages, today, only sixty-eight produce their own literature, while the others remain fundamentally based upon what Ong calls primary orality. These are, of course, cultures that ignore writing and printing. The attention to primary oral cultures was stimulated by recent issues concerning the oral aspects of Homer’s poetic works. In the beginning of the Twenties, Milman Perry noted how the ancient Greek poets, who would compose their verse without the aid of writing, would memorize their poems with the help of fixed forms (hexameters). Havelock, in turn, demonstrated how in Greece, a written culture developed because of the need of philosophers to structure their thought in texts that would grant evidence and allow speculation.

Once it has learned how a written word appears on the page, the mind can no longer do without the alphabet. On this regard, Ong notes how “the distinction of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse. Although they refer to sounds and are meaningless unless they can be related – externally or in the imagination – to the sounds or, more precisely, the phonemes they encode, written words are isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come to being.” (Ong, p.101) On the contrary, at the time of the blind Homer, words were sounds to which no sign corresponded: they were reverberations that would dissolve, once uttered, and kept in the memory as images and visions. Words help in creating those representations that Plato so strongly distrusted, because he suspected them to go in the wrong direction, the direction which all primary oral cultures follow, namely against reason and order.

But, what are the traits of a primary oral culture? In oral poetry, the composition is controlled by precise metric formulae to facilitate memorization. Moreover, oral statement is not exclusively verbal, but is made as much of words as of movements involving the entire body. Every action is a rhetorical interaction, regulated by the ear. Oral poetry is dominated by the sound, rather than by an abstract graphic aggregation of visualized signs. Oral poetry is also centered in the wholeness of the body as the medium for the emission of the lyric content. Therefore, it promotes knowledge as organic and intrinsic to men’s lives in action. In this light, we are authorized to consider the transcription of the ephemeral poetic tales of Homer as a rather inhuman intervention, depriving verse of both its essential medium, the poet, the Aedo, and of its task, the meaningful social practice of recitation and participation, namely, the exploitation of sounds and movements, central to drama and dance as performances involving a group of people in a given time and space (the heideggerian here and now of our real existence). The written form annihilates men’s faculty to memorize words or animatedly represent the epics of human race. In front of the written text, memory becomes progressively inert and produces nothing but abstractions. Ong’s theory of a possible recurrence of a predominantly orally based culture at the expense of written communicative forms would be anathema to Plato, who vehemently refused oral poetry.

In the fourth chapter of Orality and Literacy, “Writing restructures consciousness”, Ong points out that for Plato, writing (that is to say, the technology of the words), being utterly artificial, renders men artificial too. “Writing - Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus (274-7) - is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind.” (Ong, p. 79) The philosopher, then, adds that artificiality is the real nature of men, therefore, writing it is to be considered the major positive events in the history of the world, because it has the power to change and re-shape ideas and beliefs. And indeed, since the fifth century BC, Greek culture comes to open itself entirely to an alphabetic frame of mind. As a matter of fact, states the French philosopher Lévy, author of Cyberculture, the history of mankind coincides exactly with the history of the techne itself, in the widest meaning of the Greek term, in its relation to the world, which implies the elaboration and transmission of conceptual notions and tools.

The future

Over 2000 years later, we are now again reflecting upon the same issues. Brought about by the emergence of computers, which impose new forms of communications, even in deeply alphabetized realities as ours, non-verbal forms are creating a new age: the age that Ong has defined as secondary orality. Does this orally based emerging culture present similarities with the orality of the ancient lyric poets? The rather mystical affects of poetry slams, open mikes, cyber-symposiums on communion, participation, synchronicity, foster an odd desire of belonging to a wider universal community (McLuhan’s idea of the global village). These new forms of cultural exchanges seem to anticipate some of the features foreseen by Lévy. He supports that technology, culture and society are interrelated entities, which we differentiate and separate only for analytical purposes. In poetic and literary circles, this phenomenon is presently confirmed by the diffuse excitement towards the Dialogue Among Civilizations through Poetry program, (due to take place in the last week of March 2001), which, organized worldwide entirely through the Internet, will be the widest simultaneous poetry-reading ever accomplished as well as the living proof of the recuperation, by means of electronic means of communication, of spiritual values such as compassion (in the Latin sense of cum-passionem, i.e. the sharing of an equal level of engagement, enthusiasm and energy), cooperation and brotherhood.

As for the French philosopher, Pierre Lévy, when facing the problems associated with the transmission of knowledge, he shows how the structure of the “net” can be understood in the light of what he calls the “Universal without the totality”, a dimension based on a non-hierarchical invisible order, as it happens in the structure of the hypertext, open to be interpreted by each individual within the intimate perspective of his own private poetics. Unlike the traditional media (television, radio, press), which tend, as the classic written forms, towards universality and to assimilate passively the audience, the net provides users with a totality emptied of any pretence of catholicity: it is composed of independent and interactive people, (what Lévy calls the collective intelligence nets of the cyberspace) who, while using texts, are also given the chance to create practical living contexts, as if still part of ancient oral cultures where poetry used to coincide with the performance of love, pity, battle.

Erminia Passannanti is an Italian poet, translator and essayist. She read Modern Languages at The Faculty of Letters and Philosophy of the Salerno University (Italy). She is completing a doctorate at the UCL (London University College) on the poetry of Franco Fortini. Erminia Passannanti will be hosting a remarkable group of European poets in the occasion of the United Nations celebration of The Year of Dialogue among Civilizations through Poetry. She teaches Italian Literature at the St Clare's College of Oxford.

Email erminia@ukonline.co.uk

Erminia is the Editor of a new online magazine Transference

More conversations with Erminia:



Plato, The Republic, Penguin Books, 1987.

McLuhan, Understanding Media, McGraw-Hill, New York 1964.

Havelock, The Muse learns to write, Yale University Press, CT, 1986.

Jensen and Jankowski, A handbook of qualitative methodologies for Mass communication research, Routledge, 1991.

Ong, Orality and Literacy, The Technologizing of the Word, Routledge, 1982.

Lévy, Cybercuture, Universality Without Totality, 1996.