[index] [back] [next]

Contributors and contributions


Jack Goody (United Kingdom)


As mentioned initially, the anthropological-ethnological-ethnographic thread is probably most clearly represented in the present volume by Jack Goody’s[i] contribution, aptly titled in tune with the conference, The Semiotics of Writing. Goody is Emeritus William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at St. James College, Cambridge in the UK. Carrying out anthropological fieldwork studies in the 50’s and early 60’s in West Africa, he began early on to interest himself in the study of writing. Indeed, a central work in the history of writing research is a pioneering article written together with Ian Watt in 1963, and published the same year in Comparative Studies in Society and History – ‘The Consequences of Literacy’. Since then, he has gone on to publish a number of important books and articles, all of which in one way or another attempt to frame literacy development within a broader evolutionary, socio-cultural and historical context. Here we find a clear focus on the potential consequences of the development of writing systems on human cognition processes, and thus too, for how we organise everyday life in our various societies and cultures.


In his work on writing, Jack Goody has always given priority to trying to understand the specific role which written communication has played in the emergence, development and organisation of social and cultural institutions in contemporary societies: religion, the law, commerce, bureaucracy and the state. His central works in this vein[ii] are Literacy in Traditional Societies (edited, 1968), The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977), The Logic of Writing and the Organisation of Society (1986) and The Interface between the Written and the Oral (1987). In recent years he has begun to interest himself more for the role played by modes of representation other than writing in promoting or retarding sociocultural change. This shift of focus has led him to foreground the symbolic richness and multimodality of everyday communication, and the ambiguities such communication is seen to involve when examined within a historical, transcultural, perspective. This shift is most clearly reflected in his recent Representations and Contradictions: Ambivalence towards Images, Theatre, Fiction, Relics and Sexuality (1997).


Goody characteristically refers to writing as a technology of the intellect, construing the transition from oral culture in pre-script, pre-literate, societies, to modern (and post-modern) literate culture in terms of how this developmental trajectory has altered not only our own self-construals, but also our construals of – and thus relations with – the other, and, as a consequence of this, our construals of our communities and the shared physical and psychosocial environments these constitute.


In his article he revisits the interesting debate concerning fundamental differences between logographic writing systems such as Chinese and Japanese, where the signifier (in Saussurian terms) is a single character or sign complex, and alphabetic writing systems such as English, where the signifier is a word or group of signs (characters). In both systems, the immediate signified is a word in speech, which in turn is associated through linguistic convention with either an action, an object, a grammatical element or an idea. From this starting point he moves on to look at how writing has come to function as a technology of the intellect, through, amongst other things, development of arithmetical tables, logical procedures (syllogisms) and listing behaviours. These have, he claims, profoundly influenced how we categorize everyday experience, and thus how we interact with our environment. Listing behaviour, for instance, serves both as a memory aid and as a means of organising activities. Making shopping lists and the construction of agendas for executive meetings are a couple of examples that illustrate the functional and pragmatic nature of this written genre. Goody also reflects on the fact that although the (originally arbitrary) order in which letters of alphabetic writing systems are structured (A-B-C-D... etc.) is not generally considered to have a specific signifying function, the fact that there exists a conventionalised (fixed) alphabetical order in writing systems facilitates listing and categorisation behaviours. These must be organized in other ways (via numbering or spatial organisation) in languages and cultures which use logographic writing systems. This in turn affects how information in archives and databases is organized and retrieved. The basic shapes of written characters, which are not generally considered to have any culturally codified signifying function in alphabetic writing systems (while doing so in the case of logographic systems), can easily come to do so in cases where specific forms of lettering come to be used for aesthetic, symbolic or other communicative purposes by various groups. In our present context, the importance of paying sufficient attention to this often neglected aspect of written communication emerges clearly in connection with examples given by David Barton in his chapter on the letter as everyday genre, and in Anna-Malin Karlsson’s chapter on Swedish teenage homepage writing practices. It may, too, easily be read between the lines in Kjell-Lars Berge and Maurizio Gnerre’s chapters which make reference to, respectively, the notion of ‘text’, exemplified in part by children’s’ early writing (and drawing) practices, and ephemeral graphical body writing among South American Indian tribes.


Goody rounds off his contribution with a brief excursus into the specificity of the role of writing in the development of intentionality and mind. It seems clear, he maintains, that writing ‘formalizes’ the semiotic system of language. Spoken language handles easily the flux of everyday experience with its wealth of ambiguities and overlapping experiential categories, whereas written language handles best the development and organization of bounded categories. Writing “creates a beginning and an end, giving rise to the problem of how should we classify ‘anomalies’, which are only anomalies within a written system of categories”. While David Olson has claimed that writing (and literacy in general) facilitates the development of attribution of belief states to others in children, and is thus central for the development of their construals of mind (and intentionality), Goody is more concerned with the effect of writing and literacy skills on complex mind-body states, epitomised by the emotions. Writing about our emotions makes them ‘visible’ in a ‘slow-motion’, careful kind of way, he notes, allowing us to reflect upon them and develop them further.


[i] The St. John’s College Cambridge website is at: http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/. Jack Goody can be contacted by e-mail at: <jrg1@hermes.cam.ac.uk>

[ii] Note that this is by no means the only thread of inquiry which Jack Goody has followed up on over the years with his characteristic prodigious intellectual curiosity. A glance at his extensive bibliography reveals this clearly. Here we find, amongst other things, work on themes so diverse as the cultural role and function of flowers, food, religion, love and death.


[index] [back] [next]