At present, many academics in the United States and Western Europe—Hugh Kenner among them—are greatly taken with the idea that speech is superior to writing. This fashion for orality appears to express a nostalgia for a form of populist primitivism. According to the classical scholar Eric Havelock, the oral culture of Ancient Greece was a “mnemonic world of imitation, aggregative, redundant, copious, traditionalist, warmly human, participatory.” Orality is therefore one expression of those close kinship bonds that belong to the extended family. And when Jacques Derrida imagines “the humbling of writing beneath a speech dreaming its plenitude,” he is hungering for an intimate tribal and family world where the spoken word is your bond and there are no letters, no alienating signs.

As it happens, I belong to an East Indian extended family—my mother-in-law can...


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