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William Johnson: The Sociology of Publishing in ancient Rome

About the Workshop

This workshop explores from a multidisciplinary standpoint how oral literature stands alongside and engages with texts in literate societies. While the study of oral literature has transformed many disciplines in the last century, the label of “true” orality was originally granted only to pre-literate traditions. We bring together a variety of perspectives as to how different disciplines have bridged the perceived gap between verbal art and artistic text. To that end, the workshop builds an ongoing conversation on
topics such as the transmission and textualization of folk literature, the interplay between spoken word and written text, and the sociology of reading and performance. 

Our aim is to broaden participants’ perspectives of oral literature in a literate society by encouraging a methodological dialogue across disciplines. Each session features an invited speaker who gives a short introduction to a pre-circulated paper followed by a respondent who will open the discussion. We warmly invite anyone who is interested in questions surrounding orality and literacy to join us for food and fellowship.

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William Johnson: The Sociology of Publishing in ancient Rome


Abstract: To students of ancient Rome, the idea of literary "publishing" carries with it well-known oral features. These range from the consumption of literary texts in social contexts involving reading aloud to the use of formal recitation to present a work to an audience. In this paper, we will revisit and unpack these and other typical features, with a focus on the inevitably social dynamics involved in oral engagements with written text. The goal will be to situate the elements of written self-assertion within the sociological contours: not only how literary production fits within and helps to construct social networks, but also how the social group negotiates the fragile moment at which a piece of writing might be released to a potential public ("publishing"). What were the collective means by which written work was adjudicated and promoted? What were the avenues for a writer's sense of validation within the shifting dynamics of the social group? And how much of this had to do with the typically oral —that is, social— contexts in which texts were realized?