Leela Prasad’s book, Poetics of Conduct, explores what happens when certain people tell particular stories in particular situations, namely how oral storytelling shapes a moral culture. Prasad’s ethnographic focus is the pilgrimage city of Sringeri, in Northwest Karnataka, South India. Because this ancient city is the home of the Shankara matha, as well as a temple to the Hindu goddess of learning, it is an ideal focal point for Prasad’s research on how lived narratives and forms of conduct can display a moral culture. Though the matha is a dominant, authoritative presence within Sringeri life, it is not the only force that shapes Sringeri ethos/ moral knowledge. According to Prasad, everyday stories and narratives also play a central role in this, displaying a labyrinthine of relationships between institutional prescriptions for conduct (“prescribed”) and everyday life (“practiced”) (13).
Because India still preserves a literary-oral culture, it is an incredibly fruitful source for the study of orality and performance. In fact, it is frequently used as sort of baseline from which to compare and study orality and performance elsewhere. The question I have been wrestling with this semester is to what degree can we utilize work on orality in India, and other modern cultures, and apply this to the study of ancient—though no longer extant—literary-oral communities? For predominantly oral societies like the early Jewish and Christian communities, the primary medium through which meaning was transmitted, especially those ideas and narratives central to communal identity, was also not only through written text. These communities also experienced, transmitted, and even generated their compositions through communal performance, like theatrical readings of authoritative texts or communal enactments. Written texts were fixed reservoirs of meaning but not necessarily reflective of the community’s daily ethos. Again, this is a bit outside of what we’ve been doing in class but Prasad’s work seems like a good entry point into this question. Prasad lived among those she researched, recording their conversations, hearing the nuances of voice and tone, and immersing herself in the larger living cultural context. Even though performance and oral studies are now being applied to the study of ancient texts, we cannot access the same kinds of data, and we certainly cannot get at the “lived” or “practiced” (134). Therefore, is it a pointless attempt? There are seemingly many points of contact between Prasad’s exploration of ‘imagined text’ and the study of ancient oral compositions which may have been generated in similar cultural ethos. In both cases, ““text” asks to be understood as positioned at an eternal intersection, in the midst of the traffic of human life, amid crisscrossings of written/recorded, oral/performed, and received/transmitted texts” (141).
Tangentially, in the study of Second Temple literature, one of the big pushes in academia is to try and get at the religious experiences or imagination of these communities or particular individuals though the study of the texts they left behind, such as liturgies or apotheosis accounts of mystical experiences. Yet, for Prasad, the “religious experience” of people of Sringeri is a fluid, multifaceted affair that is deeply connected to everyday activities, conversations, generational stories told over a meal, and rituals like ashirvada. This is a level of experience that goes well beyond what we might box as a “religious experience.” It’s not a particular moment but a particular sort of life. Besides this, to reconstruct another’s ‘religious experience’ from a mystical text imagining an encounter with the divine (Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice) or even an auto-biographical account of heavenly ascent appears to be flawed project. To use a different example, some New Testament scholars who advocate the adoption of performance criticism as a methodology would argue that through careful reconstruction of the textual remnants of an orally performed text, one can re-create performer, audience, material setting, and so on. In other words, contemporary performance allows us to reimagine, and thus access, some version of ancient religious experience. All of this is a bit off track, but I do a few questions and observations more directly related to Poetics of Conduct.
In chapter four, Prasad argues that ethics in practice is not merely the application of institutional doctrine, but also a phenomenon that takes place through the construction of morality, or that person’s personalized ‘imagined text’ – defined as the “dynamically constituted “text” that draws on and weaves together various sources of the normative—a sacred book, an exemplar, a tradition, a principle, and so on” (119). How might Prasad’s discussion of the imagined text and its influence on moral praxis be extended to our understanding of our own culture? While we too have normative prescriptions for morality rooted in particular texts and authoritative structures, our moral perspective can also be traced to a range of locally rooted, implicit sources, such as our familial habits, political dialogues, daily practices, and everyday rhetoric. Prasad’s proposal about the ‘imagined text’ seemed self-evident, or least not unique to Sringeri ethos. In other words, prescriptive and authoritative sources for one’s broader religious framework are not the only influence on a lived ethic, even in cultures that are not ‘oral’ in the way Sringeri remains. Most people would probably acknowledge that what is normative for them has also been shaped by similar sorts of generational stories, familial traditions, daily conversations, etc.
As an insider with social, historical, and generational connections, Prasad is ideally placed to effectively navigate local practices and traditions. Are there any disadvantages to this sort of ethnography or only advantages? It also struck me that Prasad assumed perhaps a bit much about her readership. I found myself frequently pausing to look up unexplained terms and also wishing for some direct translations of shastra texts or other relevant texts like, Dhramasutras. Finally, Prasad talks about her “backpack” of theoretical perspectives and one of the things she carries in it is a background in performance studies and orality. However, it seemed at times as though Prasad did not fully distinguish between non-theatrical performance (i.e. everyday life or social drama) and cultural performance. Perhaps, this didn’t matter to her larger argument but, regardless, I would have liked her to have expounded on which performance and oral theories she relied, as well as on how she utilized them.