Memory, Writing, Alienation

Some more reflections in interaction with Walter Ong’s work, this time an essay originally published in The Written Word: Literacy in Transition (Oxford, 1986) titled “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.”

Literacy does its work of transformation by restructuring the cultural and personal economy of memory and installing a self-alienation at the heart of literate identity.

The world of orality is fundamentally evanescent.  Spoken words themselves have begun to pass out of existence before they are fully formed by the speaker’s mouth.  The spoken word is in this way a telling image of oral society; each generation is always already fading into the unremembered past as it inhabits the present.  The accumulated knowledge and wisdom of an oral society exists only as it is remembered by individuals so that each member of the group shares in the cognitive burden of sustaining and transmitting the group’s cultural inheritance.  This work of memory preoccupies the cultural life of oral societies and configures the individual as a node within a network of cultural remembering.  Oral society is thus fundamentally conservative and collective.

Writing disrupts and rearranges this situation by offloading, to a significant degree, the cognitive burden of remembering from the living memory of each individual to the written word.  This work of cognitive offloading generates recurring debates, as we first encounter in Plato, about the proper modes of memory.  These debates reflect the (often unrecognized) force with which new mnenotechnologies impact a society.  As Ong notes, the frozen, lifeless written word is in another, paradoxical sense alive.  It achieves permanence and is “resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers.”  Furthermore, the “lifeless” written word, by both resourcing and reconfiguring the economy of memory, also injects a new dynamism into literate cultures. It does so by relieving the conservative pressure of cultural remembrance thus encouraging what we might call intellectual entrepreneurship.

This new dynamism is, however, accompanied by various forms of alienation.  Crucially, writing dislodges a portion of one’s memory, a critical aspect of identity, from oneself.  To the extent that identity is constituted by memory, identity must be, to some extent, divided in literate societies.  Ong details the alienating work of writing when he lists fourteen instances of separation effected by writing:

1. Writing separates the known from the knower

2. Writing separates interpretation from data

3. Writing distances the word from sound

4. Writing distances the source of communication from the recipient

5. Writing distances the word from the context of lived experience

6. Due to 5., writing enforces verbal precision unavailable in oral cultures.  (In other words, without the context provided by face-to-face communication, words have to work harder in writing to make meaning clear.  This is why we sometimes feel compelled to use smiley faces in electronic communication — to communicate tone.)

7. Writing separates past from present.

8. Writing separates administration — civil, religious, commercial — from other types of social activities.

9. Writing makes it possible to separate logic from rhetoric.

10. Writing separates academic learning from wisdom.

11. Writing can divide society by splitting verbal communication between a “high” spoken language controlled by writing and a “low” controlled by speech.  (For example, “proper” English is really “written” English, while devalued vulgar and colloquial speech patterns are “spoken” English.)

12. Writing differentiates grapholects, dialect taken over by writing and made into a national language, from other local dialects

13. Writing divides more evidently and effectively as its form becomes more abstract, that is more removed from the world of sound to the world of sight.

14. Writing separates being from time.

By making thought (and so also the self) present to itself, literacy introduces an irreparable fissure into identity and consciousness, but one that is, in Ong’s account, ultimately “humanizing.”  Last word from Ong:

To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it . . . By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.  Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for fuller human life.  To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.  This writing provides for, thereby accelerating the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does.

2 thoughts on “Memory, Writing, Alienation

  1. What Ong says about writing being resurrected in “limitless living contexts” sounds similar to Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” theory. To write is to enter a neutral space of non-identity. In oral cultures it depends upon each individual handing down the story, the author is always alive and always changing.
    Great post, keep it up.

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