Oral Social Literacy, Past and Present

Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text is an exploration of the evolution of reading and the book in Western Europe during the 13th century. It is focused on Hugh of St. Victor and a well-known work of his titled the Didascalicon, essentially the first guide to the art of reading.

Illich notes, “Before Hugh’s generation, the book is a record of the author’s speech or dictation. After Hugh, increasingly it becomes a repertory of the author’s thought, a screen onto which one projects still unvoiced intentions.”

Illich early on acknowledges his debt to Walter Ong who synthesized a great deal of research on the cultural consequences of the shift from orality to literacy (and later to what Ong called the secondary orality of electronic media).

What is sometimes lost in this schema is the persistence of orality after the emergence of literacy. And not only in the sense that oral cultures existed alongside literate ones, but also in the persistence of orality within literate societies.

A full 1500 years after literacy was effectively internalized into Western society (which is not the same thing as saying that all of those living in Western society were literate), reading remained a fundamentally oral activity. The quotation from Illich above is drawn from a chapter titled, “Recorded Speech to Record of Thought.” That title nicely captures the degree to which writing was understood as a record of oral communication rather than its own distinct medium prior to the period Illich examined.

Here is Illich again on the orality (and corporeality) of literacy through the late medieval period:

“In a tradition of one and a half millennia, the sounding pages are echoed by the resonance  of the moving lips and tongue.  The reader’s ears pay attention, and strain to catch what the reader’s mouth gives forth.  In this manner the sequence of letters translates directly into body movements and patterns nerve impulses.  The lines are a sound track picked up by the mouth and voiced by the reader for his own ear.  By reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.”

And here again on the oral and social nature of reading:

“The monastic reader — chanter or mumbler — picks the words from the lines and creates a public social auditory ambience. All those who, with the reader, are immersed in this hearing milieu are equals before the sound … Fifty years after Hugh, typically, this was no longer true. The technical activity of deciphering no longer creates an auditory and, therefore, a social space. The reader then flips through pages. His eyes mirror the two-dimensional page. Soon he will conceive of his own mind in analogy with a manuscript. Reading will become an individualistic activity, intercourse between a self and a page.”

As I read these passages again today, I was reminded of an essay that appeared not too long ago in the Wall Street Journal. In “Is This the Future of Punctuation?”, Henry Hitchings, the author of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, makes the following observation about new proposed punctuations marks such as the  interrobang:

“Such marks are symptoms of an increasing tendency to punctuate for rhetorical rather than grammatical effect. Instead of presenting syntactical and logical relationships, punctuation reproduces the patterns of speech.”

The emergence of telephony, radio, and television marked the re-emergence of orality following the era of print literacy’s dominance. Ong called this secondary orality. Having appeared after literacy, it was not identical to primary orality, but it nonetheless represented a reemergence of orality and its habits which would now compete with literacy on the cultural stage.

Within the last twenty years, however, a funny thing has happened on the way to the world of secondary orality. Writing or text has reasserted itself. Text messaging, emails, online reading, e-reading, etc. — all of these together mean that most of us are deciphering of a lot of text each day. Even our television screens, depending on what we are watching, may be chock full of text, scrolling or otherwise.

But this reemergence of text is marked by orality, as the observation by Hitchings suggests. Can we call this secondary literacy? Is it still useful to speak in terms of literacy and orality?

It has always seemed to me that the orality/literacy distinction got at important historical developments in communication and consciousness. The bare dichotomy glossed over a good deal and it was always in need of qualification, but it was serviceable nonetheless. Secondary orality also pointed to important developments. But now what we appear to have, text having reasserted itself, is a thoroughly blended media environment.

It’s chief characteristic is neither its orality nor its literacy. Rather, it is the preponderance of both together — overlapping, interpenetrating, jostling, complementing, conflating.

Interestingly, there has also been, of course, a reemergence of social literacy, but it is not tied to the oral as it was in the circumstances described by Illich above. Rather than an orally constituted literate social anchored to physical presence, we have a diffused literacy based, image-inflected social often untethered from physical presence.

A social space was, then, constituted by an oral performance of the written text and gathered presences. We have, today, spaces constituted as social by silent reading and the presence of absences.

File all of this under “thinking aloud.” (Except, of course, that it wasn’t!)

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