Walter Ong on Romanticism and Technology

The following excerpts are taken from an article by Walter Ong titled, “Romantic Difference and Technology.” The essay can be found in Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture.

Ong opens by highlighting the lasting significance of the Romantic movement:

“Romanticism has not been a transient phenomenon. Most and perhaps even all literary and artistic, not to mention scientific, movements since the romantic movement appear to have been only further varieties of romanticism, each in its own way.”

He follows by characterizing subsequent literary and cultural movements as variations of romanticism:

“Early Victorian is attenuated romantic, late Victorian is recuperated romantic, fed on Darwin, Marx, and Comte, the American frontier and the American Adam are primitivist romantic, imagism and much other modern poetry is symbolist romantic, existentialism is super-charged or all-out romantic, programmatic black literature is alien-selfhood romantic, and beatnik and hippie performance is disenfranchized [sic] romantic. Insofar as it is an art form or a substitute for literature, and in other guises, too, activism is most certainly idealist romantic.”

Here is how Ong construes the link between Romanticism and technology, specifically technologies of the word:

“Romanticism and technology, as we shall be suggesting, are mirror images of each other, both being products of man’s dominance over nature and of the noetic abundance which had been created by chirographic and typographic techniques of storing and retrieving knowledge and which had made this dominance over nature possible.”

In other words, print acted as a kind of safety-net that encouraged intellectual daring, both technologically and literarily. This hypothesis depends upon Ong’s understanding of thought and knowledge in oral cultures. The first sentence is about as close to Ong in a nutshell as you’re going to get:

“Any culture knows only what it can recall. An oral culture, by and large, could recall only what was held in mnemonically serviceable formulas. In formulas thought lived and moved and had its being. This is true not only of the thought in the spectacularly formulary Homeric poems but also of the thought in the oratorically skilled leader or ordinarily articulate warrior or householder of Homeric Greece. In an oral culture, if you cannot think in formulas you cannot think effectively. Thought totally oral in implementation has specifically limited, however beautiful, configurations. A totally oral folk can think some thoughts and not others. It is impossible in an oral culture to produce, for example, the kind of thought pattern in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric or in any comparable methodical treatises….”

Here are some highlights of what follows for Ong:

“A typical manifestation of romanticism on which we have focused is interest in the remote, the mysterious, the inaccessible, the ineffable, the unknown. The romantic likes to remind us of how little we know. If we view romanticism in terms of the development of knowledge as we are beginning to understand this development, it is little wonder that as a major movement romanticism appeared so late. From man’s beginnings perhaps well over 500,000 years ago until recent times […] knowledge had been in short supply. To keep up his courage, man had continually to remind himself of how much he knew, to flaunt the rational, the certain, the definite and clear and distinct.”


“Until print had its effect, man still necessarily carried a heavy load of detail in his mind [….] With knowledge fastened down in visually processed space, man acquired an intellectual security never known before [….] It was precisely at this point that romanticism could and did take hold. For man could face into the unknown with courage or at least equanimity as never before.”


“[…] romanticism and technology can be seen to grow out of the same ground, even though at first blush the two appear diametrically opposed, the one, technology, programmatically rational, the other, romanticism, concerned with transrational or arational if not irrational reality [….] romanticism and technology appear at the same time because each grows in its own way out of a noetic abundance such as man had never known before. Technology uses the abundance for practical purposes. Romanticism uses it for assurance and as a springboard to another world.”

This strikes me as a bold and elegant thesis. Does it hold up? Ong paints with some broad strokes, and particularly where he discusses what oral culture could and could not have thought we may want to consider how sure we could ever be of such a claim. That said, Ong’s thesis naturally encourages us to explore what transformations of thought and culture are encouraged by digital archives, databases, and artificial memories.

More on Ong: “Memory, Writing, Alienation.”

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7 thoughts on “Walter Ong on Romanticism and Technology

  1. Interesting stuff. I’m enjoying these excerpt type posts.

    I wonder though about priviledging Romanticism as the pivotal and defining factor. In just the quotes you provide, literacy seems the more fundamental. Also the implied definition of Romanticism seems too broad (the product of the broad strokes you allude to). Everything post Romantic movement becomes Romantic and any counter example becomes impossible.

    So technology is itself Romantic because of the shared “noetic abundance” that technology creates. Why not then make information technology the defining characteristic? It seems a bit Romantic to suggest otherwise.

    1. Thanks for the feedback on these excerpt type posts. Regarding Ong’s thesis in this article, I actually do think that it is more along the lines you are suggesting, and that may have been obscured in these selections. His point is that literacy, particularly print literacy, is the more fundamental development to which both modern technology and romanticism owe their existence. So, as I read him, Ong is not saying that technology is romantic, but that both technology and romanticism depend on the noetic abundance print makes possible. I think part of the problem is that Ong is using the word “technology” to refer to modern (industrial?) technology while, of course, it can also be used to describe the printing press, etc. So the interesting point, I think, is that romanticism depends on technologies of the word even as it articulates a powerful critique of industrial technology.

  2. Ong has a lot of great points, and much of what he writes has great merit. But it seems to me by his citations that he has bought into and is borrowing the central thesis from Eric Havelock’s controversial thesis in “A Preface to Plato”, and that book I don’t really think has been widely accepted or ever will be. You can google up incisive journal critique(s) of it that are pretty devastating. Not that the book has no merit, in fact I think it does, but its main thesis is probably quite wrong. So I think Ong hangs way too much on the oral culture bit.

    Pace Havelock, I think Plato’s rejection of poetry and rhetoric was probably because he did not accept the rational nature of the emotions, unlike Aristotle. To him using rhetoric in public debate probably seemed like showing bikini-clad advertisements to teenage boys would to us. Plato had a different view of persuasive arts, there being legitimate uses done correctly and legitimately, and he embraced rhetoric as a legitimate skill. I don’t think it had anything to do with a transition from an oral culture.

    So for these reasons I’m suspicious of Ong’s relating romanticism to technology. That said, whatever it’s beginnings, he well could be right about everything else he said about romanticism. Much of it strikes me as true nonetheless, but I think Ong’s acceptance of Havelock’s thesis mars what he says on romanticism though he may well be right about everything else he says about it.

    I’m no expert, and don’t mean to sound like one, but those are my thoughts.

    1. I wouldn’t count myself an expert either, just to be clear! You are right that Ong incorporates Havelock in his formulation of the orality/literacy dynamic. He references Havelock’s work a good bit. I’ve read a few critiques of the orality/literacy dynamic, and, from what I remember, I generally thought that the critiques added some necessary nuance and corrected some over-reaches, but that, on the whole, the introduction of literacy still seemed to constitute a monumental force in human culture. It was particularly with regards to the relationship between memory and culture that I thought Ong’s thesis was compelling. I did read Carruther’s book two or three years ago when I was researching the arts of memory tradition (Francis Yates, et al), and I think she was right to remind us that the oral culture faded into literate culture over a long period and in uneven fashion. It wasn’t a switch that was flipped in fourth century Athens, in other words. That is certainly true. It’s also true that focusing exclusively at transitions in media of communication as the forces driving cultural movements is probably reductionistic.

      1. I think Ong’s most compelling thesis, or at least the most interesting one that he cites, is in the 2nd paragraph you quoted above that begins “Early Victorian is attenuated romantic …” is so true. The end of the paragraph not quoted above is this:

        “The late Renato Poggioli has suggested that for the entire foreseeable future all serious developments in literature and art, and it would seem in life styles generally, will oscillate back and forth between one and another form of romantic alienation. Arthur O. Love­joy’s celebrated prowess in distinguishing varieties of roman­ticism was probably due to the ferment of romanticism still active in all of us as much as it was due to the diversified rich­ ness of the original romantic movement itself. It takes one to catch one.”

        In other words, we’re all romantics now. :)

  3. Also, see “The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture” by Mary Carruthers for more background, which includes a bit of debunking about some things believed about the changes between oral and print cultures. It’s a great book in its own right. If you understand the importance of the forgotten venerable ancient tradition of rhetoric it can be seen that the continuity between the oral and print culture is far more than we moderns tend to see. Lack of understanding on that makes us exaggerate the differences greatly.

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