A few months ago I noted a handful of recent articles that cited Walter Ong’s work on orality and literacy in an effort to make sense of the present political climate. I thought then and still think now that this was a good move. In fact, I think we do well to revisit Ong’s work not only to get a better understanding of the political dynamics of our time, but also to understand our time more generally.
In a more recent post, I collected eight theses about social media. The fifth of these is a good place for us to start:
5. While text and image flourish online, the psycho-dynamics of digital culture are most akin to those of oral cultures (per Walter Ong).
In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Ong set out to explore the momentous consequences that attended the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing. As part of this effort, Ong examined what he called the psychodynamics of orality. By psychodynamics, Ong meant something like the way orality shapes the experience of thinking, feeling, and communicating.
Primary oral cultures, cultures that had no knowledge or concept of writing at all, manifested one set of psychodynamics and literate cultures manifested another. Of course, and this is sometimes lost in these discussions, Ong recognized that oral habits of thought and expression persisted, often for a very long time, after the advent of writing. At one point he called this residual orality.
More recently, electronic media fostered yet another set of psychodynamics. In Orality and Literacy, Ong included a brief discussion of what he called secondary orality, which was a product of the electronic communication technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (telegraph, telephone, radio, television, etc.). While Ong (d. 2003) lived long to see the advent of digital culture, it is left to us to extend his analysis to our digital tools.
This will, admittedly, be a difficult thing for us to do. In fact, I’d suggest that our attempt to identify the psychodynamics of digital media should be taken chiefly as a heuristic activity, and that is the spirit in which I proceed here. The reason for this, as I see it, is that we cannot speak of digital culture in the same way that we might speak about oral cultures and literate cultures.
The transition from orality to literacy was marked by the advent of one technology, writing (and its later intensification through printing). The transition from literacy to secondary orality is marked by the advent of a small set of discreet technologies: radio and television, primarily. The transition to digital culture, on the other hand, is more complicated. Indeed the phrase “digital technology” is too capacious; “digital culture” even more so. Digital technology absorbs a whole array of existing communication technologies: photography, sound recording technologies, telephone, film, television, radio, print, etc.
Moreover, oral societies knew nothing of writing. We, on the other hand, to take one example, knew photography before digital cameras appeared. We might say then, that digital culture is marked by its multi-modality and the digitization of existing technologies. This makes it nearly impossible to make a neat set of contrasts in quite the same way as Ong did in the case of orality and literacy. Nonetheless, with Ong as our model, we can make a few measured observations that might prove useful and illuminating.
Underlying Ong’s analysis we find a focus on memory, presence, and the phenomenology of sound and sight. Most of what Ong says about the psychodynamics of orality and literacy involve one or more of these. So let’s move along these lines beginning with memory. In subsequent posts, we’ll consider the other two.
Sound is, as Ong puts it, evanescent. It is going as it is arriving, and we can hardly remember all that we hear. The expressive patterns of oral societies, thus, can be partially accounted for by the limitations of human memory. Furthermore, before writing, there were very few effective and efficient ways of storing knowledge independently of living human beings. Consequently, speech patterns tended to account for the evanescence of sound through rhythm, repetition, redundancy, ritual, and formula. Likewise, societies were organized around the task of collective remembering and were thus fundamentally conservative or traditionalist (see Paul Connerton’s How Societies Remember).
Writing, on the other hand, allows for what Ong calls “sparse linearity.” While we cannot, to be anachronistic about it, rewind spoken conversations, you can scroll back up this post to recall something you read a minute ago. The redundancy that is a feature of oral speech patterns is perceived as a bug in written communication, in which students, for example, are urged to avoid repetition.
Moreover, writing allows for the durable storage of knowledge independently of human beings. Not only can written knowledge outlive a particular individual, it can outlive a whole culture. By outsourcing the task of remembrance to written texts, literate societies are relieved of the conservative and traditionalist pressures of orality. And as literacy is democratized, individuals also partake of its power as a tool of remembrance and then self-expression. Writing consequently lends materiality and objectivity to the self. It is in this way that, Ong puts it, writing “heightens consciousness” and becomes “the seedbed of irony.”
Pursuing this line of inquiry into digital culture, a few of its paradoxes come into focus. We have never been able to document our lives so thoroughly as we now can with the help of digital tools, yet we seem to remember less than ever before. We appear to be both obsessive documenters of our experience, yet largely indifferent to the archives we create. We have ever more access to the past, but we are unable to bring it meaningfully to bear on the present.
This is not altogether unsurprising. Plato identified similar dynamics when he offered his critique of writing in the Phaedrus. It is true that writing would allow far more knowledge to be preserved and accessed, but it would relieve individuals themselves of the subjective burden of remembering. Moreover, the archives we generate are often incidental to our motives for using the tools that generate them. A person’s Twitter archive, for instance, might be a remarkably revealing record of their experiences and thoughts, yet few treat their Twitter account primarily as a tool of remembrance. Of course, nothing about the Twitter account encourages users to treat it as a tool of remembrance.
Like writing and print, our use of digital media ordinarily generates an archive (as well as a trail of data, often invisible to users but of great value to others). In other words, it appears to sustain memory. However, in practice, it is more like oral communication in its evanescence. Our digital media feeds resemble the flow of oral communication. Our tweets and status updates recede, not as quickly and decisively as the spoken word, but with an effect that is not dissimilar.
The work of remembrance is also connected to the subjective experience of time. Oral societies devoted to the collective task of corporate remembrance were oriented toward the past. The modern world is/was characterized by its orientation toward the future. Whereas pre-modern societies tended to look back to a distant and glorious past, modern societies are/were utopian in their expectations, assuming the best is still to come. We might attribute this departure to emergence of print, which solidified and expanded writing’s capacity to preserve a culture’s knowledge and history and more fully liberated the imagination. (Clearly, other factors are relevant to this kind of momentous shift in cultural sensibilities.)
Yet, it is the case that contemporary culture is oriented chiefly toward the present. The architecture of digital platforms encourages a preoccupation with instantaneity, and they simultaneously sanction forgetting under the guise of pervasive documentation. This is not unlike the homeostatis that Ong identified as one of the psychodynamics of oral societies: “oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostatis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.” It is only that our present is ever more condensed by the patterns of digital media. It is not this year or this month, but rather this day or even this hour. This is one reason why we have a difficult time relating to the past as an organic reality whose presence makes itself felt in the present. Time has no integrity, and the past is accessible only under the aspect of nostalgia.
Certain platforms and apps do periodically foreground portions of our archive (Facebook and Timehop, for example), but because they do so within the conditions of generalized forgetting and by a logic that is often artificial. Consequently, there is no structure to our remembering. Distant and recent past blur; last year was another world. The narrative thread, as it were, is lost.
Additionally, the expressive function of our documenting technologies has eclipsed the archival function. We document in order to communicate rather than remember. The project of self-remembering elides into the project of self-making. This is, in part, a function of the ease with which we are able to document. It is also a function of the audience that is an integral, ever-present part of our documentation (about which more will be said later).
Furthermore, the heightened consciousness and irony that Ong identified as consequences of writing are augmented by our digital tools and platforms. We are ever more aware of ourselves when we communicate digitally, and this is, again, because digital media combines aspects of the conditions of both oral and written communication.
In an oral culture, with its always visible audience and emphasis on rhetoric, I’m likely to experience communication as a performance. In literate/print cultures, with their emphasis on interiority and privacy and its invisible audience, I experience communication as an expression of the inner self; indeed, rhetoric now appears artificial and inauthentic. In digital culture, which mashes these together, I experience communication as a performance of the self. But this is an unstable compound. That it is experienced as a performance suggest that the self is inauthentic given the expectation of a stable and abiding interior life fostered by print. Irony, or snark, is the response.
In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss Ong’s focus on presence and the phenomenology of sound and sight as a way of exploring the psychodynamics of digital media.