Natural Artificiality

I’ve been working on a piece that draws on the work of Walter Ong, whom I’ve mentioned here more than few times. In fact, one of the earliest posts on this blog was a short overview of Orality and Literacy written for a grad school class. Ten or so years on, I’d say that Ong’s work remains among the most useful things I encountered while I was completing my course work.

Here’s a selection from that book, written in 1983 and focused on understanding the psychic and social consequences of literacy. These two paragraphs, though, are a more general reflection on technology, artificiality, and humanity.

To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.

Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. The modern orchestra, for example, is the result of high technology. A violin is an instrument, which is to say a tool. An organ is a huge machine, with sources of power—pumps, bellows, electric generators—totally outside its operator. Beethoven’s score for his Fifth Symphony consists of very careful directions to highly trained technicians, specifying exactly how to use their tools. Legato: do not take your finger off one key until you have hit the next. Staccato: hit the key and take your finger off immediately. And so on. As musicologists well know, it is pointless to object to electronic compositions such as Morton Subotnik’s The Wild Bull on the grounds that the sounds come out of a mechanical contrivance. What do you think the sounds of an organ come out of? Or the sounds of a violin or even of a whistle? The fact is that by using a mechanical contrivance, a violinist or an organist can express something poignantly human that cannot be expressed without the mechanical contrivance. To achieve such expression, of course, the violinist or organist has to have interiorized the technology, made the tool or machine a second nature, a psychological part of himself or herself. This calls for years of practice, learning how to make the tool do what it can do. Such shaping of a tool to oneself, learning a technological skill, is hardly dehumanizing. The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.

I’d only add that “technology” is doing too much work here unless we qualify the claims. “Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it.” I’d say that claim, made with regards to technology in general, is at best sometimes true. Better, it seems to me, to say certain technologies, properly interiorized, will not degrade human life but on the contrary enhance it.

7 thoughts on “Natural Artificiality

  1. Reading this (another compelling invitation to read Ong) I’m reminded of the arguments Matthew Crawford made in his last book regarding skilled practices, mastery and the embrace of constraints as a self-fortifying engagement with technology and the world. I think there’s something to be said for this attitude, but I also think it suits inert, tool-based technologies better than the younger, process oriented ones.

    Both Ong and Crawford seem to presume that, putting aside the consciousness-shaping subtleties of those interactions, human beings will retain an aptitude for understanding and individually mastering the technologies in our milieu. It’s not out of the question, but the deck seems increasingly stacked against this, favoring a much more passive relationship, if not an outright submissive one.

    Slightly off-topic: before I read in, your title put me in mind of Thomas Hughes. I’ve become fond of using his phrase, “human-built” to distinguish natural from artificial to avoid having the old arguments.

    Thanks for another good read.

    1. Daniel,

      Yes, I think this is quite right. If I’d taken a little more time, I would have injected a bit of Albert Borgmann into this post to make this very point. I think Borgmann, who also believes that certain technologies have the power Ong and Crawford attribute to them (focal things), understands that others have a tendency to produce the opposite effect. Learning to make that distinction I think is key to implementing Ong’s insights here is in wise fashion.

      I like Hughe’s line, too. I find myself often defaulting to it or speaking of the “human-built world” instead of saying “technology.”

      Thanks!

  2. Could it be that what Ong is describing needs to be looked at in regards to some distinction between tools and instruments – tools of an artisan and instruments of an artist – and technologies that are the means to achieve or maintain power over someone, something, someplace? It seems a key is in the discipline, or practice, he describes as, “…learning how to make the tool do what it can do. Such shaping of a tool to oneself, learning a technological skill,…” This doesn’t quite capture the distinction, but does hint at an embeddedness in life lived as opposed to capital T technologies that are always merely a means to some violent end.

    Another hint is in the earlier passage, “Writing heightens consciousness. …. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.” This kind of artificiality is in the service of life and understanding. These have no meaning within the general quid pro quo of Technological processes aimed at domination.

    Another strand is in distinguishing a tool or an instrument that, with discipline and dedication can be shaped to our human need, as opposed to some brute Technology that forces the human to fit its own requirements.

    I’m keenly interested in what appears to me to be at once a vague and a sharp delineation. It always seems to me that when technologists try to blur any difference between, say a stone blade and an oil refinery or a genome sequencer other than their being at opposing ends of some timeline of Progress, is disingenuous. Meant only to railroad us into sticking to the program….

    If we look at what powers a tool or instrument we have another possible guide. But, is it always the case that passing from human – or perhaps animal, small scale wind and water power? – to the more impersonal and extractive – polluting? – forms of power we automatically enter another realm?

    In the Nineteen Eighties it was possible to look at an electric guitar or an early synthesizer as just another instrument with just an incremental difference from something Beethoven would have recognized. But is that true today?

    Well, as I said these are questions that keep coming to mind. I’ve been eagerly following your posts for some time. Keep up the good work!

    1. Antonio,

      I could hardly improve on these observations, as with Daniel’s comments above, your questions are precisely the right questions to ask of this passage from Ong. The particular lines you highlighted were also the lines that caught my attention as I entered into a mini-debate with Ong in mind as I read. Again, I think something like the work of Albert Borgmann would be a usefull supplement to Ong here. And, as you say, the real problem is that “technology” is too blunt a concept. Distinctions and greater precision is needed. “Meant only to railroad us into sticking to the program….” Exactly right.

  3. “Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for a full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.”

    So beautiful! Thank you for this reminder on this frigid Friday morning.

    I believe I can replace the word witting in the above with reading too. Thus, thank you for this read and allowing me to get away from my milieu and consider the workings of the world that I live in.

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