Orality and Literacy Revisited

“‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” lamented John Donne in 1611. The line is from An Anatomy of the World, a poem written by Donne to mark the death of his patron’s daughter at the age of sixteen. Immediately before and after this line, Donne alludes to ruptures in the social, political, philosophical, religious, and scientific assumptions of his age. In short, Donne is registering the sense of bewilderment and disorientation that marked the transition from the premodern to the modern world.

“And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.”

In the philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s compelling analysis of this transition, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Donne is writing before the defining structures of modernity would fully emerge to stabilize the social order. Donne’s was still a time of flux between the dissolution of an old order and the emergence of a new one that would take its place–his time, we might say, was the time of death throes and birth pangs.

As Alan Jacobs, among others, has noted, the story of the emergence of modernity is a story that cannot be told without paying close attention to the technological background against which intellectual, political, and religious developments unfolded. Those technologies that we tend to think of as media technologies–technologies of word, image, and sound or technologies of representation–have an especially important role to play in this story.

I mention all of this because we find ourselves in a position not unlike Donne’s: we too are caught in a moment of instability. Traditional institutions and old assumptions that passed for common sense are proving inadequate in the face of new challenges, but we are as of yet uncertain about what new institutions and guiding assumptions will take their place. Right now, Donne’s lament resonates with us: “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.”

And for us no less than for those who witnessed the emergence of modernity, technological developments are inextricably bound up with the social and cultural turbulence we are experiencing, especially new media technologies.

One useful way of thinking about these developments is provided by the work of the late Walter Ong. Ong was a scholar of immense learning who is best known for Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, a study of the cultural consequences of writing. In Ong’s view, the advent of the written word dramatically reconfigured our mental and social worlds. Primary oral cultures, cultures that have no notion of writing at all, operated quite differently than literate cultures, cultures into which writing has been introduced.

Likewise, Ong argued, the consciousness of individuals in literate cultures differs markedly from those living in an oral culture. Writing in the late twentieth century, Ong also posited the emergence of a state of secondary orality created by electronic media.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see Ong and his work invoked, directly and indirectly, in a handful of pieces about media, politics, and the 2016 election.

In August 2015, Jeet Heer wrote a piece titled, “Donald Trump, Epic Hero.” In it, he proposed the following: “Trump’s rhetorical braggadocio and spite might seem crude, even juvenile. But his special way with words has a noble ancestry: flyting, a recurring trope in epic poetry that eerily resembles the real estate magnate’s habit of self-celebration and cruel mockery.” Heer, who wrote a 2004 essay on Ong for Books and Culture, grounded his defense of this thesis on Ong’s work.

In a post for Neiman Reports, Danielle Allen does not cite Ong, but she does invoke the distinction between oral and literate cultures. “Trump appears to have understood that the U.S. is transitioning from a text-based to an oral culture,” Allen concluded after discussing her early frustration with the lack of traditional policy position papers produced by the Trump campaign and its reliance on short video clips.

In Technology Review, Hossein Derakhshan, relying on Neil Postman rather than Walter Ong, argues that the image-based discourse that has, in his view, come to dominate the Internet has contributed to the rise of post-truth politics and that we do well, for the sake of our democracy, to return to text-based discourse. “For one thing,” Derakhshan writes,

we need more text than videos in order to remain rational animals. Typography, as Postman describes, is in essence much more capable of communicating complex messages that provoke thinking. This means we should write and read more, link more often, and watch less television and fewer videos—and spend less time on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Writing for Bloomberg, Joe Weisenthal, like Heer, cites Ong’s Orality and Literacy to help explain Donald Trump’s rhetorical style. Building on scholarship that looked to Homer’s epic poetry for the residue of oral speech patterns, Ong identified various features of oral communication. Weisenthal chose three to explain “why someone like Donald Trump would thrive in this new oral context”: oral communication was “additive, not analytic,” relied on repetition, and was aggressively polemical. Homer gives us swift-footed Achilles, man-killing Hector, and wise Odysseus; Trump gives us Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and Crooked Hillary; his speeches were jammed with mind-numbing repetition; and his style was clearly combative.

There’s something with which to quibble in each of these pieces, but raising these questions about oral, print, and image based discourse is helpful. As Ong and Postman recognized, innovations in media technology have far reaching consequences: they enable new modes of social organization and new modes of thought, they reconfigure the cognitive load of remembering, they alter the relation between self and community, sometimes creating new communities and new understandings of the self, and they generate new epistemic ecosystems.

As Postman puts it in Technopoly,

Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization–not to mention their reason for being–reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crisis that new media foster.

Given the seriousness of what is at stake, then, I’ll turn to some of my quibbles as a way of moving toward a better understanding of our situation. Most of my quibbles involve the need for some finer distinctions. For example, in her piece, Allen suggest that we are moving back toward an oral culture. But it is important to make Ong’s distinction: if this is the case, then it is to something like what Ong called secondary orality. A primary oral culture has never known literacy, and that makes a world of difference. However much we might revert to oral forms of communication, we cannot erase our knowledge of or dependence upon text, and this realization must inform whatever it is we mean by “oral culture.”

Moreover, I wonder whether it is best to characterize our move as one toward orality. What about the visual, the image? Derakhshan, for example, frames his piece in this way. Contrasting the Internet before and after a six year stay in an Iranian prison, Derakshan observed, “Facebook and Twitter had replaced blogging and had made the Internet like TV: centralized and image-centered, with content embedded in pictures, without links.” But Alan Jacobs took exception to this line of thinking. “Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text,” Jacobs notes, adding that Donald Trump rarely tweets images. “[I]t’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us,” Jacobs then concludes, “It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.”

My sense is that Jacobs is right, but Derakhshan is not wrong, which means more distinctions are in order. After all, text is visual.

My plan in the coming days, possibly weeks depending on the cracks of time into which I am able to squeeze some writing, is take a closer look at Walter Ong, particularly but not exclusively Orality and Literacy, in order to explore what resources his work may offer us as we try to understand the changes that are afoot all about us.