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.”

Further:

“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.”

Finally:

“[…] 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.”


You can subscribe to The Convivial Society, my newsletter about technology and society,  here.