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 media.

I’ve 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, does 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.

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.”

Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing

I’ve not been able to track down the source, but somewhere Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. The more the data banks record about each one of us, the less we exist.”

The unfolding NSA scandal has brought privacy front and center. A great deal is being written right now about the ideal of privacy, the threats facing it from government activities, and how it might best be defended. Conor Friedersdorf, for instance, worries that our government has built “all the infrastructure a tyrant would need.” At this juncture, the concerns seem to me neither exaggerated nor conspiratorial.

Interestingly, there also seems to be a current of opinion that fails to see what all the fuss is about. Part of this current stems from the idea that if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to worry about. There’s an excerpt from Daniel J. Solove’s 2011 book on just this line of reasoning in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that is worth reading (link via Alan Jacobs).

Others are simply willing to trade privacy for security. In a short suggestive post on creative ambiguity with regards to privacy and government surveillance, Tyler Cowen concedes, “People may even be fine with that level of spying, if they think it means fewer successful terror attacks.”  “But,” he immediately adds, “if they acquiesce to the previous level of spying too openly, the level of spying on them will get worse.  Which they do not want.”

Maybe.

I wonder whether we are not witnessing the long foretold end of western modernity’s ideal of privacy. That sort of claim always comes off as a bit hyperbolic, but it’s not altogether misguided. If we grant that the notion of individual privacy as we’ve known it is not a naturally given value but rather a historically situated concept, then it’s worth considering both what factors gave rise to the concept and how changing sociological conditions might undermine its plausibility.

Media ecologists have been addressing these questions for quite awhile. They’ve argued that privacy, as we understand (understood?) it, emerged as a consequence of the kind of reading facilitated by print. Privacy, in their view, is the concern of a certain type of individual consciousness that arises as a by-product of the interiority fostered by reading. Print, in these accounts, is sometimes credited with an unwieldy set of effects which include the emergence of Protestantism, modern democracy, the Enlightenment, and the modern idea of the individual. That print literacy is the sole cause of these developments is almost certainly not the case; that it is implicated in each is almost certainly true.

This was the view, for example, advanced by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy. “[W]riting makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity,” Ong explains, “opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.” Further on he wrote,

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society. It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. In manuscript culture and hence in early print culture, reading had tended to be a social activity, one person reading to others in a group. As Steiner … has suggested, private reading demands a home spacious enough to provide for individual isolation and quiet.

This last point draws architecture into the discussion as Aaron Bady noted in his 2011 essay for MIT Review, “World Without Walls”:

Brandeis and Warren were concerned with the kind of privacy that could be afforded by walls: even where no actual walls protected activities from being seen or heard, the idea of walls informed the legal concept of a reasonable expectation of privacy. It still does … But contemporary threats to privacy increasingly come from a kind of information flow for which the paradigm of walls is not merely insufficient but beside the point.

This argument was also made by Marshall McLuhan who, like his student Ong, linked it to the “coming of the book.” For his part, Ong concluded “print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.” Presumably, then, the accompanying assumption is that this thing-like inert mental space is something to be guarded and shielded from intrusion.

854px-Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca._1662-1663While it is a letter, not a book that she reads, Vermeer’s Woman in Blue has always seemed to me a fitting visual illustration of this media ecological perspective on the idea of privacy. The question all of this begs is obvious: What does the decline of the age of print entail for the idea of privacy? What happens when we enter what McLuhan called the “electric age” and Ong called the age of “secondary orality,” or what we might now call the “digital age”?

McLuhan and Ong seemed to think that the notion of privacy would be radically reconfigured, if not abandoned altogether. One could easily read the rise of social media as further evidence in defense of their conclusion. The public/private divide has been endlessly blurred. Sharing and disclosure is expected. So much so that those who do not acquiesce to the regime of voluntary and pervasive self-disclosure raise suspicions and may be judged sociopathic.

Perhaps, then, privacy is a habit of thought we may have fallen out of. This possibility was explored in an extreme fashion by Josh Harris, the dot-com era Internet pioneer who subjected himself, and willing others, to unblinking surveillance. The experiment in prophetic sociology was documented by director Ondi Timoner in the film We Live in Public.

The film is offered as a cautionary tale. Harris suffered an emotional and mental breakdown as a consequences of his experimental life. On the film’s website, Timoner added this about Harris’ girlfriend who had enthusiastically signed up for the project:  “She just couldn’t be intimate in public. And I think that’s one of the important lessons in life; the Internet, as wonderful as it is, is not an intimate medium. It’s just not. If you want to keep something intimate and if you want to keep something sacred, you probably shouldn’t post it.”

This caught my attention because it introduced the idea of intimacy rather than, or in addition to, that of privacy. As Solove argued in the piece mentioned above, we eliminate the rich complexity of all that is gathered under the idea of privacy when we reduce it to secrecy or the ability to conceal socially marginalized behaviors. Privacy, as Timoner suggests, can also be understood as the pre-condition of intimacy, and, just to be clear, this should be understood as more than mere sexual intimacy.

The reduction of intimacy to sexuality recalls the popular mis-reading of the Fall narrative in the Hebrew Bible. The description of the Edenic paradise concludes – unexpectedly until familiarity has taught you to expect it – with the narrator’s passing observation that the primordial pair where naked and unashamed. A comment on sexual innocence, perhaps, but much more I think. It spoke to a radical and fearless transparency born of pure guilelessness. The innocence was total and so, then, was the openness and intimacy.

Of course, the point of the story is to set up the next tragic scene in which innocence is lost and the immediate instinct is to cover their nakedness. Total transparency is now experienced as total vulnerability, and this is the world in which we live. Intimacy of every kind is no longer a given. It must emerge alongside hard-earned trust, heroic acts of forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. And perhaps with this realization we run up against the challenge of our digital self-publicity and the risks posed by perpetual surveillance. The space for a full-fledged flourishing of the human person is being both surrendered and withdrawn. The voluntarily and involuntarily public self, is a self that operates under conditions which undermine the possibility of its own well-being.

But, this is also why I believe Bady is on to something when he writes, “Privacy has a surprising resilience: always being killed, it never quite dies.” It is why I’m not convinced that we could entirely reduce all that is entailed in the notion of privacy to a function of print literacy. If something that answers to the name of privacy is a condition of our human flourishing in our decidedly un-Edenic condition, then one hopes we will not relinquish it entirely to either the imperatives of digital culture or the machinations of the state. It is, admittedly, a tempered hope.

Marcel Jousse: Forgotten Pioneer of Media Studies

Marcell Jousse was a pioneering scholar of gesture and orality. He was a younger contemporary and student of Marcel Mauss. During the inter-war years, he published a series of seminal studies on orality and gesture that garnered wide spread recognition. The publication of his first book in 1925, The Rhythmic and Mnemotechnical Oral Style of the Verbo-motors, caused an immediate sensation and earned him a series of prestigious posts in Paris, including a stint at the Sorbonne. However, shortly after his death in 1961, Jousse’s work fell into relative obscurity. Because his work is only recently finding its way into English translation, thanks largely to the efforts of Edgard Richard Sienaert, he is little known in the English-speaking world. (To get a feel for how little known, take a look at his Wikipedia page). But his work did not escape notice altogether. It features prominently in Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Ong advanced a simple, yet profound thesis: “writing restructures consciousness.” As Ong traced the antecedents of his thesis, which was largely the synthesis of a substantial body of existing work, he acknowledged a debt to Jousse’s distinction, based on his rural upbringing and extensive field work in the Middle East, between “oral composition” and “written composition.” Further on, Ong succinctly summarized Jousse’s larger theoretical framework:

“Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall, even physiologically. Jousse has shown the intimate linkage between rhythmic oral patterns, the breathing process, gesture, and the bilateral symmetry of the human body in ancient Aramaic and Hellenic targums …”

Ong also deployed Jousse’s formulation, verbomotor, to designate cultures that “retain enough oral residue to remain significantly word-attentive in a person-interactive context (the oral type of context) rather than object-attentive.” It may not be entirey unreasonable to suggest that Ong’s work is in large part an elaboration of Jousse’s research. And, while I haven’t done the research to confirm this, I’m willing to bet that somewhere along the line he played part in the thought of Marshall McLuhan.

Not unlike McLuhan, Jousse’s method and writing was controversial, and in some respects ahead of his time. Here is Sienaert’s description of his fist book which was at the time was termed “The Jousse Bomb” (I’m not making that up):

“The Oral Style is a most unusual book. Jousse had read some five thousand books from a bewildering variety of disciplines. From these, he selected five hundred pertinent to his topic, and from them he chose extracts which reflected in some way his observations, which he linked by his own bracketed words, sentences and paragraphs. He thus recycled old materials, building a new house from old bricks, following his own research injunction: The aim of research is to quest for and discover fresh insights and under­standing. But how can we discover something fresh and new when it appears as if all has already been discovered? By the incessant, meticulous and de­tailed scrutiny of the Old.”

Ivan Illich also drew on Jousse in his study of medieval cultures of reading, In the Vineyard of the Text. Illich was particularly impressed by Jousse’s work on psychomotor reading techniques employed in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic settings. Memorization in these contexts was construed as a fully embodied rather than strictly mental activity. Illich noted that the content of sacred texts was memorized “through careful attention paid to the psychomotor nerve impulses which accompany the sentences being learned.” In Koranic and Jewish schools, students read aloud as they swayed and rocked back and forth and in this way were able to later “re-evoke” the text through the activation of those same body movements. In this analysis, Illich is explicitly drawing on research conducted by Jousse:

“Marcel Jousse has studied these psychomotor techniques of fixing a spoken sequence in the flesh. He has shown that for many people, remembrance means the triggering of a well-established sequence of muscular patterns to which the utterances are tied. When the child is rocked during a cradle song, when the reapers bow to the rhythm of a harvest song, when the rabbi shakes his head while he prays or searches for the right answer, or when the proverb comes to mind only upon tapping for a while — according to Jousse, these are just a few examples of a widespread linkage of utterance and gesture. Each culture has given its own form to this bilateral, dissymmetric complementarity by which sayings are graven right and left, forward and backward into trunk and limbs, rather than just into the ear and the eye.”

Ong’s and Illich’s concerns overlap with, but do not encompass the scope of Jousse’s ambitious anthropological project. Jousse developed a cosmological, mimetic theory of human communication. The universe, according to Jousse, impresses itself upon human beings. In fact, it impresses itself on all objects and organisms. The whole of reality is acting and acted upon. Human beings, however, not only receive this impression; they also act out the impression they have received, and this acting out is originally gestural. Sienaert summarizes:

“Man thus first relates to the world which imposes upon him the play of actual experiences. But this is not a passive process: on reception of reality, man is also animated by an energy that is released and that makes him react in the form of gestures.”

Moreover, human beings are uniquely capable of not only responding in their gestures to the impressions of reality, they are capable of re-playing or re-presenting those impressions. In other words, they can remember, they have memories. And before the advent of language, these memories were carried in the body. The transition from gestural to spoken language marks, in Jousse’s view, the transition from anthropology to ethnology. Generic humanity is particularized through the conventional language into which they are socialized.

Yet, even after this transition, the gestural foundations of communication and response to the universe remain embedded in the human being. These underlying structuring principles reveal themselves in what Jousse termed “the oral style.” The oral style is encapsulated in three laws summarized as follows by Sienaert:

1. Le rythmo-mimisme: the law of rhythmo-mimicry. Man is a mimic, he receives, registers, plays, and replays his actual experiences; as movement is possible in sequence only, mimicry is necessarily linked with rhythm.

2. Le bilatéralisme: the law of bilateralism. Man can only express himself in accordance with his physical structure which is bilateral—left and right, up and down, back and forth—and like his global and manual expression, his verbal expression will tend to be bilateral, to balance symmetrically, following a physical and physiological need for equilibrium …

3. Le formulisme: the law of formulism. The biological tendency towards the stereotyping of gestures creates habit, which ensures immediate, easy and sure replay; it is a facilitating psycho-physiological device as it organizes the intussusceptions and the mnesic replay in automatisms—acquired devices necessary to a firm basis for action …

In formulating these laws, based on his study of oral cultures, Jousse came strikingly close to the most prominent contours of the phenomenological account of the body’s role in human perception developed independently by the tradition of thought spanning Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These laws, in other words, may be understood to govern not only verbal expression, but also embodied experience as a whole.

Oral Social Literacy, Past and Present

Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text is an exploration of the evolution of reading and the book in Western Europe during the 13th century. It is focused on Hugh of St. Victor and a well-known work of his titled the Didascalicon, essentially the first guide to the art of reading.

Illich notes, “Before Hugh’s generation, the book is a record of the author’s speech or dictation. After Hugh, increasingly it becomes a repertory of the author’s thought, a screen onto which one projects still unvoiced intentions.”

Illich early on acknowledges his debt to Walter Ong who synthesized a great deal of research on the cultural consequences of the shift from orality to literacy (and later to what Ong called the secondary orality of electronic media).

What is sometimes lost in this schema is the persistence of orality after the emergence of literacy. And not only in the sense that oral cultures existed alongside literate ones, but also in the persistence of orality within literate societies.

A full 1500 years after literacy was effectively internalized into Western society (which is not the same thing as saying that all of those living in Western society were literate), reading remained a fundamentally oral activity. The quotation from Illich above is drawn from a chapter titled, “Recorded Speech to Record of Thought.” That title nicely captures the degree to which writing was understood as a record of oral communication rather than its own distinct medium prior to the period Illich examined.

Here is Illich again on the orality (and corporeality) of literacy through the late medieval period:

“In a tradition of one and a half millennia, the sounding pages are echoed by the resonance  of the moving lips and tongue.  The reader’s ears pay attention, and strain to catch what the reader’s mouth gives forth.  In this manner the sequence of letters translates directly into body movements and patterns nerve impulses.  The lines are a sound track picked up by the mouth and voiced by the reader for his own ear.  By reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.”

And here again on the oral and social nature of reading:

“The monastic reader — chanter or mumbler — picks the words from the lines and creates a public social auditory ambience. All those who, with the reader, are immersed in this hearing milieu are equals before the sound … Fifty years after Hugh, typically, this was no longer true. The technical activity of deciphering no longer creates an auditory and, therefore, a social space. The reader then flips through pages. His eyes mirror the two-dimensional page. Soon he will conceive of his own mind in analogy with a manuscript. Reading will become an individualistic activity, intercourse between a self and a page.”

As I read these passages again today, I was reminded of an essay that appeared not too long ago in the Wall Street Journal. In “Is This the Future of Punctuation?”, Henry Hitchings, the author of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, makes the following observation about new proposed punctuations marks such as the  interrobang:

“Such marks are symptoms of an increasing tendency to punctuate for rhetorical rather than grammatical effect. Instead of presenting syntactical and logical relationships, punctuation reproduces the patterns of speech.”

The emergence of telephony, radio, and television marked the re-emergence of orality following the era of print literacy’s dominance. Ong called this secondary orality. Having appeared after literacy, it was not identical to primary orality, but it nonetheless represented a reemergence of orality and its habits which would now compete with literacy on the cultural stage.

Within the last twenty years, however, a funny thing has happened on the way to the world of secondary orality. Writing or text has reasserted itself. Text messaging, emails, online reading, e-reading, etc. — all of these together mean that most of us are deciphering of a lot of text each day. Even our television screens, depending on what we are watching, may be chock full of text, scrolling or otherwise.

But this reemergence of text is marked by orality, as the observation by Hitchings suggests. Can we call this secondary literacy? Is it still useful to speak in terms of literacy and orality?

It has always seemed to me that the orality/literacy distinction got at important historical developments in communication and consciousness. The bare dichotomy glossed over a good deal and it was always in need of qualification, but it was serviceable nonetheless. Secondary orality also pointed to important developments. But now what we appear to have, text having reasserted itself, is a thoroughly blended media environment.

It’s chief characteristic is neither its orality nor its literacy. Rather, it is the preponderance of both together — overlapping, interpenetrating, jostling, complementing, conflating.

Interestingly, there has also been, of course, a reemergence of social literacy, but it is not tied to the oral as it was in the circumstances described by Illich above. Rather than an orally constituted literate social anchored to physical presence, we have a diffused literacy based, image-inflected social often untethered from physical presence.

A social space was, then, constituted by an oral performance of the written text and gathered presences. We have, today, spaces constituted as social by silent reading and the presence of absences.

File all of this under “thinking aloud.” (Except, of course, that it wasn’t!)