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!)

“I Was Born To Stand Outside Myself”

Last summer I posted a few thoughts on Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War which I had then begun reading. As it turned out, I set the book aside for a few months for no particular reason, but I’ve recently returned to it and finished it. I stand by my initial characterization: the novel is a meditation on beauty, and a lovely one at that.

Near the end, the main character, Alessandro, meets up with a talented, intelligent, articulate man named Arturo who is nonetheless thoroughly unsuccessful and unaccomplished. In conversation with Alessandro, Arturo sums up his life thus: “I was born to stand outside myself.”

This struck me as a remarkably evocative line. Now I confess that I’m going to take this in a direction that Helprin neither intended nor imagined. That said, the line immediately suggested to me the manner in which we are made to virtually stand beside ourselves in our (social) media environment.

There are perhaps two senses in which this is true. I’m thinking of the way that our social media profiles stand beside us in a rather apprehensible manner. We can look at them, manipulate them, experience them; they are us but not us. In this sense, I’m still inclined to think of our social media profiles as virtual memory theaters, at least in part.

The other sense is the manner in which the presence of our second self impinges upon our lived experience. We not only stand beside our past self as it is represented online, we also stand beside our potential future self as it will be represented online. This other potential self haunts our present from the future. Several months ago I posted a synopsis of Michel de Certeau’s observations about the way the past layers over certain places and haunts them. Places capture memories and those places cannot be divorced from those memories in lived experience. Perhaps if he were alive today, de Certeau would suggest that the future as well as the past now haunts our present. We live with our virtual memory theaters and we live with future memories as well. We are born to stand beside ourselves, actual and potential. And, perhaps most significantly, the potential self we live with is imagined within the constraints of the platform through which it will represented.

On this latter point, I would also point you to Nathan Jurgenson’s fine essay reprinted in The Atlantic: “The Facebook Eye.”

It does occur to me that this standing beside ourselves did not itself emerge with the advent of social media. One could argue that it is a function of all representation. Certainly it is a feature of writing itself. Walter Ong made much of the way in which literacy alienates. Among the many separations effected by writing Ong includes the separation of the known from the knower, the past from the present, and being from time.

So we might conclude that social media only augments a long standing trajectory. But my sense, as it often is with efforts to situate present phenomena within a historical trajectory, is that this threatens to miss the significance of present developments. Changes of degree may amount to changes in kind. As I’ve heard it put somewhere or other, a hurricane is not merely an unusually strong breeze.

Social media, and the technological ecosystem on which it depends, radically augments the alienation of writing if only by its mere ubiquity. But perhaps more importantly, it does so by making our second self that stands beside us also a public self that presents itself to a myriad of others. It’s the difference between an old-school diary and your Facebook profile. It is no small difference and we are all in the process of sorting out the personal and social consequences.

De Certeau concluded that “haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Walter Ong was also sanguine about the alienations wrought by writing:

“To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it . . . By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.  Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for fuller human life.  To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.  This writing provides for, thereby accelerating the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does.”

Now the question is whether the standing beside ourselves effected by social media will carry similarly salubrious consequences. Discuss amongst yourselves. Here’s the prompt to get you going: Has social media continued to accelerate the evolution of consciousness or self-consciousness? Is there a difference?

Training Perecption, Awakening to Experience

The challenge of McLuhan’s work, both in the sense that it is challenging to read and that it lays down a challenge to be taken up, involves the difficulty of thinking about that which shapes our thinking — it is akin to attempting to jump over your own shadow.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of his method, perplexing and infuriating as it could be, seems designed to coax readers over their shadows, to become aware of how their thinking has been formed by the media environment.  Biographer W. Terrence Gordon, citing McLuhan’s own description of his teachers at Cambridge, gets at this when he writes, “There could be no more succinct statement of his own aims, as he left Cambridge to begin a teaching career, than ‘the training of perception.'”

Later on, Gordon cites a letter to Mrs. Pound in which McLuhan writes, “The appeal must be to the young … they have been systematically deprived of all the linguistic tools by which they could nourish their own perceptions at first hand at the usual traditional sources.”

Walter Ong, a former student of McLuhan’s and outstanding scholar in his own right, classified teachers as follows:

A good teacher is one who can encourage others to think actively.  A superior teacher can make the thinking pleasant for the learners. A superb teacher can make the thinking an overpowering activity, delightful even when it is disturbing and exhausting.

“By this criteria,” Ong went on, “Marshall McLuhan was a superb teacher who could stir people’s minds.”  Ong also noted that, “… even with the most brilliant teacher, if the learners are to do any learning, they are the ones who have to do it.”

Putting all of this together yields, in my estimation, the nature of McLuhan’s enduring significance.  In one respect he may be likened to the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s illustration who knows one big thing — changes in media environments change the way we think and the way we experience life.  But he was also a little like the fox who knows many things in that he approached the one big idea from countless angles and drawing promiscuously from the whole of experience.

As some have noted in taking the measure of McLuhan, he drove that one idea home so well that he rendered his work superfluous.  But this is not quite right.  While others have perhaps done a better job of articulating and systematizing the big idea, they have perhaps also domesticated it.  Knowledge has been imparted, but perceptions have not been trained.  Ironically, this may be attributed to a lack of sensitivity to the medium, i.e. McLuhan’s method.

McLuhan understood, as Ong put it, that if learners are too learn anything they are the ones who will have to do it.  All of the probes, the paradoxes, the gnomic statements, the quirkiness, the esotericisms, the inconsistencies, the absurdities, the juxtapositions, the koanish assertions, the puns — all of it aimed at drawing out the work of learning from the learner in such a way that their perceptions would be trained.  Simply clarifying the big idea, extracting and re-presenting the kernel of the thought only captured the data, it did not train perceptions, it did not heighten sensibilities, it did not lead to practical wisdom.  In the end it may very well darken and numb perception.

This insistence on the training of perception, fully embodied perception involving the whole human sensorium, may have been McLuhan’s chief contribution.  Perceiving the world, which is to say being alive to the world, is not a given and much less so in certain media environments.  McLuhan as a teacher seems bent on awakening us to experience; agitating, provoking, inciting us to perceive.  That is no small thing when some degree of variously imposed numbness becomes the cultural default.

“It’s like, you know … the end of print disciplined speech?”

In “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness,” Clark Whelton takes aim at what he calls “the linguistic virus that infected spoken language in the late twentieth century” — vagueness.  Here’s the opening example:

I recently watched a television program in which a woman described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard. “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” She rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. All the while, however, she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Whelton began noticing increasingly aberrant speech patterns in prospective interns for New York City mayor Edward Koch’s speech writing staff.  “Like,” “you know,” “like, you know,” along with non-committal interrogative tones particularly distressed Whelton.  He goes on to add,

Undergraduates … seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite.

Whelton comes closest to the true nature of the situation here, but I think there is an important consideration that is missing.  I’m inclined to think that the sorts of language patterns Whelton criticizes reflect a reversion to language environments that are more oral in nature than they are literate (a situation that Walter Ong called secondary orality).

The cadences and syntax of “high,” “correct,” “proper,” etc. English are a product of writing in general and intensified by print; they are not a necessary function of spoken language itself which is ordinarily much more chaotic.  Writing is removed from the holistic context that helps give face-to-face communication its meaning.  To compensate writing must work hard to achieve clarity and precision since the words themselves bear the burden of conveying the whole of the meaning.  Oral communication can tolerate vagueness in words and syntax because it can rely on intonation, volume, inflection, and other non-verbal cues to supply meaning. As an experiment try transcribing anyone of your countless verbal exchanges and note the sometimes startling difference between spoken language and written language.

Where print monopolizes communication, the patterns of written speech begin to discipline spoken language. “Vague” talk then may be characteristic of those whose speech patterns, because they have been formed in a world in which print’s monopoly has been broken, have not been so disciplined by print literacy.

Interestingly, new media is often quite “print-ish,” that is text isolated from sound — emails, text messaging, Twitter, blogs, Facebook (although with images there) — and this has required the invention of a system of signs aimed at taming the inherent “vagueness” of written communication that is restricted in length and thus not given the freedom to compensate for the loss of non-verbal and auditory cues with precise syntax and copious language.  : )

Memory, Writing, Alienation

Some more reflections in interaction with Walter Ong’s work, this time an essay originally published in The Written Word: Literacy in Transition (Oxford, 1986) titled “Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought.”

Literacy does its work of transformation by restructuring the cultural and personal economy of memory and installing a self-alienation at the heart of literate identity.

The world of orality is fundamentally evanescent.  Spoken words themselves have begun to pass out of existence before they are fully formed by the speaker’s mouth.  The spoken word is in this way a telling image of oral society; each generation is always already fading into the unremembered past as it inhabits the present.  The accumulated knowledge and wisdom of an oral society exists only as it is remembered by individuals so that each member of the group shares in the cognitive burden of sustaining and transmitting the group’s cultural inheritance.  This work of memory preoccupies the cultural life of oral societies and configures the individual as a node within a network of cultural remembering.  Oral society is thus fundamentally conservative and collective.

Writing disrupts and rearranges this situation by offloading, to a significant degree, the cognitive burden of remembering from the living memory of each individual to the written word.  This work of cognitive offloading generates recurring debates, as we first encounter in Plato, about the proper modes of memory.  These debates reflect the (often unrecognized) force with which new mnenotechnologies impact a society.  As Ong notes, the frozen, lifeless written word is in another, paradoxical sense alive.  It achieves permanence and is “resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers.”  Furthermore, the “lifeless” written word, by both resourcing and reconfiguring the economy of memory, also injects a new dynamism into literate cultures. It does so by relieving the conservative pressure of cultural remembrance thus encouraging what we might call intellectual entrepreneurship.

This new dynamism is, however, accompanied by various forms of alienation.  Crucially, writing dislodges a portion of one’s memory, a critical aspect of identity, from oneself.  To the extent that identity is constituted by memory, identity must be, to some extent, divided in literate societies.  Ong details the alienating work of writing when he lists fourteen instances of separation effected by writing:

1. Writing separates the known from the knower

2. Writing separates interpretation from data

3. Writing distances the word from sound

4. Writing distances the source of communication from the recipient

5. Writing distances the word from the context of lived experience

6. Due to 5., writing enforces verbal precision unavailable in oral cultures.  (In other words, without the context provided by face-to-face communication, words have to work harder in writing to make meaning clear.  This is why we sometimes feel compelled to use smiley faces in electronic communication — to communicate tone.)

7. Writing separates past from present.

8. Writing separates administration — civil, religious, commercial — from other types of social activities.

9. Writing makes it possible to separate logic from rhetoric.

10. Writing separates academic learning from wisdom.

11. Writing can divide society by splitting verbal communication between a “high” spoken language controlled by writing and a “low” controlled by speech.  (For example, “proper” English is really “written” English, while devalued vulgar and colloquial speech patterns are “spoken” English.)

12. Writing differentiates grapholects, dialect taken over by writing and made into a national language, from other local dialects

13. Writing divides more evidently and effectively as its form becomes more abstract, that is more removed from the world of sound to the world of sight.

14. Writing separates being from time.

By making thought (and so also the self) present to itself, literacy introduces an irreparable fissure into identity and consciousness, but one that is, in Ong’s account, ultimately “humanizing.”  Last word from Ong:

To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it . . . By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.  Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for fuller human life.  To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.  This writing provides for, thereby accelerating the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does.