Ong’s Orality and Literacy Visualized

I’ve mentioned Walter Ong more than a few times in previous posts.  He’s best known for a little book titled Orality and Literacy in which he argues that transitions from oral to literate to secondary oral cultures (marked respectively by the development of alphabetic technology and electronic communication) have effected transformations in human consciousness. It is something of a testament to Ong’s enduring influence, he passed away in 2003, that I’ve been assigned his work in three separate graduate courses.

In the event that it may be of interest to someone out there, here is a visualization I put together using Prezi of Ong’s argument (supplemented by some additional information).  Once you’ve clicked over to the site, click the forward arrow to move through the presentation.

The Kings’ Speeches

Driving home yesterday I caught Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” being replayed on NPR.  It is, as everyone who has listened to the speech knows, a moving experience.  It is also an experience that is mostly lost to our time.  It is relic of a different age, a different world.  One can hardly imagine a contemporary public speaker, particularly in a political context, striking the same cadence and intonation as Dr. King.

Two reasons initially came to mind.  On the one hand, we make a virtue out of ironic detachment and we have internalized the hermeneutic of suspicion.  We cannot take seriously anyone who takes themselves seriously enough to speak with moral authority.  On the other hand, and this is just the other side of the same coin, there appear to be no public figures who in fact have the requisite moral authority.  Chicken and the egg, Catch-22 …

I was also reminded that upon the passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd not long ago it was noted that a rhetorical style died with him.  Different in so many ways, Dr. King and Senator Byrd came from a shared rhetorical world, one that united them and separates both of them from us.

Serendipitously, I also watched The King’s Speech later that evening — a felicitous coincidence given the thoughts I was already entertaining about speeches and notably another King’s speech.   The film features Colin Firth brilliantly playing King George VI of England who must struggle to overcome a stammer in his speech on the eve of the Second World War with the help of a speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush.  It was impossible to miss the significance given to oratory, and the film makes a point of connecting this significance with the advent of radio.  The film reminds us of this visually by prominently and frequently drawing our eyes to the microphones, receivers, and other accouterments of radio from the era.  But the connection is made explicit by the King George V, the imposing father figure, who notes that in times past the nobility and royalty could get by by merely looking the part.  Thanks to the wireless, they must now speak the part too.

Thinking about both K/kings and their speeches also coincided with rereading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy in which Ong lays out the momentous cultural consequences of literacy.  Ong argues that the introduction of alphabet technology radically restructured consciousness and society.  He goes on to identify three related transitions: from oral to literate culture with the invention of the alphabet, the amplification of that transition with the coming of the printing press, and the onset of what Ong calls secondary orality resulting from the appearance of electronic media that immerses us again in an economy of sound. Ong died before he could extend his analysis into the digital age, but his work certainly helps us think more clearly about our present media developments.

Noting the transitions from orality to literacy and then on to secondary orality also helps us make sense of the rhetorical worlds inhabited by MLK, George VI, and Robert C. Byrd.  Each was shaped by rhetorical traditions that were in turn formed by cultural, religious, political, and technological factors that placed great store by the spoken word and the word spoken in a particular style.  There are differences among them, no doubt, but those differences pale in comparison to the difference between all of them and those for whom they are all just pictures in a history book or images/sounds on Youtube.

Finally, and at the expense of oversimplifying matters, it is always interesting to ask what different media require from public figures.  The age of the photograph required one to look a certain way, the age of radio required one to sound a certain way, the age of television required one to both look and sound a certain way (but both were different from what was expected in the age of photographs and radios).

The photograph and radio still traded in the dominant visual and oral norms of the culture into which they were introduced.  Television appears to begin shaping these norms to its own constraints and demands; demands that arise not only from the medium, but also from its dominant revenue model.  Most notably the distance between the public and the public figure is shrinking all the while.  And with this shrinking distance comes the great difficulty we have in investing our public figures with either heroic stature or moral authority.  The digital age seems to proceed along this same trajectory, so that accessibility, informality, immediacy, and ordinariness become for the public figures of our age what high flung oratory and dignified, aloof composure were for an earlier time.

“Reading toward Wisdom”

More from Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text.  Excerpts from the first chapter, “Reading toward Wisdom” (page numbers in parenthesis).  Previous post in the series:  “In the Vineyard of the Text”.

There is a line, whose source I’ve forgotten, that goes something like, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Reading about the past is then a little like visiting a foreign country.  Such visits can teach us a good deal about ourselves by throwing our own habits and patterns of thought into relief against the backdrop of the past.  To recognize our difference from the other is to see ourselves a little more clearly.

And so Illich is our guide on this particular foray into the past and below are some observations that touch on the end or goal of reading, the relationship between reading/learning and character, and the correlation between new forms of reading and new understandings of the self:

  • Omnium expetendorum prima est sapentia.  ‘Of all things to be sought, the first is wisdom.’  This is how Jerome Taylor translates the lead sentence of the Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor, written around 1128.” (7)
  • “Hugh’s writings are drenched in Augustine.  He lived in a community that followed Augustine’s rule.  He read, reread, and copied the texts of his master.  Reading and writing were for him two almost indistinguishable sides of the same studium.” (9)
  • “As with Augustine, wisdom was for Hugh not something but someone.  Wisdom in the Augustinian tradition is the second person of the Trinity, Christ . . . . The wisdom Hugh seeks is Christ himself.  Learning and, specifically, reading, are both simply forms of a search for Christ the Remedy, Christ the Example and Form which fallen humanity, which has lost it, hopes to recover.  The need of fallen humanity for reunion with wisdom is central to Hugh’s thought.  This makes the concept of remedium, remedy or medicine, crucial for an understanding of Hugh.”  (10)
  • “Hugh, by developing the concept of remedium, provides for the twentieth-century thinker a unique way to address the issue of technique or technology.  Reading, as Hugh perceives and interprets it, is an ontologically remedial technique.  I intend to explore it as such.  I analyze what Hugh has to say about the techniques used in reading in order to explore the role that alphabetic technology played around 1130 in the shaping of these techniques.”  (11)
  • “I am here concerned primarily with ‘alphabetic technology’ which interacts in a unique, epoch-specific way around 1130 with the northwest European symbolic universe, and how changes in world perception in turn facilitated and oriented the choice of technologies.  In taking this approach to the alphabet as a technology I am indebted to Walter Ong, S. J., Orality and Literacy . . .”  (11, footnote 11)
  • “Authorities, in this now obsolete sense, are sentences which created precedents and defined reality . . . The sentence states an obvious truth precisely because it has been disembedded from the discourse of this or that particular author; it had become a free-floating statement.  As such a verbal institution, the auctorias [sentence worthy of repetition] quoted by Hugh became an exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition.”  (13)
  • “. . . the thought of an ultimate goal of all readings is not meaningful to us.  Even less is there any idea that such a goal could motivate or ’cause’ our action whenever we open a book.  We are steeped in the spirit of engineering and think of the trigger as the cause of a process.  We do not think of the heart as the cause of the bullet’s trajectory . . . . Even more thoroughly, the idea of one first or primary Final Cause, one ultimate motivating reason of all desires that are hidden in the nature of the stone or of the plant or of the reader, has become foreign to our century.  ‘End stage’ in the twentieth-century mental universe connotes death.  Entropy is our ultimate destiny. We experience reality as monocausal.  We know only efficient causes. ”  (13-14)
  • “Studies pursued in a twelfth-century cloister challenged the student’s heart and sense even more than his stamina and brains.  Study did not refer to a liminal epoch of life, as it usually does in modern times, when we say that someone ‘is still a student.’  They encompassed the person’s daily and lifelong routine, his social status, and his symbolic function.” (14-15)
  • “The studium legendi forms the whole monk and reading will become perfect as the monk himself strives for, and finally reaches, perfection.

The beginning of discipline is humility . . . and for the reader there are three lessons taught by humility that are particularly important:  First, that he hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt.  Second, that he not blush to learn from any man.  Third, that when he as attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else.”  (15-16)

  • “The reader is one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.” (17)
  • “That which we mean today when, in ordinary conversation, we speak of the ‘self’ or the ‘individual,’ is one of the great discoveries of the twelfth century . . . .  A social reality in which our kind of self is taken for granted constitutes an eccentricity among cultures . . . .  [Hugh] wants the reader to face the page so that  by the light of wisdom he shall discover his self in the mirror of the parchment.  In the page the reader will acknowledge himself not in the way others see him or by the titles or nicknames by which they call him, but by knowing himself by sight.”  (22-23)
  • “With the spirit of self-definition, estrangement acquires a new positive meaning.  Hugh’s call away from the ‘sweetness of one’s native soil’ and to a journey of self-discovery is but one instance of the new ethos . . . . [that] addresses people at all levels of the feudal hierarchy to leave the common mind-set of the neighborhood, within which identity comes from the way others have named me and treat me, and to discover their selves in the loneliness of the long road . . . . Hugh’s insistence on the need that the scholar be an exile-in-spirit echoes this mood.”  (23)
  • “I am not suggesting that the ‘modern self’ is born in the twelfth century, nor that the self which here emerges does not have a long ancestry.  We today think of each other as people with frontiers.  Our personalities are as detached from each other as are our bodies.  Existence in an inner distance from the community, which the pilgrim who set out to Santiago or the pupil who studied the Didascalicon had to discover on their own, is for us a social reality, something so obvious that we would not think of wishing it away.  We were born into a world of exiles . . . . This existential frontier is of the essence for a person who wants to fit into our kind of world.  Once it has shaped a child’s mental topology, that being will forever be a foreigner in all ‘worlds’ except those integrated by exiles like himself.”
  • “What I want to stress here is a special correspondence between the emergence of selfhood understood as a person and the emergence of ‘the’ text from the page.  Hugh directs his reader to a foreign land.  But he does not ask him to leave his family and accustomed landscape to move on the road from place toward Jerusalem or Santiago.  Rather he demands that he exile himself to start on a pilgrimage that leads through the pages of a book.  He speaks of the Ultimate which should attract the pilgrim, not as the celestial city for pilgrims of the staff, but as the form of Supreme Goodness which motivates the pilgrims of the pen.  He points out that on this road the reader is on his way into the light which will reveal his own self to him.”

Walter Ong on Orality and Literacy

Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is something of a classic. It explores the changes in consciousness that have been wrought by the introduction of literacy and then print into human culture. The changes, according to Ong, have been momentous.

As I read Ong, I kept having what I will call Ong-moments. These are moments when one of his observations or arguments appears immediately useful in making sense of some phenomenon or is otherwise existentially reinforced by a certain experience.

In conversation with my wife a thought crystallizes; I quickly reach for something to write a quick summary of my thought before it evaporates, possibly never to be recaptured (31). How many thoughts and ideas are lost in oral cultures because there is no effective way of recording them?

Just now, I switch out a second use of “immediately” in favor of “quickly” in order to avoid redundancy (40). Redundancy was an accepted feature of oral cultures because there were simply fewer available words. Oral cultures operate with a vocabulary of roughly a few thousand words, while written English features well over a million words. Redundancy also functioned as an aide to memory in the absence of writing.

With each line I sense the agonizing quality of writing with no “real” audience (102). Oral discourse is always in the context of some real audience (notice how even the word audience is rooted in hearing). Writing is always for an absent audience (etymologically the word no longer works), and perhaps even an unknown audience. Furthermore, writing is deprived of all of the contextual aides to meaning provided by nonverbal communication and thus must develop an extreme precision to achieve clarity of meaning apart from these aides.

While reading Orality and Literacy I was struck by the concept of secondary orality (11, 136-138). Secondary orality describes a return to orality brought about primarily by the advent of radio and television. Because I am a teacher, my first thoughts turned to the question of how useful this category may be for understanding or contextualizing much of what teachers struggle against in their classrooms — shrinking vocabularies, choppy grammar, a seeming inability to reason through a problem, agonistic relationships, difficulty expressing thoughts and emotions, and the struggle to sustain attention, to name just a few. At some level, these seem to be characteristics of secondary orality. They are not necessarily the result of some innate deficiency in the students, nor are they necessarily the manifestations of laziness or apathy; rather they are the marks of those who have been shaped more by secondary orality than by print literacy. Too many of my students unashamedly report never having read a book.  They read other sorts of texts, but many are not at all familiar with the experience of sustained, solitary, silent reading.

On a slightly different but related note, if privacy is a concept or habit that flows out of a print culture and the isolation of private reading (among other factors), then does the distinction between the private and public necessarily evaporate in a society that has transitioned into secondary orality (130-131)? Is secondary orality behind the transition from diaries kept under lock and key to blogs published for the world to read? Critics point to blogs and social networking sites as products of narcissistic and self-absorbed selves. Perhaps so, but are they also features of selves no longer operating with the private/public categories fostered by print literacy?

You can read more about Ong at the Walter J. Ong Archive maintained by St. Louis University where Ong taught for over 3o years.