Reading: Orality and Literacy

Ong, Walter (2002). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 2nd ed. London & New York: Routledge.

I first read Ong’s book back in graduate school, in Charlie Moran’s “Writing and Emergent Technologies” course (in 2004!). Ong wasn’t on the syllabus, but rather on a list of books from which we were to choose one to review. I can’t remember why I selected Ong, but I do remember my response to the book: I liked it. Ong’s claims about the differences between oral and print consciousness and culture were a bit of a revelation. I also remember Charlie’s response to my enthusiasm: he encouraged it, but also stressed that Ong had been accused of technological determinism. Looking at one of Ong’s chapter titles now, “Writing Restructures Consciousness,” I can see how he frames psychological and cultural changes less as a back-and-forth between people and technologies, more as driven by technologies. Despite this, Ong’s book fits for me in a category with Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change and Gunther Kress’ “Gains and Losses”: despite their problems, these texts make a compelling case. They threw open a window, enabling subsequent academics to come along and adjust the argument into something more temperate.

I reread Ong a few weeks back to see if he might fit on my NMS 504: Text and Image syllabus. Like many canonical new media readings (e.g., Manovich, Bolter and Grusin), I could imagine he’d fit as well or perhaps better on other of our core course syllabi, especially New Media/Old Media, and perhaps the Proseminar. One of the aims of Text and Image is to defamiliarize print so that students can see it as more than a transparent container for or conveyor of information. We talk about the history and particular affordances of print (Kress, with counterpoint by Wysocki), as well as how it can carry meaning and be a design element, when used in combination with images (Schriver and Lupton, respectively). We consider the status of text in the digital age, too (Lanham; and likely also a bit of Goldsmith this upcoming quarter). My memory of Ong was that he might help with this defamiliarization of text, primarily by reminding us that text did not always exist, and that with its development came new expressive and communicative possibilities.

The chapter that I enjoyed most in this reading was “Some Psychodynamics of Orality.” Ong makes a bunch of provocative generalizations in the chapter about oral thought and expression, often contrasting these to thought and expression in the print age: oral thought and expression are—and I’m using Ong’s language directly in this list—additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic; redundant or copious; conservative or traditionalist; close to the human lifeworld; agonistically toned; empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced; homeostatic; situational rather than abstract. The arrival of writing, in Ong’s words, “transformed” both individual consciousness and collective cultures.

Another point that resonated from Ong is that what we may take to be universal qualities of ‘good literature’ are actually quite tied to the dominant technologies available to those composing (he draws heavily on Milman Parry and Eric Havelock to make this point). Detective story plots and Raymond Carver-sized characters would simply not work in the oral era. When stories were spoken, they needed repetition, episodic plots, and memorable characters, without which they’d be not only hard (or impossible) to tell, but also quickly forgotten. The natural question that stems from this train of thought is how the digital age might render what we now understand as “literary writing” to seem similarly tied to the possibilities of print text. One point Ong did make is that “oral habits of thought and expression” (p. 26)—e.g., formulaic, episodic plots and memorable characters—dominated literature for thousands of years after the arrival of writing technologies. That is, sensibilities are slow to change.

Ong probably won’t make the cut onto my Text and Image syllabus—the course is primarily about composing with text and image, and because we must cover a good bit of design theory (e.g., typography, layout, color) I choose historical and critical texts quite carefully. But Ong would fit well in our New Media/Old Media course, which centers more on the cultural evolution and implications of particular technologies.