The Chirographic Mind (redux)

Posted: March 25, 2021 in Cognition, Consciousness, Culture, Media, Nomenclature, Science
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Wanted to provide an update to the previous post in my book-blogging project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy to correct something that wasn’t clear to me at first. The term chirographic refers to writing, but I conflated writing more generally with literacy. Ong actually distinguishes chirographic (writing) from typographic (type or print) and includes another category: electronic media.

Jack Goody … has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called ‘prelogical’ to the more and more ‘rational’ state of consciousness, or from Lévi-Strauss’s ‘savage’ mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy … Marshall McLuhan’s … cardinal gnomic saying, ‘The medium is the message’, registered his acute awareness of the importance of the shift from orality through literacy and print to electronic media. [pp. 28–29]

So the book’s primary contrast is between orality and literacy, but literacy has a sequence of historical developments: chirographic, typographic, and electronic media. These stages are not used interchangeably by Ong. Indeed, they exist simultaneously in the modern world and all contribute to overall literacy while each possesses unique characteristics. For instance, reading from handwriting (printing or cursive, the latter far less widely used now except for signatures) is different from reading from print on paper or on the screen. Further, writing by hand, typing on a typewriter, typing into a word-processor, and composing text on a smartphone each has its effects on mental processes and outputs. Ong also mentions remnants of orality that have not yet been fully extinguished. So the exact mindset or style of consciousness derived from orality vs. literacy is neither fixed nor established universally but contains aspects from each category and subcategory.

Ong also takes a swing at Julian Jaynes. Considering that Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1977) (see this overview) was published only seven years prior to Orality and Literacy (1982), the impact of Jaynes’ thesis must have still been felt quite strongly (as it is now among some thinkers). Yet Ong disposes of Jaynes rather parsimoniously, stating

… if attention to sophisticated orality-literacy contrasts is growing in some circles, it is still relatively rare in many fields where it could be helpful. For example, the early and late stages of consciousness which Julian Jaynes (1977) describes and related to neuro-physiological changes to the bicameral mind would also appear to lend themselves largely to much simpler and more verifiable descriptions in terms of a shift from orality to literacy. [p. 29]

In light of the details above, it’s probably not accurate to say (as I did before) that we are returning to orality from literacy. Rather, the synthesis of characteristics is shifting, as it always has, in relation to new stimuli and media. Since the advent of cinema and TV — the first screens, now supplemented by the computer and smartphone — the way humans consume information is undergoing yet another shift. Or perhaps it’s better to conclude that it’s always been shifting, not unlike how we have always been and are still evolving, though the timescales are usually too slow to observe without specialized training and analysis. Shifts in consciousness arguably occur far more quickly than biological evolution, and the rate at which new superstimuli are introduced into the information environment suggest radical discontinuity with even the recent past — something that used to be call the generation gap.

I’ve always wondered what media theorists such as McLuhan (d. 1980), Neil Postman (d. 2003), and now Ong (d. 2003) would make of the 21st century had they lived long enough to witness what has been happening, with 2014–2015 being the significant inflection point according to Jonathan Haidt. (No doubt there are other media theorists working on this issue who have not risen to my attention.) Numerous other analyses point instead to the early 20th century as the era when industrial civilization harnessed fossil fuels and turned the mechanisms and technologies of innovators decidedly against humanity. Pick your branching point.

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