Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

  1. Greg Knepp says:

    “All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music”…perhaps, but the visual arts are ever encumbered by the fact that vision – eyesight – is the primary sense when it comes to human survival. All arboreal creatures and their descendants rely mostly on their eyes. A monkey bouncing about the forest canopy needs keen color vision to separate the ripe fruit from the confusing visual jumble of wind-driven flora before him. And his depth perception must be spot on, lest he miss his mark whilst leaping from limb to limb, and end up as monkey pizza on the jungle floor.

    For humans, evolution has left the heavy survival lifting to the eyes; has allowed the auditory sense, crucial as it may be, plenty of room to entertain sound for the mere joy of sound, and to be abstracted into endless contrived variations in the form we call music. And with rare exception (for example, the storm in Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ or the cannon fire in Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’) music is almost always abstract, and can therefore ignore the rational, and drive directly to the emotional core of the listener. This is true even when accompanied by lyrics (how often we remember a song’s tune long after we’ve forgotten the words).On the other hand, so-called ‘Abstract Expressionism’ and its bedfellows comprise a silly pimple on the vast body of visual art – a passing juvenile rebellion to the emergence of photography. Indeed, the burden on the visual arts to be descriptive, even informative, has been immense.

    Language? Yes, that became sound-based early on. But it wasn’t until writing – a visual form – that language dramatically changed the very social and material configuration of the species. As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words”…and sometimes IS a thousand words.

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