Posts Tagged ‘Literacy’

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?

I’ve been holding in mind for five months now the article at this link (an informal interview with neuroscientist and psychologist Oliver J. Robinson), waiting for conditions when I could return to forms of media consumption I prefer, namely, reading books, magazines, and long-form journalism. When I try to read something substantive these days, I find myself going over the same paragraph repeatedly, waiting in vain for it to register. Regrettably, the calm, composure, and concentration needed for deep reading has been effectively blocked since March 2020 as we wait (also in vain) for the pandemic to burn itself out. (I could argue that the soul-destroying prospect of industrial collapse and near-term human extinction is having the same effect for much longer.) So my attention and media habits have been resignedly diverted to crap news gathering, mostly via video, and cheap entertainments, mostly streaming TV (like everyone else, though others may complain less). The lack of nourishment is noticeable. Considering we’re only weeks away from the U.S. presidential election, stress levels are ratcheting up further, and civil authorities prepare for “election riots” (is that new term?), which I can only assume means piling violence upon violence under the pretense of keeping-the-peace or law-and-order or some other word string rendered meaningless now that the police are widely acknowledged to be a significant contributors to the very problems they are meant to address. These unresolved issues (pandemic, police violence, civil unrest) give rise to pathological anxiety, which explains (according to Robinson, disclaimers notwithstanding) why it’s so hard to read.

To say we live in unprecedented times is both obvious and banal. Unique stresses of modernity have led multiple times to widespread madness and conflict, as well as attempts to recapture things lost in previous shifts from other styles of social organization. Let me not mince words regarding what’s now happening: we’re in an era of repudiation of the Enlightenment, or a renewed Counter-Enlightenment. I’ve stated this before, and I’m not the only one making this diagnosis (just learned it’s a rather old idea — I’m always late to the party). For instance, Martin Jay’s essay “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment” appears to have been floating around in various forms since 2011. Correlation of this renewal of Counter-Enlightenment fervor with literacy seems clear. Despite basic literacy as a skill being widely improved worldwide over the past two centuries, especially in the developing world, deep literacy is eroding:

Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read – or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned – typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention – what Wolf calls “cognitive patience” – on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it.

Considering deep literacy is absolutely critical to clear thinking (or critical thought, if you prefer, not to be confused with the The Frankfurt School’s critical theory discussed in Jay’s essay), its erosion threatens fundamental institutions (e.g., liberal democracy and the scientific method) that constitute the West’s primary cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment. The reach of destruction wrought by reversing course via the Counter-Enlightenment cannot be overstated. Yet many among us, completely unable to construct coherent ideas, are rallying behind abandonment of Enlightenment traditions. They’re ideologues who actively want to return to the Dark Ages (while keeping modern tech, natch). As with many aspects of unavoidable cultural, social, environmental, and civilizational collapse, I have difficulty knowing quite what to hope for. So I won’t condemn retrograde thinking wholly. In fact, I feel empathy toward calls to return to simpler times, such as with German Romanticism or American Transcendentalism, both examples of cultural and aesthetic movements leading away from the Enlightenment.

Long before these ideas coalesced for me, I had noted (see here, here, and here) how literacy is under siege and a transition back toward a predominantly oral culture is underway. The Counter-Enlightenment is either a cause or an effect, I can’t assess which. At the risk of being a Cassandra, let me suggest that, if these times aren’t completely different from dark episodes of the past, we are now crossing the threshold of a new period of immense difficulty that makes pathological anxiety blocking the ability to read and think a minor concern. Indeed, that has been my basic assessment since crafting the About Brutus blurb way back in 2006. Indicators keep piling up. So far, I have a half dozen points of entry to process and digest by other cultural commentators exploring this theme, though they typically don’t adopt wide enough historical or cultural perspectives. Like the last time I failed to synthesize my ideas into a multipart blog series, I don’t have a snazzy title, and this time, I don’t even have planned installment titles. But I will do my best to roll out in greater detail over several blog posts some of the ways the Counter-Enlightenment is manifesting anew.

Fully a decade ago, I analyzed with more length than I usually allow myself an article from The New Yorker that examined how media trends were pushing away from literacy (the typographic mind) toward listening and viewing (orality) as primary modes of information gathering and entertainment. The trend was already underway with the advent of radio, cinema, and television, which moved the relatively private experience of silent reading to a public or communal realm as people shared experiences around emerging media. The article took particular aim at TV. In the intervening decade, media continue to contrive new paths of distribution, moving activity back to private information environments via the smart phone and earbuds. The rise of the webcast (still called podcast by some, though that’s an anachronism), which may include a video feed or display a static image over discussion and/or lecture, and streaming services are good examples. Neither has fully displaced traditional media just yet, but the ongoing shift in financial models is a definite harbinger of relentless change.

This comes up again because, interestingly, The New Yorker included with an article I popped open on the Web an audio file of the very same article read by someone not the author. The audio was 40 minutes, whereas the article may have taken me 15 to 20 minutes had I read it. For undisclosed reasons, I listened to the audio. Not at all surprisingly, I found it odd and troublesome. Firstly, though the content was nominally investigative journalism (buttressed by commentary), hearing it read to me made it feel like, well, storytime, meaning it was fiction. Secondly, since my eyes weren’t occupied with reading, they sought other things to do and thus fragmented my attention.

No doubt The New Yorker is pandering to folks who would probably not be readers but might well become listeners. In doing so, it’s essentially conceding the fight, admitting that the effort to read is easily eclipsed by the effortlessness of listening. As alternative and unequal modes of transmitting the content of the article, however, it strikes me as an initiative hatched not by writers and editors capable of critical thought and addressing a similarly enabled readership but by a combination of sales and marketing personnel attempting to capture a widening demographic of listeners (read: nonreaders). Navigating to the article might be a modest extra complication, but if a link to the audio file can be tweeted out (I don’t actually know if that’s possible), then I guess the text isn’t truly necessary.

Here part of what I wrote a decade ago:

If the waning of the typographic mind proceeds, I anticipate that the abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills that are the legacy of Enlightenment Man will be lost except to a few initiates who protect the flame. And with so many other threats cropping up before us, the prospect of a roiling mass of all-but-in-name barbarians ruled by a narrow class of oligarchs does indeed spell the total loss of democracy.

Are we getting perilously close that this dystopia? Maybe not, since it appears that many of those in high office and leadership positions labor under their own failures/inabilities to read at all critically and so execute their responsibilities with about the same credibility as hearsay. Even The New Yorker is no longer protecting the flame.

I recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Celestial Railroad railing against the steam engine, an infernal machine, that disrupts society (agrarian at that time). It’s a metaphor for industrialization. The newest infernal machine (many candidates have appeared since Hawthorne’s time only to be supplanted by the next) is undoubtedly the smart phone. Its disruption of healthy formation of identity among teenagers has already been well researched and documented. Is it ironic that as an object of our own creation, it’s coming after our minds?