Posts Tagged ‘Walter Ong’

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?

For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.

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.

The backblog at The Spiral Staircase includes numerous book reviews and three book-blogging projects — one completed and two others either abandoned or on semi-permanent hiatus. I’m launching a new project on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), which comes highly recommended and appears quite interesting given my preoccupations with language, literacy, and consciousness. To keep my thinking fresh, I have not consulted any online reviews or synopses.

Early on, Ong provides curious (but unsurprising) definitions I suspect will contribute to the book’s main thesis. Here is one from the intro:

It is useful to approach orality and literacy synchronically, by comparing oral cultures and chirographic (i.e., writing) cultures that coexist at a given period of time. But it is absolutely essential to approach them also diachronically or historically, by comparing successive periods with one another. [p. 2]

I don’t recall reading the word chirographic before, but I blogged about the typographic mind (in which Ong’s analyses are discussed) and lamented that the modern world is moving away from literacy, back toward orality, which feels (to me at least) like retrogression and retreat. (Someone is certain to argue return to orality is actually progress.) As a result, Western institutions such as the independent press are decaying. Moreover, it’s probably fair to say that democracy in the West is by now only a remnant fiction, replaced by oligarchic rule and popular subscription to a variety of fantasy narratives easily dispelled by modest inventory of what exists in actuality.

Here is another passage and definition:

A grapholect is a transdialectal language formed by deep commitment to writing. Writing gives a grapholect a power far exceeding that of any purely oral dialect. The grapholect known as standard English has accessible for use a recorded vocabulary of at least a million and a half words, of which not only the present meanings but also hundreds of thousands of past meanings are known. A simply oral dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words. [p. 8]

My finding is that terms such as democracy, liberalism, social justice, etc. fail to mean anything (except perhaps to academics and committed readers) precisely because their consensus usage has shifted so wildly over time that common historical points of reference are impossible to establish in a culture heavily dominated by contemporary memes, slang, talking heads, and talking points — components of orality rather than literacy. And as part of a wider epistemological crisis, one can no longer rely on critical thinking to sort out competing truth claims because the modifier critical now bandied about recklessly in academia, now infecting the workplace and politics, has unironically reversed its meaning and requires uncritical doublethink to swallow what’s taught and argued. Let me stress, too, that playing word games (such as dissembling what is means) is a commonplace tactic to put off criticism by distorting word meanings beyond recognition.

Although it’s unclear just yet (to me, obviously) what Ong argues in his book beyond the preliminary comparison and contrast of oral and chirographic cultures (or in terms of the title of the book, orality and literacy), I rather doubt he argues as I do that the modern world has swung around to rejection of literacy and the style of thought that flows from deep engagement with the written word. Frankly, it would surprise me if his did; the book predates the Internet, social media, and what’s now become omnimedia. The last decade in particular has demonstrated that by placing a cheap, personal, 24/7/365 communications device in the hands of every individual from the age of 12 or so, a radical social experiment was launched that no one in particular designed — except that once the outlines of the experiment began to clarify, those most responsible (i.e., social media platforms in particular but also biased journalists and activist academics) have refused to admit that they are major contributors to the derangement of society. Cynics learned long ago to expect that advertisers, PR hacks, and politicians should be discounted, which requires ongoing skepticism and resistance to omnipresent lures, cons, and propaganda. Call it waking up to reality or simply growing up and behaving responsibly in an information environment designed to be disorienting. Accordingly, the existence of counterweights — information networks derived from truth, authority, and integrity — has always been, um, well, critical. Their extinction presages much graver losses as information structures and even the memory of mental habits that society needs to function are simply swept aside.