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Going Ong and Ong: Thoughts on Orality and Literacy

“Once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available.”

Though I felt like I was slogging through a morass of scholarly flatulence at points, for the most part, I liked the Ong reading, especially his occasional flakes of raspy humor.  I’d never thought of written language as a one-dimensional facsimile of three-dimensional spoken communication.  For me speaking and reading/writing are two completely different exercises and though they obviously influence each other, I’d never really considered the extent to which the ability to write structures our experience of speech and, if Ong is to be believed, of the world around us.  Three themes in particular got me thinking about stuff: the nature of preliterate communication, the consequences of the transition to a written or textual culture, and the deviously clever evolutionary argument for linguistic determinism.

Language and thought are rooted in sound and grow out of the unconscious.  Spoken languages have no awareness of their own history or grammar until they become written; indeed, Ong seems to suggest that nothing can be studied in the usual sense before being transfigured and abstracted into written form.  In the fourth chapter he argues that abstraction itself is possible only for a literate mind.  I’m not so sure about this.  Surely children born bilingual in oral societies have some appreciation of the abstract nature of language since they can compare and contrast between their two mother tongues without resorting to writing.

It makes sense, however, to attribute the shift from magical to rational thinking on the development of a written lingua franca and the commission of knowledge to the page.  What I’m not convinced of is that the loss of words’ totemic/magical value is a cause of this rather than a result.  Probably mutually reinforcing.

Ong admits he’s writing from within a Western humanistic scholarly tradition, but that colors his judgments in ways he may not be aware of.  To suggest that the Chinese are just waiting for the universal adoption of Mandarin before replacing Chinese script with a Roman alphabet is to misunderstand not only the nature of the Chinese language but also to give primacy to the linguistic tradition to which he belongs.  Chinese is not nearly as efficient or easy to learn or even legible from a distance as alphabetic languages, but if one believes Ong’s argument that writing changes the mind, then one would assume that writing differently changes the mind differently.  Does that mean the Chinese actually think differently because the level of abstraction of their writing is different than ours?  This smacks of linguistic determinism.  If it’s true, then he’s snuck through a theory that’s been long discredited by aligning it along a temporal axis rather than a cultural one.  If it’s not true, then why would the Chinese ever abandon a written language that has served them well for millennia?

This is why I struggled with the idea that writing irrevocably changes the mind.  Ong claims it’s a one-way street; you can’t come back up once you’ve gone down it.  There is a wistful nostalgia in his description of the demise of mnemonic memorization and what would now be considered the prodigious feats of mind of oral cultures.  Once you’re literate, you cannot fully understand words in the pre-literate way, he says.  I’m not so sure.  I think he’s confusing the advance of culture with the advance of communication.  Writing displaced memorization, I’m sure that’s true, but did it eradicate it?

I kept on thinking about hip-hop.  Hip hop is rooted in the world of immediate existence, it’s agonistic as hell, it’s formulaic (throw your hands in the ayah, and wave em around like you just don’t cayah), and it’s designed to be easy to remember.  One might argue that it is a memorized performance the way that a play is, but in its purest form, in the freestyle battle, hip-hop is not a recitation of a pre-existing text but an act of creative oral ad hockery.  And its practitioners are mostly literate, some prodigiously so. 

This idea of communication evolution as somewhat separate from overall cultural evolution got me thinking about how the Internet offers us a contemporary way of exploring many of the things that Ong writes about.  He writes about the inescapability of your frame of reference, giving an example of how people trying to describe a horse to people used to cars might call it a horse without wheels.  But that works forward too.  We’re seeing a similar clinging to traditional forms even though they’ve become largely irrelevant—albums in the age of iTunes for example.

What it seems to suggest to me is that while the mind doesn’t really change, what’s no longer the same is the definition of knowledge.  When writing came along, people stopped learning by rote.  If you don’t have to memorize, why bother?  Writing, argues Ong, enables innovation: when the mind’s principal task is no longer to conserve, it can focus on creating the heretofore unseen.  We’re now experiencing a similar revolution: if you know how to find facts, is it really necessary to know them?  Though we probably won’t lose the capacity to memorize or react critically to material we read, we may well choose to focus our mental energy on strategies for sifting through and making sense of large quantities of material or some other until-now impracticable pursuit.

The Internet is still primarily written—organized by keywords, tags, and links.  And according to Ong writing and print isolate, destroying group dynamics.  Online communication restores to writing many of the elements it lost in the transition from orality—immediacy, refutability (forums, IM, comments), and holistic expression (emoticons, video feeds).  I expect that if we asked him, he’d point out that the Internet has made it possible to recreate the advantages of spoken face-to-face encounters remotely.  I think we may be onto something that does more, that transcends speech by making conversations richer than ever before.

Anyway.

Ultimately, Ong’s whole argument verges on the specious: he can speculate about what it’s like to be pre-literate, but the only people who can intelligently refute his argument are perforce excluded from engaging it.  The idea that writing is primarily responsible for introspection and science and philosophy may or may not be true—it seems pretty compelling as he presents it—but it requires that we accept that the breadth of oral cultures’ intellectual experience has been preserved in the textual remnants of ancient oral epics that have come down to us or in the songs of some scattered Yugoslavian goatherds.  And I’m not sure that’s a premise I’m willing to accept.

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