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Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong

September 19, 2009

At first I was concerned that this was mainly a criticism of the primacy of textual cultures over oral ones, but Ong makes a compelling case that the invention of writing has profoundly affected the manner in which we perceive the physical world outside of our bodies.  Of the thousands of human languages known to have ever been spoken, he notes that only 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to produce literature, and the number lost is incalculable.  The invention of writing allowed for a tremendous refinement of analytic thought, but in the process effected a loss of a heightened sense of being in the present moment while it reinforced a perceived distinction between the exterior physical world and the interior imagined one.

The refinement of analytic thought–not merely breaking down phenomena into components, but examining it abstractly, sequentially, classifying it with the aim of explaining it without resort to unobserved phenomena–was necessary for revolutionary technological development.  Technological development clearly happens in oral cultures, but the argument is one of the rate of change.  And the rate of change is not necessarily one of external tool-making, but potentially internally neurophysiological as well.  Ong argues that Julian Jaynes’ ‘bicameral mind’ is more easily explained by transition from orality to literacy than by any neurophysiological transformations, but recent advances in that field support Jaynes’ neurophysiological hypotheses.  The two might in fact go hand in hand.  As you invent a tool, you likely develop new neurological connections.

He notes early on that oral tradition is preserved in the form of rhetoric, and that writing was initially used to codify and strengthen the devices orality utilized to achieve it’s effects.  Cicero for instance, broke his speeches down into each of their salient points and then visualized those points as rooms in his villa through which he walked as he made his case.  This structure parallels the mnemonic devices that oral cultures utilize to remember their stories.  The idea that these types of devices might have also been used for the higher art form of poetry was shocking to some academic circles in the early 20th century, and his description of the reception of Milman Parry’s thesis that the Homeric poems were essentially stitched together from prefabricated repetitive parts is entertaining.  As an architect, such an idea seems natural to me though.  Perhaps it just the way I was taught, and I can no longer escape from it, but I am sure that I approach the creation of a building as the assembly of prefabricated components, as the stitching together of parts into a larger pattern.  Christopher Alexander argued this case in his Pattern Language, breaking down buildings and cities into components that can be reassembled at different scales.

Continuing with the architectural thread for a moment, Bill Mitchell argued that the manner with which you model a building affects the way you think about it.  For example, if you model with cardboard, you will be necessarily limited in the repertoire of possible forms in a way different than if you modeled with wood, plaster or clay.  Each material has its own specific nature which contains a family of forms.  In the same manner, he argued, if you only model in a 3-D computer modeling program, you are going to be necessarily limited as well.  You might respond that you are actually freed to explore all forms, and you are certainly not constrained by a particular material, but you are also not informed by one either, and additionally, you are not informed by the tools typically used with that material, but rather by the computer interface.  Just as written language affects the way one perceives the world, so too do all the other tools we create.

Ong says that ancient Greek civilization marks the point in human history when literacy first clashed with orality.  That can be surmised from the texts we have inherited, but there might have been other clashes prior, the documentation of which has been lost.  He says, “at the time neither Plato nor anyone else was or could be explicitly aware that this was what was going on” (p. 24).  I wonder, though, because Plato utilized Socrates throughout his dialogues, and there has always been a tension around the fact that Socrates never wrote, but worked almost purely orally.  I believe there are even theories that he was a character of Plato’s creation and did not exist, but I think his existence, his role as Plato’s teacher, and his execution by the city of Athens is pretty much undisputed.  Socrates is a counterexample of the degree to which analytic thought can be pushed in orality, although it could be argued that he was standing on a body of literary work while reasoning extemporaneously.

If oral cultures cannot keep written records of thoughts, to remember them members of those cultures have to “Think memorable thoughts” (p. 34).  I haven’t encountered him saying it explicitly yet, but the obverse would be that literary cultures have a greater instance of unmemorable thought.  So one great loss from moving from an oral to literate culture might be more noise; the lost peace and quiet of an oral age?  It sounds more mythical than real, but if the quiet did exist it was probably less idyllic than we might think in the absence today of predators.  And this second oral electronic age of which Ong speaks is exacerbating the noise, but he does say it depends on writing and print for its existence.

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