Orality and Literacy

If you enjoyed Relevant History on word spacing (and you should have) or me on the invention of perspective you must read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. I can’t do the erudition, sweep and profundity of the book justice, but here’s a few quotes. You’ll have to excuse me if I leap to the conclusions rather than pr?cis the arguments here. My thoughts are preceded by a !, everything else is a quote, paraphrase or summary of Ong.

Walter Ong (1982,2002) Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge, New York.

Writing makes words appear to be things. In oral culture words have no residue, they are just potential. They only exist in transience. The visual form of words gives you control over them. Without stable form they are spectres – always actions, always transient, always willed – intrinsically agenic. (p14)

When and often-told story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it (p11)

In oral cultures you only know what you can recall – in literate cultures you know what you can look up. Formulas and themes are central to oral culture, for they provide structure for works which rely upon human memory to persist. By removing this constraint, literacy unleashes chaos on knowledge.

Writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity’ p45

oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance

Table summarising Chapter 3: Some psychodynamics of orality

words as actions words as objects
formulaic unstructured/multiple
additive subordinative
harmonising analytic/dissective
redundant sparse
narrative facts & lists
episodic/thematic chronological
ever-present past and future looking
amnesic hypermnemonic
‘savage mind’ rationality
animistic objective
holistic linear
conservative progressive
unreflective introspective
social/public individual
empathetic & participatory objectively distanced
situational/situated abstract
contextual self-contained
restricted code elaborated code

! It is impossible not to note at this point how the features of oral culture are those idealised by the environmental and new-age movements.

! While literate knowledge is abundant, oral knowledge (‘ancient wisdom’) is concentrated. Single items – koans, kata, poems, rituals, icons – physically embody depth of information and can reveal it to the individual through study of that single thing (compare: knowledge is explicit, in multiple sources, and the individual can collect that information by acquiring, ie reading, those sources).

The ‘restricted’ linguistic codes of primarily oral cultures are just as specific and expressive, but much content is embedded in the context the language is used in. The ‘elaborated codes’ of text-based culture have their meaning rooted within the language itself.

! Note the paradoxical nature of creation myths of pre-literate cultures (eg Norse or Ancient Greek) – pre-literate cultures are ever-present. They do not see the need for creation ab nihilo, so the writing down of these myths makes them seem nonsensical (ie illogical). The great, later, religions – with their sacred texts – are only possible because of the development of literacy and the grafting of a new literate form on top of passing oral cultures.

Is the idea of a Jaynesian software rewrite of self-consciousness subsumed within the idea of a transition from oral to literate culture? (p28)

By separating the knower from the known…writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set (p104)

Because spoken language is necessarily shared, it promoted groupness. Language is only what can be mutually understood. Reading is done individually. Literate culture promotes individuality and introspection. In writing the audience is always imagined (simulated) rather than actual.

Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the centre, the self, to be examined and described.

By removing words from the world of sound where they first had their origin in active human interchange and relegating them definitively to visual surface, and by otherwise exploiting visual space for the management of knowledge, print encourages human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space (p129)

! Writing is a cognitive technology for transforming meaning across sensory codes. It takes what defines human uniqueness and subsumes it to work in our most powerful modality. This raises the question of what kinds of operation are best subserved by audition. I suggest associative recall (the chaining of items in sequences) – note that the order of the alphabet is learn auditorially but employed visually (in indexes)!

What’s amazing is that our cognitive abilities have coped so well with such a radical technological hybridisation. It’s as astounding as the fact that we can live in cities of millions when we evolved to live in tribes of hundreds.

The present-day phenomenological sense of existence is richer in its conscious and articulate reflection than anything that preceded it. But it is salutary to recognise that this sense depends on the technologies of writing and print, deeply interiorised, made part of our own psychic resources. The tremendous store of historical, psychological and other knowledge which can go into sophisticated narrative and characterisation today could be accumulated only through the use of writing and print (and now electronics). But these technologies of the world do not merely store what we know. They style what we known in ways which made it quite inaccessible and indeed unthinkable in an oral culture.

! So, back to my original compulsion – how was inner life experienced before the ascendancy of individual perspective? At the very least the articulation of that experience couldn’t have occurred in the way is does now. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does it make a sound? If a qualia cannot be articulated, is it experienced?

I feel like I?ve reached the end point of this question?s productivity. Which isn?t to say that it is answered, but rather that the question will have to be changed to go forward.

4 replies on “Orality and Literacy”

although oral cultures did manage to contain a whole load of lists & facts *within* narrative (cf: Iliad II)

True, true. But in oral culture these lists and facts are *embedded* within the act of telling (“…and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram…” – each name repeated twice to aid memory within an aural sequence). Literate lists&facts – indexes, content pages…summary tables? – reference a visuo-spatial context which is only made possible via literacy – ie that space of things seperate from their ancedents and precedents which is visual rather than aural.

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