Reviewed by Art Bingham
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents. Ed. Terence Hawkes. (New York: Methuen, 1988).
This book was first printed in1982 and then reprinted five times. References to page numbers in this report are from the 1988 reprint.
About the author
Walter J. Ong, born in 1912, received his B.A. from Rockhurst College in 1933, his M. A. from St. Louis University in1941, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1955. He joined the faculty of St. Louis University as a professor of English and French in1959, and later became a professor of Humanities in Psychiatry in1970, holding all three positions until his retirement. He is well- known in the field of rhetoric for his work on Petrus Ramus and also for the subject matter of this book, how the shift from primary orality to literacy dramatically changes the way humans think.
General overview of the book
Ong pulls together two decades of work by himself and others on the differences between primary oral cultures, those that do not have a system of writing, and chirographic (i.e., writing) cultures to look at how the shift from an oral-based stage of cons ciousness to one dominated by writing and print changes the way we humans think. His approach to the subject is both synchronic in that he looks at cultures that coexist at a certain point in time, and diachronic in that he discusses the change in the Wes t from being oral-based to chirographic which began with the appearance of script some 6,000 years ago. In addition to pinpointing fundamental differences in the thought processes of the two types of culture, he comments on the current emergence in Wester n society of what he calls a second orality. This second orality, dominated by electronic modes of communication (e.g., television and telephones), incorporates elements from both the chirographic mode and the orality mode which has been subordinant for some time.
The Organization of the book
The chapter titles, and especially the subtitles, suggest that the book can be roughly divided into three parts for which the intended audience is anyone unfamiliar with the notion of primary orality. Ong devotes the first three chapters of seven to "th ought and its verbal expression in oral culture" something which he admits is likely to seem "strange and at times bizarre" since we are so immersed in our own literate culture (1). In the next three chapters, 4 through 6, he discusses "literate thought and expression in terms of their emergence from and relation to orality" (1). Finally, in chapter 7, he suggests that in the future knowledge of the differences between orality and literacy might produce new and interesting insights into our interpretati on of various kinds of literature, and enrich already familiar types of literary criticism.
Chapter One: The orality of language
In this chapter Ong briefly outlines some of the research that had been done by himself and other scholars to describe the differences between oral and literate cultures. He defines the oral culture to which he refers in this book as one where people ar e totally unfamiliar with writing. He reminds us that these primary oral cultures are actually in the majority and that from a historical standpoint writing is a relatively recent development; even among the 3,000 or so languages which currently exist on ly 78 have a literature (page 7, from Edmonson 1971, 323, 332). Our membership in a society as completely committed to writing and print as ours has made it necessary for him, and others, to describe primary orality in relation to literacy. This necessi ty, he says, led to the use of such preposterous terms as ‘oral literature,' one which "reveals our inability to represent to our own minds a heritage of verbally organized materials except as some variant of writing, even when they have nothing to do wit h writing at all" (11).
Chapter Two: The modern discovery of primary oral cultures
Ong devotes most of his second chapter to a brief account of studies done by Milman Parry and Eric Havelock on the noetic characteristics of oral cultures. After summarizing Parry's investigation of the tradition of the oral epic and his writings on Hom eric poetry, Ong states that we cannot but be convinced that Parry was correct in concluding that "the Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of what later readers had been trained in principle to disvalue, namely, the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier- to put it more bluntly, the cliché" (23). According to Ong the Greeks of Homer's age relied on such formulaic uses of language to aid in the retention of knowledge. Without writing, if thoughts were not expressed in easily remembere d forms and were not constantly repeated, they would be lost. Ong then explains that Eric Havelock, in Preface to Plato, extended Parry's conclusions to include the entirety of ancient Greek culture. In Ong's words, Havelock shows how "Plato's exclusion of the poets from his Republic was in fact Plato's rejection of the pristine aggregative, paratactic, oral-style thinking perpetuated in Homer in favor of the keen analysis or dissection of the world and of thought itself made possible by the interiorizat ion of the alphabet in the Greek psyche" (28).
Chapter Three: Some psychodynamics of orality
In chapter three Ong provides a list of the characteristics of the way people of a primary oral culture think and express themselves through narrative and discusses them in light of memory. The characteristics of thought and expression are as follows:
Chapter Four: Writing restructures consciousness
Beginning with this chapter, Ong's focus shifts from a discussion of primary orality to the development of script and how this restructures our consciousness. One of the most important effects he discusses is the way that writing distances the originator of a thought from the receiver. Writing does this by enabling the existence of discourse "which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse is detached from the writer (78). In addition, the further entrenc hed writing becomes as a mode of expression, the more humans move from an oral-aural-based sensory world to one where vision reigns supreme. This shift promotes the interiorization of thought, prompts us to see ourselves as situated in time, and allows fo r precision, detail and the development of an extensive vocabulary. Ong ends this chapter by discussing two major developments in the West which beautifully illustrate the constant interaction of writing and orality, the development of the complex art of rhetoric and of learned Latin.
Chapter Five: Print, space and closure
Print not only effected the West in the ways discussed by Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (i.e., implementing the Protestant Reformation, making universal literacy a serious objective, etc.), but also had, according to On g, three more subtle effects. With the development of print, Western culture moved even further away from a hearing dominated sensory world to one governed by sight. More than writing, "print suggests that words are things" (118). With the interiorizatio n of this view writing/printing was no longer done with the intent to recycle knowledge back into the spoken world (as it was in, for example, Medieval university disputations); things were no longer necessarily written in order to be read out loud. In a ddition, print embedded the word in space more absolutely than did writing (123). Through print, words become things that can be arranged on a page as they are in indexes, tables of content, lists and labels (an extreme example being the arrangement of w ords in the poetry of e.e. cummings). Finally, Ong suggests that print encourages closure, a feeling of finality that was never present in, for example, oral storytelling.
At the end of this chapter, Ong briefly discusses the emergence, through electronic media such as telephone, radio and television, of what he calls the second orality. Much like primary orality, second orality fosters a strong sense of membership in a g roup. Unlike primary orality, however, secondary orality is "essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print," and the groups produced by second orality are much larger than any produced by prim ary orality (136).
Chapter Six: Oral memory, the story line and characterization
Of the genres affected by the shift from orality to literacy narrative is the one which has received the most attention. Ong devotes the sixth chapter to a survey of some of the differences between the structure of narratives produced by these two types of cultures. Since primary oral cultures are unable to manage knowledge in elaborate, more or less scientifically abstract categories, Ong explains that the structure of oral narratives is such that it facilitates easy storage and retrieval of informati on; narratives serve as oral storehouses of history. Rhapsodizing and linking together episodes with little regard to a linear plot structure, the use of flat characters, and focusing on interaction with the audience help to foreground the elements of an oral narrative and make them easier to remember. With literate cultures narratives do not need to be structured mnemonically. Consequently, the narratives of literate cultures tend to follow a linear plot-line, make us of heavy subordination, and are s tructured such that the narrator/writer and reader are detached.
Chapter Seven: Some theorems
In this final chapter, Ong suggests that the concepts he has outlined in this book might provide inspiration for new interpretation by adherents of New Criticism and Formalism, Structuralism, textual and deconstructionist analysis, Speech-act and Reader- Response theory as well as those engaged in the study of literary history, the social sciences, philosophy and biblical studies.
At the end of this chapter, Ong goes to great pains to indicate that he feels that neither orality nor literacy is superior. Myron C. Tuman, in Words, Tools, and Technology (College English, 1983), seems to have missed this. At one point Tuman criticize s Ong for conveying "the sense that literacy offers a vast improvement over earlier techniques for storing verbal meaning," and implies that this means that Ong feels that literacy is superior to orality (770). Later, however, he criticizes Ong for depic ting literacy as opposite and somehow less attractive than primary orality (777). Perhaps Tuman's confusion has to do with Ong's choice of words in stating that "both orality, and the growth of literacy out of orality, are necessary for evolution of cons ciousness"(175). In a "survival of the fittest" sense of the word "evolution," Ong's statement could be construed as an implication that literacy is the "fitter" of the two. At the end of the seventh chapter, however, Ong clearly states that he does not believe that literacy is necessarily "superior" to orality (175).
In his short review of Orality and Literacy for the Winter 1982 issue of Et cetera, Paul Lippert concludes "that for the study of culture and communication . . . this book will become a landmark"(402). The fact that Methuen saw fit to reprint Orality an d Literacy five times suggests that Lippert was correct. Ong's book and the work of others who investigated the differences between orality and literacy in the early 1980s inspired considerable research, much of it in areas that Ong suggests in his seven th chapter. However, fourteen years after its first publication this book and its subject matter can still provide fertile ground for research. In 1982, Ong could not have foreseen the popularity of audiobooks, or the widescale use of such technology as editable voice-mail telephone service and the synchronous text-based communication made possible by the internet. No doubt, the time is right for a sequel to Orality and Literacy, one devoted entirely to the second orality.