Ong: Orality and Literacy (With Bonus Moth Story Hour Link)

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge. 1992. Print.

orality, literacy, oral residue, mediation, chirographic conditioning


"The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis - Storyteller Under Sunny Skies clay sculpture" by The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
“The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis – Storyteller Under Sunny Skies clay sculpture” by The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Ong delves in the history and psychodynamics of shifts from primary oral cultures to literate/secondary oral cultures. The designation of orality as secondary is important as orality’s residue remains and continues to imprint and shape literate culture. Ong details various transmutations of oral traditions into written texts, the history of alphabet development, the rise of “Learned Latin,” first-encounters with literacy, early record keeping and documentation, and the emergence of narrative (temporal/logical sequencing of events) and other differences in storytelling (closure, characterization) between oral and literate, especially print-based, cultures. The significance of the aural and visual plays a role in Ong’s explication. Ong characterizes sound as temporally evanescent. Print was a notable development in literate cultures, correlating with the rise in reference materials correlates strongly with print: dictionaries, textbooks, indexes, title pages, etc. And as print deepened the attachment to literate paradigms, so too does the shift toward electronic modes of literacy. Finally, Ong contextualizes theoretical frameworks such as New Criticism, Structuralism, and Deconstruction as emergent from and shaped by the particular affordances of literate practices (as different from practices that may have arisen out of primary oral cultures).

Bibliographic notes:

Heavy emphasis on the works of Eric Havelock and Claude Lévi- Strauss

Later work for Ong (numerous self references)

cf. Invention with Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973)

Gregory Ulmer, Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (2003)

cf. Byron Hawk’s work on music/sound with this quote: “This centering effect of sound is what high-fidelity sound reproduction exploits with intense sophistication. You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight” (70).

cf. Wysocki & Johnson-Eilola “Blinded by the Letter: “One might argue (as does Finnegan 1977, p. 16) that the term ‘literature’, though devised primarily for works in writing, has simply been extended to include related phenomena such as traditional oral narrative in cultures untouched by writing” (11).


“In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided that spontaneity is a good thing. We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous” (134)

“The critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing in its sharply focused sense” (83).

“But when other dialects of a given language besides the grapholect vary from the grammar of the grapholect, they are not ungrammatical: they are simply using a different grammar, for language is structure, and it is impossible to use language without a grammar” (106).

“By and large, printed texts are far easier to read than manuscript texts. The effects of the greater legibility of print are massive. The greater legibility ultimately makes for rapid, silent reading. Such reading in turn makes for a different relationship between the reader and the authorial voice in the text and calls for different styles of writing. Print involves many persons besides the author in the production of a work—publishers, literary agents, publishers’ readers, copy editors and others. Before as well as after scrutiny by such persons, writing for print often calls for painstaking revisions by the author of an order of magnitude virtually unknown in a manuscript culture” (120).

“Since two manuscripts of a given work, even if copied from the same dictation, almost never correspond page for page, each manuscript of a given work would normally require a separate index. Indexing was not worth the effort” (122).

“Chirographic conditioning” (173). That’s a term I dwelled on here, late in Ong’s text. Throughout the text, Ong oscillates between explications of orality and literacy, the aural and visual, and shows not only the differences, but also how literacy emerged from and developed (still develops) alongside orality. The conditioning Ong refers to late in the text is explored through what he calls the “media model” (contemporary with McLuhan as he is). The conditioning, Ong argues, privileges the informational (instead of, say, the affective) and affords broadcasting as opposed to interaction: “the written text appears prima facie to be a one-way informational street, for no real recipient (reader, hearer) is present when the texts come into being” (173). The literate response, then, Ong argues, is to create a fiction: “The writer’s audience is always a fiction” (173).

So I dwell here to connect all of this to the digital. Ong discusses the shifting landscape of the print world toward an electronic world, and how the chirographic conditioning of literate/print cultures is both intensified and modified in electronic paradigms. What I find interesting from Ong’s discussion of the direction of communication is how, with the rise of social media and networked communication, the grip of broadcasting, as the mode of communication seems to have loosened. I’m drawn to thinking about how the trappings of orality (what Ong calls “oral reside”) may resurface in a paradigm dominated by literacy, or, as Gregory Ulmer would argue, in a shifting paradigm from literacy to electracy. I wonder how the trappings of resurfacing will play out. Do certain practices associated with orality return, zombie-like? Ong makes the argument for the qualitative difference between mediated (literate) and un-mediated (oral) types of communication. The emergence of networked communication via the internet and social media frameworks, and significantly the collapsing of time between utterance and response, seems to indicate a re-turn to the practices of orality. Kind of. I suppose this is where Ulmer’s notion of electracy (not the prettiest of neologisms; the peril of portmanteau) may bring insight.

I’m also thinking through how indexing, which emerged from the technical innovation of print, may now be shifting as well. The problems of indexing before print (an inefficient, often futile practice when manuscripts could vary so widely), has encountered similar problems in the digital age. when it comes to file formats and hypertext (hence the rise of .pdf). Searching, then, becomes an addition to, and sometimes as replacement of, indexing. Relatedly, Ong posits a container metaphor for books in literate/print cultures: “Once print has been fairly well interiorized, a book was sensed as a kind of object which ‘contained’ information, scientific, fictional or other, rather than, as earlier, a recorded utterance” (123). How durable or helpful is that metaphor? It seems to me that network metaphors will become increasingly prominent and piquant.

Finally, I’m thinking through the externalization of cognition. Ong recognizes this as one of the most significant impacts of literacy: ”The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought” (24). This, of course, is afforded even more in digital environments, where the capacity for externalizing cognition is exponentially greater. What are/will be the reverberations of that increased capacity? (Archiving, searching, tagging, etc.?)

And how could this post be complete without some live-recorded storytelling via the Moth Story Hour. David Carr’s story is haunting.

Snowsuits, Swordfights, and Swindles


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