Monday, June 13, 2005

Primary and Secondary Orality

Note: This was originally posted at Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archives and I've decided to move it here so as to not seem too antagonistic.

Recently, there was a discussion on the Media Ecology Association discussion list about audiobooks, whether or not one actually "reads" an audiobook, whether listening to audiobooks is cognitively different than reading a book, etc. At some point, the discussion turned to what kind of orality an audiobook is. At some point, it was suggested by a prominent Ongian that primary orality refers not only to cultures before writing exists, it also refers to the "technologically unaided human voice in all subsequent times and places where writing had been introduced and used. " So, while audiobooks would be secondary orality, it was suggested that an adult reading out loud to a child would be primary orality. I replied:


If primary orality is, as I understand it, orality that exists only when there is no knowledge of writing systems, then reading out loud to a live audience *can't* be primary orality. The fact that something is being read to an audience means that the audience knows writing exists *and* the text is *written*, meaning that the words on the page if not the text itself is the product of someone who is literate, and, moreover, the reading itself is being done by someone who is literate. We could maybe imagine a scenario in which a primary oral performance (one from a culture that has no knowledge of writing systems) was secretly recorded, transcribed, and then read aloud, but even then I'd suggest that the performer/reader could never unlearn their literate habits of mind and, therefore, the reading would *not* be an instance of *primary* orality. The reading, however, would be an oral performance.

We need to remember 1) the medium of transmission and reception does not govern the social-cultural (noetic) matrix, and 2) oral traditions are not necessarily tied to primary orality. One of the major revisions of oral tradition over the last 30 years is the understand that one can be both an oral poet and be literate, that it's not an either/or situation (I believe the best overall summary of this is still John Miles Foley's _How to Read an Oral Poem_).

I would argue that one should not define secondary orality as an audio recording of a book being read aloud. Secondary orality, like primary orality, is not about medium. It's about noetics. Radio, television,
talkies, audiobooks, etc. create a cultural situation in which we have widespread broadcasting of literate noetic practices, and this means that people who have never learned to read are able to interiorize these literate noetic practices, thereby effectively becoming noetically literate. *That* is what secondary orality is.

One thing Ong's primary - literacy - secondary orality model doesn't foreground enough is a condition of post-primary, pre-secondary orality. There is residual orality, but residual orality is orality in writing,
which is not what I'm getting at here. Rather, I'm referring to pre-electronic cultures which rely much more upon oral communication for their day-to-day existence, cultures that know of writing systems or have a group of elites who are literate, or oral-oriented subcultures within larger literate cultures. By suggesting that Ong's model doesn't foreground this condition enough is not to suggest that Ong himself never thought about it or discussed it. What I mean is that since we don't have a good term for it other than "oral culture" which can mean any kind of oral culture, we tend to forget about it when we talk about the large picture, or when we do talk about it, we're often misunderstood.

Let me conclude by addressing the issue of presence which [edited out] brings up in reference to secondary orality. Whereas in primary oral culture communication always requires physical presence, physical presence is not necessary for communication in literate and secondary oral cultures. This does not mean, however, that primary orality, literacy, and secondary orality are defined by the existence of or lack of presence. The ability for physical presence to exist is defined by the affordances and constraints of a medium, not by social-cultural noetics.

When you are listening to an audiobook, you are listening to the recording of a book being read aloud. In one sense, all such recordings are oral performances, whether one is listening to one of Dr. van den
Berg's recordings for the blind, in which the goal is to give as neutral a performance as possible, or to a recording which makes use of multiple professional voice actors and sound effects. Listening to an audiobook does involve different cognitive and material processes -- for instance you can't scan ahead like you can when you're reading, and it's not as easy to dwell upon a particular sentence or phrase or word as it is when you've got the book in front of you, and, well, you're using your ears rather than your eyes as the primary means of reception.


I was then told that I did not understand Fr. Ong's use of the terms, and that for Ong orality is always primary becasue it's never gone out of existence. I then replied:


With all due respect, I do respect all the work which you have done for Ong and with Ong, I'm pretty sure I do understand how Ong uses the terms, and that my characterization of primary and secondary orality is correct. Since coining the term primary orality, Ong has maintained that primary orality is the orality of a cutlure with no knowledge of writing. And you can find this distinction being made in _Presence of the Word_, though the term isn't in use (see pages 301-302, for instance). While presence and face-to-face communication are important for Ong, they are not primary orality. Let me quote from just a few of Fr. Ong's published works:

From "Oral Culture and the Literate Mind." _Minority Language and Literature.). Ed. Dexter Fisher. NY: MLA, 1977. 134-149:

"Primary orality is the orality of cultures that know absolutely no writing at all; secondary orality is the orality of cultures that know writing, and particularly the orality that we have today in our electronic
world (where we cultivate sound and orality very differently, with the help of writing)" (141).

From _Orality and Literacy_ (1991 reprint ed.):

"But, for all their attention to the sounds of speech modern schools of linguistics until very recently have attended only incidentally, if at all, to ways in which primary orality, the orality of cultures untouched by literacy, contrasts with literacy" (5-6).

"As noted above, I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print, 'primary orality.' It is 'primary' by contrast with the 'secondary orality' of present-day high-technology
culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print" (11).

"Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing" (31).

From "Literacy and Orality in Our times" (rpt. in _An Ong Reader_ 465-478:

"One kind, to use a terminology that I have developed in _Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, is 'primary orality,' the pristine orality of mankind untouched by writing or print that remains still more or less operative in areas sheltered to a greater or lesser degree from the full impact of literacy and that is vestigial to some degree in us all" (470).

I could continue quoting at length from other publications, from various letters I've come across in the archive collection, etc. The fact remains that for Ong "primary orality" is the orality of a culture with no
knowledge of writing. It is a noetic state, not a function of medium. As the passage from "Orality and Literacy in Our Times" states, we have some vestigial level of primary orality in our communication practices (the use of hypotaxis rather than parataxis, the use of formulaic speech and proverbs, copiousness (which I'm often guilty of), agonistically toned, homeostatic, situational rather than abstract, etc., but that is not the same thing as saying that an adult reading a book to a child is "primary
orality" or that we still engage in "primary orality."

Orality has, of course, never gone out of existence, and I didn't claim that. If you read my earlier email carefully, I explicitly point this fact out. And while I would agree with you that orality is "primary" in that it is "native" to us, as opposed to the technologized forms of the word which we must learn and interiorize, to say that orality is primary to humans is not the same thing as "primary orality." Throughout his writing, Fr. Ong goes to great pains to define primary orality as the orality of cultures without knowledge of writing. The orality of a primary oral culture is noetically different from the orality of a culture that has knowledge of writing, and both are noetically different from our current secondary orality. So, as I said in my prior email, reading a book to someone who is physically within hearing distance of you is not an instance of primary orality -- the whole enterprise is based upon the understanding that
writing exists.

My assumption is that this is just an issue of semantics, that you were refering to oral speech as being the non-tchnological and native (i.e. primary) mode of communication, and I am refering specifically to the cultural and noetic condition of "primary orality," which are two different issues however they may overlap.

It may be, however, that I really don't understand how Fr. Ong uses primary and secondary orality. If I have misunderstood these terms, please point me to specific passages in Fr. Ong's writing that will set me straight.


It may seem somewhat vain to provide this detailed, almost blow-by-blow account of this exchange to which I've had no further response. I post it here, however, because this misperception that "primary orality" can refer to oral communication in a literate society is far too widespread. Beth Daniell's misreading of Ong, as represented in such works as her dissertation, her 1986 Pre/Text article "Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy," and other pieces, is rooted in just this misunderstanding.

Consider one of Daniell's regular examples, the woman who prepares a written sermon but then on the spur of the moment speaks off the cuff. Daniell, referring to Ong's "psychodynamics of orality," notes that the woman's sermon was much more literate in construction than oral, thereby invalidating Ong's thesis. Of course the woman's oral performance was "literate." The woman is literate. She is from twentieth-century America. Even if she could not read or write herself, she would be constantly awash in the literate discourse of American culture. No one who participates in everyday twentieth-century American life can escape the noetic structuring of literacy, or for that matter of secondary orality. This is what escapes Daniell, that Ong's psychodynamics of orality only hold for people of primary oral cultures, cultures which have no knowledge of writing systems whatsoever. Once the knowledge of writing exists, not the ability to write but the knowledge of writing, then the psychodynamics of orality begin to break down, and the more the technology of literacy is interiorized, the more vestigial the psychodynamics of primary orality become.

This misreading of Ong isn't entirely Daniell's fault, however. If she'd read Ong closely enough she would have realized her mistake, but it's clear, especially if you read her dissertation, that she's not so much reading Ong as reading Ong through someone else, and that someone else makes the same mistake she does.

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