Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Rereading Orality & Literacy

Rereading Orality & Literacy so as to give my students a theoretical framework for understanding Naomi Mitchinson's Early in Orcadia, I was, once again, struck by the fact that it's much too well known and far too little well read.

I've seen far too many discussions of this book by scholars who haven't read it or haven't read it recently (i.e., discussions of it are based not on the text but on discussions and quotations of the text that are once, twice, even five or six times removed from Ong's own words). I've seen the book attacked for saying things it does not say, and I've seen it attacked for not saying or taking into account things it actually does say or does take into account. For instance, I don't remember where I read this, but I once read an attack on Ong based on the argument that traditional skills-based knowledge is often learned visually, by watching and doing rather than through telling. This, the argument went, blew Ong's psychodyanamics of orality classification system out of water because it demonstrated that visualism was important before writing. While the argument itself demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of what Ong and others do argue, it even demonstrates a complete lack of attention to Orality & Literacy itself. In Ong's discussion of the fifth characteristic of orally based thought and expression, "Close to the human lifeworld," Ong writes
An oral culture has nothing corresponding to how-to-do-it manuals for the trades [...]. Trades were learned by apprenticeship (as they still largely are even in high-technology cultures), which means from observation and practice with only minimal verbalized explanation. (43)
Clearly, the scholar who was attacking Ong in that piece I read had paid absolutely no attention to Orality & Literacyitself, not even to the section of the book to which the author took issue. This is all too common an approach to Ong and his work: accusing him of saying what he does not say or attacking him for not considering something he does, in fact, consider.

But lets take a step back from that particular issue. Things don't get much better when we consider representations of Ong's work. Based on search engine referrals to both my blogs, Notes from the Water J. Ong Archive and Machina Memorialis, I feel comfortable in saying that one of Ong's better known topics is the psychodynamics of orality articulated in chapter 3 of Orality & Literacy. For a good number of people, the psychodynamics of orality are the list of nine characteristics of orally based thought and expression Ong lists in that chapter, which are:

  • Additive rather than subordinate;

  • Aggregative rather than analytic;

  • redundant or 'copious';

  • Conservative or traditionalist;

  • Close to the human lifeworld;

  • Agonistically toned;

  • Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced;

  • Homeostatic; and

  • Situational rather than abstract.
What one needs to remember, what one would remember if they returned to the chapter, or, in some cases, turned to it, is that this section, labeled "Further characteristics of orally based thought and expression," is but one of nine sections in the chapter "Some Psychodynamics of Orality." In other words, these nine characteristics do not, in and of themselves, define the psychodynamics of orality. Although this is the case, far too many representations and accounts of the psychodynamics of orality focus only on these nine characteristics.

And let's take another step back. Or maybe it's a step sideways. Either way, I want to focus on the nine characteristics as a whole. Many scholars, often following Beth Daniel's "Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy," attack Ong and orality-literacy studies by pointing out weaknesses, both real and imagined, with these nine characteristics. This would be fine except for the fact that few acknowledge or pay any attention to how Ong introduces these nine characteristics. He writes:
This inventory of characteristics is not presented as exclusive or conclusive but as suggestive, for much more work and reflection is needed to deepen understanding of orally based thought (and thereby understanding of chirographically based, typographically based, and electronically based thought). (36)
Far too often, these suggestions that need further exploration are treated as hard facts to be embraced or refuted.
Ong, as he himself liked to stress, did not try to theorize. Rather than theorize, he tried to describe what we knew and what the implications of that knowledge was. And this is not just some semantic game that Ong and I are playing. As I've argued before, this distinction is key to understanding Ong's work (see for instance, this post for the gist of this argument).

What I'm getting at here in this post, and it's not a new theme for me, is that Orality & Literacy is one of the more misread and misunderstood books in English studies. And, moreover, far too little is done with it. It's cited a lot by both its supporters and its critics, but it's not used enough as a road map for further exploration. In writing it, Ong presented us with a map that has large tracks of unknown territory, and on this map he did not write "Beyond here be dragons." No. Ong wanted us to explore, to discover, and to learn. He believed knowledge existed in time (follow the link at the end of the paragraph above), and that what we know is always provisional and will always need to be reevaluated and reworked as new knowledge comes in.

I'm always struck by thoughts like these when I pick this book up. While it came at the end of his career, it was always intended to be an introduction to his own work and to the field. Even when it was published in 1982, it was not meant to be an end point but instead a point of departure.

Cross posted to Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archive.

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