Sunday, February 12, 2006

Notes for "The Orality-Literacy Wars," RNF @ CCCC 2006

While I don't think I was at first, I've been a little uncomfortable with Ong's essay "Orality and Literacy in Our Times" ever since I learned of the orality-literacy wars, and I think I've been uncomfortable with it because I was misreading it, as a good number of people do (a quick skimming over sections of it seem to support what I'm writing here). Many people, I think, read the essay as a defense of Thomas J. Farrell's application of Ong's thought to basic writers, especially to African American students, and it's not. Rather than a defense of Farrell, it is, I want to suggest, a correction. Or, maybe better, it is Ong's statement on the subject delimiting exactly to what extent he believes Farrell's ideas useful and, at the same time, suggesting a better line of inquiry into the subject.

This would not be the only time Ong had done something like this. In reference the controversy started by Farrell's essay "IQ and Standard English" (CCC 34 (1983): 470-484), a friend wrote to Ong about the abuse being heaped upon him in relation to the essay, he responded that "Writing and the Evolution of Consciousness" would set the record straight as far as his position on the issue was concerned. [I need to double check it is this to see if I've got the right essay -- and if you're reading this aside, don't assume this is the correct essay.] I was strongly struck by the fact that while the essay did indeed "set the record straight" (I reread it upon reading this letter), there was no indication that it was a response for anyone looking one. Ong wasn't into direct confrontation beyond the occasional short correction when he was being directly attacked--see, for instance, his response to Beth Daniel's "Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy" (PRE/TEXT 8.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1987): 155), a fact which is supported by comments people have made to me about him and comments I've read in letters. He was in his 70s by then and he notes that he believed his efforts were better geared towards new issues rather than directly fighting against what he believed to be misreadings/misuses of his work.

There maybe something along these lines in relation to "Orality and Literacy in Our Times" and I'll look, but until we have a finding guide with keyword searching (something that's going to take a long time after the finding guide itself is done -- it's going to take me the better part of three years (at least) to get the basic work done so that people can start worrying about issues like going through the material and tagging for keywords), I'll be hit or miss. I might stumble upon it, or Ong may have put it in the "Orality and Literacy in Our Times" file, but it's just as likely that if something like it exists it is a minor comment in a letter that's filed under some other topic such as someone's correspondence file or in a response to a request to give a lecture or in some other publication file.

But what I do know is that while "Orality and Literacy in Our Times" is oft times read as a defense of Farrell, Farrell himself is frustrated buy the essay. I don't remember if he uses these exact words, but it was clear from his comments during the April 2005 Ong conference here at Saint Louis University, Farrell doesn't believe Ong went far enough in that essay and he's quite disappointed that Ong never actually ran with Farrell's ideas. (All of this is on video, during, I think, the discussion to the Friday, April 8, 2005 "Current Research" panel held from 10:00 - 11:30 AM).

To my mind, the orality-literacy wars are as much about misreading and misunderstanding as anything else, which is why I'm approaching this topic not as a partisan continuing the fight but as a case study in academic error. I get a lot of mileage out of both Daniel and Farrell, and while there's plenty of others to deal with, they've become (and fairly so, I think) my operative symbols (mnemonic cognitive images) of the "war."

More notes for this talk. [Note to self: see also the WPA-L archives for June or July 2005.]

| | Walter Ong | Walter J Ong

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