Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ong on Time and Knowledge

Some day I'd like to edit a collection of Ong's essays titled A Preface and Postscript to Orality and Literacy. This, from the Introduction to In the Human Grain, would make a good candidate:
Man's knowledge and understanding came into being within time, though they situate man in a way outside time's bounds. In the realm of knowledge today, time is paying high dividends. In many fields of learning we now gain more ground in a decade than earlier man could gain in millennia. This is because knowledge is even more than cumulative: it is self-accelerating, and we live in an age when its acceleration has reached the point where it must be calculated in orders of magnitude entirely new in relationship to the life of the individual human being. There is no way to 'sum up' knowledge in a computer age.

As man moves through time his growth in knowledge ac- [page break] celebrates, his relationship to time itself undergoes a change. He notices time more and more. He studies it and himself in it, becoming more and more explicitly knowledge about his past. The further we get from the beginning of things, the more we know about the beginning. As knowledge of the past grows, focus on the present becomes more intent, for the present acquires a face of its own insofar as it can be both connected with and differentiated from a past circumstantially known. The knowledge explosion thus breeds the existentialist sensitivity to the present moment, felt as the front of past time, which marks our age.

Moreover, as time unfolds, the mind of man not only accumulates knowledge at an accelerating rate, but it also acquires new dimensions and new relations to the sensory world. The human sensorium reorganizes itself as the spoken word is reconstructed outside its native habitat of sound, relegated to space by the alphabet and then, this time with the aid of the alphabet, introjected into a new world of sound, the electronic world which dominates, though it does not monopolize, our modes of expression and consequently our thought processes today. The shifts in the media of communication entail corresponding shifts in psychological structures, creating new strains in the psyche while relieving old ones.

Though he was born into time and lives in its stream, man does not readily believe that time is good. Attempted repudiation of time is a theme of the second section of this book [which includes "Evolution and Cyclicism in our Time," "Nationalism and Darwinism," and "Evolution, Myth, and Poetic Vision"]. Man fears time, for it lies totally outside his control. Despite anything he can do, it moves inexorably on, never reversing itself, never allowing him really to recapture a moment of his past, even when this past grows in charm and poignancy as it recedes into the distance. Science may control genetics and even the weather, but it cannot harness time. Not the least promise shows here. Worst of all, time engulfs all our decisions. A decision once made cannot really be retracted. So-called retraction or retraction means not a withdrawal of the first decision, which has already vanished down the steady moving stream of time, but rather a second decision which we must add to the first. Instead of 'replacing' a decision, we now have two on the record. Time is beyond all persuasion. It hears no pleas. This inexorability of time tempts man into illusion: he likes to think that time is cy- [page break] clic, that it will return either to give him another chance or to show that he never had a chance at all—what happens because it had happened before, so that he has no responsibility. But this pretense is unreal, and it reveals itself more and more as unreal since the discovery of evolution, which is the discovery of the unrepeatability of all being" (ix-xi).
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