Ong, W. J. (1988). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, Routledge.
I went back to read parts of Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word” this morning because when I read it last week, it just didn’t stick. I thought his overall premise is easy enough to grasp: The advent of writing and print literacies have fundamentally restructured consciousness and culture. Such a huge argument that it would almost have to be self-evident in order to be convincing. And in some ways it is.
Rather than come to terms with the book’s overall project, I’d rather reflect on a few of the details I see as relevant to my own studies (new writing technologies in composition).
I see this terms operation explicitly or implicitly throughout Ong’s text in several different senses of the word. (So now I’m using “the word” as a technology to engage his text?) Most explicitly (pg. 41) Ong posits that both orality and literacy are conservative in their own way. Orality expends energy on conserving knowledge. Literacy frees up energy for new speculation. In this sense, he’s making something akin to a Marxist-cognitive reading. The conservation he’s writing about seems to be an economy of consciousness. As humans we have a finite capacity, etc. But what he doesn’t get at here, is that this work of conservation is merely transferred into inanimate materials (books, computers, etc.). Later in the book, he writes much about the material context in which writing happens, but he never brings that conversation back to conservation. I think there’s an opportunity here to forward his notion of conservation, though it is problematic in myriad ways. Anthony Giddens (Social Theory), Raymond Williams (Marxism and Literature) and Daniel R. White (Postmodern Ecologies) seem to be relevant to this idea in the ways that they look at the structuring of social systems as self-stabilizing/reproducing environments. Walter Benjamin (“Work of Art”), too, for his discussion of what is “lost” through reproduction.
Artificial technologies are natural to human life
Ong takes the position that human are naturally tool-employing beings. I agree. His example about the competent violinist is important for two reasons. First, he points out that “mastery” or skill is a conduit between expression and a tool. As a person’s mastery increases, the difference between human and tool dissolves. In this sense tools can become extensions of consciousness. I know this idea has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Ong’s book, that I had much clarity about how the idea is structured. The second important element to his example is that the tool (the violin) creates an opportunity for an entirely new mode of expression that could not exist without the tool. And I think this same idea is closely tied to mastery. This idea gets really interesting when Ong substitutes “writing” for “violin.” Again, to extend this argument into discussions of emerging digital techologies (to which Ong gestures later) is to find ourselves in the works of N. Katherine Hayles (Posthumanism) and Christina Haas (Writing Technology).
Writing as Commodity
The last idea I want to mention here has to do with a Marxist understanding of how writing has been reified into a commodity with multiple functions in a capitalist society. Once written down and highly reproducible, it seems only natural in our culture for issues of property to pop up. Intellectual property. Copyright. Trademarks. Plagiarism. Ong sets out a clear trajectory from writing to printing to these discussions. I’m fascinated by the ways these issues continue to increase in complexity and fragmentation as writing begins to elide print into digital media. Some of my own preoccupations point this argument toward questions of intellectual work, which is almost exclusively defined in terms of print media. Ong’s project allows for a historical understanding of how we came to valorize print in the academy. It is this portion of the argument which illuminates the work that needs undoing. The work of Bruce Horner (Terms of Work for Composition), Raymond Williams (Marxism and Literature), Cheryl Ball (Kairos), Walter Benjamin (“Work of Art”), and Matthew Kirschenbaum (Mechanisms) all seems fruitful in forwarding this aspect of Ong’s project.