Ong’s Orality and Literacy

Walter Ong
Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
Area: Digital Media

•    Difference between orality and literacy
o    Developed in electronic age, not earlier (second orality)
Chapter One: The Orality of Language
•    No one has figured out a way to write all the languages—orality is permanent
•    “Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality.”
•    Aristotle’s “Art of Rhetoric”—rhetoric was/had to be a product of writing
•    After delivering a speech, nothing remained to work over
o    Disgracefully incompetent to recite text prepared in advance
o    Orally composed speeches treated as written texts
•    Primary Orality: culture untouched by knowledge of writing/text
•    Secondary Orality: present-day high-technology culture—depend on writing and print for their existence
•    Written words are residue ≠ orality has only the potential to be retold
•    “A literate person cannot fully recover a sense of what the word is to purely oral people”
•    Can’t describe a primary phenomenon by starting with a secondary one
•    Literacy, unless carefully monitored, destroys and restores memory
9: “Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it, making it possible to organize the ‘principles’ or constituents of oratory into a scientific ‘art,’ a sequentially ordered body of explanation that showed how and why oratory achieved and could be made to achieve its various specific effects.”
12: “Thinking of oral tradition or a heritage of oral performance genres and styles as ‘oral literature’ is rather like thinking of horses as automobiles without wheels.”
14-5: “Nevertheless, without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations.  In this sense, orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing.  Literacy, as will be seen, is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language.”
Chapter Three: Oral Memory
•    No way to verify the correctness of oral texts unless recited with someone
•    Twentieth Century bards: don’t repeat the same thing twice, but instead use the standard formulas in connection with standard themes
•    When retelling a story, it’s a recitation of themes and formulas variously built
o    (Joni: “Paint a Starry Night again, man!”)
•    When demand for printed book declines, presses stop but books remain (residue)
o    When market for oral genealogy disappears, so does the genealogy itself
•    Oral Memory: high somatic component
Chapter Four: Writing Restructures Consciousness
•    Writing has established autonomous or context-free discourse: detached from author
•    Plato: Phaedrus: “Writing is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can only be in the mind”
o    Weaken the mind and memory
•    “Writing is passive.  So are computers.”
•    Idea/form is visually based
•    Oral: natural
•    Writing: artificial
•    Writing as leaving a mark (i.e. animal waste)
o    Development of coded system for exactness
•    Writing was/is most momentous of all technological inventions
•    The alphabet represents sound as a thing
•    High literacy = truly written composition = precisely a text
•    Orality knows no lists, charts, or figures
•    Texts assimilate utterance to the human body
•    Writing is an imitation of talking (diary = talking to myself)
•    “Art” of rhetoric, though concerned with oral speech, is a product of writing
78: “What functionally literate human beings really are: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, but the technology of writing.”
81: “Intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its workings become ‘internalized,’ that is, part of its own reflexive process.”
91: “For the alphabet operates more directly on sound as sound than the other scripts, reducing sounds directly to spatial equivalents, and in smaller, more analytic, more manageable units that a syllabary: instead of one symbol for the sounds ba, your have two, b plus a.”
105: “By separating the knower from the known, writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set.”
110-1: “From at least the time of Quintilian, loci communes was taken in two different senses.  First it referred to the ‘seats’ of arguments, considered as abstract ‘headings’ in today’s parlance, such as definition, cause, effect, opposites, likenesses, and so on. […]  Secondly, loci communes or commonplaces referred to collections of sayings (in effect, formulas) on various topics – such as loyalty, decadence, friendship, or whatever – that could be worked into one’s own speech-making or writing.  In this sense the loci communes can be styled ‘cumulative commonplaces.’
Chapter 7: Some theorems
•    Barthes: meaning of text is outside, in the reader
•    Derrida: writing isn’t a supplement to the written word, but a different performance altogether
o    In this way, Derrida aligns with McLuhan
•    Language and thought for the Greeks grew out of memory


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