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Thoughts on Orality & Literacy

Some thoughts on Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word The full text is available online to NYU students.

The immediate temptation after reading the first four chapters of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is to reconsider and recast his claims in the context of the web.

There are many ways in which communication on the internet resembles a continuation of the arc of high literacy Ong outlines: Blogs perpetuate the written diary’s solipsism. Email and SMS nudge away holdouts of secondary orality like phone calls and voice mail. The trend towards concision — the 140 character obsession, for example — has dispatched with the “formulary baggage” and “copia” associated with orality.

These newfound parallels to (and efficiencies over) pre-web literacy are inevitable enough. But even as our dependence on the written word intensifies, the web also seems to shift the spirit and style of communication back towards Ong’s definitions of orality. Yes, the bulk of our interface with the web consists of lines and lines of text, and yes, it’s missing so many of the existential elements that characterize a physical conversation — nevertheless, the tone of the web is often better aligned with traditions of orality than literacy. As such, the web disrupts Ong’s narrative of orality’s decline and literacy’s ascent.

Flickr, YouTube, and similar platforms offer obvious counterpoints to the web’s textual fixation — but the comment text annotating the imagery on these sites, and the general state of discourse on the web, offers more evidence of a return (relapse?) to orality.

Ong describes the essential challenges of writing: “To make yourself clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context.” he writes. “The need for this exquisite circumspection makes writing the agonizing work it commonly is.”

The web’s glut of emoticons and long strings of emphatic punctuation don’t really solve these challenges — instead, they sidestep writing’s agony by adding some orality to the text. And since every post is predicated on the anticipation of a response, a kind of meter finds its way into the communication — more Illiad and less Finnegans Wake.

In chapter 3, Ong lays out a list of characteristics of oral culture ... it's interesting to see how many of these are aligned with the current state of communication on the web. Here are a few that stand out:

Aggregative rather than analytic — a sense of truth emerges on the web through aggregation of common opinion, forming pockets of (local) consensus.

Redundant or 'copious' — The need to keep text short may reduce redundancy on the individual level, but part of the aggregation process mentioned above depends on (even assumes) overlap and repetition across individual opinions.

Agonistically toned — The web is rich soil for polemics, hyperbolic insults, and has ample supply of the "your mom" jokes Ong cites as oral tradition.

Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced — Online communication seems to straddle these categories. Distance abounds, as does empathy and participation.

Homeostatic — "Sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance." In some senses, the web has an incredible memory — information sticks to it readily, and tends to endure. In direct comparison to oral traditions, the web hardly tends toward homeostasis. Yet, if the web's currency is attention, then mere existence of information is not the whole story: it's important to consider where the mice and eyes are pointed, and these tend to move quickly from one focal point to the next. (From meme to meme...)

September 20 2009 at 8 PM