Gordon's Reviews > Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word

Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong
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Jan 31, 2012

really liked it
Read in January, 2012

Walter Ong believes that writing is the single most important technology created by man, because it has had the greatest effect in shaping human consciousness. He believes that individuals and cultures can be fundamentally divided between those that are primary oral (have never known writing) and those that are literate. The effect of literacy is to greatly amplify certain modes of thought: analytical, abstract, impersonal. Though writing itself dates to roughly 3500 B.C. when it was invented by the Sumerians, something approaching universal literacy in advanced countries did not come about until the 19th century -- almost within living memory.

Ong's analysis draws heavily on the work of Eric Havelock, a classical scholar who focused heavily on the work of Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey were oral works, only written down long after the passing of Homer (and all the oral story-tellers who contributed to these tales in their re-telling down through the centuries). Striking features of this type of story-telling are the mnemonic techniques it uses, in particular meter and formulaic phrases. Ong extends these observations about mnemonic techniques to discuss speech in purely oral cultures, and how all of them tend to rely heavily on proverbs and other such verbal formulas as a way of retaining knowledge. Without writing, knowledge can only be retained in memory, and so techniques for reinforcing memory are widespread. As literacy becomes widespread, these memory techniques begin to fade -- proverbs begin to fade from the language, and memorization through repetition and oral performance becomes uncommon. Once knowledge and stories can be encoded in writing however, literature becomes more free-form, without the restrictive conventions (metre, formulaic repetition...) of oral epics. The store of literature grows explosively. At the same time, vocabulary increases rapidly, character development in literature becomes deeper and more subtle, and narrative plot structures become sustained and more complex.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book describes research by a Russian linguist in Central Asia in the 1930's. The researcher would give his subjects, illiterate peasants, strings of words such as saw, axe, hammer and log, and ask them to say which word did not fit. They couldn't do it. They would see all of them as being related to the working of wood, so all of the words were of the same kind. When he showed shapes to these same individuals, such as circles or squares, none of the them would use these terms. Instead, they would use the names of commonplace objects of the same shape -- for example, for a circle they would say pie, or plate, or barrel, but never "circle". They lacked the ability to express such an abstraction. When he repeated these same experiments with literate subjects, even if they were only barely literate, these difficulties disappeared. Very interesting ...

Ong is very much of a big thinker in this field -- and has clearly stood on the shoulders of Eric Havelock in the process -- yet I often long to see more evidence backing up his sweeping statements. He amply footnotes his sources, but his sources themselves seem to derive from more of a literary tradition than a scientific one, even when they purport to be products of the social sciences such as cultural anthropology. Experimental research evidence is almost non-existent, though the trove of anecdotal evidence presented is quite rich.

One fundamental research obstacle here is that oral story-telling is an evanescent art form: once told, it is gone forever, unless some intrepid scribe or videographer happens to be standing by. Still more difficult is ancient story-telling, which figures prominently in this book. Who is to say how the tales of Homer were once recited, and how much each retelling of the tale differed from its predecessors, before the "final" version was committed to paper? Add these difficulties to the fact that, today, cultures untouched by writing are remote, few in number and fast-vanishing, and you have a very big problem. This creates a fundamental difficulty: much of Ong's theory may prove unfalsifiable -- unable to be either proven or disproven. The necessary experiments were never performed, and the possibility of gathering more evidence is all but gone.

One piece of advice: skip the last chapter, "Some Theorems". It appears to have been machine generated by a structuralist/deconstructionist/textualist blather program, release 1.0.
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message 1: by Keith (last edited May 07, 2012 10:27AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Keith Swenson This looks like another one I need to add to the list to read. If human society and intellect had evolved for oral storytelling, it is likely that written communication distorts that or possibly even supercharges it. Interesting to see what relationship this has to the Internet, which is primarily written (and persistent), but has the speed of oral. Ran across another book: "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human" by Jonathan Gottschall which seems to reflect a similar theme. Well, I guess I have to read the book.


Gordon You might also want to check "On the Origin of Stories" by Brian Boyd. Have not read it yet, but seems to be in he same genre and I have it queued up on my Kindle.


Kelly Carter Some recent research (I don't have the reference handy, unfortunately) shows similarities between the Russian peasants interviewed by Luria (mentioned in Ong's book), and modern day people of east Asian culture: Eastern culture has influenced cognition much like that of the illiterate culture of the Russian peasants. Examples: less likely to understand and use logical reasoning (e.g., syllogisms); more concrete than abstract in conceptualization. Western culture has been heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks. I hope to continue exploring this general topic to reconcile the issues of orality vs. literacy and Eastern vs. Western culture and their effects on cognition.


Kelly Carter Also, if you find interesting the orality/literacy topic, try reading some of the work by Julian Jaynes: the bicameral mind and the emergence of consciousness. Mind-blowing work, even if you can't find it in yourself to totally agree with Jaynes.


Gordon Glad you enjoyed Ong's book so much. On the consciousness issue, I lean more towards the neuroscience/reductionist approach to this problem, but the somewhat more speculative and integration-oriented approach of cognitive psychologists and evolutionary psychologists contributes a lot as well. It seems likely we will have the "definitive" explanation of consciousness in the next 10 years or so -- but it's been almost 40 years since Jaynes' book so I may be wildly wrong on this.


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