The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Knowledge-Power Literacy-Orality

The Secret and Magic Power: Orality and Literacy

Power-Knowledge Literacy-Orality

Noah Burdett

U.B.C. Master of Educational Technology Candidate

Knowledge is a difficult concept to define.  One point that has been made clear by Michel Foucault and others is knowledge is fundamentally connected to power.  Many have heard the cliché that  “knowledge is power.”  If power relations are viewed in terms of access to knowledge than how is access changed in oral and literate cultures?  The questions itself is of a great divide nature and will help to demonstrate the fallibility of setting oral and literate cultures as binaries.

By comparing characteristics of literate and oral societies one is able to demonstrate that the control of information in any form of society is an important factor in the creation of inequality, regardless of how that information is transferred.

Culture and Language

Culture will be examined in a broad context and will provide a platform for comparison, but it should be understood that “culture” is not meant to illustrate that difference do not exist, not all oral or literate cultures share the exact same attributes.  However, members of a specific community do share culture. To suggest that culture is shared also suggests that it is learned from others and that it is transmitted. If culture is shared than it is also not a private entity thus one cannot have a private culture and must be a participant.

The method of transmission is the medium of language.  Language is thus the key to membership within a culture and to learn a language is to become a cultural member; to become a cultural member is to learn a language (Parkingson and Drislane 1996).  As language is key factor in the creation of culture, does ones participation in relation to other depend on how that language is transmitted either orally or through a written system?

Oral Cultures

In a primary oral culture knowledge is embed within the knower.  To find knowledge one has to seek out a member of the culture that knows.  Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy attributes the need to be intimately connected to the knower because of the property of sound, “sound exists only when it is going out of existence,” (Ong 2008, p. 70). The time space relationship of sound prior to recording technologies creates a circumstance where members of a primary oral culture relate “intimately to the unifying, centralizing, interiorizing economy of sound as perceived by human beings” (Ong 2008, p.73).

When knowledge is embedded in the knower and the knower possess the power to chose and distribute the knowledge as he/she sees fit, a power structure is created. Thus in an oral society knowledge is power as it is embedded.  A member of an oral culture is positioned within their culture is determined by your situation within the collective and how others view your knowledge base.  The act of embedding knowledge within individuals creates a power structure of the knower and the seeker.  The structure is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus[i] where Socrates acts as the knower and Phaedrus as the seeker, the irony being that this is a written work. It can be said that knowledge as power works within oral societies to create inequality.

Literate Cultures

Written forms of language change the embodiment of knowledge, but not the power structure.  Writing provides a way to detach the knowledge from its author and audience, giving knowledge a form permanence, rigor, and objectivity. As Ong describes, with the written word “each reader enters into his or her own private reading world,” (Ong 1982, p. 73).  The act of separation would seem to create a power dynamic between those that can access the information in a written form and those that cannot.  Examining the history of education using Learned Latin and other chirographically controlled languages demonstrates how power and knowledge are still controlled within written systems even though the knowledge can be separated from the knower.

Learned Latin became the written language of scholastics for some 1400 years. Ong describes learned Latin as “a language written spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting, (Ong 1982, p. 111).  Learned Latin became a chirographical language spoken and written by its users and separate from their mother tongue.  Learned Latin served as a way to isolate a community of male literate that wanted to share a common intellectual heritage. Creating a group that was in control of it of a form of language transmission further enhanced the isolating aspect of the written word and creates a scenario where knowledge and power create inequality.

Knowledge as power will be controlled and transferred within a culture regardless of how individuals are connected with that knowledge either through orality or literacy or both.  The similarity of the power-knowledge relationship exemplifies that within oral and literate society “differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated,” (Chandler 1994).  The human ability to isolated and alienated is not text or orally based.  Demonstrating the connection between power-knowledge relationship in both oral and literate cultures also demonstrates that the binary opposition of the two misses the human component of both.

If the move from orality to literacy continued existing forms of power than using technology of writing as causal mover of change may also be overstated.   For example, Ong attributes the isolating aspect of Learned Latin with making possible “the exquisitely abstract world of medieval scholasticism and of the new mathematical modern science which followed on the scholastic experience, (Ong 1982, 112).  Attributing these scientific and mathematic developments to the language in which they are expressed does not determine that it was because of the language that they were made possible.  Ong’s claim reduces a complex time and process to single phenomenon and does not incorporate a perspective that views the larger cultural and social context.  The above has shown that literacy and orality are components of the human experience but should never be seen as single driving forces for our behaviours.


Excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus (Retriever, 29 September 2009 from:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 29 September, 2009 from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Parkinson, G. & Drislane, R. (1996). Exploring Society: Pathways in sociology. Toronto: Harcourt Canada.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 7:27 pm }

A thought provoking commentary

You must log in to post a comment.