Commentary #1 – Orality and Literacy, Chapter 4: Writing Restructures Consciousness

It is quite likely that Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982) has a broad readership among a multitude of disciplines including linguists, educators, historians, philosophers, and so forth.  My own background in psychology afforded me a cognitive and neuropsychological lens with which to interpret Ong.  In so doing, I formulated a key question before embarking on the reading:  How does writing physically (that is, physiologically) and metaphysically restructure the brain? Or, put another way closer to our current sensibilities:  How does writing restructure the software and the hardware of the brain?

After detailing the history of writing as a technology and the evolution of script and the alphabet, Ong stresses  a finding of Kerckhove’s who found that completely phonetic alphabets, which forms the fundamental code of many writing systems, works very efficiently with abstract thought which is centered in the left-hemisphere of the brain.  In fact, studies of brain activity support the notion that literacy causes physiological changes to the structures of the brain; the amount and location of blood supply to brain structures is different in literate people compared with who are not literate who perform the same phonetic tasks (Castro-Caldas, Petersson, Reis, Stone-Elander & Ingvar, 1998).  Ong goes on to point that it was the development of the phonetic alphabet, by the ancient Greeks and other cultures, that truly democratized script because it was the easiest to learn.

Another notable cognitive restructuring Ong posits is that members of literate cultures have a very strong conception of time whereas, in primary oral societies, there is no need for this awareness.  Indeed, this idea follows logically from the psychodynamics of orality, especially the fact the cognitions of oral cultures were situated in everyday life rather than in abstractions.  With the internalization of writing, a calendar becomes a possible and necessary chart that grounds written material within a carefully developed dating system.  An awareness of time in literate cultures is a significant and pervasive component of conscious thought.

As cultures slowly internalized writing, and the alphabetic coding that is basic, the potential for using the alphabet as a mnemonic tool became possible. In primary oral cultures, formulaic speech patterns were used extensively to aid memory and those formed the structures of oral discourse.  Thousands of metrically designed formulae were available to ancient poets and students of rhetoric.  As cultures progressed toward literacy, a connection can be made to a more systematic method of remembering information that is directly tied to early knowledge of the alphabet.  Essentially, the requirement that alphabets be so well internalized directly leads to an effective memorization technique.

Mid-chapter, Ong makes another thought-provoking observation about literacy:  “Writing is a solipsistic operation” (1982, p. 100).  I find that characterization ironic and somewhat incongruous.  Had he said, “Writing is a solitary operation,” then it would not have been a salient statement.  Nevertheless, solipsism presupposes minimally that we each live in a reality created by our minds and that everything, aside from our minds, is a creation of our own consciousness.  Essentially, the idea is that nothing else exists except our own mind.

Literacy would seem to contradict solipsism completely.  While writing is often a solitary act, it is a process that involves consideration of the reader.  Words must stand on their own, and into the future, and must be composed in a way that set its own context and presents the author’s ideas and arguments as precisely as possible.  Ong does attend to this issue in his characterization of the writer who ‘fictionalizes’ the reader, and the reader who must ‘fictionalize’ the writer.  The imagination must create a conception going in either direction.  This act restructures consciousness as both roles must reconstruct the context of the other.  But if writing is solipsistic, then how can there be more than one role?

At this point, in his discussion on the dynamics of textuality, I would have expected Ong to remark on the use of writing as an intentional cognitive tool.  Granted, writing is primarily used as a communication tool.  Yet, cannot writing also be used to control and shape one’s own cognitions?  If words are indeed tied to death, as Ong notes early in the chapter during his discussion of Plato’s contentions: “…writing is inhuman, thing-like… it destroys memory” (p. 80), then why is there no discussion, for example, of a writer’s intentional decision to write down thoughts that are disturbing?  If words are reductive and lifeless, then cannot the written word be used as a powerful, introspective tool to control and manipulate one’s own cognitions, emotions, values and beliefs?  I find Jean Paul Sartre’s belief that “writing is an existential act” (p. 27, Martinot, 2006) to be a more accurate representation than that of a solipsistic one.

Old book

Image by Augusto Serna. This image is Creative Commons licensed.

Finally, in Ong’s discourse on the grapholect, he makes his most impassioned assertion regarding writing and how it reconstructs consciousness.  He makes a clear argument that grapholects (which are the amalgamation and transformation of many dialects, many vocabularies, and many cultures into one unifying and complete written language) contain innumerable abstract fragments of the minds and thoughts of populace from which it grew.  It is a tantalizing idea that a collective consciousness can, perhaps, be contained and sustained by the grapholect used by a society.  Consciousness is, therefore, not just restructured; it is transformed via the use of grapholects.

References

Castro-Caldas, A., Petersson, K. M., Reis, A., Stone-Elander, S., & Ingvar, M. (1998). The Illiterate Brain: Learning to Read and Write During Childhood Influences the Functional Organization of the Adult Brain. Brain, 121, 1053-1063.  doi: 10.1093/brain/121.6.1053

Martinot, S. (2006). Forms in the abyss: A Philosophical bridge between Sartre and Derrida. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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

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