In the chapter ‘Some Psychodynamics of Orality’, from the 1982 text Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong provides a generalization of the psychodynamics found in oral and primarily oral cultures. The exercise examines the thoughts, mechanics, patterns, mnemonics, and strategies of two dichotomous ways of thinking: orality and literacy. As logical as it is to reduce the conversation to black and white, this only makes us more aware of potential biases and the conversation must include complex social power struggles.
Ong specifically acknowledges difficulty in trying to overcome “chirographic and typographic bias” (Ong, 1982, p.76), and, the text generally approaches its topics with impartiality. However a few passages suggest some bias. It was not directly said that oral based cultures were inferior, yet, some comments suggested a hint of superiority.
When discussing how a barely literate person shows some signs of “formal intellectual structures” (Ong, 1982, p.52), Ong comments that “a little literacy goes a long way” (Ong, 1982, p.52). This reflects a greater value on abstract thinking. While it may be truth to the idea that literacy further developed analytical thought; this adds to the feeling of an ethnocentric world view.
Consider the similar comment: “It only takes a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought process” (Ong, 1982, p.50). This passage is reminiscent of religious and imperialistic rallying cries that it is their duty to educate those, in far off lands, who do not know a better way.
The term ‘primitive’ is also used while paraphrasing another study. The term is followed only by the a correction in parenthesis: “(in fact, orally based)” (Ong, 1982, p.50). Ong does not speak of the connotations of that word or potential power dynamics at play.
Aside from a few comments that reflect a potential bias, Ong’s writing comes across as analytic and logical. Far from agonistic, information is presented as a matter of fact. It is writing that created a distinct change, a marker, dividing one period from the next. This suggests a technologically deterministic perspective where “technology is the agent of social change” (Murphie & Potts, 2003, p.11). From this perspective, there appears to be little room for debate or unresolved issues.
Whereas, in fact there is still much left unresolved. Consider First Nations rights and land claim issues. As historically oral cultures, they faced a significant challenge in having their oral history recognized in the very courts that determine the fate of their claims. In a court of law, the written word is valued far more than verbal testimony. Print, signed agreements, and contracts have the greatest value and hearsay is inadmissible. In almost all cases, a written contract supersedes verbal testimony.
A court of law appears to be incompatible with oral histories. Even the phrase ‘following the letter of the law’, exemplifies this incompatibility. However there are some similarities. In oral societies judges drew upon relevant consistent proverbs to discern decisions (Ong, 1978, p.5). Court decisions today rely upon the precedence of existing case law, which itself is both recorded and evolving.
How is a judge to consider an elder’s stories, or the songs and dances that show a cultures connection to the land? Even if it is to be admitted, how will it be valued or weighed? In spite of this apparent incompatibility, that recognition was won in the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling of the Delgamuukw case.
In addition to reaffirming the constitutionally protected rights of Aboriginal title, the Supreme Court ruling of the Delgamuukw case changed the way courts must consider oral histories of First Nations. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s outright dismissal of oral evidence. It was found that “courts must be willing to rely on oral history, including traditional stories and songs, in a way that until now they have not.” (BC Treaty Commission, 1999, p.3).
Perhaps Ong would have been critical of this decision. He cited multiple examples of ‘structural amnesia’ where “parts of the past with no immediately discernible relevance to the present had simply fallen away” (Ong, p48). Regardless, it has yet to be demonstrated what it will actually look like when courts weigh evidence of oral history. This may not come to pass for some time, given the Supreme Court’s ruling encouraged both parties to commit to the treaty process, rather than use the courts to reach an agreement. (BC Treaty Commission, 1999).
Ong touched on the temporal aspects of orality but did not fully discuss the fragile nature of a language’s own existence. Sound exists only in the moment, and a language only exists so long as it is spoken. Indeed, the health of a language can be measured by the number of people who use it. First Nations have faced a long history of repressive governing policies, displacement, and cultural genocide which includes loss of language. Language loss is “especially devastating to indigenous cultures, which rely heavily on oral traditions.” (Crawford, 1996, p.46).
By way of deconstructing the differences in ways of thinking, Ong sought to “investigate the depth of orality out of which writing emerged” (Ong, 1982, p.76). Attaining insight into the practices, attributes, and psychodynamics of orality is a worthwhile goal; however, we must also include power and values in that conversation. Even after several hundred years, differences and conflicts between the cultures of orality and literacy are far from resolution.
Crawford, J. (1996). Seven Hypotheses on Language Loss Causes and Cures. Center for Excellence in Education, Northern Arizona University
Murphie, A. and Potts, J. (2003). Culture and technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ong, W. (1978) ‘Literacy and orality in our times’ ADE Bulletin, 58 (September) 1-7.
Ong, W. (1982) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.