Critiquing Ong and the Relationship of Literacy to Culture

Walter J. Ong is a renowned scholar, university Professor of English and Humanities in Psychiatry and the author of several highly influential studies on the transformation of human consciousness (Ong, 1982). He is an expert in the field of orality and literacy. Ong believes individuals from a primarily oral culture think differently than individuals from a literate background. He believes that chiefly oral humans perceive their history and culture in a unique way and are impossible to study from a literate perspective. This commentary will discuss Ong’s views on literacy and culture in his 1979 publication, Literacy and Orality in Our Times, as well as in his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy.  To critique Ong, literacy will be presented as a contributing factor, not the exclusive agent which assists in the extension of human consciousness.

Literacy and Culture

The Literate and Non-Literate Mind

In his 1979 publication, Literacy and Orality in Our Times, Ong describes the oral mind as uncomplicated and transparent. Ong claims that “without writing the mind cannot even generate concepts such as ‘history’… just as without print, and the massive accumulation of detailed documented knowledge which print makes possible, the mind cannot generate portmanteau concepts such as ‘culture’” (1979, p.2). With this statement, Ong declares that the non-literate mind cannot comprehend their personal history or cultural heritage. By declaring culture as a portmanteau concept, Ong is suggesting that the non-literate mind is far too simple to understand a topic as diverse as culture. On the contrary, O’Donnell (2007) argues, “it is from roughly the fifth century A.D. that the western Mediterranean and its dependencies to the north and west became wholly, independently Latin, … though their literacy pretensions would be relatively slow developing” (“The Virtual Library”, para. 12). In other words, the people (although non-literate) were still Latin. When they learned to write, these people (now literate) continued to be Latin. Perhaps the literate and non-literate minds do not determine how an individual interprets their history or culture but as Chandler has argued, interpretation is framed by context. Chandler (1994) counterclaims “meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts.” (“The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, para. 5).

The Literate and Non-Literate Historian

With his 1982 publication, Orality and Literacy, Ong presents a contradictory argument concerning literacy and history. Ong (1982)  suggests that “by storing knowledge outside the mind, writing and, even more, print downgrade the figures of the wise old man and the wise old woman, repeaters of the past, in favour of younger discoverers of something new” (p.41).  In his earlier publication, Ong argues that non-literate individuals cannot comprehend history. Now he is claiming that the literate mind does not appreciate history. Ong (1982) further describes an oral culture as those that know only what they can recall (p.34). He decides that in a literate culture, memory is easier achieved. Ong (1982) explains that a literate person can write down the stories of their past, and can retrieve these stories whenever necessary without having to resort to memory (p.33). A literate individual can write down the stories of the wise old man. He can tell these stories to his grandchildren, who can then tell the same stories to their grandchildren. There is no reason for writing and print to downgrade the figures of the past. If this is true, as Ong suggests it is, it is a personal choice to replace the heroes of the past with present day reincarnations. It is not however the sole result of literate achievement.

The Literate Judgement

Ong declares it to be a challenge for a literate person to judge an individual from a purely oral culture. Ong (1982) argues, “it is perhaps impossible to devise a test in writing or even an oral test shaped in a literate setting that would assess accurately the native intellectual abilities of persons from a highly oral culture” (p.55). Chandler (1994) agrees, he cites an argument from Olson (1994) in which “Ruth Finnegan comments that ‘it is difficult to maintain any clear-cut and radical distinction between those cultures which employ the written word and those that do not’” (“Biases of the Ear and Eye”, para. 4). The argument that oral and literate people have vastly different cultures is troublesome because, as Ong himself declares, it is an impossible task to judge an oral culture from a literate perspective.

Concluding Thoughts

Ong defines a literate and a non-literate mind as two vastly distinct entities. He suggests that oral people cannot comprehend their personal history, and counters this with an argument that only oral people can cherish their history. He has based his professional career writing numerous publications about the non-literate mind, and yet he argues that it is inconceivable that a literate person, such as himself, explain the inner workings of the non-literate brain. Perhaps Ong is admired not because he presents a controversial argument but because, as he has said, “my remarks are intended to be provocative rather than inclusive” (Ong, 1979, p.2).

References

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 23 September, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html

Chandler, D. (1994). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis [Online]. Retrieved, 23 September, 2012 from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/whorf.html

O’Donnell, J. J. (2007). The virtual library: An idea whose time has passed [Online]. Wayback Machine Beta. Retrieved, 23 September, 2012 from http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html

Ong, J. W. (1979). Literacy and orality in our times. Modern Language Association, 1- 7. Retrieved, 27 September, 2012 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595303

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

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One Response to Critiquing Ong and the Relationship of Literacy to Culture

  1. Hi Tara,

    Your commentary about Ong’s contradiction about the literate minds (himself) not being able to understand/explain the non-literate minds is most interesting… So, I guess it makes his work a complete speculation about something he clearly do not completely comprehend himself… a work for the world to self-debate.

    Johanne

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