In the introduction to Walter Ong’s text on “Orality and Literacy” (1982) he indicates to the reader that hindsight is twenty-twenty when deconstructing history. The author explores the idea that we, as a culture, had no understanding of how orality and literacy were changing until the electronic age. In order to understand where we are now, Ong delves in to the past.
In chapter three, “Some Psychodynamics of Orality”, Ong is careful to establish that illiterate does not mean a lack of intelligence, but is simply the absence of writing in a culture. Oral cultures, as he prefers to refer to them, have different psychodynamics, not inferior ones. He makes a poetic point that “sound only exists as it is going out of existence.” (1982, pp. 32) Sound doesn’t last, it is dynamic and exists only as an action. It cannot be frozen and examined. In oral cultures, names hold great power, as in Egyptian mythology, using the true name of a god gave the user the power to command said god.
Ong spends a good deal of time in this chapter on how exactly oral recall works. Rhythm, rhymes and mnemonic aids help with oral recall as can be seen in holy texts and epic poems. Repetition, as well as making personal connections raises the level of significance to the listener and improves retention. However, because oral cultures live very much in the present facts that may not seem relevant are lost. He cites a few examples of the indigenous people’s oral recall of genealogy differing from European records. (1982, pp. 48) In these instances the oral genealogy was considered more relevant and present than past written records. Ong implies that this is an inherent flaw with oral cultures, but could it be that is simply a cultural difference in values? Literate cultures value written records more highly because they offer greater detail and precision. Oral cultures exist in the present and, therefore, their traditions reflect a society’s present cultural values. (1982, pp. 48) In short, they don’t hold on to the past, except where it would add value to the present. One cannot blame oral cultures for placing more value in the know technology that serves them, rather than on the unknown technology that does not.
Ong uses these points to illustrate how oral cultures are less static than literate cultures with recorded history. Orality allows the teller to create the most relevant version to the present rather than honouring the accuracy of the past. Is this so vastly different from textbooks being rewritten to reflect new ideologies? What about living texts, such as Wikipedia that can be altered or changed as new information emerges? Is writing really more permanent or accurate, especially in the emerging digital age, or is it just perceived to be more credible? I would argue that the rewriting of history occurs regardless of literacy. With literate cultures there is simply more evidence left behind of the past and how the present state of affairs has come to be. As anthropologists, there is value in knowing and understanding this evolution as it can provide insight in to the future, but for a culture that lives predominately in the present and is focused on day to day survival, history would hold little value.
Ong explains that oral intelligences and literate intelligences are of different types and styles that are deeply rooted in culture. (1982, pp. 56) In oral cultures knowledge is tied to situations and applications rather than abstract categories. He illustrates this by using the example of geometric figures being identified by subjects as specific objects, like a shovel or sun rather than square and circle. (1982, 51-52) There would be no need to categories objects as abstract geometric shapes as it serves no practical, usable purpose in their daily life. Abstract knowledge is a luxury saved for literate cultures that do not need to hold it in their memory but can store that knowledge outside of themselves.
This brings us to oral memorization. As explored earlier in the chapter, mnemonic aids, rhyme and rhythm all assist in retention. In order to maximize retention, a story needs to be made the teller’s own by building a connection to it. Ong implies that this is only a feature of oral cultures but this is not the case. Adrienne Grear’s Reading Power program, which is wide use in schools today, cites “connection” as one of the key powers in reading comprehension. In Postman’s Technopoly, King Thamus condemns writing for killing memory and real learning. While his point of view can be understood, it is not writing alone that is to blame but the complacency of the reader. Reading Power advocates making the practice of reading an active process of interpreting information rather than simply receiving it, therefore, assimilating a story in to one ’s self to improve retention is applicable in both oral and literate contexts.
Ong is concern with the stability of oral memorization and the changes that occur. He notes variation in such epics as the Illiad, noting these changes as flaws in oral memorization. But is that truly the goal? Where is the artistry in verbatim repetition? Perhaps precise oral reproduction is not what oral cultures are trying to achieve and that is not what should be measured. Ong is concerned that oral memorization is “subject to variation from direct social pressures.” (1982, pp. 66) Considering that these oral cultures live in the present and pass on information that is relevant to their present goals, variations as a result of them are not a flaw but a naturally occurring update.
According to “Orality and Literacy”, oral communication is seen as unifying or connecting groups, while reading isolates the reader because it is a solitary event.(1982, pp. 67) While it is easy to see how that can be true, it presents only one point of view. What if you read the book allowed or participate in a book club discussion? Remaining isolated is a choice and not an affliction of reading. Technology has changed the dynamic and perspective on orality and literacy. In 1982 when Ong published his work, did he envision video blogs, TED Talks and YouTube? Oral culture is making a resurgence in an unforeseen way. Even the categorizing of information that Ong wrote of is being redefined by Twitter and the use of hashtags (#) in our vocabulary. (See Jimmy Fallon’s #hashtag Late Night spoof) A comparison of oral cultures and literate cultures is anthropologically interesting, we must be careful to not exalt literacy over orality. Educators use both, accommodate all and remain versatile enough to adapt and assimilate new fads in to their teaching to build better connections with their students, for example: #YOLO, and other common acronyms such as FML and ROFLMAO. Language, whether written or spoken is an ever evolving creature but, as with oral cultures, we live and use it in the present to communicate and reflect current social norms.
Gear, A. (2006) Reading Power: Teaching Students to think while they read. Canada, Pembrooke Publishers
Ong, W. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen
Jimmy Fallon’s #hashtag spoof: