The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Oral Culture – Has something been lost?

I thought I would post my disscussion response from Ong’s chapter three. So far, I have enjoyed the course and am including lots of our ideas in my class. Even though I have a huge learning curve, ( this is my first course in the program) I am finding it easier due to the openness of the class community. So a huge thank you to all of you!


Writing has had much effect on human thought process. Human thought changes with the minor introduction of literacy. The mind shifts from existential or situational intelligence and moves towards more abstract thinking. However, there is something to be said about the oral cultural thinking. It seems very straight-forward and logical. The example of the study with the bears in the North comes to mind. Luria’s questioning involving simple deductive reasoning revealed a different type of answer than I was prepared for. The Illiterate simply stated they had never been there and each region has its own type of animal. I quite liked that answer. It seems more honest or truthful. It is important to think in terms of comprehensive descriptions and more analytic thought but I still find the merits in a oral cultures outlook. Ong suggests that writing provides us with the ability to free the mind of arduous tasks of creating “memorable thoughts” and allows us to turn to more “outside the box thinking”.

Other changes in human processes that occur due to writing include our ability to self analyze and use abstract categorization. The studies identified in Ong’s work suggest that non-literate cultures do not fully possess the ability to look inside them and reflect. In other words they do not have the ability self analyze. Therefore, being able to write (which in itself is an individualistic task) provides us with the ability to look inwards at ourselves whereas oral cultures still think of themselves in external circumstances. The other major change with the introduction of writing is our ability to classify abstractly. Oral cultures will give the names for objects “plate” vs. the abstract “circle”.

These changes to some extent weaken memory. Ong suggests that oral cultures remember by using formulas (repetition, mnemonic patters, alliteration, epithets etc) to help remember what has been said. Orality and Literacy also demonstrates that oral cultures do not memorize verbatim, but make changes due to their own interpretation and the climate of their audience. However, because we have the ability to “write things down” instead of remembering without the use of paper and pen I believe we have lost some of our ability to remember. From my own personal experience, if I do not “write it down” I may forget to do it. Our loss of formulas in speech may contribute to our loss of memory. Ong indicates that with the introduction of writing, came the loss of formulas due to sounding clichéd or redundant. The loss of this may contribute to our inability to remember as well as those in an oral culture.

Does it matter? To some extent it matters. We will become increasingly reliant on “looking stuff up” and the loss itself is regrettable. I somewhat romanticize the oral cultures because of their ability to recite beautiful poems and how they are able to think in such a straightforward (honest) manor. In regards to memory, I find that sometimes I have brilliant insights, subsequently I don’t write it down, and forget. I wonder if someone in a primarily oral culture would have the same problem. Still, my bias leans towards literate cultures and the ability to use deductive reasoning and abstract thinking, which truly opens so many more doors in intellectual exploration. I would not be able to talk to all the authors I have read and never would have known their opinions or thoughts on a subject. For that I am fortunate. In that regard, if we have the ability to write something down to remember it are we really loosing anything tangible?


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