The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Ong’s 20th century bias

I have chosen to look at chapter 3 of Orality and Literacy for this commentary.  In this section Ong looks at the psychodynamics of primary oral cultures, the motivating forces that determine the behaviour and attitude of cultures with no knowledge at all of writing.  Through much of his discussion and description of primary oral cultures Ong looks at the subject, and in fact subjects, from a modern perspective.  His intention is to show his reader, by comparison,  how these cultures differed from ours.  Unfortunately his method of doing so creates what can be interpreted as a bias in his writing.  Ong is a 20th century westerner, writing from a 20th century point of view, with a 20th century bias. How these biases are woven into the chapter is the subject I wish to discuss here.


One area where Ong may be seen to show a modern bias is in discussing all primary oral cultures as one single group.  Given Ong’s definition of a primary oral culture, one with no knowledge at all of writing, one must first ask how Ong has acquired his information.  Since, obviously, a culture with no writing has left no written records, Ong must base his ideas on research done among the very small number of people on Earth today who would fit this definition; the very rare groups that have been discovered and have had no previous contact with the modern world, or he must use cultures that are aware of writing but are still primarily oral. He then must use conjecture to project the behaviours and attitudes of those groups onto the variety of cultures that existed before writing.  While there may no other way to do this, this does create a problem.  Ong is discussing as much as 50,000 years of human history and cultures from all over the globe.  It is unreasonable and biased to lump all primary oral cultures together and attach the same generalizations to all of them.  


Ong’s bias is further illustrated in the way he chooses to draw the reader into a comparison of modern to primary oral cultures.  While it is very unlikely that Ong intends to imply in his writing that primary oral cultures are inferior to literate ones, there is a tone to his writing that can, on occasion, be seen to do just that.  The tone suggests amazement that primary oral cultures could function and at one point asks us to, “Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything” (Ong, 1982, p. 31)  At another point he asks the question, “An oral culture has no texts.  How does it get together organized material for recall?” (Ong, 1982, pp. 33-34) To further draw the reader into the pre-writing world he asks us to imagine ourselves in a primary oral culture and wonders how we would deal with Euclidean geometry or baseball batting averages.  All of his examples are ones that involve asking the reader to imagine going back in time and think about how we would deal with these modern issues.   While this does allow the reader to get some small sense of life without writing, Ong fails, or  avoids pointing out the obvious, these modern examples would have no meaning or concern to the primary oral cultures.  In order to feel the absence of something you have to be aware of it.  To further illustrate the problem I have with Ong’s 20th century approach let me create an analogy.  I have no doubt that at some point in the future something will have been invented and become common that people today can’t even imagine.  I see Ong as the person living in that future time, looking back on 2009 and wondering how we could have functioned without that item.  He fails to realize that since I don’t know about it, it doesn’t matter.

One of the most obvious examples of Ong’s 20th century bias is in the example he gives to illustrate the difficulties faced by a person in an oral culture who would, “undertake to think through a particularly complex problem and would finally manage to articulate a solution which itself is relatively complex”. (Ong, 1982, p. 34)  From this he asks, “How, in fact, could a lengthy analytical solution ever be assembled in the first place?” (Ong, 1982, p. 34) One wonders what kind of complex problem Ong is imagining these cultures are dealing with that would require a lengthy, analytical solution.   I have no doubt that these societies did solve complex problems but I would suggest that the problems would be of a practical rather than a philosophical nature, for example, how to get water from the nearby river to the crops.  The problem would be thought through and the solution tried.  There was no need to write anything down, if it worked the people involved would have the knowledge and would pass it on in the same way they passed on their histories and their beliefs, with stories told through generations.

In his introduction Ong states, “Homo Sapiens has been in existence for between 30,000 and 50,000 years.  The earliest script dates from only 6000 years ago.” (Ong, 1982, p. 2) During these tens of thousands of years human population grew and developed into a variety of different cultures.  They developed laws, religions and belief systems as well as techniques for food production.  These were not primitive people grunting in caves, they were intelligent, inventive and creative.  Given this, we must come to the conclusion that writing was missing from these cultures, not out of any failure on their part, but because they didn’t need it.  Ong, writing from his 20th century bias seems to find this difficult to fathom and has allowed it to colour his approach to primary oral cultures.


Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:10 pm }

When I asked someone from an oral culture if they had ever felt the need for a written language; they told me that reading and writing seemed to take away other natural skills and that they preferred not to learn.

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