Commentary #1

ETEC 540 64B
Oren Lupo

One basic assumption that runs through Orality and Literacy is the division between the sensory modalities of sight and sound, and the corresponding separation between the textual-visual and oral-aural dimensions of language use. Walter Ong establishes that orality is a primary and permanent fact of all human language development in the book’s first chapter. Purely oral communication is bounded by the limitations of face-to-face interaction, which applies both to spoken conversation as well as to addressing an audience. The invention of archaic alphabetic writing, taken as the symbolic extension of the word, overcame these limitations of speech by creating a portable, lasting document of spoken utterances (84-85). Historically, writing achieved its status as a powerful communicative technology only once it disengaged itself from the physical and temporal limits of speech, thus removing personal memory and rhetorical ability from their central place in oral narrative communication (100-101).

With this mind, I think that the position that Daniel Chandler takes against binary or ‘Great Divide’ theories of orality and literacy in his article Biases of the Ear and Eye requires some qualification in order for it to apply to Ong’s book.

Chandler’s overall criticism is of Structuralist approaches in linguistics and anthropology that put forward a “binary divide or dichotomy between different kinds of society or human experience” based on exclusive and opposed categories of development, as in ‘primitive’ vs. ‘civilized’, ‘simple’ vs. ‘advanced’, ‘pre-logical’ vs. ‘logical’, or ‘pre-literate’ vs. ‘literate’ etc. As Chandler sees it, these oppositions do not simply identify literacy as a necessary cultural transformation that has to occur so that a given society may reach an advanced stage of technological and social development. The deeper implication or “bias” is one of literacy bringing about transformative changes in the workings of human consciousness, including cognitive development and individual intellectual capacities. The bias that Chandler discusses privileges changes that are brought about by the shift to literacy as being part of the modern ‘rational-logical mind’, which opens the door to ethnocentric and demeaning interpretations of what Ong calls the “psychodynamics” of thinking and understanding in primary oral cultures.

But is this actually a fault that we find in Ong’s positions in the book? Ong does, in fact, draw on a wealth of anthropological, ethnological and historical research as evidence in making his points. He is necessarily selective in choosing his sources; but clearly, Ong also consistently tries to avoid ingrained cultural assumptions that portray oral societies as basically primitive or inferior to literate societies. However, this is not the level of bias that Chandler is addressing in his article. Chandler mentions that the privileging of literacy over orality starts with the “dichotomies of the ear and eye”, which assign certain characteristics to each modality corresponding to the psychology, patterns of understanding, and mindsets of individuals living in oral and literate societies. This bias is said to be expressed in three different ways, each of which relates to an interpretive approach that supports the hard dichotomy between orality and literacy.

Phonocentrism is the tendency to describe spoken language as being closer to the internal motivations, psychology and emotions of the speaker’s “lifeworld”, making verbal speech seem more authentic and less technological than writing.

Graphocentrism is the tendency to privilege the connection between the visual modality and the logical-rational qualities of clarity, analysis and conceptual organization. Again this tendency downplays the notion of speech as a technology of language because it is not accessible to seeing and vision in a spatial way. This type of bias said to show up in the metaphors that literate societies use to describe the process of thinking (e.g. insight, illuminate, brilliant, etc).

Logocentrism removes both speech and writing from the lived experience of language, thus intentionally abstracting language from the complex and unstable part that it plays in the “construction of reality”. This point actually moves beyond the individual dichotomies that Chandler identifies as indicators of the “Great Divide” between orality and literacy. Logocentrism describes a situation within all language use that involves the organization of individual experiences by means of a collective, rule-based system of expression. This goes back to what all language is for and the basic reasons for its existence: it provides boundaries, contexts, definitions, and situates experiences in time and space in order to make them meaningful to others.  The tendency of Logocentrism is to present language as if it were able to do these things in a perfect, transparent, unmediated and authentic way, which is certainly open for debate.

Returning to Ong’s division between the textual-visual and oral-aural dimensions of language, I think that it is important to recognize that he draws on two main textual sources for his conception of oral cultures. The first comes out of anthropological and ethnographic researches into contacts with “primary oral societies” in different part of the world. This covers roughly one hundred years during which these areas have been disciplines in the social sciences. The second source is from interpretive literary and philological studies of ancient texts, the most important being Eric Havelock’s study of ancient Greek texts and different studies of the Bible. Ong argues for continuity between the separation of sight and sound across history and in different parts of the world based on these sources. He does this mainly by pointing out characteristics of thought in oral cultures that relate to practices of discourse that are found in written texts, using both modern and ancient texts interchangeably at times to make his points.  An example of this would be the presence of verbal formulas and long lists that are used in memorizing oral texts in ancient poetry (57-67)

To my mind, this is where Chandler’s presentation of the three interpretive biases is most useful in reading Orality and Literacy. Each tendency can be used to challenge the idea that by constructing an absolute separation between orality and literacy, we can reconstruct a long-ago world when oral texts were first being conveyed into writing. In much the same way, the cognitive development and the workings of consciousness of people in oral societies may be reconstructed and interpreted. Ong is able to do this because he has established the division between sight and sound as being an inevitable, universal and largely ahistorical opposition, not one that comes out of the ways in which orality and literacy are defined according to the biases of modern academic research.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 8 August, 2009 from:

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

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