Commentary #1

In a world where nothing is written and words are not thought of in separate entities and people only speak, we, the typographical/chirographical people, cannot judge.

Walter J. Ong’s book Orality and Literacy focuses the reader’s attention on those people who have lived or do live in an oral culture and what it would be like to live in an oral culture/society. His sentence “Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything” attempts to put the reader in the shoes of a person from an oral culture.  Ong specifically explains that oral cultures use mnemonic devices and formulas to remember important events and describes that the recitation of a story is rarely the exact same with each telling. He found that the story was not always accurate, but was told to the audience according to the way the teller wanted to tell it – literally becoming hisstory.  If a bard told a story according to the audience or according to the way he/she thought it should go, the history turned into his/her story.

Our western typographic/chirographic culture does not see the tendency to change a story as a legitimate way of remembering, but complete accuracy might not have been an important aspect of an oral culture.  It could be that, in our literate minds, we construct this idea that things must be presented exactly how they occurred when, in fact, these oral cultures had no need for this.  When Ong writes about imagining oral culture, he alludes to the fact that our brains may not understand their practices because we have been so immersed in a culture of writing and scribing.

This immersion of a writing culture is problematic for Ong as he is writing from the perspective of a person coming from an oral culture and also is writing about oral cultures.  It may be impossible for anyone who has lived in a writing society to fully understand and accurately convey what an oral culture was like.  This also leads to difficultly in accurately describing an oral culture as it appears that those members were not concerned with accuracy themselves due to the ever changing nature of the story.  The only way Ong could truly discover what an oral culture was like would be to interview a person in an oral culture and record the interview.  This method would be problematic as the person from the oral culture might not be able to reveal the differences between orality and typography/ chirography, as they have no knowledge of a literate culture.

This brings us to the study Luria did of illiterate people (pg. 50). While these people might know some aspects of oral culture and literate culture, they also would not be true oral cultures resulting in a catch -22.  Ong’s inclusion of these studies is enlightening, but problematic, as these people, to some degree, have been exposed to writing and may be completely different from the oral cultures before cuneiform.  Also, Ong includes resources from the Bible and Plato, but these resources are all written – not spoken therefore his resources should be called into question.  The only evidence that survives of truly oral people are all written down.  How much of the semi- admissible information that Ong presents is due to the difficulty of collecting authentic resources? Again, this leads us to the question the importance that we ‘correctly’ reveal these people as they might not even worry about themselves?

Ong’s chapter on the psychodynamics of orality does have some resources that should be questioned, but in the same token, they provide interesting insight into a culture we have little knowledge about because it is not written down.  While I read Ong’s book, I wondered two things: one is about the illiterate people in Canada and USA today and the second is how we can use this information in a classroom.

If illiterate cultures were studied by Luria and written about by Ong, what could their research mean to the study of illiterate people in Canada and USA today? Would they have similar qualities to the illiterate people that Luria studied? It seems as though technologies will eventually be incorporated by everyone, like writing, but to what extent are the illiterate people of today still trying to incorporate the technology of writing into their everyday lives?  Will this happen with the computer?  Will the computer last that long and will there still be illiterate computer users thousands of years from now? Does it take that long for a new technology to engulf the entire population? Will it ever?

I think that the illiteracy in the sense of merely reading and writing will always be there because of many different disorders, but as history has shown us, the trend is that the illiteracy rate will decline.  If the computer lasts as a technology as long as writing has, then I believe computers will go the same way as writing.  The rate of integrating learning the new language of the computer might be faster because of the computer. It connects to the world in a matter of seconds so this new technology could create a rate of learning that far exceeds that of writing.

While reading the chapter “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” I began to think about ways to include forms of memorization, utilized by oral cultures, into the classroom.  As I teach students how to speak English, I found learning with mnemonic devices, formulas, and other strategies mentioned in the book might be helpful.  I performed a little bit of research on my own (admittedly very small and not very scientific) asking my friends how they remembered information.  More often than not, those who did well in school used many of the devices that the oral cultures used.  So, as this world comes to a bottleneck of information overload, I wonder if we can use the information of our oral ancestors to learn the most important things  – the things that we need to know faster than a computer can load?

This entry was posted in Commentary 1. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply