Commentary 1: From Orality to Literacy: From Whence We Came

The relics of a purely oral culture are evident in today’s world in a myriad of ways. Yet is not until reading Walter Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy, that it is possible to recognize the vestiges of an oral culture for what they are. In most of the world, communication today presents in a much different way than is the case in earlier or remote oral cultures. Chapter Three of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy outlines the psychodynamics of orality. Ong compares several characteristics when he examines orally based thought to cultures where writing has been introduced.
One intriguing characteristic is Ong’s comparison of storytellers and bards of the oral culture to the chirographic storytellers of a literate culture. Not only is rhyme and repetition an important aspect of orality, but so is the use of what literate society refers to as clichés. These clichés act as mnemonic devices, or hangers upon which a story can be built. What is particularly interesting is the fact that storytellers in oral societies changed their stories depending on the audience they were addressing. Ong refers to Parry’s research that finds that learning to read and write disables the oral poet (Ong, p. 59). Even though Ong describes true storytelling as non-transferable to a chirographic culture, it could be argued that this is not a characteristic that is unique to oral society. Even in chirographic cultures, storytellers adapt their stories to their audience. This is particularly true of teachers. Once teachers internalize information, it is, in essence memorized. Each time a teacher teaches a concept they become a storyteller, even actor and bring life to that concept. Each time a teacher teaches that concept, the “audience” is different, their mood (student and teacher) and energy levels are potentially different, and the amount of detail may vary according to the response of the audience or the amount of time available. Just because we know how to write, it may not necessarily follow that our ability to tell stories is irreparably damaged. Perhaps our memory does become weaker in that we can refer back to information when we forget. Certainly, the ability to remember Homerian epics has been lost. There are, however, still storytellers in chirographic cultures.
Another point that Ong makes in his discussion of Homeostatis is that only the relevant stories are remembered in an oral culture. (Ong, p. 46) This is true of chirographic societies as well. While history is recorded, it can be revised according to the whims of those in power at a given time, especially if the record puts those in power in an unfavourable light. Those who wrote the Bible told stories to illustrate their points. Sometimes, they couldn’t agree on which version of the story to keep and so you have situations where both versions are recorded. For example, in Genesis there are two creation stories. At the time of Nicea, approximately 300 years after Christ’s death, there was great debate as to the nature of Christ. Those who had less power (such as the mystics) in the church lost their stories in favor of those that were accepted by the then leaders.
One final area that deserves some comment is Ong’s discussion of how an oral culture is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced (Ong, pp. 45, 46). It is true that one can be more objective when writing and even more distanced when reading. It seems, however, that writing can be both distancing and participatory, depending on the purpose of the writing. Conversational writing, in the form of posts in a forum, or tweets in Twitter or even Facebook could be considered to be participatory and even empathetic. Similarly, reading can be distancing just because we enter the world of the writer. If, however, we know there are readers out there because they are responding to our posts, then it seems that reading and writing become entwined and participatory. Reading Ong’s book, however, and writing a commentary are very distancing activities, as described in the section, Orality, Community and Sacral (Ong, pp. 73, 74). Ong’s reference to reading the Bible was particularly interesting because it made the written word oral and so fulfilled the intention of God speaking to his followers rather than writing to them. Thus, writing may well not be quite so isolating. Rather it is an attempt to connect to others.
While all of the characteristics he attributes to both oral cultures and chirographic cultures are very recognizable, it appears that there are possibly a few grey areas. Ultimately, Ong gives a framework for the continuum from orality to literacy. Chapter 3 certainly sets the stage for our further study as we strive to understand the changing spaces of reading and writing.

Ong, W. 1982. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Methuen, London. pp. 31-76.

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2 Responses to Commentary 1: From Orality to Literacy: From Whence We Came

  1. Steph says:

    I love your analogy of teachers as storytellers. It is so true. We do use strategies to remember how to tell our stories as well. For example, I teach French so I try to find rhymes to teach French grammar rules. In science, I use acronyms to teach the order of planets. You are so right when you say we adjust our stories for the audience as well, depending on the grade level or even for reading groups in one class.

  2. Leonora Zefi says:

    Hi Sian.
    Enjoyed reading your commentary. Your statement “While history is recorded, it can be revised according to the whims of those in power at a given time” in particular resonated with my criticisms of Ong’s take on “writing being more objective”. While I agree that when writing we are somewhat distanced from the audience, we all bring our views and biases into what we are writing about.


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