The Presence of the Word Essay - Critical Essays

Walter J. Ong


Human societies are shaped by a number of forces, but during the second half of the twentieth century increasing emphasis has been given to the study of how forms of communication and the media affect the development and nature of societies. The three scholars most important in these studies have been Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong.

Innis, in two slim books, laid the foundation for future studies in this field. In Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis pointed out how changes in communication techniques caused changes in the society that used them. The introduction of a new medium, such as the printing press, meant society had to adapt to the new device; often, this adaptation occurred in totally unforeseen ways. The introduction of the printing press in England, for example, seems to have caused renewed interest in the spoken, or oral, literature of plays, thus creating the appropriate culture for a figure such as Shakespeare.

Marshall McLuhan developed Innis’ theories, most notably in two influential books, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1961) and Understanding Media (1964). McLuhan came to a startling but logical conclusion regarding the introduction of new media into a culture: It is not the content of these media, but the media themselves that cause changes. In other words, the mere fact that a book can be printed in endless, uniform copies has more impact on a society than the content of that book, however important or controversial. In the same way, McLuhan argued, the forms of modern electronic media—such as radio and television—were paramount, and those who thought otherwise had missed the point. In McLuhan’s terms “the medium is the message.”

According to McLuhan, that is so because the introduction of new media causes shifts in the ratios of the human senses; one sense will be favored by the new media and thus achieve dominance. The spoken word emphasizes the ear; the printed word favors the eye. It is McLuhan’s contention that such shifts in emphasis and sense ratios are a primary cause of changes in human cultures. His reasoning is based on the assumption that information received through sound is perceived differently from information received through sight. Human beings organize the world according to their perceptions; therefore, when the source of information changes, the perceiver’s world changes.

In The Presence of the Word, Ong builds on the work of these two earlier writers, and many of his concepts are remarkably similar to McLuhan’s. In the first half of the book, Ong discusses what he terms “the sensorium,” which is the totality of human senses, and how different media favor different senses. Like McLuhan, Ong sees a distinct difference between oral-aural cultures and print or script cultures, and he points to three...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)