Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy (1988) asserts that writing enables the existence of discourse "which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse is detached from the writer." Imagine a world without letters. Thinking about your reading of Natalie Taylor's memoir, Signs of Life, in addition to the other resources, how do you think a society changes once an alphabet/writing is introduced?
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Walter Ong's 1988 book Orality and Literacy was a landmark in communication theory, articulating many of the central concerns of the Toronto School about the relationship between technologies of communication and culture. In particular, Ong was concerned with the way that writing and print transform cultural memory from something dynamic and situational to something fixed and impersonal.
In his chapter on "The Psychodymanics of Orality", Ong identifies an important feature of oral culture as being what he terms "homeostasis." What this means is that traditional tales update accounts of their past to reflect the present. Using, inter alia, evidence compiled in Albert B. Lord's seminal work on the oral composition of Slavic Guslars, The Singer of Tales, Ong argues that even when an oral story is considered the "same" as a previous instantiation in a more recent oral performance, often the story has changed, shaped by more recent perceptions and concerns. Memory itself becomes fluid according to Ong:
In the total absence of any writing, there is nothing outside the thinker, no text, to enable him or her to produce the same line of thought again or even to verify whether he or she has done so or not. How, in fact, could a lengthy, analytic solution ever be assembled in the first place? An interlocutor is virtually essential: it is hard to talk to yourself for hours on end. Sustained thought in an oral culture is tied to communication.
In Natalie Taylor's memoir, Signs of Life, the narrator's reaction to Josh's death, and the fluid qualities of her memories of him, is to begin a diary of her baby's life, creating a permanent written record that unlike memory is fixed and unchangeable. Ong would argue, however, that in an oral culture, rather than grief becoming fixed and impersonal, instead it becomes a shared experience through the process of communication.
For Ong, while the fixing of records in writing is a crucial enabling factor of modern complex technological society, allowing complex financial transactions and scientific reasoning, in the process we have lost much of the social cohesion of oral cultures, and while writing allows us to preserve infinitely more information than could be remembered in an oral culture, at the same time it depersonalizes that knowledge and makes it less relevant to the human life world.
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