Orality and Literacy

The experience of the twentieth century—both its great achievements and its horrors of war and genocide—has challenged all previous conceptions of what is “natural” to man. Historians, psychologists, anthropologists, and scholars in many other disciplines have worked hand in hand with artists, demonstrating repeatedly that this or that custom, practice, belief, or experience is bound to a particular time and place, to a particular class or notion—is local rather than universal. Such demonstrations—not equally impartial, nor proven to the satisfaction of all—continue to be offered unpredictably from every direction, so that feminist scholars, for example, have permanently altered the contours of literary history and of every other discipline they have touched. It is no longer “natural” to speak of “man,” as in the first sentence above: one must at least consider alternatives, such as “human beings.” These diverse revisionary perspectives do not prove that there are no constants in history, no “human nature” (although many twentieth century thinkers have argued that they do), but they do inescapably suggest that human history is not merely a process of external change: it is also a process of internal change, of the evolution of consciousness.

In a number of pioneering books, Walter J. Ong has approached the evolution of consciousness from a surprising direction, taking off from what he calls “the oral character of language” and “the contrasts between orality and writing.” Just as feminist scholars have shown how assumptions in many areas of human experience rest on sexist preconceptions, so Ong and his colleagues in a growing body of scholarship are rewriting history on the basis of orality-literacy contrasts. Such claims may seem grossly exaggerated; “orality”—ugly word—is an unfamiliar concept of seemingly limited application. Yet Ong himself, who is no reductionist, whose works indeed are models of scholarship characterized by a great modesty, firmly asserts the importance of orality-literacy contrasts:Many of the features we have taken for granted in thought and expression in literature, philosophy and science, and even in oral discourse among literates, are not directly native to human existence as such, but have come into being because of the resources which the technology of writing makes available to human consciousness. We have had to revise our understanding of human identity.

Orality and Literacy is but the latest in a series of books in which Ong has explored the implications of this revised understanding of human identity. Among his earlier works, four in particular might be singled out as being of greatest interest to the reader who wants to become acquainted with his thought. In The Presence of the Word (1967), Ong discusses the manner in which cultures vary “in their exploitation of the various senses and in the way in which they relate their conceptual apparatus to the various senses.” He introduces the notion of the “sensorium”—the entire range of the senses—in order to analyze such differences, particularly the differences between aurally biased cultures and the visually biased culture of modern literates. This seminal work, which is particularly suggestive in its treatment of “the word as sound,” is of interest to historians, teachers (particularly of composition), therapists, ministers and theologians, students of literature, and anyone professionally engaged in the use of words. Two collections of essays and lectures—Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (1971) and Interfaces of the Word (1977)—illustrate the enormous range of applications to which the ideas introduced in The Presence of the Word can be put. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness (1981), while not centrally concerned with orality-literacy contrasts,...

(The entire section is 1590 words.)


Christian Century. C, March 23, 1983, p. 285.