The Presence of the Word

by Walter J. Ong

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184

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 essential stages which have characterized Western society and its progress.

The first was the oral-aural stage, when humans were adept at using spoken language but knew nothing of writing it down and preserving it. Such a culture’s worldview is strikingly different from that of a literate society. There is a greater sense of community, a togetherness that stems from knowledge as much as from anything else, because to know something in an oral culture is to have been told something. Learning depends on human interaction. Poetry assumes the function of a teaching tool and reference source; thus, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are in part manuals for practical activities, such as forging swords or building ships. In an oral-aural culture, people exist in the present, in a close-knit community, and in a world that seems invested with magical powers.


(This entire section contains 1184 words.)

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first movement away from the oral-aural world came with the invention of writing, especially with the development of the phonetic alphabet. Such a movement, according to Ong, marked the dawn of the modern world. The rise of writing caused the spoken word to be deemphasized; in McLuhan’s terms, the alphabet gave mankind “an eye for an ear.” The development and spread of printing in the late Middle Ages further exaggerated the visual shift and caused the last remnants of the old oral-aural culture to be submerged under the new print culture, which was marked by individualism, specialization, and sequence. Practical results were the assembly line, industrialization, and the rise of the consumer society. The sense of community was greatly weakened, and knowledge became a private pursuit involving silent reading in a library or study.

Before the new print culture firmly took hold, however, there was a final flowering of the older forms, marked in England by the Renaissance drama of such masters as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. Such a development is not really surprising; Innis pointed out that the introduction of writing into ancient Greece seems to have spurred the development of that dramatic tradition, and McLuhan found that one of the results of presenting a new technology is a sudden interest in the older forms which it is supplanting. Perhaps, as Ong suggests, one cannot really recognize or appreciate a medium until it is on its way out; until then, its presence is so pervasive that it is invisible.

The third and current stage of human culture is the era of the electronic media. These include a wide range of devices: the telegraph, the telephone and television, the radio, the motion-picture camera, and the computer. They have increased the rate of production and the spread of printed information, but they have also encouraged a return to the oral-aural forms of communication that existed before writing and printing. Ong maintains that there is no paradox in this, because new media do not erase old forms but rather build upon them. The electronic media embrace both the print culture and the oral-aural culture.What we are faced with today is a sensorium not merely extended by the various media but also so reflected and refracted inside and outside itself in so many directions as to be thus far utterly bewildering. Our situation is one of more and more complicated interactions.

These complicated interactions are the theme for the final half of Ong’s volume, and his central concern is humans’ relationships with their fellows and with God. For Ong, the development of the word is both a social and a religious phenomenon. As he views it, the word—sound, language, and spirit—is a means to unite human beings, to form them into groups and then link these groups into communities, societies, and ultimately an entire human world. He definitely sees an upward progression in human beings’ use of the word. Here Ong differs most markedly from McLuhan, for Ong has a theological orientation, whereas McLuhan is much more secular in most of his discussions.

Ong concludes The Presence of the Word with “Man’s Word and God’s Presence,” a section discussing the relationship of human beings to the divine. In this section, he brings together on the highest level the concerns and topics that run throughout the book. He unites a study of culture, communication, media, and language with enduring questions which transcend culture and history.


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