Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1396

Throughout his career, Walter Jackson Ong concerned himself with the interrelationships between technologies of communication and changes in human consciousness. He was born on November 30, 1912, in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Walter Jackson Ong and Blanche Eugenia (Mense) Ong. He studied at Rockhurst College, a small Catholic school in Kansas City run by the Jesuit Order. After receiving his B.A. from Rockhurst in 1933, he spent two years in newspaper and business positions before entering the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus in 1935. He then went through the traditional course of studies for Jesuits, spending two years in a novitiate where he studied Latin and Greek and where he underwent rigorous ascetic training, including a thirty-day retreat based on the sixteenth century Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

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In the late 1930’s, Ong studied philosophy at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution since 1828 and one with which he became closely associated. He received his Ph.L. (licentiate in philosophy) in 1940 and his M.A. in 1941. During regency, a period of practice teaching for Jesuit scholastics, he was an instructor for two years in English and French at Regis College in Denver. In 1944, he began his theological training at Saint Louis University, and during his first three years of studies, he also taught English. He was ordained a priest in 1946, and after another year of theology he received his S.T.L. (licentiate in sacred theology).

In the early 1950’s, Ong studied at Harvard University, where he came under the influence of Perry Miller and began his important work on the logician Petrus Ramus. This sixteenth century educational reformer made Ong aware of the revolutionary shift in sensibility brought about by the development of typography. Ramus simplified and modernized the old logic of Aristotle by concentrating on logic’s practical use as an instrument of discovery rather than as a tool of scholastic disputation. Ong used Ramism to illustrate the transformation that brought Western societies to react to words less as sounds and more as items in space, less as parts of a temporally successive oral argument and more as elements in a printed pattern.

After receiving his doctorate from Harvard University in 1955, Ong returned to Saint Louis University, where he quickly passed through the academic ranks, becoming a full professor in 1959. During this period, he wrote articles and books mainly to show the Catholic community that it needed a new theology consonant with the new cosmology, biology, and psychology developed by scientists. Ong, a futurist who was sensitive to the position of American Catholicism in a pluralist society, did not want his fellow Christians imprisoned by antiquated models of humankind and the world.

With the publication of The Barbarian Within, and Other Fugitive Essays and Studies, Ong came to the attention of a broader audience. In this book, he analyzed the evolution of modes of thought and verbal expressions from oral into chirographic (writing) and typographic (printing) cultures. He argued that the spoken word unified oral cultures, whereas the printed word isolated members of literate cultures. He also pointed out that in the twentieth century a third revolution—from the typographic to the electronic stage—occurred, in which communication became practically instantaneous via radio, television, and the computer. Ong continued to develop these themes in The Presence of the Word, a book that grew out of his Terry Lectures at Yale University. In these lectures, he traced the history of the word from its origins in preliterate cultures to its niche in the oral-electric culture of the twentieth century. Ong’s cosmology and anthropology were evolutionary, and he believed that Christians live not, as so many allege, in post-Christian times, but in the beginning stages of a religious story that continues to unfold. Hence this book placed Ong among those who were optimistic about the overall impact of science and technology on religion and humankind.

In Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, Ong showed how the history of rhetoric (verbal performance) mirrored cultural evolution (behavioral patterns). Until the modern technological age, Western culture could be meaningfully described as rhetorical in that it made an art of oral communication. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, rhetoric was not eradicated but rearranged. Modern rhetoric has become more visual than classical rhetoric both through the use of pictures for persuasion and through the presentation of words as objects. For Ong, Romanticism appeared at this time because humankind had gained control over nature through knowledge (science) and through machines (technology), and this depersonalized and exteriorized universe provoked the creation of the personalized and interiorized world of the Romantics. William Blake, the Romantic poet, is a good example: He saw Isaac Newton not as an imaginative genius but as a prisoner of a despiritualized, mechanical world. Blake did not want to live in a Newtonian machine but in a universe that was a home, where he could feel close to God. The estrangement felt by Blake became a theme in Ong’s book Interfaces of the Word, in which he grouped his analyses around two interrelated topics: change-and-alienation and growth-and-integration. The technological history of the word has evolved in dialectical patterns. For example, the world of orality interacted dialectically with print even after print became dominant. Alienation has not been commonly thought of in terms of the technological history of the word, but Ong believed that the invention of print helped to bring about a restructured human consciousness, an alienating element of which occurs in how the literate react to the illiterate.

In his early works, Ong was primarily concerned with revealing the importance of writing and print in understanding the evolution of modern consciousness; in Fighting for Life, he analyzed the place of the word in causing human dissension. Ong had recognized the biological complement to human consciousness in his earlier writings, but he now made more extensive use of the Darwinian concept of struggle for existence. Ong was attracted to evolution’s sense of the present as growing out of the past. In Fighting for Life, he probed how competition is embedded in various levels of culture. He also showed how agonistic structures are present in educational, religious, and political institutions, and how adversary procedures have shaped social, linguistic, and intellectual history. Orality and Literacy is a summary of Ong’s work on the historical technologizing of the word. In this book, Ong makes clear that he belongs to no school of interpretation and that humanity’s progress into a new age will be mainly through a return to the unifying energy of orality. In 1986, Ong returned to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English Jesuit poet about whom he had written so insightfully early in his career. In Hopkins, the Self, and God, he portrays Hopkins as a product of the Victorian age and his Jesuit education. He sees an evolutionary view of time in Hopkins’s poetry, but he also argues that the Jesuit poet’s faith was deepened rather than threatened by nineteenth century scientific ideas.

In his retirement years, after he became professor emeritus at Saint Louis University in 1984, Ong continued to develop the ideas that had preoccupied him throughout most of his scholarly life, especially his analysis of how humans use various technologies in gathering and communicating their knowledge. Many of his essays on these themes were collected, under the title Faith and Contexts, in four volumes and published as part of the American Academy of Religion’s Religion and Social Order series. During his eightieth birthday celebrations, as he reflected on his life as priest and scholar, Ong saw a unity in the great variety of his contributions, since everything in the world “hangs together” because “God made it all.”

Ong’s reputation has derived from the insights he developed in dwelling intellectually in several contrasting milieus: the religious and secular, the Renaissance and modern, the scientific and humanistic. In particular, his career centered on the interface of word and culture, and one of his most influential themes was the evolution of the word from oral to script to print to electronic. Some of his analyses show similarities to those of Marshall McLuhan, for whom the medium was the message, but Ong’s work probed more deeply than McLuhan’s and was grounded with more thorough scholarship, and thus he has had a much more lasting influence among literary intellectuals.

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