April 3, 2007

Orality and Literacy

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge.

The only portion of this book that is actually on the list is the Introduction, and it does provide a good overview of Ong’s most famous work. His basic assertion here is that the form of communication shapes thought and therefore shapes societies. Therefore, oral societies, while capable of creating a “literature” of tales and general knowledge, cannot construct a linear, forward-marching body of cultural knowledge. (He goes so far as to label oral culture as ‘primitive’, and has been heavily criticized for this Western, Enlightenment-based approach.)

Writing, Ong argues, restructures consciousness. (A relevant lecture/essay is titled “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” It summarizes his work in Orality and Literacy, so if you decide in the future that you need the short version, look this one up.) Literacy enables societies to order their knowledge in a linear fashion. It also brings what he calls a necessary distance, allowing literate societies to do things like write about language itself.

This quote from the preface is an excellent nutshell summary of Ong’s argument in this book:

Literacy, as will be seen, is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself. There is hardly an oral culture or a predominantly oral culture left in the world today that is not somehow aware of the vast complex of powers forever inaccessible without literacy. (14-15)

Two central terms that you’ll hear closely associated with this book are primary orality and secondary orality. “Primary” orality refers to “the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print” (11). “Secondary orality” refers to “present-day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend on their existence and functioning on writing and print” (11).

(This is a basic overview that covers what’ needed for the exams. There’s a lot more to the book that’s worth reading, but not necessarily pertinent here.)