Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong. Literacy is not the last word.

Orality and Literacy (New Accents)We take it for granted but literacy changed everything. We could remember things precisely. Literacy allowed extension of thought into complex design. It is essential to philosophy, literature, science, engineering, and technology. Literacy is the platform of modern civilization, including the internet. We forget what it was like before literacy, when oral communication was the dominant mode of communication. Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy is the second most illuminating book I have read about human consciousness.

How to achieve complex design without literacy

Accurate memory seems essential for complex design. One might think that oral culture could not engineer complex works, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey were oral creations. Ong explains the properties of orality that make this possible. Oral memory is achieved through repetition and cliche, for example. Also, phrasing is aggregative, e.g, “brave solider” rather than analytic, e.g., “soldier’. In modern database parlance, words are normalized rather than denormalized, a technique still employed for efficient processing. Ong contrasts many more properties of oral memory. They define the lifeworld of thought prior to structuring through literacy. It is an architecture of implicit thought, of domain knowledge. It blows my information technology mind to think how these properties might be applied to the task of structuring data in unstructured environments, e.g., crawling the open web. I have not stopped thinking about it. It may take years to unpack.

Writing restructures consciousness

We can hear dead people speak. For the writer, the reader is a hypothetical other, a fiction. Literacy invented one-sided discourse. It abstracts communication and removes us from the lifeworld.  It increases inner dialogue and narrative, as witnessed in the rise of novels in the 1800s.

The very reflectiveness of writing — enforced by the slowness of the writing process as compared to oral delivery as well as by the isolation of the writer as compared to the oral performer — encourages growth of consciousness out of the unconscious. (147)

Ong says that even a little literacy restructures consciousness. Writing can be credited or blamed for a rise (the rise?) in self-awareness. It is interesting to note that the web is recreating the interactivity of readers and writers, while preserving the advantages of written memory. It is unclear how this change will again restructure consciousness.

Literacy is not the last word

Orality is not “pre-literate.” Orality is a domain of knowing unto itself, capable of achieving complex design. All reading and writing is transformed in the brain back to the original speech utterances. Literacy is founded on orality.

Ong calls orality “natural” and writing “technological”. This distinction is the only point on which I disagree with him. Speech without writing is technological in a Heideggerean sense, tool-like. Speech is the processing of symbols, embodied in sounds. We are learning much about the way thought extends beyond our brains into the environment or lifeworld. Heidegger understood the lifeworld, the implicit domain of thought. He called it Dasein. We are technological to the core, and by that I do not necessarily mean digital technology, but tool-makers, and speech falls into that category. For this reason, I consider Orality and Literacy to be the second most illuminating book I have read about human consciousness. Being and Time probes a level deeper.

Literacy is not the last word. Orality is not pre-literate and whatever comes next is not “post-literate.” Literacy is built on orality, and post-literacy will likely be built on literacy. No doubt post-literacy will further abstract communication. Programming code is a likely candidate, a powerful new form of symbolic processing, gleaned of the inefficiencies of written speech. As programmers say, code is poetry. Now consider that literacy is a hard-won skill that fades with disuse. Literacy will not vanish, but it will recede into the background of human communication. Like orality, post-literacy is in a different frame of reference than literacy.

4 Replies to “Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong. Literacy is not the last word.”

    1. I think your recommendation some time ago was how this book made it on my reading list. Thank you!

  1. Ong’s The Barbarian Within is one of my foundational texts. I’ve never read this, his most famous work, though. I look forward to getting around to reading it.

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