It’s apparently common practice to mischaracterize the media theory of Walter Ong, the celebrated Jesuit priest and communications scholar, as progressivist. I recently came across not one, but two recently-published critical pieces on Walter Ong’s work casually assuming that Ong saw literacy as discrete from (rather than built on) orality, and that he was pro-literacy and anti-orality.
In fact, Ong argued that literacy is firmly based on orality, but that civilizations change in incalculable ways when their dominant modes of communication shift to grant primacy to new media. Walter Ong’s primary message was that different modes of communication grant different “powers” to human societies. This is an argument that will always be relevant to discussions about communications media. How we say something matters as much as what we say—this is a lesson we learned from Ong’s mentor Marshall McLuhan. It’s also a lesson we need to apply in discussions about new communications technologies.
What’s most remarkable about Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982) is the effort Ong devotes to attempting to imagine how oral societies functioned. He himself admits that it is an impossible task, because literacy forces a particular mode of thinking on societies that is precisely not oral. “The purely oral tradition or primary orality is not easy to conceive of accurately and meaningfully,” writes Ong:
Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit. When an often-told oral story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it. We (those who read texts such as this) are so resolutely literate that we seldom feel comfortable with a situation in which verbalization is so little thing-like as it is in oral tradition.
Ong argues for the extraordinary beauty of oral performance that exists within and for the moment of telling, for the mnemonic effects inherent in oral modes of communication (because stories must be memorable to live on in oral cultures, in order to be re-told), and for the power of humans to attend to the “living” spoken word in oral societies.
When a revolutionary new medium gains dominance, it does not eradicate preexisting modes of communication: it builds on them. Literacy did not trump orality; rather, it enabled a new kind of innovation. Writes Ong:
Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche. Nevertheless, without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its full potential, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations.
The reason? Basically, writing technologies—written language—provides storage for ideas. Ideas can move beyond mnemonics and formulas; they can be transferred to paper and cross-referenced externally, allowing endless expansion. Ong was not wrong about the freedom offered by the basic technology of writing. But often, he writes with palpable wistfulness about the unreachability of orality as a concept, let alone an organizing mode of consciousness.
Why is Walter Ong relevant again?
A few weeks ago, Sherry Turkle published an instantly celebrated New York Times piece on mobile phones, conversation, and empathy. “For the past five [years], I’ve had a special focus,” she writes. “What has happened to face-to-face conversation in a world where so many people say they would rather text than talk?”
The piece is worth quoting at length:
Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation—where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another—that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.
As a direct result of the uptick in texting as a dominant mode of communication for a wide swath of the American (read: Western) population (read: Millennials on down), Turkle argues that there’s been a collective loss of empathy.
Not only that, but good—necessarily empathetic—conversation, she argues, is built on the ability to be alone with one’s thoughts. “We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology,” she writes. In one study,
People were asked to sit in a chair and think, without a device or a book. They were told that they would have from six to 15 minutes alone and that the only rules were that they had to stay seated and not fall asleep. In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.
Being “on one’s phone” could be the new mode of “being together,” Turkle writes, but more likely it’s a manifestation of avoidance—avoidance of real conversation in favour of the ultimately capitalist impulse to consume—even in relationships—and to take the easy route of viewing relationships as “apps” that provide a utilitarian give-and-take. Relationships like these lack the “agonism,” or struggle, that Ong says characterizes oral cultures’ modes of dealing with ideas and with the world. Agonism might not be comfortable, but it’s durable—and it’s alive.
Turkle’s argument could almost be read as a statement about the primacy of the spoken word, an Ong-esque call for increased orality (although communications scholars should be quick to point out that Walter Ong believes all modern media are foundationally built on literacy because they rely on written texts in myriad ways).
She also includes a note of hope: the human consciousness is extremely resilient. Empathy can be learned (perhaps by reading a bit of literary fiction?), or re-learned:
The psychologist Yalda T. Uhls was the lead author on a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another.
What’s the relevance of all this for contemporary Canadian arts and letters? Just this: new communications media displace former modes of being, and sometimes this is tragic. But they do not eradicate former modes; they rely on them for their very existence.
Sometimes we need to look backward to hold on to valuable modes of communication—spoken word performance and poetry readings are a form of “secondary orality” that is precious (André Forget was right to call attention to the live reading as a forum that requires more thought and investment). But sometimes we need to embrace new media as platforms for artistic innovation. Take, for instance, Kate Beaton—she’s a Toronto-based graphic artist in dialogue with Canadian history and the literary tradition, who has built her readership via the internet and relies on its memes.
New media inevitably unlock new potentials in the human experience. What comes next will be different than what came before. But the world is not the same as it was before. Earth’s population is currently over seven billion, and will reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100. Global warming will necessitate dramatic innovation in technologies for plant science, clean energy, and every other industry—and bring everyone a lot closer. We need innovation: now is not the time for stasis in any industry, including communications media.
Walter Ong is a messenger of a larger philosophy about human innovation: it is necessary. This doesn’t mean we stop analyzing what communication is doing to us. It just means we should stop shooting the messenger.