Orality and Literacy: Reflections across Disciplines

Orality and Literacy
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When sound is present, it is already going out of existence. You can hear what is inside an object without passing through its surface; according to Ong, you cannot do the same with touch, taste, smell, or sight. Ong moved freely between characterizations of oral thought and oral culture because he considered the latter to be a necessary expression of the former.

For Ong, cultural forms emerged from psychological states. Ong elaborated a cluster of related characteristics of oral thought and culture. Oral thought is conventional, using mnemonics and formulas to aid in recall.


Oral thought is additive rather than subordinative, putting events together in sequence rather than relation. Oral thought is aggregative rather than analytic, putting things together rather than taking them apart. Oral culture is close to the human life-world. It does not deal in many abstract categories or abstracted procedures.

Oral culture is agonistic because ideas cannot be separated from the people who present them. Oral culture is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced because there is no separation between knower and known as there is in cultures with writing. Oral culture is oriented toward the present over the past and the future because the latter categories are more abstract.

And most generally, oral thought is more situational and less abstract in all its forms, because hearing fosters engagement with the world, and only writing, structured by the faculty of sight, allows for the high degree of abstraction on which we depend in modern life Ong, Abstraction becomes possible through writing because it separates knower and known. He argued that it was not until the rise of printing that literacy and sight became predominant in European culture. With print, however, abstract thinking becomes even more depersonalized than with writing, and print space is visual space, where objects may be separated from their contexts and considered in relation to one another.

For Ong, print and visuality allow the mind to move beyond the immediacy of the present to an abstract past and future. Print fosters a sense of individuality separate from collectivity, and print delegates the function of memory from internal psychic processes to an external object. For the literate mind, knowledge inheres in things outside the self and the eventfulness of the world Ong, From this account, Ong built an entire theory of modernity as growing out of a shift from auditory to visual dominance of the sensorium.

The cultural history implied by the oral-literate dyad is relatively straightforward. As Don Ihde has shown in his classic phenomenological study of hearing, many of the aspects of auditory perception writers attribute to the litany do not actually hold up when we closely examine auditory experience.

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Especially in recent years, anthropologists, historians, and countless others have chronicled organizations of sonic culture that call into question the assumptions about sound, culture, and consciousness implied by the audiovisual litany. In his earlier works, Ong took pains to make clear that he was talking about ratios among different senses though the characteristics of each sense ostensibly remained a constant Ong, And Ong intended his work on orality to be a critique of literate culture, a gesture toward a form of what he believed to be more collective ways of living and a set of mores devalued in his own culture.

Like the Romantics responding to the Classicists, Ong wished to inject some mystery and transcendence back into a world of thought he considered too concerned with order and reason. His work thus falls into a long tradition of iconoclastic anti-modernism. But the triumph of sight and images in the modern age was not the starting point for his analysis.

A more careful elaboration of the contours of his position, especially the connections he posited between orality, sound, and the divine, will clarify my claim that the concept of orality has its roots in a spiritualist theological orientation.


Ong had amassed a great deal of material about Ramus and believed him to be a bridge between the Middle Ages and the modern world, but initially could not explain why. Ong was attuned to the issues highlighted in that debate and very concerned with the distinction between spirit and letter. In the tradition of Christian spiritualism, Ong sought a way to commune with the spirit of God.

Thus, a detour through these old philological discussions will allow us to fully apprehend the spiritual basis of orality as a concept and to understand the kind of theological work it was originally designed to do. He attached a historical telos to that distinction, where progress naturally and necessarily flowed from Jewish constructs to Christian ones. And he offered a very selective interpretation of both ancient Hebraic and Greek languages and cultures.

A particularly local philology was thus the basis for what would become a universal cultural and psychological theory in the guise of orality and literacy.

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen

Orality and Literacy investigates the interactions of the oral and the literate through close studies of particular cultures at specific historical moments. Rejecting. Orality and Literacy: Reflections across Disciplines [Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, Natalia Khanenko-Friesen] on comprapanniapip.cf *FREE* shipping on.

Thorlief Boman, in his Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek , contrasts the two in terms we have already encountered. Boman casts Hebraic thought as dynamic and temporal, and Greek thought as static and spatial. For Boman, Jews lived in a world of sound, Greeks in a world of light.

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Based on this and other etymological discussions for instance, asserting that Hebrew numbers have their origins as nouns , he arrived at the conclusion that the difference between Hebraic and Greek thought is a difference between hearing and seeing:. So for Boman, the Hebrews lived in an eventful world of sound, whereas the Greeks lived in a static world of sight.

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But Boman and his contemporaries were not the sole discussants on the matter of etymology. Notify me of new comments via email. Account Log In Cart. Certainly, Boman was not the first author to note this distinction, nor to develop it. Much of the history of communication is still written in the shadow of an aging fable.

Certainly, Boman was not the first author to note this distinction, nor to develop it. Boman traced his project back to Johann Gottfried Herder, and there are countless references in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to differences between Hebraic and Greek thought. For Boman and other mid-twentieth-century biblical scholars, the stake of this difference was in the interpretation of the Bible itself, since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek.

Ong extended the theses of Boman and his contemporaries, building two entire sets of conditions of the soul from word-as-event and word-as-thing. The association between words and events in dabar evidences the auditory emphasis in ancient Hebraic thought. That is to say, Ong essentially extrapolated the general categories of oral and literate from the figures of the Jew and the Greek in mid-century Christian theology. But Boman and his contemporaries were not the sole discussants on the matter of etymology.

Though Barr was unceasingly modest, saying that his linguistic criticisms did not invalidate the larger theological points presented by theological scholars, his critique of their use of language was devastating. Barr began his discussion of dabar by citing several theologians who asserted a dual meaning for dabar. The problem, as Barr noted, is that no known Hebrew lexicon made any reference to an inner reality of the word.

As any beginning student of Hebrew knows, dabar refers to speech and words, and to things and matters that are spoken about. Barr argued that the same is true of the Hebrew dabar : we cannot deduce its meaning in any particular usage from the etymology of a word alone.

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This is of course a basic principle of semantics, and it holds here as well. The larger problem, according to Barr, is that etymology is a totally voluntaristic approach to biblical interpretation. Interpreters can choose to attend to associations among possible meanings they wish to connect and ignore the meanings they dislike. Interpreters using the etymological method also get to select which current of biblical thought they wish to highlight and can choose to ignore the others. The result is a reading of scripture in which interpreters can make it say almost anything they want Barr, Barr thus undermined the epistemic platform on which etymological theology rested.

Ong used the same etymological method—derived from Boman—that Barr criticized to reach the same theological conclusions. Rather, the ancient Jews were able to distinguish the meaning of a word from its semantic context, much like people today. In linking orality to a Christian conception of Hebraic thought, Ong marshalled Jewish theology to support a side of an argument originally designed to exclude the Jews from Christian theology. Ong was most emphatically not a religious pluralist in his argument, nor should we expect him to have been.

But as a participant in a larger discussion about the spirit and the letter, Ong selectively cited Hebraic thought to suit his position. In the logic of his argument, he had already put aside the possibility of considering Hebraic thought on its own terms before even arriving at the specifics of dabar. Thus, the debate among twentieth-century Christian scholars over the meaning of dabar as word and event ought to be read as an adaptation of Hebraic philology to a longstanding Christian agenda and most certainly not as an affirmation of rabbinic thought.

It also left out the very important qualification that the original distinction between spirit and letter was a Christian response to rabbinical writings.

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In his larger project to privilege the spirit over the letter, Ong carried on a line of thought begun by St. Ong was ultimately interested in the usefulness of the history of the senses for understanding the history of the relationship between the human and the divine from a Christian perspective. The question animating The Presence of the Word and the turn to orality-literacy more generally was thus a question of the preparedness of any particular sensorium to receive the word of God.

On this point, Ong was unequivocal: listening is an activity closer to the divine than seeing. For Ong, sound gets us closer to each other, and therefore closer to God. For all its emphasis on orality, The Presence of the Word is not a strictly nostalgic book, and this is because Ong saw a new era of secondary orality as an emergent possibility. His notion of secondary orality was precisely intended to denote the paradoxical condition of a world that had some of the immediacy and collectivity that he attributed to oral cultures, but at the same time carried with it the baggage of literacy and the culture of the eye.

Summing up the theory of orality and literacy he presents in Presence of the Word , Ong wrote:.

This is the central affective tension in the Presence of the Word. Ong was torn between two affirmations.