Lecture notes on Ong:
Below are my lecture notes on Ong. Here’s the quick version: Ong, along with Eric Havelock, were among the first scholars to argue that literacy was more than a tool that simply communicates what human think. Rather, literacy is a transformative agent that shapes how/what I think. And, in turn, what I value (and even, at worst, who I value).
Below Ong details 14 different ways writing changes our brains, and the corresponding shifts to reason, ethics, subjectivity. Basically, writing affords us far more nuanced vocabularies–whereas the oral Greek culture might have 2 words for death, a literate culture might have 50 (I do an exercise with students where I ask them for all the words they know for anger. Then remind them that ancient Greece had just one word).
Writing also individualizes us: speaking brings us in proximity. Writing distances.
Writing also leads to a different, more exacting, sense of Truth.
Similarly, writing transforms knowledge into an object distinct from a person. It objectifies.
Finally, by increasing memory, writing allows for a kind of syllogistic reasoning that would be almost impossible in a purely oral world. While dialectical argumentation might have its roots in orality, it is only in literacy that we can dissect premises (clauses) and generate conclusions.
- Writing separates the knower from the known (24). In articulating this, Ong means that writing not only serves to generate objectivity (in the scientific sense), but also leads us to conceptualize knowledge itself as an object, a thing, a materiality.
- Writing separates interpretation from data (25). Oral cultures do not have the sense of precision and exactitude literates expect (transcription).
- Writing distances word and sound (25).
- Writing distances the source of the communication (the writer) from the recipient (the reader), both in time and in space. (25-26)
- Writing distances the word from the plenum of existence. (26) In other words, writing decontextualizes.
- Writing enforces verbal precision of a sort unavailable in oral cultures. (26)
- Writing separates past from present. (26)
- Writing establishes “administration” (26). See below for an explication.
- Writing separates logic from rhetoric (27).
- Writing separates academic learning from wisdom, making possible the conveyance of highly organized abstract thought structures independently of their actual use or of their integration into the human lifeworld (27).
- Writing creates high and low languages (27).
- Writing creates expansive vocabularies in the high dialects (28).
- Writing intensifies abstraction as it becomes more abstract (28).
- Writing separates being from time. (28)
Basically, “administration” refers to hierarchy. Literally, Ong means that administration produces officials in charge of overseeing (top-down) different elements of society. There’s not one homogenous collective, or one total ruler. “Rule” begins to be organized, ontologized, broken up into categories. This gets complicated pretty quick–but if you think about Aristotle’s metaphysics, then you see what Ong is talking about. Aristotle began to think ontology/reality by creating categories, hierarchies, thought trees, for things (the whole genus/species thing). That is, according to Ong, a product of the way that literacy helps organize[administer] thought. So for thought, so for social-political organization.
Decontextualization is also in play here. Put simply, oral thinkers think associatively. If you say “tree,” they will begin seeing the tree in connection to all the other things that inform tree (bird, grass, sun, wind, leaves, etc). Literate thinkers don’t do this. They pull the tree out of its environment to focus on it as an individual entity. They “divide” (one of Ong’s favorite words) the tree from its lived environment. And–here is the connection to hierarchy, metaphysics, ontology, Aristotle–they start to break the isolated tree into its various parts.
Literate thinkers are very good at this kind of critical analysis: breaking things into parts. Determining what parts are essential to the object, and which are accidental (determining essential and accidental qualities is the foundation of Aristotle’s metaphysics and all modern science/thought; my own research argues that purely “literate” or “essentialist” thinking is bad and that, hopefully, technology can lead us to retain literacy’s benefits while also rediscovering the ethical compassion/associative thinking of orality).
One thing to mark here, too. Ong is often attacked by multicultural scholars as dismissing the intellectual capacity of oral cultures. This is probably true. I read Ong as a theorist rather than an anthropologist. He isn’t articulating how people actually thought as much as detailing two different ways of thinking about thinking. And he is trying to make us realize that the way we think isn’t “natural,” but rather a learned, evolutionary, technological, cybernetic process.
Which means, of course, that we can learn to learn otherwise.
A good example of “administration” would be law. In ancient Hebrew culture, law was administered by a judge in the moment. He would hear both sides of a case and make a reasonable judgement.
But, once you have literacy, you start writing laws down. Now the judge has a much different function s/he applies a previously determined set of codes and procedures (abstract principles) to a specific situation.
In oral law, there is no pre-existing procedures. Sure, there’s codes and commandments, but compare the ten commandments to the legal libraries of today. Boom. Ong in a nutshell.
Lifeworld isn’t fancy. It just means the world in which you live. If there’s anything tricky to it, it would be that as literate westerners, it is impossible for us to appreciate how much the process of abstraction impacts the way we negotiate the world.
For instance, when a literate person encounters a tree, they don’t simply encounter the tree. They begin to think through the tree, to dissect it, to administer/organize it. ALL. THE. TIME.
High dialects means something like “academic discourse.” He is acknowledging that English isn’t one homogenous language. There’s a big difference between someone like me and a student in your class. Sure, we are both literate, but could you really say we speak/write the same language?
Or, in Aristotelian terms, we are of the same genus, but are very different species.
Which gets into how this kind of thinking can quickly become genocidal. Because, at some dark unconscious level, we can come to understand that those who don’t “write” the “right” way are a different species. A sub-species. Less than Human (with a capital H). But that’s another lecture for another time.