Tuesday, June 22, 2004

I've long lamented the fact too many people cite Ong without actually reading him or, at least, reading him well. And really, if Orality and Literacy is all that you "read," read it well. Maybe even check out the "General Editor's Preface." It is significant, for instance, that the purpose of a text in Routledge's New Accent series is to "attempt an objective exposition of significant developments in its field up to the present as well as an account of its author's own views of the matter." In other words, please don't conflate what you don't like about Jack Goody or Thomas Farrell's work on African Americans with Ong's own theories. Just because they're presented in an object manner doesn't mean that Ong agrees with them wholesale.

For instance, Ong was quite adimate about the fact that not only does primary orality not exist anymore, we, as literate people, are unable to accurately comprehend a primary orality consciousness. This doesn't mean that primary orality is primitive, it's just different. It's like anything else. Once you've had a cognitive shift, once you've obtained a new perspective, or learned a new bit of information, you can't unshift or return to the pre-changed understanding of an issue. For instance, at some point when studying Ezra Pound, one will learn that he had become an anti-Semite and a supporter of Mussolini. Upon learning this, one can choose to reject Pound as a subject of study, one can use this information to better understand Pound's work, or one can ignore it. What one can't do is unlearn this information or return to a time when they didn't know this about Pound. Because literacy permeates our society, literacy permeates our consciousness and we can't unlearn this cognitive shift. What Ong isn't addressing here is individual literacy.

While this is one of my default rants, this issue took on a new urgency when I applied for the Ong Research Assistantship. One of my jobs would be (now will be) to annotate works that cite Ong. The very same day I got the job description, I read an article that claims in Orality and Literacy Ong applied the "great divide theory of civilization" to "20th-century literacy." Of course, no actual page number is cited because Ong didn't. I'm not positive, but I think it's Beth Dannels who initiated this misreading of Ong. So, when I read this, I first thought "Ah, I need to make sure this book in included in the bibliography." And then I thought "I wonder what the policy is for annotating works that get Ong wrong."

Any way, my most recent run in with this was at C&W last week. Two technorhetoricians whom I deeply respect had taken issue with Ong's notions of primary and secondary orality because, they argued, even if Ong didn't mean it, the use of primary and secondary connote a hierarchy and privileging of one over the other. Why can't we just talk about orality? one asked, which seems to suggest that the difference between the two isn't clear for that technorhetorician. I tried to explain that what Ong was getting at wasn't a privileging of one over the other but that what he was arguing was that secondary orality was orality remediated through literacy. At which point both Goody and Farrell were tossed into the discussion and someone else jumped in taking me to task for using the term "remediated."

I did my little "Goody and Farrell are not Ong and Editor's Preface" routine and then asked the other person what was wrong with remediated. Turns out, remediated connotes remedial and therefore just enforces the whole hierarchy thing. *sigh*

So, I'm now thinking about how to package primary and secondary orality. Clearly, what needs to get across is that when Ong argues that writing restructures consciousness, what he means is that the invention of alphabetic literacy creates a paradigm shift, a different way of understanding and interacting with the world that comes with its own capabilities and affordances. Surely technorhetoricians shouldn't have a problem with the idea that new technologies shape us while at the same time are shaped by us. I realize that literacy is highly political in our society and that it is hard to separate writing from literacy, but when we theorize about writing and literacy, we sometimes need to do it outside of its contemporary political context. And that is what Ong was doing. I'm left wondering if the terms "primary" and "secondary" are too tainted by misunderstanding to be of use any more. And if so, what might work?

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