Friday, August 06, 2004

Posted to TechRhet earlier today:

Any way, in a box of Fr. Ong's lectures, I found "The End of the Age of Literacy," the origins of which date back to a short piece Fr. Ong wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in April, 1959. In that piece as well as its later versions, Fr. Ong cites the shift to secondary orality as a factor in the decline of reading. He also calls into question the notion that there ever was a golden age of reading. The lecture I have before me begins:

"One hears a great deal of protest today about the lack of interest in reading. Much of this protest is justified, but the implication which it often carries is not, for it often implies that matters used to be greatly different, that educators a hundred years ago or more did a better job of teaching both reading and writing. That they did is by no means certain. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence indicating quite the opposite. Bad as we are today, our predecessors were very likely even worse."

I think it's interesting to note that the typescript I have here says that it is a 1972 revision of a 1960 draft which developed out of that 1959 article. Handwritten annotations indicate that it was also used in 1980. I realize the current "crisis" is with literary reading and that many people on this list pointed to the proliferation of non-literary reading digital media has provided, as well as the creative and narrative texts electronic and digital media offer us. And that is, exactly, the point.

As you might imagine, I'm deeply immersed in things Ongian these days (even more than I have been), and I'm struck at how shallow _Orality and Literacy_ is (and I'd even read _Presence of the Word_, _Interfaces of the Word_, and _Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology_ as well as other pieces before this summer). _Orality and Literacy_ is but a tip of an iceberg, and it is so often misread or misunderstood when read without the larger context of his greater corpus (the whole Great Leap debate is a prime example of where too little reading of Ong's works leads to wild misunderstandings). While I haven't made a systematic attempt to do so, I can date his earliest treatment of the technologies of language to a 1944 PMLA essay on "Historical Backgrounds of Elizabethan and Jacobean Punctuation Theory." And I wouldn't be surprised if the theory predates that.

In his 1987 dissertation, Anthony Joseph Palmeri identified a number of metarhetorical principles which can be derived from Ong's work, one of the most important of which, I believe, is that research should be both synchronic and diachronic. I've come to call this "taking the long view." And, I think, this long view is all too often missing from reports that literacy or reading is in decline. Fr. Ong rarely, if ever comes right out and says this. He just gives you the long view.

Since I'm just sort of rambling here, let me close with the last paragraph of "The End of the Age of Literacy" since I'd given you the beginning:

"And so the future is already here. We have entered into a world of communication which we are only beginning to understand. Aristotle said that in his day the Greeks had no word for 'literature.' (If they had no word for literature, don't ask me how he said that.) Today we have no word for this new thing. I would suggest that it might be called a 'presentation.' But maybe that comes from an older world and does not hit off what we really have today. What we do have is complicated: all the past and the present and the future, too. We have a lot of work ahead."

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