Saturday, October 16, 2004

I realized I never posted to TechRhet a follow up email on technology as genre (See Oct. 4 entry below). On Oct. 5, I sent the following long and rambling email, as much to work out the ideas for myself as to argue a position. The following really is an instance of me working out ideas publicly, which I sometimes do on TechRhet. The post:

[Note, this is very long and didactic, even for me. Read at your own peril.]

On Mon, 4 Oct 2004, Peter England wrote:

> > " To bring this home, however, while I absolutely agree there is a
> > category of digital text than is different from other categories of text
> > (oral, chirographic/manuscript, print, electronic), calling it genre
> > doesn't seem to me to be precise enough a term.
> OK, I'll bite: what *should* we call them? Does "digital" do it? I don't
> think so, if only for the fact that a text can be both oral and digital.

I might be insisting on too narrow a definition of genre here, but from my Ongian perspective, I have no problem classifying a digital oral recording as primarily digital and secondarily as oral. In other words, from my perspective, its digital nature far outweighs its oral one. This doesn’t mean that secondary classification descriptors can't be used, so if it really mattered that it was an oral recording, I'd classify it a digital oral recording. Or, I guess, since I've stated here already that we can have an oral poem composed and performed/received in writing, we could call that recording an oral performance digitally recorded. (It seems to me, though, that if you'll balk at calling a digital oral recording digital because it's also oral, then you would seem to be arguing that oral and digital *can't* be genres either for the very same reasons. But then again, The Winter's Tale is a tragicomedy and Beowulf is sometimes classified as an elegiac epic, so an oral-digital recording or digital-oral recording could be a genre if we finally decide that genre is an appropriate term).

Either way, I maintain that a digitally recorded oral performance is fundamentally different from a oral performance performed orally and received aurally, a oral performance recorded in writing or print and received as written/printed text (I'm collapsing the two together here for brevity's sake, but we need to remember that while a chirographic text and a printed text can be lumped together as 'writing,' they are also very different), or an oral performance recorded electronically/in analog and received aurally.

Also, for the sake of argument, I am assuming that when we say 'oral' here, we are referring to the condition of secondary orality (oral performance/discourse performed by people who have interiorized the technology of literacy). If you don't like the distinction between primary/secondary orality, that's okay because in that case oral will just mean oral to you whether it's what I call primary orality or secondary orality. (I note this because when I earlier listed oral, chiographic/mansuscript, print, electronic, and digital, I was using oral to refer to medium rather than a technological/cultural condition.)

So, back to what I was saying. An oral performance orally received has no record. You must be within hearing distance of me (and be able to hear) in order to experience my performance. And once I speak a word, it is gone (as I say "whack-a-mole," by the time you hear 'mole,' the audile presence (the sound waves that interact with your ear) of 'whack' no longer exist for you. [I am, of course, lifting straight from Ong here.]

Now, a written record of an oral performance is different. If you transcribe what I say or if I write it down and read exactly what I've written, we have a record of what I've said after I've said it. We can refer to this written text. While my oral performance received aurally is still the same, we also add in this new factor of a physical record that exists outside of sound waves. We can look at it, *see* it rather than *hear* it.

Space and time can be transcended. We can put the transcription in an envelope and mail it to someone 3000 miles away and say, "here, you now know what John said on August 13, 2003." Likewise, 1000 years from now, someone who has no idea of who I am or who you are, who would never have had a chance to hear me or be in the presence of sound waves that emanate from my vocal system, can have access to my spoken words. That is an affordance writing has which spoken words do not.

On the other hand, one constraint of a written transcription is that while those people 1000 years from now may know what I've said, they can't ask me to elaborate. I'm some 950 years dead, give or take. Some one who hears me, who is within my presence as I speak, can ask me what I mean. A written record of my oral performance is something materially different than my oral performance. Writing offers new potentialities but also lacks other potentialities.

And if we made a printed version of this transcription, it would be materially different from both the oral and the written. If we chiographically made 1000 copies of the written transcription, the likelihood of any one of those copies being an exact replica of any other copy is almost nil. A letter will be larger or smaller or the amount of ink or graphite on the paper will be different, or there may be more words per line, etc. And that doesn't even take into consideration the likelihood of transcription error. And since we're likely to have multiple people transcribing (because, you know, I'm not going to want to handwrite 1000 copies by myself), if even just one copy which is used as a master contains just one transcription error. Every copy that can trace its lineage to that corrupt copy has that error. Chances are, with 1000 copies being made, more than one error is going to occur.

With printing, however, this all changes. We can make one master and run 1000 copies exactly alike. So, printing includes all the material changes/potentialities/constraints of writing and adds these new ones. (Printing, one might note, can give us a false sense of identicalness. If we were to run two printings but not tell anyone and made those two printings different by two words or by dropping out a comma, people would assume they had exactly the same text if we were to pass them out saying "here, have a copy of John's speech. Many of us wouldn't be so sure of this assumption if we were given handwritten copies).

Just as writing and print records of my oral performance are materially different than the oral utterance, electric recording/broadcast of that oral performance also has material differences. Radio broadcast, for instance, returns the performance to the oral/aural medium. But, at the same time, it can transcend space and time. My 'voice' can be broadcast 3000 miles away from where I am or 1000 years after I've made the utterance. While we cannot check to *see* what I said as we can with a write/printed text, we can replay the broadcast and *hear* what I said *again*. My words can live on long after I've said them. And TV can broadcast my utterance both aurally and visually so that it can be heard *and* seen.

So, these electronic technologies subsume both the oral and the written, and yet are something materially different as well. (And they have their own constraints too. A book, for instance, is its own delivery system. Unlike film or magnetic tape, once something is recorded in a book, the book is all you need.)

And finally we come to a digital recording of my oral performance. A digital recording of my oral performance is materially different than an analog recording. Why? Let me quote from Bradley Dilger's Kairos review of Lev Manovich's book The Language of New Media, which can be found at :

The bounds for new media are set by five "principles of new media" present in most new media objects, which "should be considered not as absolute laws but rather as general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization" (27). Many of the characteristics reflect differences of industrial and post-industrial economies, such as the industrial division of manufacturing into discrete tasks for the assembly line (numerical representation), or post-industrial "just in time" inventory control (variability).

1. Numerical representation: new media are "composed of digital code" and thus can be "described using a mathematical function" and can undergo "algorithmic manipulation" (27). Conversion from analog to digital form requires sampling: building a regular pattern of quantified units in space and/or time.

2. Modularity: new media objects are object-oriented, composed of parts made up of smaller parts reminiscent of a "fractal structure" (30). The logic of computer programming and the makeup of new media objects reflect this modularity; both are often made from independent parts which retain a measure of autonomy even if embedded in another new media object.

Three more complex general tendencies are built on these foundational principles:

3. Automation: numerical coding and modular structure allow much of the "creation, manipulation, and access" (32) of new media to occur without direct human interaction. Filters in graphics programs can color-correct a photograph automatically, or transform it into a work of art. Web pages are generated on the fly from databases, "using generic templates and scripts" (32). More sophisticated automation, "part of a larger project of artificial intelligence (AI)" (33), involves programmed objects which call the clear division of human and computer into question. Workstation and Web-based search engines and filtering tools are also beginning to automate access of data.

4. Variability: "A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions" (36). Manovich lists seven examples of variability common in contemporary new media, and also considers more foundational differences variability enables: for example, hypermedia elements and structure need not be "hardwired" as in old media. Variables replace constants, and data separated from algorithms (as in computer programming). But to some extent this variability is radically limited to selection from a group of pre-packaged forms: a concept Manovich will later expand as "selection."

5. Transcoding: the "reconceptualization" which occurs during computerization, the transformation of media into computer data. The mapping of concepts such as plot, sentence, family portrait, or summer blockbuster into the computer's text, packet, pixel, or other data structure, creates a composite "blend of human and computer meanings" (46). (In computer science, the term "transcoding" itself signifies movement of data between formats.)

While a digital recording of an oral performance is oral, while it is delivered orally and received aurally, it has potentialities well beyond anything the earlier four technologies/mediums we've examined. That’s why I'd argue that a digital audio recording is, first and foremost, digital. And that is why I'd argue that a digital audio recording has much more in common with a flash file or dynamic web site or a MOO or even a plain text file than it has with unmediated spoken utterance.

Likewise, while I believe an oral poem can exist entirely in writing from its first written 'utterance' to its last silent reading, it is not just an oral poem (one that meets the conventions of oral poetics), it is an oral poem in writing and therefore is also subject to and defined by the affordances and constraints of writing. But this whole written oral poem is, technically, something of a different beast in that its classification as an oral poem stems from its adherence to oral poetics (again, for the least technical explanation of how this paradox works, see John Miles Foley's How to Read an Oral Poem). Its 'oralness' resides not in its medium but in its poetic conventions. It belongs to the genre of oral poetics which is not the same thing as its technological/cultural matrix (primary and secondary orality), and neither is the same thing as an unmediated oral performance (orally delivered, aurally received, and not a recorded broadcast), and none of these are the same as the oral medium which is characterized by existence as sound waves. All four overlap and interact and in actuality operate simultaneously and in tandem, but they are also distinctly different.

So, a digital oral text is, in the broadest sense, digital, and this digitality is a description of category which does not indicate genre (in the specialized sense which we mean when we say it's a political stump speech or a diatribe or a praise-poem or a homily).

So, if anyone has made it this far, am I making sense? Am I making this all too complicated?


At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

too long for a comment, i'm sorry ...

... I’ve got no problems at all with your discussion of primary/secondary orality. Quite the contrary: I found your arguments quite lucid.

But isn’t there another ambivalence in Ong’s primary/secondary-terminology, which is not quite clear for me: The terms seem to me to be understood by Ong both in a historical sense and a systematical sense, so that “secondary orality” would be the kind of orality coming after “primary orality” AND (or?) a “second order orality”, a meta-structure building on still existing (but changing) forms of “primary orality”?

This problem occurs with the subject I’m especially interested in, is what is happening to “secondary orality” in the age of audiovisual media (TV/RADIO …) and in new digital media (PC/Internet/WWW) -- becoming “oral”, and here I’d like to hear your opinion.

I don’t just mean that this has *some* effect (producing a sort of “tertiary orality” in modern cultures analogue to new remediated structures of orality in literate cultures), but the more specific effect you describe yourself: that oral communication in the context of electronic media gets in a way “literal” characteristics, and not only because it can be recorded and replayed, but even by it’s own “state of matter”, recorded or not.

In fact something seems to be developing in new media environments, which is neither oral nor literal, though it has characteristics of both. (The very opposition of orality and literacy as we know it probably is something specific to the age of print media, dating from the enlightenment, and it may seem, that this opposition is now becoming less and less acceptable.)

With digital media, there is the complementary phenomenon of literal communication becoming more “oral” in its characteristics (like in blogs, which have a sort of “voice”, in e-mails, IM, in all the “microcontent” of the new web … but I think this can be seen - or “heard”? - in a new generation of digital texts as well.

So how would you call these phenomena?

In my eyes they seem to point to a certain desire of the new media cultures for a electronically/digitally reconstructed forms of (pseudo-)”primary” communications:

(1) The convergence/synthesis of old “orality” and old “literacy” to produce a sort of *“second order secondary orality”* (like DJs/VJs and TV-presenters, or by daily soap and reality tv “actors”, who tend to speak their “scripts” more and more spontaneously, not needing the traditional “teleprompter” anymore…);

and (2) their convergence/synthesis to produce a sort of a *secondary literacy*, which seems to be trying to become more and more “oral” and (at least ideologically) more “primary” in it’s rhetoric character (and consequently creating quasi-oral communication structures as well, like blogs …).

(Please excuse my English, which probably makes a rather complicated subject even more confused.)

martin lindner



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