Tuesday, December 21, 2004

I've come to realize that one cannot fully understand Ong without understanding his theology and how it relates to secular knowledge. It's important to note that Ong held a Scotist rather than Thomistic view of the Incarnation: that the Incarnation was always part of the divine plan, not a reaction to the fall. For Ong, our growing and ever changing understanding of secular knowledge is, part and parcel, our growing and ever changing understanding of God's creation.

from "The Apostolate of Secular Arts and Sciences." American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World. 1959. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981. 118-56.

"If through the Incarnation the Church is committed to cosmic history, by the very same token she is committed to secular learning, for secular learning is not a thing apart from cosmic history, something superadded to it, but rather [page break] something within that history which develops in articulation with earlier events in the same history, to protract and fulfill them. When the cosmos has attained a certain degree of maturity, God creates the first human soul and infuses it into the matter prepared for it. As the human race develops, human understanding and learning develop, for learning, whether that of letters or of science, does not exist fullblown at the beginning of human civilization. It is essentially not only something which puts in it seminal appearance with man himself at a certain time in cosmic history -- some five to ten billion years from the beginning of the universe we know -- but also something which has a measured growth. The growth of knowledge protracts the growth of the cosmos itself which has given birth to man, for through this growth of knowledge the cosmos comes to its own fuller and fuller maturity, in which it becomes aware of itself and its relationship to God" (138-39).

As I have said before, this conception of "knowledge in time" (to use Ong's own phrase) is central to his thought. Some of his critics, not realizing this, cite new knowledge as evidence which discredit's Ong's ideas. Denise Schmandt-Besserat's Before Writing is one such work a vocal critic likes to cite and continues to cite as early as a few months ago. Ong's review essay of Schmandt-Besserat's work ("Digitization, Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today's Computers," originally published in Communication Research Trends 18.2 (1998): 3-21, and republished in An Ong Reader) is an excellent example of how Ong regards new knowledge not as a threat but as something to embrace and incorporate.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

from "Bäuml, Franz H. "The Theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition and the Written Medieval Text" in Comparative Research on Oral Traditions: A Memorial for Milman Parry:

"Part of the difficulty [with the Parry-Lord theory as expressed in The Singer of Tales] is merely a matter of definition. An epic text which is orally composed and performed in the sense of the theory is an oral text. But the recitation of a memorialized epic text is also oral, and so is the reading of such a text aloud; they are all spoken and heard. The mechanism by which such texts are received, therefore, is the same (apart from visual indications of the differences among them). Since the reception of a text is part of its transmission, the overlaps and differences in the orality of various kinds of texts are crucial. Similarly, one must distinguish between various kinds of writtenness: an orally composed text that has been written down is no less written for its receiving public or a public used to being read to, and therefore familiar with the reading process. Yet the origin of the former in the oral tradition will be suggested by certain textual characteristics, which, moreover, do not cause it to revert to its original orality" (30).
"[...]the tradition determining reception is not the oral tradition, nor is the function of tradition through the formula the same as in the oral tradition in the sense of the theory, since the theory is concerned only with the process of oral composition. The functional concept of the formula thus raises the question of which function of a number of possible functions is meant: composition as it is meant by the theory, or as a mnemonic device? As a device to serve whose memory, the poet's or his public's? Is the formula, along with the 'thrift' of [page break] its use, seen as limiting in the process of composition or in that of reception? And if reception, what is being received by whom? Is it the tradition being received by the composing poet, or is it the text being received by the composing poet, or is it the text being received by the public in terms of the tradition? The public may, of course, receive a text in terms of a completely different tradition from that in which the poet received it: if the text is medieval, it always does" (33-34).

"Again, it is necessary to define terms, to distinguish between various types of orality (oral performance, recitation from memory, reading aloud) and writtenness, between composition and reception. In an oral performance composition and reception are simultaneous: a 'real' author performs for a 'real' audience and vice versa, for the audience response affects the performance of the author; and both, author and audience, share the same tradition. In the case of a written text, composition and reception are separated in time and space, and therefore the conventions governing its reception may differ markedly from those determining its composition. hence each process, composition as well as reception, is implied and fictionalized by the other: composition is unthinkable without the fictionalization of a public, the implied reader, and reception is equally unthinkable without the implied author and fictional narrator" (36).

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Bob Stein, a pioneer in electronic publishing, and founder of both The Voyager Company and Night Kitchen, has announced the "soft-launch" of The Institute for the Future of the Book, which is funded by The Macarthur Foundation, The Mellon Foundation, and The Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, and Columbia University. While the Institute has a number of plans, I'm most excited by SOPHIE, the redesign of Night Kitchen's TK3, an easy to use multimedia authoring software.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

From McDonough, Peter. Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

"A persistent focus of Ong's work has been on the developing technological base of the diffusion of knowledge. In this respect and also in regard to the attention given to popular culture, his early writings anticipate the interest of modern literary criticism in the social context of artistic production. Ong has stressed how the medium — for example, vocalized speech as compared to written documents — in which rhetorical presentations are imbedded conditions not only the substance of communication, as his former teacher Marshall McLuhan insisted, but also how it constrains the characteristic ways of framing and storing ideas: how technology structures consciousness and identity. It is not only the content of information that is amplified, clarified, or restricted by the medium of expression; the conventions and paraphernalia of the media also influence the mental universes of communication and receivers.

"Two claims are fundamental. One stems from the emphasis on the evolutionary nature of the material underpinnings of rhetoric. Technological changes revise sempiternal understandings of objective truth just as political developments undermined, for [John Courtney] Murray, the vision of hierarchical government, changing it from a permanent standard to a temporary condition. The cyclical word of oral cultures, rooted in the turning of the seasons and agrarian ways of life, and the analytical world of print cultures, conveying a sense of permanence and categorical, virtually static truth, or of linear advance, have been layered on one another, and both are undergoing a secular process of further layering by new technologies.

"The second idea is an extension of the first. A latter-day transition from printed to electronic forms of expression and transmission has contributed to a restructuring of the adversarial style built into classical rhetoric. The invention and spread of these channels of communication has meant not only general change in 'cultural tool kits' but also a reorientation away from the presumed certainties and deceptive linearities — 'the artificial securities of typography' — enshrined as canonical by combative, characteristically masculine modes of discourse" (446).

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

From McDonough, Peter. Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

"Even before the publication of his research on Ramism in the late fifties, Ong had begun to establish himself as a cultural critic of broad scope. He concentrated on the transition then stirring in American Catholicism from a subculture in which intellectual endeavor was still largely confined to the question-and-answer format of theological manuals toward a rapprochement with the fluid society of the years following the war, and he was instrumental in loosening the hold that the fanciful medievalism beloved by [Joseph] Husslein had on the Catholic mind. He has continued to work the margins between the disciplinary demarcations of academia and the 'deep reorganization of consciousness' implicit in the convergence of the Second Vatican Council, the transformation of the Jesuits, and the emergence of media technologies in advanced industrial society. Ong is the most recent in a line of Jesuit polymaths who, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, have attempted to reconcile the crosscurrents of tradition and modernity" (444)

"While Ong's professional reputation was founded on a study of the work of a Renaissance scholar-teacher, his intellectual agenda has been shaped around a dialogue with modernity as culture and as the material equipment of culture. He has used the traditional Jesuit interest in the devices of instruction and communication, in 'rhetorics,' as an entree into an analysis of the technology of learning and the management of discourse in the [page break] interest of social hierarchies. His work concerns the links between pedagogy and power, and he tried to expose the subterranean politics of the humanist tradition.

"Ong does not attend closely to the machinery of conventional politics, and his explicit references to questions of social justice are few; he has little to say about intermediate institutions. In this respect his method differs sharply from the positivism-cum-moralism of John Thomas. The literary, artistic, and historical evidence that Ong draws on is often used as material for the interpretation of archetypical patters in the collective representations of both high and low culture. Ong's interdisciplinary style has had as its substantive corollary an interest in the connections between apparently apolitical or merely interpersonal transactions, such as modes of teaching and learning, and their implications for the distribution of power at a societal level" (444-5).

Thursday, December 02, 2004

I've been told that the upcoming Ong conference will be held on April 7-8, 2005. I don't have any more details than that, but I will post them when I do. The English Department will also announce it on the Walter J. Ong Project Web site.