Wednesday, February 23, 2005

I've made it to the correspondence, which is in the C's of the personal files. The correspondence takes up over half a filing cabinet on its own.

I've come across a letter written to Ong in Dec. 1967 in which the author writes that he's worried that because of The Presence of the Word Ong will be attacked for totalizing, but that these attacks won't really be about totalizing but will instead be attacks on Catholicism with Ong, McLuhan, and others as the supposed targets. This notion seems strange -- or would seem strange -- except that I've run across enough of it already in Ong's files (occasional letters, a readers' report for Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue that was clearly responding not to the book but to the book being authored by a Jesuit, etc.).

Ong replied with the note that he hopes he's included enough demurs throughout and that the "last paragraph of the book enters a final explicit disclaimer of totalism."

I mention all this because it's indicative of Ong's own method and how he is misread. He qualified his writings, but they were often missed or ignored.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Ong Conference has been formally announced. Information is available at the Walter J. Ong Project Web site.

Friday, February 18, 2005

I saw a schedule for the upcoming Ong conference, which will be held April 7-8, 2005. It's titled "Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. ONg, SJ. A conference celebrating the Jesuit gift of the Ong Archives to the Saint Louis University Libraries." Participants include:

Kathleen Welch; Paul Soukup, SJ; Lance Strate; Stephen Casmier; Catherine Snow; Roy Schafer; C. Jan Swearingen; Walter Jost; John Miles Foley; Ted Chambers; John Padberg, SJ; Thomas Zlatic; Thomas Walsh; and Charles Taylor.

John Waide, the University Archivist, and I will prepare an exhibit for the conference.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

I've finished the first run through of all of Fr. Ong's publications. I've now begun in on the "personal files" (his designation), which does include personal items but really contains all files that aren't publication related. Once I'm finished with this section, I'll start integrating the unfiled material and then begin the preservation and collection description process.

Monday, February 14, 2005

In "Communications and the Rise of the Individual" in Views on Individualism: Presentations by Israel m. Kirzner, Walter J. Ong, Mancur Olson, Kurt Baier. (ed. Donna Card Charron. St. Louis: St. Louis Humanities Forum, 1986. 29-43), Ong is asked "what do you mean by writing?" His response:

"You can count as writing any semiotic mark, scratch on a stick, etc. However, I prefer a tighter definition. Writing is a codeded system of visible marks which enables the one who inscribes it to predict exactly the words that will be read off in the exact order. All writing systems are somewhat deficient in meeting this definition perfectly. For example, Egyptian hieroglyphics are not that clear. Chinese is pretty clear, but the encoding system is beyond belief in its complexity. The alphabet, and there is but one alphabet in the world, namely the Semitic one, from which all other alphabets derive, is the least aesthetic, but the most effective writing system that there is" (42).

Saturday, February 12, 2005

In a letter to C. Jan Swearingen, dated April 12, 1985 (in the folder "On Photographic Literacy" 1985, Dec.), Ong explains that he thought the essay "Writing and the Evolution of Consciousness" would address weaknesses and problems intelligence tests "presented in literates who are unfamiliar with or even unaware of the ways in which the orally grounded intelligence works -- ways which are by no means simple or unsophisticated."

Ong makes it clear in this letter, and in other places, that while he does address his critics directly on occasion -- such as in the exchange with Gee, he preferred to continue writing articles that dealt with but did not specifically identify particular critics. Unfortunately, this gave the impression, or allowed critics to claim, that he ignored their charges.

Friday, February 11, 2005

two passages from "An Exchange on American Sign Language and Deaf culture." (Gee, James Paul and Walter J. Ong, SJ. Language and Style 16.2 (Spring 1983): 231-237) in which Ong clarifies a few misconceptions:

"I have never maintained that the spatializing tendency in language is the product of writing, only that writing gives it certain specific intensities (which print further builds up in new ways), particularly regarding the use of surface to convey all sorts of meaning" (235).


"A written text is fixed, presenting words permanently and all at once, not in temporal sequence. Knowing the appropriate code, how to 'read' the text, enables the reader to introduce the words into time, to give them temporal sequences in his or her own consciousness" (235).

Thursday, February 10, 2005

from "Reading, Technology, and the Nature of Man." The Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 132-149:

"Technology thus shows itself as something profoundly interior. The human word is at its origin on oral phenomenon and it remains, despite the grammatologies of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the twentieth century, irrevocably oral at root. All real words are spoken words. The marks on pages which we call words are of themselves verbal nothings that become real words only in the consciousness of real readers who process them, in however complexly coded fashions, through the world of sound. Yet the evolution of consciousness demands that the originally oral human world be distanced from orality, technologized, reduced to writing and print and ultimately to computers, whence it must be fed back into the oral world again.
     "A dialectic is at work here in this technologizing of the word. As has been noted earlier, a primary oral culture cannot describe the features of orality or reflect on itself as a culture; the very concept of 'culture' is a typographically formed concept, dependent on the feel for a mass knowledge which cannot be accumulated eve with writing, but which demands print. There is no way sort of a massive descriptive circumlocution even to speak or think of 'culture' in classical Latin. Only those advantaged by the interiorization of writing and print, and living at the opening of the electronic age, have been able to discover what primary oral culture was or is and to reflect on it and understand it, and thereby to reflect on manuscript cultures and typographic cultures and their own electronic culture itself. Locked in a primary oral culture, consciousness has not the kind of self-knowledge and hence not the freedom which only technology can confer when consciousness makes technology its own. Like human beings themselves, as they pass through the successive phases of life and through their physical death, the oral world in a way must die, too, if it is to bear fruit; that is, must loose itself in writing and print and now in electronics and in the interaction of all these technologies, if it is to realize its promise" (148-149).

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Excerpts from "Reading, Technology, and the Nature of Man." The Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 132-149:

One of the common but mistaken critiques of Ong is that he's reductive, wanting to claim that the medium governs all, which just isn't the case. He always claimed a relationist position, one which recognized no one overriding force that shaped all culture or all consciousness. He did, however, believe the word played a important role:

"All technologies (the processing of wood and metal, textile work, bridge building, automobile manufacture, chemical industries, and so on) affect man's interior sense of his lifeworld, his sense of himself in relation to the universe, and thus enter into human consciousness to change its structure. But nowhere does technology enter into the structures of consciousness in man's interior life so intimately as when its used to transform the word itself by means of writing, print, and electronics. For the word comes from the interior; to touch it is to touch consciousness directly" (144).

On Derrida and the historical (or lack of historical) perspective:

"However, for all its excellences and the wide perspectives it opens, Derrida's account, like almost all phenomenological or structuralist or psychoanalytic-structuralist accounts of reading and writing, fails to take into consideration in historical or psychological depth where writing came from. The tradition that Derrida represents derives much of its theory from Husserlian and Heideggerian sources, which have little if any contact with work in diachronic noetics and which consequently lack certain historical and psychological dimensions. It works from analysis of literary texts, most recent, post-Gutenberg: Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a favorite. That is to say, the tradition does not attend in depth to the thought processes of primary oral cultures, out of which writing finally emerged, and consequently suffers from an unconscious chirographic and typographic bias. Most theorists in the tradition show minimal knowledge, if any at all, of the psychodynamics of oral though processes and of primary oral societies and institutions which have been worked out at great depth and in meticulous and exciting detail by American scholars, notably the late Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord and Eric A. Havelock as well as the many younger scholars associated with them and their work. The psychodynamics of primary oral thought-processes form the historical writing and print, because they lie at the root of thinking itself, even now" (145).

Knowing as I do the New Critical debate that took place over the "unity" of such medieval texts as Beowulf, and the New Critical assumptions that such works need must be "unified" to be worth literary study, I love the following:

"Failure to take into account these same depth structures or oral noetics and the subsequent technological transformations of the word by writing, print, and electronics can result in blind spots also in the most sophisticated literary criticism today. Few critics today even advert to certain facts that are salient: the developments of the tight linear standard plot is the product of writing; before writing, the episodic plot is the universal rule for lengthy narrative. The Greek drama and kind of plot and characterization it features are the result of writing; the Greek drama and subsequent drama in the same tradition depend on memorization of a text, a composition in writing, which is specially devised to allow for reconversion into oral utterance that is seemingly more or less spontaneous. Tight linear or standard plot does not develop in lengthy prose narrative anywhere in the world, so far as I know, until print has been interiorized in the psyche, some three centuries after its invention. The fully 'round' character of the sort E.M. Forster discusses develops only in a print economy. The noetic processes encouraged by the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century and later depend on print. And so on." (147).

Monday, February 07, 2005

Some interesting observations of medium dynamics from an article on EAD (Electronic Archival Description).

DeRose, Stephen J. "Navigation, Access, and Control Using Structured Information." The American Archivist 60.3 (Summer 1997): 298-309:

On reproducing form vs. making structure of content explicit (paraphrased rather than quoted):

A "page" is a unit of structure that has meaning in typographic contexts -- we can publish any number of books with the same exact pagination. If we change the size or width of a page, however, pagination will likely be off. Therefore pages are not a structural unit of literature but of typography (302).

And now a quote from the above article:

"Many proposals have been made to utilize only the notion of pages in the electronic world. The most naive form my be 'Just scan everything in LC [Library of Congress] and drop it on the net.' A few years ago one heard the same theory, but suggesting optical disk jukeboxes, and before that, microfilm. Such approaches, even ignoring obvious feasibility problems, would not truly achieve the benefits expected of a new medium. Unstructured data forms such as the bitmap are merely new kinds of papyrus on which to make copies: highly useful but purely a quantitative, incremental change. This path can never lead to the new world of navigable, accessible information space that we hope to attain. It carries over most weaknesses of the paper medium, while failing to retain paper's compensating strengths"
     "This is because a scanned image does not contain explicit structural information that can be used to support computer processing that could add value. For example, one could build an 'electronic catalog' by simply scanning three by five cards and then saving the bitmaps. Such a catalog could be 'on-line' and would have the advantage of being easily copied, backed up, and transported. But image using it!" (302-303).

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

John Waide and I talked a bit about Encoded Archival Description (EAD), which is a XML-based encoding scheme for archival finding aids. As I've mentioned before, the plan is to make the Ong collections' finding our first guide marked up as such. My hope is to create tags to identify particular items such as a lecture typescript to differentiate them from publication typescripts and so that one could run an automated search the guide for lectures or note cards or letters.

From "Oral Culture and the Literate Mind." Minority Language and Literature. Ed. Dexter Fisher. NY: MLA, 1977. 134-149:

"Because oral cultures and literate cultures are so different, the problem of the literate's approach to oral cultures plagues us still, and it plagues no one more than teachers, who are very likely to approach an oral culture in the wrong way. When oral cultures were first approached by literates, they were actually not recognized as oral cultures; and then, after they were recognized as oral cultures, they were interpreted as retrograde variants of literate cultures" (136).

A useful quote, I think, as Ong has been accused of doing just this by people who haven't read him closely enough.

"Primary orality is the orality of cultures that know absolutely no writing at all; secondary orality is the orality of cultures that know writing, and particularly the orality that we have today in our electronic world (where we cultivate sound and orality very differently, with the help of writing)" (141).

All too often, people who misread Ong don't understand the difference between primary orality, residual orality, and secondary orality, and they especially don't realize that Ong's description of the psychodynamics of orality only holds true for people from primary oral cultures. The oft cited work done by Heath, especially those that refer to Heath through Beth Daniell's work -- cited or not -- doesn't work as a critique of Ong because any person who comes from a culture that knows about writing doesn't live in a culture of primary orality. The following serves to emphasize this point:

"The evolution from orality to writing and print took about 6,000 years in the West; the first writing in all the world was only invented about 3,500 B.C., so almost all of our ancestors were illiterate. This 6,000-year evolution was largely unconscious; nobody knew what was happening, and we ourselves discovered oral cultures as such only a few decades ago. But in Africa, as elsewhere in the world, the evolution is taking place often in one or two generations and in full consciousness. You meet people in African universities who were born in a village in an almost totally oral culture but who are now superlatively literate, delivering to learned international societies carefully composed written papers on orality. Such persons have a foot in both worlds" (141).

And, finally, we again find Ong stressing the need to treat oral culture on its own terms, a long-held theme which often gets misread as valorizing orality over literacy:

"We should be chary of speaking unreflectively of oral cultures as preliterate. Oral peoples don't know they're preliterate. The earlier ones certainly didn't. What are we illiterate folk today? Pre-what? The terms 'oral literature' and 'preliterate' subtly downgrade the oral, even in mouths of those who are consciously trying to upgrade it. Let us speak (and write) simply of oral (or primary oral) culture and of oral (or primary oral) performance. By meticulousness in terminology, we can help ourselves and others to recognize the characteristics of oral culture and to search out the reasons for them. It will increase respect for the primary oral world, too, if we recognize that all literate cultures have in them a greater or lesser mix of residual primary orality" (146-147).