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).


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