Monday, May 02, 2005

Question five from the interview:

Q5. Walter Ong is most recognized for his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. What is the essence of this text that really engages people?

I can really only speak for myself here, or maybe I'm just better off speaking for myself and my relationship to this book so I will. The book is so clear, I think. Or it seems so, but more on that in a minute. It's scope, while ambitious, just makes sense. Being in the middle of writing my dissertation, I've been thinking a lot lately about scholarly books and their arguments, in large part because dissertations are supposed to be sustained arguments, and my particular project comes at a topic from a number of different angles. There's an argument in there which I can see clearly, but I've been living with this idea for years now, and I need to make it clear for others. All the while I read books which are about a topic but don't necessarily have what I'd call a central argument. I read a book and when I'm done I often have a good deal more knowledge about that topic, but I don't always leave the book with a sense that an argument has been made. With Orality and Literacy, however, the argument was always clear to me even if I wouldn't have called it an argument back when I first read the book. So, I think the clarity Ong achieves with this book despite its huge scope that is part of its appeal.

I also think Orality and Literacy engages us so deeply because it is about deeply personal matters. It's hard for us, and especially those of use who are interested in media studies, to separate our sense of self and our identity from language, from the word. I see this all the time when I teach composition to first-year students. It's often quite difficult to separate ourselves from those words which we've written, and in a very real sense we are ourselves nothing but words. Human (self-)awareness is rooted in thought and human thought is word-thought. Sure we can think in and with images, but we use words to understand these images. A mental image of my wife can make me happy when I'm traveling and miss her, but to explain why that image does so, even to myself let alone someone else, requires language. It requires words.

As a history of the technologizing of the word, Orality and Literacy is human history, and a deeply personal history at that. One of the thrusts of the book, for me at least, is about how we interiorize (or not) technologies of the word and the ramifications of that interiorization. To interiorize a technology is to make it so much a part of our every day experience, so much a part of who we are, so much a part of our consciousness, that we forget that it is a technology. Thought of in this light, it's hard not to find Orality and Literacy engaging.

I just want to say a few more things about Orality and Literacy. The book is too often misread. And I say this as someone who misread it for years. Since it was Fr. Ong's last book, and because it is a synthesis and because it is so clear, it's often read as a final statement, a distillation of Ong's scholarship. My first point here is that it was written as an objective summary of the field, which means Ong doesn't have to agree with or believe everything he included in the book (see the General Editor's Preface), a point many of Ong's critics fail to understand.

More importantly, however, is that Orality and Literacy wasn't written to take the place of all the other books and articles Fr. Ong wrote, but to serve as an introduction to them. It seems so clear and easy to understand, but what we're seeing is nothing more than the brilliance of an iceberg reflecting sunlight. What we see on the surface is so engaging that we often forget to think about what's below the surface. And that's the danger of Orality and Literacy. It's too easy to know it without really knowing it. Here's an example.

Being quite familiar with Old English poetry, which is strongly rooted in oral tradition, I readily understood what Ong calls the psychodynamics of orality. They described what I had already observed and gave me the language to talk about it. Years later, however, when I'd read much more deeply in both Ong's work and the other works which he cites, I came to understand the psychodynamics of orality on a much deeper level. To continue the analogy above, I finally looked below the surface and saw that there's much more iceberg below the surface than above it. Another way of thinking about this is that through Newton we knew gravity well enough to make planes fly, but we didn't know gravity nearly as well as we do now thanks to Einstein. To know Ong only through Orality and Literacy, and maybe a handful of his more famous articles, is to know Ong like Newton knew gravity. It's a working knowledge, but it's not the whole picture.

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