Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Rereading Orality & Literacy so as to give my students a theoretical framework for understanding Naomi Mitchinson's Early in Orcadia, I was, once again, struck by the fact that it's much too well known and far too little well read.

I've seen far too many discussions of this book by scholars who haven't read it or haven't read it recently (i.e., discussions of it are based not on the text but on discussions and quotations of the text that are once, twice, even five or six times removed from Ong's own words. I've seen the book attacked for saying things it does not say, and I've seen it attacked for not saying or not taking into account things it actually does say or does take into account. For instance, I don't remember where I read this, but I once read an attack on Ong based on the argument that traditional skills based knowledge is often learned visually, by watching and doing rather than through telling. This, the argument went, blew Ong's classification system out of water because it demonstrated that visualism was important before writing. While the argument itself demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of what Ong and others do argue, it even demonstrates a complete lack of attention to Orality & Literacy itself. In Ong's discussion of the fifth characteristic of orally based thought and expression, "Close to the human lifeworld," Ong writes
An oral culture has nothing corresponding to how-to-do-it manuals for the trades [...]. Trades were learned by apprenticeship (as they still largely are even in high-technology cultures), which means from observation and practice with only minimal verbalized explanation. (43)
Clearly, the scholar who was attacking Ong in that piece I read had paid absolutely no attention to Orality & Literacyitself, not even to the section of the book to which the author took issue. This is all too common an approach to Ong and his work: accusing him of saying what he does not say or attacking him for not considering something he does, in fact, consider.

But lets take a step back from that particular issue. Things don't get much better when we consider representations of Ong's work. Based on search engine referrals to both my blogs, Notes from the Water J. Ong Archive and Machina Memorialis, I feel comfortable in saying that one of Ong's better known topics is the psychodynamics of orality articulated in chapter 3 of Orality & Literacy. For a good number of people, the psychodynamics of orality are the list of nine characteristics of orally based thought and expression Ong lists in that chapter, which are:

  • Additive rather than subordinate;

  • Aggregative rather than analytic;

  • redundant or 'copious';

  • Conservative or traditionalist;

  • Close to the human lifeworld;

  • Agonistically toned;

  • Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced;

  • Homeostatic; and

  • Situational rather than abstract.
What one needs to remember, what one would remember if they returned to the chapter, or, in some cases, turned to it, is that this section labeled "Further characteristics of orally based thought and expression" is but one of nine sections in the chapter "Some Psychodynamics of Orality." In other words, these nine characteristics do not, in and of themselves, define the psychodynamics of orality. Although this is the case, far too many representations and accounts of the psychodynamics of orality focus on only these nine characteristics.

Let's take another step back, however. Or maybe it's a step sideways. Either way, I want to focus on the nine characteristics as a whole. Many scholars, often following Beth Daniel's "Against the Great Leap Theory of Literacy," attack Ong and orality-literacy studies by pointing out weaknesses, both real and imagined, with these nine characteristics. And this would be fine except for the fact that few acknowledge or pay any attention to how Ong introduces these nine characteristics. He writes:
This inventory of characteristics is not presented as exclusive or conclusive but as suggestive, for much more work and reflection is needed to deepen understanding of orally based thought (and thereby understanding of chirographically based, typographically based, and electronically based thought). (36)
Far too often, these suggestions that need further exploration are treated as hard facts to be embraced or refuted.
Ong, as he himself liked to stress, did not try to theorize. Rather than theorize, he tried to describe what we knew and what the implications of that knowledge was. And this is not just some semantic game that Ong and I are playing. As I've argued before, this distinction is key to understanding Ong's thought (see for instance, this post for the gist of this argument).

What I'm getting at here, in this post and it's not a new theme for me, is that Orality & Literacy is one of the more misread and misunderstood books in English studies. And, moreover, far too little is done with it. It's cited a lot by both its supporters and its critics, but it's not used enough as a road map for further exploration. In writing it, Ong presented us with a map that has large tracks of unknown territory, and on this map he did not write "Beyond here be dragons." No. Ong wanted us to explore, to discover, and to learn. He believed knowledge existed in time (follow the link at the end of the paragraph above), and that what we know is always provisional, will always need to be reevaluated and reworked as new knowledge comes in.

I'm always struck by thoughts like these when I pick this book up. While it came at the end of his career, it was always intended to be an introduction to his own work and to the field. Even when it was published in 1982, it was not meant to be an end point but instead a point of departure.

Cross posted to Machina Memorialis.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

The University Archivist also passed along to me "The Image Culture" by Christine Rosen, published in The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Again, I'm posting this as an article to return to, but from a quick skim of the introduction, I see Rosen ends the intro with this:
Two things in particular are at stake in our contemporary confrontation with an image-based culture: First, technology has considerably undermined our ability to trust what we see, yet we have not adequately grappled with the effects of this on our notions of truth. Second, if we are indeed moving from the era of the printed word to an era dominated by the image, what impact will this have on culture, broadly speaking, and its institutions? What will art, literature, and music look like in the age of the image? And will we, in the age of the image, become too easily accustomed to verisimilar rather than true things, preferring appearance to reality and in the process rejecting the demands of discipline and patience that true things often require of us if we are to understand their meaning and describe it with precision? The potential costs of moving from the printed word to the image are immense. We may find ourselves in a world where our ability to communicate is stunted, our understanding and acceptance of what we see questionable, and our desire to transmit culture from one generation to the next seriously compromised.
Some day I need to dig up Ong's short lecture on "Secondary Oralism and Secondary Visualism" and report what he argued, not because it was brilliant--I don't remember, honestly, which in itself suggests that it wasn't, but because it's an interesting footnote in where his thinking was heading in the 1990s.

Cross posted to Machina Memorialis

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Friday, November 04, 2005

C|Net published a interesting article on "Intelligence in age of Internet" back in mid September and I forgot to mention it here. The article begins with the question: "It's a question older than the Parthenon: Do innovations and new technologies make us more intelligent?" and the piece discusses this issue from a historical and cross-cultural perspective. A few quotes:
Intelligence, as it impacts the economist Valderrama, is our capacity to adapt and thrive in our own environment. In a Darwinian sense, it's as true now as it was millions of years ago, when man's aptitude for hearing the way branches broke or smelling a spore affected his power to avoid predators, eat and survive.

But what makes someone smart can vary in different cultures and situations. A successful Wall Street banker who has dropped into the Australian Outback likely couldn't pull off a great Crocodile Dundee impression. A mathematical genius like Isaac Newton could be--in fact, he was--socially inept and a borderline hermit. A master painter? Probably not so good at balancing a checkbook.

Despite what I like about this piece, it has a very limited understanding of memory. For instance:
Only 600 years ago, people relied on memory as a primary means of communication and tradition. Before the printed word, memory was essential to lawyers, doctors, priests and poets, and those with particular talents for memory were revered. Seneca, a famous teacher of rhetoric around A.D. 37, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard years before. "Memory," said Greek playwright Aeschylus, "is the mother of all wisdom."

People feared the invention of the printing press because it would cause people to rely on books for their memory. Today, memory is more irrelevant than ever, argue some academics.

"What's important is your ability to use what you know well. There are people who are walking encyclopedias, but they make a mess of their lives. Getting a 100 percent on a written driving test doesn't mean you can drive," said Robert Sternberg, dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and a professor of psychology.

As I argue when ever I get the chance, the art of memory has always been about information management, the "ability to use what you know well" whether what you know is stored in your brain, in your Palm Pilot, in the library, or on the Web. Moreover, not only does this article make the common mistake in only understanding memory from an internal-external storage perspective rather than the more important natural-artificial perspective, it only understands memory as a function of cognition. When we know how to drive we rely upon habit-memory, also known as procedural memory. While I read Robert Sternberg's quote as making a distinction between declarative memory and habit-memory/procedural memory.

Via Datacloud via Boing Boing
Cross-posted to Machina Memorialis

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Yesterday's New York Times has an article on teenagers and their use of digital technology, essentially a story based on the Pew Internet & American Life Project's report "Teen Content Creators and Consumers."

The NYT article begins
Melissa Paredes, a 16-year-old in Lompoc, Calif., maintains a Web site where she writes poetry, posts pictures and shares music. So when she was mourning her stepfather, David Grabowski, earlier this year, she reflexively channeled her grief into a multimedia tribute.

In a self-portrait, Brendan Erazo, 15, working at his turntables on music mixes, which he then offers on the Internet under the name DJ Xsjado.

Using images she collected and scanned from photo albums, she created an online slide show, taking visitors on a virtual tour of Mr. Gabrowski's life - as a toddler, as a young man, at work. A collage of the photographs, titled "David Bruce Grabowski, 1966-2005," closes the memorial.
and they report
Most teenagers online take their role as content creators as a given. Twenty-two percent report keeping their own personal Web page, and about one in five say they remix content they find online into their own artistic creations, whether as composite photos, edited video productions or, most commonly, remixed song files.

The Pew survey shows "the mounting evidence that teens are not passive consumers of media content," said Paulette M. Rothbauer, an assistant professor of information sciences at the University of Toronto. "They take content from media providers and transform it, reinterpret it, republish it, take ownership of it in ways that at least hold the potential for subverting it."

While I wouldn't call 22% and 20% as "most teenagers" or even "most teenagers online," I'll note that the Pew Internet & American Life Project's report states that "Fully half of all teens and 57% of teens who use the internet could be considered Content Creators. They have created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations" which would justify the NYT's use of "most teenagers." We need to come to terms with what this means. Our youth are, and have been, becoming increasingly digital, which means that we, as a culture, are becoming increasingly digital as well. Teachers, academics, and society at large, need to realize what this means: Our notions of literacy, intellectual property, public and private, plagiarism, social interaction, discourse logics, writing, learning, and noetic practices, to name a few, education centered examples, are all undergoing transformation whether we want them to or not. This doesn't mean that we'll throw out the old for the new, which we've never done (we still talk, we still write, we'll still have books), but that we need to renegotiate our practices be they social, intellectual, economic, or political.

Via Weblogg-ed.com
Cross-posted to Machina Memorialis

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