Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Perennial Difficulty of Christ's Revelation

Found in the publication file for "Contemporary Readings in the Higher Sophistry" (America 70.13 (1944): 343-345). In response to a letter from a reader, Ong wrote:

This is the perennial difficulty of Christ's revelation: it is the most satisfactory thing we know, but to have it and keep it I must reform and keep reforming myself.

I've discussed Ong's theology and its role in his scholarship before, how he believed himself to be describing God's unfolding and ever-evolving creation rather than to develop a theory to defend, and I think we might regard this comment as the corollary to that.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Ong's Review of The Interior Landscape

Ong reviewed scores of books over the years, often writing insightful review essays rather than simple reviews. A collection of his published reviews would be an education in and of itself. A few of Ong's reviews are reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry and are well worth reading. While I'm sure having to choose which to include was difficult, I really wish the review of Yates' The Art of Memory was included, and not just because I have a fondness for all things memory. Looking in the reader, I see that Ong's review of The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962 is reprinted there, but I'll share what I'd intended to share anyways.
Those who have known McLuhan since he was completing this dissertation [on Thomas Nash] in the later 1930's have been aware of these roots of his all along [Ong is here referring to McLuhan's own statement that his work "began and remains rooted in" I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, Eliot, Pound, and Joyce as well as Nash]. For he has [page break] never made a secret of what he reports here, the shock he received at Cambridge after his earlier 'conventional and devoted initiation to poetry as a romantic rebellion against mechanical industry and bureaucratic stupidity." Cambridge University of the 1930's showed him, largely through the work of these just named, how poetry was not a rebellious escape but rather a mode of organizing sensibility and of adjusting to the contemporary world. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." To lay claim to his present field of interest, McLuhan had only to extend the purlies of "poetry" and its adjacent rhetoric to include all media of communication—not a difficult feat for anyone who knows Aristotle.

Those who denounce McLuhan today for not being sufficiently condemnatory are sometimes only reviving the romantic censoriousness he was shocked out of. His critics often seem to feel that whoever does not stand off from technology and bureaucracy far enough to throw stones at them is betraying the cause of humanity. McLuhan is aware that there is no way to stand off from technology and bureaucracy. They need criticism, but the criticism has to come from within them. The Cambridge tradition in the 1930's was itself not always aware of this: at times it could react with blind hostility to the nonliterary-technology, bureaucracy, and all the rest, including commercialism—as phenomena which were "out there," to be taken care of by amputation. But the tradition contained its own cure for this hostility in its conviction that literature was one of the modes whereby society dealt with its problems—a way of understanding society and culture, and thus technology, bureaucracy, and commerce, too, and even ultimately, politics. This conviction, articulated or inarticulated, was one of the strengths of the Cambridge branch of the New Criticism at its best."
from Rev. of The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan, 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara. Criticism 12.3 (1970): 244-251. | |

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More on Time, Evolution, and Knowledge

While I've read most of the essays in In the Human Grain, I read them in other collections or as typescripts or in their original publication. In short, while I've read the essays, I've never read "the book" which means I've never read the Introduction until a week or so ago. The intro's one of those short useful pieces that covers a lot of territory that one ought to know before reading Orality and Literacy. The themes won't be new to regular readers of this blog or for people who have read much pre-1970s Ong. Here's a sample:
Man's knowledge and understanding came into being within time, though they situate man in a way outside time's bounds. In the realm of knowledge today, time is paying high dividends. In many fields of learning we now gain more ground in a decade than earlier man could gain in millennia. This is because knowledge is even more than cumulative: it is self-accelerating, and we live in an age when its acceleration has reached the point where it must be calculated in orders of magnitude entirely new in relationship to the life of the individual human being. There is no way to 'sum up' knowledge in a computer age.

As man moves through time his growth in knowledge ac- [page break] celebrates, his relationship to time itself undergoes a change. He notices time more and more. He studies it and himself in it, becoming more and more explicitly knowledge about his past. The further we get from the beginning of things, the more we know about the beginning. As knowledge of the past grows, focus on the present becomes more intent, for the present acquires a face of its own insofar as it can be both connected with and differentiated from a past circumstantially known. The knowledge explosion thus breeds the existentialist sensitivity to the present moment, felt as the front of past time, which marks our age.

Moreover, as time unfolds, the mind of man not only accumulates knowledge at an accelerating rate, but it also acquires new dimensions and new relations to the sensory world. The human sensorium reorganizes itself as the spoken word is reconstructed outside its native habitat of sound, relegated to space by the alphabet and then, this time with the aid of the alphabet, introjected into a new world of sound, the electronic world which dominates, though it does not monopolize, our modes of expression and consequently our thought processes today. The shifts in the media of communication entail corresponding shifts in psychological structures, creating new strains in the psyche while relieving old ones.

Though he was born into time and lives in its stream, man does not readily believe that time is good. Attempted repudiation of time is a theme of the second section of this book [which includes "Evolution and Cyclicism in our Time," "Nationalism and Darwinism," and "Evolution, Myth, and Poetic Vision"]. Man fears time, for it lies totally outside his control. Despite anything he can do, it moves inexorably on, never reversing itself, never allowing him really to recapture a moment of his past, even when this past grows in charm and poignancy as it recedes into the distance. Science may control genetics and even the weather, but it cannot harness time. Not the least promise shows here. Worst of all, time engulfs all our decisions. A decision once made cannot really be retracted. So-called retraction or retraction means not a withdrawal of the first decision, which has already vanished down the steady moving stream of time, but rather a second decision which we must add to the first. Instead of 'replacing' a decision, we now have two on the record. Time is beyond all persuasion. It hears no pleas. This inexorability of time tempts man into illusion: he likes to think that time is cy- [page break] clic, that it will return either to give him another chance or to show that he never had a chance at all—what happens because it had happened before, so that he has no responsibility. But this pretense is unreal, and it reveals itself more and more as unreal since the discovery of evolution, which is the discovery of the unrepeatability of all being" (ix-xi).
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Monday, February 13, 2006

The State of the Collection When I'm 'Done'

A recent inquiry to the St. Louis Room asked how detailed the finding guide would be, and if it would be possible to search by key words, people, etc. There was also the assumption in that inquiry, I think, that the work would be done sometime this summer. (A fair assumption as that was the original estimate, an estimate made, I should note, without the ability to really look over the scope of the collection. Since my position was established to be a two-year, part-time job (I work 20 hours/week). It's clear now that the preliminary work won't be done at the end of June when my position is scheduled to end.

While I began describing the collection last year, the collection is too vast for me to be keeping track of references to identify names, ideas, publications, places, dates, and all the other things that I would want noted in the finding guide For the most part, I'm putting the materials into their permanent folders and I'm indicating what it is (i.e., publication file for "Orality and Literacy in Our Times"), the dates of the items in the folder, the number of items in the folder, and an overview of the contents (i.e., off-print, typescript, research notes, and 6 letters related to the publication of the article). At the moment, more comprehensive detail than that generally consists of listing the to, from, and dates of correspondence (i.e., letter from Ong to XXXX, editor of XXXX, dated XXXX).

Why such limited information? Why am I not creating more detailed records? Time. The collection is just huge and there's only so much I can do in a limited amount of time. What I am doing is the preliminary work of organizing the material (remember, his papers came not only in file cabinets but in boxes gathered up from Ong's desks and shelves and boxes), of putting the material into categories that both reflects his own order and makes sense from a researcher's perspective (for instance, to make room, Ong sent the typescripts of his books over to the Archive in 1990 and we've decided that it makes sense for those typescripts to be reintegrated back in with their specific books), and of putting the material into permanent folders (Ong, for instance, has some folders stuffed with over 500 pieces of paper, which is much too large and occasionally leads to material becoming physically damaged). I then note what's in each folder and if it needs preservation work (photocopying of highly acidic paper or the replacement of rusting staples and paperclips with stainless steel ones) or repair. Once this is done, each folder can be given a call number and the basic finding guide can be created.

And it is only when that is done that researchers will be able to have access to the collection. Likewise, until that point, it's not wise--in fact it's quite problematic--to have a number of people working on individual sections. Too many people start rooting around in that vast amount of material without any classification system is just asking for trouble. So, again, it's a question of time. We can have the collection open to people sometime this decade or we can have a wonderfully detailed, highly searchable finding guide. We can't have both.

The thing is, once the preliminary work is done, once the collection is organized and the initial finding guide has been put together, then we can have any number of people working with the collection to refine the finding guide. I'll be long gone by then, but it is my hope, and the hope of the head archivist, to someday have people work through the collection item by item so that the finding guide can be tagged with a host of detailed information.

I should note, however, that I don't know if I'll be back for a third year, so the preliminary work might not be done when I am.

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"Ong's Digital Turn" Accepted

For what it's worth, my Computers and Writing 2006 proposal, "Ong's Digital Turn: Published and Unpublished Writings after Orality and Literacy," has been accepted. Among other things, I'll be talking about Ong's unfinished 40,000 word manuscript Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization and the unpublished essay "Time, Digitization, and Dali’s Memory."

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Ong on 'Neo-Creationists,' Circa 1967

From the Introduction to Ong's In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture:
"The passage of time affects man's own thinking about God and thus the way he construes his own situation. This is the line of thought running through the third and last section of the present volume. In the past it was easy to identify God with what man did not know the universe. The argument ran: you cannot explain this phenomenon by your science, therefore it is caused only by God, who therefore must exist. Such a concept of God as a stop-gab, an 'x' accounting for what mind does not know, makes God only a temporary convenience, no more. It makes God only a substitute for physical science, with the result that, as our knowledge grows, God becomes less and less necessary. Such a God of physical explanation does not measure up to the Judeo-Christian concept of an eternal God, transcendent and immanent.

"The God of Judeo-Christian revelation manifests himself in what men know of the universe, not in what they do not know. I the Judeo-Christian tradition, for from being a religious liability, increase in knowledge of material and secular actuality, is a boon to religion. Every man's ignorance deformed his religious sensibility and, despite the sense of the sacred to which he had access, predisposed his religion to superstition and deterioration. The expansion of knowledge, with the concomitant break-up of the enclaves hitherto locking man in isolated groups across the earth's surface, sees Christianity more widespread and more truly catholic today than ever before. The Christian dispensation is closely tied to the evolution of the material world, and to its very materiality. For the Christian, matter changing in time, is a positive good, and the future is colored with hope" (xi).
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Moved Again and a Digital Project Might Begin

On Jan. 31, I finished moving out of the office I'd moved into this past summer. I always knew the office was going to be temporary, but I hoped I'd be there a few more months. The good news is that there's real space for me again in the St. Louis Room, and it's actually better than my old work area. The move itself took place to make room for the newly established Digital Resources Librarian, whom I've sense met, and we've already begun discussing some potential digitization projects for the collection. As I think I've mentioned here before, I'm really interested in digitizing and putting up on the Web Ong's 1950-1953 "Route Book," which he kept during his dissertation research travels, and the 180 or so slides that go with it. I'd like to provide both scans and an edited transcription of the route book, and display the images with the relevant sections of text. This would, ideally, serve as the backbone of a much larger project that pulls together correspondence, lectures, notes, and other materials from the time period. There's some really cool connections that I'd like to see explored. While I can do the scanning and coding and will probably do some of both, having someone to handle the technical aspects of the project means I can focus on what I'm being paid for: knowing and contextualizing the material. And the fact that I could focus on that makes the project much more likely to happen sooner rather than latter.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Talking Book, Version 2.0: "Flash Memory Distribution of Digital Talking Books"

[The above title is, of course, a allusion to Ong's essay "The Talked Book," which is different than a talking book, but there you go. While I'm titling this post "The Talking Book 2.0," that's probably a term better used for books on CD-ROM. And now that I think about it, there's also .mp3, .wav, etc. audio books, and now those self-playing digital audio books from Playaway. But as this is the second generation talking book for accessibility issues, I'll leave it as "The Talking Book, 2.0."]

The Library of Congress' National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has a series of white papers on digital talking books, the most recent of which is "Flash Memory Distribution of Digital Talking Books." In addition to explaining what they'll be doing, the paper explains why they've decided to go with flash memory as opposed to other digital storage options. From the introduction:
In 2008 the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) will begin to replace its existing cassette-based talking book system with a new system based on digital talking books (DTBs). These books, recorded and played back using digital audio technology, will provide the same top-quality narration NLS patrons have come to expect.

Along with digital audio must come a new medium to replace the analog cassette. This new medium must be as easy to use, as durable, and as simple to duplicate as the cassette. Ideally it would also hold far more audio, be reusable, and still be of reasonable cost. For these reasons NLS has chosen the USB (Universal Serial Bus) Flash Drive for the circulation of DTBs

This choice was made after considering alternative digital media carriers such as CD-ROM and the miniature hard drive. [Read more.]
Via TechRhet.

Cross posted to Machina Memorialis.

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Programming Ramus Style

from Rev. of Arguments in Rhetoric Against Quintilian. Translation and Text of Peter Ramus Rhetoricae Distinctiones in Quintilianum. Trans. Carole Newlands. Intro. James J. Murphy. Quarterly Journal of Speech (1987): 242-3:

Professor Murphy's Introduction makes many new or otherwise important points, including the following. At the center of Ramus's program was an attack not on Aristotle alone but rather on the three great ancient auctoritates, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, whom "from the very outset Ramus viewed ... as related" (7). Ramus in principle preferred Plato over Aristotle (7)--but I'm afraid that Ramus's concept of Platonic dialectic was uncommonly shallow, even in his day and much more in ours, being interfered with by his own program for a dialectical or logical 'method' which was, in fact, a computer programming "tree"--Ramus had the beginnings of computer software but not computers. Ramus, Murphy notes, had two attitudes toward Cicero, complementary, not contradictory (10): he praised Cicero's oratory but dammed Cicero's rhetorical theory--pretty much on the same grounds as theories of Aristotle and Quintilian: they were not simple enough, not processed so as to proceed in "straight and orderly lines" (43, quoted from Ramus) through simple definitions treating first the more general and then the more specific parts of the discipline" (242).

Saturday, February 11, 2006

"All text is pretext."

from Rev. of Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy, by Geoffrey H. Hartman. Philosophy and Rhetoric 15.4 (1982): 274-77.

Wonderful though they may be, "texts are false bottoms," Hartman states (p. 66). This they certainly are. Despite the potentials of the word which texts alone can release, despite the specific pleasures of the text, there is not text apart from sound. All text is pretext. This is the basic paradox of textuality. From the inscribed page, the marks we call writing have always to be run through someone's auditory imagination if not through the ear itself to acquire any meaning at all. A certain fundamental allegiance, acknowledged or unacknowledged, to the spoken word can never be renounced, even by those who like ourselves, use the spoken word for noetic activities, such as Derrida's and Hartman's brilliant lucubrations, which are utterly impossible without writing" (277).

Friday, February 10, 2006

Ong on Derrida

from Rev. of Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy, by Geoffrey H. Hartman. Philosophy and Rhetoric 15.4 (1982): 274-77.

Despite his explicit attention to writing, however, Derrida in fact concentrates not chiefly on writing but on print, inadvertently it seems. Like other deconstructionists and their predecessors generally, he seldom analyzes preprint texts and most commonly selects texts in or after the age of Romanticism, when print was conclusively interiorized in the human psyche. Earlier texts would perhaps prove too episodic or otherwise too loose to deconstruct effectively. Hartman (p. 35) notes the connection between Derrida’s work and concrete poetry (a typographic genre) and calls attention (p. 49) to the absence of any account in Derrida of the passage from the (orally grounded) world of “imitation” to the later (print-grounded) world of “dissemination.” Derrida does treat of orality, but he reads back to it out of subsequent literacy and print. He wants to know in what way the psyche is like a text (p. 49). A legitimate question, but one that needs interpretation by comparison with the deeper, historical question. How did writing grow out of the orally grounded psyche and what happened when it did?

There is a massive literature on this subject and on the related history of rhetoric, the all-pervasive study that mediated between orality and literacy in the West and shaped texts for over two thousand years. Just as Kafka’s denial of a past to his characters makes all their actions bizarre and grotesque (for without a past there is no way to motivate or structure action), so Derrida’s neglect of the oral past of writing gives many of his already brilliant paradoxes a psychedelic coloring. It is true that questions about orality are text-dependent, involving abstractions, distances, inconceivable in a mind not transformed by the technology of writing. Nevertheless, the questions can be addressed. Their resolution will involve paradox, which is not contradiction. Derrida’s paradoxes are often brilliant, but it seems to me they do not act out deep enough. Écriture and orality are both “priviledged,” each in its own way.

>Closer attention to the stages in the technologizing of the word (from orality through writing, print, and electronics) could invite rethinking the place in consciousness of such things as the “logocentrisim” that Derrida abhors. Logocentrisim builds up more massively in the print world than ever before. Peter Ramus (1512-1572) provides in his logic a virtually unsurpassable example of logocentrisim (in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, 1958, I called it not logocentrisim but “corpuscular epistemology,” one-to-one gross correspondence between concept, word, and referent). And Ramus’ logic implicitly takes the printed text not oral utterance or written texts, as the model for thought” (275-76).

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Memory and the Eloqutionists

from Rev. of Eighteenth-Century British Logica and Rhetoric, by Wilbur Samuel Howell. William and Mary Quarterly 29.4 (1972): 637-343:

Howell makes clear (pp. 152 ff) that ‘elocution’ (in the sense of the fifth part of Ciceronian rhetoric, previously called pronuntiatio or actio) was stressed largely out of a need to improve reading outloud from texts, especially pulpit reading. But this indicated, first, that oral delivery was working in an economy quite different from that of earlier ages, when normally delivery was not from text at all, even a memorized text, but was instead the actual oral creation of an oration, with the help of the topics or ‘places’ and of thematic and formulaic memory and perhaps a few notes, in the existential situation in which the orator found himself when he rose to his feet. Ancient orators, if they wrote out their orations at all, normally wrote them out after they had given them, sometimes years afterwards.

Secondly, the association of elocution with reading can throw new light on the shift in the meaning of memory between 1500 and the eighteenth century. Memory as a part of ancient rhetoric had not meant verbatim memorization of a text but rather the recalling of the thread of argumentation planned for the individual oration and simultaneously the large impromptu, more or less thematic and formulaic recall of commonplace material for ‘rhapsodizing’ or stringing along this thread. In the mid-1500s Ramus had completely dropped memory as such in his reorganization of logic and rhetoric. He maintained that the ‘natural order’ of things which his logic provided guaranteed automatic structuring of all discourse so that the old rhetorical planning and recall was unnecessary. But his real, unacknowledged, and indeed probably unconscious reasons for dropping memory, as I undertook to explain in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge, Mass., 1958) and as Francis A. Yates has further detailed in The Art of Memory (Chicago, 1966), were somewhat different: first, Ramus’s logic or dialectic was in fact itself a huge memory system connecting with a long-standing tradition of memory arts, and secondly, expression had become in his day more and more oriented to writing and print, where memory simply did not have the urgency it had in oratory.

The elocutionists indeed revived memory, as Howell points out, for they obviously did not think always of delivery as simply oral rendition from a text in front of a speaker. But their memory was in fact quite text-centered. For Thomas Sheridan, both as an actor and as an elocutionist, memory tended to be primarily, if not exclusively, mere memorization—verbatim repetition of a text—quite a different thing from what the old rhetorical memory had been. The elocutionists thus did not actually revive the old rhetorical memory, but substituted for it something adapted to the extramental knowledge storage and retrieval systems begun with writing and maximized by print” (639-40).

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Ong on Rhetoric (1972)

From Ong's review of Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry, by Brian Vickers. College English 33.5 (1972): 612-16.

I have recently suggested in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology that Western culture can be conveniently divided into two periods, the romantic age (in which we still lie and are destined to live for the entire foreseeable future) and the rhetorical age, which reaches back in full view for two thousand years and beyond that has excavatable roots extending indefinitely into the primitive oral culture of all mankind. If rhetoric has the potential thus to divide all human history, how can it possibly be understood as simply a curriculum subject in our present sense of this term? Can it truly be domesticated as one of the seven subjects in the trivium and quadrivium which are popularly supposed to have governed medieval teaching? (I say popularly supposed because I have never been able to identify a single real curriculum in medieval Europe which in fact was organized to teach all of these seven ‘liberal arts’ as they are enumerated in the educational mythology inhereited from Martianus Capellas.) Rhetoric does indeed occur in the curriculum in association with grammar and, more loosely, with logic, but what appears in the curricula as rhetoric is obviously only the tip of an iceberg, the other eight-ninths of which float well beneath the surface of Western culture” (613-14).