Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Ever Present Presence of the Spoken Word

The more I read in cognitive studies, the more I find that Ong was already there, working with ideas and theories that cognitive studies is now exploring or finding to be true. Let me juxtapose two snippets I've come across in the past few days, one from Ong's "Comment: Voice, Print, and Culture" (The Journal of Typographic Research 4.1 (1970): 77-83), which expresses a common Ongian theme, and one from Jeanne Fahnestock's "Rhetoric in the Age of Cognitive Science" (The Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition. Ed. Richard Graff, Arthur E. Walzer, and Janet M. Atwill. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005. 159-179):

Man communicates through all his senses, and in ways so complicated that even at this late day many, and perhaps most, of them have never been adequately described. But in some mysterious fashion, among all forms of communication--through touch, taste, smell, sight, or what have you--communication through sound is paramount. Words have a primacy over all other forms of communication. No matter how familiar we are with an object or a process, we do not feel that we have full mastery of it until we can verbalize it to others. And we do not enter into full communication with another person without speech.

Speech is essentially a spoken and heard phenomenon, a matter of voice and ear, an event in the world of sound. Words are sounds. Written words are substitutes for sound and are only marks on a surface until they are converted to sound again, either in the imagination or by actual vocalization.

We know this, but we find it almost impossible to grasp its full implications. The spoken word has become entangled with writing and print. When we talk about words, we are seldom sure whether we mean spoken words or written words or printed words or all of these simultaneously.

We have to make a supreme effort today to establish a sense of vocalization as such. And yet, if we lack this sense, we cannot understand the development of communications systems in any real depth. For this reason, to get to the roots of our condition today, we must indulge in a little history. (77)

Here we find Ong, once again, privileging the role of sound. Words, he liked to argue, are events rather than signs. Contrast the above, however, with this passage from Jeanne Fahnestock's essay. This is taken from a section titled "Residual Orality." The essay, I should note, makes no reference to Ong or to orality-literacy contrasts except for this subheading:

A critic might complain at this point about an emphasis on sound since in our culture important texts are read not heard, and the sound dimensions of written texts are unimportant. But brain imaging studies challenge that view by showing that reading has an aural and even an oral dimension. Indeed these imaging studies show a surprising involvement of the "output" areas of the brain in decoding of different kinds of "input." In one experiment, subjects were instructed to move a finger and then to watch a moving finger in a movie. IN both cases, doing and watching, the same area in the premotor cortex showed heightened activity. In fact, the same area was stimulated when a subject was told simply to imagine the finger movement (Dublin 41). It seems as though the brain "rehearses" motion even when only thinking about it.

An overlap between reading and hearing, two means of consuming language, is perhaps not surprising. But an overlap between reading/hearing and speaking, that is between consuming and producing language, is. Formerly these activities were thought to be quite distinct. [....]

Researchers using fMRI have demonstrated that some parts of Broca's area, presumably dedicated only to language production, are activated during comprehension. "An initial explanation of this finding was that silent, covert subvocalization was occurring as part of comprehension. That is, in trying to understand the words being heard, the person was rehearsing the speaking of those words without being aware of doing so" (Dubin 51). A new appreciation of this motor component in higher cognition has come with an increasing appreciation of the role of the cerebellum, which has long been understood as the part of the brain involved in posture, movement of the limbs, and skilled small muscle movements such as those involved in speaking and writing. Imaging studies have shown, for example, that "verbal working memory for letters, words and even names utilized a strategy of silent, nonconscious rehearsal that involves some of the same parts of the brain as actually speaking these items. Studies showed activation of cerebellar regions that would normally be involved in the motor speech task, even though no actual speech occurred" (Dubin 45). Because for all nondeaf humans language is a heard and spoken system before it is a system of visual and written symbols, it persists in the auditory and motor regions of the brain even during silent reading. Hence language as revealed in brain imaging studies is always in some sense heard, and the aurally based effects of the figures can persist even in a written text that is read silently. This conclusion would not have surprised the early modern rhetoricians. (170-71)

The spoken word, it seems, is always with us, just as Ong has always argued.


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