Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archive

MLA 2006

108. Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy at Twenty-Five

Thursday, 28 December

8:30–9:45 a.m., Congress C, Loews

Presiding: John P. Walter, Saint Louis Univ.

1. “Orality, Literacy, and Ong’s Asymmetrical Opposition,” Jerry S. Harp, Lewis and Clark Coll.

My proposal arises from my book manuscript in progress, entitled Constant Motion: Ongian Hermeneutics and the Shifting Ground of Early Modern Understanding, in which I use Ong’s studies in orality and literacy to analyze the shifts and movements of sense metaphors of cognition in the early modern period.  What I have in mind for my conference paper is both a contextualization of Ong’s work in the milieu in which it arose and a study of its reception in more recent years.  Specifically what I want to confront is a common misreading of Ong’s work, especially Orality and Literacy, as underwriting an abrupt shift from orality to the visual world of print, so that the printing press becomes the font and origin of the noetic shifts that Ong explores.  Ong’s emphases, in Oraltiy and Literacy, on Learned Latin, residual orality, and secondary orality show that his sense of noetic change is far more complex than this misreading would allow.  Always present in Ong’s work is a sense of the complicated ways that oral and literate noetic economies interact.  For literacy does not do away with orality; rather, the former reinforces the latter while it also transforms it.  It is informative to understand Ong’s work in the context of orality-literacy studies at Harvard, where Ong carried out his work on Peter Ramus, as well as in the discursive world of intellectual life in the fifties, when Ong came of age as a scholar.  Adverting to these contexts helps to illuminate why Ong was concerned to differentiate oral from literate noetics, as well as the extent to which he was emphasizing the dynamic interactions of orality and literacy in ways that many of his contemporaries were not.  He was contributing to the complex work of differentiating oral from literate noetic economies while also showing how these economies remain in shifting modes of interaction.  These influences continued to have an impact on Ong’s later work, even his as late as 1982, when Orality and Literacy appeared.

2. “Orality and Literacy as a Methodological Apparatus for Examining Women’s Rhetorics,” Melissa Jane Fiesta, California State Univ., Long Beach.

Few references to women’s discourse occur in Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and these references suggest that women did not have access to academic rhetoric.  As a result, the discursive style of women has historically been associated with conversation rather than agonism.  From such premises, Ong draws the conclusion “that early women novelists and other women writers generally worked from outside the oral tradition because of the simple fact that girls were not commonly subjected to the orally based rhetorical training that boys got in school” (159).  In “Discourse, Difference, and Gender: Walter J. Ong’s Contributions to Feminist Language Studies,” C. Jan Swearingen resuscitates interpretive applications of Ong’s Orality and Literacy to include women’s rhetorics, however.  Swearingen contends that examples such as Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz and Sojourner Truth complicate reductive associations between rhetoric and male agonistic discourses: “Ong’s forthright tracing of the links between gender and verbal contest patterns facilitates a synthesis between studies of many forms of verbal contest that evolve without formal school instruction, and the schooled and unschooled practices of contest and argument that reveal notable gender differences” (218).  This paper will examine the rhetoric of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz to argue against Jane Hoogestraat’s contention that “Ong’s terminology effectively denies any language, written or oral, to women: Because women could not write in Latin, they also lacked access to the oral/oratorical tradition” (60).  Further this paper will apply Ong’s terminology that has been traditionally associated with a male agonistic oral tradition to the rhetoric of Sor Juana Inez.  While Swearingen alludes to Sor Juana Inez in order to challenge previous assumptions about the oral and literate practices of women based on Ong’s work, she does not analyze Sor Juana Inez’s rhetorical practices in depth.  Rather she suggests Sor Juana Inez’s rhetoric as a site for reexamining Ong’s contributions to women’s rhetoric as well as to methodological considerations for scholars working with histories of women’s rhetorics.  This paper will analyze the rhetoric of Sor Juana Inez to reconsider the contributions that Ong’s Orality and Literacy at Twenty-Five can make to analyzing women’s rhetorics, to identifying applications of Ong’s methodological apparatus to alternative rhetorics, and to demonstrating that his terminology has previously unconsidered applications to such rhetorics.    

3. “Ong, Derrida, and the New Media Theory,” David Martyn, Macalester Coll.

One important way in which Ong’s Orality and Literacy differs from previous scholarship on the same subject is its historical periodization: unlike Havelock and Goody, Ong locates the shift from oral to literate culture squarely within the “Age of Romanticism.” Only with the demise of the rhetorical tradition around 1800 are the oral habits of thought fully obliterated and the “interiorization” of writing accomplished (OL 26). This bold periodization has borne fruit in recent media theory. In his influential “mediology of the 18th century” (1999), Albrecht Koschorke draws on Ong’s work to argue that the shift from orality to literacy in the years leading up to Romanticism ushered in the birth of modernity, newly defined as a “comprehensively medialized culture.” By this Koschorke means a culture based not on “interaction,” which entails bodily performances tied to specific situations and contexts, but on “communication,” which occurs through distance on the basis of “closed” or autonomous sign systems. The rise of the internet, to which Koschorke devotes the last part of his lengthy study, appears in this light as the latest development in a transformation that has its origins in the 18th century.

            In advancing their argument for an essential epochal shift around 1800, both Ong and Koschorke tend to essentialize the difference between orality and literacy. Orality is context-bound, situational, unsusceptible of exact repetition; literacy is abstract, context-independent, repeatable. But as true and suggestive as these characterizations are, they are not absolute, as recent work in performance theory has shown. Whether in the library or at the computer screen, reading and writing occur at specific times and places; “the performance of reading” itself entails a “singularity of the act” (Elisabeth Strowick). Curiously, it is in fact Ong himself that can best help us to understand this notion of a performativity of the letter – precisely to the extent that his book invites a reading “against the grain.” For it is not hard to take all of the characteristics Ong attributes to orality and to see that in fact, they also apply – if to a lesser degree – to writing and to reading. Seen in this light, the difference between orality and literacy begins to seem less absolute, putting Ong in closer proximity to Derrida than Ong himself seems to have realized. If it is true, as Derrida claimed, that speaking is a kind of writing, then it is also true that literacy may take on the characteristics of what we think of as orality. What then comes into view is precisely the situationality and singularity of all medial events, be they oral, printed, or electronically produced.

This result forces us to revise the historical periodization Ong’s book initiated and recent media theory has adopted. Romanticism should be seen not as the shift from orality to literacy, but as the discursive construction of that shift, as the fiction of an “essential” difference between the oral and the literal. Koschorke’s thesis about the birth of “modernity” is thus borne out, with the essential difference that the notion of a “comprehensively medialized culture” refers less to any actual historical development than to an idea on which modernity posits its difference (and its implicit superiority) to the cultures and epochs that preceded it.

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