While Ong’s use of secondary orality is well-known and widely used in relation to digital contexts, his use of secondary literacy is largely unknown. The term’s obscurity comes as no surprise as it’s buried in a 1996 interview in Composition FORUM1 :
“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’
I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).
I came across Ong’s use of “secondary literacy” as I was preparing my “Ong’s Digital Turn” paper for last May’s Computers and Writing conference, and I address it as one of the issues that makes up Ong’s digital turn. As the paper was itself a survey, I wasn’t able to address the issue extensively. What I did say was this:
On at least one occasion, Ong suggested the use of “secondary literacy” to identify such communication (Kleine and Gale, 80). Never liking the terms secondary and tertiary orality in this context, I thought about using secondary literacy and rejected it – and Ong notes that many have done so. On reflection however, I think it’s a good term. While face-to-face oral communication requires spatially local dialogic others, secondary orality, like writing, does not. Many people like the terms secondary or tertiary orality to describe online textual communication because it foregrounds that presence, that dialogic other in a way that writing can’t. But online written communication is writing rather than speech. It is textual, not oral. Whereas secondary orality is oral communication that backgrounds presence in the way that writing does, text-based online communication is written communication that foregrounds presence. If we’re going to use Ongian terminology, I think we should use secondary literacy: the term more accurately describes the discourse and it follows Ong’s logic. Ong also uses the term “secondary visualism” on a few occasions in his unpublished writings to emphasize the increased use of non-textual visual and interactive elements in computer-mediated texts.
In many ways, this issue is a return home for me. As I noted in my paper, I’d quickly adopted “tertiary orality” after I came across it in 1998, but just as quickly I stopped using it when a friend pointed out the fundamental problem discussed above. This issue is, in fact, what led me to the study of medium theory and media dynamics, and it’s one I’m still struggling with. While I argued for the use of secondary literacy at Texas Tech back in May, and while I’m not yet willing to abandon the term, I want to complicate the issue a bit more by returning once again to Ong. In “Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style,” Ong directly addresses the oral characteristics found in written prose2 In this essay, Ong suggests that oral residue is not the conscious reconstruction of oral communication for literary effect, such as but not limited to dialogue, but is, instead, the “habits of thought and expression tracing back to preliterate situations or practice, or deriving from the dominance of the oral as a medium in a given culture, or indicating a reluctance or inability to dissociate the written medium from the spoken” (314). As Ong notes a few paragraphs earlier:
When we speak of a sequence of media, we do not mean that new media of communications annihilate their antecedents. When men learned to write, they continued to talk. When they learned letterpress printing, they continued both to talk and to write. Since they have invented radio and television, they have continued to talk and write and print. But the advent of newer media alters the meaning and relevance of the older. Media overlap, or as Marshall McLuhan has put it, move through one another as do galaxies of stars, even maintaining its own basic integrity, but also bearing the marks of the encounter ever after. (314)
While I have no argument with the secondary of secondary literacy in this context, and while I like its related term secondary visualism, it seems to me, today (and I stress today because I’m not ready to say I’ve made up my mind), that the oral-like characteristics of CMC falls into the category of oral residue, while at the same time radically different from the oral residue of Tudor prose. So, rather than define the oral-like nature of CMC as “secondary literacy,” maybe we should be referring to it as secondary oral residue. Or maybe it is nothing more than residual orality as it pertains to the online/digital medium.
I clearly have much more ruminating to do.
- Kleine, Michael, and Fredric G. Gale. “The Elusive Presence of the Word: An Interview with Walter Ong.” Composition FORUM 7.2 (1996): 65-86. [↩]
- “Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style.” PMLA 80.3 (1965): 145-54; Rpt. in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971. 23-47; Rpt. in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002. 313-329. All references here are from An Ong Reader. [↩]