In many ways, this is a follow up to my “Tertiary Orality, Secondary Literacy, and Residual Orality” post last week. Using technorati to search “secondary orality” yesterday, I came across a number of blogs which discuss S. Pixy Ferris’ and Hilary Wilder’s use of secondary orality in their “Uses and Potentials of Wikis in the Classroom,” which is in the June/July issue of Innovate. I’m deeply troubled by their by use of Ong to argue for the advantages wikis can bring to teaching. I’m troubled because rather than just discuss the affordances wikis bring to the table, they try to use shoehorn secondary orality into a theoretical justification for using wikis, and this becomes problematic on far too many levels.

Not only do they make the all too common mistake of defining electronic writing as a form of oral communication, they fail to get Ong’s treatment of primary orality and print right. And they pay little to no attention to the issue of chirography and residual orality. In their definition of secondary orality (linked to via JavaScript from the first screen of their article so I can’t link to it directly), they construct an “orality-print-secondary orality continuum” as if chirography and residual orality do not exist or, at least, do not matter. (Yes, they briefly discuss “writing,” but “writing” includes much more than just chirography.) It’s clear that they pay no attention to chirography because they ultimately posit secondary orality as a hybrid form that exists in the medial position between orality and print, which is where chirography should be. I harp on these issues so much I’m starting to feel like a grumpy bastard, but a close analysis of their discussion of secondary orality demonstrates just how crucial all these concerns are when trying to apply Ong’s thought.

In addition to dropping chirography and residual orality out of the discussion, Farris and Wilder present Ong’s provisional characteristics of the psychodynamics of primary orality as fixed gospel, and they use those characteristics–actually, they ignore most of Ong’s characterization of psychodynamics of orality1–to establish a corresponding set of characteristics for the psychodynamic of print, which they set in direct binary opposition to those of orality.

As I regularly point out, Ong’s discussion of the psychodynamics of orality is provisional. Consider, for instance, what writes in the introduction to the “Further characteristics of orally based thought and expression” section of the psychodynamics of orality chapter:

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)

In taking Ong’s characteristics of orally based thought and expression as gospel rather than as provisional theorems for further exploration, Farris and Wilder, place the psychodynamics of print in fixed binary opposition to those of orality. This construction of orality and literacy print as binary opposites falls into a great divide model that Ong’s construction seeks to avoid (see, for instance, the “Complications and Overlappings” section of chapter 2 of The Presence of the Word).

Before going further, we might want to remind ourselves of Ong’s clarification of secondary orality and his discussion of secondary literacy in a Composition Forum interview, which I addressed a few days ago in an earlier post. In that interview, Ong states:

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’d like to say that’s the crux of Farris’ and Wilder’s problem, that they’re just falling into the old problem which has plagued discussions of CMC at least since John December’s article. But, as I note, their problems run much deeper. Their case is illustrative, in part because an understanding of chirography and residual orality (to say nothing of secondary literacy or secondary visual) would have been a great help to them.

Since I can’t link directly to Farris’ and Wilder’s definition of secondary orality, I’ll post it here section by section with my comments interwoven. They begin:

Secondary orality is a term coined by Walter Ong (1977, 1982) as an aspect of his influential theory of transformative technologies. The theory considers the transformative effects of print on consciousness/cognition and on various aspects of society in oral/pre-literate and literate cultures. To understand secondary orality, one must first understand that it is uniquely a product of literacy but that it also allows for a return to some of the characteristics of orality. A brief discussion of characteristics of orality and literacy will help present a clearer definition of secondary orality.

While coined in 1977, Ong first discusses the characteristics of secondary orality in The Presence of the Word. I mention this not as a critique but to help others trace the idea. What is problematic in this first paragraph, however, is the lack of reference to chirography which results in an over-emphasis on print. Yes, chirography is included in the use of “literate” and “literacy,” but it too has transformative effects on consciousness/cognition and on various aspects of society. Literate and literacy are not and should not be used as shorthand for chirography (i.e., used in a phrase such as “literate and print cultures”). It might seem that I’m being pedantic here, but as will make increasingly clear, their de-emphasis on chirography causes serious problems.

Now lets continue by taking a look at the second paragraph in which they discuss primary orality, “writing,” and print:

In primary oral or pre-literate cultures, people lived in close-knit communities that were limited by place. Knowledge was typically linked to doing and learned through apprenticeship. Knowledge was preserved through oral retelling, often communally. Oral cultures were homeostatic, changing slowly. These characteristics changed with the introduction of writing and later print. Reading is an individual activity. Print therefore encouraged individualization, distance, and objectivity. Print also encouraged abstract and analytical thought. Writing preserved knowledge across time and space, allowing for a development of historical consciousness. Change was facilitated as information could be shared more quickly, and new ways of knowing facilitated societal changes.

Again, what’s problematic here is their use of writing when they mean chirography. Note the passage:

These characteristics changed with the introduction of writing and later print. Reading is an individual activity. Print therefore encouraged individualization, distance, and objectivity. Print also encouraged abstract and analytical thought. Writing preserved knowledge across time and space, allowing for a development of historical consciousness.

Chirography encouraged abstract and analytical thought and print reinforced it. Again, this isn’t a trivial point. As we will see, their failure to make a clear distinction between writing and chirography leads them to their eventual construction of an “orality-print-secondary orality continuum” that regards secondary orality as a medial state between primary orality and typography.

Now lets take a look at their discussion of secondary orality in the third paragraph of this section. I’m going to embed some comments, [marked off like this], with in their text:

Secondary orality is post-literate, relying on the affordances of the print culture but revisiting some of the cultural characteristics present before literacy. [Okay] As a product of electronic technologies, which are built on print, secondary orality allows for instantaneous feedback in communication between people, facilitates the development of community, and allows for the preservation of information as texts while encouraging fluidity and communal ownership of information. [Really? Radio, television, podcasts, and streaming audio and video allow instantaneous feedback in communication? How so? I yell at the radio and TV from time to time, and as my wife always points out, they can’t hear me. Telephones, two-way radios, and CB radios do allow for the instantaneous feedback in communication between people, but most of our aural/oral electronic communication technologies don’t. Implicit here, as we’ll see, is the assumption that email, chat, IM, and other forms of written CMC are examples of secondary orality despite the fact they are written texts rather than aural/oral utterances, which, as both Ong and I note (see my earlier post) is problematic.] Because of the time-and-distance-spanning capabilities of cyber and digital communications, secondary orality can build community and groupmindedness (from UseNets to listservs), but it also allows for subjectivity, empathy, situational focus, and closeness to the human life-world. [Yes and no. Again, they’re conflating the written and the oral, which is a serious problem. And they’re ignoring one of the most talked about “oral-like” characteristics of CMC: the resurgence of agonistic tone. But since our literate culture devalues and is even hostile to agonistic discourse, they ignore that altogether.] Knowledge can be preserved (as in blogs) [this is true of all writing, not just print], but it is also fluid (as in wikis) [which is true of chirography as well as primary orality, but not, one should note, secondary orality which is marked by closure. See, for instance, Ong’s discussion of electronics in the “Print, space, and closure” chapter of Orality and Literacy. In that section, in the discussion of electronically broadcast presidential debates, Ong writes: “Despite their cultivated air of spontaneity, these [electronic] media are totally dominated by a sense of closure which is the heritage of print: a show of hostility might break open the closure, the tight control” (137).] As the Internet and the Web allow people from around the world to communicate freely with each other, users can potentially develop a global awareness. [True enough, but the web and the internet are and have been much more of a written/visual medium than aural/oral one. In other words, this isn’t a secondary orality issue but a global communications issue which is both written/visual and aural/oral.] In these ways, secondary orality offers potentials that build on literacy but also reintroduces many of the features of primary orality.

For me, this final sentence says it all. By their definition, all electronic communiation are instances of secondary orality, which just isn’t true. At the risk of belaboring this point, secondary orality involves the aural/oral medium. And we should remember that they want to use secondary orality as a theoretical explanation as to why students will take to wikis.

I could end right here, but as they don’t, I won’t either. Lets look at the tables they use to illustrate their discussion of secondary orality. Following that last paragraph is their first table which “explains” the shift from orality to print. Again, this model completely ignores the chirography and oral residue. They write:

The figures below may help illustrate the orality-print-secondary orality continuum.Figure 1. Shift from oral to print



  • Empathetic/subjective

  • Detached and self-conscious
  • Grounded in observable/everyday

  • Timeless/placeless
  • Close to the human life-world

  • Objective, disengaged
  • Communal/shared knowledge
  • Individually preserved knowledge
  • Aggregative (linked/integrated information)
  • Printed material as “stand alone”
  • Shared knowledge

  • Authoritative knowledge
  • Situational

  • Abstract and analytical

This chart clearly demonstrates that they’ve created false binaries which don’t exist in Ong’s work. Are we really to believe, for instance, that print doesn’t include communal and shared knowledge? What, one might ask, is a textbook or a training manual? And are we to believe that print is never subjective? It’s as if they’ve never read a letter to the editor, a memoir, or a heavily biased report. And are we to believe that printed material “stand[s] alone” without linked or integrated information? Need I remind us of citation, reference, allusion, and other practices of intertextuality that Ong discusses in chapter 5 of Orality and Literacy? (And one might ask why their characterization of print makes no mention of space or closure, the two characteristics Ong most closely connects to print–space, for Ong, inherently involving both issues of visualism and tactileness).

And what’s with the use of shared knowledge in two different places? Shouldn’t the “shared knowledge -> authoritative knowledge” be something like “folk wisdom -> authoritative knowledge”? And are we really supposed to believe no one in an oral culture spoke with authority? Need I mention the lawspeaker of the Icelandic Commonwealth and other Scandinavian cultures? Or need I mention the continued authority personal oral testimony holds in the Anglo-American legal systems, a direct hold over from oral Germanic culture? In a primary oral culture, the utterance of an authority was authoritative. It’s just our interiorization of writing that leads us to think otherwise (see, for instance, Clancy’s From Memory to Written Record for a scholarly discussion of the transition from oral to written authority in England, or see Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for a fictional representation of this same transition).
The problem with their argument is that while they’re using many of Ong’s terms and ideas, they don’t seem to understand these terms and ideas, and because of this, by focusing on oral and print noetics and expression, they present a great divide model rather than a continuum model which has overlappings and other “complications” as Ong presents it (again, see the “Complications and Overlappings” section of chapter 2 of The Presence of the Word as well as Orality and Literacy itself). And all of this causes a problem for them when they provide their final figure, the one which situates secondary orality as something between orality and print:

Figure 2. Use of cyber technologies leading to “secondary orality”


< —Secondary Oral—>


  • Empathetic/subjective

  • Potential for both subjective and objective

  • Objective, disengaged

  • Grounded in observable/everyday

  • Transcending barriers of time and place, but also grounded in everyday concerns

  • Transcending barriers of time and place

  • Communal/shared knowledge

  • Communal/collaborative but preserved knowledge

  • Preserved/authoritative knowledge

  • Aggregative (or linked/integrated)

  • Text “chunked” into stand alone but also allowing for aggregation and linked material

  • Printed material as
    “stand alone”

  • Situational
  • Allows for both situational and abstract/analytical

  • Abstract and analytical

Look again at how they position secondary orality in the medial position between orality and print. All the problems I refer to above come toad crisis at this point. They suggest that while secondary orality has the “[p]otential for both subjective and objective” expression, writing, both chirographic and print, does not. They suggest that while secondary orality transcends “barriers of time and place, but [is] also grounded in everyday concerns,” writing, apparently, cannot be grounded in day-to-day existence. They suggest that while secondary orality is “[c]ommunal/collaborative but preserved knowledge,” and is writing, apparently, never communal or collaborative. they suggest that while secondary orality consists of “[t]ext ‘chunked’ into stand alone [units] but also allow[s] for aggregation and linked material,” writing, apparently, can never be aggregated or linked. (As oral communication, that is communication in an aural/oral medium, would not secondary orality be chunked into utterances rather than text?) Finally, they suggest that while secondary orality “allows for both situational and abstract/analytical” thought and expression, writing, apparently does not.

All this said, I don’t want to trash the article as a whole. I’ve only skimmed it, but I don’t take serious issue with much of how they characterize digital communication practices and the potential those practices offer us. What I do take issue is with their attempt to shoehorn these characteristics of digital communication into the concept of secondary orality. It’s as if they believe that we can’t move beyond secondary orality because it is the last term of the continuum used by Ong in Orality and Literacy (i.e., the gospel tells us that secondary orality is the final term, so we’ll just shoehorn everything else that comes into that concept). It is an even more fundamentalist reading of Ong than is the use of tertiary orality. As I’ve argued many times before, Ong fundamentally believed that knowledge is situated in time and that we must always revise what we know. All writing, but especially print “fixes” knowledge in a way that it isn’t fixed in oral culture, but this does not mean that knowledge remains fixed, remains frozen, in time.

Since, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly in this discussion, much of the CMC and digital forms of expression to which they’re referring are actually written/visual expression rather than aural/oral expression, I do think they need to drop the whole secondary orality idea. And where does that leave us? Well, quite possibly with secondary literacy or secondary visualism.

But, just as importantly, much of what they notice in digital written communication, the characteristics they try to define as secondary orality, are characteristics of chirography. And it’s funny-ironic how chirography actually does exist as the medial state between orality and print. I’m not the first to point out that digital writing and digital writing practices resemble in remediated form those of chirography and chirographic culture in the same way that Ong’s definition of secondary orality resembles in remediated form those of primary orality. Ferris and Wilder miss this, I’m assuming, because the practice and expression of chirography doesn’t mean much to them. For all practical purposes, for them, writing = print. And, likewise, their system has no room for residual orality, Ong’s concept which would let them talk about the oral-like qualities found in some written discourse.

I really haven’t thought about it much, but I will assume that secondary literacy can have within it traces of secondary oral residue. Maybe that’s overkill, but maybe it’s not. The point is, however, that they don’t consider it because they don’t consider residual orality, and they don’t consider residual orality because they don’t consider the distinction Ong makes between the aural/oral and the written/visual.

[tags]chirography, cmc, digital culture, Hillary Wilder, literacy, orality, secondary literacy, secondary orality, secondary visualism, S. Pixy Ferris, Walter Ong, wiki, writing[/tags]

  1. Their characterization of Ong’s psychodynamics of orality is little more than an explication little of Ong’s nine “further characteristics of orally based thought and expression,” which is but 22 pages of the 46-page long chapter. And, really, they don’t even deal with all nine characteristics. By ignoring much of Ong’s discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, they miss out on far too much. Most importantly, I think, they miss out on the implications “the interiority of sound” and the exteriority of sight have in Ong’s discussions of orality and literacy. In other words, they take Ong’s discussion of secondary orality and electronics to mean that all electronic and digital communications technologies are instances of secondary orality regardless of whether it’s aural/oral or written/visual. []