A couple of weeks ago, I was asked if I thought the digitality was/could bridge the oral-literacy “divide” (this is, I would suggest, different from the “orality-literacy divide” discussed by proponents of the “great leap theory.” While the orality-literacy “divide,” which is what we are discussing below, is primarily an issue of medium, the supposed great leap “orality-literacy divide” is an issue of noetics). I include here a slightly edited version of my response, which was and still very much remains, a rambling late night musing on a topic I circle around from time to time:

You’re dealing with what I’ve found to be one of the most difficult issues relating to Ong’s work, and while this is just my opinion, you’re doing much better than most who have tried. I hear you on wanting that third term. Some years ago — maybe 1999 or so — I started referring to it as “the third way.” I haven’t made a systematic effort to solve the issue, but rather I just think about it from time to time. My “Tertiary Orality, Secondary Literacy, and Residual Orality” post pretty much sums up my thinking at the moment.

I agree with you that Bolter and Grusin seem to ignore orality and literacy issues. (A friend once commented, in a snarky moment, that Remediation is largely a rehash of the first part of McLuhan’s Understanding Media. I some times wonder if they’re trying so hard to not rehash work by people like Ong and McLuhan that they pretend the earlier work doesn’t exist, which is a coping strategy many of us fall into from time to time.) And I also think you’re right on with Kress. In one sense, I do think there will be, or there must be, an essential separation between orality and literacy. If you go back far enough into Ong’s earlier work, you’ll see that they are processed through the sensorium differently: orality is oral/aural and literacy is visual/tactile (see, for instance, the first three chapters of The Presence of the Word and his article’s “‘I see what you say’: Sense Analogues for Intellect” (reprinted in Interfaces of the Word) and “World as View and World as Event” (American Anthropologist 71.4 (1969): 634-47). At the same time, however, there is a kind of bridge between the two (what Ong calls residual orality).

Despite the whole “orality and literacy” thing, it’s best not to think of Ong in terms of binaries — he liked to point people to the “Complications and Overlappings” section of Ch. 2 in Presence of the Word when they would try to argue that he constructed a binary system. And you can’t forget that Ong was discussing a medium, noetic structures, and what I call techno-cultural milleus. In other words, both primary orality and secondary orality refer not just to the oral/aural medium and the technologies used to produce and transmit those oral/aural utterances, but to a techno-cultural milleu (primary orality is a culture without the knowledge of writing and secondary orality is electronic culture, i.e., a literate, high technology culture), as well as the noetic structures that come with them (what Ong calls psychodynamics).

As far as secondary literacy goes, Ong is referring specifically to written online communication. I think that John December’s “Characteristics of Oral Culture in Discourse on the Net” was the first attempt to characterize online written discourse as “secondary orality,” and, later on, a number of people flirted with (and some still do flirt with) the term tertiary orality. Ong’s use of secondary literacy here is his attempt to say “It’s written discourse, so it can’t be secondary or tertiary orality, so let’s call it secondary literacy.” But I’m not sure that totally gets at it either. I had one brief conversation with Ong on this issue around 1999, and it really didn’t go very far. I ended up saying “I’m just not sure what to make of it,” and Ong said he wasn’t either. I wonder sometimes that maybe we need to move beyond Ong’s terminology. But at other times I don’t. He uses secondary visualism to refer to the interactive nature of digital texts, and in that sense, there is a distinction between secondary literacy and secondary visualism. They seem to not be exactly the same thing. But, then, we’re dealing with unfinished work here, for the most part. I’m fairly certain Ong wasn’t sure what to make of all this either, which is why most of what he did have to say on digitization isn’t published.

[In response to a reference to the “oral-like” nature of some online communication, I write:] One point I’d make in response to this is that in its fullest sense, secondary orality is also about mental structures. It’s not just dependent upon literacy and subsequent technologies for its production, the speech itself is marked by literate noetic structures, by the psychodynamics of literacy. In other words, and this is my inference more than anything I can point to directly in Ong (though it may be there), someone can grow up noetically literate just by listening to radio and television. This is true for earlier “literate” cultures, but the prevalence of radio and television in a culture like ours means that one is awash in it. As for spontaneity, Ong himself notes (in Orality and Literacy, I think), that with the advent of TV, presidential debates become highly controlled and scripted in a way that oral performances never were in the past. I think what we mean by “oral-like” is the sense of presence and immediacy which are different from spontaneity.