While I often discuss mnemonic practices, I haven’t written about my personal mnemonic practices in quite a while. In marking the fifth anniversary of Walter Ong’s death, I told stories. While I’m not a good Storyteller, those who know me know that I relate to and understand the world through stories. I fully embrace John Niles definition of humans as Homo narrans:
Even more than the use of language in and of itself or other systems of symbol management, storytelling is an ability that defines the human species as such, at least as far as our knowledge of human experience extends into the historical past and into the sometimes startling realms that ethnography has brought to light. Through storytelling, an otherwise unexceptional biological species has become a much more interesting thing, Homo narrans: that hominid who not only has succeeded in negotiating the world of nature, finding enough food and shelter to survive, but also has learned to inhabit mental worlds that pertain to times that are not present and places that are the stuff of dreams. It is through such symbolic and mental activities that people have gained the ability to create themselves into human beings and thereby transform the world of nature into shapes not known before. (Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, 3)
Story is one of the most important and powerful mnemonic practices we have. And here I refer not just to mnemonic as remembrance but as in how we think. When I wanted to remember Ong, I told stories about him. And those stories are connected to other stories. I chose to tell the stories of how I met him, but very much in the forefront of my mind as I wrote those was the fact that when Ong died my mother was in or just about to go into the hospital for systemic shock and would stay in the hospital or rehabilitation center for four months, followed by my father needing quadruple-bypass surgery. All of which took place in St. Louis while they were visiting me rather than at home in Colorado.
I also thought about telling the story of the “Statement of Understanding of the interrelated Missions of the University and College of Arts and Sciences” I wrote this past January for my campus interview at Creighton. My understanding of the Jesuit tradition and Jesuit education came not so much from my experience as a graduate student at Saint Louis University but from my work with the Ong Collection. Over the years, Ong was offered endowed positions at other universities—positions that included no teaching requirement, large budgets for research and travel, and personal secretaries—and he turned down all of them because he was committed to Jesuit education. (To be fair, while I don’t think he ever said this explicitly, he was also a proud native Missourian, and while he was Kansas City, I’m certain he was happy to have spent his career in Missouri.)
It helps that I not only came to understand but to believe in the Jesuit tradition, and I know I impressed the dean when he slid the University and College missions across the table to me and asked how I saw myself fitting within them. Without pausing to reread the two missions, I focused on three themes I found within both mission statements, the understanding of catholic as universal, the Jesuit ideal of Cura Personalis and motto Ad majorem Dei gloriam, and the interrelationship of secular knowledge and revealed religion, and talked about how all three of those intersect with my scholarshiop and pedagogy. And because I’m me, I could not talk about those issues without telling the story of how I came to know them and, more importantly, how I came to understand their significance.
And this is to say nothing of the little stories embedded in the stories of how I met Ong, stories about the reading group, stories about my discoveries in the archive, stories about Ong’s year in NYC, stories about how I became interested in orality-literacy studies and rhetoric and composition, stories about Bruce and I drinking beer and shooting pool and envisioning just what we’d include in hypercard editions of Old English poetry, stories about I came to Saint Louis University in the first place and why I so much wanted to come to Creighton. And those stories invoke other stories, such as how one of the members of that rhetorical theory reading group became one of my closest friendsm left SLU two years ago to start life as an Assistant Professor at Creighton, and how, starting next week after the English Department moves into its new digs, will be in offices directly across the hall from each other.
Stories exist as nodes within greater networks: networks of stories, networks of meaning, and networks of culture. Stories are about connecting, about situating meaning into our lives and situating ourselves into the world around us. Stories are how we make meaning and stories are how we remember. And so, in remembering Ong, I tell stories. And here’s one last story:
In my favorite chapter of Ong’s unfinished book Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization, Ong discusses the Greek terms logos and mythos. Ong explains that while we generally translate the Greek term logos as “word,” “voice,” or “speech,” it’s of a specific kind. It means “computation, reckoning, account of money handled, hence treatment of cognitive matters in terms of discrete units—which are the basis of digitization. Logos, he tells us, comes from the Indo-European root leg-, which, Ong notes, means that logos is based upon “a spatialized, exteriorized visual and/or tactile metaphor” (2). The Indo-European leg-, he explains, gives us our English word “lay” and the ancient Greek word legein, which means “to pick up, gather, choose, count, arrange, and thus involves manipulation of discrete units” (2).1
Like logos, Ong explains, mythos also means “word” and “speech.” But it also means “tale” and “story.” Mythos’ Indo-European root, meudh or mudh, ”signifies to reflect, think over, consider – activities interior to the human being” (1-2). So, while mythos and logos do seem to overlap in meaning, Onf argues that they also seem to have real differences. Differences that both Plato and Aristotle made much of. Ong notes that both “undertook to oppose this synonymous use of mythos and logos and to draw careful distinctions between the two terms” (4). And it is this distinction, he claims, that leads to logic and dialectic on the one hand and poetry and rhetoric on the other (5).
While Ong argues that logos, as a spatialized, visual/and or tactile conception of the word, of knowledge, involves the manipulation of discrete units, which in turn leads to the conception of knowledge in terms of discrete units, as data which can be stored, arranged, and manipulated, leading us to the idea of digitization (7), I want to suggest that we think of both logos and mythos as database processes. As a method, logos seeks to divide, to break apart into discrete units. Mythos, on the other hand, seeks to connect, to link. While logos, that is logic and dialectic, creates data, mythos, that is rhetoric and poetics, gives structure and meaning to data.
- All page numbers refer to the typescript of Ch. 10., “Logos and Digitization.” [↩]