I’m slowly making my way through Ulmer’s Teletheory and I thought I’d go all commonplace bookish and post some passages and thoughts. (Which reminds me, I intended to write some posts based on Ulmer’s Applied Grammatology.) I’m most of the way through chapter 2 and I’m really looking forward to getting to chapter 4 (Memory I: Place/Roots)  and chapter 5 (Memory II: Tour/Routes).

As Eric Leed demonstrated, the distinction between “voice” and “print,” between orality and literacy in general, is an explanatory myth (a “theory”). This myth was devised by bourgeois intellectuals, themselves products of literate culture, to define everything they were not—their other. Another case of the analytico-referential discourse constructing a primal order. Oral culture and its opposition to literate culture, then, is a “concept” […].

Rather, using the logic of the apparatus, he suggests that the qualities associated with orality and literacy are not so much effects as causes—capabilities turned into values. In the myth, then, orality represents the values of social integration into the folk community, while print represents the values of individualism and critical autonomy. The effects of mass media, in a postindustrial culture, are associated with oral culture—as secondary orality—and one’s attitude to the electronic paradigm will tend to be determined by the attitude to these values […]. (26)

I’m still processing the idea that the distinction between orality and literacy as an explanatory myth. Frankly, I’m fascinated by the fact that while I seem to balk at “explanatory myth,” I’m much more comfortable with calling it a “theory,” and I’m even comfortable with a formula like “explanatory myths are to orality what theory is to literacy, ” which means, I think, that my roots in print culture are clearly showing here. I mean, isn’t this part of what Ong means when he writes that “literacy is imperious,” that “[i]t tends to arrogate supreme power by taking itself as normative for human expression and thought” (23)? 1

At the same time, however, is it really a theory or an explanatory myth? Ong would argue that he was describing features that we find present in these two noetic processes (or more broadly what I call techno-cultural-noetic matrices) and the artifacts that emerge from them. And as someone who studies the oral-literate transitional culture of medieval England and Scandinavia, I see these differences at play. And to push this further, how does current thought on oral tradition work with all this, the idea that the “orality’ of an oral poem is rooted in a set of practices that are not dependent upon the means of transmission.2 If we take as a given that there is such things as oral tradition and oral poetry, and I do, doesn’t that mean the distinction between the oral and the literate is more than just a theory, more than just “analytico-referential discourse constructing a primal order,” that is, more than just an explanatory myth?

Or is the myth, the theory, our understanding, our construction, of orality and literacy? That is, is the myth, the theory, not difference between oral tradition and written text, the distinction between The Iliad and the Encyclopedia Britannica for instance, but our construction/explanation of orality as concept and literacy as concept? That I can get behind wholeheartedly.

While I clearly need to read Leed,3 Whether we think of these qualities as causes, as effects, or as part of a larger dynamic process, I do like the idea of identifying them as “capabilities turned into values,” and I think all three perspectives agree on this point. And this brings me to the idea of weak technological determinism.

Weak technological determinism doesn’t assume X will happen because of Y but that the affordances and constraints (i.e., the capabilities) of X help or hinder the possibility of Y happening, understanding that this help or hindrance occurs within a larger ecological context. Apparatus theory, as I understand it, seeks to identify and understand the role of ideology within this ecology, with specific ideologies bringing with them their own affordances and constraints

  1. Ong, Walter J. “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Ed. Gerd Baumann. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. 23-50. []
  2. For instance, in How To Read An Oral Poem, John Miles Foley argues that oral poetry can live its entire existence from composition to reception as a written text. []
  3. Leed, Eric. “‘Voice’ and ‘Print’: Master Symbols in the History of Communication.” The Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture. Ed. Kathleen Woodward. Madison: Coda Press, 1980. 41-61.) the above makes more sense in light of the second paragraph with its claim that “the qualities associated with orality and literacy are not so much effects as causes—capabilities turned into values.” From a strong medium theory perspective such as McLuhan’s, we would of course argue the opposite, that the qualities associated with orality and literacy are medium-based effects. Ong, on the other hand, would argue that these qualities are neither simply causes or effects but that they exist as one part of a much larger dynamic process embedded within the extant culture. (( See, for instance, the “Complications and Overlappings” section of ch. 2 in The Presence of the Word. []