Today I inaugurate a new occasional series titled “Ongian Thoughts.” Regular readers will of course know that this is not a new move for me, but giving such posts a title making them a series will be.1
[Ong] writes that “like the oracle or the prophet, the book relays an utterance from a source, the one who really ‘said’ or wrote the book. The author might be challenged if only he or she could be reached, but the author cannot be reached in any book. There is no way directly to refute a text.” This is, of course, no longer true. Witness the mash-up; or tools that allow visitors to append information to any website, accessible by any visitor; or simply the way words can now be linked in a virtual space. Any web search of Orality and Literacy will eventually bring the curious reader to this response and those of my fellow students. That they don’t show up on the first page of search results–at least not yet–does not diminish their immediacy. What’s important is that they will show up. And that though Ong has passed away, we can respond to his words immediately upon reading them, and any who choose to respond to us can do so, too, and more importantly, can do so in the same space. Texts might remain “inherently contumacious,”* but perhaps no longer with impunity.
I like Jorge’s post, which goes well beyond the standard student blog response post to Orality and Literacy. In particular, I find the passage above quite fruitful for digging into Ong’s larger concerns within orality-lilteracy studies such as the primacy of unmediated, spoken word; the I-thou relationship; and the role of technology in restructuring how we communicate and think. While digital technologies do give us new, powerful means of interacting with and repsonding to texts—I particularly like Jorge’s reference to mashups, annotation tools like CommentPress or iComment, and linking, these are really nothing more than remmediated practices made available by writing. Glossing, working existing annotations and comments into new copies of a manuscript, writing commentaries (sometimes which were actual dialogues between the author and a commentator), referring to and citing, and even reworking into a different text are all practices we find within scribal culture. To interact with words in the ways Jorge suggests we can, we must have those words captured as texts, something the unmediated, unrecorded person-to-person spoken utterance can never be. All these ways of response that Jorge cites are, by necessity, literate practices.
What I think, ultimately, that Jorge might be responding to is this passage, pulled from the larger quote above:
[Ong] writes that “like the oracle or the prophet, the book relays an utterance from a source, the one who really ‘said’ or wrote the book. The author might be challenged if only he or she could be reached, but the author cannot be reached in any book. There is no way directly to refute a text.”
As I read this, I want to say that of course we can refute a text. We can and we do all the time. So, one might ask, why would Ong claim that “there is no way directly to refute a text?” Why would Ong claim that we can’t refute a text when we can? We need to pay attention here to exactly what Ong wrote: “There is no way directly to refute a text”[empahsis mine]. The source of the text, as Ong notes, is the author. The text is a conduit, a medium, through which we access the author’s ideas. While in face-to-face oral communication we intereact directly with the source of ideas (the person with whom we are in dialogue), when we work with texts we aren’t in direct interaction with the source but in a mediated interaction with the source. Likewise, any response we give (unless we hunt down the author and talk to them face-to-face) is also a mediated—that is, textual—interaction.
Compared to face-to-face, interpersonal dialogue (note that Ong’s dissertation and subsequent book on Ramus, the project during which Ong had his “breakthrough” that lead to his work in orality-literacy studies, is titled Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason), responses to texts, even when we write on those texts (glossing and annotation) or rework them (mashup and remixing) are dialogues, in so much as they are dialogues, through text. The mediated process changes the nature and the possibility of dialogue so that it is something different than face-to-face, interpersonal dialogue. This does not mean that Ong values mediated dialogue less than face-to-face interpersonal dialogue–quite the contrary, his own work is only possible through the practices of literacy–but, rather, his goal in writing this provocative statement was to highlight the differences between mediated and unmediated dialogue. His purpose is to point out to us, as people fully enculturated within the noetics of literacy, that these “natural practices” are, in fact, not natural practices but the products of technologization. Ong asks us to be close, careful readers. He wants us to interact with his ideas, not just read them and walk on by. So he makes provocative statements like this, statements that, on the surface, seem illogical, because he wants us to think.2
We can, of course, refute this last claim with my all-time favorite Ong quote: “There is nothing more natural to humans than the artificial.” But that should be the subject of a different post.