A New World of Orality?

In my seminar last night we discussed Walter Ong’s concepts of primary and secondary orality. Primary orality is the state of a society that has never known or developed literacy. The history of the group, lineages, myths, stories, and customs are all passed down orally from person to person, generation to generation. Religious belief, ritual, and everything relating to tribal identity depend on training and memory.

Secondary orality is the state of being illiterate, but knowing of literacy and its powers. Most of the population of medieval Europe existed in this state. When an individual in a state of primary orality encounters literacy for the first time, it appears magical, as if something inanimate can speak. Books such as Claude Levi Strauss’  Triste Tropique and Jack Goody’s Domestication of the Savage Mind contain such events.  On the other hand, an illiterate person in a literate society knows much of what literacy can do, and is not so easily amazed.

Because much of our communications technology functions as a substitute for literacy, some argue that we are entering another period of secondary orality. The telephone substitutes for letter writing. The television substitutes for the newspaper. The DVD substitutes for the book. The video camera stands in for the diary. I believe that an illiterate person actually has more access to information than at any previous time in history.

One could argue that much has been lost with these substitutions. The Ken Burns documentary of the Civil War contains numerous letters home written by ordinary soldiers, letters that are as articulate and beautifully expressed as anything in literature. Not long after seeing this film I saw videos sent home by soldiers in the first Iraq war. They were waving, grinning, and shouting “Hi mom!” The contrast was great. However, video tape and literacy are just different communications and data storage technologies. Each can be used well, or poorly.

In class we talked about the possibility of creating a totally text free web interface with clickable icons that spoke aloud when the user rolled the mouse pointer over them. Some have argued that computer technology has actually increased the use of literacy, but this is really a matter of bandwidth. As bandwidth increases, the visual content increases. Images, audio, animations, and video all take up more storage and bandwidth than text. Once the bandwidth was there, along came YouTube. YouTube changed the way people use the internet. Text on the web is already decreasing.

When everything one needs to do to excel in society can be done without recourse to literacy, will the average person learn to read? I think not.  In Proust and the Squid Maryanne Wolf argues that the brain was not designed to read.  To read, the brain draws on pre-existing visual, auditory, and linguistic processing systems and coordinates them, sometimes rather inefficiently.  It may be that rather than evolving to read, we are using technology to create modes of communication that are more natural for the brain as it exists.  It will be fascinating to see what develops.

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About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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7 Responses to A New World of Orality?

  1. Naomi says:

    If the brain was not designed to read text, does something different happen when we read images? It seems that while to some extent the readability of an image depends on its likeness to a real thing, we also have to learn a vocabulary of common symbols and images in order to adequately communicate using them. I wonder how that is different from reading text.

  2. guitarsophist says:

    We have visual systems designed to recognize faces and find fruit among the leaves. Pictographic systems are thus less complicated in terms of neurolinguistic processing than alphabetic systems where you have to use visual systems to recognize the letters, make a word out of it, connect the word to sounds and then concepts.

  3. John says:

    Actually, secondary orality is not the orality of illiterates who know of literacy. Secondary orality was coined by Walter J. Ong, and in a 1996 interview (Kleine, Michael, and Fredric G. Gale. “The Elusive Presence of the Word: An Interview with Walter Ong.” Composition FORUM 7.2 (1996): 65-86), he explained the term thusly:

    “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'” (80).

    In a secondary oral culture, because of socialization through radio, television, video, etc., many illiterate people will interiorize many of the psychodynamics of literacy because they are situated within literate discourse and thought without actually being literate.

  4. guitarsophist says:

    That is an interesting elaboration of the concept. It has been a while since I read Ong. But then, what do you call the state of the illiterate in a literate or partially literate society? This is surely different from the world of primary orality.

    One of my colleagues in math education told me that this has been an issue in that discipline for decades, ever since the introduction of the hand-held calculator. Anyone can do calculus on a tiny machine by pushing buttons. How many need to know how to do it without the machine?

    Perhaps a better set of terms might be primary literacy and secondary literacy. Our society might eventually develop a sort of priesthood who practice primary literacy without technological mediation, while the majority uses technologically-mediated literacy without mastering the concepts and skills behind it. Giving up on primary literacy for the majority would certainly save a lot of money and time on education. Some might wonder if this would create a class of elites, but it is by no means clear that the practitioners of primary literacy would rule the world, although I suppose they might if there was a massive failure of technology.

    Thanks for posting.

  5. John says:

    Someone who can’t read is someone who can’t read, regardless of the culture they live in. We don’t need a special term for that. Ong makes a distinction between literacy studies and orality-literacy studies, something a lot of people don’t pick up on.

    But yes, being illiterate in an oral-literate transitional culture or a literate culture is different than being in a primary oral culture. Clanchy’s _From Memory to Written Record_ is a seminal study of a England shifting from an oral (not primary oral, but oral) to literate culture. You might also take a look at Ong’s _The Presence of the Word_ in the section when he talks about overlappings and complications.

    Ong does use the term secondary literacy in that same interview and he elaborated on it a bit in some unpublished lectures, and the term secondary visualism as well. I write about what I found while processing his papers in a few places, such as “Musings on Secondary Orality” and “More Musings on Secondary Literacy and Secondary Visualism.”

    I’d argue, and I think Ong would too, that literacy is never not technologically mediated. To quote the title of one of Ong’s articles, “writing is a technology that restructures thought.”

    I”m not sure the analogy with a calculator holds when it comes to literacy. If one is reading, it doesn’t matter whether they’re reading sky writing or off a computer screen. They are processing the script and converting it into meaning. That happens within their own mind. To have a machine read for you would be to have the machine speak the words, communicating them orally. In a real way, this is no different than having a person read a written text to you, but if it’s done by machine, there are a different set of affordances and constraints than a real, live, face-to-face human being doing the reading.

    The example with the calculator is somewhat different, but I would argue that people who can solve complex math equations with a calculator even when they can’t do it with pencil and paper aren’t math illiterate, they just have a different kind of math literacy than someone who can only solve the equation with pen and paper. (Again, this is different from the reading examples above.) While not entirely the same, I would suggest that the question with calculators is closer to the issue of penmanship. There are people who argue that the decline in the teaching of cursive writing is connected to the decline in literacy. It’s not. We don’t run around saying that our lack of mixing our own ink and sharpening our own quills is a decline in literacy. We have new tools to write with and we have new tools to do math with.

    That said, I would argue that you do understand math better if you can solve equations without the use of a calculator. At the same time, I would never argue that someone less literate because they don’t know how to sharpen a quill or because they don’t know cursive. So, the calculator/penmanship analogy only holds so far.

  6. guitarsophist says:

    I’ll look at your links and get back to you. I certainly don’t want to argue about what Ong meant with an Ong scholar. However, while it is true that writing and audio recording are both technologies, the latter does not require any restructuring of the brain to process. Ordinary linguistic processing suffices.

    Of course there are disadvantages. Text is an array in space, while a recording is an array in time, and does not serve well as a grocery list. However, as computerized search capabilities become more powerful, some of these disadvantages are addressed. However, I see that I am talking about technological substitutes for literate behaviors and abilities, not technologically mediated literacy, so your point is well taken.

    Thanks for posting.

  7. Jim says:

    Very interesting–learning a lot. I think your attitude toward new technology and your ability to see the parallels to text allow you to better relate to your students and the future/present than my Luddite ways of thinking about nontextual media…

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