In Orality and Literacy Walter Ong explores the differences between oral and literate cultures. His original ideas incorporate myriad sources of research and study, and his text has proved to be an important one in understanding the social and individual effects of writing, print, and electronic technology.
Ong notes the essential differences between primarily oral cultures (ones without writing) and literate ones. While oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing has never existed without orality. (8) Writing only enhances orality. Writing allows for abstraction, isolating, and an accessible storehouse of information. Orality promotes centering oneself in the community, dealing with concrete objects instead of abstraction, and memorable words or phrases (clichés) for keeping track of information. There are several psychodynamics of orality that are characteristic of its processes. For information to be learned, retained, recalled, and transmitted, it is typically aggregative and redundant, as well as being familiar to the situations of the people speaking it. While vision isolates and forces one to focus on one sight at a time, sound, although evanescent in nature, allows us to take in all aspects of our surroundings simultaneously.
Ong discusses the radical ways in which writing (the most influential technology in the history of humankind) affects and restructures not just how human communicate but they way we form our thoughts. Inherent in oral communication is not just the message but a range of other non-verbal cues—tone, body language, relationship of the sender/receiver, etc. However, writing is a completely different dynamic. “By separating the knower from the known, writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whole the objective world is set” (104). He also discusses the more subtle effects print has had on human consciousness. Reading writing is more laborious than reading print; writing is writer-centered but print is reader-centered. Movement from orality to literacy is essentially a move from the whole of a space to the fixed moments in space, and print furthered this with advances like the index, table of contents, and typographic space. Print also furthered the notion of privacy, private property, closure, and is being utilized by electronic media (radio, TV) to usher us into a “second orality, in which the world is being somewhat re-tribalized, but on a much larger scale than before.
In an oral culture, narrative were told by a storyteller, given consideration with regard to the audience, and were generally conceived as somewhat isolated episodes strung together with little regard for overall plot. Print made the novel possible, and in general spawned much more detailed, linear narratives with little regard to how memorable a character or event must be (in order to retrieve or remember it for re-telling later). Ong concludes by noting areas of further research for which he hopes his text will be useful, and notes that ultimately there is no perfect model for human communication, but that the “orality-literacy interaction enters into ultimate human aspirations” (175).
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Routledge.