Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Psychodynamics of orality" by Ong

Quotation from

By Walter J. Ong
Routledge: London, 2002 (first published in 1982).
also available in Questia


How do you think in the primary oral culture?

For us who have been embedded in the writing culture, it is extremely difficult what it was like to live in the primary oral culture, with no knowledge or possibility of writing down words.(p. 31)

Complex thought is highly unlikely with no written text. If you are ever to think consistently or coherently for long, you'd need another person as a partner in dialogue. (p. 34)

However, even with an interlocutor, it is extremely difficult to recall all you two have thought in the dialogue. How do you think and recall the thought?

The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings (the assembly, the meal, the duel, the hero’s ‘helper’, and so on), in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems. Mnemonic needs determine even syntax (Havelock 1963, pp. 87-96, 131-2, 294-6). (p. 34)

Some characteristics of orally based thought and expression

With this mnemonic base of the thought and expression, Ong suggests some of the plausible features of the orally based thought and expression as opposed to the chirographically based, typographically based, and electronically based thought and expression. Below is a short list.

(i) Additive rather than subordinative (p. 37)
(ii) Aggregative rather than analytic (p. 38)
(iii) Redundant or ‘copious’ (p. 39)
(iv) Conservative or traditionalist (p. 41)
(v) Close to the human lifeworld (p. 41)
(vi) Agonistically toned (p. 43)
(vii) Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced (p. 45)
(viii) Homeostatic (p. 46)
(ix) Situational rather than abstract (p. 49)

(i) Additive rather than subordinative
You may combine sentences with "and" or "but", but sentence structures with complex subordinate conjunctions are not likely to occur in the primary oral culture.

(ii) Aggregative rather than analytic
It is advantageous to express your thought in a memorable whole.

Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight (Ong 1977, pp. 188-212).
The cliches in political denunciations in many low-technology, developing cultures - enemy of the people, capitalist war-mongers - that strike high literates as mindless are residual formulary essentials of oral thought processes. (p. 38)

(iii) Redundant or ‘copious’

Redundancy, repetition of the just-said, keeps both speaker and hearer surely on the track.
Since redundancy characterizes oral thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than is sparse linearity. Sparsely linear or analytic thought and speech are artificial creations, structured by the technology of writing. Eliminating redundancy on a significant scale demands a time-obviating technology, writing, which imposes some kind of strain on the psyche in preventing expression from falling into its more natural patterns. (p. 40)

(iv) Conservative or traditionalist

The cost of storing knowledge is very high in a culture which has no text. "This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. (p. 41)"

(v) Close to the human lifeworld
Because the language use is limited in immediate contexts of speakers, context-free abstract thinking is not likely in the primary oral culture. (p. 42)

(vi) Agonistically toned
Unlike people in writing cultures where they learn to objectify and depersonalize their thoughts in written texts, people in the primary oral culture tend to associate thoughts with the speakers. Arguments often become combative and aggressive. (p. 44)

(vii) Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced

For an oral culture learning or knowing means achieving close, empathetic, communal identification with the known (Havelock 1963, pp. 145-6), ‘getting with it’. Writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity’, in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing. (p. 45)

(viii) Homeostatic

Oral cultures of course have no dictionaries and few semantic discrepancies. The meaning of each word is controlled by what Goody and Watt (1968, p. 29) call ‘direct semantic ratification’, that is, by the real-life situations in which the word is used here and now. (p. 46)

(ix) Situational rather than abstract

Quoting A.R. Luria’s Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (1976), Ong exemplifies how the 'intelligence' as we take it is shaped in writing cultures.

Even self-analysis requires decentralization and decontextualization of the self, which usually doesn't happen in the human lifeworld of oral cultures.

Luria’s illiterates had difficulty in articulate self-analysis. Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the center, the self, to be examined and described. (...) (p. 54)

'Intelligence' of the modern time is not a natural development of human nature.

[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorization, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions, or even comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis, all of which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought. Luria’s questions are schoolroom questions associated with the use of texts, and indeed closely resemble or are identical with standard intelligence test questions got up by literates. They are legitimate, but they come from a world the oral respondent does not share. (pp. 54-55)

Communal culture and private culture?

We may characterize the oral culture and the writing culture as 'communal versus private'

Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates. Oral communication unites people in groups. Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself. (p. 68)

This contrast may come from the very nature of vision and sound.

By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart (Descartes’ campaigning for clarity and distinctness registered an intensification of vision in the human sensorium - Ong 1967b, pp. 63, 221). The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together. (p. 71)

If an analysis of the post-modern is a critique of the modern, so is an analysis of the pre-modern.


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