Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chapter 5 of Orality and Literacy (How prints affected human consciousness)

Quotation from

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


Alphabet letterpress printing

Print culture substantially started with the invention of alphabetic letter press print in fifteenth-century Europe, although other types of printing with carved surfaces of wood blocks were in use since the seventh or eighth century China, Korea and Japan. (p. 116)

Print culture reified the word

Ong argues that "it was print, not writing, that effectively reified the word" (p. 117) because "in the West through the Renaissance, the oration was the most taught of all verbal productions and remained implicitly the basic paradigm for all discourse, written as well as oral. Written material was subsidiary to hearing in ways which strike us today as bizarre. " (p. 117)

Prints and science

Prints made the repetition of exactly worded descriptions possible, which accompanies exact observation. Exact description and observation is apparently the basis of science. (p. 125)

Print eventually removed the ancient art of (orally based) rhetoric from the center of academic education. It encouraged and made possible on a large scale the quantification of knowledge, both through the use of mathematical analysis and through the use of diagrams and charts. (p. 127)

Prints and literature

Production of many copies of exact verbalization, made possible by prints, affected literature as well. Detailed attention to natural phenomena was not in pre-Romantic prose. (p. 125)

The 'correctness' of language

With exact copies of the same verbal expressions in print amply available, the idea of 'correct' language began to emerge. With the tradition of Learned Latin, the paradigmatic form of language was now the printed text, not the written text, let alone the oral discourse. (p. 128) Moreover, the printed text is considered as 'final' and this sense of finality probably enhanced the sense of the 'correctness.' (p. 130)

A new sense of the private ownership of words

Ong argues that resentment at plagiarism developed with writing. Print added another step.

[P]rint encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space. (p. 129)

The romantic notion of 'originality' and 'creativity' started with the printing culture.

Manuscript culture had taken intertextuality for granted. Still tied to the commonplace tradition of the old oral world, it deliberately created texts out of other texts, borrowing, adapting, sharing the common, originally oral, formulas and themes, even though it worked them up into fresh literary forms impossible without writing. Print culture of itself has a different mindset. It tends to feel a work as ‘closed’, set off from other works, a unit in itself. Print culture gave birth to the romantic notions of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’, which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally. (p. 131)

'Reading public'

Print promoted a text detached from specific readers or contexts. The writer now seems to describing from nowhere, as it were, and likewise the writer imagines the 'reading public,' a new imaginary invention.

The fixed point of view and fixed tone showed in one way a greater distance between writer and reader and in another way a greater tacit understanding. The writer could go his or her own way confidently (greater distance, lack of concern). (...) The writer could be confident that the reader would adjust (greater understanding). At this point, the ‘reading public’ came into existence?a sizable clientele of readers unknown personally to the author but able to deal with certain more or less established points of view. (pp. 132-133)

Electronic technology and 'secondary orality'

The electronic technology of the 20th century brought back the oral culture, but with the print culture long established, the orality was no longer the same as the primary orality.

This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas (Ong 1971, pp. 284-303; 1977, pp. 16-49, 305-41). But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well. (pp. 133-134)

Secondary orality is not only more deliberate and self-conscious, but also much larger in scale.

Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture --McLuhan’s ‘global village’. (p. 134)

But the sense of a 'global village' is probably only beginning to be shared by us all with the rise of the Internet culture. The analysis must continue.


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