Sunday, March 06, 2005

Walter Ong's "Writing restructures conscsiousness

Walter Ong's "Writing Restructures consciousness" from Orality and Literacy is an investigation of the development and challenge literacy poses not only for ancient Greek cultures but for the now seemingly overwhelming era of technology. For Ong, literacy did not simply enable a new schema for communication and memory but produced the concept of mediation that ultimately forms how communication is constituted. The critical distinction between writing and orality is that, where ownership is intrinsic and impossible to divorce from oral speech, writing creates an "autonomous" discourse that can be understood apart from the author or the author's intent. Instead of understanding what Ong will term the "utterance" contextualized within the speaker's form of delivery, books and now computers are used to "relay" the "utterance from a source, the one who really 'said' or wrote the book. For an oral culture, writing begins to erode the authenticity of speech. Realizing the inevitability of writing, Ong's study is not concerned with the benefits and disadvantages of orality or literacy but with the evolution of different mediums and how those mediums shape the communication process.

The initial complaints Plato condems writing for are present in almost every criticism of different mediums. For Plato, a person cannot interact with a written text. The text remains unable to clarify itself or repsond to concerns of the reader preventing further explanation or alteration. A reader gets "back nothing except the same, often stupid, words which called for your question in the first place. In the modern critique of the computer, the same objection in put, 'Garbage in, garbage out.'" Writing ultimately becomes a facade or perhaps even an excuse for interacting and realizing the "real." A question that should be raised here is what is the "real" and even if that can be defined how is it that orality some how has a unique ability to realize the natural world or the "real." Even if one concedes that the "real" is more than just a social construction, orality would seem to distort the relationship a person could maintain with the "real" because orality could never overcome common barriers inherent in communication.

The maturation of writing did not result in the immediate destruction of orality rather "long after a culture has begun to use writing, it may still not give writing high ratings." It is the process of the creation of multiple mediums that begins the privilaging of literacy over orality. The entrance of television and then the computer makes the question of oral presence central for Ong. "The condition of words in a text is quite different from their condition in spoken discourse." Where orality can almost call into being and make present the words, writing produces the utterance which remains "alone in the text." Ong ultimately argues that it is these questions of presence and absence that are crucial to understanding the way the medium affects the content of communication.

Ong, Walter. "Writing restructures consciousness." Orality and Literacy.


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