Back to an Oral Culture (II)

Mark Goodacre believes that contrasts between literate and oral cultures are exaggerated, and April DeConick thinks otherwise. Readers of this blog won’t be surprised that I’m largely sympathetic to April’s position. The fact that western culture has a pervasive oral dimension — Mark mentions TV, radio, conferences, etc. — has little to do with what results collectively from an oral culture mindset. Mark is right to caution against caricatures and the need to take seriously our “secondary orality”, but where in western culture are we going to find the best comparison to ancient orality?

Ironically, in our hypertext subculture. April cites Walter Ong against Mark’s suggestion, but Robert Fowler has used Ong to show — at least from one angle — just the opposite: that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture. Over a year ago I blogged about this in Back to an Oral Culture, listing Fowler’s seven-point comparison study drawn from Ong’s Orality and Literacy:

1. Orality is evanescent, not permanent. “Hypertext returns us to fluid, shifting, open-ended, evanescent communication of an oral culture.”

2. Orality is additive rather than subordinative; aggregative rather than analytic. “Hypertext resurrects the associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical organization of information of orality.”

3. Orality is close to the human lifeworld. “Hypertext returns us to an immediate, hands-on approach to communication and to other dealings with the world around us… and to a classical, rhetorical model of education and social existence generally.”

4. Orality is agonistically toned. “On the Internet, the phenomenon of ‘flaming’ — heaping bitter invective upon one’s interlocutors — is wide-spread.” (See also here.)

5. Orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced. “In hypertext, as in orality, the distinction between author and reader once again melts away in the midst of the collaborative effort of navigating the hypertextual network.”

6. Orality knits persons together into community. “Hypertext, like the spoken word, knits people together into community.”

7. Orality is homeostatic. “With the resurgence of ephemeral communication, hypertext culture begins to undergo a constant, slow, and unconscious metamorphosis, like oral culture.”

I’ve been increasingly convinced of the validity of these comparisons. It’s no accident that people’s online personas often differ radically from how they behave in the flesh. People who are shy (or even anti-social) in person can be communal and group-oriented online. Those who are normally reserved and diplomatic can turn combative at the slightest provocation when sitting in front of a keyboard. We often assimilate knowledge, process information, and communicate differently in the internet world. This isn’t to say that the hypertext/internet subculture puts us completely in touch with an oral mentality (it doesn’t and can’t), but I’d wager it does so more than even our secondary orality.

So while I agree mostly with April that oral cultures are markedly different from ours in the west, I appreciate what Mark is getting at: we can look to ourselves and light on certain subcultural dynamics which put us in touch with those distant cultures.

UPDATE: Mark Goodacre continues, emphasizing that he’s “not issuing any kind of challenge to the essential contrast between our literate culture and the oral culture of antiquity”, only looking at how some conceptualizations of the former fall a bit short. Also see his comment below.

UPDATE (II): More from April DeConick too.

UPDATE (III): Goodacre’s on a roll: see here and here.


3 thoughts on “Back to an Oral Culture (II)

  1. Thanks, Loren, for your interesting post. I will respond in my blog in due course, and to April too. But I want to stress here that my point is actually a very simple one, and perhaps I have not done enough to underscore that I am not trying to argue against Ong (quite the contrary); I am not denying the major differences between the ancient world and ours. I am commenting, rather, on “one of the elements in the way that the case is argued in the scholarship”, typified by Dunn, which exaggerates the literary nature of our experience of the world. As it happens, you anticipate some of the points I am planning to go on to discuss, with respect to secondary orality, but in a series of blog posts, one has to go one step at a time.

  2. I find this an intriguing subject. I do like some of the points you have raised, Loren. There are two works, beyond Ong’s, which have framed my understanding here. One is the work of Neil Postman in Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death on how television and technological culture have affected the way we think. When reading Postman I kept wondering how he would feel if he were a bit younger and saw how internet communication was developing.The other work is Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. I think Barfield did as much for me as Ong in convincing me of the RADICAL kinds of shifting in human thought over the last few thousand years.

  3. Except that truly oral cultures had both formal orality and informal. What you describe (evanescent, additive) is indicative of informal oral culture. The Celts where an oral culture prior to the arrival of Christianity (and after, to a great degree). Their formal oral culture consisted of learned people spending up to 20 years carefully memorizing law codes and religious poetry so they could be transmitted to the next generation. The Bible was transmitted orally for centuries, as was the Talmud. Muslims, despite having had a written book from quite early on, still prize memorizing the Qur'an. One assumes they wish it to be permanent. Likewise for publishing e-books of out of print texts…someone wants them to survive permanently.
    However you are entirely correct about the informal oral culture, except in one fact, in a truly oral society it is carried on face to face, in some form. The jekyl and hyde effect of the internet results from the lack of face to face feedback and social consequences, and from mob appeal. On the internet one can find a crowd of supporters for the most outrageous statements in a way that in unlikely in a real crowd, but when people do find such a supportive mob in real life, their behaviour undergoes a similar change (that bitter invective etc). A similar change is found in car drivers vs pedestrians; people in cars behave with a breathtaking rudeness they wouldn't dare otherwise. All part of the bubble of safety behind the windscreen (or the computer screen).

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