Walter Ong's Psychodynamics of Orality and the Reading Mind

Walter Ong’s Psychodynamics of Orality and the Reader

“Until writing was invented, men lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog.”

– Marshall McLuhan

When we trace language from orality, characterized by the pre-socratics and the passing of tradition from one mouth to the next, to literacy made possible by writing on clay tablets, we see a complex shift in human consciousness. Walter Ong celebrates orality in a way most thinkers overlook in his book, Orality and Literacy.

Oral culture is so far removed from contemporary society that we have a hard time imagining a world without writing. While it might be hard to imagine, we carry with us such a potent residue of oral culture that we continue to privilege certain kinds of knowledge because of it. Voice, for example, carries with it something Walter Ong refers to as existential actuality. This is because what we hear is subject to the frailty of the temporal moment.

“Sound exists only when it is going out of existence. It is not perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent.”

Walter Ong

We cannot hold it.

We cannot touch it.

We cannot frame it.

We cannot sit with sound and wonder about its matter the same way we can with words on a page or a painting on the wall.

Even though the move from orality to literacy has prompted us to privilege sight above all other senses, we continue to associate quality with presence and that fact has left us with a strong appreciation for voice. Despite not actually being able to see voice, we continue to associate great power with the spoken word – a power that offers guidance for our reading lives but even more for our existence.

Ned Buskirk’s organization, You’re Going to Die, offers existential poetry jams that combine the brevity of life with the power of the spoken word. Each utterance redeems time in a world that only ever promises mortality.

Writing, too, is a way to deal with our ever-increasing recognition of our own mortality. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist who made semiotics sexy, taught us that “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.” Marshall McLuhan describes this liminal space in a similar way, emphasizing the fluidity of social interaction before writing enters the scene:

“Until writing was invented, men lived in acoustic space: boundless, directionless, horizonless, in the dark of the mind, in the world of emotion, by primordial intuition, by terror. Speech is a social chart of this bog.”

Marshall McLuhan

What he describes is an existence without representation – all we had were events.

“Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might ‘call’ them back — ‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them. They have no focus and no trace (a visual metaphor, showing dependency on writing), not even a trajectory. They are occurrences, events.”

Walter Ong

The Hebrew term, dabar, even doubles as both ‘word’ and ‘event’. It is not enough to live these events – we have to remember them.

The Greek muses were guardians of memory and for centuries, memories, or images of thought from times past, were preserved through orality. The bigger the event – the stronger the memory – and the longer we repeat stories of that event.

Simonides and the Memory Palace Even before writing was invented, speech gave structure to thought. Individuals learned to organize experience using memory techniques like Simonides after the roof caved in and left everyone in rubble. When Simonides stepped outside of a banquet, the roof caved in and everyone at the event died. To help identify the bodies, Simonides walked through the rubble and recalled the mental picture in his head of where each party-goer was sitting. This story is told when the memory technique referred to as the memory palace is taught.

An oral culture tended to privilege sight over every other sense, especially when it came to communicating that to another person.

Bruno Snell, in his profound exploration of early Greek thinking titled, The Discovery of the Mind, traces the sight-intellect equation to these early Greek roots.

Snell explains that for Homer, ideas are conveyed through the noos, a mental organ analogous to the eye; consequently “to know” is related not just “to see” but “to have seen.”

“The eye, it appears, serves as Homer’s model for the absorption of experiences. From this point of view the intensive coincides with the extensive: he who has seen much sufficiently often possesses intensive knowledge.”

Bruno Snell

Following this line of thought, William Covino, author of The Art of Wondering, traces the origin of imagination through Giambattista Vico to the Greeks.

Exploring orality for the origin of imagination.

Vico shares a fable about how the first instance of thunder provoked the community to imagine a reason for the chaos in the sky. They imagined a god orchestrating the clouds in magnificent chaos surrounded by lightning. Not only did they invent a symbol, a visual representation, they created a referent. Every time the clouds turned to chaos, they cried out to the god of thunder, pleading with him to stop.

Over time, this shared image became so ingrained in the Greek psyche that cause became synonymous with wrath and effect became synonymous with thunder. Zeus is only one god of thunder among dozens from cultures all over the world.

Seeing the clouds gather in the sky solidified people’s faith in reason – even if the reason invented was originally a result of faith, but aren’t they all? The imagination is an active participant in the process of knowing, but how do you preserve knowledge prior to the invention of writing?

“The only answer is this: Think memorable thoughts.”

Walter Ong

Contemporary learning theories remind educators that memories are intensified when emotions are heightened. To retain memorable experiences in the time of orality, experiences were emotionally amplified through mnemonic devices like repetition, rhythm, alliteration, and the like:

“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 patters, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thoughts 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 intwined with memory systems.”

Walter Ong

These patterns point to a whole – a kind of harmony consonant with Claude Levi-Strauss’s insistence that “the savage mind totalizes.” Because sound is always on its way out, we strive to keep it together. Writing is the artificial system by which we unify thought, but this is inherently tied to visual representation and there is an unfortunate reality to privileging sight.

“Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distances, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed. Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelops me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence.”

Walter Ong

Writing is only one technology that creates boundaries – the clock another. Ong reminds us that we constantly attempt to reduce human experience to various visual analogues like a clock.

“Sound is an event in time, and ‘time marches on’, relentlessly, with no stop or division. Time is seemingly tamed if we treat it spatially on a calendar or the face of a clock, where we can make it appear as divided into separate units next to each other. But this also falsifies time. Real time has no divisions at all, but is uninterruptedly continuous: at midnight yesterday did not click over into today. No one can find the exact point of midnight, and if it is not exact, how can it be midnight?”

Walter Ong

The implications for reading are many. We might read because we are inherently curious about the world. For most, reading is a kind of exploration and discovery. When what we read emotionally affects us, we are more likely to remember it. It becomes a part of us. If we have fallen into the visual habit of dissection or criticism instead of the oral habit of unifying what we read, we might gain momentary understanding but lose our soul. When we reduce our world through division and classification, we might gain momentary recognition but we lose what Jean Baudrillard calls the ecstasy of communication. We forfeit what the sophists call magic. We need our reading to enter into our being – we need to listen to what we read with everything we have. As we continue to think about the reading mind, I want to emphasize the psychodynamics of orality, not because I want to privilege oral storytelling, but because reading the written word ought to carry with it this same kind of existential actuality – the same kind of linguistic power. As people reading in a culture that privileges sight, we must remember the power of words to live, move, and breathe. Striving for a dynamic epistemology is a matter of reading with a thousand eyes of curiosity or approaching our books with a posture of wonder. William Gaddis - The Recognitions
Walter Ong explores the move from orality to literacy with an emphasis on memory, emotion, and sound in conscious awareness.