Making Information networks - from the Mental to the Material...and vice-versa.
Ears or the Eyes and Speech or Text?
Western thought has tended to privilege the eyes over the ears – ‘ocularcentrism’
What want to do today is to try to make further sense of this and relate it to how we make sense of the world around us – that is the question of how we come to know stuff – epistemology – and how sense is mediated by sound as opposed to visuality.
Sound & meaning – man and God:
For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him. (Isiaiah, ch 64, v1)
Out of the depth have I called unto thee O lord
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
The above quotes from Christian religious texts – the Bible and the Psalms are fascinating in that they focus on the existential anxiety of the distance between man and God.
In the first despite our openness to perception by sight and sound we are closed – are deaf and blind - until called by God, but we await, we are in anticipation of an opening that calls us – awaiting revelation of what God has prepared. In this sense we are not in command of producing meaning by out ability to produce sound and see, but must await meaning to be given to us – the beyond is occluded from us until God decides to let us know. The voice of God will reveal our destiny and our history.
In the second quote that has been set to music by many composers, we have the cry of the agony of the sinner, of the fallen human in pain praying for help to a distant God who hears all but may not respond for He is in judgment. Prayer is a chancy biz. Again, we may call but our possibility of existence – of meaning –is given by the answer, and not by our initiation, our sounding out.
In a western Christian order, the emergence of sound is a medium through which meaning and existence is granted by the other.
Equally in this order, the denigration of vision – the
blinding light of God so that we may attend to his voice s linked to a suspicion
that as fallen humans we in the words of
the play of the eyes that takes us away from focused spiritual concerns
This mixture of interpretation (as opposed to pure access to the truth) and distraction links to the long held condemnation of idolatry – the worship of idols – of craven images – of not worshiping the one true God and of the spoken word. Thus Moses’s struggle with Aaron over the Golden Calf. (see Martin Jay’s ‘Downcast Eyes’, Intro, esp pp. 13-14.)
Islamic as well as protestant reformist traditions have all attacked the domination of sight or as the 20th C writer Ellul has put it – ‘the humiliation of the word’ (the utterance)
The Greek Tradition
Against this we might contrast the Greek traditions whose philosophers have almost invariably celebrated the centrality of vision, of perception of the image and of the constellation of becoming into being – of the flow of perceptions into a singular reflection/reflected upon image…and then the act of reason and focus to form an isolating ‘eidos’ – idea.
Greek gods were always manifesting themselves –they put in an appearance.
Greeks expressed beauty through the visibility of the body in sculpture.
Greeks created ‘theatre’ (associated with ‘theory – ‘theoria’) meaing ‘to behold.
Greeks thought of knowledge as the state of having been seen and nous is the mind that grasps the image.
Greeks considered that in a sort of way we had access to a grasp of infinity because we could see so far into the distance.
Plato is suspicious of simple sense perception – we see through the eyes, not with them – thus he crits theatre as a simulation of actuality – a mimetic force, as opposed to the true vision whereby the mind sees properly.
Friedrich Nietzsche (german philos, 1844-1900) suggest in his ‘Birth of Tragedy (1872) that within greek thought are two opposing forces: that of the apollonian –the rational/orderly/aesthetic form (Apollo – god of the Sun (light/illuminating = opens up the true)
And the Dionysian (god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy) – the wild flowing becoming chaotic forces that link to the temporal varying flow of sound and of music as opposed to Apollonian sight/visuality.
This links to the agon:
Representationality (visualisable graspable form - Being)
Performativity (the unfolding dynamic mobile becoming of forces) – the ex-static – the out-of-time/unstable/variable
Walter Ong thesis: Orality and Literacy
The possibility of Co-Mmunication
Both quotes above (from bible/psalms) are concerned with the call that we make or await in anxious anticipation of a response. And this is true of much of our communications.
Either we do not know that someone is going to speak but we turn upon hearing the initiating sound and then attend to the sound in the belief that it is meaningful… (self)
OR – we anticipate speech/sound of a particular kind but are not sure what exactly will be said or what the sound will be like. (culture)
The third possibility is that we pretty much know exactly what we are going to hear as with a familiar song we listen to again. As such we assume a relation between repetition and certainty…and we assume that the technologies of reproduction (CD player/Ipod/pad etc or even initiation (as in a new speech act) will work (again) (Media/technology)
Do we begin with a self that resonates with the possibility of meaning and communication, that is to say with an internal orientation towards?
Give some thought to oral cultures even of today...from religious rituals such as prayer to political speech and onto the rhythmic, rhetorical improvised patterns of rap and slam poetry going back to Linton Kwesi Johnson and onto today. Equally think of orality as sonics - as sound and that you can feel that sound within and coming from you. And think of the power - the force of shouting at someone and being shouted at...what does that all mean for social and informational connections/and disconnections?
Whilst I wish you to look at the Ong stuff below, the Mizrach paper here is a good intro to the history of oral cultures and puts the Ong debate between oral and literate cultures into some context. The stuff of the 2nd tele-literacy age is rather dated as internet technologies have gone so much further such that no-one talks about stuff like 'hypertext' anymore - so you can leave out that section.
It would be good if you could have a read of the extracts below..
"...For anyone who has a sense of what words are in a primary oral culture, or a culture not far removed from primary orality, it is not
surprising that the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’. Malinowski (1923, pp. 45 1, 470-81) has made the point that among
‘primitive’ (oral) peoples generally language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought, though he had trouble explaining
what he was getting at (Sampson 1980, pp. 223–6), since understanding of the psychodynamics of orality was virtually nonexistent in 1923.
Neither is it surprising that oral peoples commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. Sound cannot be
sounding without the use of power. A hunter can see a buffalo, smell, taste, and touch a buffalo when the buffalo is completely inert, even
dead, but if he hears a buffalo, he had better watch out: something is going on. In this sense, all sound, and especially oral utterance, which
comes from inside living organisms, is ‘dynamic’.
The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at
least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk
forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to
things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface. Such ‘things’ are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical
sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection
Oral peoples commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. names do give human beings power
over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice
chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, writing based folk tend to think of names as labels, written
or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something
that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be....
...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.
....Redundancy is also favored by the physical conditions of oral expression before a large audience, where redundancy is in fact more marked
than in most face-to-face conversation. Not everyone in a large audience understands every word a speaker utters, if only because of acoustical
problems. It is advantageous for the speaker to say the same thing, or equivalently the same thing, two or three times.
Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in
saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of
mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. Knowledge is hard to come by and precious, and society regards highly
those wise old men and women who specialize in conserving it, who know and can tell the stories of the days of old. By storing knowledge
outside the mind, writing and, even more, print downgrade the figures of the wise old man and the wise old woman, repeaters of the past, in
favor of younger discoverers of something new.
Writing is of course conservative in its own ways. Shortly after it first appeared, it served to freeze legal codes in early Sumeria (Oppenheim
1964, p. 232). But by taking conservative functions on itself, the text frees the mind of conservative tasks, that is, of its memory work, and
thus enables the mind to turn itself to new speculation...
...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’...
...By contrast with literate societies, oral societies can be characterized as homeostatic (Goody and Watt 1968, pp. 31–4). That is to say, oral
societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.
Much in the foregoing account of orality can be used to identify what can be called ‘verbomotor’ cultures, that is, cultures in which, by contrast
with high-technology cultures, courses of action and attitudes toward issues depend significantly more on effective use of words, and
thus on human interaction, and significantly less on non-verbal, often largely visual input from the ‘objective’ world of things. Jousse (1925)
used his term verbomoteur to refer chiefly to ancient Hebrew and Aramaic cultures and surrounding cultures, which knew some writing but
remained basically oral and word-oriented in lifestyle rather than object-oriented. We are expanding its use here to include all cultures
that retain enough oral residue to remain significantly word-attentive in a person-interactive context (the oral type of context) rather than
object-attentive. It should, of course, be noted that words and objects are never totally disjunct: words represent objects, and perception of
objects is in part conditioned by the store of words into which perceptions are nested. Nature states no ‘facts’: these come only within
statements devised by human beings to refer to the seamless web of actuality around them.
The cultures which we are here styling verbomotor are likely to strike technological man as making all too much of speech itself, as
overvaluing and certainly overpracticing rhetoric. In primary oral cultures, even business is not business: it is fundamentally rhetoric. Purchasing
something at a
culture is likely to presume it would be in the nature of things. Rather, it is a series of verbal (and somatic) maneuvers, a polite
duel, a contest of wits, an operation in oral agonistic.
In oral cultures a request for information is commonly interpreted interactively (Malinowski 1923, pp. 451, 470–81), as agonistic, and,
instead of being really answered, is frequently parried. An illuminating story is told of a visitor in
region in a country which in every region preserves massive residual orality. The visitor saw a Corkman leaning against the post office. He
went up to him, pounded with his hand on the post office wall next to the Corkman’s shoulder, and asked, ‘Is this the post office?’ The Corkman
was not taken in. He looked at his questioner quietly and with great concern: ‘ ’Twouldn’t be a postage stamp you were lookin’ for,
would it?’ He treated the enquiry not as a request for information but as something the enquirer was doing to him. So he did something in
turn to the enquirer to see what would happen. All natives of
a question by asking another. Never let down your oral guard.
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. A teacher speaking to a class which he feels andwhich feels itself as a close-knit group, finds that if the class is asked to
pick up its textbooks and read a given passage, the unity of the group vanishes as each person enters into his or her private lifeworld. An
example of the contrast between orality and literacy on these grounds is found in Carother’s report (1959) of evidence that oral peoples
commonly externalize schizoid behavior where literates interiorize it. Literates often manifest tendencies (loss of contact with environment)
by psychic withdrawal into a dreamworld of their own (schizophrenic delusional systematization), oral folk commonly manifest their schizoid
tendencies by extreme external confusion, leading often to violent action, including mutilation of the self and of others. This behavior is
frequent enough to have given rise to special terms to designate it: the old-time Scandinavian warrior going ‘berserk’, the Southeast Asian
person running ‘amok’....
Because in its physical constitution as sound, the spoken word proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one
another as conscious interiors, as persons, the spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups. When a speaker is addressing an
audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity, with themselves and with the speaker. If the speaker asks the audience to
read a handout provided for them, as each reader enters into his or her own private reading world, the unity of the audience is shattered, to be
re-established only when oral speech begins again. Writing and print isolate. There is no collective noun or concept for readers corresponding
to ‘audience’. The collective ‘readership’ – this magazine has a readership of two million – is a far-gone abstraction. To think of
readers as a united group, we have to fall back on calling them an ‘audience’, as though they were in fact listeners. The spoken word
forms unities on a large scale, too: countries with two or more different spoken languages are likely to have major problems in establishing
or maintaining national unity, as today in
The interiorizing force of the oral word relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence. In most religions the
spoken word functions integrally in ceremonial and devotional life. Eventually in the larger world religions sacred texts develop, too, in
which the sense of the sacral is attached also to the written word. Still, a textually supported religious tradition can continue to authenticate the
primacy of the oral in many ways. In Christianity, for example, the Bible is read aloud at liturgical services. For God is thought of always as
‘speaking’ to human beings, not as writing to them. The orality of the mindset in the Biblical text, even in its epistolary sections, is overwhelming
The Hebrew dabar, which means word, means also event and thus refers directly to the spoken word.
The spoken word is always an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word. In
Trinitarian theology, the Second Person of the Godhead is the Word, and the human analogue for the Word here is not the human written
word, but the human spoken word. God the Father ‘speaks’ to his Son:he does not inscribe him. Jesus, the Word of God, left nothing in
writing, though he could read and write (Luke ). ‘Faith comes through hearing’, we read in the Letter to the Romans (). ‘The
letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).
WRITING RESTRUCTURES CONSCIOUSNESS - THE
A deeper understanding of pristine or primary orality enables us better to understand the new world of writing, what it truly is, and what
functionally literate human beings really are: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these
powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing.Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think
as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single
invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. Writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language
(Hirsch 1977, pp. 21–3, 26) or ‘autonomous’ discourse (Olson 1980a), discourse which cannot be directly questioned or contested as
oral speech can be because written discourse has been detached from its author.
Oral cultures know a kind of autonomous discourse in fixed ritual formulas (Olson 1980a, pp. 187–94; Chafe 1982), as well as in vatic
sayings or prophesies, for which the utterer himself or herself is considered only the channel, not the source. The Delphic oracle was not
responsible for her oracular utterances, for they were held to be the voice of the god. Writing, and even more print, has some of this vatic
quality. Like the oracle or the prophet, the book relays an utterance from a source, the one who really ‘said’ or wrote the book. The author
might be challenged if only he or she could be reached, but the author cannot be reached in any book. There is no way directly to refute a text.
After absolutely total and devastating refutation, it says exactly the same thing as before. This is one reason why ‘the book says’ is popularly
tantamount to ‘it is true’. It is also one reason why books have been burnt. A text stating what the whole world knows is false will state
falsehood forever, so long as the text exists. Texts are inherently contumacious.
...Most persons are surprised, and many distressed, to learn that essentially the same objections commonly urged today against computers
were urged by Plato in the Phaedrus (274–7) and in the Seventh Letter against writing. Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is
inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality canbe only in the mind. It is a thing, a manufactured product. The same of
course is said of computers. Secondly, Plato’s Socrates urges, writing destroys memory. Those who use writing will become forgetful, relying
on an external resource for what they lack in internal resources.Writing weakens the mind. Today, parents and others fear that pocket
calculators provide an external resource for what ought to be the internal resource of memorized multiplication tables. Calculators
weaken the mind, relieve it of the work that keeps it strong. Thirdly, a written text is basically unresponsive. If you ask a person to explain his
or her statement, you can get an explanation; if you ask a text, you get 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 is put, ‘Garbage in, garbage out’. Fourthly, in
keeping with the agonistic mentality of oral cultures, Plato’s Socrates also holds it against writing that the written word cannot defend
itself as the natural spoken word can: real speech and thought always exist essentially in a context of give-and-take between real persons.
Writing is passive, out of it, in an unreal, unnatural world. So are computers.
A fortiori, print is vulnerable to these same charges. Those who are disturbed by Plato’s misgivings about writing will be even more disturbed
to find that print created similar misgivings when it was first introduced. Hieronimo Squarciafico, who in fact promoted the printing
of the Latin classics, also argued in 1477 that already ‘abundance of books makes men less studious’ (quoted in Lowry 1979, pp. 29–31): it
destroys memory and enfeebles the mind by relieving it of too much work (the pocket-computer complaint once more), downgrading the
wise man and wise woman in favor of the pocket compendium. Of course, others saw print as a welcome leveler: everyone becomes a wise
man or woman (Lowry 1979, pp. 31–2).
One weakness in Plato’s position was that, to make his objections effective, he put them into writing, just as one weakness in anti-print
positions is that their proponents, to make their objections more effective, put the objections into print. The same weakness in anti-computer
positions is that, to make them effective, their proponents articulate them in articles or books printed from tapes composed on computer
terminals. Writing and print and the computer are all ways of technologizing the word. Once the word is technologized, there is no
effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available. Moreover, the new technology
is not merely used to convey the critique: in fact, it brought the critique into existence. Plato’s philosophically analytic thought, as has been
In fact, as Havelock has beautifully shown (1963), Plato’s entire epistemology was unwittingly a programmed rejection of the old oral,
mobile, warm, personally interactive lifeworld of oral culture (represented by the poets, whom he would not allow in his Republic). The
term idea, form, is visually based, coming from the same root as the Latin video, to see, and such English derivatives as vision, visible, or
videotape. Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy with visible form. The Platonic ideas are voiceless, immobile, devoid of all warmth,
not interactive but isolated, not part of the human lifeworld at all but utterly above and beyond it. Plato of course was not at all fully aware of
the unconscious forces at work in his psyche to produce this reaction, or overreaction, of the literate person to lingering, retardant orality.
Such considerations alert us to the paradoxes that beset the relationships between the original spoken word and all its technological transformations.
The reason for the tantalizing involutions here is obviously that intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools
that it uses to implement its workings become ‘internalized’, that is, part of its own reflexive process.
One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death. This association is suggested in Plato’s charge
that writing is inhuman, thing-like, and that it destroys memory. It is also abundantly evident in countless references to writing (and/or
print) traceable in printed dictionaries of quotations, from 2 Corinthians 3:6, ‘The letter kills but the spirit gives life’ and Horace’s reference
to his three books of Odes as a ‘monument’ (Odes iii.30. 1), presaging his own death, on to and beyond Henry Vaughan’s assurance to Sir Thomas
Bodley that in the Bodleian Library at Oxford ‘every book is thy epitaph’. In Pippa Passes, Robert Browning calls attention to the still
widespread practice of pressing living flowers to death between the pages of printed books, ‘faded yellow blossoms/twixt page and page’.
The dead flower, once alive, is the psychic equivalent of the verbal text. The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal
from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living
contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers (Ong 1977, pp. 230–71).
WRITING IS A TECHNOLOGY
Plato was thinking of writing as an external, alien technology, as many people today think of the computer. Because we have by today so
deeply interiorized writing, made it so much a
part of ourselves, as Plato’s age had not yet made it fully a part of itself (
find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be. Yet writing (and especially
alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces
such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more. Clanchy (1979, pp. 88–115) discusses the matter
circumstantially, in its western medieval context, in his chapter entitled ‘The technology of writing’. Writing is in a way the most drastic of the
three technologies. It initiated what print and computers only continue, the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation
of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist.
By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write ‘naturally’. Oral speech is fully natural to
human beings in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk.
Talk implements conscious life but it wells up into consciousness out of unconscious depths, though of course with the conscious as well
as unconscious co-operation of society. Grammar rules live in the unconscious in the sense that you can know how to use the rules and
even how to set up new rules without being able to state what they are. Writing or script differs as such from speech in that it does not
inevitably well up out of the unconscious. The process
of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived,
articulable rules: for example, a certain pictogram will stand for a certain specific word, or a will represent a certain phoneme, b another,
and so on. (This is not to deny that the writer–reader situation created by writing deeply affects unconscious processes involved in composing
in writing, once one has learned the explicit, conscious rules. More about this later.)
To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly
invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also
interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing
heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live
and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.
We saw last week that the implications of the oral tradition and its potential for network creation was limited.
We focused on the
work of Walter Ong - who was surrounded by several important
thinkers and writers:
Each of these writers were slightly in mourning for what they saw was the passing of the oral tradition
" By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write ‘naturally’. Oral speech is fully natural to human beings in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk. Talk implements conscious life but it wells up into consciousness out of unconscious depths, though of course with the conscious as well as unconscious co-operation of society."
For Ong and his group orality seems to have impacts and properties that extend the human senses rather than narrow or freeze them - that writing seems to have:
And if this is so - even if the key idea for Ong et al is that oral culture tends to be local/communal because of its face to face-ness it nonetheless nurtures 'broadcasting' in terms of bandwidth of affects.
The network effects/affects are in terms of the intensity and richness as well as communality offered by orality
all sound, and especially oral utterance, which comes from inside living organisms, is ‘dynamic’.
And this is what we noted - that communications is not meaning but sonics - comms is variously textured = dynamic
as opposed to writing: "typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface"
and is part of the interaction pattern.
When you speak word/use only sound/words FtF you need a shared culture of not only
a) co-presences to hear/speak to/with you for comms to happen but
patterns - familiar remembered patterns that by their redundancy enable
comprehension immediately as you do not have a written text in front of you by
which to reflect - oral cultures are as such not reflective but performative - they engage us
c ) and there is redundancy in terms of the need sometimes to repeat words and phrases - "Not everyone in a large audience understands every word a speaker utters, if only because of acoustical problems. It is advantageous for the speaker to say the same thing, or equivalently the same thing, two or three times."
And this of course goes for a large audience in the Greek polis
and: "in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages."
Consolidating the sense of co-belonging in terms of shared verities
For the world of orality is a "verbomotor’ cultures, that is, cultures in which, by contrast with high-technology cultures, courses of action and attitudes toward issues depend significantly more on effective use of words, and thus on human interaction, and significantly less on non-verbal, often largely visual input from the ‘objective’ world of things"
For Ong et al comms is as much rhetoric as a flow of verbal bargaining as the 'conversation' moves on dynamically rather than representationally (a la writing) It is the way that we say things and the effects on our audience that matter to persuade and make agreement. (it is a series of verbal (and somatic) maneuvers, a polite duel, a contest of wits, an operation in oral agonistic.)
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. Literates often manifest tendencies (loss of contact with environment) by psychic withdrawal into a dreamworld of their own
If the speaker asks the audience to read a handout provided for them, as each reader enters into his or her own private reading world, the unity of the audience is shattered, to be re-established only when oral speech begins again... Writing and print isolate.
The interiorizing force of the oral word relates in a special way to the sacral, to the ultimate concerns of existence.
The spoken word is always an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word. ‘The letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).
You can see here how Ong thinks of orality as 'essentialising' (and he is a jesuit priest, so no surprises really)
So what is it that writing does?
it creates: beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing.... Writing is passive, out of it, in an unreal, unnatural world.
Writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language (Hirsch 1977, pp. 21–3, 26) or ‘autonomous’ discourse (Olson 1980a), discourse which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse has been detached from its author.
its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers
we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be. Yet writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more.
The process of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived, articulable rules: for example, a certain pictogram will stand for a certain specific word, or a will represent a certain phoneme, b another, and so on.
Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.
It has seemed to me that the subject of communication offers possibilities in that it occupies a crucial position in the organization and administration of government and in turn of empires and of Western civilization.
James Carey comments: (Antioch Review, vol 27, no 1 (1967)
Innis argued that the available media of communication
influence very strongly the forms of social organization that are
possible. The media thus influence the kinds of human associations
that can develop in any period. Because these patterns of association
are not independent of the knowledge men have of themselves and
others-indeed, consciousness is built on these associations-control
of communication implies control of both consciousness and social
organization. Thus, whenever a medium of communication and the
groups which control the media have a hegemony in society, Innis
assumes that a principal axis of competition will be the search for
competing media of communication. New media are designed to
undercut existing centers of power and to facilitate the creation of
new patterns of association and the articulation of new forms of
Bryce has stated that
‘from the time of Menes down to that of Attila the tendency is generally towards aggregation: and the history of the ancient nations shows us, not only an enormous number of petty monarchies and republics swallowed up in the Empire of Rome, but that empire itself far more highly centralized than any preceding one had been. When the Roman dominion began to break up the process was reversed and for seven hundred years or more the centrifugal forces had it their own way.... From the thirteenth century onwards the tide begins to set the other way ... neither Democracy nor the principle of Nationalities has, on the balance of cases, operated to check the general movement towards aggregation which marks the last six centuries.’
In attempting to understand the basis of these diverse tendencies, we become concerned with the problem of empire, and in particular with factors responsible for the successful operation of ‘centrifugal and centripetal forces’. In the organization of large areas communication occupies a vital place, and it is significant that Bryce's periods correspond roughly first to that dominated by clay and papyrus, second to that dominated by parchment, and third to that dominated by paper. The effective government of large areas depends to a very important extent on the efficiency of communication.
concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization.
Media which emphasize time are those which are durable in character such as
parchment, clay, and stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development
of architecture and sculpture. Media which emphasize space are apt to be less
durable and light in character such as papyrus and paper. The latter are suited
to wide areas in administration and trade. The conquest of
Innis divides the media used for writing over the course of history into two groups:
the heavier, durable kind, and the lighter, portable kind. “Media that emphasize time are
those that are durable in character, such as parchment, clay, and stone. . . . Media that
emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character, such as papyrus and
paper.” (7) This coupling of materiality to the dimensions of time and space allows Innis to
link different systems of writing systematically to the two basic criteria that determine the
success of large-scale political organizations. What Innis wants to show is the factors that
guarantee the stability of such organizations: They must uphold temporal and territorial
cohesion; they must last through time and space (7). As social systems they can exist only
in the continuation of communication and for that they rely on media. Communication
through time requires appropriate means of storage; communication through space
requires appropriate means of transmission. Depending on their materiality, Innis thus
distinguishes between time-biased and space-biased media.
By facilitating either the preservation of knowledge in time or the proliferation of
knowledge through space both types of media emphasize contrasting features of social
organizations: While time-biased media favour decentralized power, hierarchical structure,
religious tradition, collectivism, and transcendental ideology, space-biased media add to
the centralization of power, to less hierarchical structure, administrative control,
individualism, and materialist ideology (7–11). The dynamics of time- and space-biased
media and their opposing effects Innis called the ‘bias of communication’. If in a given
social organization the bias of a time-oriented medium is not checked by a space-oriented
counterpart (or vice versa), eventually a monopoly of knowledge will emerge and bring
about a communicative imbalance. Large-scale political organizations will not persist
unless there is a medial equilibrium that allows them to control both time and space.
and Babe glosses it thus:
Power is exercised through the use and control of media. Control can be understood as comprising two dimensions,
namely control over space and control through time. Space concerns the geographic extent of control (empire),
while time indicates endurance or duration. Control in both senses entails and requires substantial control over
the predominant media of communication, which is to say over the means of mediating human interactions.
Control through time entails control over the customs, legends, myths, languages, symbolisms, religions, ideals,
beliefs, and so forth, of a people. Control over space requires the capacity to instantaneously dispatch orders
and to be apprised as to whether they are being carried out, to monitor conditions from afar and to respond
accordingly. Both dimensions of control entail control or influence over society’s systems of valuation
(i.e. modes of delineating relative importance), and over its conceptualizations of time and of space.
...the art of writing provided man with a transpersonal memory. Men were given an artificially extended and verifiable memory of objects and events not present to sight or recollection. Individuals applied their minds to symbols rather than things and went beyond the world of concrete experience into the world of conceptual relations created within an enlarged time and space universe. The time world was extended beyond the range of remembered things and the space world beyond the range of known places.
Writing enormously enhanced a capacity for abstract thinking which had been evident in the growth of language in the oral tradition. Names in themselves were abstractions. Man's activities and powers were roughly extended in proportion to the increased use and perfection of written records. The old magic was transformed into a new and more potent record of the written word. Priests and scribes interpreted a slowly changing tradition and provided a justification for established authority.
An extended social structure strengthened the position of an individual leader with military power who gave orders to agents who received and executed them. The sword and pen worked together.
Power was increased by concentration in a
few hands, specialization of function was enforced, and scribes with leisure to keep and study records
contributed to the advancement of knowledge and thought. The written record
signed, sealed, and swiftly transmitted was essential to military power and the
extension of government. Small communities were written into large states and
states were consolidated into empire. The monarchies of
Any given medium will bias social organization for it will favour the
growth of certain kinds of interests and institutions at the expense
of others and will also impose on these institutions a form of
organization. Media which are space-binding facilitate a nd encourage
the growth of empire, encourage a concern with expansion and
with the present, and thus favour the hegemony of secular political
authority. Space-binding media encourage the growth of the state,
the military, and decentralized and expansionist institutions. Time-binding
media foster concern with history and tradition, have little
capacity for expansion of secular authority and thus favour the growth
of religion, of hierarchical organization and of contractionis institutions.
The hegemony of either religion or the state imposes a characteristic
pattern on all secondary institutions such as education and
also leads to a search for competing, a lternative modes of communication
to undercut this hegemony. Thus, the dynamic of social
change resided in the search for alternative forms of communication
alternately supporting the
At the level of social structure a, time bias meant an emphasis
upon religion, hierarchy, and contraction, whereas a space bias
meant an emphasis upon the state, decentralization and expansion.
But the terms" time"and "space"also had a cultural meaning.
In cultural terms, time meant the sacred, the moral, the historical;
space the present and the future, the technical and the secular.
As media of communication favoured the growth of certain kinds of
institutions it also assured the domination of the culture characteristic
of those institutions.
Innis anchored his
theory in the material conditions of a society or civilization. For example, in
ruling a time-bound
society, whereas use of papyrus later benefited a scribal class and encouraged
mathematics and science. The Roman conquest of
in turn, “gave access to supplies of papyrus, which became the basis of a large administrative empire” (Innis, 1972: 7).
Written traditions, in general, led to quite different cultures. They were usually space-binding and favoured the growth of political
authority and secular institutions and a culture appropriate to them. But the unbalancing of time or space - the bias of comms would bring about the rise ad the fall of empires.
The history of the modern West, Innis argues, is the history of
a bias of communication and a monopoly of knowledge founded
on print. In one of his most quoted statements Innis characterized
modern Western history as beginning with temporal organization
and ending with spatial organization. The introduction of printing
attacked the temporal monopoly of the medieval church. Printing
fostered the growth of nationalism and empire; it favored the
extension of society in space. It encouraged the growth of bureaucracy
and militarism, science and secular authority. Printing infiltrated
all institutions being the major force in creating what is currently
celebrated as "the secular society." Not only did print destroy the
oral tradition but it also drove underground the principal concerns
of the oral tradition-morals, values, and metaphysics.