Walter Ong on Media

Tony Palmeri's Media Rants (From the October, 2003 edition of The Valley Scene)

Warning: You are about to read a column about a Catholic priest that will not deal with child abuse or other church maladies.
Father Walter J. Ong, S.J., passed away recently at the age of 90. A Jesuit who published more than 20 books and hundreds of articles, Ong taught at St. Louis University for 36 years. He was a distinguished teacher, an active priest who said daily mass for many years, and an internationally admired scholar. He served higher education in meaningful ways, including as a member of Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 education task force and as president of the Modern Language Association in 1978.

My 1987 doctoral dissertation examined the relevance of Ong’s writings for students of communication. Ong is widely recognized as one of the most important thinkers of the last 50 years. He argues that communication technologies restructure human culture and consciousness in profound ways. To explain, Ong divides human history into three broad stages: primary orality, typography, and secondary orality.

Primary Orality: A “primary oral” culture is one that knows nothing of writing. Such cultures have not existed for thousands of years. Generations of scholars assumed that oral cultures were “primitive” in part because they did not write. Ong says that to think of pre-writing cultures “in terms of their relationships to script is the equivalent of working out the biology of a horse in terms of what goes on in an automobile factory.” Judging primary oral cultures according to standards set by cultures that have writing is the same as “to refer to a horse never as a horse but always as a four-legged automobile without wheels.”

Primary oral cultures developed elaborate methods of storing, recalling, and reciting knowledge. Poems like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which existed in oral form for centuries before being written down, feature graphic images, verbal formulas, wise sayings, and other means of ensuring that listeners would remember the stories.

The best oral poets were like walking encyclopedias. They entertained crowds but more importantly kept them in touch with cultural values and traditions. In such cultures to become “wise” meant to become attuned to the sage advice of the elders and able to pass it on to future generations.

Typographic Culture: With the discovery of the alphabet, sound was committed to space in a way that would have revolutionary consequences. Words become “things” on a page. The Greek philosopher Plato distrusted writing because one could not engage in dialogue with a text, yet he despised the Homeric oral poets because they merely repeated what had already been said in the past.

For Ong, Plato’s criticism of writing is paradoxical because it is the product of a mind conditioned by the ability to write. Plato wanted to develop “analytic” thinking that could liberate humans from reliance on elders or authorities for advice on how to live. Such analytic, individual critical thinking is possible only after habits of mind encouraged by writing technology begin to take hold of human consciousness.

Like the legendary Marshall McLuhan, whom he studied with at St. Louis University in the 1930s, Ong believes that the invention of the printing press resulted in spectacular reorganizations of religion, science, politics, education, and virtually all of human existence. The ability to mass-produce printed texts without any variation produced what we today call the “mass audience.” The fact that print technology allows texts to reach more people is significant, but for Ong represents its most trivial impact. By analogy, if someone were to say that the main impact of the automobile is that it allows a person to get from point A to point B faster than if he traveled by horse and chariot, we would say they were naïve. Among other things, the automobile created suburbs, strip malls, and powerful road-building lobbies.

The reorganization of human existence created by typography and print was a mixed blessing. Developments in knowledge of how to improve the plight of humanity have been challenged at every turn by an often debilitating and deadly ignorance. For Ong this is not simply a battle of good vs. evil, though he would agree that there is evil in the world. Rather, the problem is “closed system” thinking that is the product of an unreflective literacy. That is, humans get “locked in” to destructive ideas much as we see letters locked in a text.

Secondary Orality: In the 20th century and today orality asserts itself powerfully via the development of electronic communications. But this is an orality touched by centuries of writing and print and in fact relies on those technologies.
Our nightly newscaster is “performing” a printed text, a task completely different than what the oral poets were doing. Meanwhile, television and the Internet connect each of us literally with the entire globe, yet paradoxically we feel that these technologies are depersonalizing.

We know that politicians, military leaders, corporations, and assorted fanatics can use media for ill purposes. That much is obvious. What is important about Walter Ong’s work is that it urges us to go beyond the obvious and think critically about the ways in which our culture and consciousness have been shaped by communication technologies. For an excellent introduction to his work, go to your library and get Orality and Literacy (New York: Methuen, 1982).

Tony Palmeri is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.

Return to Commentary