Monthly Archives: December 2011

What is an “Oral Culture?”

Walter OngThis week I ran across an interesting article entitled “The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Orality,” which offers an insightful critique of Walter Ong’s conception of oral vs literate societies. It was written by Jonathan Sterne, who teaches art history, communications, and the philosophy of science at McGill University, and who is currently researching a history of sound in modern culture.

Sterne had become suspicious of what he calls “an aging fable” about the history of communications. The fable, as it is typically presented, takes place in three acts. Act one is “oral culture,” which is a strictly auditory culture where nothing can be externalized from the mind of the knower. Act two transitions to “literate culture,” which is a visual culture where subject and object are split apart, and large-scale activities become possible such as the rise of modern science and industrialization. Act three culminates in “electronic culture,” where the techniques of externalization from literate culture are combined with a return to an oral mindset driven by electronic, image-and-sound-based media.

This fable, Sterne notes, comes primarily from the work of Walter Ong, who was a student of the young Marshall McLuhan in the 1940s. Ong’s book Orality and Literacy (1982) remains one of the most cited works in this area, and is also a favorite of Christian popularizers, as Ong was a Catholic priest as well as a professor.

Sterne finds a number of problems with this narrative. First and perhaps foremost, it is overly simplistic, assuming that an entire society can be sorted cleanly into one of the oral, literate, or electronic categories. Human cultures are far more diverse and complicated, employing a wide range of techniques for externalizing information in addition to writing, such as painting, sculpture, architecture (especially monuments), and music. All of these techniques predate writing, and all but music rely on the visual sense that is supposed to dominate a literate culture.

But Sterne’s most interesting and insightful critique comes from a close examination of the motivations and assumptions that lie behind much of Ong’s thought, assumptions that are more readily apparent in Ong’s earlier works than in Orality and Literacy. Sterne writes that Ong’s motivation was “to better understand the conditions under which it was possible for people to hear the word of God in his age,” and that his use of the verb “hear” was no accident. Ong assumed that the human sense of hearing is closer to the divine than seeing. In Ong’s book The Presence of the Word, he concludes that “the mystery of sound is the one which in the ways suggested here is the most productive of understanding and unity, the most personally human, and in this sense closest to the divine” (324).

Ong’s privileging of hearing over seeing was influenced, Sterne argues, by a faulty understanding of the difference between Hebrew and Greek thought that was fashionable in Ong’s day. Hebrew culture was assumed to be primarily oral, in contrast to Greek culture which was assumed to be based on the written word. Ong felt that the Hebrews were far more open to the God’s presence than the Greeks, and that this openness was a direct result of them being an oral culture, which for Ong meant that their emphasis was on hearing the word spoken in act, not seeing it written on a page. Although Christian popularizers may not realize it, Ong was actually celebrating the return to orality that he saw in electronic media such as television, believing that this “second orality” would pave the way for a new flowering of God’s Spirit. The Protestant emphasis on reading the word of God for oneself had, in Ong’s estimation, distanced us from one another and silenced “man’s life-world,” thereby stifling God’s presence amongst his people.

Sterne warns that we must keep this in mind when we read Ong’s narrative:

It is in this suggestively messianic context that we need to read Ong’s sensory history. “Oral man,” dweller of a temporalized world of sound, gave way to “literate man,” who resided in the spatialized and externalized world of sight. Ong’s sensory history is the story of the fall from innocence and a possible future redemption. At the moment of Ong’s writing, he saw the construct of literacy giving way to a new electronic oral-aural consciousness consisting of a new kind of immediate co-presence. Only then might it be possible to find God again (219).

Although Christians might be more sympathetic to Ong’s motivations than secular communications scholars, we do need to be careful about taking Ong’s claims at face value without subjecting them to more recent scholarship. Here Sterne also takes issue with Ong, noting that “the evidence on which the orality-literacy split rests is thin and dated…[it] is based on 50- to 100-year-old interpretations of textual sources” (220). More recent history and anthropology have challenged many of Ong’s assumptions about oral cultures. Cultures that lack writing use many other kinds of techniques to achieve the same end of externalizing information (see above). Rationality and individuality, qualities assumed by Ong to exist only within literate cultures, are also identifiable in cultures that rely primarily on oral communication. And large-scale social organization, which supposedly required a “literate man,” was achieved many times over by the ancient Egyptians without the use of a phonic alphabet or widespread literacy.

But Sterne is not out to completely dismiss Ong and McLuhan; instead Sterne is encouraging us to follow their lead and keep seeking out a better understanding of media based on the most current information:

These authors asked the right questions for their moments, but our moment is not theirs, and our world is not their world. We can honour their spirit by re-asking the central questions in their work and following them through to new conclusions (222).

May we endeavor to do so.

Flickering Pixels (A Review)

It’s always hard for academics to review books that are essentially popularizations of ideas originally generated by scholars in their field. On the one hand, it is exciting to see the general public, and especially the more progressive part of the evangelical church, finally engaging with ideas that these scholars have spent the better part of their careers developing and honing. But on the other hand, popularizations are a bit like translations; if they are not done well, the richness and depth of those ideas can be lost in an effort to make them more “accessible” to a general audience. Popularizations of a single scholar’s ideas also tend to leave out the larger conversation that took place in response to those ideas, including the insightful and helpful critiques that have been made in more recent years.

But in many ways, scholars have nobody to blame for this but themselves. Too often, academics fail to engage the wider culture by popularizing their own work, preferring instead to engage esoteric conversations that only a few dozen people in the world can actually follow, much less care about. There are many reasons for this, some of which include the strange and often counterproductive requirements and incentives that academic institutions place upon their faculty members. But if academics find themselves frustrated by popularizations of their field, their response should not be stinging rebuke born out of a jealousy of the popularizer’s unwarranted fame. Instead, they should lead by example, and write a better one.

In that spirit, I want to congratulate Shane Hipps for his well-done popularization of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas in his book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. But I also want to offer some critique that will hopefully grow into my own popularization of technology studies, a popularization that I hope will be broader, more nuanced, and ultimately more helpful to both Christians and the wider secular culture.

I should start by admitting that making McLuhan accessible is no small feat, so Hipps deserves special accolades in this department. Anyone who has struggled through McLuhan’s writings knows that he can often come across a bit like Yoda—you’re never quite sure if what you just read was academic gibberish from a unstable mind, or pure genius (or perhaps a bit of both). McLuhan also tends to contradict himself; just when you think you understand his theory, he makes a point that seems completely contrary to what he was just saying, but he says it so emphatically that the reader is left assuming that the fault must lie with the reader, not the author.

Hipps does an excellent job decoding McLuhan, and presenting his own take on what McLuhan probably meant. Hipps is a truly gifted communicator, and his book should be readable by just about anyone who can follow a ten-minute sermon on Sunday morning.

Hipps uses a mix of fun pop culture references and appealing personal stories to illuminate McLuhan’s core ideas, as well as those of Neil Postman and Walter Ong, both of whom were highly influenced by McLuhan. My favorite is his use of a scene from the film The Matrix to describe how examining a medium for the first time can awaken you to seeing the world in a new way. Just before Neo awakens into the “real world,” he notices his reflection in a cracked mirror. The mirror then magically reforms, attracting Neo’s attention away from his reflection (the content) and to the mirror itself (the medium). When he touches it, the mirror’s surface seems to act more like mercury than mirrored glass, clinging to his fingers, then his hand, and then engulfing the rest of his body as his consciousness it moved out of The Matrix and back into his own physical body. Here’s the scene:

Unfortunately, Hipps also follows McLuhan down that problematic path of technological determinism. Hipps argues that technologies like the telegraph, telephone, television, and now Internet social media, are so powerful, hit us at such a deep level, that they have deterministic “impacts” on any culture that adopts them. This kind of thinking leads one to wildly overstated historical claims: for example, Hipps (following McLuhan, Ong, and Postman) tries to assert that writing and printing are primarily responsible for individualism, rationality, objectivity, detachment, and critical thinking. He then parrots McLuhan’s argument that photography and television will soon destroy all those capacities and return us to a kind of “tribal” social order.

Technological determinism can be an attractive theory, but the trouble with it is that it just doesn’t square with the historical and sociological research that has been done since McLuhan’s time. When McLuhan wrote his most influential works in the 1960s, the history of technology was still dominated by “hero inventor” stories, the kind of stories that you probably heard when you were in elementary school. These stories portrayed people like Watt, Evans, Edison, and Morse as geniuses who struggled to unleash their brilliant creations upon an appreciative but passive public. These inventions, the stories go, then had massive and unstoppable “impacts” on society that led us to where we are today. These kinds of stories tended to support McLuhan’s grandiose claims, and they mirrored the ideology of “progress” that was popular at the time.

But starting in the 1980s, historians and sociologists began reevaluating these historical cases and found that they were in fact far more messy and contingent than previously reported. As those scholars started to examine technological innovation and adoption in other cultures, they also quickly discovered that the same basic technology didn’t always produce the same cultural changes. Different cultures made different decisions in how these technologies would be structured, operated, and regulated, and those choices seemed to reflect each culture’s pre-existing social values. Once adopted, those technologies did often reshape the culture’s values in return, but not in deterministic or even consistent ways.

Technological determinism also misses the rather important role that users play during the adoption of new devices. As I have argued before, we should not assume that a particular technology has one essential purpose, or only one possible pattern of use. Humans are fantastically creative, and they often play an important role in determining what a new device actually is and what it is good for.

Today, historians of technology teach that technological determinism is half right—new technologies, and especially new communication media, do seem to enable large scale changes to the social order, but those changes are never solely determined by the properties of the technology itself. Social changes are always highly contingent on a number of factors, technology being an important one, but still only one of many.

So while Hipps’s book offers a very readable popularization of McLuhan’s ideas, I have to ask the question, are McLuhan’s ideas, presented without any reference to the critique they have engendered since the 1960s, really a benefit to the church today? McLuhan can certainly help us start to think about media more critically, but if we don’t also take into account the more recent scholarship that challenges and corrects some of his ideas, we run the risk not only of heading down problematic roads, but also of sounding out-of-date and out-of-touch with the wider secular society.

New Study on Teen “Sexting”

I apologize for the rather long gaps between posts of late, but I’ve been finishing up teaching a new course, so I haven’t had much time to write. I will resume weekly posts next week, but in the meantime, I thought I would briefly comment on a relevant news story I saw earlier this week.

The article described a new study, that found that “sexting” (sending sexually-explicit photos of one’s self via photo messaging) amongst teens is probably much less prevalent than earlier reports would have led us to believe. This new study found that only 1% of teens reported that they had sent such an image, down from the almost 20% claimed in earlier reports.

Interestingly, this fall in the reported rate was probably not due to any actual change in teen behavior, but was instead due to a more specific definition of sexting used by the researchers. Previous studies had either simply used the neologism itself, or vaguely defined it as sending “nude or semi-nude photos.” The researchers from the new study were more explicit, asking whether teens had photographed particular parts of their bodies. The new study concluded that teens tend to have a much broader, and perhaps more innocent, definition of sexting than adults do (e.g., sending photos of themselves in skimpy bathing suits or underwear). This broader definition tended to inflate the results found in previous studies.

I found this article particularly interesting because it highlights the ways in which teens and adults think differently about these topics. We need to make sure that when we discuss a topic like sexting that we dig into how teens actually define that word for themselves, and avoid projecting an adult sensibility onto the situation.

To be clear, I’m not saying that parents don’t need to be concerned about this at all, but perhaps a calm, frank conversation with our children about what is appropriate and not appropriate to send or post online would be more effective than a more panicked response.

Updated: Rosie’s comment below reminded me of this PSA that I saw once that might be helpful when broaching the subject with your kids: