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.

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