Response to Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong

September 18, 2007

“With the control of information and memory brought about by writing and, more intensely, by print, you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form. The situation has nothing to do with a putative ‘loss of ideals’.” p.70

The weight of this observation is enormous. Most of my life, I have read about the modern tendency in narrative away from what Ong calls the “heavy character.” Most authors and commentators describe this drift as a symptom of the erosion of defined standards of ideal behavior. It is refreshing to hear a very credible explanation for the phenomena that does not color the present as a degraded state of affairs, lacking the purity of the past.

Other concepts and quotes that I latched on to:

“Winged words” as Homer called them (p.76), words that when written down, have the power to be objective and disconnected from physical time and place. A sound exists only as it’s made, while printed words stay in existence always.
“What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.” p.54

I was annoyed by some of the anthropological studies Ong cites in Chapter 3. I found it somewhat abusive of illiterates – particularly the part the study where illiterates were asked to answer SAT-style logic and analogy questions.

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