Saturday, October 29, 2011

Orality and Literacy

I briefly mentioned in my previous post the differences between the desert religions that came out of the Middle East and the religions of lush, fertile India. Thanks to a book I'm reading currently, Orality And Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, by Walter J Ong, here's another instance of such a split. This split in cosmologies depends on writing, which is what the book is about: how moving from oral culture to a culture that uses and progressively interiorizes writing has also progressively changed how we experience the world.

A major idea in the book is that sound, unlike other senses, exists only as it is going out of existence. His example is, as I say the word existence, by the time I get to "-tence" the "exist-" is gone-- sound is an event. Writing turns a word into an object, visible and immobile on the page, while the original spoken word is a happening, a movement of air, uniquely ephemeral. You can see a violin, touch it, smell it, taste it (weird), and it will always be there for you to do so; but to hear it, it has to be played, and you can't play all the notes at once. Sound is not static, ever; it is always linked to movement and change.

The author gives another example, about how primitives consider that words have power; they are magical in that way. This makes sense since sound, being an event, requires power: you can look at a buffalo, dead or alive, but if you hear a buffalo, you know it's alive and you'd better look out. Sound is sounding, he says, requires energy to occur: power. So far he hasn't talked much about religious views and how they have been affected by this shift, but they would seemingly run quite deep. It's hard for us who are deep in a writing culture to understand the world as a nonliterate oral culture sees it. You'd really need to read the book, he gives so many instances and areas that are different; I really should be taking notes. But when you consider the differences between animist, shamanistic "religions" and your text-based religions (which includes the Judeo-Christain-Islamic, as well as Hindu-Buddhist, and to a degree Chinese religions), and apply some of the points Ong is making in this book, it's mind blowing.

Language is central to humanity. It is probably the most important basis for our lives, personally and socially, it's how we understand the world, and possibly the thing that most separates us from the animals. Obviously sight is a vital sense, but words (and thus thoughts) are sound-based originally. Even today, we speak years before we read and write. So think of how sound places you in your universe. Sound comes from all directions, sight only in front, and a bit from the sides, fuzzily. As Ong says, vision is divisive, in its ultimate it is clear and distinct. Sound, however, in its ultimate is harmony, unifying. Ong writes that sound was thus centering, and oral man knew himself as the center of the world, umbilicus mundi, and only after we became used to visual representations of language, and came to think of the world not as all around us but as laid out before us, as on a map, did we begin to become divorced from the world.

I posit that this is the basis of the salvation-orientation in our text based religions, be it salvation from evil, the Devil, Hell, samsara, or disharmony. Animistic religions are not concerned with that and often don't seem understand the friendly missionaries' concern.
A sound-dominated verbal economy is consonant with aggregative (harmonizing) tendencies rather than with analytic, dissective tendencies (which would come with the inscribed, visualized world: vision is a dissecting sense). It is consonant also with the conservative holism (the homeostatic present that must be kept intact), with situational thinking (again holistic, with human action at the center), rather than abstract thinking, with a certain humanistic organization of knowledge around the actions of human and anthromorphic beings, interiorized persons, rather than around impersonal things. (p. 73-4)
If there is no division away from the whole, from the "spirits," then there is no need for salvation, for religion, a word with means basically "to retie" in the sense of reunion. An animist lives in the center of a world that is fundamentally alive. It's also interesting to think about how shamans and animist societies use drumming and chanting to inspire trances or soul flights, and even in the Bible, where it says "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God... Read from the perspective of a still largely oral culture, only superficially influenced by writing, that can take on a new meaning (actually, reading the Gospel of John from a mystical or Eastern, rather than literal, perspective gives huge depth to it). You see this even in the major meditation techniques; one is "watching" the breath, but another huge one is sound, simply hearing without comment or analysis of what is heard. Chanting, gongs and bells still remain, and liturgical music in many religions is vital.

In a way, this book is sort of the flip-side to One Square Inch Of Silence, in that it is giving me a whole new way of thinking about the world, again through sound, in this case not the pure lack of it, but the way it was pushed into a sort of second-class citizenship compared to vision. I'm only half done with this book but can't recommend it enough; it's very scholarly and almost text-book like, with lots of citations and references and scholastic phrasing, and it starts a bit slow;but stick with it, it's worth it, at least if you are into widening your perspectives and understanding. It's a lot of fun to ponder the implications, what life would be like if writing wasn't in the picture.


  1. I'm adding this book on my Amazon wish list, along with the Tibetan singing bowl I am craving.

  2. I'd like to read that book too.

    One thing I do to make the words come more alive, is I often read them out loud. Actually this is how I compose most of my posts, I read what I write out loud, trying to recreate a normal conversational flow; I don't always succeed, mostly if I'm in a hurry or less focused, but this is something I often do.

    I think of the written word as serving a type of memory function; which often becomes a substitute for using your own memory. If you memorize a story, and pass it along as an oral tradition, not writing it down, but verbalizing it nonetheless, how do you suppose that differs from reading the same story out a book?

    I suppose the idea is that perhaps the stories would be different; that as soon as you write something down, it alters your perception of events, or your retelling them. Maybe. Either way, the written word is a significant aid to memory; or is it? I wrote about this topic before, on a deleted blog, I'll have to try and find it, it was relevant to this discussion.

    But Isn't that ironic, I wrote about it years ago, and quoted some famous philosopher on the topic, but I can't remember it exactly. A perfect example of how the written word can become a substitute for memory, and a substitute for thinking. Kind of like putting your trust in a spell checker, that indicates a word is wrong, and changing it even though you know it was right.

  3. Cym, Plato felt the same way about writing, thought it would ruin memory.

    Also, studies with audiotapes show that oral cultures cannot acheive verbatim recitations, even when they swear that it's the exact same. And, reading used to always be aloud, and a communal thing. One person read and others listened; silent reading came much later as part of the interiorization process.

    The story is the same, overall. But the idea of language changes from oral to visual. Oral people know nothing of "looking up" a word or reference, for example. The think in quantitatively and qualitatively different ways, which Ong discusses. I dunno, this book is extremely fascinating to me, and I can't recommend it enough.

  4. The relationship of oral and visual is interesting in study of Chinese character development and spoken Chinese dialects. People who can't understand what is said, can understand the written character (if they are literate)...which ultimately was picture-based.