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Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word

A review of the book by Walter J. Ong


Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, by Walter J. Ong

Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
by Walter J. Ong

Routledge, 1988
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To read through the title of this book is to read through a Chinese written character, as Pound theorized (see Ernest Fenollosa’s remarkable little book, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry from City Lights Press and you will understand) and to be able to find the ur-pictograph and the character’s actual meaning -- even though you could read no Chinese at all! (His lab rat was sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, who, alas, died in the trenches of World War I before his innate Chinese skills could be tested. Which didn’t stop Pound from going ahead and translating the Confucian Odes, of course -- you can read his translations in Shih-ching from Harvard University Press.)

The partner of Literacy is generally thought of as Illiteracy, and that bookcentric weltgeist is what Ong lays open. For him, the Oral Tradition -- which is still the most prevalent culture in the world today -- is not the Lack of Books, but the Use of Memory in a way we have forgotten. So it is that until the 60s, we had basically “forgotten” that Homer didn’t write The Iliad and The Odyssey -- he spoke them. A lot of these books’ power is derived from the spoken language, the cusp before language begat signs for itself that begat the science of the book.

To read Ong’s book -- and every performance poet/spoken word artist/hiphop MC/slammer who wants to understand his/her tradition must read this book -- is to reveal a world behind words that has always been but has never before been recognized. It’s like when the anthropologist Marcel Griaule, after thirteen years studying the sociology of a Dogon tribe, was led to “the blind guy,” Ogotommeli, and discovered the cosmology that was actually behind all of the tribe’s activities.

Ong takes us step-by-step through the centuries of chirography, when books had to be copied by hand, and when their primary use was as a score for people to read to groups. During these centuries, “reading” was an aural, group activity. Ong digs into how moveable type leads to science, abstraction, interiorization, and even to colonization.

Finding the remnants of orality in written literature is fascinating -- the addresses to the “dear Reader” in early novels, examples of frontispieces in 16th century books that break word units and words themselves in crazy, erratic ways because there was no visual sense yet -- meaning had not yet shifted to its “concrete” visualization. The change from Orality to Literacy was nothing less than a shift in consciousness, and Ong reveals this paradigm shift in brilliant, devastating, originality.

If you are looking for the answers to “works on stage not on page”… if you want to understand the roots of spoken poetry in the original mother tongues… if you want to know what an orchestra’s dropping repeats in a Mozart concerto has to do with orality (repetition is a hallmark of orality -- it helps us remember, and what’s the rush, anyhoo?)… if you want to test your mind on a book that literally talks to you, which will gently and humanely bring theory into your practice, READ THIS BOOK.

Robert Pinsky, in his intro to The Sounds of Poetry, tosses out those poets who use drama in their works. This book, Orality & Literacy, not only allows the drama in, but gives the roots of rhythm as pre-science, pre-meter, even pre-meaning.

It’s the perfect gift for the grapholect in your life.

~Bob Holman

Want to read the other books mentioned in this review?

  • The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, by Ernest Fenollosa (City Lights Books, 1986)
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  • Shih-Ching, The Odes of Confucius translated by Ezra Poung (Harvard University Press, 1976)
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  • The Iliad/The Odyssey, translated into English by Robert Fagles (Penguin Books, 1999)
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  • The Iliad, translated into English by Robert Fitzgerald (Anchor reissue, Random House, 1989)
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  • The Odyssey, translated into English by Robert Fitzgerald (Anchor reissue, Random House, 1989)
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  • The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide by Robert Pinsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998)
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