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Monday, 5 May - link

Extratextual Context

Aside from BoingBoing, the New York Times, and Slashdot, I haven't been doing much reading lately. Yesterday I spent the first half of the day writing and editing, and the second two thirds of the day playing a game and taking notes. I've moved pretty far away from books. The last text I finished was Fast Food Nation which I read swiftly, because it was contemporary, journalistic non-fiction. It resembled much of what I was reading online; opinionated reportage on the consumption of popular culture.

walter ongFor the last four weeks I have had another book at my side: Orality and Literacy, by Walter J. Ong. I have a tremendous amount of respect for this text. He studies the effect of writing on human consciousness; how literate societies differ from primarily oral societies; how text has made us think different. I originally read parts of this book in a Ken Gergen class in college. At that time I wondered if the easy textual fluidity encouraged by the internet might cause the development of variant grapholects - that is to say, if we might see that our written consciousness has been made more oral by immediate textual exchange technologies. (Second Orality).

Now I'm reading Ong again, watching to see how he describes and establishes evidence for the character of this oral-to-literate transformation, and wondering where video games fit in with this idea of media technology architecting thought.

Reading the book does take some brain adjustment. The text is dense; I read about half of the paragraphs twice. Some I had to read out loud. Maybe I am already post-literate. Maybe I'm just a busybrain. Anyhow, I'm easily compelled to keep going, because he says things like this:

oral recollection

But even with a listener to stimulate and ground your thought, the bits and pieces of your thoughts cannot be preserved in jotted notes. How could you ever call back to mind what you had so laboriously worked out? The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retriveving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings..., in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterened for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems. (p 34).
text maps to the body
Texts in various scripts around the world are read variously from right to left, or left to right, or top to bottom, or all these ways at once as in boustrophedon writing, but never anywhere, so far as is known, from bottom to top. Texts assimilate utterance to the human body. They introduce a feeling for 'headings' in accumulations of knowledge: 'chapter' derives from the Latin caput meaning head (as of the human body). Page have not only 'heads' but also 'feet,' for footnotes. (p 99)
Text as memory bank, mapped on to the body. In the West, literacy borrowed heavily from rhetoric; oral-delivery held aloft as the paragon of thinking presentation. It was women writers, trained outside of the all boy's club of education for public speaking, who gave us the novel form, when the dialog of text shifts away from the exterior events of men killing armies with jawbones, and towards the interior life of people thinking about the sorts of things you're free to think about when you can order your thoughts as you inscribe them.

Extratextual Context

Extratextual context is missing not only for the readers but also for the writer. Lack of verifiable context is what makes writing normally so much more agonizing an activity than oral presentation to a real audience. "The writer's audience is always a fiction" (Ong 1977). The writer must set up a role in which absent and often unknown readers can cast themselves. Even in writing to a close friend I have to fictionalize a mood for him, to which he is expected to conform. The reader must also fictionalize the writer. When my friend reads my letter, I may be in an entirely different frame of mind from when I wrote it. Indeed, I may very well be dead. For a text to convey its message, it does not matter whether the author is dead or alive. Most books extant today were written by persons now dead. Spoken utterance comes only from the living. (p 101)

He has a remarkable way of looking at textuality and literacy from the outside, as much as you can while being steeped in it, and employing it for communication. This is some of the best reading I've done for my life's work of human communication. I look forward to the last sixty pages! If I can turn my attention away from multiplayer online games.

- A Review of Orality and Literacy by Art Bingham.
- An online reprint of Chapter 4: Writing Restructures Consciousness
- Check out this book on Amazon: with reviews or the version I read.

(Thanks to EthanB for the Ong picture link)

Posted on 5 May 2003 : 00:41 (TrackBack)
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Justin's Links, by Justin Hall.