Walter Ong was prescient in his realization of the emerging importance of secondary orality, something he was already discussing in 1971 (Rhetoric, Romance and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971), Chapter 12, especially 299), but the generation that separates us from Ong's important studies has demonstrated an explosion in secondary orality of the kind that he could hardly have imagined. When Ong conceptualizes secondary orality, his list of electronic devices now naturally looks dated. The following statement is typical:
. . . the 'secondary orality' of present-day high-technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print (Orality and Literacy, 11)"Telephone, radio, television and other electronic devices" -- the computer revolution has hardly dawned. When, twelve years later, Robert Fowler (in the essay mentioned by Loren Rosson) is exploring "How the secondary orality of the electronic age can awaken us to the primary orality of antiquity", his list of what is involved in the discussion of secondary orality includes the following:
However, by means of our computers, telephones, televisions, VCRs, CD players, and tape recorders, hypertext breaks into our cozy study, grabs us by the scruff of the next [sic?], and plunges us full-bore into the advent(ure) of secondary orality.It is interesting to see in this snapshot of a moment in the development of the culture of secondary orality (and Fowler himself is prescient in this fascinating article) that there are items in this list that were absent from Ong's list. And to us, in 2008, Fowler's 1994 list already looks dated. VCRs and tape recorders are already going the way of vinyl before them. One cannot buy cassettes or videos on the High Street any more. Tape is no more. We would now talk about DVDs, DVRs, downloads, blackberries, podcasts, P2P, streaming, etc. It is easy to see that one is living in a revolution when the items in the list are changing so rapidly.
This brings us back to where we began in this series (Orality and Literacy I: Exaggerated contrasts with our culture?) and my claim about Dunn, that he was inclined to underestimate the extent of orality in our culture; he conceptualizes our culture solely in the terms of academic sub-culture of the library, the scholarly monograph and the article. There is nothing surprising here; we speak of what we know. Indeed Ong himself is a case in point. When he discusses television and radio, he begins to think in terms of political figures and their oratory (Orality and Literacy, 136-7). On the only occasion that he specifies a particular radio programme, it is "a recently published series of radio lectures" by Lévi Strauss (Orality and Literacy, 174). Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that Ong thinks in terms of television, radio and electronic devices "that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print" (above, but often repeated). While there is obviously a lot of truth in that, it is worth adding that a huge amount of the content of television, radio, the internet, podcasts is spontaneous and not formally dependent on writing or print. One example among many is the coverage of sport.
It is worth asking ourselves whether, as academics, we are inclined to play down orality in our culture and whether this may lead to exaggerated, even romanticized notions of the primary orality of the past. Once again I would like to repeat that I regard it as essential that the ancient historian attempts to understand the utter difference of the ancient world from ours, and to realize just how difficult it is for us to conceptualize the primary orality of antiquity. But it does not need to be a part of that project to mis-conceptualize contemporary world.