Friday, May 16, 2008

Orality and Literacy III: Secondary Orality and Ong

In an interesting post on Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick responds to an element in my post Orality and Literacy II: Clarifying the Critique of Dunn by asking the question What is Secondary Orality?. One of the encouraging things about this discussion is that it continues to anticipate things I was hoping to discuss in my current series on Orality and Literacy. See also Loren Rosson's Busybody post Back to Oral Culture II and Judy Redman's useful contribution Orality and Literacy. April helpfully discusses two quite different meanings of "secondary orality" in the scholarship, the one established by Walter Ong, for whom "The electronic age is also an age of 'secondary orality', the orality of telephones, radio, and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence" (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London; New York: Methuen, 1982), 3), and the other one that has become common in Christian origins scholarship in reference to an author's indirect, oral familiarity with a prior text. The latter is particularly associated with Gospel of Thomas scholarship where scholars occasionally appeal to the author's familiarity with the Synoptic Gospels through a process of secondary orality, as opposed to direct literary dependence. In this post, I would like to talk a little about secondary orality in the first of those two senses, the sense established by Ong, and I will go on to discuss the other use of secondary orality in my next post.

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.

5 comments:

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Today, there's also "reality TV," which is not based on a written script. And, in the 40s and 50s, television often aired "live," which permitted improvisation.

I'm beginning to wonder how much interaction did Ong personally have with television and other forms of oral mass media. N.T. Wright is another one I wonder about.

Geoff Hudson said...

I doubt that the human nature of the ancients was much different from that of moderns. It was just that they probably found it much easier to lie, fabricate, conceal, commit any crime under the sun, and say what they liked.

We only have the ancient's texts, not spoken recordings. How can one tell if a written text is the product of so-called primary orality or simply the original reporting of an author? How do we know if it has been changed in oral transmission (so-called secondary transmission), or if it has been changed deliberately, for example with intent to dissemble? Given the reliability of human nature, I somehow think it best to ignore what appears to be the highly speculative psuedo science of orality, and try to understand the logical structures texts and the author's motivations for writing them. For example Mark, you have pointed out in your recent Oxford paper that Mk. 1:2,3 is a conflation of three Old Testament texts, but you made no attempt to explain why the writer should have combined them. Whether or not the writer was guided to do so orally is immaterial. Was Mk. 1:2,3 in fact, a secondary text composed with deliberation? Matthew didn't seem to be too happy with some of it, at least where it was in Mark.

Geoff Hudson said...

Similarly, in Mk.11.17, Mark is up to his tricks of conflating old testament scriptures. Was this a case of two for the price of one original (instead of three for the price of one original, as in Mk.1.2,3)? If one knew the original of Mk.11.17, one might be a step closer to understanding why Matthew, who knew Mark's source, omitted the phrase "for all nations" in Mt.21.13.

Geoff Hudson said...

So if the writer of Mark's source was reporting what the prophet spoke, is it most likely that he would have reported the quotation of one scripture in Mk.1.2,3 and one in Mk.11.17? Would the prophet speaking extemporarily have had the time and forethought to have conflated the three OT references of Mk.1.2,3 and the two OT references of Mk.11.17? I think the answer to the first question is yes. As for the conflations, I think these would be far too complicated to recall and construct impropmtu. May be orality is not such a pseudo science after all.

Geoff Hudson said...

How about reality NT? Wherever the prophet apparently conflates scriptures in reported speech, it seems unlikely that those words were spoken in reality. Either something else was said, or, the conflation is part of a larger creative section, such as that on the Signs of the End of the Age which includes Mk.13.24,25 - quotations based on Is.13.10 and Is.34.4.