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orality, literacy and visualisation

When first published in 1982 Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy revealed in detail the profound changes in thinking, personality and social structure which result from cultures developing writing and access to print. For a pioneering study it has aged exceptionally well.

The sort of people who are reading Web sites such as foamy custard are, by definition, highly literate. As a result they have adopted the kinds of abstract conceptual thinking that goes with literacy. Ong's work shows just how much different the world view of non-literate people can be, where 'situational thinking' predominates and the 'abstract' thinking of educated people is largely absent or even alien.

To take just one example, only with the development of the novel in the nineteenth century do crises become 'internalised'. Earlier literature simply does not create this 'psychological depth' to the characters. The unwary 'back project' such psychological 'internalisation' onto much older literature at their peril; an extreme example of inappropriately seeing internalisation of crises long before such internalisation was invented is Sigmund Freud's imaginative exegesis of Greek tragedies such as Oedipus.

Television, although not a 'literate' medium, is produced by people with the abstract thinking that goes with literacy. All mass media, including the Internet, adopt a rhetorical style which is alien to oral cultures. Few societies in the world have limited access to literacy and Ong acknowledges that such 'primary orality' is rapidly dying out. However 'secondary orality' is still characteristic of many developing countries and, indeed, of many subcultures within developed nations. Folklorists interested in the wide range 'contemporary legends' (which include so-called 'friend of a friend tales') recognise that these are neither truly 'literary' (even though such legends often appear in popular newspapers and magazines) nor purely 'oral'.

Orality and Literacy is essential reading for all folklorists and cult studs as it throws into sharp focus the distinction between ways of thinking that are 'natural' for literate people and the remarkably distinct world-views of more-or-less oral cultures and subcultures. However there is another often-overlooked distinction between modern cultures and 'traditional' ones.

Vision is the dominant perception of modern culture. When we say 'I see what you mean' we do not necessarily mean this literally. Yet the dominant aim of rationalism and science is to make things visible – from graphs and flow diagrams through to telescopes, microscopes, X-rays, nuclear magnetic resonance, chromatographs and much, much else. (It is as if the ultimate dream of rationalism is to see all human knowledge laid out, arranged in order – just as a landscape painting presents the scene from an idealised viewpoint; this is not a casual comparison but reveals how the visually-dominated 'metaphor' of 'seeing = understanding' is causal in our culture.)

People who live in dense jungle cannot visualise the space around them. Whereas Westerners might think 'I thought I heard a monkey – Ah, yes! I can see it over there', Amazonians would only believe there was a monkey if they heard the monkey, and would regard a sighting in the same way a Western would respond to the sound alone. For the Amazonians 'hearing is believing', in contrast to the Western 'seeing is believing' (Thorn 1997). The Suya of Brazil use the expression 'it is in my ear' where we would say 'I see what you mean'. Keen hearing is the mark of a "fully socialised individual" and sight is considered Suya people to be anti-social, cultivated only by witches (Classen 1993: 9). Vision is often less important than taste, smell and hearing for the Songhai of western central Africa. Songhai can taste kinship, smell witches, and hear the ancestors (Stoller 1989 :5).

Hearing is fundamental to knowledge for Australian Aborigines in a subtly different way. They only believe the country exists when they could both see it and sing it by chanting the relevant 'Dreaming track' or so-called 'song line'. There must be a mental concept – the words of the song – before the landscape can be said to exist. James Cowan reports being driven along 'Dreaming tracks' accompanied by local guides, who only recognise where they are if they can 'sing up the country'. Bearing in mind that these songs were conceived for travel at walking pace, some virtuosity is needed to recite fast enough to keep up with a fast-moving 4x4 (Cowan 1989).

Modern culture 'takes for granted' the privileging of literacy and vision over orality and more 'immersive' sensory experiences. The world view that goes with literacy is all-too-easy to take for granted. Fortunately Orlaity and Literacy offers an excellent insight into the decidedly different world-views of more-or-less 'traditional' cultures.

bibliographical references

CLASSEN, C., 1993, Worlds of Sense: Exploring the senses in history and across cultures, Routledge.
COWAN, James, 1989, Mysteries of the Dream-Time: The spiritual life of the Australian Aborigines, Prism.
ONG, Walter, J., Orlaity and Literacy, Routledge; reprinted 2002.
STOLLER, P., 1989, The Taste of Ethnographic Things, University of Pennsylvania Press.
THORN, Richard, 1997, 'Hearing is believing', Resonance, 5:2, 11–14.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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