Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara Van Den Berg on Walter Ong’s Language as Hermeunetic

Language as Hermeneutic

Maddy Adams: You are both professors of English, and this blog is an anthropology blog. Walter Ong’s work has traveled through so many disciplines and departments: communication, rhetoric, linguistic anthropology, English, religion, history, and media studies. Clearly, Ong’s ideas have had far-reaching influence and appeal. Why do you think his work is relevant for so many different disciplines?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Ong once identified his primary academic interest to be the evolution of consciousness out of unconsciousness within the context of 13.5 billion years of cosmic evolution, particularly as related to communications technology. Such a study obviously touches upon many disciplines, and while Ong resisted classification, he did reluctantly agree that his interdisciplinary work might be understood as cultural anthropology.

It is more than coincidence that two of the most seminal founders of “media ecology”—Ong and Marshal McLuhan—both earned Ph. D.s in Renaissance literature.  This gave them a broad sweep not only of eras and events in the material world but also of the “internal history” of Western culture. Ong proposed there were four stages of human communication: primary orality (in which writing is unknown), writing, print, and electronics; what we know, how we know, and how we structure society are influenced by the dominant communications media in a culture. Each communication stage promoted different psychodynamics and different orientations to space and time.  For instance, in his article in American Anthropologist he explained that post-Gutenberg cultures tended to spatialize noetic processes due to visually-based analogues for knowing (“world-as-view”), whereas oral cultures’ valorization of sound promoted a mentality in which words and ideas are happenings (“world-as-event”). Such a thesis invites further investigations in several disciplines.

Maddy Adams: You describe Ong’s notion of “secondary orality” as “the transmission of speech in electronic media; this…secondary version of orality depends on the underlying resources of literacy” (3). Could you talk a little more about this foundational concept? What might a student of linguistic anthropology have to gain from becoming familiar with this term?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: The four stages of media (oral, written, printed, digitized) are not marked by strict boundaries; there is much overlap and interface. For instance, during the Middle Ages’ period of scribal communication there was wide-spread “residual orality,” the persistence of oral habits of mind and communication within a culture in which writing has not been fully interiorized. Distinct from both “primary orality” and “residual orality is “secondary orality,” the re-emergence of many traits of primary orality within electric/electronic cultures.  Secondary orality is dependent upon highly technical print and electronic resources, processes, and habits of mind, for instance in the programmed spontaneity of television shows. The psychodynamics of secondary orality are evident in the politics of the computer age: boasting (“I am the greatest . . .”); flyting–ritualistic insults and epithets that reduce adversaries to caricatures (“Crooked Carl,” “Lying Lily”); and formulaic phrases in which redundancy replaces analysis (“lock her up”). “Fake news” is related to an oral culture’s trait of homeostasis—“remembering” the past in ways that are actually a remodeling of the past to support contemporary needs. Social media such as Twitter resurrect such oral traits but refashions them in the context of highly elaborate communications media. It is important to note, though, that for Ong himself, “secondary orality” was not a fixed but an evolving concept that invites further investigation.

Maddy Adams: You describe Ong’s “lifelong project” (3) as the correction of a fundamental error: that of the uptake of the 16th century thinker Peter Ramus’ dichotomous and concept-oriented pedagogy. What lasting damage did Peter Ramus wreak that Ong wanted to correct? And how might Ong’s attempts to fix this error be instructive to students of linguistic anthropology?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Embedded in the background of many of Ong’s publications is the study of the dialectic between rhetoric and logic from the ancient Greeks to contemporary times. Pivotal was the invention of the printing press, which accelerated the appropriation of mental processes through visual metaphors. The evanescent “word” of oral cultures became in print a physical object locked on a page, and dialogue was replaced by silence and private reflection. Peter Ramus was not a great intellect but he was a tremendous popularizer of spatial analogies for mental processes that implied that words and ideas are commodities that are mechanically transported from one warehouse (human consciousness) to another—conceptions that were extended throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment by thinkers such as Descartes, Bacon, and Locke. In Language as Hermeneutic, Ong casts the dialectic of rhetoric and logic in terms of logos and mythos, digitization and hermeneutics.

Maddy Adams: Walter Ong was a devoted Jesuit. What do you think his faith brought to his work?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Ong insisted that no ethical and competent scholar would abuse the facts, methods, and criteria of his or her discipline in order to confirm or advance one’s religious beliefs. However, after carefully supporting his own analyses and arguments, Ong at times would then make connections or extensions with religious beliefs. He said faith was like leaven: it expands but does not alter the contents or structure of what is leavened.

Ong’s Christian faith was no doubt a factor in his spirit of optimism, which runs contrary to many media theorists who tended toward technophobia. Ong was open to the vision of cosmic evolution advanced by his fellow Jesuit and renowned paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. And the emphasis on “encounter” in Jesuit formation harmonized with Ong’s interest in I-thou communication, communication as communing, and in personalist and existential philosophies. Ong’s investigations on primary orality has informed current Biblical scholarship.

Ong moved effortlessly from studies of the word to studies of the Word, that is to Jesus, the Word of God, as identified in the Gospel of John, but the reader need not accompany him in the transition in order to benefit from Ong’s encyclopedic learning and insights.

Maddy Adams: I’m sure you’ve heard our moment in history described recently as “post truth” (regarding so-called “fake news,” anti-scientism, exaggerated post-modernism, and overall epistemological malaise). What do you think Walter Ong would have said about the state of hermeneutics and digitization in our current moment? Or perhaps about logos and mythos? Was this something that he would have predicted?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Good question. Ong’s work was coming to an end at the time when electronic culture was coming into its own.

Ong was not a cultural determinist. He understood that while all media have their biases, he did not think specific results were inevitable and thus predictable. He believed that it is important to understand the forces operating in and around us so that we can take control of their effects. The truth shall make you free.

Further, digitization itself is a positive and probably necessary force for survival given the complexities of modern life. The threat he saw is the confusion regarding whether we are living in an information age or a communication age. Information can be packed and shipped without any human interaction, but communication for Ong involved conversation, an I-thou sharing of interiors which is irreducible to digitization. As amazing as it has already become, artificial intelligence does not have intentionality, does not have an unconscious, and does not have an active organic memory. Electronic machinery itself is surrounded by mythos but cannot itself encode mythos.

Maddy Adams: On a note similar to the preceding question, why now? What made you decide that this was a good time to posthumously publish this twenty-year-old manuscript?

Sara Van Den Berg and Thomas D. Zlatic: Ong left a massive collection of materials that are now housed in the archives at Saint Louis University. “Language as Hermeneutic” files were among the assortment of thousands of letters, reviews, essays, notes, conferences, records, memorabilia, etc. Thus the existence of the unpublished “Language as Hermeneutic” manuscript was not immediately known. The timing of publication had little to do with current cultural trends. Here was a nearly complete manuscript by Walter Ong, one of the great polymaths of the twentieth century, a manuscript which he suggested might be taken as a synthesis of his life’s work. The twenty-five-year-old manuscript not only helped to place Ong in perspective but also provided observations and critiques that are still relevant today.

Fr. Ong’s manuscript is especially pertinent now because of his comments on electronic communication. I tried to clarify that importance in the introduction to Language as Hermeneutic. Ong’s prescient insights have continued to be relevant to people working in communication theory. The University of Chicago Press recently republished an edition of Ong’s 1982 book, Orality and Literacy, and we believed Language as Hermeneutic was important as Ong’s final step in mapping his work “for the general reader.”



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