ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 45, November 1999



Phillip H. Gochenour

Assessing Ong






_Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts: Essays on the Thought of Walter Ong_

Edited by Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Hoogestraat

Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1999

ISBN: 1-57591-009-8

247 pp.


I was first exposed to the work of Walter Ong several years ago, while attending a seminar led by Friederich Kittler at Humboldt Universitaet in Berlin. It may seem odd that I had to travel to a German seminar room to learn about an English-speaking Jesuit priest, but that is an accurate reflection of the reception afforded to Ong's work among those who share his language. Although he treads much of the same philosophical ground as his former colleague at St Louis University, Marshall McLuhan, and asserts a relation between modes of media and styles of consciousness, Ong does not seem to enjoy the same currency among American media theorists as his more skillfully self-promoting colleague. Perhaps this is because his work is not as easily reduced to catchphrases like 'The Medium is the Message', but it may also be because the basic theoretical premise of Ong's major work, _Orality and Literacy_, must endure a considerable challenge from poststructuralist criticism in general, and from Derrida and _On Grammatology_ in particular. These are issues taken up by at least two essays in the latest collection of essays on Ong's work, _Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts: Essays on the Thought of Walter Ong_, edited by Dennis L. Weeks and Jane Hoogestraat, and while any attention paid Ong's work from his American colleagues must be welcomed, it remains unclear, after reading these essays, whether the problems facing those who use Ong's schema to explain aspects of social change are effectively solved, or if Ong's thought has truly advanced to the next rank, alongside that of McLuhan's.


_Time, Memory, and the Verbal Arts_ is divided into three sections: an Introduction; a set of four essays collected under the heading 'The Historical and Continuing Relevance of Ong's Thought'; and a second set of seven essays collected under the heading of 'Ongian Readings'. The Introduction attempts to lay out a basic schema of Ong's thought, and to give an overview of the essays in the two major sections -- no surprises here. What is odd, however, is that for a work that is attempting to give an overview of Ong's thought and relate it to a number of contemporary critical movements, and that, in the words of the editors, 'seeks to attract as wide a spectrum of readers as possible', there is no biographical information on Ong whatsoever. Here the editors seem to have chosen to follow the New Critical path that Ong himself first followed as a critic, but one is left with very little feeling for what is at stake in all of this for Ong, or what may have led him from one intellectual path to another. This omission seems even more glaring given the frequent reference in the Introduction to an interview conducted by Weeks with Ong in order to gather information for the Introduction. Compounding this is the extreme paucity of direct quotes from Ong himself -- we get frequent usages such as 'Ong departs from deconstruction, he said in the Weeks interview, because . . .'. Why paraphrase the man, why not instead give us the direct quote and let us examine Ong's statements directly? The effect here is that Ong seems to be someone who must be interpreted for us, or, more disturbingly, whose direct statements cannot bear scrutiny.


Also odd in the Introduction, especially given the Derridian criticism that the first two essays attempt to refute, is the rather strong Christian tone that occasionally surfaces. The Introduction concludes with the following statement: 'Ong points out that the present universe, with all its digital communications revolutions, other changes, and its persistent mysteries, is still, for persons of faith, just as much God's world and the subject of God's concern and love as it has always been' (22). Now, it is true that Ong was a Jesuit, and one should eventually expect to find a relation between his work and his faith, but since one of the criticisms of Ong's work is that is creates abstract metaphysical categories that privilege certain groups above others, it does not seem like a good idea to invoke a major metaphysical entity at the conclusion of an introduction on Ong's work. Also, if this is a work designed to appeal to a wide audience, one wonders if that wide audience is supposed to consist primarily of 'persons of faith'. And finally, if this is a work that is supposed to advance Ong's thought along theoretical and philosophical grounds, one also wonders if this is the right note to end the Introduction; it seems rather undermining to say that all theory and philosophy eventually falls by the wayside and is of negligible importance next to God's love and concern.


As I have already mentioned, the first two essays in the first section, 'The Historical and Continuing Relevance of Ong's Thought', attempt to deal with the major theoretical problem posed to Ong's work by deconstruction, and by Derrida in particular. In her essay 'Orality, Literacy, and Print Revisited', Julie Stone Peters opens with Derrida's criticism of Levi-Strauss, and the latter's distinction between primarily oral cultures, which have a 'purer', 'primary' experience of the world, and literate cultures, which have 'fallen' from that pure primary experience through the interposition of writing. As Peters puts it: 'For Derrida the anthropological analysis of the effects that accompany 'literacy' and 'orality' (like the artificial orality/literacy distinction itself) serves classic theology and metaphysics.' (28) Of course, what is good for Levi-Strauss is good for Ong too, and when Ong positions oral cultures as being closer to the 'lifeworld' (as he does in _Orality and Literacy_) he seems to be falling back into the creation of a distinction that serves classic theology, a charge that, again, would be easy to level against him because of his own position as a priest.


Peters's attempt to salvage Ong from Derridian criticism initially begins by focusing on another comment by Derrida, that there is certainly a history of writing 'in the colloquial sense'. From this point, she proceeds to give an excellent historical overview of the various approaches to studying this history of writing and its relation to cultural change, following various anthropological and cultural studies movements from early Soviet linguists such as A. R. Luria, all the way up to such contemporaries as Kittler. Along the way she divides these various movements into 'strong' and 'weak' camps, which, respectively, see significant, global cultural change brought about by the advent of technologies such as writing, and those who distrust such seemingly structuralist approaches and insist on studying cultural change as a local phenomenon brought about by a number of agencies. As someone who has struggled in his own work to come up with a model for understanding the relation of technology and media to cultural shifts, I found this overview to be extremely interesting and useful. However, I am not sure that it finally rescues Ong from Derridian criticism, because it doesn't really settle the main point of dispute between these two camps -- can we talk about 'print', for example, as something that remains an ahistorical entity across cultures, and which brings about identical effects in those cultures where it is introduced? According to Peters, the 'strong' camp would certainly argue yes, while the 'weak' camp would argue that we must look at how print is 'discursively' constructed within the culture; on the one hand, the technology changes culture, while on the other, culture changes technology. At one point, Peters seems to opt for a middle ground between these two camps, when she writes: 'We need both sides of the story: our refiguration of things, but also their refiguration of us.' (43) This would seem to lead to a kind of chicken-and-egg problem, however, that cannot be definitively concluded. Peters seems to employ a kind of academic version of 'I'm rubber, you're glue, what you say bounces off me and sticks to you'. While the proponents of 'weak' models would distrust 'strong' models for their creation of ahistorical metaphysical entities like 'print', Peters argues, these same proponents must themselves create local, fixed, ahistorical entities of their own, such as concrete subjects, in order to make their own analyses work. Without some degree of generalization, Peters argues, analysis of any sort becomes frozen, unable to locate the very units or entities which will be analyzed. In the end, the best we might hope for is some self-consciousness of the entities we create when we undertake analysis.


But how does Ong fare after this discussion? Significantly, for a collection of essays on Ong's thought, Peters never returns to this question. In a much earlier paragraph Peters discusses Ong and the way in which he shares some of Derrida's suspicions about the ways in which various cultures have attempted to position themselves above others, but we are left with no real conclusions about how this lengthy history of cultural studies might enable us to return to Ong's work. Ultimately, whether one adopts a strong or weak model of cultural change seems to be a matter of religious belief, and questions about the validity of one mode of analysis over the other seems to make about as much sense as asking whether Southern Baptists have a more valid world view than Hindus.


The same Derridian spectre haunts the second essay, 'Discoverers of Something New' by co-editor Jane Hoogestraat, but Hoogestraat's strategy is less an attempt at exorcism than one of reconciliation, this time by way of postcolonial theory. Reading in Derrida's critique of Levi-Strauss a concern for the way in which Levi-Strauss even discredits the speech of indigenous peoples as true speech, Hoogestraat points to the way in which Derrida 'problematize[s] the passage from orality to literacy, to argue different, more complex boundaries and openings between the two than Levi-Strauss would allow for' (52). It is in the complexity of the interaction between literate ethnographers and oral cultures, one that often inscribes an absence by the ethnographer on the oral culture, that Hoogestraat sees the need for Ong's concept of orality, which allows for at least a partial recovery of what is lost in the records of colonialist conquerors. Working from an essay by Stephen Tyler, Hoogestraat puts it very simply:


'In certain forms of ethnography . . . a record of an almost purely oral culture survives only as an absence in the written record of an ethnographer. It requires, and I believe Tyler's essay centers on this point, both an understanding of what Ong means by 'orality' and what Derrida means by 'absence' to understand the clash between an oral and a written culture.' (53)


Hoogestraat's strategy, then, is to show that Ong's concept of orality enables us to understand what is absent in the written accounts of Europeans, and that it is absent because literate culture is unable to recognize something different from itself as anything except an absence. This allows us then to repudiate many of Levi-Strauss's claims for indigenous cultures lacking *ecriture*, because we can certainly say that there was indeed a language that structured their social relations -- it merely structured them differently, as Hoogestraat points out by using Stephen Greenblatt's example of the different concepts of property relations that were inherent in the literate culture of Europeans and the oral culture of Native Americans.


Hoogestraat's essay is, in my opinion, a stronger argument for the 'continuing relevance of Ong's thought' not simply because she actually refers to and cites Ong throughout, but because she demonstrates what use Ong's thought can be as a theoretical tool. Instead of getting caught up in problems of theoretical modeling which finally lead one to not know what the solution to the problem might be, Hoogestraat shows how Ong is quite useful: not for solving problems, or providing models, but for showing us where there might be a problem in the first place. Hoogestraat's basic argument would seem to be this: were it not for a conceptual model like Ong's, in which we differentiate between oral and literate cultures, we might not realize in the first place the true nature of the conflict between colonialist and colonized. Also, by providing us with historical examples to consider, she draws out the usefulness of Ong for considering the interaction between cultures at specific historical moments. Ong may not provide the best model for understanding the complexity of those interactions -- Hoogstraat herself offers a critique of what might be called the 'phallocentrism' of Ong's work -- but he does make us realize that we need to consider those interactions on a more complex level. Thus, Hoogestraat very nicely distances Ong from Levi-Strauss, whose view of interactions between cultures could only record the absence of what was indeed most present.


The first two essays in this opening section, then, have a distinct theoretical orientation, which makes it difficult to understand how they relate to the remaining two essays, 'Orality, Literacy, and Dialogue' by Vincent Caseregola, and 'The Bard's Audience is Always More Than a Fiction' by John Miles Foley. In the first essay, Caseregola considers the evolution of the essay as an example of the interaction between oral and literate consciousness, drawing upon the work of both Ong and Bahktin, especially the latter's concept of 'dialogic imagination'. While an interesting examination of the development of the essay, it is hard to see how this essay relates back to the theoretical problems raised by the first two -- it seems more of an Ongian reading of a 'genre' of writing, to use Ceseregola's term, than an examination of Ong's thought in relation to contemporary critical and theoretical problems. The same can be said of Foley's essay, which, in his words, is to work with Ong's notion of the 'communicative responsibilities' of the writer and his/her audience, 'and to understand how it may apply to the kind of verbal artists I will be subsuming under the label bard' (93). Again, while Foley's essay delves into some interesting considerations of the role played by many 'verbal artists' in relation to their audience, and while it is also dependant on Ong's formulations of the oral and literate, it is not at all of a piece with the two essays that opened this section, and seems, again, something that would be more appropriate as an Ongian reading. In short, while the first two essays introduce high theoretical stakes, and place Ong's work in relation to a number of contemporary critical and theoretical problems, the second two fail to follow up on these grounds. In keeping with Ong's concept of 'dialogue', this space may have been more usefully opened to critics of Ong's, who would have at least provided us with some lively discussion that would have opened the door for further consideration of Ong's relevance, or, if the editors had wished to provide a more positive impression, contributions could have been solicited from the numerous critics of prominence, such as Kittler, Greenblatt, or Tyler, who would have no doubt argued quite in depth for the significance of Ong's work. As it is, our appetite is scarcely whetted for serious consideration of the philosophical ramifications of Ong's work (a meal of rather heavy substance) than we are presented, in rather short order, with the dessert. From here out, the continuing relevance of Ong's work will be assumed, rather than debated.


The essays in the third section are brought together under the rubric of 'Ongian Readings'. The seven essays in this section all represent attempts to use an Ongian framework to bring out readings of specific authors (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Dylan Thomas), to examine specific cultural moments and movements, or to relate Ong's work to theories of aesthetics. The essays cover a period ranging from the Classical period up to High Modernism, and represent attempts to use Ong in as wide a field of inquiry as possible.


Of these seven essays, I found the most effective to be those that dealt with those specific historical moments when we could expect to see the sort of literate/oral clash brought up by Hoogestraat, as well as those that attempt to relate Ong's theoretical schema to large-scale historical movements. In his essay on Shakespeare, for example, 'What the King Saw, What the Poet Wrote: Shakespeare Plays Before King James', Alvin Kernan provides a richly drawn historical portrait of the act of royal theater spectatorship, and the struggle by Shakespeare to produce works that contained the energy of oral performance, while also incorporating the intricacies that marked works designed to be read. Similarly, James Andreas, in his essay on Chaucer, 'Lewedly to a Lewed Man Speak: Chaucer's Defense of the Vulgar Tongue', argues for Chaucer's intention to represent 'the interface of dialogue within the living linguistic experience that is speech: the 'vulgar' mother tongue' (151), thus removing from Chaucer any label of being the 'Father' of the English language, in the sense of someone who intended to codify particular linguistic forms. Finally, I would also have to mention Sr Anne Denise Brannen's essay, 'Breaking the Ice: Some Highlights of the History of Humour and Sense of Humour', which traces the evolution of the concept of humor in British aesthetics. In the category of tracing large historical movements, there is Werner Kelber's truly excellent essay 'Incarnations, Rememberances, and Transformations of the Word', which relates, in almost classically Ongian fashion, the evolution of Western philosophy and theology to techniques of recording and memory.


Less effective, in my opinion, are those essays which attempt to analyze a particular author as either oral or literate, such as Thomas Farrel's essay on 'Faulkner and Male Agonism' and George Wieck's essay on Dylan Thomas, 'The Crucial Antithesis: Orality/Literacy Interaction in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas', and those which try to use Ong to either develop or explain aesthetic theory, such as 'The Beautiful and the Merely Pleasing: Love, Art, and 'The Jinnee in the Well-Wrought Urn'' by Patrick Colm Hogan. Simply put, while these essays all provide some interesting insights into their respective subjects, they strike me as being the wrong register for Ongian analysis, which seems much more suited to examining cultural and historical movements than the aesthetics of individual authors. In the case of Kernan's essay on Shakespeare, and Andreas's essay on Chaucer, they are effective in dealing with individual authors in that they are able to relate those authors to specific cultural and historical moments, while in the case of Farrell and Wieck, the analysis focuses much more on the individual psyche of the individual author, and attempts to determine whether or not that psyche might be described as oral or literate. In Wieck's essay on Thomas, for example, he attempts to resolve the 'conflict of opposites' in Thomas's work by 'view[ing] this subject through the lens of oral/literate polarities' (231). Well and good, I would say, if some attempt was made to relate Thomas's work to his being Welsh, and the near-extermination of that language by the force of British written colonialism, but Wieck's analysis seems to rest on Thomas's fascination with the oral word as a kind of romantic entity, while he struggled to discipline his work to written form. In the end, I remain unconvinced of the usefulness of an Ongian schema for approaching the problematic aspects of Thomas's work, and wonder if some other mode of analysis might not be just as effective.


In reading this last set of essays, a number of general criticisms struck me as well. First, there is the rather limited time-frame of these essays: while they progress up to High Modernism with Faulkner and Thomas, they primarily focus on the 18th century and earlier, and there is no attempt to incorporate any more contemporary authors. Also remarkable is the pure canonicity of those authors who are discussed: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Thomas, etc. Given the arguments of Hoogestraat's essay, I would think some of the most fertile ground for Ongian readings would be among those cultures and authors who have experienced the oral/literate clash, and the way in which that clash is reflected in their works: any number of African-American writers, for example, would probably benefit considerably from a detailed Ongian reading (take the work of Toni Morrison, for example, or the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar). And finally, why do all of these essays focus exclusively on literature, and almost universally ignore what Ong calls 'secondary orality', which arises out of the crucible of that first literate/oral clash? It would be a simple thing to argue that we exist, in many ways, in a secondarily oral culture, brought about by the explosion of media technologies -- and secondary orality can easily be seen in such things as the syntax and use of 'smileys' in email, or the development of subcultural jargon. Unfortunately, none of these essays attempts to deal in any way with contemporary culture, the development of new media forms, or the influence of these media on other media, such as literature. As a result, they miss some of the most interesting areas for Ongian analysis.


In conclusion, I would have a hard time recommending this essay collection to my media theory colleagues. First, I think it fails on its own terms, as I don't see how these essays will open up a wider field of Ongian analysis, or demonstrate its effectiveness to a wider audience. If anything, this collection presents Ongian analysis as being ultimately rather conservative, effective perhaps for mining another small nugget from a tapped-out vein, but not very useful for guiding us toward a rich motherlode. Had the editors chosen essays which dealt in more depth with the theoretical problems and complexities of Ong's work, and which demonstrated his usefullness for examining cultural phenomena and movements which might otherwise go unnoticed, I think this collection would have made a substantial contribution to Ongian studies. Given what essays are collected here, however, I think that only individual essays will prove to be of passing interest to scholars of a specific author.


San Francisco, California, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Phillip H. Gochenour, 'Assessing Ong',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 45, November 1999 <>.




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