Walter J. Ong

I just read “Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought” for an upcoming rhetoric class at ODU, and thought it was a great essay. Through a framework of considering writing as a technological innovation (of the past) in term of a modern innovation (computers and associated literacy issues), Ong catalogues some of the innovative aspects of writing compared to oral tradition.

Here’s a link to another recent blog post on Ong’s work, from the Ravenous Language blog). The post hits most of the points, and there’s a link to a PDF of the essay.

The arguments he puts forward support my own feelings that written words (generally, in my case, print journalism and essay) are a more specific form of communication that rely upon their own precision to persuade. One can make an imprecise oral argument and persuade, as political rhetoric delivered amid symbolism/symbolic visual and audio cues often does, if only in the moment. From Ong:

By distancing the word from the plenum of existence, from a holistic context made up mostly of non-verbal elements, writing enforces verbal precision of a sort unavailable in oral cultures. Context always controls the meaning of a word. In oral utterance, the context always includes much more than words, so that less of the total, precise meaning conveyed by the words need rest in the words themselves.

Consider that in terms of how a print news story, supported by specific facts and quotes, is delivered (via online or periodical) and processed (by the viewer) compared to how the same story is delivered and processed by cable or local TV news to the viewer. The factual specifics are perhaps less important than is the presentation of specifics. TV news, generally, is delivered in a compressed timeframe and is reliant upon symbols/images/ambient noise as much as words, and most words are spoken rather than written.

From Ong:

Thus in a primary oral culture, where all verbalization is oral, utterances are always given their greater precision by nonverbal elements, which form the infrastructure of the oral utterance, giving it its fuller, situation meaning. Not so much depends on the words themselves. … (T)exts force words to bear more weight …

Tougher to obscure meaning, logic and purpose in writing.

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