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Words fail

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The New York Review of Books is a superb publication.  I therefore cannot describe the way it has glossed over Walter J. Ong as anything but shocking. 

Ong posits that changes in human society and development is explained by the differences in human consciousness in oral and literate cultures.  Current neuroscientific work is finding support of Ong's theory.

Ong may turn out to be the great and definitive thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, the person who laid the foundation for our understanding of our own consciousness in a technologized (and technologizing) world.  And yet The New York Review of Books contains merely two reviews of his substantial body of writing, the most recent dating from 1968.

The 1968 review, of Ong's The Presence of the Word, is by Frank Kermode, a writer I admire; yet Kermode doesn't strike me in this review as being at his best.  (His gratuitous rudeness - "If one calls the style of [Ong's essays] highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all" - seems out of place, as well as out of character.)

The crux of Kermode's critique is that Ong's study of the impact of the transition from orality to literacy on humans and their societies sets forth a defective theory of history.  In Kermode's analysis, Ong's theory fails for two reasons: (1) the evidence supporting the Ong's theory equally supports other theories, and (2) Ong organizes his evidence to promote a Catholic agenda.

Neither objection seems terribly cogent.  Humans and their history are incredibly complicated, and the ambiguity of evidence supporting theories of human history is commonplace: we should neither be surprised, nor dismissive, when evidence can support multiple theories.  

Moreover, The Presence of the Word (which I have not read) collects adaptations of talks Ong gave as part of the Terry Lectures, the purpose of which is "that the Christian spirit may be natured [sic] in the fullest light of the world's knowledge."  That Ong's talks in this context have a theological agenda is therefore no surprise.

Ong's most important well-known (and probably most important) work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, cannot be tarred with this brush.  The book lays bare Ong's passion for understanding based on truth.  The accusation of subordinating his scholarship to a missionary agenda is offensive - and unsupported: Kermode's claim that [get exact quote] "Ong values orality because it is holy" fades in the face of Ong's numerous assertions in Orality and Literacy that

without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials . . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.
(p. 14-15.)  Whether Ong fundamentally revised his theories since The Presence of the Word, or whether Kermode simply misconstrues Ong, I cannot say; but that The New York Review hasn't reviewed Orality and Literacy (or any of Ong's prodigious output since 1968) is a lapse.

In our current globalized, post-colonial environment, we reject notions of historical change that rely on racial (and increasingly, religious) superiority.  The reason for that rejection is not ideology: we believe it's true.  Ong - like Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel - offers us a theory of human social development that is race (and religion) neutral - literacy (not race or religion) is the provocateur.  (For Jared Diamond, geography is the culprit.)  No publication purporting to offer an analysis of our times can fail to engage Ong in some capacity.  To ignore Ong is to court irrelevancy.

(Image of Fr. Walter J. Ong from the St. Louis University Walter J. Ong Archives website)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Guns, Germs and Steel category.

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