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Life Arts

The 100th Anniversary of Walter J. Ong's Birth

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Ong's Thought

When Ong was working on his research in the early 1950s, he had a eureka experience -- the light bulb went on, figuratively speaking, after he had read the French philosopher Louis Lavelle's perceptive account of visual versus aural cognitive orientations in his book LA PAROLE ET L'ECRITURE (1942). In Ong's book RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE (1958), mentioned above, Ong gives Lavelle credit "[f]or a discerning and profound treatment of the visual-aural opposition on which the present discussion turns" (page 338, note 54).

Ong worked productively with the visual versus aural contrast not only in his important 1958 book but also in his collection titled THE BARBARIAN WITHIN (1962), mentioned above, and elsewhere as well. Ong basically aligns Western philosophic thought as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle and in the subsequent Western philosophic tradition of thought with visual dominance in cognitive processing. The Catholic theological tradition of thought developed in the Nicene Creed and elsewhere draws on the visualist orientation of thought in Western philosophy.

Despite the fact that the visualist orientation of thought had been around for centuries before the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the 1450s, Ong contends that the Gutenberg printing press helped advance the visualist orientation far beyond its earlier precincts in Western philosophic thought and Catholic theological thought. At times, Ong even refers to the impact of the Gutenberg printing press as producing hypervisualism, as a way to distinguish the new stronger visualist tendencies from the centuries-old visualist tendencies.

To be sure, the centuries-old visualist tendencies had included the quantification of thought in ancient and medieval logic. According to Ong, Ramist logic contributed to the growing quantification of thought at about the time when modern science with its emphasis on careful visual observation and reflection and on quantification of thought was emerging into new prominence with Copernicus and Galileo and others.

In short, with Lavelle's able assistance, Ong worked out a multi-dimensional account of visualist tendencies that includes the spatialization of thought in written form in space (and, later, in printed form in space) and the quantification of thought in formal logic, including of course Ramist logic. In addition, Ong began to adumbrate the contrasting oral-aural sense of life that the visualist sense of life in Western philosophic thought had superceded. The seeds of Ong's thought about the preceding oral-aural sense of life can be found in his book RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE (1958), mentioned above.

However, in his essay "World as View and World as Event" in the journal the AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647, Ong works with the contrast of the world-as-event sense of life versus the world-as-view sense of life. For better or worse, the world-as-view sense of life fosters a certain kind of psychological distance from the immediate flow of our sensory lives. According to Ong's way of thinking, the print culture that emerged as the result of the Gutenberg printing press solidified our Western cultural conditioning toward the world-as-view sense of life. Thus the modern world that emerged in print culture in the West is based on acculturating people in the world-as-view sense of life.

Next, I should draw attention to Ong's work on what he variously terms polemical structures and agonistic structures. In his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (1967, pages 192-286), mentioned above, Ong works with the term polemical structures. However, in his later book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (1981), mentioned above, he prefers to work with the term agonistic structures. The Greek term "polemos" means war, struggle. The Greek term "agon" means contest, struggle. Ong associates strong agonistic tendencies with primary orality and with residual forms of oral cultures, including residually oral ancient and medieval cultures in which the decisive visualist tendencies of Western philosophic thought and Catholic theological thought had grown up alongside strong agonistic tendencies. By contrast, the print culture in which Western modernity emerged historically transformed strong agonistic tendencies into the scientific method of modern science and into the competitive spirit of modern capitalism.

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Next, I should draw attention to Ong's understanding of the inward turn of consciousness. He associates the inward turn of consciousness with the interiorization of literacy and literate modes of thought in Western philosophy as exemplified by Plato and Aristotle. However, as in Ong's understanding of the impact of the Gutenberg printing press and the emergence of print culture, he understands the inward turn of consciousness to accompany the visualist tendencies enhanced in print culture.

Next, I should point out that Ong is known for the hope that he expresses regarding the potential impact of communication media that accentuate sound. In other words, he intimates that the cultural conditioning of print culture will most likely undergo significant permutations under the influence of the communication media that accentuate sound. But he expresses hope about the potential developments. He does not catastrophize about potential developments (to use Albert Ellis's terminology).

I should stress that Ong is examining the infrastructures of Western cultural history that contributed to the historical emergence of modernity in Western culture. Even though he expresses hope about the possible permutations that communication media that accentuate sound, he does not predict that visualist tendencies, for example, will be wiped out and replaced by a renewed world-as-event sense of life. Nor does he predict that the inward turn of consciousness will be wiped out and replaced with a renewed outer-directedness (to use David Riesman's term for the characteristic orientation of the world-as-event sense of life). Indeed, the communication media that accentuate sound have more recently been complemented by personal computers with screens featuring alphabetic writing that accentuate sight. Under the influence of communication media that accentuate sound, something new may be emerging in our contemporary Western culture, Ong suggests in "World as View and World as Event" (1969), mentioned above. However, he stops well short of attempting to describe and characterize what may be emerging. In any event, it does not seem to me that the world-as-view sense of life has been wiped out, or is likely to be wiped out. But it may be opened up to a new sense of flow and change.

Without explicitly adverting to the world-as-view sense of life and the world-as-event sense of life, Ong discusses certain relevant considerations in his later essay titled "Voice and the Opening of Closed Systems" in INTERFACES OF THE WORD (1977, pages 305-341). In his 1977 essay, he works with the contrast of closed-systems thinking versus open-systems thinking. However, these two systems do not exactly characterize either the world-as-event sense of life or the world-as-view sense of life, because in one way or another each of these is characterized by closed-systems thinking, at least in Ong's discussion of these. So if we now return to the possibility that something new may be emerging that is neither the world-as-event sense of life nor the world-as-view sense of life, as Ong himself hints in his 1969 essay, then we should conclude that the something new could be characterized as open-systems thinking.

Nevertheless, even if we were to see the possibility of open-systems thinking emerging more fully at the present time in our cultural history, we should also note that Ong himself holds out in his 1977 essay for holding fast to one's principles. In short, in the name of pursuing open-systems thinking, we should not give way to complete subjectivity and relativism in our thinking, but should hold fast to the hard-won principles of our thinking (e.g., holding a non-materialist philosophic position, instead of holding a materialist philosophic position).

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As Americans, we may hold certain truths to be self-evident, even as we strive to work out the practical implications in our legal and political life together of those truths or principles.

In any event, in my article "The West Versus the Rest: Getting Our Cultural Bearings from Walter J. Ong" in the journal EME: EXPLORATIONS IN MEDIA ECOLOGY, volume 7, number 4 (2008): pages 271-282, I champion Ong as a guide who can help us get our cultural bearings regarding Western culture today in relationship to all the rest of the cultures around the world today. For example, if the American government wants to promote democracy in parts of the world today where democracy has not made inroads, then it might help if more people in the American government were able to understand the historical emergence of American democracy in terms of the infrastructure of contributing cultural conditions that Ong examines.

I have described Ong as a cultural historian and theorist. In the large body of his 400 or so publications, he has worked out a theory of cultural history that takes into account historical developments in communication media. If informed and interested Americans today were to undertake to study Ong's thought in detail, they might find that his perceptive thought changes their own view of events in the world. I have definitely found this to be the case.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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