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The Clash of Cultures Is Inevitable, but Violence May Not Be

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) March 7, 2010 The February 22, 2010 NEWSWEEK cover proclaims "How Bin Laden Lost the Clash of Civilizations." Fareed Zakaria claims that Muslim moderation has carried the day against Osama bin Laden's provocations to extremism.

In the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) famously proclaimed his clash-of-civilizations thesis that seemed to be confirmed by the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

I have no opinion to offer regarding Osama bin Laden and his provocations.

But I say that the clash of cultures is here to stay for the foreseeable future. The clash of cultures is between Western modernity, on the one hand, and on the other, all those parts of the world today that are pre-modern to one degree or another. The clashes ineluctably involves cultural and personal discomforts. Whether the clashes will involve violence or will be endured with non-violence remains to be seen.

As the work of Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) shows, modernity that emerged in Western culture under the influence of the Gutenberg movable printing press theat emerged in the 1450s in short, under the influence of print culture.

Without ever going so far as to claim to have provided an exhaustive and complete account of print culture in the West, Ong has extensively discussed nine factors that contributed in one way or another to the emergence of print culture and thereby to modernity in the West: (1) orality, (2) literacy, (3) linear thought, as distinct from cyclic thought, (4) agonistic structures, (5) visualist tendencies, (6) the inward turn of consciousness, (7) the quantification of thought in medieval logic, (8) commonplaces and composing practices, and (9) the art of memory and Ramist method. As the mention of medieval logic suggests, all of these different factors had earlier historical developments before the development of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1450s.

In short, modernity is a cultural juggernaut. According to the relationist thesis with which Ong works, probably all major cultural changes in Gutenberg print culture, for example, were connected to changes associated with the Gutenberg printing press, which served to advance and carry forward cultural developments that had originated in ancient and medieval Western culture such as visualist tendencies, the quantification of thought in medieval logic, and the inward turn of consciousness. According to Ong's relationist way of thinking, modern capitalism and the culture of capitalism, modern science and the culture of modern science, and modern democracy in America and the culture of modern democracy in America, the Industrial Revolution and the culture of the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic Movement and the culture of the Romantic Movement emerged historically in Gutenberg print culture. Thus in the final analysis, Ong's impressive body of work from the 1950s onward can be understood as being about Western culture in general and American culture in particular.

More recently, photocopiers and printers attached to computers have vastly expanded the influence of Gutenberg print culture.

Ong sees Western cultural history as unfolding in four historically successive waves:

(1) primary oral culture (i.e., pre-literate culture), which has never come to an end;

(2) manuscript or chirographic culture involving writing with the phonetic alphabetic writing;

(3) print culture with the emergence of the Gutenberg movable printing press in the 1450s; and

(4) secondary oral culture with the rise of communication media that accentuate sound (e.g., television, radio, telephone, sound amplifications systems, sound recordings, including movies with soundtracks).

Because Ong's relationist way of thinking about major cultural developments is not yet a familiar way of thinking for most Americans, I should explain that Ong's relationist way of thinking does not involve straightforward cause-and-effect claims. Relationist claims are usually claims about significant factors and the interaction of those factors with one another. So let me illustrate how this kind of relationist thought works.

(1) No print culture, no modern capitalism as we know it in Western culture.

(2) No print culture, no modern science as we know it in Western culture.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

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; Ph.D.in 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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