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Why Americans Should Try to Understand Modernity as Walter Ong Understands It

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 30, 2011: In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962). Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) borrows the basic thesis about Western cultural history and shifts in communication media that his former graduate student and life-long friend Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) works with in Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958). But in addition to quoting Ong extensively, McLuhan amplifies Ong's basic thesis with material of his own choosing. Moreover, McLuhan chooses to present his thought in an experimental way by using boldface captions in different type sizes to signal his various short subsections. Furthermore, he experiments with shifts in tone, perhaps most notably in the captions.

Ong reviewed McLuhan's 1962 book in the Jesuit-sponsored magazine America, volume 107, number 24 (September 15, 1962): pages 743, 747. Ong's review is reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 307-308), which is the version I will cite here for page references.

Toward the end of his review, Ong says, "If the human community is to retain meaningful possession of the knowledge it is accumulating, breakthroughs to syntheses of a new order are absolutely essential. McLuhan aids one such breakthrough into a new interiority, which will have to include studies of communications not merely as an adjunct or sequel to human knowledge, but as this knowledge's form and condition. . . . What further syntheses [beyond McLuhan's] lie ahead remains to be seen. But we shall have to work, as has the author of The Gutenberg Galaxy, to open all the sweeping vistas we can" (page 308).

Ong himself worked to open all the sweeping vistas he could in his own subsequent books and articles.

But we might examine certain points that Ong makes in the quoted sentences by imagining some people playing the role of the devil's advocate and objecting to Ong's claims.

The devil's advocate might say, "No, we do not need breakthroughs to syntheses of a new order. So we do not need McLuhan or Ong to come to our aid."

The devil's advocate might say, "No, we do not need to retain meaningful possession of the knowledge that we are accumulating. Ong's use of the term "meaningful possession' just shows a tendency toward controlling. But we do not need to get our accumulating knowledge under control. We're free spirits, and we don't like control."

The devil's advocate might say, "No, we do not need to study how shifts in communication media have influenced the form and condition of human knowledge. Who cares how shifts in communication media influence the form and condition of human knowledge? We don't."

The devil's advocate might say, "No, we do not need to open up all the sweeping vistas we can. It is far more fun to study individual trees in the forest than it is to try to study the forest as a whole. We're tree huggers (aka specialists). We don't want to see the forest as a whole. We just want to hug our individual trees."

So McLuhan and Ong came to aid us, but the devil's advocates among us turned down their aid.

Not that McLuhan and Ong came to aid us in exactly the same ways. To be sure, each man's thought emerged along a trajectory that was at times parallel to the trajectory of the other man's thought. Certain important claims made by each man are comparable to claims made by the other. As a result, there is admittedly a certain overlap at times in their respective claims. But there are also differences and divergences. In my estimate, Ong left us a legacy of thought that is far more valuable than the legacy of thought that McLuhan left us. Which is not to say that everything Ong said is perfect.

For example, in his book Commonplace Learning: Ramism and Its German Ramifications, 1543-1630 (Oxford University Press, 2007), Howard Hotson has corrected certain misunderstandings that Ong had regarding technical matters in Ramus's thought.

But apart from technical details of Ramus's thought, we might wonder if we should allow Ong to come to our aid and assist us in retaining meaningful possession of the knowledge that we humans are accumulating. The way in which Ong has established this framework for considering his work may be a non-starter for many of us, or at least his wording may be a non-starter. But what if we tried to paraphrase his framework and put his point in different words?

To narrow the scope of my paraphrase, I will refer only to the last half century or so, the time period in which Ong was writing. In the last half century or so, how many authors have written critiques of modernity? Too many to enumerate, eh?

But why is it the case that so many authors who have grown up in and benefited from modernity have felt compelled to write critiques of modernity? After all, the authors are the products and the beneficiaries of modernity. But their spirited critiques of modernity seem to imply that the authors are not comfortable with modernity, as though they want to distance themselves from modernity by writing their critiques of modernity. Does their discomfort with modernity perhaps show a discomfort with themselves, as though the authors are not comfortable with themselves as the products of modernity?

However, it appears to me that modernity is here to stay. It is probably not going to go away anytime soon, regardless of the merits of the critiques of modernity.

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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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We Americans are the products of our cultural cond... by Thomas Farrell on Friday, Jul 1, 2011 at 8:11:28 AM
I wish I lived next door to you.  Your articl... by Richard Girard on Friday, Jul 1, 2011 at 12:03:42 PM
But I submit that consciousness is evolutionary ju... by martin weiss on Sunday, Jul 10, 2011 at 8:28:44 AM