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Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Jonah Goldberg's New Book

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Now, Ong's father and his father's family were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). Their family ancestors left East Anglia on the same ship that brought Roger Williams to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631.

Harvard College was founded by WASPs in 1636. The curriculum of Harvard College in the seventeenth century was based on teaching the logic of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572) -- as was the curriculum of Cambridge University in East Anglia.

Ong's massively researched doctoral dissertation was a study of Ramus' work in the context of the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic). His dissertation, slightly revised, was published in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958. For a critique of certain aspects of Ong's study of Peter Ramus (1515-1572) and Ramism, see Peter Mack's book Renaissance Argument: Valla and Agricola in the Traditions of Rhetoric and Dialectic (Brill, 1993, pages 334-355).

Historically, WASPs, and former Protestants, dominated the prestige culture in American culture both before and after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Revolutionary War -- up to relatively recent times. See Robert C. Christopher's book Crashing the Gates: The De-WASPing of America's Power Elite (Simon and Schuster, 1989).

Just as the Jim Crow laws and customs of the past are now part of history, so too the WASP dominance of the American power elite in the past is now part of history. However, just as the passing of the Jim Crow era into history does not mean that all forms of racism have been eliminated, so too the passing of the WASP-dominated era of the American power elite does not mean that all problems involving the American power elite have been eliminated.

But Christopher's detailing of the de-WASPing of the American power elite should lead us to expect that various special-interest groups such as people of color and white women will continue to jockey for position in the emerging new power elite. This is what so-called identity politics is all about. Naturally, other special-interest groups will also continue to jockey for their share of the power pie, figuratively speaking. But the re-WASPing of the American power elite seems unlikely.

Now, the Canadian Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943) responded positively to certain aspects of Ong's account of our Western cultural history and amplified them with his own examples in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962). Among others thing, McLuhan frames his overall argument as an alarmist jeremiad. He is alarmed at the possibility that the contemporary communications media that accentuate sound will produce what he refers to as retribalization. For McLuhan, tribalization represents pre-alphabetic cultures, including pre-historic cultures. For McLuhan, detribalization involves phonetic alphabetic writing. But couldn't we organize resistance to the alleged threat of retribalization? Or is it the case that the impact of the communications media that accentuate sound so powerful that we cannot possibly resist retribalization?

On the technophobe/technophile spectrum with a mid-point, McLuhan would be on the technophobe side of the mid-point.

However that may be, Jonah Goldberg notes (page 336) that the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) published an article titled "The Return to Tribalism" in the Catholic Mind, volume 60 (January 1962): pages 5-12; reprinted in the book Bridging the Sacred and the Secular: Selected Writings of John Courtney Murray, edited by J. Leon Hooper (Georgetown University Press, 1994, pages 147-156). According to Jonah Goldberg, Murray warned ominously of the growing number of so-called idiots -- in the primitive Greek usage of the term. "To the Greeks, the idiot was the private individual who 'does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city'" (page 336).

Now, even though Ong was positively impressed with McLuhan's 1962 book in certain ways, Ong eventually claimed that the contemporary communications media that accentuate sound do NOT represent the rebirth of pre-literate orality, but rather a new kind of orality -- which he famously refers to as secondary orality, as distinct from the primary orality of pre-literate cultures. As baseball announcers like to say, secondary orality is a whole new ballgame. However, the whole new ballgame engendered by secondary orality in Western culture over the last half century or so is still unfolding.

Both Ong and McLuhan see the Gutenberg printing that emerged in the mid-1450s as the technological game changer in our Western cultural history. It helped usher in the era of modern science, modern capitalism, modern democracy, the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic Movement in philosophy and the arts.

Ong discusses the Romantic Movement in imaginative literature in his book Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (1971, pages vii, 3, 8, 14, 17, 19-21, 255-256, 264, 276-283, 294, 295-295, 323-326, and 332), mentioned above.

Ong also discusses Romanticism in imaginative literature in his succinct encyclopedia entry "Classic and Romantic" in the book The Concise Encyclopedia of English and American Poets and Poetry, edited by Stephen spender and Donald Hall (Hawthorn Books, 1963, pages 78-80).

I mention Ong's discussions of Romanticism because Jonah Goldberg discusses Romanticism in his chapter "Pop Culture Politics: Godzilla, Rock & Roll, and the Romantic Spirit" (pages 237-261) -- and elsewhere (see esp. pages 29 and 139; see the index for further references). In effect, he works with the contrast affective versus cognitive. He aligns the Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason) with the cognitive polarity -- which is fine with me. He then aligns the Romantic Spirit with the affective polarity, but he tends to see the affective polarity as problematic, to say that least. No doubt the affective dimension of life can become problematic.

Years ago, both Ong and McLuhan took popular culture seriously enough to discuss it. For example, Ong published the article "The Comics and the Super State: Glimpses Down the Back Alley's of the Mind" in the Arizona Quarterly, volume 1, number 3 (Autumn 1945): pages 34-48.

McLuhan published the book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard, 1951). Ong reviewed McLuhan's book in "The Mechanical Bride: Christen the Folklore of Industrial Man" in the now-defunct journal Social Order (Saint Louis University), volume 2, number 2 (February 1952): pages 79-85.

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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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