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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/15/15

Sherry Salman's book DREAMS OF TOTALITY is worth engaging with (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Now, my admittedly modest claim to fame is that I am an expert in the thought of the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003). So let me discuss his account of media history.

I should mention three tie-ins.

First, perhaps because Sherry Salman holds a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, she discusses (pages 100-102) Julian Jaynes' book THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND (1976).

In Ong's book ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (1982, pages 29-30), he discusses Jaynes' theory of the bicameral mind in connection with primary orality.

Next, Sherry Salman points out that Frances Yates' book THE ART OF MEMORY (1966) is "a classic study of how people retained vast stores of knowledge before the invention of printing" (page 87, note 6).

In Ong's book RHETORIC, ROMANCE, AND TECHNOLOGY: STUDIES IN THE INTERACTION OF EXPRESSION AND CULTURE (1971, pages 104-112), he has reprinted his 1967 review essay about Yates' book).

Finally, Sherry Salman discusses nostalgia, including malignant nostalgia (pages 3, 41, 101-102, 168n8, 194, 197n4).

In Ong's book INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (1977, page 249, for example), he also discusses nostalgia. Ong's often repeated critique of nostalgia calls attention to what Sherry Salman discusses as malignant nostalgia. Of course Ong does not mean that we should never look back and take stock either of the history of Western culture generally or of our own individual personal history in Western culture. But in the final analysis, he urges us to live in the present time and face the present and the future.

Other tie-ins exist, but these three will suffice for my present purposes.

Now, in the beginning, according to Ong, all of our human ancestors lived in primary oral cultures (i.e., before writing systems). Historically, all primary oral cultures represent the pre-historic paleo-feminine era in the human psyche -- to use Beatrice Bruteau's terminology.

According to Ong, all peoples in primary oral cultures favored aural cognitive processing of sensory information. As a result, they has what Ong styles as world-as-event sense of life. The world-as-event sense of life is characterized by what Beatrice Bruteau refers to as communion consciousness.

One well-known expression of communion consciousness in Western culture is St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of Brother Sun."

For a phenomenological account of the world-as-event sense of life, see David Abram's book THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: PERCEPTION AND LANGUAGE IN A MORE-THAN-HUMAN WORLD (1996).

Historically, the paleo-feminine era in the human psyche eventually was followed in Western culture by the centuries-long ascendancy of the masculine era in the psyche. Feminists tend to refer to the ascendancy of the masculine era in the psyche in Western culture as "patriarchy."

With the late historical development of phonetic alphabetic writing systems, we get the anthology of writings known collectively as the Bible. For Ong, the bible is an anthology of primary oral thought and expression written down.

With the late historical development of vowelized phonetic alphabetic writing in ancient Greece, we get, on the one hand, the eventually writing down of the Homeric epics, the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY, and, on the other hand, the emergence of philosophic thought as exemplified in Plato and Aristotle.

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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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