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

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Overall, I prefer Ong's extrapolations concerning the Romantic Spirit over Jonah Goldberg's. Nevertheless, I should point out here that Jonah Goldberg's view of the Romantic Spirit resembles Steven Pinker's view of Romanticism in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018). Their two books have certain other resemblances as well. Jonah Goldberg discusses Pinker in passing (pages 28, 30, 130, and 270).

Now, Ong sees the critical mass of contemporary communications media that accentuate sound as a game changer, but NOT in the sense of promoting retribalization, as McLuhan claims. In terms of the affective versus cognitive contrast, the communications media that accentuate sound resonate deeply in the human psyche on the cognitive level. However, unlike Jonah Goldberg, Ong does not necessarily agree that this deep affective resonance is problematic. For Ong, the affective resonance of secondary orality could potentially promote psycho-spiritual renewal, which is more deeply affective than cognitive.

For bibliographic information about Ong's 400 or so publications, see Thomas M. Walsh's "Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006" in the book Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J., edited by Sara van den Berg and Walsh (Hampton Press, 2011, pages 185-245).


Now, if it were the case that the contemporary communications media that accentuate sound would lead to the retribalization of the West, as McLuhan claims, then we would have sufficient reason to see the use of the communications media that accentuate sound as representing the suicide of the West. In addition, if it were the case that the contemporary communications media that accentuate sound are leading us into retribalization, then the instances of supposed tribalism that Jonah Goldberg discusses could be understood as examples of what McLuhan refers to as retribalization. Or are supposed retribalization and supposed tribalism just alarmist expressions?

But Ong countered McLuhan's claim that the communications media that accentuate sound are going to lead to the retribalization of the West, by claiming instead that they represent a new kind of orality -- something new under the sun, as it were.

Similarly, Ong countered David Riesman's alarmist claim about so-called other-directness in his book The Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, 1950), by claiming instead that being other-directed can be a healthy positive orientation. However, as Riesman operationally describes and explains his terminology, so-called other-directedness represents a noteworthy departure from the kind of inner-directedness he values most highly.

Jesuit spirituality involves cultivating one's inner-directedness. Ong cultivated his inner-directedness through his practice of Jesuit spirituality. In addition, he discusses key features of the Jesuit practice of discernment and decision making in some of his publications. In short, he practiced inner-directedness, but also discerned other-directedness as a potentially positive orientation to cultivate. Ong's two most relevant publications about Jesuit spirituality are the following pieces:

(1) the article "'A.M.D.G.' [Abbreviation for the Latin Ad majorem Dei gloriam, For the greater glory of God]: Dedication or Directive?" in the now-defunct Jesuit-sponsored journal Review for Religious, volume 11, number 5 (September 15, 1952): pages 257-264; reprinted in Review for Religious, volume 50, number 1 (1991): pages 35-42; reprinted in volume three of Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1995, pages 1-8);

(2) the book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, esp. pages 78-81 and 87), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

The Jesuit practice of discernment of spirits is designed to help us get in touch with our feelings and take them into account as we weigh different possible moral courses of action we may take in our decision-making.

In any event, according to Jonah Goldberg, the contemporary trends named in the subtitle, taken together, are destroying our American experiment in representative democracy, and he is sounding the alarm about them to alert conservatives and conservative-leaning Americans about them. Jonah Goldberg may be right about the threat to our American experiment in representative democracy. But I suspect that he's exaggerating the threat.

For the record, I am not in favor of the tribalism, the populism, the nationalism, and/or the identity politics as Jonah Goldberg himself operationally defines each of these terms. However, I am not as alarmed as he is about these contemporary trends. His use of the term "Rebirth" in his subtitle acknowledges that similar trends have emerged in the past in American history, but without destroying our American experiment in representative democracy.

For the sake of discussion, let's consider what Jonah Goldberg refers to as tribalism. He is clearly referring to the tendency to form a sense of an in-group that could be referred to as a tribe, figuratively speaking. However, figuratively speaking, WASPs formed a sense of an in-group, with various out-groups such as African Americans, Jewish Americans, Catholic Americans, and so on. In short, the formation of in-groups and out-groups in American culture has a long history.

Ong explores the psychodynamics of out-group versus in-group formations in his title essay "The Barbarian Within: Outsiders Inside Society Today" in his book The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (Macmillan, 1962, pages 260-285); reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 277-300).

Independently of Ong, in the book A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 2011), Grace Elizabeth Hale explores just how popular it became for white middle-class Americans to imagine themselves to be what Ong refers to as outsiders inside society today.

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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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