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Life Arts    H2'ed 11/3/20

Political Authority Comes from the Bottom Up? (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 3, 2020: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). His massively researched doctoral dissertation about the French Renaissance logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572) was published, slightly revised, in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958:

(1) Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason;

(2) Ramus and Talon Inventory, a briefly annotated bibliography of more than 750 volumes (most in Latin) by Ramus, his allies, and his critics that Ong tracked down in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe (with the financial assistance of two Guggenheim fellowships).

Because of the influence Ramus had in certain Protestant circles on the understanding of the orientation and domain of the verbal arts of rhetoric and logic (also known as dialectic), Ong traces the aural-to-visual shift in logic and rhetoric from the time of Aristotle down to Ramus and beyond (see the index in Ong's book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue for specific pages references to the aural-to-visual shift).

The aural-to-visual shift in ancient Greek culture began with the impact of the vowelized phonetic alphabetic Greek writing system, perhaps most notably exemplified in Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's writings about formal logic.

However, in Ong's account of Ramus, he stresses how the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-1450s contributed to the influence of Ramus' printed books, further accentuating the aural-to-visual shift in the human sensorium (in Ong's terminology) in Western culture from what it had been for centuries in ancient and medieval manuscript culture. The emergence of the Gutenberg printing press also contributed to the unprecedented expansion of formal education in both Protestant and Catholic circles in Europe and elsewhere, including New England and other North American English colonies. In addition, the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press and the expansion of literacy contributed to popular Protestant translations of the Bible into vernacular languages such as English and German. Today in contemporary Western culture, screens of various sorts have become ubiquitous in our lives, further accentuating the aural-to-visual shift in the human sensorium (in Ong's terminology) in Western culture from what it had been for centuries in modern print culture.

For a reader friendly account of Ong's philosophical thought in his 1958 book about Ramus and Ramism, see my lengthy OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought" (dated September 20, 2020):

Click Here

But are there also at work in contemporary Western culture today countervailing oral-aural influences? Ong certainly thinks there are, as he explains in the following three books:

(1) The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (Macmillan, 1962);

(2) In the Human Grain: Further Explorations of Contemporary Culture (Macmillan, 1967);

(3) The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University (see the index for specific references to Ong's use of the term sensorium).

Now, the aural-to-visual shift that Ong discusses also took place initially in ancient Hebrew culture when previously orally transmitted stories, songs (such as the book of Psalms), and sayings (such as the book of Proverbs) were written down in the phonetic alphabetic writing system of the ancient Jews (= sight). Over time, those texts were themselves gathered together in what eventually emerged as anthologies of texts - the most famous of which is known as the Five Books of Moses. But the celebrated anthology of anthologies is known today as the Hebrew Bible - in which what is known in literary studies as intertextuality abounds - gloriously!

This written (= sight) intertextuality can be likened to its oral counterpart in oral tradition (= sound), in which the oft-repeated oral counterparts are referred to as formulas, formulaic elements, and themes by Albert B. Lord in his book The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960) - a work that Ong never tired of referring to.

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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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