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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/23/23

Walter J. Ong's Expansive Relationist Spirit (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) February 23, 2023: The pioneering media ecology theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) is a tough act to follow. However, as a media ecology theorist today, I follow his example by further developing themes in his mature work from the early 1950s onward. In the hope of winning you over to Ong's media ecology theory, I have selected five themes from his 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word in Methuen's New Accents book series in literary studies for attention in my present bibliographic review. In addition, I have appropriated the word relationist for use here from Ong's 1977 statement of what he himself styles as his relationist thesis about the history of the word in Western cultural history (quoted in full and discussed below). In brief, I suggest through my categorized and selectively annotated bibliography below how themes in Ong's work can be further supported and amplified by what I am here styling as the relationist spirit that he himself followed in his mature work from the early 1950s onward - in the hope of converting you to join with me as an Ong follower.

Now, the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and pioneering media ecologist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) published his summative book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word in Methuen's New Accents book series in literary studies in 1982. In 1978, Ong served as the elected president of the Modern Language Association of America (known simply as MLA). His 1982 summative book is his most widely read book -- and his most widely translated book. It has been translated into eleven other languages.

Thomas M. Walsh has compiled a complete bibliography of Ong's 400 or so distinct publications (not counting translations and reprintings as distinct publications) in "Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006" in Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J., edited by Sara van den Berg and Thomas M. Walsh (Hampton Press, 2011, pp. 185-245).

In my book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, 2nd ed. (Hampton Press, 2015), I survey Ong's life and eleven of his books and selected articles. The first edition of my book in 2000 received the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for the Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology from the Media Ecology Association (MEA).

The MEA is a comparatively small professional organization - compared to the MLA. Nevertheless, the field of communication and media studies may be as extensive in American colleges and universities today as the field of literary studies.

Ong is generally acknowledged and honored as a pioneering media ecology theorist by MEA members. MEA members today understandably also see Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943) and Neil Postman (1931-2003; Ph.D. in education, Columbia University, 1958) as pioneering media ecology theorists - along with Ong. No doubt more scholars in the field of communication and media studies in American colleges and universities have read more works by McLuhan and Postman than works by Ong, even though his 1982 summative book has been widely read.

Ong is a Roman Catholic priest - thus far, the only Roman Catholic priest ever elected MLA president. In addition, some of his essays and books focus on religion and religious studies - for example, his beautiful 1967 seminal book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press), the expanded version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University, and his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press), Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

In any event, as a media ecology theorist myself, I have followed Ong's relationist spirit, to the best of my ability, in my own publications, including in the present bibliographic review in which I highlight five themes in Ong's 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. However, despite whatever merit my publications may have, I surely have not exhausted the possibilities of Ong's relationist spirit - which is my rationale for writing the present bibliographic review for your edification in the hope of perhaps converting you to also become another Ong follower - along with me - in following Ong's expansive relationist spirit.

In addition, I should note here Ong's own practice in compiling the "References" in his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, pp. 161-172). In it, Ong lists several books that he does not refer to in the text of his book - books that further develop his theme of the inward turn of consciousness.

Now, in Ong's frequently cited 1975 PMLA article "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction," he astutely discusses how various authors have constructed their fictional audiences. In the present bibliographic review, I assume that you have read Ong's 1982 summative book and that you might be interested in knowing where else in Ong's publications he also discusses each theme and that you also might be interested in knowing where else in works by other authors each theme is discussed - in most cases independently of any acknowledged influence by Ong. In any event, the five themes in Ong's 1982 summative book that I have selected for attention here are the following (with the relevant pages in his 1982 summative book):

(I) Visuality (pp. 117-123)

(II) Orality (pp. 1-77)

(III) Commonplaces and Composing Processes (pp. 108-112)

(IV) Agonistic Structures (pp. 43-45 and 69-71)

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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; 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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