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Free Fall

The Presence of the Word

by Walter J. Ong S.J.
Yale, 360 pp., $6.95

Now that the other eminent Catholic-electronic prophet, Marshall McLuhan, seems to have gone into orbit with his fantasy-probes, we shall all no doubt need to attend more closely to Fr. Ong, who says so many of the same things but appears to say them more judiciously. He is a good typographical man—encyclopaedic, repetitive, and committed to the past, not only as scholar but as theologian. He makes an occasional bow to his cool colleague, whose account of the new oral culture he echoes, but he appears to be of the opinion that if you have a theory you should be willing to defend it and produce evidence; he too says very extraordinary things but assumes that he has to vouch for them, and allow you to agree or disagree. I don’t know what McLuhan would say about the more theological formulations of Ong, but in so far as he spells out the argument about the periodic modification of the sensory apparatus from oral to visual etc., it seems clear that any critique of Ong is substantially one of McLuhan also, a momentous consequence that will be in everybody’s mind as he toils through these pages.

The book began life as the Terry Lectures at Yale, a series founded “to the end that the Christian spirit may be natured in the fullest light of the world’s knowledge,” and one presumes that the lectures lacked something of the sheer density of the book. Certainly it doesn’t suggest oral performance; in fact it is a monument to those methods of information-storing, such as handwriting and printing, which—alas, as some say—replaced the early oral techniques of rhetoric and mnemonic. If one calls the style of the lectures highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all. Like many other aspects of our culture which tend in these discussions to be overlooked, prose style is in some respects an oral fossil; whether you are speaking of the splendid Ciceronian balances of Dr. Johnson or the smart Tacitean curtness of J.F. Kennedy, you always appeal to early oral modes when you talk about prose style: or, in the appropriate language, you refer inevitably to the inveterate orality of learned Latin, and measure a deviation from the informative sequential native jogtrot of printed English. This book has no more style than a printbound Utilitarian tract of the last century, or a printoriented Ph.D. thesis in this:

Undoubtedly, if we consider in these perspectives* the work of an earlier Terry Lecturer, John Dewey, we will find that one facet of his manyfaceted significance is that he climaxed the large-scale movement away from polemic in favor of an irenic approach to learning.

Fr. Ong throws down hundreds of sentences like this one—coils of lecturer’s demotic bruised with learning. They lie on the page like apple parings carelessly dropped, taking what shape chance or grace will give them. Perhaps this is not a matter for complaint; to have everything spelled out with neutral typographical explicitness is to have the chance of replying, in a familiar language, to proposals which appear to be conquering the world without much hindrance from criticism.

What one is criticizing is a theory of history. Characteristically Fr. Ong’s initial insight into its structures derived from a study of the transmutation of Aristotelian logic in the sixteenth century. The innovations of Petrus Ramus, a Huguenot scholar and teacher who lost his life in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, have often been regarded as of revolutionary influence in poetry as well as in education, and they certainly affected the character of theological argument at a time when this seemed important. Ramism is not a philosophy in itself, only a modernization of the old logic; its inventor has been called “the great master of the short cut.” Reducing logic to dialectic, Ramus concentrated on its practical use as a way of finding things out, and as an instrument for the logical correction of one’s adversaries; thus he became the master of Protestant controversy. Since he was a teacher and greatly valued visual aids in the form of charts, Ong found in his work the critical point of change from oral disputation to the print-oriented cult of “the clear and distinct.” In other words, Ramus stands for the supersession of scholastic disputation, which is oral and temporally successive, by a dialectical method which prefers to set out argument spatially, and so destroys its temporal aspect, as print does. And if you meditate on the kind of change this represents, extending your meditation backward from the oralscript writing culture to the more purely oral (preliterate or prealphabetic) cultures of the past, and forward from the purely typographical to the typographical-electronic cultures of the future we now inhabit, you can easily observe that the kind of revolution typified by Ramism is to be found at other critical moments of history. Thus, as oral yields to script, and as type, in our time, yields to oral-electric, with the necessary qualifications and sophistications you can make yourself an inclusive theory.

IF THIS IS A FAIR of how Ong’s theory developed, it seems that any analysis of it will necessarily concern itself with two questions. First a critique of the evidence: do the historical documents genuinely comply with this theory, and not with any theory that contradicts it? Secondly a critique of satisfaction: what is the theory for (is it a means of finding out what is inevitably happening to our sensoria and our history, or is it in any sense apologetic or activist—say, in the sense that Marxism was intended to shorten the birthpangs of history)?

First it must be said that, although he shares with McLuhan a basic typology of explanation, Ong differs considerably in detail, largely because he is more interested in detail, but also because he wants a question-proof system, not merely a suggestive diagram. He can’t, therefore, beg questions, as McLuhan does when he makes script culture much closer to oral than to typographical. McLuhan wants a clear revolutionary situation, the sharpest possible demarcation between preand post-Gutenberg, a collapse into the limitations of a vision-dominated sensory system, a dissociation of sensibility. Ong, though he too thinks of the end of oralism as a kind of Fall, cannot so crudely over-dramatize history. He is always insisting on the overlap of oral and manuscript, oral and manuscript and print, all three of them and electronic-oral. At times the prophets seem to contradict one another: for McLuhan one of the curses of print is that it reduces everything to the visual and successive; for Ong that it destroys oral successiveness and encourages simultaneity and spatial interpretations (“operations with the alphabet imply that words…can somehow be present all at once”). Perhaps this disagreement is caused by radical differences of temperament. Ong, a learned primitivist, looks back to a purely oral society with nostalgia, but sees that such a society must have lacked the relative instantaneity of print; whereas McLuhan, in love with the ideogram, the “inclusive image,” and the much greater instantaneity of electronic communication, sees print as relatively time-bound and defective in instantaneity. Broadly one could say that his criteria derive from a future, Ong’s from a past.

Anyway, this disagreement may be a sign that the documents can be used to support apparently contradictory theories of sensorial revolution. However, Ong, on the whole, feels he has to attend to aspects of history that roughen up the theory; only very occasionally does he use the space-probe method in a McLuhanish way, and even then he builds in so many precautions that the probe never leaves the ground. Why then construct it? Perhaps we have here the hint of an answer to our question, what needs does the theory satisfy? What is it for? One such probe, for which the countdown never reaches zero, is a discussion of the analogies between development of communications media and the psychosexual stages of Freud. The oral in one, we are told, parallels the oral in the other, and print is anal, just as oral-electric is genital. Oral-aural cultures even if, like the Greek and Latin, they had writing, enjoy copia, the free flow of words; writing and print retain them, squeeze them in like a trained sphincter, though print moves on into a transitional phallic intrusiveness. The later electric-oral corresponds to “mature genitality,” social, oriented toward child-rearing. Ong is very uneasy about all this (“there appears no particular reason why the psychological development of an individual human being should provide an exact model for describing the development of the communications media”), and he hedges it about with disabling qualifications: “this kind of selectivity is often more stultifying than illuminating.” McLuhan would not have said that; if the space probe doesn’t work, send up another. That Ong should have said it is illuminating. Against his historian’s judgment he had to get in something that proved the good primitivist position that the new reflective Eden of modern orality is somehow better than the old unreflective one we lost when we began our long exile in the alphabetic wilderness. He wants that to be true, but is rightly unhappy about the proof. Nevertheless he leaves it in.

LET US LOOK at another space probe, this time one that does leave the launchingpad, in what is, to me, both the most astonishing and revealing passage in the book. Indeed, I suspect that readers will find the book pregnant or vacuous in accordance with their reaction to it. It concerns the Incarnation, and the careful divine timing of it. The question is, why did God “enter human history” when he did? The answer is that he did so “at the precise time when psychological structures assured that his entrance would have the greatest opportunity to endure and flower,” that is, when the oral was still dominant but the alphabet existed to give the Word endurance and stability. Moreover the obfuscation of the real (oral) nature of the Word by print was still remote. This makes God sound like J. Walter Thompson, the Incarnation a well-researched Madison Avenue operation. I have very great respect for Fr. Ong, but no idea how he came to write this passage. What it tells us, however, is clear: that historical explanations according to media development, which already have a strongly primitivist tone, are now to be thoroughly reconciled with Christian historiography, partly by a huge pun on the word Logos, which is at once the oral/aural word and the incarnated God. Ong’s habit of interpreting words as carrying primarily the sense of their root etymology is indeed a way of arguing by pun. Logos, no matter what else it means, means primarily the spoken Word; so Christ is oral, adapted to a primarily oral-aural sensory system (“Light of Light” in the Nicene Creed is an early visualist deviation).

This oral primitivism, reinforced by selective semantics, underlies the whole argument about the effects of successive technologies. So does the other kind of selectivity Ong says he feels dubious about. For example: the eighteenth century, standing between feudalism and democracy, neither of which cares much about individual taste, is naturally the period when taste achieved some dominance in the sensory system. The synaesthesia of the symbolistes fits neatly the beginnings of modernism. Yet taste in eighteenth-century aesthetics carries very complex analogical meanings, as anybody familiar with Gombrich’s study of it can see. Furthermore, modern gastronomy, where taste is truly exalted, is a nineteenth-century invention, Again, it is a fact that the synaesthetic interests of the late nineteenth century were anticipated in the eighteenth. If you wanted to, you could make what is virtually the opposite point to Ong’s, without changing his system: you would simply be satisfying different needs. In fact the question as to what one wants to prove, and the question whether the facts as adduced really do fit the proof, can’t be separated. They combine to form another: whether this historical system—early-aural-manuscript-print-late oral—is not of the kind that can simply swallow anything it selects, including contradictions, like Hegel’s Primitive-Classic-Romantic, denaturing fact as it does so.

So as we attend to the question of how the visual succeeds the oral, imposing visual models and perspective, creating private sight-readers and upsetting the Catholic Church, we are increasingly compelled to ask questions about the facts; indeed Fr. Ong very often has to ask them himself. Why was the age after the invention of print so oral? It revived classical rhetoric, studied and distributed the commonplaces, worked on memory systems, cherished the sermon, re-invented tragedy. “Oral-aural cultural institutions have been surprisingly tenacious,” concedes Fr. Ong. Why “surprisingly”? Because the tenacity doesn’t really fit the theory. No wonder the Renaissance, in its welter of oral, script, and print, is called “complex and confused”: it tends to make the argument complex and confused. One needs epicyclical theories to explain such power in merely vestigial elements. Latin, for example, was for centuries a sight-bound scholarly lingua franca; why did the Renaissance want to revive the oral Latin of Cicero and his tricks of oral performance? Why did Protestants preach as well as meditate and polemicize? Whatever the reasons, these facts have to be explained; for the theory insists, for example, that the Catholic Church preserved the old oral wisdom against visualist Protestant innovation, just as it preserved the oral “magic” in the sacraments and the oral authoritarianism. Protestantism has to be print-bound, rationalist, anarchic. Visualism, according to Ong, not only narrows the sensorium but does violence to the oral Logos.

The Logos is not as audible as formerly because “we are abject prisoners of the literate culture in which we have matured.” An instance of the change might be Addison’s “The spacious Firmament on high,” which says that we can’t physically hear the music of the spheres; only in “Reason’s ear” do they “utter forth a glorious voice.” The reason, Ong argues, is that the universe, in an age of typographically motivated science, has become silent, devocalized. But Shakespeare, and everybody else who exploited this famous topic, said you couldn’t hear the music of the spheres—because of the Fall, the muddy vesture of decay, or whatever; in other words, Newton isn’t to be blamed, this isn’t the dissociation of sensibility but a commonplace in a new context. But blaming Newton, and ultimately print, is a help toward establishing the theory that later sensorial arrangements, and superior methods of information-storage, make the Word hard to hear, so that we must make an historical effort to recreate the older situation.

I have no doubt that Ong can somehow explain away this small misinterpretation of Addison: it seems everything can be explained away. If it appears strange, for example, that the overthrow of feudalism should have had to wait for print, when script might have done it, you write: “Though feudalism died slowly and from a variety of maladies, it was under serious threat from the time of the invention of script.” Thus he at once considers and dismisses from the argument the failure of script to kill feudalism. The argument simply can’t lose. The Word had a bad time of it under print, and now we shall, in our new oral situation, have a chance to reflect on why this occurred, and so create conditions in which its Presence can again be felt. “Reflection” consists in making history consistent with this hope.

It will be clear by now what the Ong theory is for. Our progress into a new age is to be the means of a return to old orality. Ong values orality because it is holy, because it places a high value on the sacral. Visuality, typography, desacralized the world. The oral Word is a Presence, the written word is not; the oral Word presents an interior, the typographical word a surface. He even complains that traditional theologies of the Trinity tend to spatialize it by speaking of distinct entities somehow not divided. Ong wants rather “an oral-aural” theology of the Trinity which would explicate the “inter-subjectivity of the three Persons in terms of communication conceived of as focussed (analogously) in a world of sound.” The Christian form of worship must now be conceived as oral-aural. In other words, Christians have too long conceived of their God as visual, with much loss to the deeper, more interior sense of his Presence that should accompany an oral-aural concept of him. And this is what, aided by our enormously enhanced control of the past and history, we have now somehow to recover: the oral Word in its old purity, in our new oral world, hardly yet recovered from the decadence of print. We have to recover the oral sense of presence and compensate for typographical desacralization.

On the whole Fr. Ong thinks the chances are good. Though our media have made God seem silent, we have certain advantages. The characteristic mental disorder of alphabetic societies is schizophrenia, but of analphabetic societies it is anger and polemicism. Old oral was very angry; it led to the kind of immediate personal attack that still characterized Renaissance and Reformation scholarship. This wore off, as print and science made us more objective. Hence our present irenic mood, our tolerance, our openness to argument. When we are not irenic, tolerant, understanding, it is just the oral polemicism cropping out again. But it would be “an affectation to pretend” that “technologized urban living” cannot provide a very suitable ground for open communication, man to man God to man. The “hominization” of the world goes on apace. Thanks to the development of the media we are aware as never before of the world as fully peopled, as dominated by the presence of humans we have to live with. As the human consciousness thus “expands its purchase on the universe, enlarges itself, the ground on which grace operates and God’s presence is felt is enlarged.” Oral sacrality may thus be restored. And the instrument of restoration, the continuing presence of the Word, is the Catholic Church.

THUS, whistling apologetically in the dark, Fr. Ong reaches his optimistic conclusion. We shall have our oral Word again, like the Jews and the primitive Christians, but without all the bullying, the anger, the animistic nonsense, that characterized the earlier “verbomotor” epoch.

Much of this will strike the skeptical layman as pure fantasy, or specialism (the belief that the current irenic mood, such as it is, among Christians, means that we are growing more patient and tolerant in our cities; the quest for an oral-aural theology). Perhaps one can nevertheless make allowance for the author’s parti pris and still admire his account of the development of the media typology, the great revolutionary movements from oral-aural to script, script to print, print to electronic-aural? But this can’t really be done, if only because Fr. Ong’s using the historiographical system to support something so strange and so partisan shows what is wrong with the system. It is so loose that you can easily accommodate it to anything else you believe. You can be extremely general, not, for example, discriminating between different kinds of orality (why did the Jews care so much about their kind of history? why were they so very different from oral, pre-Platonic Greeks?) or extremely special, offering details about the vocal powers of primates. If nothing else will make the theory fit you insert transitions, overlays, etc. Whatever the Theory eats turns into the Theory.

There are further problems, akin to those raised by Marxism and other historicist doctrines. Should we, at last aware of how history works, do anything, or just let the grace-controlled operation go forward, confident that we are growing gentler, more receptive, in our new culture, ready to receive an early-oral God into a fully computerized society? If God were now considering the intervention he so carefully timed, how would he work out the balance between analphabetic Chinese, oral Russians, and electric-oral Americans? Would he find the atmosphere truly irenic? He would not be surprised to find that his Church has turned out to be the sole repository of the old oral-sacral, but would he be pleased that, so late as this, one of its learned historians seems to have overlooked a modern commonplace, that the method of investigation defines the field?

St. Paul spoke of faith as the evidence of things unseen; and St. Augustine said that in heaven fides succedit species quam videbimus, what succeeds faith is something we shall be able to see. It is true that he wrote also, in the Confessions, one of the most beautiful of all accounts of the struggles of the senses, and dwelt particularly on the power of the ear: but he had the authority of the New Testament for arguing that “the general experience of the senses…is called the lust of the eye, because the office of seeing wherein the eyes hold the prerogative, the other senses by way of similitude take to themselves, when they make any search after knowledge.” This extremely oral saint was already a visualist, a slave of the decadent alphabet. Perhaps St. Paul was, too. We seem to have been a long time in the wilderness out of which Fr. Ong now seeks to show us the way.

  1. *

    Ong uses this distressingly visual word more than once, and even apologizes for doing so, but somehow it turned out to be indispensable.

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