Discover more from Context and Content
Think Memorable Thoughts
Remembering things when you can't write anything down, and what that "does" to us.
Last week, we talked a lot about metaphors. We talked about how the dominant media of our time works as a metaphor in that it shapes our thoughts by the way we think about it, even at an unconscious level
McLuhan frequently used the metaphor of a Global Village to describe our current culture’s aim, as the effect of electric communication was to pull everyone much closer together. This metaphor brings to mind a literal village and points us back to a more oral media-centric time.
We can learn a lot about our current moment by looking at the transition from orality to literacy, as electric-dominated culture returns us to something more familiar than it might seem.
First, let’s take a look at some facets of oral cultures.
Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy introduces how to think about orality with a helpful notion:
Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever 'looked up' anything. In primary oral culture, the expression 'to look up something' is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning.1
Ong goes on to make many observations around what he calls "Some Physchodymanics of Orality." I find this stuff fascinating, and if you do too, this is a great read.
The implications of a speaking-only culture are a bit out of our reach without some careful thinking, but Ong lays out some initial ideas:
Words and language are initially sound. We first learn to speak, then write. As a society, we talked before we wrote. Spoken languages are much different from written languages. Still, in our culture, we all learn to write very early on so we don’t frequently reflect on these differences.
Sound goes out of existence as it is coming into existence. Language in oral cultures is more of an “event” than a thing you can “have” or “reflect on.” Language without writing is a matter of what you can remember.
Patterns and rhythm are used to assist memory. Ong spends a lot of time working through how the Iliad and the Odyssey, which we think of as written texts we studied in high school, get their structure from their need to be remembered2.“ Think of proverbs and old sayings that follow a pattern or rhyme. In an oral culture, to think through something in non-formulaic [ways]… would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing.” 3
Memorizing something verbatim is meaningless. For the most part, there is nothing to compare a recited thought with to ensure it matches the original, as the original went out of existence as it entered it. Preserving the gist of thought (rather than its verbatim words) is the goal; this has implications on what “truth” is as facts are hard to validate.
“Truth” is held collectively in communication, as more memories are better than fewer. There’s no "record" of ideas thought before. "Remembering" in an oral culture happens by the same memory being held by many individuals and compared as needed.
Ong makes many more observations about cultures that orality brings about. Oral cultures, as Ong puts it4, are:
"Additive rather than subordinative." There are no sidebars in an oral world, as you can’t set aside a “main narrative” and pick it back up later. There is no way to mark where you left off. Think about a rambling conversation and trying to get back to where the trail began.
"Redundant…” If you can’t write things down, you need people to remember them. And one of the best ways to do this is to say something over and over again.
"Conservative or traditionalist." If remembering new things is more challenging than remembering old things, the world will be biased towards old ideas.
"Agonististically-toned" and "Empathetic... rather than objectively distanced." In these cultures, you are inherently “closer” to the action than when you can “step away” and put thoughts down. A first-person narrative spoken aloud feels closer to the story than if the speaker had to write it down.
“Situational rather than abstract." Ong camps out here and examines a study that shows how exposure to writing, in his language, changed the way people were able to process abstract thought. ”Does our media transform our consciousness?” is a very complicated question. You can see more about it in the footnote if you’re interested.5
So, as we think about our electric-dominated culture, what can we learn from orality?
Do any of these "dynamics" of orality sound familiar to our world today?
Do we find ourselves having high-minded debates about policy or arguing about very concrete things happening in our world?
Does the information we receive mostly come in an additive fashion (yes, and) or in deep dives? Another way to think about it: does our media drive us deeper, or do we see a bunch of unrelated things strung together?
Do we find that level-headed, nuanced conversations win out, or that “antagonistically toned” dialogue and arguing dominate our headlines and drive the attention in our economy?
A central theme in this vein of thinking is that electric communication brings about "secondary orality."
Secondary Orality is a culture that has many of the same facets of a primarily oral culture that’s been transformed by the literate thinking that dominated the Western world for nearly 500 years.
So what does it tell us about our transition to an electric world from the literate one? Here are some questions to ponder:
If the shift from orality to literacy made humans more able to handle abstract thoughts, what does the transition back towards concrete-dominated discourse mean?
If, during literacy, we were more able to handle more progressive thinking, what does the shift to a “secondary orality” point towards?
If literate media made us more able to have subordinative (think: complex sentences) rather than additive (think: and, and, and…) discussions, what does the additive-nature of many current electric media (Instagram Stories, Facebook Timelines, Tick-Tok) do to the types of conversations we are having as a culture?
So with many of these effects, we arrive back at the Global Village. It’s a village that has a lot of similar facets of the oral villages of yesteryear, but how that village works and the baggage we bring to it have a lot of implications that we may not have known about when we started down this path as a culture.
We will pick up that thread next week.
Further Reading & Notes:
The study that I referenced under my heading “Situational rather than abstract,” where Ong makes many points about how writing transforms culture, is also referenced by David Epstein in Range as he’s making a case how different settings transform thought in his second chapter. I find this overlap of analogy to make a parallel point about how culture changes thinking fascinating, and I intend to revisit it, but if I don’t, I wanted to point it out here. Correlation or causation? Who knows.
I touch on this, but the whole “Does medium transform thinking and consciousness” debate is a huge sprawling thing that is very academic and yet does have significant implications. There is a lot to this subject that I can’t get to for the sake of keeping my exploration moving forward, but I wanted to note that it is there for the digging. It touches on everything from “Linguistic Relativity” and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to Technological determinism and Marxism. Fascinating stuff, and we may come back to some of these thoughts, but for now, onward and upward. Check out this TED video for some other ideas:
The proof that communication mediums and technologies change the way we think neurologically has not panned out in Ong's favor (see John Hartley's "After Ongsm" in the afterward of Orality and Literacy). However, Hartley further notes that this isn't a situation to throw the baby out with the bathwater.