when images speak louder than words
August 23, 2003
In a way, last week's power
outage came at a lucky time for me. I was at home, reading a book.
All in the line of duty, of course--it was David Adams Richards'
new novel River of the Brokenhearted, which I was reviewing
for tomorrow's paper. What I noticed particularly when the power
went off was a feeling of freedom. I was off the grid, and it
was just fine. I could continue what I was doing.
What a beautiful technology
printed books are. People who say books should all be put on computer
disks to sace space are nuts. It's like saying that in order to
save closet space we should all wear on-piece Star Trek uniforms.
Fashion writers call those clothes retro-future. That's what e-books
are, retro-future. It will be a sad day when, in order to "access"
a book, we have to push a button and wait for an electronic noise
to tell us the thing is working.
The other medium of communication
available during the blackout was radio. The first night, I joined
my neighbours on their front porch to enjoy the starlit night
and listen to a transistor radio for news of the blackout. It
reminded me that Marshall McLuhan used to call the radio "the
tribal drum." In Understanding Media he wrote, "One
of the many effects of television on radio has been to shfit radio
from an entertainment medium into a kind of nervous information
system. News bulletins, time signals, traffice updates, and, above
all, weather reports now serve to enhance the native power of
radio to involve people in one another."
So we listened to the drum
beat, a little group involved with each other and rather liking
it, for the time being. But McLuhan's use of the word "nervous"
in the phrase "nervous information system" is telling.
You always feel some relief when a radio is turned off, as if
your nervous system is getting a breather.
By coincidence, the saddest
news of last week had nothing to do with the blackout, but with
the death of a man who, like McLuhan, was always fascinated with
the effects of technology on the human nervous system. He was
a Jesuit priest named Walter Ong, and he spent most of his life
teaching in the English Deparment of St. Louis University. His
range of interest was much wider and deeper than English Lit,
however. "His writings and lectures explored the transition
of communication from its pre-literate beginnings to its current
reliance on radio, television and the Internet," is how the
obituary in the Los Angeles Times put it.
Ong, in fact, was a student
of McLuhan's, when the latter was also teaching in the English
department of St. Louis University. That was back in 1938. "One
thing I got from McLuhan was that you couldn't understand the
present without the past, and you couldn't understand the past
unless you understood the present, because all your questions
come from the present." Ong said to me when I visited him
years agao. That was a very McLuhanesque statement in its teasing,
Ong was a small, neat,
polite man who fit the image of a priest and scholar. In some
ways, this made him very unlike his famous teacher, who was tall,
rambunctious, perpetually restless and talkative. McLuhan was
never afraid to annoy people, and in fact seemed to relish it
When a posse of academics
was hot on his trail, he would head them off with his arsenal
of bad jokes, quips and highly provocative assertions. The best
description I've read of his style comes from a recent book about
James Joyce, The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake, written
by his son, Eric McLuhan. In that book, Eric McLuhan cites the
role of the Cynic philosopher in ancient Greece: "Cynic philosophers
behaved outrageously and scandalously not to satisfy some merely
private whim or need but to use street theatre. . . so to jolt
the sensibilities of the crowd or passers-by as to freshen awareness."
Anybody who ever watched
McLuhan address audiences by starting out with a string of politically
incorrect jokes will recognize that description. One thing this
style meant, however, was that McLuhan rarely had the patience
to sit down and write conventional academic books. That task he
left to his students. Of al the students he ever taught over more
than four decades, McLuhan regarded two as supremely serious and
talented. One was Hugh Kenner, a fellow Canadian from Peterborough
who turned out to be one of the greatest academic literary critics
of the 20th century. The other was Ong.
Ong did have the patience
and temprament to write the books on media that developed McLuhan's
insights while satisfying, at the same time, the academic requirement
for careful scholarship and reasonably coherent argument. He wrote
more than 20 such books in his long career, which was nearly as
illustrious as Kenner's. One of the best was a book entitled Orality
and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, published
in 1982, two years after McLuhan's death.
In this book, Ong made
the point that we can barely imagine what it must be like to use
words in a culture without writing--we have grown so used to thinking
of words as visual symbols as well as utterances. Because of this
difficulty in recapturing the feeling of a totally "oral"
culture, we have carelessly viewed writing as simply an extension
or amplification of speech. Ong pointed out, however, that writing
changed every aspect of how humans experienced the world. "More
than any other single invention," Ong stated, "writing
has transformed human consciousness."
Our habit of classifying
things, of analyzing what we see and hear, is impossible without
writing. Science is impossible without writing. "Human beings
in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form,
learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but
they do not 'study,'" Ong wrote.
Writing made it possible
for human beings to gain a sense of distance from their own thoughts,
by putting those thoghts in a visible, exterior form. It also
made it possible for human beings to free themselves from the
grip of the tribe. The first occasion a human being put his or
her thoughts in writing set in motion a process that ended in
the concept of "privacy."
All this is very interesting.
What's even more interesting is the question of what is happening
to our culture now that new media of communication have succeeded
writing and print technology. Radio and television re-introduce
the primacy of the spoken word. Are we doomed therefore to fall
back into the old tribal swamp?
Ong called the culture
of the new technology "secondary orality, " and had
several interesting things to say about it. First of all, he pointed
out that secondary orality does not replace literacy, but it is
built on it. Remove writing and print, and we don't have radio,
television or computers.
This new orality is also
much more delibrate and self-conscious than the old orality. It
has generated a renewed group sense, for example, but it's almost
a dutiful group sense--we've all got to be"socially conscious."
Politicians are now public speakers to a much wider audience than
ever before, but our political debates lack the robust antagonism
of previous eras--we make sure that election debates on television
are extremely dull. Even American "talk shows" that
feature politicians and pundits supposedly getting all worked
up and interrupting each other are in fact carefully orchestrated
occasions that keep everything under control.
Reading and writing remain
the bedrock of our culture, which is why middle-class parents
are still exteremely anxious about the ability of their children
to absorb this skill. They are not pleased, for example, when
their kids can't spell correctly, despite the reassurances of
progressive educators that this is not important.
Ong wrote movingly about
members of cultures without writing--cultures that, in compensation,
have a great sense of spontaneity and immdiacy and the charm of
the spoken utterance--discovering the powers of literacy. "This
awareness is agony for persons rooted in primary orality, who
want literacy passionately but who also know very well that moving
into the exciting world of literacy means leaving behind much
that is exciting and deeply loved in the earlier oral world. We
have to die to continue living."
That is eloquently put.
But it raises the question of what exactly we are leaving behind
when we embrace electronic media of communication. Despite Ong's
reassurances, we now we are leaving behind something. What in
us is dying so that we may live in the world of television and