Saint Louis University

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 save 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 neighbors 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 shift radio from an entertainment medium into a kind of nervous information system. News bulletins, time signals, traffic 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 Department 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 ago. That was a very McLuhanesque statement in its teasing, oracular quality.

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 at times.

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 temperament 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 thoughts 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 deliberate 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 extremely 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 immediacy 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 computers?