Presence of the Word – Back to Oral (Not)

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. The Terry Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

As I’ve noted many times through this blog, I am not suggesting through my focus on this unique form of aural/visual communication that we are on some track to return to the oral. This could never happen; we cannot unknown what we know. (Actually, the OVC does not even suggest that, since it uses text as well as audio/video.) Ong also notes that there is no way we are returning to an earlier oral-aural world. “There is no return to the past. The successive verbal media do not abolish one another but overlie one another” (9). This point relates to remediation (see Bolter and Grusin) and the discussion of new media finding origins in earlier media. Additionally, oral-aural cultures had very different thought processes and relations to communication, time, and memory to which we could not return having the innumerable recorded artifacts and the recording mindset that we do in this era.

[A]n oral-aural culture is necessarily a culture with a relationship to time different from ours. It has no records. It does have memory, but this is not by any means the same as records, for the written record is not a remembrance but an aid to recall. It does not belong to us as memory does. It is an external thing. (23).

We record–or at least communicate through means that offers the option of recording– virtually everything including formal audio or video recordings, emails, photos, text messages and phone numbers entered into our hand-held devices, to hand-written notes. Our minds are no longer programmed in a way that memorizes information to the extent that earlier cultures did, because we do not need to do so.

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