Presence of the Word – Word as Sound

[C]ultures which do not reduce words to space but know them only as oral-aural phenomena, in actuality or in the imagination, naturally regard words as more powerful than do literate cultures” (112).

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

That words are powerful is a common idea, meaning that words can hurt, words bring knowledge, words bring action, etc. However, for early man and oral cultures, words actually bring physical power.

It is a commonplace that early man, strongly if by no means exclusively oral-aural, experiences words–which for him typically are spoken words–as powerful, effective, of a piece with other actuality far more than later visualist man is likely to do. A word is a real happening, indeed a happening par excellence. (111).

In this way, for oral-aural man, sound is more real or existential than other sense objects that are more tangible. “Words in an oral-aural culture are inseparable from action for they are always sounds” (112-113). This is, in part, due to the fact that sound is related to the present. A spoken word must emanate from an individual in the presence of the listener and then is gone; it cannot exist in the past or future. It must be in active production to exist at all. Thus, the sound is active. The result being, “that involvement with sound is involvement with the present, with here-and-now existence and activity” (112). Ong has us consider that a primitive hunter can see, feel, smell, and taste an elephant even when the animal is dead. However, even with seeing the live animal, if he hears an elephant shuffling his feet or trumpeting its arrival, the hunter best beware, since some activity is in effect; power is at work.

The modes of encounter are innumerable–a glance, a gesture, a touch, even an odor–but among these the spoken word is paramount (125).

Considering this concept in regard to our current era, one can see that recorded sound brings the past to one’s present. In the case of the OVC, the speaker need not actually be in the listener’s presence or even speaking at a distance but in that moment. Rather, one can watch and listen to a prerecorded video and experience the speaker’s present–now past–in the listener’s presence. While the immediate difference is that it is one-sided, this condition is not unlike many other live situations in which a speaker is at a distance, orating to a larger group, and one therefore cannot ask questions or otherwise interact with the speaker.

However, even watching a video, the listener gains some sense of the speaker’s presence because, in part, there is voice; the visual aspect of course adds to that sense of presence.

Presence does not irrupt into the voice. One cannot have voice without presence, at least suggested presence. And voice…, being the paradigm of all sound for man, sound itself thus of itself suggests presence” (114).

This point relates to the idea, and frequent conversation in our age of Instant Messenger and online chat, that tone, emotion, and meaning are all far easier misunderstood in written form than when spoken. Without the variations in speaking patterns, such as volume, pitch, tone, etc. to vary emphasis, the reader is forced to interpret these aspects of the content on his or her own, since the speaker is not present to clarify. In the case of communication, the common saying, “You have to see it to believe it,” does not fit the actuality that sound conveys meaning more accurately than does sight. “If words are written, they are on the whole far more likely to be misunderstood than spoken words are” (115). Ong cites the psychiatrist J.C. Carothers:

Few people fail to communicate their messages and much of themselves in speech, whereas writings, unless produced by one with literary gifts, carry little of the writer and are interpreted far more according to the reader’s understanding or prejudice. (Ong 115).

Therefore, writing can rarely fully capture the detail and never the emotion and intent of the speaker, as can the spoken word. The writer, not writing in the presence of his or her audience is not fully aware of that audience, so must create/imagine them when writing. The context of the message must be created along with the meaning, unlike the spoken message that has context established within the reason that the two (speaker and listener) or more individuals are present and establishes meaning naturally through all modes of live conversation (voice, gesture, appearance, etc.).

The OVC, then, offers a sort of combination of these situations to the “reader.” The speaker, in recording a video message, may sometimes not be fully aware of the audience. This is to say that although the purpose/context and even the exact recipient may be known, although this is not always the case, the audience is not actually present from which to get visual, interactive, and contextual feedback. However, the viewer experiences the speaker with all the speaking modes, and therefore is far less likely to misinterpret the speaker’s meaning, context, and emotion.

Sound is also experienced from every angle, regardless of the direction the experiencer is facing. Conversely, sight is experienced only in the direction one is facing. If one wanted to see all that surrounded him or her, the individual would have to turn around and face all directions. Yet, in doing so he or she would still be facing forward each time and experiencing each direction sequentially. As Ong states, “Sound situates man in the middle of actuality and in simultaneity, whereas vision situates man in front of things and in sequentiality” (128).

This concept also relates to the discussion of presence and sensing the presence of individuals around one. Sight allows us to see what is in front (and around if we turn) of us. However, even without seeing a person, one can be aware of his or her presence through sound or even the absence of it in some cases.

[S]ound and hearing have a special relationship to our sense of presence. When we speak of a presence in its fullest sense–the presence which we experience in the case of another human being, which another person exercises on us and which no object or living being less than human can exercise–we speak of something that surrounds us, in which we are situated. ‘I am in his presence,’ we say, not “in front of his presence.’ Being in is what we experience in a world of sound.

This brings us to the idea of social presence theory. I wrote a brief overview of this topic some months back. However, since it is a topic which I must address in full (following readings of Short, the theory’s creator) later, I must leave you with this tease and formulate it in a future blog post.

“Manifestation of personal presence is not something added to voice. Voice is not peopled with presences. It itself it the manifestation of presence…” (168).

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