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Writing and Consciousness

In this chapter, Ong discusses the ways that writing has shaped human consciousness, differentiating between thought in oral versus print-based societies. Part of this difference arises “because written discourse has been detached from its author,” which makes these texts both more available and more open to wider uses and (mis)interpretations. As Ong notes, Plato gave voice to these concerns in Phaedrus, worrying about writing’s inhumanity, the deterioration of memory, and the unresponsiveness of the text (Ong 79). Ong notes the irony (which I noted as well when reading Plato) that these critiques of writing can only be made in writing, just as similar criticisms of print arose and were disseminated in the very medium they sought to question.

While I really enjoyed much of Ong’s discussion, I was uncertain about some of the claims made. For instance, one of the differences he notes between writing and speech is that writing “does not inevitably well up out of the unconsciousness” as speech supposedly does (82). Given the likelihood that human beings did not always have language, I find it hard to swallow that it arises “inevitably,” as it does not arise in the absence of social modeling. I do, however, understand the differentiation being made here about the “absorption” of spoken language that is different from the way that speech is learned and arises. Additionally, this made me think of how typing itself, distinct even from “writing,” has penetrated the depths of my own mind, as I regularly find myself “typing” in my dreams, narrating what is happening and sending the signals to my fingers to type out the correct letters on an imaginary keyboard. This is surely not a dream that I could have had six hundred years ago – or even forty years ago – prior to having this skill. Thus, while I may quibble with particular claims that are made that I think would be difficult to prove, I do completely agree with the overall argument, i.e. that writing does and has shaped consciousness – I sometimes claim that I think best through my fingers.

I was also unsure about the claim that “notches on sticks and other aides-memoire lead up to writing, but they do not restructure the human lifeworld as true writing does” (85). Again, how can we know this? I have never been a person who “discovered” the act of counting or accounting by whatever means – who is to say that such a technology wouldn’t restructure my thoughts or experiences in ways that we here today take for granted? Though again, yes, I agree that written language as Ong means it is different from these other forms of communication, but I am not sure that I can wholly accept that these other forms had less impact upon consciousness – I’m just unsure.

Two aspects of Ong’s chapter really spoke to me and my particular experiences. The first of these was his discussion of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake where he notes that “most readers of English cannot or will not make themselves into the special kind of reader Joyce demands” (103). As one of those readers (Finnegans Wake is my favorite novel – I was a Joyce scholar before I “came to the dark side” of comp/rhet) I resonate with Ong’s discussion of the orality of Joyce’s text that is at once meant to be read aloud, but which must be produced on a written page. The first time I read Finnegans Wake on my own as an undergraduate, I read significant parts of it out loud until I “felt” more than “read” the words and their meanings. I can say that this experience did, definitely, alter my consciousness – there is no doubt about it. (Especially, perhaps, because I read it in its entirety in the space of three consecutive days.) One of the highpoints of my literary career was coming across a recording of Joyce himself reading a selection of Finnegans Wake – I still find it moving beyond words to hear it. What does this say of the difference and/or overlap between the printed word and the hearing of the words? They are different, yet the same, and still different.

The second place that really hit a personal note for me is in Ong’s discussion of “Learned Latin,” an exercise that I am currently undertaking now, and which also seems to be restructuring my consciousness, and not always in pleasant ways. I will admit that it is very strange to spend so much time learning a language that no one speaks. I find it harder in some ways to assimilate it as there is no way to “immerse myself” or to hear fluent speakers conversing. It is a purely textual exercise, which sometimes feels more like algebra than speaking. Ong’s notes that “Learned Latin was a striking exemplification of the power of writing for isolating discourse and of the unparalleled production of such isolation” (113). Boy, don’t I know it. Somewhat ironically, just after this section, Ong discusses McGuffey’s Readers, as I take Latin in McGuffey Hall, passing the statue of McGuffey with three small children reading that ubiquitous text everyday on my way to class.

Writing, language, consciousness…. This chapter seemed to walk all through mine, reminding me of the relationships between textuality and consciousness – both are plastic and filled with words, some of which are nearly incomprehensible to others around which one finds one’s self. This is what I love about language – it can be stretched around concepts that are barely communicable in ways that do alter consciousness. However, there are limits beyond which some audiences/readers are not willing to go. To me, that’s where most of the good stuff is.

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One comment on “Writing and Consciousness

  1. “writing ‘does not inevitably well up out of the unconsciousness’ as speech supposedly does”

    For some reason, that section in Ong was difficult for me to agree with, as well. Given our way of life today, I can certainly follow this claim. However, I think something about the way he phrased his claim seemed absolutist. I think you bring up a great point about social modeling. Sometimes I thought Ong was almost suggesting the importance of specific social practices for literacy acquisition, but I don’t think he said it quite explicitly as some scholars that would follow him. Perhaps it was the time he was writing from (1982)? Shortly after this seemed to be the rise of the New Literacy Studies. I’m not sure.

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