From Orality to Literacy to Hypertext: Back
to the Future?
Having described the salient features of hypertext, I shall now indicate
some of the major characteristics of primary orality. In each instance,
I shall indicate how primary orality was undermined by literacy, especially
print literacy, and then how in turn hypertext undermines the tendencies
of print and plunges us again into (secondary) orality. Throughout the following
discussion, I shall draw heavily upon Walter
Ong's Orality and Literacy.
(1) Orality is "evanescent," not permanent (Ong,
The spoken word exists only in the moment of its being spoken. That is,
it exists only as it is fading from existence. Then, after the reverberations
of the uttered sound cease, nothing remains but the memory of the sound.
Writing, on the other hand, is a permanent record. Print especially seems
unchanging and everlasting. Manuscript writing, however, is in some ways
closer to orality than to print. For one thing, virtually all manuscript
writing was read aloud in antiquity; manuscripts were prompts for utterance
of sound. Two, very much like the infinitely variable oral performance,
no two manuscripts are ever alike. Three, manuscript writing is open-ended,
resisting closure. With the invention of the codex book, and especially
with the invention of the printing press, notions of closure and completeness
develop that are unthinkable in orality and difficult at best in manuscript
Hypertext returns us to fluid, shifting, open-ended, evanescent communication.
Bolter points out the striking similarity between the fluidity of hypertext
and that of Homeric oral performance, both of which contrast sharply with
the frozenness of the printed word:
. . . an electronic text is a world in constant motion. Electronic
writing is as animated as the famous shield of Achilles in the Iliad. Homer's
description of that shield is remarkable for its impossible movement: figures
embossed on the shield talk and fight and dance in scenes that could not
possibly be captured in a frozen image. This movement is appropriate for
the oral poet Homer, for whom poetry was a spontaneous performance, not
a fixed text. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Keats's famous
description of figures on a Grecian urn. For Keats the paradox is that the
urn depicts figures whose actions are frozen and therefore immortal. And
Keats is writing in the mature age of print, when poems too are frozen texts,
no matter how active they are in metaphor. But this traditional belief in
the fixity of the text cannot survive the shift to the electronic writing
space. Electronic writing challenges the assumption that the beauty of a
poem is a static beauty, a quality of being removed from the flux of the
world. A computer text is never stable and never detached from the changing
contexts that readers bring to it. (Bolter,
(2) Orality is "additive rather than subordinative"; "aggregative
rather than analytic" (Ong,
In Homeric epic we encounter the heaping up of stock formulas, such as "rosy
fingered dawn" and "wily Odysseus," as well as the episodic
construction of the narrative--'one thing after another.' Similarly in biblical
narrative, we find waw consecutive and kai parataxis at
the micro-level of expressions, while analogously at the macro-level the
narration typically follows a fairly crude episodic arrangement. We seldom
find in the Bible the more polished, more deeply literate periodic style
recommended by Aristotle (Ong,
With print, words on a page begin to be organized according to a hierarchical
logic. Levels of subordination begin to appear, signaled visually by typography.
The printed page lends itself to analysis--it can be broken apart into discrete,
independent components in a manner that would be impossible and pointless
in oral, formulaic speech.
Hypertext resurrects the associative, non-linear, non-hierarchical organization
of information of primary orality. Bolter again explicitly likens the associative
operations of hypertext to those of Homeric epic:
Homer's repetitive formulaic poetry is a forerunner of topographic
writing in the electronic writing space. The Homeric poet wrote by putting
together formulaic blocks, and the audience 'read' his performance in terms
of those blocks. The electronic writer and reader, programmer and user,
do the same today. Like oral poetry and storytelling, electronic writing
is a highly associative writing, in which the pattern of associations among
verbal elements is as much as part of the text as the elements themselves.
(3) Orality is "close to the human lifeworld" (Ong,
Persons in oral cultures live in close, intimate connection with their environment
and with each other. They tend not to think in distanced or abstract ways
about their world and their lives. All thinking is concrete and operational.
Learning is 'hands-on,' by apprenticeship or discipleship.
On the other hand, the practice of writing presupposes distance in time
and space between author and reader. Hence, writing, and especially print,
encourages the development of the mental habits of distanciation and objectification.
Whereas sound envelopes and bonds speaker and hearer, writing marks the
separation of author and reader. The printing press is paradigmatic of technology
that allows us to keep the world, and each other, at arm's length. Whereas
in an oral culture, elders are respected and appreciated for their indispensable
memories, in a print culture one need not heed one's elders in order to
benefit from the accumulated wisdom of one's culture. Once printed books
become readily available, one can hold the wisdom of the ages--the minds
of persons long dead--in one's hands.
To a remarkable degree, with computer modeling and simulations, the computer
returns us to an immediate, hands-on approach to communication and to other
dealings with the world around us. Richard A. Lanham, an historian of rhetoric,
argues that the computer returns us to a classical, rhetorical model of
education and social existence generally:
Classical rhetoric, and hence all of classical education, was
built on a single dominant exercise: modeling. The key form was the oration,
and it was rehearsed again and again in every possible form and context.
Declamatio, as the modeling of speeches came to be called, stood
at the hub of Western education, just as computer modeling is coming to
do today. The world of electronic text has reinstated this centrality of
modeled reality. The computer has adopted once again, as the fundamental
educational principle, the dramatizing of experience; most important, it
has dramatized the world of work. (Lanham,
(4) Orality is "agonistically toned" (Ong,
Ong observes that primary oral cultures often evidence wars of words, such
as riddle or song contests, name-calling, and bragging. On the positive
side, eulogizers can strive to out-do each other in heaping up words of
praise on the living or dead.
Writing, on the other hand, separates us from each other, and therefore
subdues the constant verbal jousting of oral cultures. Contemporary cultures
still have their contests, their agons, but they have moved to
other arenas, perhaps in our culture business and sports.
Curiously, Ong claims that
in secondary orality, the agonistic tendency of oral speech remains subdued,
a carry-over from print culture: "Electronic media do not tolerate
a show of open antagonism. Despite their cultivated air of spontaneity,
these media are totally dominated by a sense of closure which is the heritage
of print: a show of hostility might break open the closure, the tight control"
(1982:137). What Ong says may be true for television, where presidential
debates are anything but fiercely contested verbal battles. However, I do
not think Ong's claim holds for many other forms of electronic communication.
Think of the contemporary, urban, oral tradition of "hip-hop"
or "rap," in which we witness a revival of an oral, formulaic,
bardic tradition, with a sharp, sometimes vicious verbal edge. On the Internet,
the phenomenon of "flaming"--heaping bitter invective upon one's
interlocutors--is well-known and wide-spread (LaQuey
and Ryer:71-73; Krol:150).
In short, there is abundant evidence of a sharp agonistic tone in much of
(5) Orality is "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively
distanced" (Ong, 1982:45-46)
"For an oral culture learning or knowing means achieving close, empathetic,
communal identification with the known" (Ong,
1982:45; quoting Havelock).
Experience is subjective and communal. The bard and his audience interact
to such an extent that both parties are full, active participants in the
tale being told. Describing oral performance, Paul
Zumthor observes: "the listener contributes to the production of
the work in performance. The listener is author, scarcely less than the
performer is author" (187).
Writing separates us one from another, the knower from the known. Writing,
and especially print, encourages distance, objectivity, and impartiality.
Individualism becomes thinkable, practicable, and encouraged by the solitary
experience of either writing or reading the printed page.
In hypertext, as in primary orality, the distinction between author and
reader once again melts away in the midst of the collaborative effort of
navigating the hypertextual network:
Electronic text is, like an oral text, dynamic. Homeric listeners
had the opportunity to affect the telling of the tale by their applause
or disapproval. Such applause and disapproval shared the aural space in
which the poet performed and became part of that particular performance,
just as today the applause of the audience is often preserved in the recordings
of jazz musicians. The electronic writing space is also shared between author
and reader, in the sense that the reader participates in calling forth and
defining the text of each particular reading. The immediacy and flexibility
of oral presentation, which had been marginal in ancient and Western culture
for over two millennia, emerges once again as a defining quality of text
in the computer. . . . . The electronic reader plays in the writing space
of the machine the same role that the Homeric listener played as
he or she sat before the poet. (Bolter,
1991:59; emphasis added)/11/
In a profound sense, the role of author does not even exist in oral culture;
authorship is yet another legacy of writing, particularly print. Secondary
orality returns to us to the experience of authorless texts familiar to
primary orality, but the loss of authorial control--"authority"--in
electronic text can be terrifying for those of us at home in the "Gutenberg
Galaxy" (McLuhan) of print
Claude Lévi-Strauss . . . demonstrated for a generation
of critics that works of powerful imagination take form without an author.
In The Raw and the Cooked (1969), for example, where he showed,
"not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's mind without
their being aware of the fact," he also suggests that "it would
perhaps be better to go still further and, disregarding the thinking subject
completely, proceed as if the thinking process were taking place in the
myths, in the reflection upon themselves and their interrelation."
Lévi-Strauss's presentation of mythological thought as a complex
system of transformations without a center turns it into a networked text--not
surprising, since the network serves as one of the main paradigms of synchronous
On the Internet today we are witnessing large collaborative projects in
which the work performed is so thoroughly dispersed among the various collaborators
that it is impossible to say who should get credit for the results--reputable,
scientific research with no "author"! This phenomenon is:
. . . perfectly illustrated in the successful 1990 effort to
factor a large, theoretically interesting number called the ninth Fermat
number. As Rand Corporation researcher Tora Bikson writes, "Mathematicians
and logicians had long believed [the number] was calculable because it could
not be demonstrated to be noncalculable, but it required so much in the
way of human and computer resources that it had never been attempted."
Scientists at Bell Communications Research then developed a program to split
up the project and put out a call on the Internet to recruit researchers.
E-mail was used both to distribute the various parts of the problem and
to send back the solutions. The pieces were fitted together, and the problem
was solved. However, the paper announcing the results contained a fascinating
admission: We'd like to thank everyone who contributed computing cycles
to this project, but we can't: We only have records of the person at each
site who installed and managed the code. If you helped us, we'd be delighted
to hear from you; please send us your name as you would like it to appear
in the final version of the paper. (Leslie:47)
Other discussions of hypertext and CMC contain intriguing claims for supposed
historical throwbacks closely related to the "return to orality"
claim. Bolter suggests that electronic culture portends a kind of postmodern
1991:182-84; 1984:41-42); Barlow,
that we are evolving into information "hunter-gatherers" (90);
best known, perhaps, are McLuhan's declarations that in the "global
village" we are returning to a "tribal," "mythical"
McLuhan's term for the effects of electronic communication is
"retribalization." Under the effects of participatory electronic
media, he claims, linear typographic man again learns to "live mythically."
. . . It means living in a form of consciousness in which knowledge does
not exist outside the knower, embodied in a physical text, but instead is
lived dramatically, communally performed as the myths of oral man were performed.
(6) Orality knits persons together into community (Ong,
The spoken word knits people together into community; writing, however,
promotes distance and individualization. Now, many are heralding a resurgence
of community thanks to the communicative powers of the electronic media:
This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its
participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration
on the present moment, and even its use of formulas. (Ong,
Bolter is interested in how the network metaphor seems to be supplanting
metaphors of the line and the hierarchy that were encouraged by the written
line and the printed page (Bolter,
1991:112-13). The network is not a new metaphor, however. Bolter claims
that primary and secondary orality share a common commitment to networked
social structures; electronic text is returning us to the ancient experience
Although we are just beginning to research the issues involved, it already
appears that a new 'orality' is emerging in digital writing, which may result
in a culture which places far less value on originality, and more on an
ambiance of 'togetherness' based on community of interest among fragmented
subgroups dispersed in place and time. (Danet)
Research in the field of CMC points toward CMC's emotive, expressive, and
participatory nature. . . . CMC technologies transform thought and culture
by engendering the creation of communities in which the participants, much
like the participants in primarily oral cultures, can participate in emotional,
expressive, and involving communication. (December)
The network as an organizing principle has been latent in all
written texts, and Homeric oral poetry shows that the network is older than
writing itself. Established by repetition in the minds of both the poet
and the audience, the Homeric network contained all the mythological characters
and their stories. The poet drew upon that network to tell each tale. After
the invention of writing in the ancient world, it became the writer's task
to establish his or her own network comprised of references and allusions
within the text and connected to the larger network formed by other texts
in the culture. From that time until the advent of electronic writing, the
referential network has existed 'between the lines' of the text--that is,
in the minds of readers and writers. Now the computer brings the network
to the surface of the text. (Bolter,
(7) Orality is "homeostatic" (Ong,
For all their conservatism, oral cultures do change, however slowly. An
oral culture is constantly adjusting, maintaining equilibrium or homeostasis.
Outdated traditions are revised or sloughed off and unneeded memories are
forgotten. "Oral traditions reflect a society's present cultural values
rather than idle curiosity about the past" (Ong,
1982:48). Typically the adjustment process is unconscious, unintentional,
and imperceptible, at least to those within the culture.
With writing, a culture has a permanent record of its traditions, which
can make it more difficult to revise, supplement, or jettison traditions.
Paradoxically, however, print culture also develops a hunger for novelty
and constant change--one might say a taste for the latest fashion--at the
same time that print freezes its words in amber. Print culture develops
historical consciousness, an awareness of past, present, and future.
In the Electronic Age, the preservative amber of the printed page is shattered.
With the resurgence of ephemeral communication, secondary orality begins
to undergo constant metamorphosis, like primary orality. Electronic culture
may end up operating more like a culture driven by oral tradition than like
a culture patterned after the printed page.
Digital information, unconstrained by packaging, is a continuing
process more like the metamorphosing tales of prehistory than anything that
will fit in shrink-wrap. From the Neolithic to Gutenberg (monks aside),
information was passed on, mouth to ear, changing with every retelling (or
resinging). The stories which once shaped our sense of the world didn't
have authoritative versions. They adapted to each culture in which they
found themselves being told.
Because there was never a moment when the story was frozen in print, the
so-called 'moral' right of storytellers to own the tale was neither protected
or recognized. The story simply passed through each of them on its way to
the next, where it would assume a different form. As we return to continuous
information, we can expect the importance of authorship to diminish. Creative
people may have to renew their acquaintance with humility. (Barlow:90)
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