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, 1982:31-32)

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 culture.

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, 1991:155)
(2) Orality is "additive rather than subordinative"; "aggregative rather than analytic" (Ong, 1982:37-39)

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, 1982:37-39, 142-43).

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. (Bolter, 1991:59)
(3) Orality is "close to the human lifeworld" (Ong, 1982:42-43)

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, 1993:print/47-48; hypertext/190-91)
(4) Orality is "agonistically toned" (Ong, 1982:43-45)

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 secondary orality.

(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 culture:
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 structure. (Landow:74-75)
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 "animism" (Bolter, 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" existence:
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. (Brent:lines 411-22)
(6) Orality knits persons together into community (Ong, 1982:136)

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, 1982:136)

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)
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 of network:
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, 1991:113)
(7) Orality is "homeostatic" (Ong, 1982:46-49)

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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