The Oral vs. the Literate

Read Marshall McLuhan's analysis of the effects of literacy on cognition--or Walter Ong's treatment of the same issue, or David Olson's or Jack Goody's or Eric Havelock's--and you'll quickly see that this binary is at the center of the analysis in a way that oversimplifies orality and totalizes the effects of literacy. Despite the complexity and subtly of much of McLuhan's analysis of literacy's potential impact on the human mind and human societies, his characterization of oral or "primitive" cultures borders on ethnocentrism and leaves little room for the complex understanding of such cultures that has emerged in scholarly work in anthropology and related fields (I'm thinking here, for instance, of Clifford Geertz's finely drawn descriptions of Balinese culture).

Walter Ong has understandably taken some of the most pointed criticism for his representation of oral cultures in the oft-cited third chapter of Orality and Literacy (1982). In that chapter, which is titled "Some Psychodynamics of Orality," Ong characterizes "thought and expression" of what he describes as "primary oral culture" as "additive rather than subordinate" (37) "aggregative rather than analytic" (38), and "redundant or 'copious'" (39), among other things. There's no need to review the many critiques of this characterization--and the questions raised about Ong's conclusions--but I would point to the famous study of the effects of literacy on cognition by psychologists Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, The Psychology of Literacy (1981), as perhaps the most compelling rejoinder to Ong's theories.

Although their study was published a year before Ong's influential book appeared in print, Scribner and Cole essentially subscribed to what Deborah Brandt (1990) has called the "strong-text theory of literacy" (13) that she associates with Ong as well as with David Olson and Jack Goody. Scribner and Cole wished to find empirical verification for the claims made by Olson, Goody, Havelock and others that literacy shapes culture as well as cognition, that it separates "primitive" from "civilized" societies (4), and that "mastery of a written language affects not only the content of thought but also the process of thinking--how we classify, reason, remember" (5). Instead, they found that, although literacy does indeed have a profound impact on human life and culture, that impact is complex and localized and cannot be described in terms of "generalized changes in cognitive abilities" (234). Their results could not substantiate a claim that people living in oral cultures think only in the ways Ong describes or that they are incapable of thinking in ways that Ong associates with literate cultures.

Scribner and Cole's study underscores the dangers of dichotomy and returns us to the larger matter at hand: the nature of the Western sense of self, which is born in dichotomy. As Crispin Sartwell (2000) points out, "the separation of mind from body, of will from recalcitrant material, culture from nature . . . articulates certain forms of political oppression. Our construction of the 'savage' or the 'primitive' is a dualism: we associate ourselves with mind and culture, them with body and nature" (84). That seems as good an argument as any for re-imagining the self as a way to attack such destructive dualisms.

My point here, however, is that in trying to understand the impact of literacy, we must be careful about falling into such dualisms, which I believe grow out of the Western sense of the self as an autonomous, thinking being. Literacy did not cause this self to come into being, nor does literacy represent a "higher" way of being, as McLuhan and Ong sometimes seem to suggest. But this Western self does seem to be a function of the apparent capacity of the technology of writing to alter the sensual experience of communication. McLuhan's analysis can help us understand this dynamic.