If I was tasked with presenting the University to an individual whose only experience was that of primary orality my first instinct would be to start at The Newman Center. I suppose the intention, at first, would be to explain the role of a university within society and then, eventually, to communicate the role that written language and necessarily, reading play in the greater scheme of life.

I’d begin at the music school because it captures the essence of what university means, that is, higher learning and preparation for the professional world, but also because the music school most closely aligns with the tactics of education employed at the time of primary orality–apprenticeship. It seems to me that the pedagogy pertaining to music is one of the few that is primarily demonstrative rather than explanatory. People learn to play musical instruments through mimicry and visual observation, and as a musician myself, often times words don’t fully capture what it is that the instructor is trying to say.

After it had been settled that universities are places meant to educate I’d take a stab at introducing the individual/s to Anderson Academic Commons (AAC). This is probably the most challenging hurdle between orality and literacy. How does one explain what writing is, what reading is, to someone who thinks and processes information in a completely different way. I’m sure that the signage on buildings and street corners alone would puzzle the “primary orators.”

To begin with, I’d describe books as physical forms of language. It really wouldn’t prove efficient to attempt to teach the person how to read and write, the main goal would be to get them to understand the tools available at DU, but also for them to understand that the methods used in teaching differ from the proverbial memorization processes that littered the era of orality.

So, by calling books inanimate capsules of oration I’d hope to capture the essence or at least the purpose of books in all their mobility and density. Perhaps I’d even read a few proverbial verses from the Bible itself just to set the baseline for what books are capable of.

From here, I’d proceed to a formal tour of the campus and introduce the individual/s to the various disciplines that exist. Probably starting with the sciences–which would be easier to sum up and assuredly more accessible (at least in terms of explanation), and stop with humanities. It would probably be wisest to pass over any mention of languages and literature . . .

I suppose a stop at Sturm may prove invaluable in communicating exactly what writing and reading are able to communicate. Explaining that books of law contain physical descriptions, or rather, that they contain tellings of what certain rules and laws in society are, might capture a clearer impression of what writing can prove useful for: memory relief.

*For someone seeking to learn more about DU through solely a secondary-orality lens I’d send them here. (Is that cheating?)

It seems to me that the contrast between the two forms of orality are clear. The key differences are ease of access and brevity. Secondary orality allows for much easier access to the actual information and doesn’t even require the individual be physically present in order to view the campus and its offerings. In contrast, primary orality requires explanations for the explanations, that is, I felt the need to explain not only what writing and reading are, but also their roles in education, what a university is, why the different disciplines exist, etc. I suppose being concise comes at a cost though–the level of interpersonal interaction and communication is certainly lessened via secondary orality. I suppose that the accretion of technologically-based orality has necessarily resulted in a lessening of traditional oral forms. I can’t help but wonder whether there will be a point where the written forms of communication become the sole forms of communication, or perhaps this is already the case? After all, I didn’t really do anything for the secondary orality portion, maybe that’s the point?

image at pixgood.com


One thought on “Orality, a Thought Experiment

  1. Nathaniel, I agree with many of your points! In particular, I agree fully with your quote, “the level of interpersonal interaction and communication is certainly lessened via secondary orality” (para. 9). This is, of course, regarding physical interactions and physical communications. This is what Ong was talking about when he discusses how writers must fictionalize their audience, and the audience must fictionalize their writer. There’s a fundamental element of separation to writing. He describes this as a certain level of permanent deadness. As he wrote, “The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers” (80). This applies to the videos you linked to too. Sure they are immediately accessible, but they are also locked as what they are. There’s no further interaction. I can’t ask the “tour guides” any questions.

    To argue the other side though, you could say that secondary orality actually makes us more connected — not physically, but otherwise. With texts such as videos, I am now able to virtually connect to thousands of more people and places. One bizarre aspect of this, as Ong reflected, the person(s) responsible for the material might even be dead by the time I get to interact with the piece. While that is kind of creepy, it also means that I get “meet” and “interact” (if I’m allowed use that word in a one-way flow of information kind of sense) with thousands beyond my physical limitations.

    I’m not sure if I completely agree with your analysis of music’s orality. Yes, we absolutely learn through apprenticeship, which was heavily utilized in primary oral cultures, but we also heavily rely on music sheets — on reading music. In a lot of ways, I think that the ability to write music has drastically changed our abilities as musicians. Consider how much music we have access to simply by looking it up in a music book, online, etc. Music does have rhythm and inherently memorable parts to it that are conducive primary orality (hence drumming patterns), but I seriously doubt our ability as a primary oral society to produce such works as Beethoven, Mozart, et al. — at least in the quantities that we did/do. This relates to what Ong had to say in the quote, “The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. this freed the mind for more original, more abstract though” (24). Similarly, Ong writes, “Literacy, as will be seen, is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation (including oral speech) itself” (14-15). In short, literacy has been instrumental (pun-intended) in our development in the musical arts.


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