[Air-l] Plato meets the Blogroll

Mark D. Johns johnsmar at luther.edu
Wed Jul 9 08:19:41 PDT 2003

At 10:33 AM 7/9/2003 +0100, Rowin Cross wrote:
>It's my understanding that oral histories are highly selective.  They're not
>'encyclopedic' in the sense that they retain facts as independent entities,
>but instead reflect that which it is expedient to remember. . . .
>Ong talks about research which suggests that oral texts were not remembered
>exactly and transmitted exactly, but actually changed dramatically during
>retellings - just as when these stories were written down they changed in
>the retelling, and caused networks of manuscript traditions to emerge.
>Devices such as rhyme and verbal patterning may have helped storytellers
>remember the broader structure, but not the fine detail; the fine detail
>didn't seem to matter until the Romantic 'cult of the author' focused on the
>notion of a perfect, final text. . . .

FWIW, I believe that you misrepresent Ong here.  His point was much closer 
to that of your first paragraph, that oral accounts change according to the 
contemporary needs of the society in which they are told.  In fact, in 
"Orality and Literacy," his last book, Ong notes the capacity for fine 
detail to be recalled in oral cultures when there is a compelling reason to 
do so.  Yet, whole clans or tribes might disappear from stories if the clan 
had died out and was no longer relevant to the contemporary society.  I'm 
sorry I don't have the reference -- I'm at home and all of that is at the 
office.  But long ago I wrote an M.A. thesis about such things, with Ong's 
work as the central theory.

A more interesting question for this list, to return to the spirit of the 
original post, is whether the fluid nature of electronic text creates a 
similar circumstance.  Because web pages are changed and updated frequently 
and with great ease, is Internet culture more "oral" than literate in 
nature in the sense that web documents continually evolve according to the 
needs of users?  On suggested we are at the dawn of an era of "Secondary 
Orality" in which electronic media would supplant print.  In a conference 
paper some years back I suggested the term "Secondary Literacy" for the 
fluid and conversational way in which text is used in computer mediated 
communication.  The works of J. David Bolter and of James J. O'Donnell 
important to wrestling with this question.

By the way, I often read part of Socrates' invective against writing to my 
Intro to Mass Media classes without telling them where the quote comes 
from, and ask students to guess what the speaker is so upset 
about.  Invariably, they respond that the device that robs us of memory 
must be the computer.  Next they guess television.  They are always shocked 
to discover that people have been critical of "new" media for over 2,000 years!

Mark D. Johns, Ph.D.
Asst. Professor of Communication/Linguistics,
Luther College, Decorah, Iowa
"Get the facts first. You can distort them later."
     ---Mark Twain  

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