Debate Magazine

Spirits of Orality

By Cris

As university students today well know, power-point obsessed lecturers have internalized the idea, drawn from evolutionary biology, that the primary mode of perception for primates is vision. As university students today also well know, this modern pedagogical axiom can suck the life right out of a room. Back in ancient times, or in the 1980s when I first attended university, only the dullest of lecturers required anything so fancy as plastic slides on an overhead projector. Everything was oral, chalkboards were sufficient, and it was wonderful. Or at least I thought it was, the occasional droning aside. My how things have changed. Today it would be unthinkable to deliver a lecture without the aid or crutch of power-point. If the slides are especially busy, students need pay no mind to the babbling person, or reader, who advances them.

Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic but it seems to me that this modern wisdom ignores what is perhaps the most significant and unique aspect of human evolution: we are talking primates. This means, conversely or conjunctively, that we are listening primates. In these weirdly literate and visual times, it is easy to forget — and hard to imagine — that our primary adaptation is oral. The long, slow, and fitful shift away from this adaptation to literacy was, cognitively speaking, enormously consequential. Just 5,000 years ago, all cultures were oral. Today, there are almost none. Those of us deeply and irrevocably enmeshed in the visual world of words can scarcely imagine living in the spoken world of sound.

Those who study traditional cultures in general and hunter-gatherers in particular are no doubt aware of these issues, but awareness and understanding are two different things. I’ve been groping toward some understanding, inspired in this task initially by Jack Goody’s Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977). While Goody’s classic opened my eyes to these issues, my ears were not opened until reading Walter Ong’s brilliant Orality and Literacy (1982). If you read only one book on this subject, which you should, this is the one. Those who wish to do so can find and download it simply by using some Google visual-word magic.

Ong’s book whetted my aural appetite, introduced me to Eric Havelock, and resulted in additional reading, including an article that has caused me to seriously question the adequacy of the phrase “animist worldview.” As regular readers know, this is a phrase that I and others often use. In “World as View and World as Event” (open), Ong interrogates this metaphor:

As a concept and term, “world view” is useful but can at times be misleading. It reflects the marked tendency of [literate humans] to think of actuality as something essentially picturable and to think of knowledge itself by analogy with visual activity to the exclusion, more or less, of the other senses. Oral or nonwriting cultures tend much more to cast up actuality in comprehensive auditory terms, such as voice and harmony. Their “world” is not so markedly something spread out before the eyes as a “view” but rather something dynamic and relatively unpredictable, an event-world rather than an object-world, highly personal, overtly polemic, fostering sound-oriented, traditionalist personality structures less interiorized and solipsistic than those of [literate humans]. The concept of world “view” may not only interfere with the empathy necessary for understanding such cultures but may even be outmoded for our own, since modern [society] has entered into a new electronic compact with sound.

I’m not sure whether Ong (who was a Jesuit) deliberately riffed his title from Arthur Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, but if so it’s a nice ironic touch. Orality raises serious ontological questions.


Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1781)

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