Category Archives: oral_culture

blogging restructures consciousness?

The following story suggests that it does. Last month, Chris Bowers of the progressive political blog MyDD, underwent a small existential crisis brought on by a ham-fisted report on public television about political blogging that bungled a number of basic facts, including Bowers’ very existence on the MyDD masthead. The result was a rare moment of introspection in an otherwise hyper-extroverted medium:

…I admit that the past three years of blogging have altered me in some rather dramatic ways that do, in fact, begin to call very existence into question. I am not referring to the ways that blogging has caused a career change, granted me political and media access that I still find shocking, almost entirely ended my participation in old social circles and presented me with new ones, allowed me to work from home, or otherwise had an impact on the day to day activities of my life. Instead, I am actually referring to an important way in which blogging has altered my very consciousness. After two and a half years of virtually non-stop blogging, my perception of myself as a distinct individual has dramatically waned. My interior monologue has virtually disappeared. I no longer have aesthetic-based epiphanies, and I almost never concern myself with examining internal passions or emotions anymore. Blogging has not just changed the activities in which I engage–the activities in which I engage in order to be a successful blogger have profoundly altered the way my mind operates and the way I conceptualize my agency in relation to others. In effect, I do not exist in the same way I once existed.

First off, I’m reminded of something Sebastian Mary was saying last month about moving beyond the idea of “authorship” and the economic and political models that undergird it (the print publishing industry, academia etc.) toward genuinely new forms of writing for the electronic landscape. “My hunch,” she says, “is that things are going two ways: writers as orchestrators of mass creativity, or writers as wielders of a new rhetoric.” Little is understood about what the collapse of today’s publishing systems would actually mean or look like, and even less about the actual experience of the new writing — that is, the new states of mind and modes of vision that are only beginning to be cracked open through the exploration of new forms. Bowers, as a spokesman for the new rhetoric (or at least one fledgeling branch of it) shines a small light on this murky area.
OngReading.jpg This also brings me back to Bob’s recent excursion into Walter Ong territory, talking about the possibility of a shift, through new networked forms of creativity, back toward something resembling the collectivity of oral cultures. Bowers and his blog might suggest the beginnings of a case study. Is this muting of the interior monologue, this waning sense of self as a “distinct individual,” the product of a kind of communication that is at once written and oral — both individualistic and collective?
Ong called the invention of writing the “technologizing of the word,” a process that fundamentally restructures human consciousness. In this history of literacy, the spoken word is something that wells up directly from the human unconscious, whereas written language is expressed through artificial (i.e. human-made) frameworks, systems of “consciously contrived, articulable rules.” These rules (and their runes) create a scaffold for the brain, which, now able to engage with complex ideas in contemplative solitude as opposed to interlocution, begins to conceive of itself as an individual entity rather than as part of a collective. Literate cultures are thus cognitively different than oral ones.
Bowers’ confession suggests that this progression is being, if not reversed, then at least confused.
The kind of communication that he and his fellow rhetoriticians have been orchestrating in recent years in the blogosphere — not to mention parallel developments elsewhere with wikis, message boards, social media, games and other inchoate forms that feel as much like public spaces as documents — has a speed and plasticity that approaches oral communication. A blog post isn’t so much a finished opus as a lump of clay that readers and other bloggers collectively shape through comments and discussion. Are these new technologies of the word (and beyond the word) restructuring consciousness?
Bowers concludes:

We political bloggers have spilled a great deal of ink on analytical, meta-blogosphere commentaries, and on how we would like to se the political process be reformed. I think we can do an equally great service–both to politics and to blogging–by spilling a little more ink on ourselves.

back to the future

John Walter, a graduate student at St. Louis University wrote to the TechRet list the other day to announce the launch of the Walter Ong Collection, a digital archive based at the SLU. I went to the site and downloaded a PDF of an early version of one of Ong’s more famous essays, “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction.” In this particular essay, Ong who made his name analyzing the difference between oral and written communication, explores how this shift changed the role of the reader. Ong makes the case that the role of the reader is quite different than the role of the “listener” in oral communication.

“The orator has before him an audience which is a true audience, a collectivity. ‘Audience” is a collective noun. There is no such collective noun for readers, nor so far as I am able to puzzle out, can there be. “Readers” is a plural. For readers do not form a collectivity acting here and now on one another, and on the one speaking to them, as members of an audience do.”

What’s so interesting here, is that it seems that the age of networked reading and writing promises to get us much closer to one of the crucial aspects of oral culture — the sense that the story teller/author and the audience/reader are joined together in a collective enterprise where the actions of each will have a direct and noticeable impact on the other.