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Public/Private People

In the field of orality/literacy studies, Walter Ong was a sort of godfather. There’s a pun in there, only partly intended, since Ong was a Jesuit priest in addition to being a renowned professor of English literature. Ong argued that the human sensorium was organized in a way that reflected a ratio of senses produced, in part, by environmental factors including the dominant media of the environment. This idea was shared by Marshall McLuhan, among others, McLuhan having supervised Ong’s Masters thesis. The key point to understand about this phenomenon is that the difference between oral/aural cultures and those that have adopted literacy is significant in many ways. Likewise, the difference between electronic cultures and the literate cultures that often preceded them are also significant. Ong writes this in his book Orality and Literacy on pages 67 and 68:

In oral cultures a request for information is commonly interpreted interactively (Malinowski 1923, pp. 451, 470–81), as agonistic, and, instead of being really answered, is frequently parried. An illuminating story is told of a visitor in County Cork, Ireland, an especially oral region in a country which in every region preserves massive residual orality. The visitor saw a Corkman leaning against the post office. He went up to him, pounded with his hand on the post office wall next to the Corkman’s shoulder, and asked, ‘Is this the post office?’ The Corkman was not taken in. He looked at his questioner quietly and with great concern: ‘’Twouldn’t be a postage stamp you were lookin’ for, would it?’ He treated the enquiry not as a request for information but as something the enquirer was doing to him. So he did something in turn to the enquirer to see what would happen. All natives of Cork, according to the mythology, treat all questions this way. Always answer a question by asking another. Never let down your oral guard.

Primary orality fosters personality structures that in certain ways are more communal and externalized, and less introspective than those common among literates. Oral communication unites people in groups. Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself. A teacher speaking to a class which he feels and which feels itself as a close-knit group, finds that if the class is asked to pick up its textbooks and read a given passage, the unity of the group vanishes as each person enters into his or her private lifeworld. An example of the contrast between orality and literacy on these grounds is found in Carother’s report (1959) of evidence that oral peoples commonly externalize schizoid behavior where literates interiorize it. Literates often manifest tendencies (loss of contact with environment) by psychic withdrawal into a dreamworld of their own (schizophrenic delusional systematization), oral folk commonly manifest their schizoid tendencies by extreme external confusion, leading often to violent action, including mutilation of the self and of others. This behavior is frequent enough to have given rise to special terms to designate it: the old-time Scandinavian warrior going ‘berserk’, the Southeast Asian person running ‘amok’.

This way of thinking influences Marshall McLuhan’s work on electronic culture, in which he argues that electronic media have retrieved aspects of oral culture that result in a communal and externalized life. He describes the process as a tribalization, while carefully noting that electronic culture is distinct from oral culture in many ways. You can’t become unliterate once you are literate, for example, and so this 3rd way is something new entirely. (See: Paul Levinson’s Digital McLuhan)

The sociologist Erving Goffman famously wrote in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that human behavior is divided according to a front stage and back stage. In order to manage the impression an individual makes on others, he/she chooses particular aspects of his/her personality to promote to the front stage or keep hidden in the back stage. Context determines this, by and large, so you might imagine that a vacation to Cancun would be described differently to your party friends than it would be to your parents or grandparents (in general). You would tell your party friends about your drunken collapse in the street and how you woke up next to a parakeet and an empty bottle of tequila, wearing a gorilla suit, while you would censor that part of your trip in favor of the cultural sights you took in when speaking with your family. Some of his other well known work on the subject are Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings and Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order, among others.

So, which part of our culture remains private? What part of our interior remains interior in this new existence? What do we choose to exteriorize and in what amount? What form or shape? Read the Wesch article posted to Blackboard and be ready to deal with these things in class on Wednesday, May 29th.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University



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