Phaedrus, Composition, and Walter Ong: the enduring buzz

Rhetoric/Composition scholars and teachers love a classical reference – perhaps they lend the whole endeavor a bit of gravitas that pedagogical discussions, as essential as they are, may sometimes lack. Stanford’s Andrea Lunsford, known for her work on the CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments as well as the Stanford Study of Writing, uses Plato’s Phaedrus as the first assigned reading in her class, “Memory and Media.” So it seems that I, as a recent reader of this dialogue, have stumbled into good scholarly company.

Plato preferred direct participation in the Socratic dialectic — but he wasn’t above writing to make a point.

Such a community of readers has apparently been so gathered in contemplation of the Phaedrus for some years.  As early as 1985, Jesuit scholar Walter Ong noted, “It has lately become fashionable in some linguistic circles to refer to Plato’s condemnation of writing in the Phaedrus . . .” (27).  This aside, included in Ong’s contribution to The Written Word:  Literacy in Transition, “Writing Restructures Thought,” embodies his offering during the “Wolson College Lectures” of 1985, the proceedings of which are collected in The Written Word.  In a turn that may strike you as ironic in just a moment, Ong’s essay, circulated in print, was at least occasioned by the oral performance of an Oxford graduate college’s annual lecture series.

Walter Ong, PhD

But before offering further comments on Ong, I should consider:  Why the long-standing scholarly fascination with Plato’s Phaedrus, especially among teachers?  Is it warranted?

One answer is the Phaedrus appeals to us because it can be read (with only a slightly a-historical bit of solipsistic tweaking) as a warning to those of us who might view our own technological moment, suffused as it is within its numinous penumbra of digital text, with trepidation, suspicion, or else a simple conservative longing for the scribble-ridden and type-set hardcopy world of our youth.

That is, and strange as it may sound, we can take as an allegory of our time the story Plato unfolds in his dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutor, the stolid Phaedrus, a tale of how an Egyptian king of great perspicacity rejects a deity’s offer of the technology of writing.  In Plato’s dialogue, King Thamos refutes the ibis-headed Theuth’s (aka Thoth’s) claim that writing will “make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories,” thereby granting them greater wisdom.  Plato offers many reasons for prioritizing the Socratic dialectic, and the oral exchange upon which it depends, as a method of inquiry which, for Plato  was always a pursuit rich with moral implications (cf the Allegory of the Cave or even The Republic).  After all, Plato felt that the soul itself was what did man’s best thinking.

Here’s the more self-interested update that we cannot help but read between the lines:  Our society’s benevolent technocrats, wielding the almost divine productive power of late-industrial society, have placed us in the almost royal position of being able to accept or reject a kind of writing, writing.2+, digital writing.  Are we going to do as did the curmudgeonly Thamus and look the proverbial god in the beak?  Or shall we rejoice at our good fortune?

I am not, of course, alone in this baseline reading of this Platonic dialog. Ong offered much the same comparison in ‘85 and, going further, explained how “Plato’s objections against writing are essentially the very same objections commonly urged today against computers by those who object to them” (27).

Of the several criticisms Ong explores, I find most fascinating his response to Plato’s sense that text is limited by its inability to respond to its reader’s queries.  When Socrates describes a communication of “unquestioned legitimacy,” he emphasizes knowledge that is “written in the soul of the learner:  that can defend itself, and knows to whom it should speak and to whom it should say nothing.”  That is, Plato emphasizes oral communication between people who can probe one another’s claims and gauge the impact of their words upon their living audience.

To respond to this part of Phaedrus on behalf of computer literati everywhere, Ong has to first explain in serious terms the allegorical reading I limned above, to show how Plato’s reservations about the unresponsiveness of writing typify contemporary gripes about computer-generated textuality.  Briefly dabbling in vernacular expression, Ong writes, “In the Modern Critique of the computer, the same objection is put, “Garbage in, garbage out; so deeply are we into literacy that we fail commonly to recognize that this objection applies every bit as much to books as to computers.  If a book states an untruth, ten thousand printed refutations will do nothing to the printed text . . . . .  Texts are essentially contumacious” (27).  Ong’s assertion of an underlying textual contumacity, the tendency of the meaning made of a text by readers to depart from that which was intended by the responsible author(ity), will surprise no readers of “Literacy Restructures Thought” coming to the conversation with literary-critical notches in their repertorial belts.

Let us be clear, though, that Ong’s note about writing’s obliviousness to authority does not represent his point of view:  that is the “They Say” (to use half of the analytical formulation made current by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s eminently practical writing text) to which Ong then responds.  Ong finds Plato’s critique of writing uncompelling because writing was used to frame it – and not only literally, on the page, but as a technology that, “Restructures Thought,” as in the titular claim of his essay.  Ong avers,  “The technology of writing was not merely useful to Plato for broadcasting his critique of writing, but it also had been responsible for bringing the critique into existence . . . his philosophically analytic thought was possible only because of the effects that writing was having on mental processes.”  Ong feels that Plato failed to engage in (or else failed to fully report) in what we might call meta-cognition about the sources of his own thinking, which supports Ong’s secondary contention, that we tend to be blind to the degree to which technology enables our innermost thought processes.  The situation become difficult, Ong supposes, for “[o]nce the word is technologized, there is no really effective way to criticize its condition without the aid of the technology you are criticizing.  The complaints about these . . . inventions are all the same because writing and print and the computer all ways of technologizing the word” (28).

Conceiving of language’s technologicization offers us ample moments to contemplate the use of technology/language with ironic self-reflection.  Can I, writer whose sense of himself as such was learned at about the rate I learned to type (with somewhat haphazard accuracy) on an electric typewriter in a high school “Typing 1” classroom, really opine with complete clarity from behind the screen of my MacBookPro on either typographic or digital technologies?  And what do we make of Ong’s own words in “Writing Restructures Thought,” an essay, now digitized, that we might otherwise encounter in a printed volume, as noted above, that purports to capture the verbal performances of an Oxford college lecture series?

To turn back to our cartoonish royal dilemma, Ong’s main insight — that every iteration of  the technologized word creates, or “restructures” a corresponding iteration in human consciousness —  raises the stakes of our previously easy choice:  If you were king for a day, and an Ibis-headed programmer/god offered you digital writing, would you accept it into the society you were meant to safeguard if you knew that adopting that tool would forever alter the very thought processes of your subjects in a manner so profound that they would have difficulty achieving any awareness of the change?

Ong’s direction helps us appreciate just a bit of Plato’s trepidation, his need to spin a mythic yarn that sets the stage for him to note some reservations about the written word.  Plato liked the orality that suffused his culture, even though he availed himself off and penned written texts.  To offer a humble example from our own moment, I still like to print longer articles, even though I secure the articles through a laptop and wireless network.

Looking good?  Or, extending Ong, might we suffer from a digital “squint”? Should we trust our own judgment about digital technologies and their (re)structural impact upon our thoughts?

While Ong responds to Plato’s depiction of text as unresponsive, noting that the same could be said of digital text, I see the matter, writing as I do from a more fully realized moment of digital culture, quite differently.  Seeking parallels, Ong argues that we can make the same argument about computer-based text Plato did about chirographic (handwritten) text.  But our experience of hypertextual digital media is not of a kind with that we have of printed text.

Consider the potentially responsive nature of digital text:  If you gently mock a friend’s ranting on facebook, he is all too likely to counter with a jest of his own.  Post a quibble on a writer’s blog, and the author may well write back, publicly, perhaps thanking you for the point of clarification, perhaps taking you to task for an obtuse point of reasoning of your own.  Slander a teacher on “Rate My Professor,” and she or he may well offer a dexterous riposte on the same forum.

Thus we may have to qualify for ourselves Ong’s assertion that the underlying contumacy of texts (27) is equivalent in the oral and digital eras.  If anything, I find the “agonistic mentality of oral cultures” (28) is more widespread in a world of digital textuality.  The idea that the text cannot defend itself reflects a reified approaching to media; the text is alienated from the authorial labor, and is discussed as if it assumes agency in her stead.  However, if a text retains its connection to an author (or, for that matter, a set of authors), a connection that can be rendered live at any moment, across any worldly distance, we no longer need, as Plato seemed to do, to both fear and fetishize the text as a chimaeric automaton that alienates utterance from author in perpetuity.  Hypertextuality preserves the author-textual bond valorized by Plato’s emphasis on oral exchange, thereby troubling Ong’s characterization of them as parallel developments.

Though his work in “Literacy Restructures Thought” could not include much analysis of the features of digital literacy, such as hypertext, Ong expected great things from it, and he wanted to help his readers shake off the “chirotic squint commonly afflicting cultures that have deeply interiorized writing” and accept his idea that “[w]riting is a consciousness raising and humanizing technology” (48).

And it may be just that; composition instructors certainly tend to laud it as such.  But perhaps we shouldn’t take this as an article of faith.  In fact, several sources urge us to pause, lest we expect too much of the digital update to Thoth’s scrivened largesse.

Dennis Baron, author of “Fom Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology”

In “Pencils to Pixels” Professor Dennis Baron gives the Phaedrus this capsule discussion:  ‘Plato was one leading thinker who spoke out strongly against writing, fearing that it would weaken our memories.  Pessimistic complaints about new literacy technologies, like those made by Plato . . . . are balanced by inflated predictions of how technologies will change our lives for the better” (4).

In Ong, I think we certainly have a case of the kind of rosy prescience to which Baron alludes.  And while I value how Ong’s grand narrative can help us begin our thinking about the possible impact of literacy upon oral cultures, I feel, as does Rhetoric/Composition PhD student Timothy Dougherty, author of the blog New Seeds, that Ong’s categories, and the conclusions he draws about them, may be both overly simplistic and suggest an untenable cultural bias.

Timothy  Dougherty writes that Walter Ong’s essay “Writing Restructures Thought” is “a classic piece, much maligned (and for good reason).”

Dougherty’s critique emphasizes  Ong’s description of oral cultures as “synthetic” in their dominant thought process and literate cultures as “analytic,” as we saw in Plato’s case.  No doubt schooled in deconstruction himself, Dougherty sees Ong’s fundamental oppositional distinction between oral and literate cultures to be, “so impoverished it barely warrants scrutiny.”  He goes on:  “Not only does [“Writing Restructures Thought”] assign these binaries roughshod over cultures, it also retains an eerie faith in analytic thinking over synthetic, in cultures always evolving, developing, from less sophisticated to more sophisticated” (Dougherty’s emphasis).

In my own reading of Ong, I noted that in making his case that writing’s properties can be “good for us” (32), his thinking rests upon the common teleological assumption that cultural change is always cultural progress.  Writing, for Ong, creates “the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does” (32).  It is in passages such as this in which a value-laden, even ethnocentric message becomes legible:  by describing the alteration of consciousness as “evolutionary,” Ong subscribes to the narrative of progress that so often legitimates dominant, even imperial points of view, while justifying the erasure of others from historical memory.  By assume that the cultural change under discussion is “evolutionary,” Ong of course tends to privilege the print culture in which he was raised and made his way as a professional member of an intellectual elite.

If we abandon the assumption that literate culture is somehow superior to oral culture, what are we left with?  I am uncertain if we can claim anything than this: writing-based cultures are qualitatively distinct from oral cultures; writing did indeed change things, but we should hesitate to ascribe value to that shift, particularly when, as Ong points out, literate cultures tend to preserve themselves, displace others, and place themselves in a position to take others as object of study (26-27).  That is, there is history of contestation and domination lurking in the margins of Ong’s tale of the “evolution of consciousness.”  From the vantage point Ong offers us, we must consider carefully if we have the means to identify what may have been lost.

 Ong offers another and similarly value-laden judgment with the manner in which he attempts to support his assertion that, “[t]echnology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it” (32).  His evidence for his claim, a discussion of the “precision-tooled” technological acumen that supports the functioning of the Western orchestra (32), is an oddly ethnocentric and futurist-leaning self justification, one that implicitly esteems the musical expression of Western literate culture above the music of not only Western antiquity, but every oral culture the world has ever known.

Again, I would recognize what seems most valid in Ong’s argument:  that technology creates real changes in lived experience.  As a player of electric instruments, I know well that I am a sort of   crude technician – from changing strings to replacing vacuum tubes in amplifiers to testing batteries in signal processing pedals, I do maintenance upon the tools of my (hobbyist’s) trade.  But, even so, I would hesitate to affix a superior cultural value to the product of these efforts, for to be do so would only esteems my own experience of my own culture, and render even less likely any kind of effective analysis of it.

None of these reservations about Ong’s work empty it of all utility.  Unlike, Dougherty, I feel Ong’s distinctions between oral and literate cultures (plural!), sweeping as they are, still allow him to unveil perspicacious distinctions based upon the categories he constructs.  For example, Ong writes, “Even informal person-to person conversations between literates are not structured like those among persons in a primary oral culture.  Simple queries for information acquire a new status. . .” (36).

Here, for example, if we extrapolate this distinction forward from the oral/literary divide to the typographic/digital shift of our own time, I find Ong’s words remarkably prescient.  Digitally literate societies do indeed hold conversations in new ways (facebook, IM, skype, text, twitter, etc.) and the engines of query (google, worldcat, etc.) have gained a profound preeminence, thereby mirroring the corresponding changes Ong noted in the shift from oral to literate society.

Ong was one thinker to identify the enduring centrality of the query.  The text being searched in this image:  “Where is my mind?”

After reading Ong, I say, let us accept our technological moment, but avoid the trap of ideological narcissism that can lead us to into excessive self-validation.  Such a position is unlikely to lead to good thinking, and poor reasoning about the world is unlikely, I believe, to lead to good teaching.  I contend that we cannot, from our vantage point, presume to know if the people of oral cultures live or lived any more or less completely than do we.  Perhaps it is safest to assume that technological acumen impacts human consciousness with a price, if only in that once thought is, in Ongian terms, “restructured,” we are poorly equipped to recall quite precisely what we once were.

Should we embrace digital literacy and textuality?  Of course, but, to bring another Greek term into the matter, we might avoid the hubris of assuming the superiority of the consciousness that finds such technology appealing; rather, we should attempt to avoid, as much as possible, replacing the “chirographic squint” Ong postulated with an equally obfuscatory “digital squint.”

Neither do we, as members of culture undergoing a transition from one textual mode to another, assume a reactionary stance, as Plato seems to have done.  He was of an oral culture assessing the meaning of its own chirographic literacy.  I was born on the cusp of the ascendant digital literacy and, as an educator vested in the future, it behooves me to refrain from either a conservative attachment to the kind of print culture through which I became literate, or a conversely disproportionate overvaluation of features intrinsic to digital text.


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