One of the main things I get from reading Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” is his primary thesis: that writing–particularly non-oral alphabetic discursive literacies–not only offer tools for communication but change how we think and communicate in fundamentally “noetic” way. As he writes, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (24).
Ong’s point connects to the ongoing discussion of whether technology or artifacts have politics, though in this case, it focuses more on the way that technology affects our thinking.
One way writing changes us is through memory. As we noted from Rickert–who drew from Hayles–people have tended to build “smarter” technology to help with memory. This could include the early tokens of Mesopotamia, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat discussed, and their capacity to track goods. It could also include the various reminder and calendar apps that populate smart phones and computers. All of these keep track of other things so we don’t have to.
On the one hand, this is positive. Answering a few Doodle polls this past week to schedule meetings, I’ve consulted the calendar on my smart phone. I also use a more low-tech near-daily inventory of general to-dos. All of these keep my working memory from getting too cluttered.
But Socrates, via Plato–whom Ong cites–criticizes these technologies, particularly the technology of writing. As Socrates says, in the apparent voice of King Thamus, “You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.” The person who writes something down, he goes on, is relying on extrinsic things–an extrinsic system of signs, materials outside the body, etc.–and is only creating a later sign-post to return to an earlier thought. The writer is not actually holding onto and engaging with the thought. They can’t defend it either. The thought is orphaned, isolated, and silent.
This leads Socrates to characterize writing as something static, like a visual image. As he says, “The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The this is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” I find the turn to the visual to be an interesting shift, but it makes sense, as visuals are more static if we take an oral view of language.
This characterization made more sense as Ong took it up, connecting the static quality that Socrates ascribes to print to the static “being” of Platonic forms. As Ong argues, “Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy precisely with visible form. Despite his touting of logos and speech, the Platonic ideas in effect modelled intelligence not so much on hearing as on seeing” (29). We see this with his discussion in the Protagorus, as they dissect a poem, which would be hard to do without a static referent.
Indeed, print is a visual medium, a series of squiggles carried through some medium–captured through handwriting, type-faces, or pixels. It is silent, like a fresco, and in a Platonic sense, it’s non-material. But this silent, non-material Being of writing, as Ong notes, “assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (31). It gets “spoken” in our heads or through bodies and machines, but as the word-iself, it feels permanent. Parmenides has triumphed over Heraclitus.
This non-material sense of writing brings me back to one of my teachers in Classical Philosophy who drew a triangle on the board. “What is this?” he asked. “A triangle,” we said. “No,” he replied, “it’s some chalk dust smudged a certain way.” He then wrote out the definition; we fell into the same trap. “No,” he replied, “it’s the definition of a triangle.” The triangle-in-itself is only mediated into existence, never actually existing as a material being.
With this Platonic view of writing, I think we are somewhat trapped in all the distancing that Ong ascribes to writing. It’s a somewhat long litany, but he often focuses on the growing divide between the “lifeworld” and the abstract, as writing makes our own thinking more abstracted from everyday life. We discuss more the idea of things than the things in themselves. Time and space also distance. We become more artificial in out being, though, as Ong paradoxically notes, it’s natural for humans to be artificial through technology. Technology, itself, is natural.
But I don’t think we need to be Platonic. As Heidegger argues–and Rickert–regarding the fourfold, dwelling assumes a lifeworld of both matter and meaning. “Hammer,” as word, is deeply stitched into the material of the hammer-object and the action of human-hammering, and in-turn, this layered ontology of the object, withdrawing and presencing as the situation changes, fits into the broader world of relations. So, to me, there is nothing Platonic about a hammer or the word hammer.
The same for visuals. I think here of Lauri Gries’ work. Following the Obama Hope image with a New Materialist underpinning, she highlights the “vital materiality” of the image. As she writes, “rhetoric transforms and transcends across genres, media, and forms as it circulates and intra-acts with other human and nonhuman entities. Rhetoric also moves in nonlinear, inconsistent, and often unpredictable ways within and across multiple networks of associations” (7). Seeing the networked and networking threads and ripples of beings–both human and nonhuman, concrete and nonmaterial–something that feels “distant” or “dead” is very much alive.