Insofar as rhetorical practice travels through systems of symbolicity, so-called channels or modes of communication are the discursive spaces within which rhetoric operates. And insofar as rhetorical practice should culminate in some sort of adjustment or change in audients’, readers’, or viewers’ knowledges, feelings, self-identities, and/or behaviors, the ways in which those dimensions of individuals are accessed physiologically are central to rhetorical effectivity. Those two axioms comprise the grounds for rhetoricians’ interest in the orality-literacy theorems.
The orality-literacy theorems grow out of studies of oral, literate, and electronic media of communication. Milman Perry’s work in the 1920s on rhythmic and syllabic patterns in Homer, arguing that oral rhetors could insert variously metered epithets – “pre-fabricated materials” (Ong 1982, 21) – from a stock list, showed us how grand epics could be presented without brute memorization; standardized forms plus commonplace epic themes could be woven endlessly into different-yet-coherent patterns in oral psychoculture. Psychocultural theorization, contrasting oral and literate cultures, had begun.
Here is a dual focus on both the ways in which whole societies are dominated by one or more of those media in any given epoch (macro-theorems) and the processes by which individuals come to process symbols delivered to them aurally, visually (via literate, pictorial, performed, or material symbols), and even tactilely, olfactorily, or gustatorily (micro-theorems). Theorems are understood broadly as propositions that are derived from axioms or other pre-existing formulae, as a logician might understand that notion, but also more narrowly as “more or less hypothetical statements” derived from observations of human communication practices (Ong 1982, 156). The observations come from combing historical accounts – epic oral/written poetry, early treatises, sacred and profane literature – in order to reconstruct communication practices that would be explained were the theorems accepted as true. The orality-literacy theorems, therefore, are largely post hoc explanations of the communication environments within which the human lifeworld operates and of the mental operations for perception, comprehension, understanding, and evaluation that are conditioned by different communication media. After examining both the macro- and micro-theorems underlying interests in oral, literate, and electronic environments, this article will relate them to a broader notion of media ecology and to conceptions of rhetoric.
Macro-Theory: Dominant Media In Society
McLuhan first became known widely for writing about social structure, culture, and communication media. Following other historians of technology and society, most notably Mumford (1934) and Innis (e.g., 1972), McLuhan’s The Gutenberg galaxy (1962) was a study of the impact of mechanically reproduced literacy – the flood of publishing following the invention of the printing press. “Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people,” he argued (1962, 7), “but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike.” McLuhan brought into focus the theorem that changes in dominant media of communication – oral to literate to electronic – rippled through the social, economic, political, and religious institutions of societies, altering them determinatively.
Oral culture: Havelock (1986) was concerned among other things with understanding how cultural frameworks – nomoi and êthea – were constructed, maintained, and transmitted in an oral society. Translating these words as custom-laws and folk-ways, respectively, he argued that orations and especially poems were the keys to managing life in pre-literate Greek society. Poetry embedded history and wisdom from the past, while orations contained the grand visions of the world and human beings’ places within it at times of crisis and decision. Custom-laws were sayings or aphorisms that encapsulated the wisdom of one’s ancestors in mnemonically memorable ways, while folk-ways were the accepted routines of doing everything from accomplishing everyday tasks to relating to other societies.
Socialization and understanding of one’s place in the collectivity were achieved through recitative educative processes, but more in the large on public occasions, festivals where the folk would gather to renew their collective commitments and have reinforced their individual and societal identities. The nomoi and êthea were captured in streams of sound from the poets, seers, priests, orators, and actors working amphitheater audiences, who in turn, with their clapping, singing, and recitations, legitimated cultural understandings. Together, they formed the echo-principle: the audience could follow celebrants, even join in repetitions of key notions or lessons, much as today’s child reads a book over and over, finding joy in speaking the lines being read by a parent. Oral cultures thus live in an evolving present, grounded in traditions from the past that are echoed in public recountings of them, building futures molded out of tradition.
Literate culture: McLuhan (1962) argued that the movement in the west from chirographic to print literacy conditioned European democratization, the Reformation, school teaching, and the scientific method. For Postman (1985), the west reached its zenith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the height to him of political writing, scientific advancement, school expansion, and public business. Deibert (1997) added that the mechanical-literate revolution represented by print radically changed modes of distributing knowledge and of thinking – social epistemology – and hence showed us that new media are environments rather than simply tools. Not only did societies’ institutions change with the coming of new media, he argued, but so did the mentalités collectives – collective and individual consciousness.
Electronic culture: each new electronic technology – telegraph, telephone, silent then sound film, radio, television, computer-assisted communication – deepened human beings’ reliance upon “conveniences” in communication, work relationships, and entertainment, but, more than that, rewired the ways we talk in, interact with, access, and process the world. The electronic age, as well, became the age of spectacle, where publicly shared images or sequences of (moving) images seized dominant places in western socio-political life, producing an ocularcentric society. If the electronic media gave us pictures that took the place of direct human encounter, computerization only accelerated reliance upon virtual interconnectivity, creating a cyberworld in which material spaces gave way to their pixilated representations and in which identities could be remanufactured at will.
Overall, the social-historical shifts from oral to literate to electronic culture wrenched familial-institutional life and individuals’ operations within it, producing new cultural rules and roles. Shifts in mediation were accompanied by wholesale revolution in human environments and the procedures needed to work within them.
Micro-Theory: Acoustic Coding, Literacy, And Visuality
As already suggested, not only did the west witness fundamental changes in socialpolitical-economic-religious institutions as orally based monopolies of knowledge yielded to literately and then electronically dispersed social epistemologies, but it has experienced shifts in mental operations accompanying alterations in human reliance upon acoustic, literate-symbolic, and visual-pictorial channels of communication. The orality-literacy theorems attempt to account for those shifts.
The acoustic world: with no inscription to record ideas, traditions, procedures, and marks of identity, how did oral (tribal) cultures socialize and grip their members? Through mnemonics and speech formulae with rhythm, balance, repetition, alliteration, and assonance, and proverbs that could be applied situationally, answer oralists. Ong (1982) inventoried characteristics of orally based thought and expression, suggesting among other things that acoustically circulated ideas were additive (not subordinate), aggregative and clichéd (not analytic), redundant (not sparse), conservative or traditionalist (without narrative originality), concrete or close to the lifeworld, agonistically toned (contrasting pieces of proverbial wisdom to solve specific problems), empathetic and participatory, homeostatic (seeking stable equilibria), and highly situational. One sees heroic achievement in oral cultures, but little in the way of individual identity; membership and totems define the self, acquired through recitation and ritual practice. The world and those dwelling in one’s tribe are interiorized largely through sound.
The literate world: in the west, literacy spawned a very different consciousness. Writers and readers gained a sense of individual identity; places to read were built into living quarters, isolating self-consciousness. Writing separated ideas from those thinking them, even abstracting written philosophies and literatures that took on existences independent of authors. Authorizing could become a logical-rational, rule-based testing process rather than a matter of collective affirmation. Organized vocabularies representing community or national language practices and associated with discursive realms of life (economics, social relations, theological orientations), grapholects, grew strong enough to separate the knower from the known. From here, it was but a short journey to “typographical man” (McLuhan 1962), the “typographic mind” (Postman 1985), and even a new world, “typographic America” (Postman 1985) – modernism.
The electronic world: the theorems suggest that one should be able to trace the remanufacture of human subjectivity today. Assuming that westerners have been visionbiased since the beginning of cultural life, how might we pursue the impact of “new media” in our time? Remediation is a framing process, suggesting both that new media absorb and remake older channels/practices and that old media steal from the new to create retrograde media and hence adapt to new conditions. So, computer games draw on epic stories and film narratives, while both realistic films such as Jurassic Park and animated features such as Shrek work off digitized images, special effects, and editing. Waite (2003) goes further, arguing that the electronic screen arts, in particular, can alter humans’ sense of duration and space, providing a variable flex orientation, constructing a new communication matrix within which we comprehend the external and our internal worlds through de-centered experiences. The medium is the message (McLuhan 1964), as well as the environment and the fundament of psychic life.
The Theorems, Media Ecology, And Rhetoric
If we assume that rhetoric is both a practice of figuration and means of persuasion, then the internal-psychological figuration of the world via symbols and the externalsocial, public discourses by which large groups of people are persuaded to experience that world both are significant rhetorical concerns. Rhetoric, like the orality-literacy theorems, must address means of treating issues of both consciousness and culture.
On the surface, the theorems account for the need of rhetorical theorists to remake the art of persuasion developed for oral societies – even those with writing available, as in fourth-century bce Greece – into a techne more attuned to the formal characteristics of written language syntax and to the reasoning processes of emerging, formal logics in eras of literacy. And, in our time, visual rhetoric explores the mechanisms by which images and their sequencing function discursively, creating persuasive texts. Most simply, the theorems magnify the importance of channel and coding in human communication; more profoundly, they undergird the proposition that oral, literate, and visual rhetorics are radically different processes of persuasion and identification because of their varied grounding in alternative subjectivities and cultural practices.
The orality-literacy theorems are being expanded and deepened today by media ecology studies. Starting with New York University’s doctoral program fashioned by Postman in 1970, media ecology studies works from a broad base extruding the concepts underwriting the orality-literacy theorems: that media are sensorial environments (extending and emphasizing particular senses); symbolic environments (each governed by its own syntax, coding conventions, and social uses); and combined into multimediated environments (with varied avenues to communication available in industrial societies). And as well, environments are media, because architecture, urban and rural configurations of landscape, or nature itself, for example, can govern human interaction (see Lum 2005 for dilation of these claims).
Such propositions drive rhetoric to treat the materiality of the physical world, natural and social, as both figuration and a force in persuasion, and to consider environment not simply as context for communication, but integral to rhetorical effectivity. The oralityliteracy theorems, especially as conceptualized in media ecology studies, radically expand rhetorical thinking about codes, symbolicity, and what counts as messages.
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