Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dabar: Some Psychodynamics of Language

Walter J. Ong's landmark Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word affords us an opportunity to critically examine the nexus between language and thought, even though we should be wary of too quickly adopting his distinction between oral and literate (chirographic, typographic and electronic) cultures with all of its implications. The fact that most language acquisition, beginning in the first months of human life, takes place before the acquisition of literacy gives us one reason for believing that the features of orality, or what Ong terms "massive oral residue" (passim), are in fact evident in every actual, lived language. We could, though I won't bother at this precise juncture, rigorously explore other reasons for believing that by and large language remains intertwined with speech even among the most sophisticated of literate communities. Instead I would simply ask you to reflect on your own experiences with language, even as you're reading this. What is your body doing while you read this? What feelings are in your throat, or in your hands as you formulate a thought that could be expressed in some form of language? What peoples your imagination?

"Sound exists only when it is going out of existence," Ong insists (passim), and this passing out of existence favors a semiotics of spoken words that ties meaning directly to situations of use. "Words acquire their meanings only from their always insistent actual habitat, which is not, as in a dictionary, simply other words, but includes also gestures, vocal inflections, facial expressions, and the entire human, existential setting in which the real, spoken word always occurs" (p. 47). Indeed. The passing out of existence of spoken words means, as well, that spoken language, that is, the culture of speaking, places a premium on memory, that mnemonic technologies are well developed in the absence of writing, technologies which involve the whole body in the act of memory (p. 67). Ong tells us that experience is intellectualized mnemonically in oral cultures (p. 36). Do we generally intellectualize experience mnemonically? I don't feel as if this idea were totally foreign to me, though I am unsure about what "experience" actually means. (There may be a contradiction with Ong's belief that "[s]elf-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking" (p. 54), insofar as self-analysis is an intellectualization of experience, though, naturally, the contradiction would be in our thinking and not in Ong's, who rigidly distinguishes between oral and literate economies of thought.) Should it be incumbent upon the thinker to develop a style of embodied, situational awareness that corresponds to the ephemerality of communications, or do we accept the styles of awareness that seem to come as second nature with our technologies of communication? (These may not be mutually exclusive).

Ong finds that communication in oral cultures is redundant and formulaic (passim). Copia (pp. 40-41). Undoubtedly one could jump from repetition straight to copia, though that doesn't exactly ring true to my ears. Probably copiousness is not generated directly by repetition but by a patterning that makes use of repetition. They are woven together, just as they are in Ong's book, whose redundancies and reliance upon formulaic expressions are apparent to any reader. Here my feeling is that "repetition" is actually an abstraction of a rhythmic phenomenon explained by the instrument of the body, which is always in some measure a rhythmic existence which leaves its stamp on everything that passes through it. Ong's body is imprinted in Orality and surely Presence too, though it is uncertain as to whether Ong the author was ever conscious of the fact. Ong says that "[r]eal time has no divisions at all, but is uninterruptedly continuous" (p. 76) when in fact lived time, the only time worth being called real, is rhythmical, polyrhythmical, and as such no stranger to either continuity or discontinuity. Words are sounded and sound is dynamic, Ong rightly points out. Dynamism–and we mean here an existential dynamism–however, changes things. It transforms. If repetition existed dynamism would change it into something else. The word is an occurrence, an event (dabar, passim). "The spoken word is always an event, a movement in time, completely lacking in the thing-like repose of the written or printed word" (p. 75). Well, there is apparently some practice involved in speaking, something to do with recurrence and temporal horizons. Here's Ong:

In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound, with no reference whatsoever to any visually perceptible text, and no awareness of even the possibility of such a text, the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings' feel for existence, as processed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life. The centering action of sound (the field of sound is not spread out before me but is all around me) affects man's sense of the cosmos. For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center. Man is the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world (Eliade 1958, pp. 231-5, etc.). Only after print and the extensive experience with maps that print implemented would human beings, when they thought about the cosmos or universe or 'world', think primarily of something laid out before their eyes, as in a modern printed atlas, a vast surface or assemblage of surfaces (vision presents surfaces) ready to be 'explored'. The ancient oral world knew few 'explorers', though it did know many itinerants, travelers, voyagers, adventurers, and pilgrims.

(p. 73, my bold)

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:33 AM.


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