Writing Is a Technology that Restructures Thought, by Walter J. Ong, provides a variety of claims to support the use of writing as a technology, and to understand writing in relation to oral speech of both the past and present. Ong’s work is one that must be read slowly, carefully, and analytically, because it delivers so many different points that you have to be quick to catch each one. Therefore, I am going to break down the main ideas so this verbose and, dare I say, prolix, text is easier to understand.
The author began by encouraging us to differentiate between those who are primarily oral speakers and those who use the written word. He states that many view writing as a mechanical skill. However, mechanical skills differ from writing in the way in which writing necessitates a higher level of thought, a fact that is similar to our previous studies about the links between writing, thought, and memory. On a related note, he says that “we grasp truth articulately only in events” (20). He says that words are these events, present as a whole, and so they are, in a way, “false.” This is because a word is not going to be taken as a whole when pronounced as a sequence of sounds. However, if it is taken as a whole, as it is in the written word, we can recognize that it is a “happening, not a thing” (20). This is a difficult concept to understand, as I, myself, find it hard to imagine a world without writing—a world that relies only on speaking as a form of communication. I believe that the author is trying to tell us that writing can give us the “full truth,” but that we have become so ingrained in relying upon the written word, that we are not looking deeper into the actual words themselves to understand the message.
Ong next discusses how the oral world is temporary, unlike the written word, which exists for people to examine in the future. He talks about how oral communication keeps the ideas close to reality, because these ideas are easily remembered through stories. While oral communication keeps the message together, the written word tears it apart through analysis and explanations. You do not explore through oral communication, just discuss, because analysis while speaking would require a conscious, monitored thought process. In the past, the truths or ideas of a culture must be repeated because they cannot rely upon written word to maintain them.
As in Why Write, by Young and Sullivan, Ong also refers to Plato’s messages. Ong shows how Plato viewed writing as something negative when he states, “Writing is simply a thing, something to be manipulated, something inhuman, artificial, a manufactured product” (21). He goes on to explain that a written text is unresponsive, because you cannot form a discussion with a written text like you would when maintaining a regular conversation. Texts and computers are also essentially rebellious, because once a “truth” or idea is put out into the world to be examined, it is placed there forever. This is unlike oral communication, which is transient. The author refers next to Plato’s argument about how writing destroys memory, and therefore, writing weakens the mind because we depend excessively and heavily upon it. We look to computers and writing to provide our answers for us rather than seeking these answers from inside ourselves, from prior knowledge.
Ong’s next point talks about how cultures and people are fundamentally argumentative, or agonistic. He explains how “the written word cannot defend itself as the written word can” (21). Writing is passive and unreal, like computers. This relates back to his explanation regarding the fact that oral culture is more personalized than writing is. Oral speech may allow the speaker to give an argument without previous explanation based upon their audience’s assumed previous understanding. However, in writing, you must back up your claims with evidence, which shows that the words are less connected with reality and a culture’s experiences, and therefore, less connected with their personal memory. Writing does not allow for a rhetorical analysis that requires a response directly from the author, because, as Ong stated, the written word cannot defend itself. The work may have been written many years ago, making proper discourse impossible.
Contrary to Plato’s arguments, however, Ong says that the technology of writing helped to broadcast the philosopher’s ideas. Ironically, Plato’s analysis of the effects of writing was only made possible by the fact that he used writing as a tool to enact this deeper form of thinking. Plato spurned those whose “thought processes and modes of expression were disruptive of the cool, analytic process generated by writing” and represented the thought process of writing in his own daily life, though he may not have understood it this way at the time (22). Today, Ong argues, writing is seen as such an intrinsic, part of ourselves, that it is no longer alien. Just as Young and Sullivan said, Ong also believes that writing is a technology and a tool used to further thought and expression.
One particular quote I found interesting was how writing is “the physical reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone real, spoken words exist” (22). This furthers his claim about how writing is unreal, which simply means that it is disconnected from what is currently happening, unlike in a conversation. Oral discourse happens in the present, while the written word is, on occasion, timeless, or references a past event. The written word allows us to take a step back emotionally and physically. It forces us to see the situation at a distance, and then make our own analytical judgments.
Similar to the way in which I believe that writing is timeless, Ong discusses that writing always has a potential for being resurrected through its readers. Again, this is through the readers’ own exploration of the text, and their own individual thought processes. The author illustrates the relationship between the written text and the spoken word by saying that writing is always bound to sound. This is because when we are reading a text, it is being verbally pronounced or quietly spoken within our own minds. In this way, the written word can never be separated from oral communication.
In contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is artificial. Ong repeats this argument by showing how oral speech comes out more naturally, while writing is maintained through rules and procedures. However, if writing has become an intrinsic part of us, as Ong previously stated, then these rules become second nature. In this way, writing is easily used as a tool to compose our thoughts, though the thoughts are not unconsciously contrived.
One of Ong’s major points was how “writing is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word” (23). In essence, though writing is not like oral communication in the way that it provides our unconscious thoughts, writing can transform these concepts by distancing them from the initial idea. This “alienates” the original concept, but this separation is essential for human life, as Ong claims. This distance allows us to fully understand the idea by taking a step back and looking at it from a distance. This “artificial” writing is natural for human beings because it enables us to enhance our original thought. Writing can be used as a tool, as a technology, to “enrich the human psyche, enlarge human spirit, set it free, intensify its interior life” (24).
In some of Ong’s last sections, he explains the ways in which writing separates or divides:
His first claim explains that writing “separates the known from the knower” (24). In other words, it allows an objective point of view. It does not directly transfer knowledge to the reader, but it encourages the readers to take in information and interpret and develop their own form of thought about the text. These thoughts will then become an intrinsic part of the reader in the form of knowledge.
Secondly, Ong reveals that writing separates interpretation from data by first presenting these facts and then allowing a response, or interpretation, to be developed.
The author’s next claim was reiterating how writing distances word from sound by giving a visual of the text instead of an auditory discussion. However, it is again stated how this distance is not permanent because the written word is read allowed or in the imagination.
Ong then presents that “writing distances the source of the communication (the writer) from the recipient (the reader)” (25-26). This is because of the implausibility of communicating directly with the writer, as I previously explained.
Furthermore, writing distances the word from reality because oral communication relies upon non-verbal communication. I, personally, can understand this because I have listened to professors lecture without being able to see their facial expressions or gestures. Staring at a PowerPoint slide or listening to an audio can cause you to miss important meanings that were implied nonverbally.
Ong shows how words bear more weight because of this nonverbal communication. I definitely agree with him here, because rhetorical writing, or any form of analysis, requires you to back up your argument with further explanations. Because of the nonverbal element, the audience misses the cues that would be provided with gestures or unspoken meanings.
The author’s next two points talk about how writing separates past from present and how it separates “administration” from other types of social activities. Oral communication is “homeostatic,” or it takes ideas back to equilibrium, the norm, because it brings the past into the present by using memory as a tool for narration. Writing freezes these ideas, which forces us to use additional tools and evidence to back up the point you are trying to make.
Writing makes it possible to separate logic from rhetoric. When writing an essay, “logos,” or logic, is used as evidence to back up your rhetoric, or argument. This allows you to close some of the gaps left between oral discourse and the written word.
Ong’s next statement is somewhat confusing when he explains how “writing separates academic learning from wisdom, making possible the conveyance of highly organized abstract thought structures independently of their actual use or of their integration into the human lifeworld” (27). In simple speak, I believe that this is again referencing back to his point about how writing allows us to develop a deeper form of thinking than oral discourse would. It separates us from the situation emotionally and aids us in forming thoughts that are more philosophical, intangible, and idea-oriented. However, writing does dehumanize wise sayings because it displays them as a list or a quote, rather than as something that is clearly integrated into a real-life situation.
Ong makes two last important points in this section, one being how “Writing divides or distances more evidently and effectively as its form becomes more abstract, which is to say more removed from the sound world into the space world of sight” (28). This extends from his statement about how writing encourages abstract ideas and a distant, impersonal look into the thought or situation. The author’s other point addresses how writing “separates being from time” (28). In other words, writing allows us to look back at past ideas and philosophical thinking and incorporate them into our present.
One of Ong’s ideas that I thought was particularly interesting was how “Oral speech and thought narrativizes experience and the environment, whereas philosophy, which comes into being slowly after writing, is radically anti-narrative” (29). This references back to the idea that Plato’s philosophical ideas were different from those that he shunned because he had a different way of thinking. He thought through writing, writing which was more anti-narrative. I was also fascinated by Ong’s statement that “Becoming becomes being. The mobile oral world has been supplanted by the quiescent text, and Plato’s immutable ideas have been provided with their action-free, seemingly timeless chirographic launching pad” (29). Writing has given Plato’s works a tool that enabled future generations to examine his philosophical ideas. These past ideas, these “becoming” are now “being,” because they have been taken from the past into the present—into our daily lives.
I really appreciated Ong’s message about how oral cultures influence action while writing is taken internally, and changes the culture from one that takes action to one that is now “being.” I think that what he means by this is that we use words in the place of taking action.
Ong talks about the relation of computers and writing, and how computers create a larger physical separation between the reader and the author, or between the reader and knowledge, than writing does. This does not allow room for discourse, as a computer is programmed. However, I have to disagree with this in today’s age, because the Internet, blogs, etc., allow for significant discussions in certain situations, bringing the tie between writing and oral communication to another level or dimension.
Finally, Ong discusses how “writing can distance us from writing itself” (30). I found this to be very poignant and true. When reading a text, we examine, explore, analyze, and take apart the words. We enact a close reading before creating an essay based upon our knowledge. Writing this essay allows us to gain a further distance from the original text, creating a deeper understanding of the original message.
Ong’s last sentence “Writing is a consciousness-raising and humanizing technology,” is quite an interesting one because it brings up some of his previous points (31). What is interesting about this piece is how it negatively addresses writing and claims it as “dehumanizing” and “artificial” before fleshing out the actual details of the argument. The fact that Ong ends his work by declaring that writing is “humanizing” shows how he believes that he has disproved Plato’s previous arguments and counteracted any reasoning against the use of writing. The author is now finally declaring his own overall message and purpose for writing this.
A few final words of thought:
Writing is a form of technology that we use as a tool to further our conscious thoughts into something that will become explored, read, and timeless.