June 4th, 2007

The Second Coming of Oaurality
In his book Natural-Born Cyborgs Andy Clark writes, “What makes us distinctively human is our capacity to continually restructure and rebuild our own mental circuitry, courtesy of an empowering web of culture, education, technology, and artifacts.”(Clark 2003:10) Though I believe Clark’s assessment to be essentially correct, it is important to realize that humans are not always active agents in this restructuring process. The human relationship with technology is complex and interdependent. As we create and implement technologies, these technologies return to impact us in unforeseeable ways. In this way, the development of human consciousness is embroiled in a contentious matrix of intended and unintended consequences folding back in on themselves to create the current incarnation of humanity. This relationship is what gives us the capacity to think. Thoughts make use of language. “Language is nested in sound.”(Ong 1982:5) Sound is a phenomenon that occurs as a part of our perceptual environment. The relationship of the human to his or her environment is absolutely crucial in creating the human ability to think. The ability to think in turn allows us to consciously recontextualize the materials that make up our environment in order to meet (or attempt to meet) the desires articulated (through language) in our minds. The technology of language structures human consciousness. It sets the boundaries of thought. The birth of language was the beginning of metaphor - the use of one thing to represent another. Language allows us to conceptualize our environment in useful ways and to transmit that conception to another person or persons. The state of human communication before the advent of literacy is known as “primary orality”.

Then comes writing. The invention and implementation of written language had a profound impact on the development of humanity. Suddenly, for the first time, ideas (metaphors) can be saved external to the human mind. This allows for the systematization of thought. History comes into being. Science becomes possible. The development of literacy rapidly expands the scope of the “empowering web” mentioned by Andy Clark in the quotation at the beginning of this paper. As Walter Ong puts it, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.”(Ong 1982:78) Literacy changes the way we think. No longer constrained by the temporal and spacial boundaries of the individual, the written word systematizes thought and solidifies culture. This effect increases over time as more people become literate and advances in writing technology culminate in the invention of movable type and the printing press. In the words of Neil Postman, “The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of it's monopoly.”(Postman 1985:41)  There was no other means of communicating on the scale made possible by printing.  Alphabetic writing was the only game in town.

Today, the alphabet has competition. This technological revolution in communications is, at base, made possible by the ubiquitous availability of electricity. The technologies driven by electricity bring the spoken word directly from the mouth of the sender to the ear of the receiver without the mediation of the written word. In only a century electric technology began to reverse some of the changes wrought by alphabetic literacy. I call this change “the second coming of orality/aurality” - which I shorten to “oaurality”. The dual nature of orality/aurality is important in realizing the stratifying effect of technology. Modern technological societies are split into the programmers and the programmed (or, in keeping with the nature of orality/aurality, into speakers and listeners). These categories are by no means mutually exclusive. The second coming of oaurality is a work in progress. In studying this transformation it is important to keep in mind that, as Walter Ong has points out, “Not only are the issues deep and complex, but they also engage our own biases.”(Ong 1982:2) We are on the inside, attempting to project ourselves outside of the social milieu in order to view it from a new perspective. This strategy is filled with difficulties, but it is all we have in trying to understand the profound changes that are occurring within human consciousness as new communications technologies such as the telephone, radio, television, and the internet reshape our minds.

The second coming of oaurality is indicated by a return to many of the traits of primary orality. This return is not simply a reappearance of primary orality, but is a recontextualization of components of oral cultures into modern mediated culture. These elements of orality exist alongside literacy, and they are more or less prominent depending on the level of technologization a culture has experienced. It is important in understanding technological cultures to realize that not all societies have access to the large communications infrastructure that exists in the “Western” world. On a global scale, cutting-edge technology is firmly situated within the realm of elites.  Additionally, the traits explicated here are not meant to be comprehensive. The second coming of oaurality can be characterized by the prevalence of the sonic environment, the return of evanescence, and the decline of logic.
Sound Makes A Comeback
Before the advent of the written word, the prevalent means of communication for any human society was sound. With the development of written text, communication was literally silenced. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture.”(McLuhan 1964:87) In modern technologically mediated society, this sense-balance is upset. For the first time since literacy gained its monopoly on the transmission of information, sound becomes a viable option for transmitting a message across space and time. Sound makes a comeback.

This is why the second coming of oaurality is noisy. In fact, noise plays a key role in the state of oaurality. As R. Murray Schafer noted in his book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, “Modern man is beginning to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any he has hitherto known.”(Schafer 1977:3) The artificial production of sound made possible by technology is changing our soundscape. This, in turn, changes the balance of our sense perceptions. According to Marshall McLuhan the phonetic alphabet gives “to its user an eye for an ear”(McLuhan 1964:86). The soundscape of modernity begins the process of exchanging the eye back for an ear. This is not to say that modern media culture is not visual, but that the monopoly of the visual is broken by the integration of auditory media into human consciousness.

A second point raised by McLuhan concerning the effect of the phonetic alphabet on the individual is that it frees “him from the tribal trance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship.”(McLuhan 1964:86) Oaurality has an opposite effect, but with a new twist.  The second coming of oaurality initiates the individual into the tribal trance of consumer culture. The kinship of oaurality is the kinship of consumerism. The commodification of everything leads to a battle waged by corporations for people’s attention. This is characterized by redundancy through the rise of the advertising jingle. The use of redundancy to transmit cultural messages signals a return to an aspect of orality described by Walter Ong. In the words of Ong, “Since redundancy characterizes oral thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than is sparse linearity. Sparse linear or analytic thought and speech is an artificial creation, structured by the technology of writing.”(Ong 1982:40) The advertising environment created by modern mediated society uses redundancy to encourage memory and reduce analytic thought. The difference between the trait of redundancy in orality versus oaurality is that in a state of orality redundancy is necessary in order for cultural memories to survive, whereas in the second coming of oaurality redundancy is needed to help compete for the scarce attention of the consumer. Jingles and mnemonic phrases are used by advertisers and politicians alike in order to cut through the noise created by the constant barrage of media messages that assault the senses of the individual in modern mediated culture.

The ever increasing noise environment, coupled with the rise of jingles and mnemonic phrases that complete for the scarce attention of modern consumers, exemplifies the prevalence of the sonic environment in the second coming of oaurality. As society shifts away from the visual medium of written language to embrace auditory mediums such as radio and television, our sensory balance shifts to accommodate the environmental changes. As McLuhan noted in War and Peace in the Global Village, “civilization is entirely the product of phonetic literacy, and as it dissolves with the electronic revolution, we rediscover a tribal, integral awareness that manifests itself in a complete shift in our sensory lives.”(McLuhan and Fiore 1968:24-25) This shift is readily apparent is our sonic environment as sound makes a comeback in the second coming of oaurality.
The Return of Evanescence
Sound environments are naturally evanescent due to the way that sound must be transmitted through a medium in real time. Before the advent of literacy sound was the primary means of transmitting information and could not be captured. This means that communication itself was ephemeral and constantly changing. The invention of alphabetic literacy profoundly changed this scenario. Walter Ong writes, “The alphabet, though it probably derives from pictograms, has lost all connection with things as things. It represents sound itself as a thing, transforming the evanescent world of sound to the quiescent, quasi-permanent world of space.”(Ong 1982:91)This alchemistic transformation of sound led to a new structuring of human thought. No longer did words simply pass by and fade away into nothingness. Instead, words could be held; they could be saved for later evaluation. The second coming of oaurality reverses the solidifying trend of literacy and instead brings about a return to evanescence.
One reason for the return of evanescence seen in modern mediated culture is the overload of information swirling around the mediascape. There is more information available to the average, technologically connected individual now than ever before in the history of human cultures. The information revolution that began with the literate medium of printing has exploded into multimedia environments such as the 24-hours-a-day news cycle and instant access to billions of pages of information (Wikipedia:World Wide Web) at the click of a mouse via the internet. At this point in the development of technological society, there is no possible way for a single individual to make sense of most of the bits and pieces of information that he or she encounters each day. In order to deal with this dense media environment, the individual must learn to be highly selective of which pieces of information are worthy of his or her attention. Most of the information that reaches the individual is cast aside and fades away. This is the return of evanescence. The only way to deal with the overload of information in modern society is to allow information to “go in one ear and out the other”. This re-creates the media environment of orality in that there is once again no way to solidify the cultural environment that surrounds us. It is true that, unlike cultures in a state of primary orality, we can record some of what passes by our limited attentions, but we still live in an environment filled with ephemeral communications that can never be grasped. In this way, the second coming of oaurality is evidenced in the return of evanescence to our media environment.
A second way in which the return of evanescence is illustrated by modern mediated culture is in the lack of context associated with the media representations of events within culture. In describing some of the traits of orality, Ong describes one aspect of primary oral cultures as being “additive rather than subordinative”(Ong 1982:37). To demonstrate this he writes about the way that writing has changed us to the point where we use words such as “thus”, “then”, and “when” to describe events in a hierarchical and subordinative manner as opposed to the use of “and” to imply a simple succession of events. This is reminiscent of the way that news events in modern media seem to exist apart from any context. In effect, a modern newscast is a succession of “and”s rather than a subordinative narrative of events connected by “thus” or “then”. The lack of context for electrically mediated news events in the second coming of oaurality is the equivalent manifestation of the non-historical or non-narrative mind that would exist in a state of primary orality. Concerning the modern media environment McLuhan writes, “Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village...a simultaneous happening.”(McLuhan and Fiore 1967:63) If, as McLuhan asserts, everything in modern electric media happens at the same time, then this is yet another example of the evanescence associated with the second coming of oaurality. There is no reason to give a context for an event if all events occur simultaneously. History itself become ephemeral and fleeting. Events are “here today, gone today”. This phenomenon illustrates another way in which the return of evanescence operates in the context of the second coming of oaurality.
The Decline of Logic
As Walter Ong recognized, “Logic itself emerges from the technology of writing.”(Ong 1982:172) Before the invention of alphabetic literacy, complex linear thought was impossible. “Many of the features we have taken for granted in thought and expression in literature, philosophy and science, and even in oral discourse among literates, are not directly native to human existence as such but have come into being because of the resources which the technology of writing makes available to human consciousness.”(Ong 1982:1) Today our resources have changed. Though we still have access to writing, new media technologies give modern humans many other choices of mediums through which to convey information. The linear, logical order of written language begins to be replaced by a totalizing view that eschews hierarchy. The real-time environment of image and sound replaces the structured environment of text. In reading, the individual can absorb information at his or her own pace, stopping to mull over an intriguing idea or re-read an interesting passage. This ability is diminished in the acoustic information environment of the technological society. In the age of oaurality a person must take in information at the speed at which it is given. Of course, recording technology does allow the individual to freeze the flow of information or rewind in order to repeat an important segment, but even so, the material must be digested during the course of real-time. This allows much of what we experience in our media environment to melt away into the ephemerality discussed above. The totalizing impact of electric media, combined with the emotional appeal of sounds and images contribute to the decline of logic in the second coming of oaurality.

As Levi-Strauss wrote (quoted by Ong), “the savage [i.e. oral] mind totalizes”(Ong 1982:39). There is no subordinative, hierarchical process of analysis in the minds of oral peoples. In comparison, there also is very little of this sort of analysis to be found within modern electric media. That is not to say that it does not exist, but that it is marginal in comparison to the context-free, ahistorical 30-second accounts of world events given on the television news. This relates to another trait of orality that Ong points out. Oral cultures are “aggregative rather than analytic”(Ong 1982:38). Again, this applies to the manifestation of the second coming of oaurality in modern mediated culture. In the words of Ong, “The cliches in political denunciations in many low-technology, developing cultures - enemy of the people, capitalist war-mongers - that strike high literates as mindless are residual formulary essentials of oral thought processes.”(Ong 1982:38) This assertion is accurate, but there is no reason to limit the application of this idea only to low-technology cultures. Terms like “terrorist” and “axis of evil” seem perfectly at home among the phrases mentioned by Ong. The totalizing effect of these terms is necessary in the second coming of oaurality in order for the individual to make sense of complex ideas in a short amount of time. The need for these totalizing terms lies in the overloaded information environment discussed in the preceding section. The constant inundation of information that floods our media environment forces the individual to oversimplify in order to survive. Totalization becomes manifest in oaural cultures as a decline in the application of linear, logical thought and an increase in intuition, impression, and emotionality.

Another contributing factor to the totalizing aspect of the second coming of oaurality is the use of sound and imagery to appeal to emotions rather than the use of linear text to appeal to logic. Television presents an excellent example of this phenomenon. Neil Postman asserts, “that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction.”(Postman 1985:105) Postman claims that we are actually losing our sense of what it means to be informed - that we have begun to take “ignorance to be knowledge”(Postman 1985:108). There is a strong kernel of truth in this claim. This is why it is so troubling that ”[t]he television commercial has been the chief instrument in creating the modern methods of presenting political ideas.”(Postman 1985:129) The use of fast-moving imagery to appeal to emotion rather than logic is another example of the decline of logic that takes place in the second coming of oaurality.
In this paper I have endeavored to show how the second coming of oaurality can be characterized by the prevalence of the sonic environment, the return of evanescence, and the decline of logic. These characteristics of oaurality are by no means comprehensive. Furthermore, they should not be taken as a moral judgement on the value of “oaural” culture. The culture of written language was (and is) no utopia, and neither is the second coming of oaurality. As Marshall McLuhan recognized, “Every new technological innovation is a literal amputation of ourselves in order that it may be amplified and manipulated for social power and action.”(McLuhan and Fiore 1967:73) The implementation of new technology always involves a trade-off. Something is lost, and something is gained. The culture of literacy that brought us science, literature, and art also gave us nuclear weapons, global warming, and slavery. It should be the goal of every society to do the best it can to maximize the positive while minimizing the negative. Having a better understanding of how our technological choices shape the development of our minds is a step in the right direction.

Works Cited
Clark, Andy. 2003. Natural-Born Cyborgs. New York: Oxford University Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The extensions of Man. New York:
    McGraw-Hill Book Company.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. 1967. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. 1968. War and Peace in the Glogal Village. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press
Ong, Walter J.. 1982. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, NY: Routledge.
Postman, Neil. 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Schafer, R. Murray. 1977. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
Wikipedia. Entry for “World Wide Web”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_wide_web