Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Indiana Ong

Reading Walter Ong on Jacques Derrida is like watching Indiana Jones fight the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Derrida does his little dance, and then Ong fires the orality gun:
Jacques Derrida has made the point that "there is no linguistic sign before writing." But neither is there a linguistic "sign" after writing if the oral reference of the written text is averted to... Thought is nested in speech, not in texts, all of which have their meanings through reference of the visible symbol... It is impossible for script to be more than marks on a surface unless it is used by a conscious human being as a cue to sounded words, real or imagined, directly or indirectly.

In contending with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Derrida is of course quite right in rejecting the persuasion that writing is no more than incidental to the spoken word. But to try to construct a logic of writing without investigation in depth of the orality out of which writing emerged and in which writing is permanently and ineluctably grounded is to limit one's understanding, although it does produce at the same time effects that are brilliantly intriguing but also at time psychedelic, that is, due to sensory distortions. Freeing ourselves of chirographic and typographic bias in our understanding of language is probably more difficult than any of us can imagine, far more difficult, it would seem, than the "deconstruction" of literature, for the "deconstruction" remains a literary activity (Orality and Literacy, pp. 75-77).
But despair not. If liberation from text is what you're after, one way of achieving it is through Judaism and Christianity, for "the orality of the mindset in the Biblical text, even in its epistolary sections, is overwhelming... God the Father 'speaks' his Son: he does not inscribe him."

Incidentally, in The Future of Christian Learning, Noll and Turner debate whether the academic approach of the Jesuit Ong is more "Catholic" (understated faith commitment) or "evangelical" (explicitly stated). Whether or not such characterizations are legitimate, Ong closes The Presence of the Word by reconciling both positions:
Those with faith read history differently - and, as I believe, more completely - than do others, but faith or no, we must all deal with the same data, and among these data we find not only the elaborate transformations of the word which follow upon its initial spoken existence but also the permanent irreducibility of the spoken word and of sound itself.