What is secondary orality?

Mark Goodacre and Loren Rossen have each new posts about orality. Mark Goodacre mentions secondary orality, which is a matter of much confusion, mainly because scholars in our field, including myself, have been too free with its use.

Walter Ong coined the term "secondary orality." I wonder if it was indeed such a good idea because it tends to confuse the issue of orality in oral and oral-rhetorical cultures with verbal utterance in print cultures. He used the term secondary orality to discuss orality in print cultures where orality is completely dependent on print. It is the opposite of primary orality where orality is not dependent on print.

Ong understood orality in our culture to be completely dependent on literate mentality and modes of thinking. Electronically processed words are either dependent on written words (as in books on tape) or a script (as in radio or TV) or, in the case of talk shows, the electronic word becomes its own form of print that can be edited, replayed, resequenced, etc., just as we do with writing. This new age of "secondary orality" (Ong often put quotations marks around this phrase to indicate caution that it was not the same thing as orality) has some similarities with orality in that it draws in audiences to participate thus fostering a communal sense, it focuses on the present moment, and can even use formulas. BUT "it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well." Although we might see some of these common features, Ong writes, "It is not the old orality." For this discussion, see Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, chapter "Print, Space and Closure."

Now what, if anything, does secondary orality have to do with oral-rhetorical cultures like the one we study? Here things get even more confusing. Scholars, including myself, have used this word to refer to possible moments when we think we see preserved in a piece of literature orality that is dependent on another piece of literature. An example? A saying in one of the gospels that is not literarily dependent on another piece of literature (that is, it hasn't been copied from one text into the other). Rather the author may have heard the saying read and is writing that down, or some such scenario.

But is this really secondary orality? I have struggled with this for a couple of years now. And I will continue to struggle with it when I return next year to my orality-scribality experiments, and my study of human memory. For now I want to say that I don't think it is the same thing. And I wish we had never started using this term in this new way. What I think we have to do form now on is leave the term "secondary orality" to discuss the type of orality we enjoy today - one that is completely dependent on the literate word and electronic forms - an orality that is NOT the same as what we find in oral or oral-rhetorical cultures. This means that we need to create a new language to discuss the different forms of orality that we observe in oral-rhetorical cultures. This is a project again for our generation of scholars to sort out the best we can.

If you think we make too much of the difference between orality in the ancient world and verbal utterance ("secondary orality") in our literate culture, I invite you to try this exercise in class sometime. Ask your students to put away all their computers, their pencils, their pads of papers - everything. Nothing can be written down or recorded during or after. And you too. Don't bring anything to class, and don't use the chalkboard. And you can't check your notes or bible passages before you come to class! And just have a whole session - or better a whole week - where you just orate and your students just listen and discuss.

Observe what happens - how completely uncomfortable everyone is, and what they actually remember, and how they remember it. You might even try allowing one person to write and no one else. How would any of you view someone who could read and write? What kind of power would that person have? Then think about this in terms of the ancient world and the teaching of Jesus. And then the teaching of the churches. How did transmission of Jesus' sayings happen? What happened to the material during that process even when it was written down?