The Oral Aural Walter Ong

Abigail Lambke

Abstract


This is a transcription of Abigail Lambke’s words during the audio piece “The Oral Aural Walter Ong.” During the piece, Abigail intersperses her own commentary with excerpts from two of Ong’s recorded lectures: “The End of the Age of Literacy,” and “The Future of Literacy.” Walter Ong explicitly barred transcription of one of these lectures, exclusively granting permission for the piece to be reproduced in audio. To honor that request, none of Ong’s words will be transcribed here.

The Oral Aural Walter Ong

 

Music: Kevin MacLeod “Peace Of Mind”

 

Hello. I am Abigail Lambke and this is “The Oral Aural Walter Ong,” an audio essay for Harlot’s Sonic Rhetorics Issue.

Many of us are familiar with the name Walter Ong, and some of us have read him, either pieces of his famous Orality and Literacy, or the often anthologized “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” Ong’s scholarship was concerned with sound, with the transition from oral culture to literate culture, and the way technology impacts communication. In that way, Ong was a forerunner of Sonic Rhetorics because his scholarship suggests how sounded words, or oral/aural words, affect the relationship of language to knowledge. Many of us have read him, but how many have listened to him? I mean listened not metaphorically, but literally listened to his voice. In this audio essay, I contend that in listening to Walter Ong, we can expand our understanding of his scholarship and approach to sonic rhetoric. Listening to him, like when he talks about the electronic age, saying:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

Voice is coming back into its own.

 

Walter Ong said that in 1960. But voice has been ignored by rhetoric, except as a metaphor in text. If we treat voice as voice, however, how can listening to Walter Ong’s voice expand our understanding of his scholarship? The central purpose of this audio essay is to argue that listening to Ong’s aural presence reveals new and intriguing considerations of Ong and his scholarship. Foremost, the act of listening provides insight into how sonic rhetorics have their own set of intricacies and complications.

 

In this audio essay, I integrate clips from two of Ong’s recorded lectures, one a recorded lecture for the Songs of Learning Series taped in 1960, called “The End of the Age of Literacy,” and the second a live recording at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 1975, called “The Future of  Literacy.” Both of these lectures are hosted online in full by the Walter J. Ong Archival Collection from Saint Louis University.

 

I’ve divided the audio essay into three sections: the first section, “Listening to Walter Ong,” explores what is special in listening to the sonic qualities of Ong’s recorded lectures; the second, “Ong’s Sound Arguments,” presents Ong’s arguments on the difference between sound and writing; and the third, “Evolving Ong,” discusses some ways sound has evolved from where Ong was in the electronic age to where we are in the digital one.

 

Part 1: Listening to Walter Ong (3:35)

Music: Podington Bear “Happiness Is”

 

I want to start with a sound truism:

 

Listening is a different experience than reading.

 

In listening to a voice, we make assumptions; we key into tonal inflections and volume shifts that indicate emphasis or aspects of personality. And although the academic profession privileges written compositions, for many academics our professional life is more about an oral/aural presence than a printed one. A fruitful scholar writes a few books and a few dozen articles over the course of a career that reach an audience of hundreds or possibly thousands. But during the same career, the same scholar will deliver scores of presentations, teach on thousands of class days, and have uncountable academic conversations. Indeed, the oral/aural presence is fundamentally central to an academic life. And while there is an emphasis on rhetorics of writing and reading, we pay less purposeful attention to the sonic rhetorics of speaking and listening. A rhetoric of sound is concerned with how an oral/aural medium, like a lecture, affects the relationship of words to knowing.

 

Because listening is a different experience than reading, a delivered lecture cannot be just like written prose. This is something Walter Ong certainly understood; and his lectures, although similar in thesis to his books and articles, are also very different experiences. For example, although you might have suspected that Walter Ong had a sense of humor from reading his prose, it is much more evident when listening to a live-taped recording. Here, at a speech to an academic audience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he explains the idea of the oral/aural by making a jest at the phonemic system of Midwesterners:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

Here he spices up the difference between television and film with a joke about hospitality.

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

I’m not saying that Ong should have gone into stand-up, but he did have a sense of his audience, who seem grateful to have a little comic relief in a lecture called “The Future of Literacy.” Humor is one aspect encouraged in a sonic environment, where the audience can hear the inflection and the twist of language.

 

Another insight we can get from listening to Walter Ong is from a non-live lecture, “The End of the Age of Literacy,” which Ong taped and obviously meant to have edited before others listened to it. However, the archived version remains unedited, so when Ong flubs a line, the flub is included alongside the fix. We can hear him playing with basic word order:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

Or correcting a simple misspeak:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

Unlike a rigorously edited printed manuscript, when we as readers only see the revised finished product, an oral/aural presentation allows for more dynamism, and with dynamism, some mistakes. In print, Ong is forceful and confident, but in this oral artifact, we can hear the humanity inherent in the evanescence of oral language. Written prose is revised, sculpted. Oral language exists in the moment, and while it might aim for perfection, some cracks are excused. In sonic rhetorics, perfection in pronunciation is not demanded. No one can do it all on a first take, nor should we be able to. Knowing that even Walter Ong didn’t have a perfect first take is encouragement for us all when we flub a line.

 

Another quality of listening to a scholar is hearing the resonance of his or her voice. In Ong’s voice, there is an even-ness there, a definite Midwestern and early 20th century shape to the words. In listening to Ong it is impossible to avoid that he was a man born and raised in Missouri in the early 20th century. It is in his voice. We can hear it. The first time I heard a recording of Walter Ong, his voice reminded me of Jimmy Stewart, especially in his folksy intellectual roles, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

 

*Jimmy Stewart The Man Who Shoe Liberty Valance:

“Why did you do it?”*

 

Although Walter Ong is less dramatic. In listening to Walter Ong we can hear him trying to communicate with his audience, deliver something new about the difference between sound and writing while sounding approachable, likeable, and sometimes folksy. This is his sonic ethos. For example, here in his discussion of images and spoken language, he offers a concept followed by an example, followed by a joke:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

Ong’s oral aural approach is calculated to be steady, sociable, and accessible. He was not one to talk incomprehensibly in the haze of high theory. In listening to Ong, you hear more than just vocal tone and pitch inflection, but how he used his voice to craft a persona that was humorous, approachable, and overall human. Because listening is a different experience than reading, because a sonic rhetoric is a distinct set of concerns, in listening to Walter Ong, you can come to know him and his arguments in a new way.

 


Part 2: Ong’s Sound Arguments (11:10)

 

Music: Podington Bear “Sneaker Chase”

For Ong, sound was what made up real words, unlike writing, which imitated language in an artificial way. Sound was special and natural for Ong. He listed many different aspects of sound in his lectures, but there is one phrase which is present in almost all of his lectures, as well as many of his interviews and essays. Indeed, it is in both of the recordings I am using for this audio essay. In 1960, he said it like this:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

And in 1975 he said it this way:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

The direct parallel between these quotes is obvious, but that parallel is not as compelling as why Ong returned to this saying not only in these two speeches, but in any lecture close to this topic. As someone who studied orality and sound, Ong was not afraid of repetition, of commonplaces, of … repetition. He knew that a good nugget, which the existence nugget is, is something that an audience will appreciate, even if they’ve heard it before. And Ong scholars will repeat it themselves, as Lance Strate does in his centenary Pecha Kucha for Ong

 

*Excerpt from Lance Strate’s “The Word

(A Pecha Kucha on the Walter Ong Centenary)”*

 

And this nugget emphasizes what is so precious about sound. You cannot hold it in your fingers. You cannot pause it and keep it. Sound is evanescent. In going out of existence in the moment, it is ephemeral. Even when recorded, as these pieces of Ong are, they are still immaterial. And, what is more, to be fully comprehended by most of us, they must be listened to in isolation. For instance, if I played the last three clips, all of which contain similar language, at the same time, it becomes massively confusing.

 

Concurrent: *Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”

Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

Excerpt from Lance Strate’s “The Word

(A Pecha Kucha on the Walter Ong Centenary)”*

 

This is not near as effective as listening in sequence. Writing is, of course, different. We could have all three quotes present at once to compare them word for word. You can look backward in writing, or forward. But sound isn’t like this. With sound, you have to listen to language in sequence. You have to be patient.

 

For Ong, what was truly fascinating were the ways speaking and writing interacted and how that had changed across the centuries. He was fond of impressing the change upon his audience. He’d say:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

In the audio essay you are listening to now, that procedure had changed further from that used by Ong. I wrote out a script beforehand, true, but only by listening and then writing, then re-listening and revising. Then recording and listening, and revising, and re-recording. Then, I edited audio clips with software programs that are themselves written entities, adding music composed by others, and finally producing the audio file you are listening to now. This is far from both Cicero’s and Ong’s process of composition. But in the end, it is another oral event.

 

And oral events have their own texture, their own experience, as well as their own rhetoric, as the practice of listening to Walter Ong suggests. When we compare spoken and written words, Ong advises that:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

And not only are spoken and written words, or textual and sonic rhetorics, different, they change when technology changes. In ruminating on the future of communication and sound, Ong says:

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

 


Part 3: Evolving Ong (18:30)

Music: Jared Balogh “Caught In a Realm”

 

Ong generously left the future for those of us in the future, and part of this responsibility to is listen to him, and to see how sound and sonic rhetoric have changed since. The dynamics of sound have changed in the digital age, because digitalization both freezes sound and makes it more malleable. While sound could be frozen onto records or tapes when Ong delivered his lectures, it still existed in a static form, in a continuous, or analog track. These were difficult to modify with much precision, especially without expertise, funds, or equipment. This is no longer the case.

 

To see this change, let’s consider a clause Ong put at the beginning of that taped recording at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne in 1975.

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

But Walter Ong, who would want to get you into trouble? Not, I, certainly. But the trouble that I could do with a transcription is not near as much fun as what I can do now with your recording. I can edit it, either respectfully as I have been doing so far, or, more playfully.

 

With a click of a button I can make you sound like a chipmunk:

 

*Chipmunked Walter Ong*

 

I can make you echo like you are shouting into a canyon:

 

*Echoing Walter Ong Ong Ong*

 

Or, as far as my admittedly minor editing skills allow, I can, horror of horrors, Auto Tune you:

 

*Auto-Tuned Walter Ong / Music: SJ Mellia “Reverse Selector”*

 

Manipulating Ong is fun, but I do it for more than just the fun of it. Playing with Ong’s now-digitized lecture is evidence of how Ong could not foresee the future of sound. For Ong in 1975, an oral lecture, even a taped one, was a safe place. Writing was dangerous; written words could be duplicated, and it could get you into trouble. Oral/aural words, on the other hand, were safe. They wouldn’t be spliced, or taken out of context, or manipulated in dangerous ways. This is certainly no longer the case. Sound is malleable now, in ways that it simply wasn’t in 1975. There is no longer safety in sound. For example, I can rearrange elements that Walter Ong said any way I want.

 

Fr. Ong, what do you think is the most important area of study?

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

And what should we all be studying within the discipline of rhetoric?

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The Future of Literacy”*

 

Right. Thanks for the advice, I agree. Hey, what do you think we should call this essay?

 

*Excerpt from Walter Ong’s “The End of the Age of Literacy”*

 

Ahh, good idea.

 

My listeners will take my point. The malleability of digital sound recordings means I have the ability to take anything Walter Ong has recorded and do what I wish with it using minimal technology and software I downloaded from the Internet. This sounds dire; but it isn’t as worrisome as all that. Just like composing in any other medium, composing using others’ recorded voices has its great abilities and its great responsibilities.

 

Sonic rhetorics have an ethics, just as written rhetorics do. As a scholar who studies Walter Ong, I don’t want to get him into trouble. Nor do I want to get my own self into trouble. But I do want to call attention to the way sound has evolved and the new places for rhetorical scholarship. What respect do we owe those we reproduce with our own commentary? What position should be afforded them? I have no pat answers for you here; the resolution of that issue is something to reflect on further, as the production of sonic pieces continue. What I want to suggest is that sound isn’t safe, like it was for Walter Ong in 1975. But that isn’t a bad thing. What it means is that sound has a power it didn’t have before; it is more and more an available means of persuasion, in Aristotelian terms, as sonic artifacts like podcasts, audiobooks, audio tours, and other sound pieces are produced. Sound is less safe, but it is becoming more powerful.

 


Conclusion: The Oral Aural Everybody (24:00)

Music: Podington Bear “Wavy Glass”

In listening to Walter Ong, we can come to understand his scholarship in a new way. Ong’s lectures have the same central theses as his written work, but because speaking and listening are distinct and intricate practices, engaging with an Oral/Aural Walter Ong reveals the way he approached sonic rhetoric, not only in theory, but also in practice. In hearing him we hear his humor and warmth, his sincerity, but also his fallibility. We can hear where he falls short, where he flubs a line, where he coughs, where he underestimates sound and technology.

 

Walter Ong is not the only late scholar with an oral collection. One implication of this audio essay is to encourage others to find the scholars you quote in textual documents and listen to them. Listen to their recorded voices and reflect on what you hear. In listening to long pieces, you learn how people breathe, how they make jokes, how they recover from a flubbed line, how they interact with an audience. In listening to their active voices they might come alive for you in a new way.

 

In this audio essay, I have hinted at the ways sonic rhetoric brings alive concepts of rhetoric and composition that have been metaphors, like voice, tone, or rhythm. In sound these are not metaphors; they are actual and active. Many scholars have written on rhetorical delivery in new media, working to revive the canon of delivery. But in presenting the importance of the oral/aural in scholarly life: in presentations, lectures, conversations, I’d argue that delivery was never unimportant, it was merely unexamined. In listening to Walter Ong in these lectures from 1960 and 1975, we can hear his delivery, how he makes vocal choices throughout. Ong certainly was examining his delivery and consciously crafting a vocal ethos. But then again, he was Jesuit with classical training as well as a homilist who frequently said Mass. He was trained in delivery in a way many scholars now are not.

 

But perhaps they should be, now more than ever. If sound is becoming more powerful, and more of what you say can be recorded and used elsewhere, it behooves everyone to begin to pay more attention to oral delivery. My second implication is to ask you, my audience:

 

What do you sound like? What does your audience hear in your voice?

 

Whether you are an academic or not, it can be vitally important to hear your own oral/aural self. To understand your own approach to Sonic Rhetoric. So record yourself and listen.

 

And thank you for listening to me.

 

This has been Abigail Lambke.

 

Goodbye.


Keywords


Walter Ong, listening, sound, rhetoric, voice, delivery