How Literacy Affected Our Sense of Self (Caitlin Marshall)

The highly interiorized stages of consciousness in which the individual is not so immersed unconsciously in communal structures are stages which, it appears, consciousness would never reach without writing”  (Walter Ong, 1982, p. 178).

Beyond Literacy: Exploring a Post-Literate Future brings up the tantalizing idea that reading and writing have had a profound impact on our individual sense of self.  In the following, I have briefly presented some supporting evidence put forward by Walter Ong in his book Orality and Literacy: Technologizing of the Word (1982).

Ong references fieldwork conducted in 1931 by neuropsychologist Alexander Luria.   Luria’s studies were limited to remote areas of Uzbekistan during a specific time in history.  The ability to draw general conclusions about the impact of literacy from them may be limited.  Nevertheless they provide striking support for the claim that literacy alters and crystallizes a person’s sense of self and separateness from others.

Luria interviewed literate and illiterate individuals, comparing their responses to a series of questions.  The results showed that the illiterate individuals thought in concrete terms, rather than in abstractions.  For example, when shown geometric figures, they named them as tangible objects—such as   “plate” or “door”—rather than “circle” or “square”.

Furthermore, Ong states that Luria’s “… illiterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures” (p. 52).  When presented with syllogisms, their responses were quite different from literate individuals.  For example when presented with the syllogism:

Q:          -In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white.
Novaya Zembla is in the Far North and there is always snow there.
What color are the bears?

Typical answers included:

A1:         -I don’t know.  I’ve seen a black bear.  I’ve never seen any others…
A2:         -You find what color bears are by looking at them (p. 52-53).

Also, when illiterate individuals were questioned about their own characteristics and individuality, they answered with concrete external information.  Some questions asked by Luria, with typical responses include:

Q:           -What’s your character like, what are your good qualities and shortcomings?
A:        -I came here from Uch-Kurgan, I was very poor, and now I’m married and have children.

Q:           -Are you satisfied with yourself or would you like to be different?
A:        -It would be good if I had a little more land and could sow some wheat…

Some of the responses of the illiterate people suggested that their own self-evaluation was tied to group evaluation.  For example:

Q:           -…people are different – calm, hot-tempered… What do you think of yourself?
A:        -We behave well – if we were bad people, no one would respect us (p.54-55).

In Ong’s view, these responses show that “Luria’s illiterates had difficulty in articulate self-analysis.  He suggests that self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking.  It calls for isolation of the self…” (p. 54).  In the same way that illiterate individuals cannot extract the abstract concept of circle from the drawing of a circle, they are less adept at – or inclined towards – extracting their “selves” from their surroundings.  Thus, the type of abstraction seen in current Western culture – apparently bolstered by literacy – may be an important element in the development of a complex, isolated conception of personal identity or self.

Ong partly attributes this shift in consciousness toward abstract and individualist thought to differences in the way time and space are experienced in oral as opposed to visual communication.  He argues that hearing is the sense most directly connected with time.  Even as we hear a word, it is disappearing.  Sight, however, is oriented toward space.  It can more easily be arrested in time.  Because the technology of writing makes the spatialization of sound possible, communication can become fixed and linear (Biakolo, On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy, 1999).  This facilitates the abstraction necessary for the development of a more defined sense of individual self.  It also makes science possible.  Science tries to separate subjective opinion from objective investigation, thereby further distancing people from “the outside world.”

Ong also describes sound as creating a sense of integration by immersing a person in what they hear.  In contrast, sight “situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance” (p. 72).  Thus, Ong argues that “A sound-dominated verbal economy is consonant with aggregative (harmonizing) tendencies rather than with analytic, dissecting tendencies (which would come with the inscribed, visualized word…)” (p. 73-74).

Ong’s characterization of sound and sight as they relate to space and time has been criticized.  For example, Emevwo Biakolo problematizes the idea that time is more closely related to sound than is sight.  In his criticism of Ong’s conception of time, he remarks, amusingly, that “Time seems to [Ong] to be an inert mass spread-eagled in some nondescript reality and from whose bulky continuum the spoken word is in a hurry to get away” (p. 44).

Finally, as touched on by Mike Ridley, the introduction of mass literacy allowed people to go off alone and read to themselves for the first time – a very solitary and individualistic activity – although, also mentioned by Ridley, mass literacy can lead to the formation of new intellectual communities.

Ong’s work raises interesting questions for the future.  How might the post-literate world impact our sense of privacy and even our sense of self?


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