I had a piece in Aeon Magazine on the relationship between literacy and philosophy. It was really a sort of summary of a recent line of reflection occasioned by my reading of Walter J. Ong, S. J. (1912-2003). His work in communications theory has been hailed by commentators over the past few years as providing a clear early articulation of many of the conceptual problems that the rise of the Internet has imposed on us. Having written this work from the 1960s to the 1980s, he's thus hailed as a 'visionary', 'before his time', etc. I tend to see him rather as perhaps the last in a long line of Jesuit polymathic weirdos, sharing in the same spirit as Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), and being, like Kircher, motivated to reflect on the natural of language and writing, and on the possibility of artificial languages or codes or programs, out of a fundamental theological commitment to the power of what they call 'the Word' to render all of nature into a rational order. In this respect for them the world is God's writing, and the eventual development of literacy in human history is thus a sort of moral progress to the extent that it aids humanity in achieving its divinely implanted potential to reflect the order of the world as God created it.
But these considerations do not enter into my own essay, nor for that matter into Ong's rigorous scholarly work. My full essay can be found here. Below is an excerpt.
A poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.
If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.
As the theorist Walter J. Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke...