McLuhan & Ong on the Cultural Shift From Orality to Literacy


Marshall McLuhan at centre & Father Walter Ong to his right, Saint Louis University

by Matthew Francis

… The origins of a media ecology of hope in the parallelisms of Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong are telling. Religious commonalities loom large: their personal histories, the use of the Protestant tradition as a foil, and the centrality of both Ignatian spirituality and the Eucharist in the ordering of their personal spiritual lives.

The two men met in the early 1940s when the young Canadian McLuhan, then completing his Cambridge doctorate on Thomas Nashe, supervised Ong’s M.A. thesis on the sprung rhyme of Gerard Manley Hopkins at St. Louis University. McLuhan was only one year older than his student, and their relationship, as described in Ong’s 1969 letter to Professor Walker Gibson, was an intellectual and spiritual friendship not wholly devoid of competition. 

Ong was already a member of the Society of Jesus, and McLuhan was a married convert to Catholicism, and their mutual religious and literary sympathies would have an ongoing symbiotic affect. Ong’s account of what he calls the “oral-to-visual” shift was, in his own words, “hammered out with great agony” in his 1958 bookRamus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue. This work, in turn, greatly influenced McLuhan’s first major publication, The Mechanical Bride. Ong recounted to Gibson how

The roots of this distinction in my own thought are discernible earlier, too, in the late 1940s, long before McLuhan developed McLuhanism. They connect on the one side with the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance evidence and on the other largely with biblical scholarship and, to the best of my knowledge, not at all with anything that Marshall had either said or written up to that time.

Ong’s desire to emphasize his influence on his teacher’s thought does not belie the fact that they were drinking ad fontes. Both were focused on the relationship of educational models to the Wetern philosophical tradition, and both concentrated in their own doctoral studies on two (admittedly quite different) 16th century Protestant humanists; McLuhan studied the Trivium and Thomas Nashe, while Ong, with inspiration from McLuhan, laboured over the influence of Peter Ramus and pedagogy in the waning of Scholasticism. Both demonstrated the perspective – now a shibboleth – that the Reformers did the most to hasten the oral to visual shift, which reached its zenith in the proliferation of movable type – the shift McLuhan christened the Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). This destabilization changed the way people think and perceive reality. McLuhan points out that

the visual homogenizing of experience of print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. […] The technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, “formal” causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook.

The Protestant movement, with its zealous use of new printing technology, precipitated rapid – perhaps unprecedented – change in Europe. Traditional notions of authority were challenged and the autonomous individual per se was born. In the excesses of the radical Reformation, some – for instance at Muenster – considered themselves to be a newly “Adamic” humanity. The destabilization resulting from heady new intellectual freedoms achieved in the Renaissance and Reformation foreshadowed, in a way, the mimetic and real violence of the Modern era. And yet there may be also an unconscious element of anti-Protestant polemic at play within the work of the Catholic media ecologists.

Gutenberg and Fust with the First Printing Press, Germany, 1450s Framed Art PrintMcLuhan and Ong’s 1960s focus on the Protestant exploitation of print culture does not fully explain the full impact of the oral to visual shift, since there was a concurrent diminution of the visual – iconoclasm – inherent in the Reformation as well. While their arguments explain the displacement of the oral/aural world within the “Gutenberg galaxy,” they insufficiently address the visuality of the icon. Eamon Duffy, in his 1992 book The Stripping of the Altarsmore adequately indicates the historical trajectories in Reformation England, sensitive to aspects that Ong overlooked.

Yet for McLuhan, after all, it is ultimately not the oral to visual shift that is the reduction, but one from oral to objectified type-text. For Ong, however, in The Presence of the Word, “all reductions of the spoken word to non-auditory media, however necessary they may be, attenuate and debase it, as Plato so intensely felt.” Indeed, he stated, “(V)isualism can become a port of refuge for the insecure.” Both seem more afraid of the alphabet than of idols. In this way, Ong’s myopia of the Modern is manifest, as he “sees” shortsightedly only the limitations of visual culture, and few of its opportunities.
Read the rest at:

A Gutenberg Bible

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