Context, Form, Function and The Invisible Hand of Technology

Lenny Bruce reached his peak as a nightclub performer in the 1950’s. Lenny’s routine was considered risqué for the era because of his use of obscenities and discussion of sex, drugs and religion. On April 3 1964, Lenny was arrested on obscenity charges on the basis of his performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. The indictment had been procured by presenting a transcript of Lenny’s routine before a 23 member grand jury. During the trial, the prosecution presented its evidence by calling on a police officer to read from the transcript of Lenny’s routine. Lenny just shook his head and said: “I’m going to be judged by his bad timing, his ego, his garbled language.” Lenny Bruce knew he was beaten because his oral text was going to be presented devoid of context.

Ong writes extensively about the oral tradition and he classifies oral communication as hearing (time) dominant wherein the sound (word) is heard by the audience as it is going out of existence. The written word, by contrast is sight (space) dominant. Ong further argues that the written word is decontextualized and distanced from the author. The reader cannot enter into a discourse and the words cannot be defended by the author. Ong presents strong historical evidence about the consideration of rhetoric as the highest form of discourse and the tendency in the nineteenth century that literary works gain value by being read aloud. However, he does not address the value of social and situational context in the delivery of oral texts. If writing decontextualizes then how are oral texts affected when delivered in different contexts and by different speakers. Writing might offer us the means to store texts, but can oral texts be transcribed and stored?

Biakolo argues that Western analysts comparison of religious texts from the oral tradition to scientific texts from the literary tradition is a flawed methodology. After all, the religious context drives the characteristics of oral texts as linear, narrative and repetitive whereas the scientific context of literary texts calls for an analytical approach. Biakolo rightly states that there is a cultural bias in the study of oral tradition. Ong also makes a strong distinction between the oral and written tradition and conveniently explains away anomalies as oral residue.

Chandler, presents a thorough analysis of technological, media and social determinism. His arguments regarding the treatment of orality vs. literacy as a false dichotomy carries weight. Although he chooses to list all the false dichotomies instead of making a stronger case, his basic argument is that literacy did not displace orality and instead built on the oral communication model. We maintain traces of the oral tradition in our formal and informal communication and it is difficult to accept that literary thinking supplant all oral thinking. Ong, I believe, errs in favour of making the dichotomy strong and distinct. Chandler also asks interesting questions regarding the social, cultural and intellectual impact of (autonomous) technology and whether technology drives us or vice versa.

Lastly, O’Donnell’s historical analysis of the evolution of text offers some fascinating insights. Most impressive were his recounting of how Augustine and Cassiodorus kept catalogs of their manuscripts, the effect of writing on introducing canonical laws, the role of the pigeonholes at the Alexandrian Library in determining the size of a book and how indexing of the bible developed cross-referencing (and hyperlinking) of texts. Since his writing is more recent, O’Donnell also discusses the dream of the virtual library and its future.

Our relationship with texts continues its evolution. Our ability to store knowledge in the form of written texts and the development of the technology of writing has now placed us in the position of being constantly overwhelmed by the quantity of information. The challenge before us now, as learners and as educators, is to filter our way through the information glut to find meaning.

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Biakolo, E. A. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30(2), 42-65.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 2 June, 2014 from:

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved, 2 June, 2014 from

O’Donnell, J.J. Avatars of the word: From papyrus to cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York, NY:

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