Walter Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology

Ong’s R,R, and T has been sitting on my desk for a month. I can’t even remember the cite that I checked it out for anymore, though I’m positive it referred to the late chapter on Romantic Difference and Technology.

When I was in Boston, though, one of the few attendees at our panel mentioned my presentation reminded him of some work by Frye and Ong, and he mentioned this book in particular. So I read it after I got back in one burst.

The book is a hodgepodge of small studies – one on Tudor rhetoric, another on primary vs. secondary orality, another on the pedagogy of Peter Ramus and his followers, a nice essay on Swift, quite a few on poetry, but they are all linked together by the intro and the last few chapters. One is the aforementioned one on the rise of romance and technology (which reminds me a lot of Robert Connors’ account of composition history), the penultimate one is on orality, and the last on a ‘crisis in the humanities’.

Summarizing this book is difficult. There are so many allusions and sweeping statements. It’s a keeper, though. I could say his main point is that rhetoric has changed quite a bit, and mostly due to pressure from newly introduced technologies – writing, printing press, tv, radio, etc – from an original ‘primary orality’ base – rather than from any great insights into communication. Understanding these shifts and why they happened is of great historical and practical interest, I believe Ong is saying, as we are in the middle of yet another shift in the humanities, with the rise of a large ‘secondary orality’ that modern educational systems, including colleges, based on past models, don’t quite understand. No wonder his interest in Ramus! For 1971, he seems to have something like the Internet looming in the background – yet another technology waiting in the wings to refine rhetoric in its own image.

So how does Ong’s book fit with what I was doing with agricultural metaphor? Well, I think I said something along the lines that humans are hardcoded for metaphors involving eating communally. It is a ‘technology,’ in a sense, that we are all intimately familiar with. Also, in an agrarian Palestine dominated by state control, metaphors involving agriculture and one-sided interactions between the wealthy and the poor would click right away – and be remembered more easily.

Ong has a similar ‘technology’ that he likes to trot out – Latin and Greek, with more emphasis on Latin. Latin instruction might not even be used by most Renaissance pupils, but it created not only a rite of passage for young boys (Ramus again) but it gave them a body of knowledge that made them 15-year-old master of arts elites, especially in a world where nearly all academic discourse was in Latin. Not all ‘technology’, in the way Ong uses the word, is gadgetry, in our modern sense. Literary itself is technology, too. And rises in technology change the way that rhetoric is viewed and used.

I think my memory buffer has overflowed on Ong. Several of those chapters need rereading. I feel I’m missing several key points that I understood initially but have since slipped away.

One thought on “Walter Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology”

  1. hey. this has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re writing about, but i want to know one thing: what happened to your formal rants? They were so awesome! The Potter/Taran thing in particular was hilarious. email me back. my email is

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