A theory of language and society — still in progress
As a big fan of media ecology, I like to use nature and our universe as a comparison tool. Well, really I use it to compare most things. We want to be special snowflakes, but we aren’t. Rare maybe, but unique — don’t think so.
Once my brain started to think about literacy & orality, I really did bump up against primary and secondary orality. The hard and aggressive arrow of time and superiority of literacy over orality wreaks of the downfalls of history. I agree we can never reset and go back. That evolutionary principles mean it can’t be the same. The journey will always change us but, it can be a close approximation.
I was watching Magic School Bus on Netflix, the new one, with my son. The episode was on the cycle of erosion and sediment. What if a society’s primary, or dominant, medium of language follows similar cycles. Literacy, Orality, and a future unknown, become a cycle that can erode and build. In turn, influencing and changing society in the subtlest of ways at each moment/level of erosion or sedimentation.
In this light, the cultural observations of an oral society put forth by Ong can come back, and I believe are showing signs. We aren’t delving into the darkness of illiteracy but there are erosions of our literate lives and sedimentation of oral ones. Our technology is now advanced enough to talk to and have a conversation with. Something I’m not sure our forefathers of media thought could have fully comprehended.
For those unaware of ASMR, either jump in and watch the movie or go online and search ASMR on youtube.
It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and the coles notes, it’s a physiological response to a stimulus. It’s audio forward with the use of specific microphone placement for a strange stereo experience. But there’s also a visual style that goes along with it.
I like to consider it the “Bob Ross” effect.
First – well done Reese for the marketing campaign. I’ve said your name a few times, and a may say it again in this post.
More importantly – the exposure of ASMR has me thinking about it as a response to our world. While it might be easy to see the slow tempo nature as a reaction to the obvious fast-paced nature of our modern society, it’s audio forward experience might be a little more strange.
Say it with me – Orality.
We hear sounds all the time – there is audio pollution is all around. The hiss of tires on the street, the buzz of neon lights, the murmur of people talking amongst themselves. So why is this not enough?
Because it’s not for you.
Orality isn’t just sound. It has a distinct and directed nature. In it, all senses are directed and personal. You are the target. I have a message and it’s not for everyone, it’s just for you. I might even whisper it.
The increase in ASMR shows us there is a physiological response to a specific combination of sound & voice directed at you. The social desire is getting stronger and stronger to the point of extreme.
ASMR isn’t for everyone. As a Drone Zone fan, I feel the audio pull, but there are aspects of the style such as the uber whisper or length of session that aren’t my cup of peanut butter. But even my baby boy stopped and watched when we put Reese the Movie on, and he barely stops for anything. So there has to be something to it.
This is just a fraction of how we’ve changed with one single device. I could keep going if I wanted to take the time.
This is where I go off the beaten path a bit
Previously, the debate and arguments come as new technology emerges, there’s a battle with a winner and a loser.
Radio killed live music
Video killed the radio star
The Internet killed newspapers
And all these mediums are still around, struggling maybe, but around. They are mutating. Welcome to the conglomeration of the Internet. Instead of looking at the hot medium of the day as the winner, we should look at something else.
If the medium is the message, our interactions with the medium are telling.
Dial to push button
Stationary to mobile
Custom input to touch
Touch to voice
Ya – I bolded that last one. Surprised? This is Orality.ca, people. My whole point is to hammer a message so don’t be shocked when I get there.
Dictating text messages
The popularity of Podcasting & Audio Books
Siri, Alexa, OK Google
Our chosen medium of choice is Yelling loud and clear.
If you don’t know McLuhan’s theory, here’s my super-duper simplified a-little-too-much version of it:
Around 1964, McLuhan theorized that as technology advanced it would become a digital central nervous system of information connecting all media, like our physical central nervous system connects our senses.
In this connectivity, mankind will revert back to an oral society, back to a time of Villages — but this time a Global Village. In turn it would rekindle us back to a tribal-like life.
Now to break it down:
Yes, his central nervous system theory was a prediction of the Internet. Usually the mic drops here, we stop.
But wait, there’s more.
His Global Village is happening everywhere. It’s in every craft beer you drink, every food truck you eat at, pop up shop you buy a bar of elderflower artisanal soap from; every digital nomad you meet; every tattoo and piercing; every lumber-sexual you see drinking an Old Fashioned variant with locally source gin or whisky.
What does an oral society have to do with all of that?
The underpinning of most of McLuhan’s theories is how we interacted with a medium is far more important than its content. It changes us by interacting with it. The radio dial and transistors; understanding that invisible waves can transmit voices through the air; using the theatre of the mind to pretend that the announcer is talking just to you. All of this is more important than how captivating the content is.
The medium is the message
How does media make lumber-sexuals? It’s the consequences of how your brain rewires itself slightly when interacting with a medium.
The dominant medium of choice can influence how your mind works, in essence your thoughts.
Back to the Lumber-sexual thing.
Yup – there’s that word again
Story Telling. Oral Traditions. Great grandmothers teaching grandmothers a recipe. Learning a childhood lesson through a bedtime fable. The sound of someone else’s voice as you remember what you’ve learned. It rings with a sense of history.
McLuhan referred to this oral time and the time of the Tribal Man. And like the term Tribal, a sense of history comes. The exploration of it — asking yourself, when Mom said she was drinking an “Old fashioned” what was that? When Dad was showing me a picture telling me about camping — what was up with the mustache and toque? How would I look with a mustache and toque?
And the exploration of history deepens:
How did my grandfather make moonshine?
My grandparents sold their own butter to make ends meet. How can I do that?
Every tattoo is a story to tell; a visual history of your life.
Sure — this isn’t the exact same. Our current Orality is driven more through digital channels, but it’s still word of mouth.
The craft and artisanal resurgence are nice and all, I’m a huge sucker for that scene, but with the latest wave of Xenophobic-like politics happening in the US & UK, I’ve started wondering, is Orality a part of it?
What are our darker tendencies when we are Tribal?
If you’ve traveled as I have, you have walked into a place you shouldn’t have been. All eyes staring up at you wondering who you were, asking themselves “What is this stranger doing in here? Don’t they know better?”
Now imagine going farther back in time. What happens to that situation in a more primitive world: Slavery. Salem witch hunts. North America’s genocidal colonization. Farther. Holy Wars. Dark Ages. Roman Conquest. Genghis Khan. Vikings. Farther.
Humanity has a history before the written word of being fiercely loyal and territorial, perhaps to a fault: racism, religious wars, family feuds escalated to extremes causing neighbours to kill. Our history is full of a darker side when anyone mentions “protecting our own.”
What about this latest wave of “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Is it fake, or is there an aspect that we just don’t care about anymore.
This is going to take longer to explain, but I’ll get there.
I try to imagine myself in a world where the only thing I had was word of mouth — pre-literate, no books. I don’t think it would take long to see first hand the telephone game effect. In a small village, the chances of me being a witness or involved in a rumour should be the same odds of getting hit by a rain pellet standing in an open field during a storm.
This could mean that I would be aware, and might even think that stories are subjective. Not everyone knows everything, and maybe that’s ok. You don’t have to read every page of a long book. Maybe just every odd page to get the “gist”. The details wouldn’t matter because no matter how much you try, someone will have a different take — like a rumour.
And if the details didn’t matter and stories are flexible, wouldn’t that mean the truth is just a malleable?
Are you starting to see where I’m going with this?
This isn’t a sandwich-board article denouncing our future splattered with “the end of the world” it’s more of an interesting exploration. By looking at the yin and yang of a societal shift, perhaps there’s more in McLuhan’s predictions to be aware of and bring into our conscious mind. With any technology there are consequences. Not right and wrong consequences, but change happens and taking the road less traveled will change you.
I feel there’s an aspect of media that’s not being spoken about or discussed. Perhaps it’s because we’re looking at the content, not in the shifting landscape of technology and how we are interacting with it, which was McLuhan’s message all along.
Orality – get used to the word, I’m going to say it often.
“the quality of being oral or orally communicated”
– the dictionary
It’s a word that has baggage that I’m going to throw away, and I’d like you to as well.
There seems to be some religious baggage. Looking over Twitter’s #Orality, from what I can tell, some use it when referring to the art form of a sermon and preaching, and some use it when discussing bringing the bible to the illiterate. While there could be overlap with religion – I will not mean anything religious when I use the word.
There is also some academic baggage. A few of the “big wigs” (Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong) have determined Orality and Literacy are in opposition. These worlds were exclusive. You lost your orality the moment you became literate. This also, is not what I mean. You can be both.
What’s nice – is in later years there have been more arguments supporting my current use and belief of Orality.
“orality is not what is spoken, but what allows one to speak.”
Donald Wesling and Tadeusz Slawek, Literary Voice: The Calling of Jonah, 159
The same could be said that literacy is not what is written, but what allows one to read.
It’s a skill. Perhaps, once learned, it becomes more than that.