Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Word (A Pecha Kucha on the Walter Ong Centenary)

So, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Walter J. Ong, one of the scholars most central to the media ecology intellectual tradition. And in honor of  his centenary, I created a pecha kucha presentation, which I performed live at the 80th annual meeting of the New York State Communication Association on October 19-21, 2012.

A pecha kucha is meant to be a live performance, a short talk accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation in which there are 20 slides, and they are set to advance every 20 seconds, so the entire presentation lasts approximately 6 minutes and 40 seconds. This presentation fudges that slightly because I added a title slide that is not part of the 20, kind of like the front matter in a book that has the small letter Roman numerals and so is not part of the regular page numbering.

Now, you may remember my post from last year, The Medium Is..., where I explained how doing pecha kuchas at NYSSCA was all the idea of Mary Ann Allison. And on the blogpost you can find the pecha kucha I created last year in honor of the Marshall McLuhan centenary. If you haven't seen it before, you might want to take a look. Or maybe not.

Actually, what's over there is not an actual pecha kucha presentation, which as I explained is a live performance, but rather a video I created based on the PowerPoint visuals and a specially recorded version of the talk.  And that is also what you'll find here. This year's video (and that link will take you over to YouTube to see it on its own page) came out a bit rough, audio-wise, and a bit fuzzy, visual-wise, but I decided to leave it that way as it somehow fits with the subject matter.

So now, without further ado, here is The Word:

And as an extra added bonus for Blog TIme Passing readers, I'm going to include the written text of the talk here as well.  I've put into italics any passage that is a direct quotation from Walter Ong, or a close paraphrase of what he's written (as well as book titles).

The Word
A Pecha Kucha in Honor of the Centenary of the Birth of
Walter Jackson Ong, SJ

The presence of the word 

Our common human heritage
The cause of great commotion
Commiseration, commemoration
Commitments, commendations
Commerce and commodities
Commandments and their commentary
Communion and community
And the distinctive character
Of human communication

The word is spoken
Speech is the word
The human species is hardwired for sound
With a larynx that makes possible
A wide range of vocalization
And a tongue that allows us
A broad range of articulation
So that with the breath of life
Comes the spirit of the word

The word is governed
By the human brain
Within the cerebral cortex
Broca's area gives us speech
Wernicke's area comprehension
And language acquisition
Begins in early infancy
With babbling and baby talk
Signaling the readiness to learn

The language that we learn
Becomes our mother tongue
And the words that we learn to speak out loud
We later learn to say
In silence only to ourselves
Our outer dialogue becomes
An inner monologue
As the words we speak transform into
Tools for thought
The mind an echo-chamber

The words we speak are tools we use
To construct the world we live in
Guiding our senses
Directing our attention
Telling us what to ignore
How to think, feel, and act
Different languages give us different words
And something is always lost in translation
As different words give us different worlds

In every village, tribe or clan
In every society known to woman or man
We find the presence of the word
The opposable thumb gave us primitive tools
But more importantly made it possible
To carry things with our hands
Freeing the mouth for making sounds
Opposable tongues gave us
Our tools for talk and thought

A gesture requires a line of sight
A warning cry can come from any direction
The survival value of the spoken word
Conferred victory in natural selection
Hand signals can substitute if needed
But no human population known
Chooses sign language over speech

But the spoken word is ephemeral
Ong says,
Sound only exists as its going out of existence
When I say the word existence
By the time I get to –tence
Exist is gone, never to be recovered

Pause a video and you get a still image
Pause an audio recording and all that you get
Is silence

Ong says, Sound cannot be sounding
Without the use of power
A hunter can see a buffalo
Smell, taste, and touch a buffalo
But if he hears a buffalo
He better watch out
Something is going on

All sound is dynamic
Especially oral utterance
Which comes from inside living organisms

Ong says, sounded word is power and action
The Hebrew word dabar
Means word but also means event
Prayers and magic spells are inert
When written in a book
Their power comes
When they are said out loud
Neither do an oath or a curse take effect
Until the moment they are spoken

Without writing there is no way
To capture words
And store them over time
And so, Ong says,
You know what you can recall
And what you need to do is to
Think memorable thoughts
Oral cultures depend on mnemonics
Repetition and collective memory
Continual commemoration
To keep knowledge alive

Oral tradition uses rhythm and melody
Formulas and clichés
Proverbs and sayings
Poetry and song
Like the epic of Gilgamesh
From Mesopotamia
And the old English Beowolf
And the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey
Said to have been composed
By the poet Homer who was blind
And listened as the muses sang to him

Oral memory is rarely word for word
Verbatim memorization is based on a text
That can be viewed and reviewed to test
The accuracy of memory and thereby
Achieve perfection
Oral memory instead is characterized
By multiformity, variation
Embellishment and improvisation

Sound speaks to interiority
Sight, touch, smell and taste
Give us only surfaces
Sounding gives us depth
Takes us past the exterior
Inside objects, bodies, and minds
We interiorize speech as thought
And exteriorize thought as speech
Every utterance is an outering

The spoken word creates community
As a group we listen together as one
Audience is a singular noun
But as readers we split apart
Even when reading the exact same text
We become separate, private individuals
Lost in our own thought-world
As Ong says,
Sight isolates, sound incorporates

Sound is sacred, vision profane
In the beginning was the word
And the word was spoken
In the Torah God says out loud
Let there be light!
Voice comes before vision
In Christian theology,
Ong says
God the Father speaks his Son
He does not inscribe him

Ong says,
Words are not signs
Signs are seen and not heard
Observations not conversations
While words are sounds and not sighted
Writing is a secondary symbol system
A code of a code representing
Spoken words as visual marks on a surface
Notation for the recording of sound

Writing is a technology
It is the technologizing of the word
It's used to study and edit our speech
Giving us rhetoric and poetics as well
Creating interfaces of the word
Writing on parchment
Which is made from animal skins
Turns the word into flesh
While printing turns words into things
Making them objects instead of events

Writing, printing and now electronic media
Are transformations of the word
But a flood of information and images threaten
The humiliation of the word
While scholars like Jacques Ellul
Neil Postman and Walter Ong
Serve as defenders of the word

Homer spoke of winged words
The Big Bopper sang
That the bird is the word
There are words that delight
And words that excite
Words that bring fright
Words that make us fight
Words that invite
And words we recite
Words that rhyme
And words that don't
But as long as human life remains so will
The persistence of the word

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