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Discussing Walter Ong, “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought”

Here’s where we’ll discuss Walter Ong’s essay “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.”  The essay is available via eReserves (check your email for the password to the eReserves page). Here is a link to some biographic information on Walter Ong you might find interesting.

This essay  is a challenging essay but the basic ideas that he’s getting at here are important and key to these ideas about the idea of this section of the course, that writing itself is a “technology” in that it writing is far from “natural.”

The difficulty of this piece starts with the first paragraph:

“Literacy is imperious.  It tends to arrogate to itself supreme power by taking itself as normative for human expression and thought.  This is particularly true in high-technology cultures, which are built on literacy of necessity and which encourage the impression that literacy is an always to be expected and even natural state of affairs.  The term ‘illiterate’ itself suggests that persons belonging to the class it designates are deviants, defined by something they lack, namely literacy.”

“Imperious” is a curious word. If you look it up in something like, you’ll see that it means “Arrogantly domineering or overbearing.” In other words, what Ong is getting at here is that literacy is seen (arrogantly, when you think about it a bit) as a “natural” and “normal” state of affairs, while to be “illiterate” or “non-literate”, despite the fact that it really is “normal” for people who have not experienced the “technology” of print and education (think, for example, of people around the world who live in cultures with no written language, for example) to not be literate.

What I’m getting at is this: Ong (like a lot of academic-types) is not simply using big words for the sake of using big words. He’s using words like “imperious” on purpose, because it is a precise and interesting word designed to make you (the reader) think about what he’s saying.

So take some time with the essay, do use a dictionary to look some terms up, and don’t be afraid to ask some questions about the reading. A lot of people don’t “get it” on first reading (I certainly didn’t).

Posted in Class Readings.

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