Orality, Literacy and the Printing Press


The current transition from print media to digital is being touted by many as the most significant revolution since the invention of the printing press.  But just how revolutionary was the printing press and was it considered a radical shift with major cultural implications by its contemporaries?  Our readings this week focus on the cultural interplay between orality and print, and offer varying viewpoints of the impact these transformations effected within society.

Ong (1982) sets the stage with a postmodernist investigation of primary oral cultures and the effects written word engendered in human thought itself.  In contrast to orality, Ong describes writing as a solitary, one-way “autonomous discourse.” He argues that literacy leads to the demise of primarily oral skills such as elocution, rhetoric and memorization and suggests that due to the loss of these skills, the development of written culture transformed the very nature of thought itself.   This statement resonates with McLuhan’s premise that “the medium is the message”  in that the development of literacy and written word irreversibly restructured human consciousness.

Eisenstein (2002) writes from a technological determinist perspective and suggests that the printing press was responsible for the most radical historical transformations in the western world from the 15th to 19th centuries.   In her argument, scribal texts are considered unreliable due to the introduction of errors along several points in the copying process.  With the advent of the printing press, not only were books considered more reliable, but they were also cheaper and quicker to produce which allowed them to be read by a greater number of people at an accelerated rate.  This greater access to more standardized texts created an environment in which scholars could transmit and share ideas with unprecedented speed and this access effectively made the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution possible.   One key differentiating point in Eisenstein’s argument when compared to Ong and Johns (2002) is that although she doesn’t negate the importance of the shift from orality to script, she is more specifically focussed on the transition from script to print.

While Johns agrees that the invention of the printing press was a great achievement, he downplays its role in major thought revolutions.  He directly refutes Eisenstein and posits that early printed works were full of errors introduced by the printer and that wide distribution of pirated versions further multiplied those errors.  Not only did readers find early printed books unreliable, but the very nature of print opened it up to misinterpretation.  Here Johns echoes Ong in explaining the importance oral cultures placed on directly questioning the speaker and engaging in two-way dialogue.

Finally Darnton (2000) employs a revisionist approach using a case study of 18th century Parisian news culture to demonstrate how orality and print culture remain intermixed within literate society.  In Paris, complicated underground media networks evolved in response to tight monarchical control over printed materials.  These networks employed media ranging from public readings and gossip in coffee houses, to physical exchanges of news on scraps of paper, to communal creation of poetry and song.   In concert with Ong’s assertion of the continuous interplay between orality and literacy (specifically by examining rhetoric and learned Latin), Darnton’s case study reveals how traditional oral practices remain deeply entrenched within literate culture.

Although the printing press certainly played a role in the dissemination of news, one can’t ignore that orality and script continued to be strongly influential on news culture well into the 18th century.

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