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WALTER J. ONG: Reading, Technology, and the Nature of Man

WALTER J. ONG: Reading, Technology, and the Nature of Man

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WALTER J. ONG: Reading, Technology, and the Nature of Man
WALTER J. ONG: Reading, Technology, and the Nature of Man

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Published by: avitechwriter on Jul 09, 2010
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07/17/2013

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Reading,Technology,and theNature ofMan:AnInterpretation
WALTERJ.ONG,S.J.
St LouisUniversity
I
In theUnited StatesandWesternEuropethepastdecadehasseenan un-precedenteddevelopmentofahighlyintellectualized interestinreadingandreaders.This interest hasthusfarbeenrelativelyelitist,quitedistinctfromtheconcurrentdistress overpractical readingskillsand moreunprecedentedthanthisdistress, for,as historians of education wellknow,dismayoverlackofreadingskillsandotherlanguageskills hasbeenanormal and even fashion-able moodin academia overthe centuries.The newerinterestinreadingandreadersspringsfrom theoretical rather thanpracticalconcerns,althoughitsimplicationsforpracticalpedagogycanbe,or canbecome,quitereal.Anindicationofthepresentstate of affairscould be seenat theDecember1976convention ofthe ModernLanguageAssociation ofAmericainNewYorkCity,whenthe Forumon the Reader of Literature attractedanaudienceof aroundI,oooto
1,200
persons (transientsmakeexactfigures impossible).Hundredsofthesepursuedthereaderquestionstillfurtherinone ormore ofthesix satelliteworkshopsthat continued discussion of thesubjectthroughtherest of thethree-dayconvention.TheForum itself wasbilled asproviding'ANewPerspectiveinCriticism andTeaching'andproposedasitsfocaltopic'Do Readers MakeMeaning?': strategic wording, raisingteachers'hopesandflatteringreaders,aself-consciouslydepressedmajority,as wellastitillatingdabblersinsubjectivism.MostpersonsattheForum,however,were there notfor wish-fulfilmentbut for more informed andsophisticatedreasons.Collectively, theyhad beenreadingorhearingofworkspublishedinthepastdecade orsobymembersoftheTelquelcircleinFrancesuchasRolandBarthes,PhilippeSollers,TzvetanTodorov,andJacquesDerrida.Theyknewsomethingof theHeideggerianandHusserlianthoughtthatlaybehind theseworks,somethingof the relatedphenomenologyofdiscoursedeveloped byPaulRicoeurandbythelateMauriceMerleau-Ponty,probablyless about the earlierphenomeno-logistLouisLavelleandthemuch earlierandprecociousMaine deBiran,
Part ofthispaperwas deliveredas theopeningaddress for theFergusonSeminaronPublishingattheCollegeof William andMary, 17-18NovemberI977.
 
WALTERJ.ONG,S.J.
agreatdealaboutFerdinand de Saussure'slinguisticsand Claude Levi-Strauss'slinguisticandanthropologicalstructuralismaswellas about theRussian andPragueformalismdecantedandmaturedin theworkofRomanJakobson,andsomethingabout theFrenchpsychoanalyticcultural criticsMichelFoucaultandJacquesLacan. TheForum attendantswere alsooftendeeplyintoHenryJames'sand E. M. Forster'sreflectionsonfiction-writingand intothework of Americancritics andliterarytheoristsemergingfrom ordivergingfrom the old NewCriticism,suchasWayneBooth,RobertScholes,and RobertKellogg,who discussthe natureof narrativeassuch(whatcanbedonetodevelopastoryline out of the welteroflivedexistence),andtheyhadbecomeacquaintedwith the views of cisatlanticcriticsin dia-loguewiththeFrench,such asHaroldBloom,GeoffreyHartman,Paul deMan,J.HillisMiller,and E.D.Hirsch,Jr,and withsomeof thework ofhermeneuticistsandtheoristsfrom the Germanmilieu suchasthePolish-born RomanIngardenorHans-GeorgGadamer,ErichKahler,and Wolf-gangIser.Mostof the audiencehad readworkbymembersofthe Forumpanelthemselves,DavidBleich,StanleyFish,NormanHolland,WalterOng,and Michael Riffaterre.(Besidesthesepanellists,someofthe otherpersonsjustmentioned here werealsopresentattheForumas members oftheaudience,andentered intothediscussion.)Allthis isquiteamixture ofpersonsandofpublicandprivate epiphanies,even without themanymorenames that couldbe addedtothoseabove,butnothingless couldgiveanadequateidea of thecomplexintellectualmilieu outof which thepresentinterestinreadingand readers hasemerged.Thediscussion ofreaders andreadingoftenrunsdeep,intellectuallyandpsychologically.Ipresenthere some reflections onthe discussionandsomesuggestionsas towhyat thepresentmomentofhistory questionsabout thereader andreadingso fascinateliterarycritics,philosophers,linguisticanalysts,psychologists,andothers.
II
Someof the basicconsiderationswhichinthis milieumarkdiscussionregardingreadingand readers canbestatedasfollows.Thewordinghere ismyown.I.Readingisaspecialkindofactivityandcannot be understoodassimplyanactivity paralleltolistening.(Likemanyotherobservationsenteringintothediscussion,thisobservationhasbeen confirmedbythe clinicalandexperimentalworkofpsychologists,whose ranks couldfurnishothernamesassimilable to thosejustmentioned.)
2.
Writingandreadingestablishaspecialsituationmarkedbyabsences,gaps,silences,andopacity.Faced withatext,the readerfindsthatboththe authorandoriginalcontext are absent.The reader himselforherselfhastoproducetheequivalentof both: theequivalent,for heorshecanproduce
I33
 
Reading,Technology,nd theNatureofMan
neitherauthor norcontext intotalactuality.Thecontext isnomoreandtheauthor,oftenenough,isdead.3.'Thewriter'saudience isalwaysafiction.'This,achapter-titleinmyrecentbook,InterfacesoftheWord,ismyownwayoffocusingsomeof theissuesinvolved inreadingandwriting,includingsome ofthosenotedherebelow. As contrastedwithaspeaker,awriternormallyaddressespersonswhoarenotpresentandwho indeed must beabsent. Iamwritingabookwhich,Ihope,isgoingto haveahundredthousandreaders,soplease, everyonegetout of theroom.Iwant to bealone.Imustimagine myreaders,most ofwhomIshallneverknow,mustimagineandsetupacertainmood forthem,imaginetheliterarytraditionstheyare used to sothattheycanintroducewhat I amwritinginto their ownimaginativeworld;andmyreadersmust be abletomatchthemselves to whatIhaveimaginedforthem,ormywritingwillnotwork. This'fictionalizing'ofreadersisnotentirelyarbitraryonthepartofthewriter. He orshe mustprovidereaders withmodels that realreadersareused to or canadjusttoreadily.4.Reading,onemightsay,isalwaysapreteriteactivity.Itdeals withsomethingwhichis finished.Texts comeoutofpasttime.Theyarethings,not events.Conversation is neverapreteriteactivity.It isanevent,not athing.5.Textsallhave tobe 'naturalized' orrelated toapresentknown form ofcommunication,related towhatpeopletalkabout now or cantalk about.There aresynchronicproblemsof'naturalization':anovelbyJohnO'Haraismorereadilynaturalizedbymostpresentreaders ofnovels inthe WestthanonebyRobbe-Grillet.Andthereare diachronicproblems:because ofdifferences intime andculture,itis noteasyforpresent-dayreadersto'naturalize'PiersPlowman,even inamodernEnglishversion,unless thereaders arespeciallytrained.Otherwisetheyhavetroubledecidingwhatis'goingon'.Anotherwaytosaythis is tosaythattexts must beinterpreted.Interpretingatext meansinsertingitsomehow into theongoingconversationsyoulivewith.No matterhow difficult ofaccess themeaningormeaningsinatextfromanunfamiliarmilieumaybe,no matterhowbizarre,thetext has to berelated insomewayto what thereaderknows ofactuality,ifonlybycon-trast,oritcannot beunderstoodat all. TheLatin-derived'interpretation'(etymologically,trafficking,negotiation)is theequivalentof theGreek-derived'hermeneutic' or'hermeneutics'(whichhas, however,adivergentetymology).Hermeneutics is'in'today,as itneverhas been sinceAristotlegot together(or somebodygottogether)hisPerihermeneias(De interpretatione
or OnInterpretation).
6.Interpretation,whichalltextsrequirebecausetheyarethingscomingout ofapast,actualizespotentialmeanings(implicit,unconscious,etc.)submergedinthetext,makingthe textmore fecund thanoralutterance cannormallybe(unlessthe oralutteranceisrecorded,whichis tosay,madeintoI34

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