Non binary

Orality is fluid; so are we.

Last week I introduced Walter J. Ong and my first comparison with his characteristics of oral cultures. The power in the choice of a pronoun.

And this leads me to a perception of what could be a characteristic of a literate culture

Binary thought

McLuhan, Postman, Ong, and I’m sure others, have looked at the ecology of the written word and quickly seen its influence on our logical nature. It’s not a far leap to see how literacy and math, science, law progressed together.

Yet in this ability, is a simple mental foundation. Until recently our technological mountain has been composed of this smallest foundation. True (1) and false (0). On (1) and off(0). Is (1) and isn’t (0).

After all – a word is or isn’t printed on a page. It is or isn’t in paragraph 3 subsection 4. It was or was not successfully reproduced. 1+1 is or is not 2.

We tend to think lately that our capacity and attention has whittled down to almost nothing. It might be true. Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death shows us the legal & political celebrity & prowess in the early days of the United States; their once staggering high literacy rates combined with the public’s ability to keep up with and even enjoy hours of complex debate & deliberation.

On the flip side of literacy, I recently read Cultural Development: It’s Cultural and Social Foundations by A.R. Luria, a fascinating opportunity to collect insight into a changing subculture as it transitions into literacy. And it shows cracks in human thought, that with Oral cultures, the fundamentals of logic changes. It’s not that there isn’t any, it’s just not the same.

Inference goes out the door.
Reasoning becomes cluttered with complexity.
Perception itself becomes void of classification.

Perhaps it’s not so Binary. Perhaps how we categorize, or logically organize our world is up for review.

And how interesting that now, as we delve into quantum computing we are opening our thoughts to “maybe”, “maybe not” and “maybe both.”

The diversity of a Roman

I think this picture is amazing. Look at it with me. A designer used AI and photoshop to give details back to the busts of Roman emperors

What I think is relevant to binary thought – are any preconceived notions of a Roman.

If our category, inference, definition, and judgment are based on a literate characteristic of binary thought, how we are trying to define life or imagine history might be as well.

Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Originally posted on Substack

Who’s Ong?

Walter J. Ong: Orality and Literacy

I’ve already introduced you to McLuhan. Now, let’s introduce you to another figure that’s currently shaping my perspectives. Walter J. Ong.

How he influence the conversation of “Orality”? His work is foundational. While I still have to get into his more history-based works, his main focus was in a small pocket of time in human history, the transition from Orality into Literacy. Hence one of his seminal works Orality and Literacy.

But, Nick, is this a religious thing?

Ah, you noticed what he was wearing in the picture did you? I did say that, didn’t I? While he may be an American Jesuit priest, at no time while reading Orality & Literacy did I ever get the sense of religion.

So sure, his specific curiosity may have been triggered by religion. I can only speculate it’s not a large hop skip and a jump to wonder if it was sparked around the effect missionary work had on an oral society. How at the heart of his religion was, in a sense, literacy. But that’s where we mostly stop.

Compassion of orality

I say mostly because with Ong, perhaps his religion helped, but nowhere yet in my readings, have I felt any portrait of superiority between literacy and orality.

Which seems against what I’ve found from my informal conversations. From my discussions, so far, when I even suggest a post-literate oral culture is emerging, I seem to hit this wall. “Well, I know how to read!”


Where I’m going is, that as we go on this ride, I do not want to suggest any sort of inferiority or superiority between literate and oral. They are merely different. And that difference changes our minds which in turn changes our perceptions of each other and the world we live in.

I realize now, my first post, may have been suggestive of this backslide, talking of tribal darkness. I think I might have to rectify that in future posts.

Back to it

Where were we… oh yes, what does Ong have to do with Orality… everything.

He coined the term “Secondary Orality” mainly orality steeped in literacy. TV & Movies start with a script. But somewhere it gets a little twisted and muddled when written feels spoken. It’s a fancy term you can use at a cocktail party when discussing slang, emojis, tweets ( micro-blogging ), memes, and other oral-like text.

But the main pièce de résistance is his characteristics ( psychodynamics ) of an oral culture. It’s a pillar in everything. While there is debate, he devised a series of traits in oral cultures. I’m not going to list all of them all right now because well… spoilers, however, if you really want, Wikipedia has a decent list.

What I will do, is leave you with a teaser of what I want to do throughout this project. What if we re-examine society today against the characteristics of an oral culture? What do you think we would find?

Here’s the first of many:

Sounded Word As Power and Action

The very first is a topic Ong tackles is an oral cultures association of words and power. Every Tolkien-like fantasy story has an elemental knowledge of this. Know someone’s “true” name, and have power over them. Or better yet, read The Name of the Wind, a good fantasy book if I do say so myself.

In the non-fictional world, for some traditions & cultures, it’s a source of deep connection. Used sparingly. A way to declare family, special relationships, or sacred moments.

Outside of these oral traditions, there has been a resurgence of re-appropriating words. Derogatory slang is taken back as empowerment.

Currently, one of the most powerful examples of a cultural rekindling that sounded word has power, and one I believe we’re “feeling” is a re-appropriation and a declaration, that of the pronoun.

Imagine the neuropathways in the human mind learning and changing.

How amazingly beautiful!

Originally posted on Substack

The dark side of McLuhan’s Tribal Man

Does the Global Village have a few dark alleys?

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.”

Oh did I bury the lead… McLuhan said so himself …

McManus: But it seems, Dr. McLuhan, that this tribal world is not friendly.

McLuhan: Oh no, tribal people, one of their main kinds of sport is butchering each other. It’s a full-time sport in tribal societies.

McManus: But I had some idea that as we got global and tribal we were going to try to — — 

McLuhan: The closer you get together, the more you like each other? There’s no evidence of that in any situation that we’ve ever heard of. When people get close together, they get more and more savage, impatient with each together….The global village is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.

If you can get past that part and watch the rest – I think it will also help with where I’m going. Though – take out the old man complaining about the young wippersnappers.

Originally posted by me on Medium; then on Substack