Some Thoughts on Ong and Havelock

Contact with the Outside: Alienation, Masks and the Exteriority of Rhetoric

        A definition of the word rhetoric suggested by Walter Ong’s book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture, though never explicitly named, could be argued to read contact with the outside. Indeed, for Ong and for Eric Havelock as well, energies of exchange such as language, speech, writing, print and other media, seem to all be bound together by one framing occasion that may hold more importance than we allot it currently in our understandings of rhetoric and composition: the process of alienation. Alienation is an estrangement between a being and externally-originating rhetoric (encapsulated in some form, whether it be phonetical, visual, or otherwise). Alienation is a separation, a break, a partition, a disjunction. Alienation is itself less a process than a mitosis in which human beings, in the words of Michel Foucault, become what they are: “We are difference,” he says, proclaiming what Ong proclaims differently in his discussions of orality and literacy (131). For it is in language, in the energy of rhetoric, that we encounter populations of others most readily and most intimately, though always externally (or is this not the case? It’s another discussion). It is in rhetorical expression that the human lifeworld, represented in Ong’s book primarily by pre-literate oral cultures, becomes slowly estranged from itself when the magnetic pull of the external acts rhetorically upon on it. So, let’s dig deeper. Or, let’s slide further along the long, flat surfaces of appearances.

        The analysis Ong offers is compelling and coercive. Ong begins his book by routing our attention to oral cultures that he spends so much of his analysis considering. He argues that writing changes every component of the human being, even going so far as to assert their appearance of being “curiously unprogrammed” (10). In oral cultures, generally speaking (there are a million exceptions to this “rule”), there exists an identification between knower and known that is not as active or present in literate or electrate cultures. Ethos, we might generalize, is privileged here over pathos or especially over logos, though these are western terms and therefore western impositions. Whatever the case, the dialectic integral to rhetoric itself between what is internal (to human being, to consciousness, to language, to rhetorical energy itself, to sound, to movement, to bodies) and what is external is an exchange that is neither violent nor uncomplicated. Undoubtedly, though, one can posit confidently that the alienations introduced by rhetoric, language and experiority are what allow human beings to change and be changed; these alienations are how we move into contact with our surroundings (“periechon); it’s how we encounter difference, conceive of difference, perceive the playing-outs of desire in front of us and react and respond as we do.

         Ong’s assertions, radical as they are, stretch even further when he moves his focus of scrutiny from language in general to writing and print specifically. He argues that “With writing, the earlier noetic state undergoes a kind of cleavage, separating the knower from the external universe and then from himself” (18). He follows this by noting that writing “Does so at the price of splitting up the originality of consciousness and in this sense alienating man from himself and his original lifeworld” (18). We find in Ong’s thinking a conception of writing as a self-splitting enterprise, as a radical dissolving of the self and of the agent, of writing as an externalization that has its own agencies or, as one might say, a mind of its own. I’m immediately reminded here of Gorgias’ noting the “agency of words” in an age when literacy itself was still inventing itself in human practice (11). It seems, then, that we should work to extend Ong’s conceptions. How exactly does the act of creating external markings work outside of human consciousness? We know language, the means of human thinking even in its interiority, to maintain always an external element, one foot outside of the shore of the flowing river. We also know from Havelock’s thinking that writing made possible, for the first time, the seperation of knower from known. The central form of identification within orality was clearved and scattered: knower and known were differentiated, with knowledge growing to be something different from history, myth, tale, narrative, morphing into the literate mindset we’re capable of identifying only after its development and indeed through it. It is no great feat to argue literacy itself to have made Plato possible. Is it any coincidence western philosophy blossomed so readily in the moments of writing’s inception in Greece in the short span of generations of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Gorgias and Plato?

        Rhetoric, of course, is not only exterior to the human being. Anyone conversing with themselves might attest to this, anyone battling themselves to eat healthier or to write more often or to get to the gym that night. On a deeper level, rhetoric is working internally, too: the words supplied to us by our forays into the linguistic act are imbued with ideology framed and carried rhetorically, by signs of desire that function to persuade, influence and manipulate us in our consciousnesses, our unconsciousnesses, our proto-consciousnesses (desire itself is rhetoric). Rhetoric’s status in regard to internal human being is, I think, for the most part settled within our conversations, though its forms, impacts, meanings, etc. are never likely to be settled definitely. The present discussion is not its discussion, anyways. Here, I want to hone in on rhetoric’s exteriority, its outside-of, its otherness and its exoskeleton: rhetoric’s agencies themselves. For however we want to slice Ong’s thinking laid out in Interfaces of the Word, a core conclusion drawn from my reading will always be the functions of the logos as it acts external and internal to being.


Ong, W. (1977). Interfaces of the word: Studies in the evolution of consciousness and culture. Cornell University Press. Print.

Havelock, E (1986). The muse learns to write. Yale University Press. Print.

Foucault, M (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. Vintage Books. Print.

Gorgias (2012). An encomium of Helen. Language is a mighty lord, ed. Patrick, A.J. Riposte Publishing, 11. Print.

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