excerpt from Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman, “Orality and the Problem of Memory,” in Information Ages: Literacy(1), Numeracy, and the Computer Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1998), 11-31.


[According to Hobart and Schiffman, what Ong has called “our chirographic [handwriting] and typographic [print] bias” has made us misunderstand what storytellers did in oral culture, that their primary function was NOT in fact to pass on information:]

We moderns regard memory as a container filled with information . . . . [W]riting enables us to convey the same information, with the same truth value, to different people in different times and places. . . . [I]t fosters what we might call a “textual” model of memory, whereby the mental objects contained within our heads are akin to the pieces of information stored in writing.

The textual model misleads because it emphasizes on function of memory, storage of information, at the expense of another function, the act of recollection. It focuses on “knowledge” to the exclusion of “remembering” [as an activity]. The limits of the textual model quickly become apparent when we consider the actual experience of remembering, which proceeds not only by means of words but also of emotions and sensations, the latter including taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. . . . Indeed sensual spurs to memory are much more powerful and prevalent than verbal ones. . . .

The . . . sensory nature of the individual act of recollection also characterizes the “collective” or “social” act [that is, when a group of people in a primary oral culture sit around together to listen to a storyteller recount a story about their past, or, in secondary oral culture – ours – when we gather at rock concerts or at football games]. Far more than simply the stored knowledge of an oral culture [one doesn’t go to a football game to get information!!], “social memory” is the act of commemorating . . . .

[S]ocial memory [storytellers recounting aloud the stories of a group] does not embody an authorized version of the past, fixed for all time. Instead, the activity of commemoration continually reinterprets the past in the light of an ever-changing present. . . .

A fundamental difference exists between the oral process of [storytelling] and literate [writings of history], namely that the oral process is participatory and unreflective. By the latter adjective, we do not mean to imply that oral cultures are somehow “primitive” . . . . Far from implying our own cultural superiority, we term the oral mode . . . “unreflective” in the highly specific sense that it does not foster a critical distance between knower and known. . . .

All literacy, whether pictographic, syllabic, or alphabetic, separates knower from known. . . . [T]he separation of the knower from the known begins with the earliest form of writing . . . . in Mesopotamia. That primeval informing of experience constitutes the onset of the first “information age,” marking the birth of information itself.


(1) The word “literacy” should not be confused with the word “literature,” artistic written products. Literacy is the ability to use letters, just as “numeracy” in their title is the ability to use numbers.

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