Secondary Orality and Electric Rhetoric: the ground of sound
In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong introduces the term secondary orality to characterize the recapitulation of oral communication characteristics in electronic media; thus, the introduction of secondary orality necessitates a definition of primary orality in order to function as a meaningful concept. Ong distinguishes between two categories of cultures: oral cultures existing prior to or isolated from print, and characterized by orally-based thought and speech; and typographic cultures whose thought, speech, and other practices are influenced by the effects of print communication. The use of the term “secondary orality” stems from Ong’s historical conception of a chronological progression of cultural epochs.
Ong relies on the nature of sound to outline and define the essential characteristics of primary and secondary orality. “Without writing, words as such have no visual presences, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might ‘call’ them back – ‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them. They have no focus and no trace” (Ong p. 31). The nature of sound therefore determines the communicative practices of primary orality, and the rhetorical techniques and mnemonic formulae by which members of oral cultures structure thought and speech. “In an oral culture, to think through something in nonformulaic, non-patterned, non-mnenomic terms, even if it were possible, would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing” (p. 35).
Secondary orality thus refers to a renewed emphasis of certain characteristics of orality that were deemphasized in typographic cultures. Ong locates the nexus of this transformation in the advent of electronic communication media, what he also calls “post-typography” (p. 133). One aspect of the relation of electronic media to secondary orality cited by Ong is the transmission of spoken words to a mass audience, forming groups of listeners similar in essence, though not in scale, to oral cultures. “Radio and television have brought major political figures as public speakers to a larger public than was ever possible before modern electronic developments. Thus in a sense orality has come into its own more than ever before” (p. 134). In Electric Rhetoric, Kathleen Welch focuses primarily on television as a locus for changes in oralism brought about by electronic media, a condition Welch calls “televisual aurality” (Welch p. 132).
The use of “aurality” rather than “orality” in Welch’s phrase indicates the central role sound plays in the televisual paradigm. “Television is more acoustic than visual, and so is attached strongly to oralism/auralism.” (p. 102). The presence of television in public spaces is primarily aural, as a person can turn away from the images on the television screen, while the accompanying sounds are still heard. Television’s pervasiveness is exemplified in background noise. In this sense Welch, like Ong, identifies a connection between electronic discursive forms and the characteristics of pre-literate communication. Welch also cites the formulas (here koinoi topoi) used in pre-alphabetic cultures as an element of orality that is recalled to prominence in the electronic age. “Koinoi topoi are memorable and amenable to speaking and hearing in particular […] Next Rhetoric requires them as part of its theorized electrification” (p. 117).
Welch uses the term Electric Rhetoric (or Next Rhetoric) in referring to these transformations in literacy and communication. Though there are clear parallels with Ong’s notion of secondary orality, Welch’s formulation doesn’t evoke that term and is distinguished by a critical concern with hegemonic narratives and the unmasking of power relations. While professing skepticism about modernist histories, Welch presents electric rhetoric as an emergent phenomenon in a linear progression, as Ong characterized secondary orality. “Electric rhetoric, Next Rhetoric, is the third Sophistic. It is what will come after postmodernism” (p. 136).