Ong’s argument, more or less, is that writing restructures consciousness. How it does so is less simple. A starting point is that writing is detached from its source – like the Delphi Oracle, the writer is a non-entity, no more than a means for communication. Thus writers are freed from the everyday constraints of oral speech. Writing is in many ways subversive, disobedient to authority. That’s one of the reasons Plato hated writing and plays, because it can spread subversive ideas and falsehoods through the community and then gets in the way of societal order. Writing can’t defend its opinions. It is passive. With Wikipedia, or sources of writing that rely heavily on technology, one cannot directly criticize it without access to/know-how about the technology in question. These points are all very good ones to make. But I’ve heard this argument before. The idea that writing can influence other large areas of human life rather reminds me of a book I’ve read recently.
According to Erwin Panofsky’s landmark work Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, the Scholastic movement changed what Panofsky calls “mental habits” in 12th C society and in turn informed the evolution of Gothic architecture. Scholastics were engaged with theological writings and texts, but the way in which they wrote was drastically different from the movements before them, such as nominalism. This, according to no less than Thomas Aquinas, requires a change in thought – or, as Ong would say, a change in consciousness. Namely, this included a new focus on symmetrical ordering of arguments, and “clarification for clarification’s sake”. This same intricacy spilled over into another art, architecture, and the Gothic movement took off. While this may seem confusing, it’s a wonderful book and comes with beautiful pictures of churches and I recommend it highly for a rainy day.