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Sight isolates. Sound incorporates.

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What do we lose when we don't hear?

We talk endlessly about community but find the doing thereof problematic. It’s not just because we like the idea of people better than actual people, it’s that context sometimes stands in our way. Reading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (NY: Routledge, 1993), I’ve come to wonder if technology divides us. Not any highfalutin technology like iPhones or mobile apps or Twitter or any of the current batch of ones and zeros in our pockets. I’m talking about a very basic technology that we all take for granted and is mostly invisible: writing and, in particular, reading.

When I was a kid, before I spent so much time reading, I was fascinated by my parents’ and grandparents’ conversations. “Fascinated” is too strong: there were moments of fascination, especially when they told some story of their life growing up. Or when they described some mistake they made—especially if it was funny. I had to listen carefully for those stories because mostly their talk was boring, about money or work or gardening or real estate or…well, you’ve listened to these conversations. The interesting stuff poked out every once in a while and that’s what kept me hanging around. It was entertaining to hear the stories. And they were stories I would not know of if I did not hang around.

Sight isolates. Sound incorporates.” That’s Ong’s concise statement about what happens as we attend to our different senses (71). I think he’s right. Reading, for me, is mostly an individual thing. It’s rather private. I read all the time, and when I read, I am drawn into myself. I actually begin to resent when someone talks to me when I am reading because—limited person that I am—I cannot continue reading while they address me. And yet often I would rather keep reading then enter into conversation.

This is not a judgment on reading and writing and seeing. It is a simple statement of truth: sound, since it is an event (Ong describes sound as something we experience only as it stops or goes away), it is something “we” experience. It is shared. Sight pulls us into ourselves. Reading, in particular, pulls me in and makes me ponder stuff. The pondering goes on deep in my brain, even while I look up from my book as you address me. I’m listening. Kinda.

Here’s the thing: those conversations with parents and grandparents and loud uncles were truly an event. I recognize that now. And we responded as a “we.” We laughed. We cried (occasionally). We responded with an urgent “That’s crazy!” But it was what “we” did.

Not so with reading.

I’m preparing a class for Northwestern College to help writers write to build community using social media. My definition of community must expand beyond those folks that are physically nearby to include those who share common interests. Laura Gurak, in Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: the online protests over Lotus Marketplace and the Clipper Chip (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), says the concept of community is rooted in place and in common values (8-9). Building community puts a priority on the sharing of those common values. But in this case, the building of community happens as individuals sit (or stand) and read. They read on their own.

I think of a church service. We listen to the preacher. We listen to a text read. It affects us together. We discuss it as we drive home and as we sit eating lunch. I wonder if those first people experiencing “church,” way back when the gospels were being written, way back when Paul was writing his letters (letters now incorporated between the leather-like covers of the book I own), shared a sense of wonder at the event of hearing. That shared event brought them together in a community, where they just had to talk about it. Because by talking about it they experienced it all over again. We have the same opportunity, but our technology calls us away. My book (or blog list or The Onion) calls me away from conversation. Perhaps it calls me away from community. But not necessarily.

What do you think?

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Addendum: I mean no disrespect for those unable to hear. I am more targeting the shared experience of responding to something we’ve all experienced, which is open to all.

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