conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

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?


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.

6 Responses

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  1. Very thoughtful post–thanks. Not having read Ong’s work, his concise statement, ‘sight isolates, sound incorporates’ is true to a point. Your example of silent reading being individualistic in nature strikes a cord, but I’m guessing the same person would get annoyed if they were listening to their iPod (i.e. sound), right? The Word of God is certainly proclaimed in the Church, thus creating a sense of community, but the same Word that is proclaimed is also given to us in the Sacraments–a visual reminder that God has come to us in flesh and blood, as well as gives us his flesh and blood on a regular basis when we participate in the Eucharist.


    December 8, 2009 at 9:59 pm

  2. Jason, thanks for the comment! There is something about the shared experience that is missing with the individual reading or iPod-ing (that’s word,right?). Not that reading or iPod-ing are bad, it’s just that when we hear or participate in something together–something much bigger happens. Your example of the Eucharist is perfect: hearing and partaking of the Word together. Maybe it doesn’t get any better than that?


    December 8, 2009 at 11:21 pm

  3. Some of my comments echo Jason’s. You and Ong have given some good thoughts to consider which I’d agree are true to a point. But sight can be experienced “together”: “Look at those glorious mountains!” In terms of Jason’s example, it’s interesting that he used the word “visual,” while your response to him was “hearing and partaking” and not “hearing and seeing.” Isn’t watching a film “sight and sound”? And we can talk about it together afterwards. Reading is just one example of “sight.” Perhaps the issue is something closer to individualization of technology? Anyway, maybe I’ve heard more public reading of the Word the past 7 years in the UK which means more public hearing of the Word. It seems to me higher church, more liturgical worship, includes plenty of sight, smell, touch…not so common for a large segment of believers these days. Another random thought: reading together in a book club. Don’t know how popular that is these days. Thanks for always giving us something to ponder, brother.


    December 30, 2009 at 11:04 am

    • Thanks for the comment. Interesting that even as you explained how sight is experienced together, the “experiencing together” part happened through words spoken. We do indeed watch a film together, but then we use spoken words to communicate the gradations of our disgust or delight in the film. And we use spoken words to receive and understand what our friend/colleague/brother/sister thinks. Same thing with your example of public hearing of the Word: words on paper translated to oral, which then connects a group. My point is that oral is more native to humans than written. We think in oral terms and then translate to writing (which becomes visual). Which points back to writing as a technology, whereas words spoken aloud are more a way of being.

      One of my motivators in thinking through this has to do with the way my brain has changed after 25 years of writing as a vocation. I agree with Ong that writing changes the way we think through things. I wonder if oral thinking atrophies with a daily focus on writing–and I actually wonder if that atrophied “thinking aloud” ability denigrates the way I interact with other humans.


      December 30, 2009 at 1:09 pm

  4. […] Over at the Same Rowdy Crowd, Joe Loveland wrote about the best and worst of the Blogosphere. One of the points Loveland made is that the blogosphere is less about creating and more about aggregating. Nothing new there: we’re all curators today. But in aggregating, we are also connecting the dots for ourselves and for each other. This actually is a value-add: because I get to see how you are thinking about life today. Which also points to the ephemeral side of social media. Like tweets, blog posts are mostly of the moment. Meant to be read and discarded, much like verbal conversation: as we announce something, it is gone. That is the nature of sound. […]

  5. […] struck me was how different this experience was from my typical movie-going experience. Because sound incorporates, Eilers’ organ-playing and the response of the crowd (mostly laughter at what was once amazing […]

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