A Walter Ong Artifact Travels Through Media, Time, and Meaning
Abigail Lambke / Saint Louis University

Cawelti Letter

John G. Cawelti’s Letter to Walter Ong

Radio Announcer: “Father Walter J Ong. Professor of humanities and psychology at Saint Louis University. His talk was presented in the technology and humanities series sponsored by the National Humanities Institute at the University of Chicago. Here then, is Father Walter J. Ong.”
Walter J. Ong: “I want to talk to you today about a somewhat demonic aspect of technology.”


Walter J. Ong: “Writing as Technology”

This 30 seconds of audio is from “Writing as Technology: Death and Life in the Text of the Book,” a speech Walter Ong gave in Chicago in 1977, and the focus of this essay. Although I first heard the speech while I was working for the Saint Louis University Archives, specifically for the Walter J. Ong Center, the recording did not come from the archives. Instead, it is a “found artifact,” uncovered by a man unaffiliated with SLU and far removed from Walter Ong. The artifact’s transformations and place in the mass media archive, my search for its origins at the Ong Archive at Saint Louis University, and ruminations on the content of the speech form the framework of my project here today.

The Re-Constructed Path

Several documents in a folder labeled “University of Chicago 1958-1978” in Saint Louis University’s Ong Archives reveal the history of the origin of this speech. In July of 1976, Walter Ong received a letter from John G. Cawelti, Program Director at the National Humanities Institute at the University of Chicago. From his letter excerpted here, I discern that Walter Ong had already accepted to speak, and that the initial missive intended pin down a specific date and subject. Cawelti writes:

Walter Ong’s reply, dated July 20, 1976, offers dates in early January 1977 and indicates that Ong and Cawelti used the telephone for communication in addition to the postal service. Such information is frustrating because any developments effected through oral conversations are now lost. As Walter Ong often reinforces, the oral word is evanescent and therefore telephone dialogue remains only in the human interior after living words are spoken. Archivists are left with only dead frozen documents to reconstruct the past.

Cawelti’s response to Walter Ong and Ong’s final note to him provide the basis for many of the known facts of the speech. Cawelti’s letter dated July 26, 1976, confirms the dates of Jan 11-12 for the speech and asks for a lecture title. Ong’s typed response at the bottom of the page, duplicated here, offers the tentative title “Writing and Print as Technologies: Death and Life in the Text of the Book” and suggests preliminary readings from his past publications.

Ong Letter

Walter J. Ong Letter to John G. Cawelti.

After this response, no further correspondence between Cawelti and Ong remains. The next artifact in the folder, a newsletter, post-dates the speech itself. This a newsletter was published by the Institute in March 1977, and describes the past year’s speakers. I’ve excerpted the portion about Walter Ong below:


National Humanities Institute Newsletter

Ong’s argument in “Writing as Technologies,” that narratives hang from their conclusions, remains appropriate today, for when I began to reconstruct the path of this artifact, I necessarily began at its conclusion, with the digital file, and worked my way backwards through differing mediums until I reached the printed documents that revealed the speech’s origin. In January 2009, a man named Bob Rowen contacted Saint Louis University about a recently digitized Ong lecture. All information about how the speech was transformed after Ong presented in Chicago comes from Bob Rowen.

Apparently while Ong was speaking at the University of Chicago, the speech was taped and later broadcast on public radio, specifically WNYC-AM radio in NYC. Bob Rowen taped this radio broadcast. After listening to the recording through the years, he digitized the recording from its taped format and provided it with a website. He investigated online and discovered that the Ong Collection at Saint Louis University publically hosts digitized Ong files, and emailed us, with the desire to add to the online digital archive himself. A worker in the archives, I downloaded the digital file from Rowen’s website and then uploaded it to my personal iPod, the same file from which you have heard one clip already. That is the narrative of “Writing as Technologies.” From oral speech to radio broadcast to taped recording to digital file. Four distinct mediums in the past 32 years.

Media Transformation

This speech is especially interesting not because it is the only one of its kind, but because the unique journey it traveled. Ong gave perhaps hundreds of lectures throughout his life and career, many of them were voice recorded and broadcast on the radio, and several were videotaped. The Ong Archives has hosted these artifacts since its inception. In contrast, “Writing as Technologies” is a found artifact. Digitized not by someone affiliated with Saint Louis University concerned with the expansion of the Ong Collection, but by a member of the community who was interested in Ong separate from the academic sphere, this speech ventured away from the set path of the vast majority of items in the Ong Collection, and its return marks the speech as distinct and special.

Considering the distinct mediums through which the speech was transmitted generates fruitful reflection when considered alongside Ong’s other work, specifically “Media Transformation: The Talked Book” from 1972. He writes,

Talked Book

From The Talked Book

By applying the distinction to “Writing as Technologies” as a singular artifact that has existed in a distinct progression of mediums, we see how the new serves to reinforce the old. Representing old artifacts in new formats provides greater accessibility to the older ideas and can reinvigorate these old artifacts, in effect bringing them back to life. Rowen’s digitized file sparked my investigation whereupon I discovered print files pertaining to the speech, and found its variations. Thus, the new media has in practice reinforced the old.

But we cannot forget the second line of that quote, “In doing so, it transforms the old, so that the old is no longer what is used to be.” Indeed, the old never is again new, but only reinvigorated and remediated. A listener to this digital file can have all the facts of the speech and its subsequent transformation, but any hearing other than the initial performance inevitably lacks the situated context of the moment. When Ong delivered “Writing as Technologies,” it might not have been the first time he uttered these ideas, but it was a response to Cawelti’s request for a lecture about shifts in media. Listening to “Writing as Technologies” invokes a kind of past-ness that hearkens to the actual moment, but it does not recreate the past event, because the old has been transformed when changed into the new. The file I have stored on my hard drive is a dead artifact, removed from the living voice of Walter Ong, silenced now in death.

My last sentence might sound dire, but the fact that the past cannot be recovered is merely a fact of life itself, not any real revelation. My assertion that the digital file is a dead artifact that might have been forgotten if not Rowen’s intercession lends irony to moments in the speech. Let us listen to Walter Ong approximately three and a half minutes into the speech. He has been speaking about the differences between oral and written discourse:


Walter J. Ong: “Writing as Technology”

Unlike an utterance, an oral utterance, a text is assimilated by the person who receives it, not when it is being composed, but after its utterance, its outer-ing, that is to say, is over with. A text is not a living potential in the human interior as a remembered oral utterance is, after it has been uttered once and before it is been uttered again. A text is simply there, something over with out of the past, done with. A text as such is so much a thing of the past that it carries with it necessarily an aura of accomplished death.

The paradox in this passage is inescapable. In these days of aggressive secondary orality, dead people now have having living voice. Ong notes that a text has the aura of accomplished death, later he develops this with quotations that equate the written word to monuments that last on after death, contrasted with oral utterances that are always (after the moment of “Outer-ing,”) potentialities, not actualities. And yet, Ong’s voice can once again fill a room. This digital file, with all of its history and associations, exists as a kind of monument to Ong’s influence and as a text, it “carries with it necessarily an aura of accomplished death.” Through the actions of a radio broadcast, a tape recorder, and email correspondence, “Writing as Technologies” has been recovered from an area of potentiality and reconstructed as one of actuality.

Image Credits and Works Cited

1. Walter J. Ong. “Writing as Technology: Death and Life in the Text of the Book” National Humanities Institute, Chicago. 12 Jan. 1977.
2. John G. Cawelti Letter to Walter Ong. 20 July 1976. Walter J. Ong Archives. Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO.
3. Walter J. Ong Letter to John G. Cawelti. 29 July 2976. Walter J. Ong Archives. Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO.
4. National Humanities Institute Newsletter. Ed Margit Gerow. 1.2 (1977): 1-2. Print.
5. Walter J. Ong. “Media Transformation: The Talked Book.” College English. 34.3 (1972): 405- 410. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2009.
6. Walter J. Ong. “Writing as Technology: Death and Life in the Text of the Book” National Humanities Institute, Chicago. 12 Jan. 1977.

Please feel free to comment.

One comment

  • TX 4 a very interesting article
    After viewing it as a single page on a large screen ( scrolling through it doesn’t do it justice…)
    i was awestruck at how well your article subject and form complement each other..
    This being the state of things in fine arts (Painting,photography,sculpting,architecture, etc.) rare and experimental in fiction
    and of course high goal of Japanese calligraphy to name just afew.. yet this is probably one of the
    first formal academic publication i’ve seen that accommodates the form issue so well..
    whether intended or not – a great piece of media usage on a great media ecologist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *