From: W. Ong, Orality and Literacy.


Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects, as Merleau-Ponty has observed (1961). Vision comes to a human being from one direction at a time: to look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from every direction at once: I am at the center of my auditory world, which envelopes me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence. This centering effect of sound is what high-fidelity sound reproduction exploits with intense sophistication.

You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight. By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense. A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart (Descartes’ campaigning for clarity and distinctness registered an intensification of vision in the human sensorium— Ong 1967b, pp. 63, 221). The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together. Interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness.

The consciousness of each human person is totally interiorized, known to the person from the inside and inaccessible to any other person directly from the inside. Everyone who says ‘I’ means something different by it from what every other person means. What is ‘I’ to me is only ‘you’ to you. And this ‘I’ incorporates experience into itself by ‘getting it all together’. Knowledge is ultimately not a fractioning but a unifying phenomenon, a striving for harmony. Without harmony, an interior condition, the psyche is in bad health.

It should be noted that the concepts interior and exterior are not mathematical concepts and cannot be differentiated mathematically. They are existentially grounded concepts, based on experience of one’s own body, which is both inside me (I do not ask you to stop kicking my body but to stop kicking me) and outside me (I feel myself as in some sense inside my body).

The body is a frontier between myself and everything else. What we mean by ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ can be conveyed only by reference to experience of bodiliness. Attempted definitions of ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ are inevitably tautological: ‘interior’ is defined by ‘in’, which is defined by ‘between’, which is defined by ‘inside’, and so on round and round the tautological circle.

The same is true with ‘exterior’. When we speak of interior and exterior, even in the case of physical objects, we are referring to our own sense of ourselves: I am inside here and everything else is outside. By interior and exterior we point to our own experience of bodiliness (Ong 1967b, pp. 117–22, 1 76–9, 228, 231) and analyze other objects by reference to this experience. In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound, with no reference whatsoever to any visually perceptible text, and no awareness of even the possibility of such a text, the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as processed by the spoken word. For the way in which the word is experienced is always momentous in psychic life.

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