Five years ago I wrote a paper about an ongoing revival of interest in Marshall McLuhan and a recovery of his media theory following decades of mainstream academic misunderstanding and dismissal of his work. The paper was well-received and eventually published in the Media Ecology Association journal. In the time since I went on to PhD school and my research trajectory developed first through political economy and then urban studies, which is where my current work is rooted. When I saw that an ad hoc conference dedicated to the Toronto School’s legacy and future was being convened at the University of Toronto I was intrigued and submitted a proposal. I attended the conference this past weekend and the event does seem destined to be seen as a landmark event in the history of the Toronto School of Communication and its contribution to media studies and other fields. More than twenty nationalities were represented by the participants, and the presentations were all high quality and generative. Children of Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis were also in attendance (Michael McLuhan bears a somewhat uncanny resemblance to his father), as were colleagues and contemporaries of the Toronto School theorists, and some of the foremost scholars and historians of the tradition. During the opening ceremony conference organizer Paolo Granata posed the question, “Where is the Toronto School?” His answer was that it was in the room, embodied in the people and research represented in the conference. At the end of the weekend this certainly seemed to be the case.
My only major grievance with the conference was my inability to obtain one of the “cool medium” shirts made for the volunteers (the blue shirts visible front and center in the above photo). When I arrived at the registration tables on the first morning I was stunned to see all the staffers wearing shirts that read “I’m a cool medium.” Since I have a certain attachment to that particular phrase I was fixated on getting one of those shirts, but alas it was not to be. I was part of a panel organized around the theme of “city as medium,” and the presentations all offered insightful applications of McLuhan’s media theories to urban design and development. I was aware of various McLuhan and Jane Jacobs connections around the Toronto nexus, but I was surprised during the opening remarks to hear several speakers include Jacobs as one of the members of the Toronto School. I was left considering the implications of this inclusion, and plan to develop these thoughts at the Jacobs centenary panel at NCA next month. The other takeaway from the conference (aside from the helpful insights and ideas, and unfortunately not a shirt) were the connections made with other attendees. I saw some familiar faces that I had met at past events, and made new connections including Toronto community organizers and activists. I hope to develop some research opportunities from these relationships, as I think Toronto is a wonderful city and it would great to include some of the developments there as a case study in my current research. It certainly occupies a unique position in the contemporary discussions of city policy and urban life.
In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong introduces the term secondary orality to characterize the recapitulation of oral communication characteristics in electronic media; thus, the introduction of secondary orality necessitates a definition of primary orality in order to function as a meaningful concept. Ong distinguishes between two categories of cultures: oral cultures existing prior to or isolated from print, and characterized by orally-based thought and speech; and typographic cultures whose thought, speech, and other practices are influenced by the effects of print communication. The use of the term “secondary orality” stems from Ong’s historical conception of a chronological progression of cultural epochs.
Ong relies on the nature of sound to outline and define the essential characteristics of primary and secondary orality. “Without writing, words as such have no visual presences, even when the objects they represent are visual. They are sounds. You might ‘call’ them back – ‘recall’ them. But there is nowhere to ‘look’ for them. They have no focus and no trace” (Ong p. 31). The nature of sound therefore determines the communicative practices of primary orality, and the rhetorical techniques and mnemonic formulae by which members of oral cultures structure thought and speech. “In an oral culture, to think through something in nonformulaic, non-patterned, non-mnenomic terms, even if it were possible, would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing” (p. 35).
Secondary orality thus refers to a renewed emphasis of certain characteristics of orality that were deemphasized in typographic cultures. Ong locates the nexus of this transformation in the advent of electronic communication media, what he also calls “post-typography” (p. 133). One aspect of the relation of electronic media to secondary orality cited by Ong is the transmission of spoken words to a mass audience, forming groups of listeners similar in essence, though not in scale, to oral cultures. “Radio and television have brought major political figures as public speakers to a larger public than was ever possible before modern electronic developments. Thus in a sense orality has come into its own more than ever before” (p. 134). In Electric Rhetoric, Kathleen Welch focuses primarily on television as a locus for changes in oralism brought about by electronic media, a condition Welch calls “televisual aurality” (Welch p. 132).
The use of “aurality” rather than “orality” in Welch’s phrase indicates the central role sound plays in the televisual paradigm. “Television is more acoustic than visual, and so is attached strongly to oralism/auralism.” (p. 102). The presence of television in public spaces is primarily aural, as a person can turn away from the images on the television screen, while the accompanying sounds are still heard. Television’s pervasiveness is exemplified in background noise. In this sense Welch, like Ong, identifies a connection between electronic discursive forms and the characteristics of pre-literate communication. Welch also cites the formulas (here koinoi topoi) used in pre-alphabetic cultures as an element of orality that is recalled to prominence in the electronic age. “Koinoi topoi are memorable and amenable to speaking and hearing in particular […] Next Rhetoric requires them as part of its theorized electrification” (p. 117).
Welch uses the term Electric Rhetoric (or Next Rhetoric) in referring to these transformations in literacy and communication. Though there are clear parallels with Ong’s notion of secondary orality, Welch’s formulation doesn’t evoke that term and is distinguished by a critical concern with hegemonic narratives and the unmasking of power relations. While professing skepticism about modernist histories, Welch presents electric rhetoric as an emergent phenomenon in a linear progression, as Ong characterized secondary orality. “Electric rhetoric, Next Rhetoric, is the third Sophistic. It is what will come after postmodernism” (p. 136).