The Happy Medium

Ong’s discussion of the (im)permanence of oral speech and writing made me think of a memorable experience I had as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence. My Spanish Literature class visited the Hispanic Society in Harlem to look at original copies of Don Quixote. Every copy of the book in the museum’s collection was mutilated in one way or another during the Spanish Inquisition to protect the feeble minds of the literate populace. The Jesuits used chestnut oil/ink to wipe out entire sections of racy or sacrilegious text. Despite their best efforts, however, complete editions of Don Quixote exist to this day.

This anecdotally concretizes Ong’s assertion that “there is no way directly to refute a text.” He goes on to explain that this is the root of book burning’s former popularity, yet as Don Quixote shows, even physical destruction cannot always serve as refutation.

The rise of comment culture in the digital age seems to have created a means of refuting the written word. The authors of blogs, op-eds and even news articles can be reached with only a few clicks on the keyboard. The digitally written word is no longer permanent nor synonymous with truth. That said, digital writing does not hold the same permanence as books; it is semipermanent and often open to refutation and editing. Have we reached a happy medium between orality and literacy in the digital age?

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