presidential debates in secondary orality | walter ong

Communication theorist Walter Ong speaks about communication ages: orality (pre-literate), literate, and secondary orality (age of radio, TV, etc). It seems appropriate, with the debate (likely?) coming tonight, to note some of his thoughts on presidential debates:

"The contrast between orality in the past and in today's world well highlights the contrast between primary and secondary orality. Radio and television have brought major political figures as public speakers to a larger public than was ever possible before modern electronic developments.

The old style oratory…is gone forever. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, the combatants--for that is what they clearly and truly were--face one another often in the scorching Illinois summer sun outdoors before wildly responsive audiences of as many as 12,000 or 15,000 persons…The debaters were horse and physically exhausted at the end of each bout.

Presidential debates on television today are completely out of this older world. The audience is absent, invisible, and inaudible. The candidates are ensconced in tight little booths, make short preparations, and engage in crisp little converstations with each other in which any agonistic edge is deliberately kept dull.

Candidates accommodate themselves to the psychology of the media. Genteel, literate domesticity is rampant. Only quite elderly persons today can remember what oratory was like when it was still in living contact with its primary oral roots."

Walter Ong is most famous for his book Orality and Literacy.