In the media theories which one encounters it is important to note interpretive biases such as those concerning orality and literacy or the ear and the eye. It is also important to consider what our own biases may be. We cannot write 'without bias', but we can learn to become more aware of our biases, to make them more explicit for others, and to reflect critically on their implications. This is an aim which tends to distinguish social science from such arts as literary criticism.
Deeply reflecting an oral tradition, St. Ambrose of Milan noted that 'Sight is often deceived, hearing serves as a guarantee' (in Ong 1967, p. 53). In the twentieth century linguists shifted from an earlier stance in which they had tended to give priority to writing to one in which writing was seen as merely a 'reflection' of speech. Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), one of the most influential linguists of the first half of the twentieth century, declared that 'writing is not language, but merely a way of recording language' (1933: p. 219). In such declarations, 'language' clearly refers to spoken language. Many communication theorists still overtly or covertly privilege the spoken word over the written word. Clearly the use of the spoken word developmentally precedes any acquisition of reading and writing, whether by individuals, particular cultures or the human species. But where speech is given a higher status than writing in general this is a 'phonocentric' bias.
Linguists such as Saussure and Bloomfield identified language with speech. Some theorists refer to speech as 'primary' and to writing as 'secondary', but if what is meant is that writing is 'speech written down' this is far from the case. The assumption that writing is speech written down involves a bias which equates writing with alphabetic writing. But as Roy Harris points out, 'the development of the alphabet is a comparatively late event in the evolution of writing. Various civilisations with a long history of writing never developed systems comparable to the alphabet' (Harris 1986, p. 27).
Some writers refer to speech as more 'natural' or even closer to 'reality' than writing. An implicit bias is found in references by some authors to speech as 'language' but to writing as 'written language'. Phonocentric writers may also tend to stress that writing is a technology but speech is not, and may be implicitly anti-technological.
Marshall McLuhan argued that there was a shift during the Renaissance from a primarily oral/aural way of perceiving the world to a primarily visual one. He saw this shift in what he called the 'sense ratios' in the 'human sensorium' as being precipitated primarily by the spread of printing. 'With the advent of the printed word, the visual modalities of Western life increased beyond anthing experienced in any previous society' (in Sanderson & Macdonald 1989, p. 36).
Phonocentrism is often linked with a romanticization of 'pre-literate' cultures or of the 'pre-literate' phase of childhood in a literate society. The anthropologist Claude LÚvi-Strauss (b 1908), notably in Tristes Tropiques, nostalgically associates the acquisition of wriitng with a loss of innocence. This romanticization of the 'wholeness' of non-literate modes of being by some Western intellectuals has been plausibly linked with a sense of psychic alienation which may owe something to the autonomous nature of printed texts (Eric Leed, in Woodward 1980). McLuhan insists that 'In dialogue... lying is much more difficult than in writing' (McLuhan & Watson 1970, p. 30).
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder of linguistics, saw the spoken word as fundamental to thinking. The origins of such a stance can be found in the writings of Plato. Plato, in the Phaedrus (c. 411-404 BC) saw the technology of writing as an external threat. It was a threat to the importance of human memory. 'Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources.' In other words, as critics often say of TV today, it makes users too passive. It was 'folly' to suppose that one could 'transmit or acquire clear and certain knowledge of an art through the medium of writing.'
For Plato, writing was a threat to the system of education. Students depending on written text would 'receive a quantity of information without proper instruction.' And textbook writers would have problems because the written word was 'quite incapable of defending or helping itself'. Ironically, Plato put his words in writing. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that 'Books teach us to talk about things we know nothing about' (Emile 1762), and argued in The Origin of Language that writing would dehumanize language by separating authors from their texts. Rousseau's perspective was phonocentric. 'Writing is nothing but the representation of speech' (cited in Olson 1994, 8).
The perspective of rhetorician Walter Ong is basically phonocentric. He emphasizes that unless we regard primitive scratches as writing, 'speech is ancient, archaic. Writing is brand new' - having been with us for only about 5000 years, or 0.5% of humanity's existence (Ong 1986, p. 34). Ong repeatedly refers to orality as 'natural' and to writing as 'artificial' (e.g. Ong 1982, p. 82). And although on several occasions he admits that 'to say that writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it' (Ong 1982, p. 82), noting that music too is a technology which is hardly dehumanizing, his basic sympathies are clear. He alludes to written text as 'dead' and even to speech as more 'real' (Ong 1986, pp. 31, 30; 1982, pp. 81, 101).
Ong declares that 'Sound is more real or existential than other sense objects despite the fact that it is also more evanescent. Sound itself is related to present actuality rather than to past or future. It must emanate from a source here and now discernibly active, with the result that involvement with sound is involvement with the present, with here-and-now existence and activity' (Ong 1967, p. 111). He adds that: 'Voice is alive' (Ong 1967, p. 309).
The idea of speech as more real appears to relate to a sense of speech as involving less mediated access to the external world. Ong notes that 'writing separates the knower and the known' (Ong 1986, p. 37), and although he admits that all uses of language do this, including speech, he insists that writing deepens this separation. He grants the advantage of doing so, suggesting that 'it promotes "objectivity"' (Ong 1986, p. 37). But he insists that 'in all human cultures the spoken word appears as the closest sensory equivalent of fully developed interior thought. Thought is nested in speech' (Ong 197, p. 138).
Ong notes that 'We are so literate in ideology that we think writing comes naturally. We have to remind ourselves from time to time that writing is completely and irremediably artificial' (Ong 1978, p. 129). Elsewhere he expands on this: 'By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write "naturally". Oral speech is fully natural to human beings in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk. Moreover, while talk implements conscious life, its use wells up naturally into consciousness out of unconscious or subconscious depths... Writing or script differs from speech in that it is not inevitably learned by all psychologically or physiologically unimpaired persons' (Ong 1986, p. 31; see also Ong 1982, p. 82). He emphasizes that writing is 'a technology consciously and reflectively contrived'; 'a matter of tools outside us and seemingly foreign to us' (Ong 1978, pp. 130, 139). 'Spoken words are always modifications of a total, existential situation, which always engages the body' (Ong 1982, p. 67).
For a beginner, learning to write involves 'the most arduous discipline', whilst speech 'comes about with far less anguish than does writing... Speech... is not drilled into the child with the grim determination that often marks the teaching of writing... Writing... is learned by concentration or application, and it rarely becomes... so spontaneous or flowing as speech' (Ong 1967, pp. 94-5). Ong adds that 'the spoken word... lends itself... to virtually everyone, the written word only to the select few' (Ong 1967, p. 116).
Ong even refers on one occasion to the spoken word as 'the word in its purest form, in its human and most divine form, in its holiest form, the word which passes orally between man and man to establish and deepen human relations' (Ong 1967, p. 92). He adds that 'Voice has a kind of primacy in the formation of true communities of men, groups of individuals constituted by shared awarenesses' (Ong 1967, p. 124). The spoken word is the basis of human community (Ong 1967, p. 310). Also, in contrast to sight, which allows us to see only ahead, 'sound... situates me in the midst of a world, sound conveys simultaneity' (Ong 1967, p. 129). Ong expresses an awareness that 'we must beware of the elusive quest for a lost Eden', but he insists that 'The spoken word... is primary, and yet from the start it was destined - or in another way, doomed - to be supplemented with all the devices and even gadgetry which have reduced it more and more to space' (Ong 1967, pp. 320-1). In such a framework, to the Jesuit Father Ong, writing surely represents the Fall of Man from Edenic existence. He declares explictly that: 'All reductions of the spoken word to non-auditory media, however necessary they may be, attenuate and debase it, as Plato so intensely felt' (Ong 1967, p. 322).
The widespread bias of phonocentricity was highlighted by the French textual scholar Jacques Derrida (1976, 1978). Derrida criticized a romantic tendency among linguistic and literary theorists to value speech over writing, Homo loquens over Homo scriptor. Derrida insists that writing is 'not a supplement to the spoken word'. His 'deconstructionist' stance highlights the emotional resonances of the media of speech and writing. Walter Ong asserts that Derrida and others 'have rendered a great service in undercutting... chirographic and typographic bias' (Ong 1982, p. 166). He says that 'in contending with Jean- Jacques Rousseau, Derrida is of course quite correct in rejecting the persuasion that writing is no more than incidental to the spoken word (Derrida 1976, p. 7)' (Ong 1982, p. 77), adding that 'Derrida is performing a welcome service, in the same territory that Marshall McLuhan swept through with his famous dictum, "The medium is the message"' (Ong 1982, p. 167). 'But,' Ong insists, 'to try to contruct a logic of writing without investigation in depth of the orality out of which writing emerged and in which writing is permanently and ineluctably grounded is to limit one's understanding' (Ong 1982, p. 77). For Ong, Derrida's dismissal of the importance of the spoken word involves throwing out the baby with the bathwater.