Ong, Walter J., S.J. “Before Textuality: Orality and Interpretation.” Oral Tradition 3:3 (1988), 259-269.
Ong considers the fact that in traditional studies of hermeneutics the text is central, though the discipline would sometimes be extended to deal with “aesthetics and oral utterance” (Ong 1988, 259). The study has also occasionally been extended to include gesture and other movements as well. However, Ong sees that “there can remain a tendency to take textual interpretation as the model for all other kinds of interpretation” (Ong 1988, 259). Ong observes that orality, in contrast to textuality, is relatively flexible. When a speaker is asked to repeat something, usually interpretive statements are returned, rather than a verbatim repeat of the initial statement (Ong 1988, 260).
Ong suggests that the reason hermeneutics deals so much with written words is that oral communication already includes acts of interpretation, while written communication often is, to some degree, incomplete (Ong 1988, 261). Furthermore, rigorous study of virtually every subject is based on textual information and analysis. The rigorous analysis and dissection of oral messages, which are quickly subject to change, is difficult, to say the least.
A study of hermeneutics, then, focused on texts, is not surprising. Ong notes that texts are normally a type of oral communication which has been made more concrete (Ong 1988, 262). However, intertextual studies find that most, possibly all, texts have elements of other textual messages and patterns interwoven into them. while we are relatively comfortable with this concept in regards to orality, Ong thinks we are less comfortable with it in terms of text. Yet he describes much of 19th century American rhetorical training as using formulas and patterns derived from pre-existing written works (Ong 1988, 263).
The concept of a text derived from multiple other texts is still incomplete. Ong notes that the reader of a text also brings an interpretive action to the text (Ong 1988, 264). The context and history of the text’s composition and the reader’s interpretation must be taken into account. Ong sees that this places a burden on the reader. Some, of course, take up the responsibility more eagerly and thoroughly than others (Ong 1988, 265).
In this way, then, Ong finds the hermeneutical task to be closely related to making an engagement with an oral message. For that matter, the very same task is likely to have gone on prior to the writing of our textual resources (Ong 1988, 266). It may be better, then, to consider orality in terms of events and textuality in terms of archives (Ong 1988, 267). The essence, and thus the focus of the hermeneutical endeavor, becomes the events and ideas, rather than the actual words. This is a radical departure from much of the world of hermeneutics.