Thursday, June 7, 2007

Rock, Paper, Video:
Ray Bradbury Interprets Fahrenheit 451

An author is not always the best interpreter of his own work.

In a recent interview in the LA Weekly News speculative fiction master Ray Bradbury claimed that most people have misinterpreted his seminal classic Fahrenheit 451. According to Bradbury, F451 was not about censorship and the threat of a tyrannous government. It was about the way television will make us into a nation of non-readers, which means being non-reflective, hedonistic and conformist.

Bradbury now asserts that Montag and other readers in his future dystopia were pursued because they refused to conform to the television-induced stupor of the general population, not because they subverted book burning. Books were burned, not as an act of suppression, but because they were irrelevant.

As books are burned and reading becomes a crime, what do the literate rebels in Fahrenheit 451 do? They each memorize a book, and on their deathbeds they pass that work on orally to a descendent. Bradbury rightly intuited that as electronic media superseded print, the values and concerns of our culture would change. But, being literate himself, Bradbury couldn’t imagine that a society without literature could be anything but childish and shallow.

Borrowing from Northrop Frye, I would like to suggest that often the author of a work doesn’t always fully comprehend its significance, but I would like to go one step further. Sometimes, authors are more intuitive than they themselves realize. Fahrenheit 451 may or may not be a book about government censorship, but the more important idea that Bradbury offered way back in 1953 was that electronic media would return us to an oral culture, or as Walter J.Ong later termed it, a condition of secondary orality.

Media Ecologists identify three major eras in the development of human cultures: orality, literacy and secondary orality. Their basic premise is that the dominant medium of an era creates a communication environment that determines the nature of the culture. Pure oral cultures existed before writing was invented and had to devise various tricks and mnemonic devices to pass hard-won knowledge from generation to generation. Rhymes, rhythms, parables and puns helped preserve oral culture. Personal skills that were valued included memory, voice and the ability to weave an encyclopedian epic from standard poetic pieces. "Rhapsodist" was Classical Greek for "weaver."

When writing was invented, information could be preserved outside of human memory, and essential cultural activities of orality like story telling and singing became pastimes. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic became the tools to educate our children. It then became of concern which medium was used to preserve the writing. Durable media like stone were long lasting, but hard to carry around. Portable media like papyrus and later, paper were easy to transport, but didn’t last nearly as long. Writing not only allowed the preservation of culture, but also the distribution of that information far beyond its source of origination.

In secondary orality, the major institutions and beliefs of a culture are once again driven by modes of thought and practices based on oral communication, not literacy. Linear thinking gives way to gestalt thinking, logic is replace by intuition, and we begin to think with our “guts” rather than our heads. Computer hardware takes the place of human brain cells for information storage, but oral activities like singing return to center stage. The tools of cultural transmission may be the same as those of primary orality, but the arts are informed by a legacy of writing.

So, is Ray Bradbury an early Media Ecologist? One could say that all writers of speculative fiction are practicing speculative Media Ecology. In Bradbury’s case, he could predict that a new social environment would be created by the adoption of a new medium of communication without fully grasping the influence of electronic media. He certainly got it right in his later work, The Martian Chronicles, where the Martian environment completely transforms human settlers into new Martians. It is significant that by the end of Fahrenheit 451, the TV-addicted culture has destroyed itself in war and the secondary orality rebels move to rebuild society. Their ultimate supremacy signifies the ascendancy of secondary orality, not its defeat.


grant czerepak said...

I think the concept of "secondary orality" is a shallow comprehension of the variety of media that we are exposed to and that is evolving with the advent of new technologies. Yes, we are finding orality being incorporated into new technologies, however we are also witnessing literacy, graphs, illustration, animation and video, even physical objects being incorporated into new digital technologies.

And who gives a damn anyways. The literacy myth grieves over a non-existent literate golden age. Literacy is just a technique for using a tool. I don't grow vegetables, but I still eat. I can't weave, but I still wear clothes. I'm not a mechanic, but I still drive a car. Our children may not read and write as we do now, but will it really matter?

Robert K. Blechman said...

I find the notion of secondary orality very useful, and I recommend reading Walter J. Ong's book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Wor (2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002).

The reason Media Ecologists divide human history into three major areas, primary orality, literacy and secondary orality, is that it helps explain social and economic changes that took place in each era. I agree that the literacy era is often seen through rose colored glasses, seeing what benefits were obtained without acknowledging what was lost. For a discussion of this I recommend The Alphabet vs. The Goddess (New York: Penguin, 1999).

As for our current era, it is indisputable that our technology has allowed us to add oral/aural communication to the previous monopoly of visual communication supported by literacy. This has implications in terms of our beliefs, what skills we value, and how our institutions are designed. If you browse through some of my other posts on this blog, I discuss some of the things which sets our era of secondary orality apart from the previous era.

Robert K. Blechman said...

By the way, I go into much greater detail of the various ways our dominant media of communication affect us in my paper "The Heart of the Matter" which can be found at