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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 4/4
Nmherman on Sat, 27 Apr 2002 20:08:01 +0200 (CEST)


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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 4/4


In marked contrast to Ong's chosen word to describe the alphabetic literacy 
he sees as so fundamental to social and cultural 
analysis--"decontextualized"--it is precisely the restoration of context that 
a communicative literacy takes to be its constitutive method.  In contrast, 
the instrumental paradigm derives its strength (such as it is) from the 
attempt to suppress or transcend context.  If the communicative paradigm is 
to be taken seriously as a hypothesis, and the task of organizing a concept 
of literacy around its principles is undertaken, then it is crucial that 
contextual continuity be established to the highest possible degree.  What 
this means is that for a communicative literacy to function in the 
life-world, there must be social and cultural space in which to practice this 
literacy at every level and every sphere of society.  For example, if the 
dialogic rhetoric of communicative literacy is taught in school, but the 
economic practice of society remains a fragmenting and competitive one, those 
literacy skills which are predicated on cooperation and relationship will not 
only function weakly at best in "the real world" but will lose the 
persuasiveness which is the very substance of social communication.  
    The attempt to subvert the myth of solitary language-culture would thus 
be thwarted by the taboo and ostracism of economic marginalization and the 
psychological influence it exerts.  This interconnectedness of the practices 
of change should not, however, be taken to imply a a prediction of a 
revolutionary or catastrophicevent, a la Marx.  A more accurate analogy would 
be that of a communicative ecosystem which requires a certain extent and 
diversity in order to function as a viable and coherent alternative, but need 
not necessarily achieve any specific level of hegemony in society at large 
(though such universality is by no means theoretically impossible).
    Although any paradigm shift requires a thorough and ongoing process of 
multi-disciplinary study to articulate its specific applications, a starting 
point for outlining some of the overall framework of a communication-based 
literacy can be found by adding a further column to the chart on the handout 
titled "Education/ Knowledge/ Consciousness of Literacy" (taken from Shifting 
Social Needs:  From Clocks to Thermostats.)  Many of the basic attributes of 
"Information" literacy are common to a "Communication" literacy, such as 
interactive knowledge, diverse educational modes, and a conceptual 
consciousness of literacy.  Differences could be found in the area of 
economic production, which under a communicative paradigm would be more 
locally-based, and informed less by a global corporate ethos than by a global 
communal ethos (i.e. an awareness of economic relationship in a human 
context).  Literacy education itself would consist less of "translation and 
interpretation" (Chart 1) of text than of the ability to articulate 
relationships of all sorts, including inter-human and human-environment 
relationships.  The "Purpose of Literacy" would not be precisely to "develop 
multiple perspectives" (Chart 1) in any disembodied way, but would be further 
informed by a unifying concept of relatedness and an ethical/aesthetic 
consciousness which substantiates the relatedness of speaking subjects.  
Lastly, on this chart "the mind" would be redefined (hopefully with some help 
from neurolinguists and concepts such a universal grammar) as not merely 
"multiple frames of IQ" in the sense of a versatile piece of software, but an 
integrated and organically communicative physiological system.
    Under such a concept of literacy, the school--even culture itself--would 
be reorganized around the paradigm of a communicative environment.  In order 
to realize such a literate citizenship requires not only the knowledge 
essential to an awareness of all the spheres that constitute human 
relationships--economics, the environment, the media, personal life, neuroli
nguistics, race, etc.--but a public sphere which could in some meaningful way 
convert those newly communicative knowledges into viable, if gradual, social 
practice.  One obvious possible resource for such work is the internet, on 
which organizations explicitly invested in the communicative paradigm could 
bypass those discourse-institutions whose fundamental structure is 
excessively instrumentalized (examples might be the for-profit media, 
political parties, and the academy).  Hence the emphasis would be on the 
creation of viable connections between literacy and the life-world along 
communicative lines, and this emphasis would inform work along the spectrum 
from Graff's macro-analysis to Marsh's local educational practice.  
    In a short paper it is of course impossible to discuss in any detail the 
full range of transformations that would need to occur in virtually every 
branch of knowledge in order to implement a shift to a communicative paradigm 
of human cognition.  This elaboration will be the work of economists, city 
planners, social workers, psychologists, educators, parents, and 
publishers--indeed, every citizen of such a "communicative" society in which 
participation is so fundamental.  However, two topics in particular deserve 
at least a passing mention in a final paper on literacy, written by a student 
of literature in pursuit of a Master's degree.  These two topics are academic 
discourse and literary theory.  
    In the case of the former, it is clear that the move toward 
interdisciplinarity must be considered highly relevant to studies dealing 
with a communicative paradigm.  However, the problem of elitism and 
institutional insularity, defined primarily by the structures of academic 
publishing, traditional discipline-categories, modes of pedagogy, and tenure, 
present an unavoidable challenge to communicative discourse.  It must be 
seriously considered whether the institutional structure of the modern 
university can be adapted to the pursuit of a communicative paradigm, and if 
not, what types of changes must be proposed in order to remedy that 
structure.
    The second particularly problematic topic is literary theory.  One 
extremely relevant and far-reaching sub-hypothesis of the communicative 
paradigm is that artifact-based expressive culture is inherently 
instrumental, mythic, and taboo-driven in nature (see my essay 
"Communication, Myth, and the Arbitrary Sign").  Though the particular 
arguments for this hypothesis cannot be thoroughly engaged here, the 
implications of a communicative paradigm for Western culture's primary 
aesthetic practice since the Reformation--the secular canon--are probably the 
most controversial of the issues a revisionist discourse must deal with.  The 
cultural strength of art far outweighs that of industrial capitalism, but may 
in fact be one of the chief contributors to that economic system (all the 
more so for its near-universal acceptance as a counter-force to capitalism).  
I would argue that it is precisely this cultural value--the aesthetic 
category of art and canon--which is the keystone of instrumental culture, and 
the most difficult of the instrumental practices to directly counter with a 
communicative analysis.  Until the aesthetic and expressive functions of art 
and canon can be re-conceptualized in communicative and post-artifact terms, 
the overall project of a communicative literacy will in all probability 
remain significantly less practicable than the instrumental.


Citations from:

1.  Cleary, L.M. and Linn, M.D., eds.  Linguistics for Teachers.  New York: 
McGraw-Hill, 1993.

2.  Herman, Nickolas.  "Short Paper on Linguistics for Teachers, Section II 
Part A."  Unpublished essay, 1995.

3.  Lunsford et.al, eds.  The Right to Literacy.  New York:  MLA 1990.

4.  Marsh, Donna.  "Why I Don't Want to Read This Book."  Unpublished essay, 
1995.

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