Brief notes on “literacy” in the 21st century

Partly as a consequence of my natural inclination to sloth, and a partly due to the precarity of certain financial realities in my otherwise cushy life, I’ve had a habit, in this space, of failing to address various criticisms or counter-arguments as they’ve arisen. There was, moreover, a period of time when my absence from blogging was largely due to my preoccupation with creative labours; these labours have since dried up like so many shriveled pricks. The play I’ve been working on for well over two years now (!) is not going well, and hasn’t been for some time.

Since quitting this theatre racket altogether and going off somewhere to build cabinets for a living is not really in the cards for me, handy-man-wise, and since one must, so to speak, use it or lose it, and since I’ve now used two penis-related metaphors in so many paragraphs, I return belatedly to discursive writing to flex the old muscle (damn damn damn…) and address some of the riff-raff (I love you all so very much).

Prof. Holger Syme of UTM wrote some remarks regarding my review of Jordan Tannahill’s so-so book, Theatre of the Unimpressed. I promised him a response then, a promise I’ve not kept. I certainly owe him one. Now, for the record, I’ve been shamefully spotty w/r/t naming conventions in this space – I refer to Fannina Waubert de Puiseau as “Fannina” and Colin B. Anthes as “Mr. Anthes,” which is the sort of sexist garbage that makes me want to stick bamboo shards under my fingernails. I’ve referred to Holger Syme alternately as “Prof. Syme” and “Holger,” and am caught between the tension of wanting both to give the Professor the respect due his credentials and also play like I’m his friend. For the sake of ease, let’s state for the record that Holger Syme is an accredited, respected scholar (not by Stephen Marche, apparently, but he’s a douchebag anyway) and overwhelmingly more qualified to write on these issues than I. Henceforward I’ll refer to him casually as “Holger,” and hopefully he won’t mind.

(I’m beginning to get a sense that there might be a reason why my blog posts are always so fucking long…might it be…no, it’s gone, I’ve lost it. Damn.)

Jogging memories being the only sort of jogging I’ve been doing lately, as my waistband can attest, let me remind you dear readers whence Holger’s remarks came. I’d written at length, as I always do, of the various declines or at least slouching in the popular culture, particularly with respect to literacy. In brief, I argued that modern-day institutionalized education is largely designed to create unthinking, obedient consumers who are essentially illiterate; they can read the instructions on a microwave, but are not sufficiently educated such that they can actively participate in the political system our monstrous colonial project refers to as a “democracy.”

Holger respectfully disagreed:

I really disagree with your assessment of our cultural decline: for one thing (and I say this as a lover of classical music), it’s not at all clear to me that there is an inherent and indisputable value to knowing your Beethoven String Quartets, and an inherent and indisputable problem with instead really knowing your way around Jay Z’s oeuvre. Canons of cultural literacy shift all the time, and while I wish more people were more broadly literate, I also recognize that there are modes and kinds of literacy that I barely have access to myself.

This is difficult to quibble with, since I never argued (or ever would) that there’s something lesser or baser about hip hop than classical music, even when that hip hop’s being produced by a punk-ass bitch like Jay-Z, known for stealing from better poets.

As is true of so many philosophical problems (i.e., all of them), our difference of opinion here really is reducible to semantics. Though ‘tis the general feather to use the word literacy in some broad, flailing manner, it’s clear that literacies are not all made equal. Our friend the OED does allow for literacy as “competence or knowledge in a specified area,” but then our friend the OED is a known drunk and shameful reprobate who’s been arrested for exposing himself on more than one occasion.  Literacy as I was using it in my review specifically referred to the ability to read and write with depth and sophistication; though formulations like “computer literacy,” “financial literacy”,” or “media literacy,” do serve some marginal use, to define literacy as simple “knowledge in a specified area” is a reductio far too absurd for my tastes. Would we want to call “literate” any (wo)man with special knowledge of the tying of creative knots?  Are we to have “knot literacy” in a world full of Velcro?

So when Holger writes about shifting “canons of cultural literacy,” isn’t this the point? In other words, if the culture – pop, educational, political, what have you – is shifting away from one which privileged the written and spoken word (cf. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death), and towards one which, arguably, privileges the image, is this not exactly the kind of shift which a (sort of) functioning democracy cannot bear? Is it likely that legislation is going to be rendered in pictograms like a set of IKEA instructions? Can we translate the text of the TPP into something resembling a series of Frans Masereel woodcuts?

We need not claim that the reading of text is a “better” form of literacy than the others – this is a value term and therefore meaningless. But it surely is not any kind of snobbery to acknowledge that literacy of this kind of more useful in this respect than knot literacy. I don’t deny that there are modes of “literacy” to which I don’t have access – that would be insane – but as much as I might admire those who communicate through the body or by painting, I can’t fool myself into thinking those modes are going to be of much use in parsing the difference between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council and understanding how knowledge of this difference might aid us in better determining the appropriate attitude w/r/t Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Holger ends by remarking:

I think it would be pretty difficult to argue that our population _as a whole_ is less educated than “people,” as a whole, were 50 or 100 years ago. But it’s certainly true that education now is broader and therefore less deep in specific areas, and that cultural canons have become much more diverse — so that what “being educated” means is far less clear now.

This is all true. Still, I think it’s clear that grasping the information necessary to make informed decisions about the how we are to live within the political and social systems we’ve designed requires not only the ability to read and understand profoundly complex concepts and ideas, but also requires that one be able to focus long enough to do so. The attenuated attention spans and impoverished reading skills of the populace as a whole necessarily means that power will be situated in the hands of the small minority of people with special access to privileged education or genetics; this does not a democracy make.

Something closer to the tyranny of the Philosopher Kings, perhaps. Only in general the Philosopher Kings will be assholes working for Goldcorp.



2 Comments Brief notes on “literacy” in the 21st century

  1. Julian R. Munds

    I have read both your articles now on this and I’m confused. What really is your observation here? Are you perhaps saying that people just don’t seem to be as interested or understand the things you understand and are interested by? Therefore a definition Isn’t that why someone like you would be on this Earth so you can be the one interested by those things? I am probably far off in the galaxy with this. I often miss the point. Jordan’s book is limited by his experience. I agree with you that a single experience applied to the masses is always going to be flawed. Godwin’s law and all that. But if we always walk around assuming that ours is the mind to be impressed… Jordan has a point. It’s a mass of people holding their spots on one level, asking the artist to come to them, rather then meeting the artist on their terms which is kind of how the humans of today work. I cannot speak for the past. All I have is afterthoughts. To some degree I think there’s truth to that. Next time I see you, join me for a beverage!

    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi Julian,

      My major observation here, were I compelled to be brief, could be summarized thusly:

      Various cultural, economic, and political factors have encouraged an overall decline in the average Western individual’s capacity to physically read and intellectually digest large amounts of lexically dense text. As as a corollary to this – perhaps the two are related? – meaningful participation in the political system requires a base level of knowledge and a depth of analysis that, to date, has *only* been made available via the reading and digestions of large amounts of lexically dense text. Therefore, the ability of the a.W.i. to be a participant in a larger democracy and shape the policies which that democracy enacts has been markedly attenuated, to the effect of centralizing power in the hands of the further privileged few.

      I think relativizing this to “people just don’t seem to be as interested…in the things you are interested by” is a bit of canard; while being *literally* true, it simply won’t do for us to pretend that active interest in the nuances of our geopolitical, social, cultural, and economic realities is just an “interest” which is no more or less meaningful than an interest in knitting or skiing or making theatre.



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