The Literacy Episteme

Reading “The Literacy Episteme: From Innis to Derrida” by Jens Brockmeier and David R. Olson in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009).  My summary and thoughts below:

My outline summary of Brockmeier and Olson’s argument:

In previous centuries, the “life of letters” was the indulgence of elites with such things as leisure time and armchairs, the “clubby habitus” of a few.  Literacy is now so pervasive, so ubiquitous a fact of social life, that it explodes definition boundaries; observe how not only does a child in school read a book, but a basketball player “reads a defense,” people socially network in textually mediated relationships, and everything from institutional learning to the internal life find literacy practices at their center.  Brockmeier and Olson contend this near limitless diversity of and yet commonalities among literacies belong to an “overarching cultural discourse” they call the literacy episteme, drawing from the larger Western tradition of epistemological inquiry, but especially from Harold Innis and Jacques Derrida, both of whom plumb the materiality/physicality of concepts/language.

The Literacy Episteme and Its Scope.  What makes an episteme: “the cultural order of ideas and concepts that define, at a given moment in history, what knowledge is and how we gain and transmit it” (6).  There are scientific objects that basically only exist on paper, so to speak… the recordings on a computer of protein connections, for instance, or states that don’t exist in a reality apart from models and calculations, that are basically treated as or equated with “real.”  So too hunters ‘read’ the tracks of a deer from signs that imaginatively recreate a history of movement.  Or the cultural dimension of “self” that exists uniquely in the modern Western discourse.  This is a Foucaultian “historical a priori” as opposed to a Kantian “a priori,” meaning that they belong to concrete human discourses and not in an ideal and transcendent pre-knowledge human universal.  Two implications of literacy as episteme: writing is not derivative of speech, but its own form of language; and the privileged place of the “book learning” form of literacy is being dissolved.

The Rise of the Literacy Episteme.  Literacy has been long considered and studied since Plato, but the elevated epistemic status emerges in the West in the 60s, simultaneously in national projects of development via education and in academic attention on literacy (such as Havelock, McLuhan, Levi-Strauss, Goody and Watt):  “Great divide” theories of orality and literacy, from La pensee sauvage to McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, and of course Goody and Watt’s Consequences of Literacy, along with the Western uptake of Vygotskian sociocultural perspectives of mind.

Widening the Frame: Innis and Derrida.  These two quite different scholars contribute two developments to the literacy episteme: Innis’ focus on literacy “as a momentous factor within a practical, economic, social, and political trajector,” Derrida’s handling of literacy “at the heart of the history of philosophy in he twentieth century.”  Innis is a Canadian economist studying structures of communication in ancient empires and among fur traders; Derrida is a French theorist of deconstruction.  Despite their differences, however, for Brockmeier and Olson, both contribute attention to power and hegemony in Foucault-like ways that join what is traditionally kept asunder, the material and the conceptual, in their thought on literacy.

Why Did the Dam Burst?  The argument here is that all of a sudden, literacy becomes unprecedentedly promoted and studied, mattering not only theoretically but materially as social reality (for example, in the power exerted by schooling).  McLuhan, Goody, Innis and others poised at the century’s midpoint saw the “interdependencies” of communication technologies, the ever expanding “literacies” of media, networks, etc., that revolutionize culture, society, and thought.  This interdisciplinary recognition of the role of sign mediation in social scientific thought works to collectively overcome its Schfiftvergessenheit (expansion of Derrida’s idea that Western philosophical thought forgets or overlooks the ‘writing’ on which it is based, privileging speech and immediacy).

They close by again underscoring the diversity of literacy uses and practices (a nod to the social practice perspectives of New Literacy Studies and the like), but also what is common to literacy everywhere, to its uniqueness as a dominant form of communication against others, its still-primary role in societies, “development” in whatever forms, etc.

A few responses…

Somehow Brockmeier and Olson don’t quite take the tantalizing notion of a “literacy episteme” as far as I thought they would, not even as far, for instance, as the scholars they cite in their title do.  I would simplify their argument by saying that they demonstrate how literacy is not simply one subject among others, but so consequential, not only to what philosophy and human sciences study, but to “study” itself, that rather than “literacy consequences” or “literacy practices” or “literacy ideologies,” the scope of literacy studies is on an epistemic level, all the way to root questions of knowing.  This idea is vastly suggestive… and sufficiently expressed in just the title.

Then, a philosophical trajectory is combined with a social-political trajectory (to some extent), demonstrating the indivisibly theoretical and material presence of literacy in the mid-20th century onward.  I think the recognition of literacy as quintessentially conceptual and material (that is literally what is it… concept materialized) as the core insight of the literacy episteme, I will return to again and again in my thought.  Yet I am somewhat dissatisfied with where the authors take this.  Perhaps it is because theirs is the first chapter of an entire handbook that unfolds the implications they would supply…

Also, I wonder about the equivalence of literacy-as-technology transformations with the proliferation of mediation forms we have been and are part of.  Brockmeier and Olson are right that literacy is indeed broadening, exploding, imploding, so that we talk of the transportation of an “image” (say, a video of my cousin in Taiwan showing up in my Twitter feed) within the literacy episteme, as a continuation of the “reading” and”writing” that as consequentially changed knowledge and our relation to the world and experience.  But traditional literacy, alphabetic words on a page, quickly begins to fail as the metaphor, significant though it is historically, for what goes on now semiotically, for the video in my Twitter feed.  Does “literacy episteme” freeze us in particular consequences that modes are now changing, emptying, replacing?

The critiques may be unfair; they are pointing toward something too vast for a chapter to capture, and I glimpse the expanse and expect more coverage than reasonable. What the authors draw together in philosophical and social thought, though, under the literacy episteme, I will draw from again and again.

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