literacy objects: exposure, assemblage, network, plasma

Continuing from my previous post on the subject of literacy…

As I began to discuss previously, what would it mean to approach literacy in the same way as Latour approaches society? That is, to begin with the critique that we conceive of literacy as its own special material and that we tend to leap from local reading scenes to the panoramic backdrop of literacy as a general social phenomenon. To follow on Latour we might instead insist that "local" scenes of literacy are mediated by objects that provide duration to literacy practices and that the panoramic (or oligoptic in Latour's terms), globalizing frames of literacy are produced in their own (dis)locat networks. As such, when the NEA wishes to publish on the "crisis" in literacy in America, this panoramic view is produced in offices somewhere. The same would be true of the Horizon Report and its digital literacy mentioned in the previous post.

So here's a general question: how do you know if someone is "literate"? Literate is in scare quotes here b/c you get to define literacy in a variable way. But basically, if I send a message and the receiver responds/acts in a way from which I can infer s/he understood what I said/wrote, then I'm likely to think that person is literate for the purposes of our conversation. So literacy suggests some kind of cybernetic loop, right? To what extent then can we say that literacy is something that an individual has? Or alternatively, to what extent might we say that literacy emerges with an assemblage or network?

Let me turn these questions on myself. I have a PhD in English. Most people would assume that means I'm literate in some general sense. So where does that literacy reside? There are embodied elements in my ability to process sight and sound, to turn letters and phonemes into words and then into sentences. It is not very often that I am conscious of sounding out a word or making sense of a sentence, though of course these activities were learned once upon a time. I don't remember if I learned to read in school or at home (or both), but I do remember teaching my own kids to recognize words in books and read simple sentences. There is an extensive assemblage that is involved in this activity: special books, reading time, a comfortable chair, perhaps a promise of some reward.  Who knows? And it doesn't end there. 

We tend to imagine that some basic literacy is like riding a bike, easy to recall. But when, if ever, do we practice this "basic literacy"? Do we not, instead, always practice specific, complicated literacies? The most "literate" professor, divorced after a long marriage, may fail to make small talk on a date. Perhaps I haven't read a particular dense philosopher since grad school: can I just open up the book as if I never left? Most poignantly, what better definition of great literature could there be than a novel that you can reread every few years to discover something new? Did you become more/less literate? Certainly there is something translatable from one literacy event to another. Each new literacy act does not require learning a whole new language or learning to read again. In the same sense, each new social act does not introduce you to an entirely new society. This does not mean that there is some hidden social force or some spectral literacy at work but rather that there exists a continuous network of objects, mediators, and actors sustaining (and mutating) literacy from the early reader primers to the most erudite scholarly texts to the latest Hollywood blockbuster or hit video game.

Perhaps one would want to object that these are different kinds of literacies, that the literacy of reading a novel is different from the literacy related to a movie or a video game. No doubt that's true. But then the literacy of reading a novel is different from the literacy of reading Latour. And the literacy of reading J.K. Rowling is different from the literacy of reading James Joyce. And the literacy of reading James Joyce today is different than it was ten years ago or ten years from now. Or in my house or at the coffee shop or for a class. There are plenty of differences, but there are also many continuities. After all, who would deny that novels can be made into movies or that video games can tell stories? This is NOT the result of some generalizable literacy. One simply has to follow the meetings between authors, agents, publishers, movie producers, script writers, directors, actors, etc.

In more abstract terms, literacy emerges in the exposure of actors, objects, and mediators in each reading assemblage. So when the Horizon Report urges educators to address the challenges of "digital literacy," the task is at once simple and complicated. It is simple in the sense that all that might be required is for faculty to incorporate digital media into curriculum. It's complicated because that incorporation turns out not be that easy, especially when one realizes that literacy practices that once were at work in the curriculum are mutated through their exposure to emerging technologies.

But as Latour suggests in Paris: Invisible City this complication is also an opportunity.

When there's a lack of techniques, when by chance a strike or breakdown

deprives us of a means of communication or transport, everyone learns, walking and
talking, that the social world is indeed flat, that it has to be composed piece by piece,
staircase by staircase, concierge by concierge. When riots are rumbling no one
believes that there is a Society, constantly present, with little individuals living in it.

From every bridge insurrection can emerge, a new totality, a new regime, marching
through Paris, offered to Parisians. Switching from the real to the virtual Paris
means finding the road to these potential totalities, these scattered virtualities, yes,
these former virtues (the word "virtual", don't forget, also derives from virtus, the
favourite world of the ancient Romans), from this plasma —the word meaning a fine
layer of clay that Prometheus was said to have used to model Pandora.

Because literacy is not a generalizable thing, it cannot be suddenly gained, lost, or transformed in a general way. The introduction of the digital creates a breakdown in the college classroom (so we sometimes ask students to turn off their devices to forestall such breakdowns). And now we see that literacy, like the social, is flat. Perhaps we bemoan the lost dream of literacy but only in the way that a child bemoans the loss of Santa Claus. Literacy must be composed piece by piece. Furthermore, when the "real" social world of literacy breaks down, we enter Latour's virtual, potential totalities. As Latour notes in Reassembling the Social, "When pointing out the ‘plasma’, don’t we discover a reserve army whose size is, as Garfinkel said, ‘astronomically bigger’ than what it
has to fight?" That is, in entering this virtual, potential, plasmatic space, one discovers connections to virtual-actual objects far beyond the formalist structures of socialized literacy. And through our exposure to virtual literacy we open new opportunities for education (among many other things).

Of course we need to resist deciding in advance what digital literacy might be.