Nmherman on Sat, 27 Apr 2002 20:03:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 4/4

Nickolas Herman
Master's Dossier
Prof. Keith Gilyard
May 1, 1998

        Instrumental vs. Communicative Literacy:  The Institutional 
            Practice of Myth, Taboo, and Intersubjectivity

    In the work of this seminar over the course of the semester, the issue of 
literacy has been brought up in the context of two central questions:  what 
literacy is, and how it can best be brought to more people (taught).  These 
two questions are integrally linked, because often in the past false 
definitions of literacy have been used to insure the possession of "literacy" 
by only a privileged few, thus insuring that their power and authority will 
not be questioned.  In other words, the way we define literacy is crucial to 
determining how to bring it to more people.  In this paper I will try to work 
toward a definition of literacy as communicative in nature, and will contrast 
this definition to one which has recurred numerous times throughout the 
course:  the instrumental definition.  This distinction as to "what literacy 
is" will then serve as my starting point for how best to "teach" or expand 
the literate sphere.  My argument will be that whereas communicative literacy 
is intrinsically inclusive, instrumental literacy is in fact organized around 
and intended to perpetuate the exclusion of particular groups.  This 
exclusion takes place in an institutional setting, where instrumentalized 
literacy uses the twin forces of myth (in Graff's sense as well as others) 
and taboo to carefully and purposefully create an "illiterate" class.
    As a preliminary discussion, the difference between "instrumental" and 
"communicative" needs to be clarified.  The two concepts are clearly not 
polar opposites at first glance, but if placed in a somewhat more complex 
framework it is clear that there are significant conflicts between them.  One 
helpful figure to use in elaborating these differences is the distinction 
between "end" and "means."  Any object or process which has an intrinsic 
value we call "an end in itself;" and on the other hand, if an object or 
process has value only insofar as it leads to some other result outside 
itself, we call it a "means only."  
    These two categories--ends and means--are clearly not absolute, but in 
many situations they are quite legitimate and help to distinguish the subtler 
idea of instrumentality.  One example of a largely instrumental object is a 
hammer (to choose a trivial example).  The hammer exists and is designed for 
the purpose of driving nails, and has very little value in its own right--for 
example, to be hung on the wall as a work of art, or to sit and enjoy a 
sunset.  In this sense, a hammer is to a very great degree "a means," most 
meaningful in the results beyond itself which it can facilitate.  
    A contrast to this highly instrumental object is the human being, which 
Immanuel Kant said should always be treated as an end in itself and never as 
means only.  In this case, to define a person's value and meaning exclusively 
by some function of which s/he is capable--say, the mining of coal--can 
result in a severe diminishment and oppression of that person.  Although a 
person is capable of carrying out the instrumental function of mining coal, 
there are many other elements of human nature (from the need for food to the 
right of freedom and dignity) which limit the extent to which the definition 
of the person as a "means for mining coal only" is legitimate.  For Kant, 
this imperative of treating humans as ends in themselves was a fundamental 
moral obligation, particularly relevant in a time of severe economic 
    The opposition of "communicative" versus "instrumental" paradigms of 
language are informed by a similar moral criterion:  it must be rigorously 
scrutinized whether any given definition of literate practice in any way 
treats a person's use of language as "a means only," able to be shaped at 
will with no harm to the person, or whether the rights and principles of 
communication must be seen as "ends in themselves" for human language-use, 
and always binding on whatever language-practices humans are socially 
required to participate in. 
    The question of how literacy is affected by this concept of 
instrumentality has been a recurring theme throughout the coursework and 
readings this semester.  In my first short paper, I examined two important 
theoretical approaches which possess problems connected to their use of an 
instrumentalized view of language.  The first example I used was the work of 
the linguist L.S. Vygotsky, in his essay "Thought and Word."  Vygotsky 
maintains that language develops in humans through a process whereby 
"internal, semantic meaning" becomes separated from language's "external, 
phonetic aspect" (C/L 72).  After this separation, each of the two separate 
planes can develop independently, which allows an individual psyche to form 
and permits the reflective thought that for Vygotsky represents the height of 
language development.  In the second example I noted, Benjamin Whorf's essay 
"The Relationship Between Language and Thought," the view of how language 
shapes the mind is somewhat different:  Whorf thinks that the 
"linguistically-determined thought-world" (C/L 95) into which each person is 
born profoundly shapes the type of thought humans can achieve.  In this case, 
I noted Finegan and Besnier's observation that "Sapir and Whorf overestimated 
the variability in the structure of languages" (C/L 101), which reveals 
Whorf's error in thinking that it is language-systems that shape cognition, 
and never vice-versa.
    In the cases of both Vygotsky and Whorf, I wrote that "both analyses 
assert too free and disconnected a course of development in language, a 
course that has not been borne out by further study" (NH 1:4).  This 
disconnection, I argued, resulted in an excessively instrumental view of 
language.  Vygotsky saw language as being highly influential in shaping the 
human psyche, and that this shaping capacity derived from a separation of two 
"planes" of language.  This implies an instrumental view, because it suggests 
that the mind is not already programmed to use language in a particular way 
but can be "taught" to use it any of a vast or even infinite number of ways.  
The work of Steven Pinker was my counterpoint to Vygotsky, suggesting that 
Vygotsky had neglected to consider certain limits on the arbitrariness and 
constructedness of language development.  
    Whorf's instrumentality was somewhat the reverse:  he argued that human 
language-systems developed over long historical time-spans, and then strongly 
controlled the kinds of thoughts speakers of that language could have.  In 
this view, language is still highly instrumental.  There is no innate 
language ability, with which all people are born and which is capable of 
articulating a full range of psychological and emotional impressions.  
Rather, for Whorf, language serves as a "means" --unconnected to any internal 
linguistic/cognitive givens--for creating the "end" of any of a theoretically 
unlimited number of human cognitive makeups.  Although the arbitrary shaping 
force of language is exerted by historical time, and not developmental 
immediacy, Whorf's analysis is still highly instrumental by our earlier 

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