Nmherman on Sat, 27 Apr 2002 20:05:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 4/4

    In my second discussion starter, I continued this line of reasoning in 
discussing Part Three of Right to Literacy.  In these essays, I felt there to 
be a significant thematic thread in which the effect of literacy on cognition 
was examined much in the same way that Vygotsky and Whorf took it up.  I 
focused particularly on Beth Daniell's statement that "according to 
[Frederick] Engels, human beings use labor and tools to change nature, and in 
doing so, change themselves" (RTL 202).  Here we see a definite case of an 
instrumental paradigm; the analogy is even made between language and "tools" 
(such as our example of the hammer).  While most of the essayists in this 
section reject the idea of the "Great Leap" theories of Ong and others, in 
which human development reaches a watershed with the onset of alphabetic 
literacy, they nonetheless retain the idea that language-use significantly 
shapes people's cognition.  The idea that literate practices are not 
"decontextualized" as Ong claims is reflected in the essays by Keith Walters 
and Deborah Brandt, in which they argue that literate practices are always 
profoundly social in operation.  Charles Schuster advocates a highly 
communication-based critique of instrumental literacy when he writes of "the 
illiterate" that "they have been denied genuine listeners" (RTL 229), and 
that all human language "exists in an interactive medium" (RTL 229).  
    Clearly, these essays by Brandt, Daniell, Walters, and Schuster make a 
strong move toward limiting the separated and individual definition of how 
language-abilities form and operate.  This is clearly, from the point of view 
of interrogating instrumental concepts, a step forward.  However, one serious 
caveat needs to be noted.  As Daniell suggested in her quote of Engels, the 
idea that language-practice is always social in nature does not necessarily 
preclude the kind of instrumentalism that Whorf proposed.  The idea that 
literate practices are always social in context and never "decontextualized" 
and solitary needs to be augmented by an accompanying assertion that there is 
a communicative or relationship-based aspect of human language which is 
necessary due to the interactive nature of multi-subject discourse, and 
perhaps even programmed into each human brain by genetic heredity.  It is 
useful to reject Ong's assertion of a "Great Leap" to individual awareness, 
but if the rejection does not include a decisive statement that social 
community and/or human genetic nature--and not merely social 
convention--necessitates an interactive practice, then the effort to curtail 
and limit instrumentalization has only been partially completed.  It is 
indispensable to any definition of human language-practice as an "end" in 
itself and not a "means only" that some recognition be made of an internal 
and innate human language faculty; without such a recognition it is 
impossible ever to argue that a person's linguistic rights and nature have 
been denied or distorted.
    Once the tension and conflict between instrumental and communicative 
paradigms of language-practice has been accepted as a line of inquiry, two 
concepts--myth and taboo--become extremely useful in placing this opposition 
in a larger context.  These terms may seem to be at first somewhat alien to 
the discipline of literacy studies, and rather incommensurable with the ideas 
of instrumentality and communication, but this is only a surface 
incongruence.  In fact, myth and taboo are the most ancient principles by 
which the struggle between instrumental and communicative concepts of 
literate practice has been negotiated.  
    If we accept the argument that human language is not a "means only," but 
an innate faculty which all normally developing humans possess a full 
awareness of and facility with, then it must follow that any attempt to 
impose a system which instrumentalizes language must do so in the face of a 
strong and intuitive resistance by those on whom such a system would be 
imposed.  People's direct knowledge must be suppressed; they must be made to 
feel alienated from meaning in language and able to re-access it only through 
the wholesale reliance on the imposed system.  If we understand 
instrumentalization as a denial of certain innate human attributes, clearly 
any theoretical model which justifies such a denial must be grounded in an 
extra-experiential sphere, untestable through direct sources of evidence.  
Any such model would fall under the category of myth:  in the American 
Heritage Dictionary, "myth" can mean "A notion based more on tradition or 
convenience than on fact; a received idea."  
    The concept of taboo complements that of myth, and makes the opposition 
between communication and instrumentality even clearer.  If myth carries out 
the denial of aspects of human language-nature by severing the theoretical 
plane from the experiential, taboo reinforces and implements this severance 
by making obedience to myth the condition of social acceptance.  In other 
words, in order to suppress or distort communicative principles, it is most 
effective to make access to even the diminished level of communicative agency 
dependent on an acceptance of that diminished status.  In this way, taboo 
uses the threat of total ostracism to enforce wider allegiance to a partial 
reduction of social empowerment, that is, to a partial ostracism.  Clearly, 
the interconnections between instrumental/mythic constructions and 
taboo-based, anti-communicative discourse norms are rigorous and compelling, 
but not always readily discernable by methodologies which already possess an 
internalization of the myth-driven forms of discourse-control.

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