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'Betcha Can't Read My Mind: The Orientations of Literacy Discourse' ~ Lynn A. Casmier-Paz[1] ~ The Quarterly Journal of Ideology

the various literacies which educational, theoretical, and political pundits identify are often heralded by what they see is a "crisis" climate
The current belief that literacy is the primary means by which the underprivileged can achieve economic parity goes largely unchallenged, yet the belief is undertheorized and problematic. I wish to contend here that literacy discourse locates underprivilege to produce the valence of written language.
literacy functions as myth in the ways that written language use becomes ahistorical, and instead seems natural (Barthes[2] 129).
Whenever a community, culture, or society had access to, or utilized the technological means for the creation and transmission of languages through time and space, that culture stood in a distinctly privileged relationship to its non-literate surroundings.  Cultures with written language have used the relative permanence of signification to dominate other cultures who were without written language[3].
As such, the correlation of democracy with written language indicates that the ability to read and write are fundamental to a citizen's access to voting and institutionalized education.
"To politically achieve a society where . . . individuals have access to information and the means to participate productively implies a massive integration of . . . education into most aspects of our society" (Mikulecky[4] 31).
The researchers reason that, if written language is an index of political involvement, then literacy discourse is responsible for immediate amelioration of illiteracy, and only by solving the illiteracy problem can theorists affect access to democracy and social uplift.
Language and literacy are "distinct entities," writes Godzich. Yet "literacy" has been allowed to serve as a "shorthand description for a determinate set of relations that we have to language, relations that arose under, and were conditioned by, concrete historical circumstances" (Culture[5] 5).
Exclusions are characteristic of literacy history, and they occur when written language is understood in a distinctly temporal and dependent relation to spoken language.  Literacy history, as such, has determined that oral language, or "orality," precedes written language, i.e. "literacy," and written language is therefore a representation of the spoken word, or "phonetic" (Havelock[6]; Martin[7] 10). Wherever writing systems do not represent spoken language (the example used most often is Chinese scripts), the written system of communication is an example of "craft" literacy, but not the "widespread" literacy of the West.
The history that becomes a written record of mankind begins in the Fifth Century, B.C., when Herodotus established a "new relationship between the word and its referent, a relationship that was more abstract" (Goody and Watt[8] 15).
Havelock has found that the Chinese picto-ideographic writing system is "inferior" to the Greek alphabet (18). He then excludes Chinese in his history of literacy because their writing system does not represent the smallest elements of spoken language. Derrida[9] calls this strategy "the death of Chinese" (79).
Ong[10]'s theory regarding "orality," or the "preliterate stage of human consciousness," reduces all human consciousness to that which stands in relation to literacy
Before the subject of literacy discourse there is the subject of language, and it is this subject who circulates outside the economy of literacy discourse and its institutional affiliations.

  1. University of Central Florida
  2. Barthes, Roland. "Myth Today." Mythologies. Trans. by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995: 109-159.
  3. alphabétisation démocratique, "élitisme républicain"
  4. Mikulecky, Larry. "Literacy For What Purpose?" Toward Defining Literacy. Newark, DE: International Reading Assoc., 1990.
  5. Culture of Literacy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
  6. Havelock, Eric. Origins of Western Literacy. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1976. 30
  7. Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing. Trans. by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
  8. Goody, Jack, and Ian Watt. "Consequences of Literacy." Perspectives on Literacy. Ed. by Kitgen, et al. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.
  9. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
  10. Ong, S. J., Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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