RE: [xmca] FW: NCTEAR

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Mon Jan 29 2007 - 03:20:18 PST

Just two perhaps small points in relation to Jay's remarks:

The "master writes, slave reads" analogy is historically wrong in terms of
the US slave system, in which slaves were often brutally punished for
learning to read--a problem that many believe has had persistent effects on
African Americans' literacy.

The idea that "if it's not online, it doesn't exist" assumes that everyone
has access to technology, but that seems to assume that the many people in
the US who live in deep poverty are using the web to shop, exchange emails,
and so on. One problem I've had with the multiliteracies work is that it
assumes that everyone is above the poverty level, which just isn't true.


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Jay Lemke
Sent: Sunday, January 28, 2007 9:47 PM
To:; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] FW: NCTEAR

As I am one of the plenary speakers for this conference, I thought I'd put
in two cents (or so).

My talk's title is New Media & New Learning Communities, and one line of my
abstract reads:
Research on students' literacies needs to focus on their networked
media: from fan-fiction sites, blogs, and MySpace identities, to online
gameworlds, home-made podcasts, and SecondLife machinema.

And I could have added ipods, cellphones, YouTube, and TIVO!

I can appreciate that Gunther might be hoping to keep the word literacy for
that old printed-text competency, else what will we call it? print literacy?
alphabetic literacy? But it's far too late for that, or even, I think, to
restrict it to letter-ate codes. And the reason is not just our profligate
usage of the word. The phenomenon has changed.

What we always wanted to mean by literacy was the ability to access codified
knowledge in ways that made it possible to use it for our own purposes. We
used to codify it mostly in textual (and numerical) forms and store it away
in books and kindred media. And we also meant to focus on knowledge that was
considered valuable, which is why literate was often in the past a synonym
for educated or cultured.
But today more and more of what people value is codified multi-modally, as
integrated combinations of images and text and sound, animations, videos, 3D
virtual spaces, etc. etc. And you can't really get at the meaning of these
forms piecemeal: you have to integrate the text with its fellow-travelers,
cross-contextualizing them by one another, to get at the kinds of meanings
being made and stored more and more today.

Another dimension of literacy that Gunther himself kept flogging people
about in the 80s is its productive dimension: slaves read, masters write. So
we enhanced the definition of literacy from a generalization of reading to a
generalization that included writing:
the ability to mobilize the resources of [name your code] to usefully create
and interpret meanings in [name your medium].

Even the narrow focus on text or print eventually made us realize that
literacy is a whole technology, including the conventions for how to use its
material apparatus. From how to decode a page of text, it expands to how to
use all the parts of a book, to how to open it and hold it, to how to find
it in the library. Literacy as technical and social and semiotic competence
... all to the same end of being able to create and access meanings and
information ... which are now being coded through a myriad of interlocking
technologies. And you pretty well have to be passably good with all of them
if you are going to keep up with how under-30s with the wherewithal to are
using anything we might still want to call literacy. (Libraries? books? if
it's not online, it doesn't exist ... and if it's nothing but text, click

Is there a reasonable limit? Should we stop short of culinary literacy, or
laundry literacy? or TIVO literacy? Maybe, to give the term a rest, but in
fact the new literacies pervade almost every aspect of technological life
today, and the meanings of the printed texts within them are often not
usefully recoverable (or
constructable) without the motor actions and sensory experiences that go
hand-in-hand with them.

A notion of mine that may have some kinship with "letter-oriented codes" is
that of typological semiotic resources vs. topological ones. The former
enable us to make meanings by categorial differences of kind, whether one
letter vs another, one word vs another, one musical note vs another, one
TIVO channel vs. another. The other sort allow meaning by degree, and all
degrees of in-between-ness, like color spectra and sound pitch (not
restricted to canonical notes of a
scale) and mathematical quantity or continuous graphs. I suppose that if you
could identify an area of meaning-making and knowledge codification in which
NO typological representations (inscriptions, pace Latour) were involved,
then maybe we could exclude that from being called a "literacy". (I include
'representations' here to eliminate the case of spoken language, which while
a typological code
-- in large part -- is contrasted with literate forms as durable
representations). But I have a deep suspicion that the typological and the
topological go hand in hand in any non-trivial understanding.

If you'd like some thoughtful notions about what "writing" is, try Roy
Harris' _Signs of Writing_ -- it should give an idea what some other
letter-like codes might be and something of the basic technology involved.
And for the broader notion of literacy as a resource for social
meaning-making, Jim Gee's _Social Linguistics and Literacies_ helped drag
"literacy" out of the schoolhouse closet. I'm afraid there's no putting it
back now.


At 02:03 PM 1/28/2007, you wrote:
>I think you have been very generous with your time, Peter.
>Your informative note put me in mind of the Machado/Friere volume on
>reading the word and reading the world.
>In this case, "reading" is close to the more general notion of
>"interpreting." I expect that the multiple meanings
>will not go away and will in general be clarified by the context.
>Now if only I could properly read those TIVO instructions so that I
>could combine TIVO and certain channels it does not want to record!!
>Its tough been technologically illiterate! :-)
>ps-- your forwards are a great way to stay in touch, especially when we
>get reports back from folks who attend. I hope that you have forwarded
>the prior not to kevin if he is not lurking out there somewhere
>On 1/28/07, Peter Smagorinsky <> wrote:
>>Mike, I guess that asking me a direct question is one way to get me to
>>contribute to these discussions. Sorry I've mostly lurked of
>>late--it's one of those years.
>>The question "What is literacy?" came up in a doctoral seminar I'm
>>teaching on research in composition this semester. One of the students
>>brought in something from Gunther Kress (a literacy-oriented semiotics
>>guy) in which he argues that literacy ought only to be applied to the
>>ability to read or produce letter-oriented codes. Kress has also been
>>part of the New London Group, famed for its paper on Multiliteracies,
>>a construct that accounts for "new" literacies largely following from
>>recent technologies--the images, sounds, etc. involved in internet
>Jay Lemke
>University of Michigan
>School of Education
>610 East University
>Ann Arbor, MI 48109
>Tel. 734-763-9276
>Website. <>
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