Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Re-Uses of Literacy

Simon Fujiwara, Rebekkah (2012) *

From Literacy to Agencies

Allan Parsons

May 2013

1. Literacy: agency, democracy and hierarchy

A major element of standard, base or alphabetico-phonetic literacy, as the ability to read, write, interpret, understand and act upon and in response to written language, is that, in a literate society, a society organised with reference to the authority and/or knowledge embedded in written documents and their elaboration through linguistic interaction, such an ability empowers. It enables the literate person to act more effectively in society, to partake in and to extend its operation as a democracy.

Thus, Lesley B. Cormack (2007) notes that in Europe prior to the early modern period, education had been primarily an ecclesiastical concern. However, from the mid-15c, secular interest in education began to increase, first in Italy and then in other parts of Europe. The goal of education ceased to be only a career in the church. Government offices, secretarial positions and, eventually, gentry culture and the possibilities of patronage all began to provide new incentives for achieving a certain level of education.

At the same time, Cormack (2007: 623) points out,
“ … the Protestant Reformation produced a new impetus for education and literacy, both because Protestants argued for the importance of personal and vernacular Bible reading and because the Catholic Church responded, in part, through educational strategies.”
In this way, education became an aspiration and a necessary requirement for a wider spectrum of the population. For example, in England, during the 16c, access to governing and public careers was increasingly provided through formal education rather than by household apprenticeship. Consequently,
“Literacy and knowledge of a number of disciplines were viewed as increasingly important attributes for the ambitious man on his way to the top. Therefore, more and more gentle and mercantile families sent their sons first to school and then to Oxford or Cambridge, where they would meet the right people and through their studies gain access to the common understanding of the world they would need for governance.”
(Cormack, 2007: 623) [See also comments at Education and Literacy]
Putting aside the question of women and education raised by the above quotation for the time being, literacy, then, can be seen as both a set of technical skills (techne) and a set of performative abilities (praxis), interwoven with one another, as forms of technical action and social interaction. In other words, literacy implies skill, agency and context: literate modes of social organisation and transmission (Goody and Watt, 1963: 304), i.e. societal context, provide the contextualising practices and processes, i.e. practical and pragmatic contexts, in which the technical skills around reading and writing are put into effect, such that a person can operate effectively within those contextual, pragmatic, societal structures and practices.

Hartley (2007: 136-137) uses the term "print literacy" when discussing the context to which Richard Hoggart's book The Uses of Literacy refers. In noting that Hoggart's work is primarily about print literacy, in an era when one-way, broadcast communication through radio and television was emerging as the dominant force, Hartley asserts that such literacy had remained for a considerable time framed by instrumental purposes. At a societal level, print literacy was formed to meet the needs of closed expert systems, whether clerical, scientific, governmental or commercial, the practitioners of such expert systems forming an administrative or political elite in a hierarchical or stratified society dominated by institutions built around written documentation. Thus, Hartley (2007: 136) notes the,

"… gap between elite and lay populations was marked by a difference between those who could and did read and write (for all purposes including personal expression) on the one hand and the larger population who were taught a ‘read-only’ version of print literacy. They could read but did not write (especially not for publication)."

One of the purposes of such instrumental print literacy was the process of modernisation itself (Hartley, 2007: 137) and, as such, is closely tied to the development of political democracy, a process begun in the classical world but re-invigorated after the invention of the printing press. The relation between literacy and democracy, and the ability of citizens to act effectively in such a democracy, is articulated by Goody and Watt (1963: 332) in the following terms,

"...the case of alphabetic reading and writing was probably an important consideration in the development of political democracy in Greece: in the fifth century a majority of the free citizens could apparently read the laws, and take an active part in elections and legislation. Democracy as we know it, then, is from the beginning associated with widespread literacy; and so to a large extent is the notion of the world of knowledge as transcending political units: in the Hellenic world diverse people and countries were given a common administrative system and a unifying cultural heritage through the written word."

The concept of literacy, then, even without qualification, such as information literacy or digital literacy, is not simple. The emergence of literate societies, such as Ancient Greece, based on what we might term 'manuscript literacy' or 'alphabetic literacy', does not lead in any simple linear or direct way to the kind of literate societies which emerged after the radical re-articulation of 'writing' through the printing press, i.e. societies incorporating print or typographic literacy. Nor does literacy imply a strict division between speech and writing; being fully literate in Ancient Greece, being a fully competent participant in democratic society, for example, includes being able to read, write and speak fluently, being able to translate between the written text and the oral presentation, through rhetoric, with its three proofs, ethos, pathos and logos.

In other words, literacy incorporates oratory, even while societies are defined as literate; oratory as orality framed by literacy, by written, textual documents and the institutions which they found and which are built up around them. [Aside, complication: Goody and Watt (1963: 319) point out that books in Ancient Greece were produced to be read out loud by slaves to their masters]

In short, literacy has always been about reading, writing and acting, or rather acting-in-context, i.e. being able to translate among reading, writing and acting-in-context to become an effective social agent, implying a complex set of skills working through one another to create motive, incentive and motivational context. It has never simply been a technical skill.

While literate societies are distinguished from oral societies or nonliterate societies, the distinction is one of relative dominance within a frame, as literate societies display both literate and oral forms, with literacy assuming a hegemonic ascendancy over orality, as Goody and Watt (1963: 336) acknowledge, in pointing to the tensions between "high" literate culture and the private oral traditions of family and peer groups.

The transition to modern, print literate societies, i.e. societies displaying widespread print literacy, initially dominated by religious, state and imperial bureaucracies, with their emphasis on record-keeping, text reproduction and accounting, occurred gradually over several centuries. As Burnett et al. (2005: 190) explain,

"the spread of literacy skills was, until the eighteenth century, primarily limited to religious leaders, state servants, far-travelling traders, members of specialized guilds and certain nobility. The vast majority of adults had little involvement with written texts – sacred or secular."

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the provision of schooling set out to produce (near-)universal print literacy in the industrialised countries (Hartley, 2007: 137).

In a table appended to Limage, et al. (2005), Peter B. Easton of Florida State University discusses the key issues around literacy and empowerment. He suggests that one useful definition of empowerment is that it is, "A mechanism by which people, organisations and communities gain mastery over their own affairs."

Easton continues that empowerment may be linked to literacy at two levels, which overlap and entwine. At the micro level, which Easton calls psycho-cultural empowerment, educational programmes may be designed and conducted in an empowering manner, which is to say, one that makes participants into authors of their own learning, developers of their own knowledge and partners in dialogue about the limit situations in their lives. Such empowerment is that of being able to make and understand meanings, through the processes of reading and writing as forms of interaction, and being able to make and understand sense, through the processes of intersubjective, intercorporeal and interpersonal interaction, acting in and upon common sense, sense held in common, embedded in language and environment.

At the macro level, which Easton calls socio-economic empowerment, educational programmes can contribute to the mastery that people, organisations and communities acquire over their own affairs and the control they are able to exert over their environment.

Empowerment emerges from the inter-relationships among psycho-dynamic, cultural, socio-economic and political factors.

2. The proliferation of literacies

Literacy, then, is both a form of action in itself (reading-writing-interpreting, etc.), and a means to act and to influence the democratic polity. It is a means to performing competently, i.e. not simply technically as an encoder and decoder, but also socially and politically. There is, then, without doubt, a comprehensible sense in extending the metaphor of literacy into a digital domain, and to talk of digital literacy.

However, in using the term literacy, there may be a tendency to focus on the technical side, for example, the technical ability to read and write multimedia texts, while underemphasising the extent to which these technical skills are part of a more complex set of social and political competences and abilities. In other words, it both underestimates the kind of action in which one is engaged and also the extent to which one's being becomes digital and one begins to assume digital personas, roles and avatars, one enters the various realms of the post-human (or post-humanist, at least). (Luke, 1997)

Furthermore, in making the extension from print literacy to digital literacy, there may be a tendency to ignore the extension of read-write skills into publishing that occurs in digital literacy. However, this is not publishing in the print literacy sense of being packaged and issued by a publisher, as an entity and as a commodity. Being digitally literate, as a read-write-publish paradigm, includes a kind of publishing as making accessible through a digital network, open or closed, depending on the conditions set.

This kind of publishing re-articulates the processes relating to the formation of publics and re-articulates the sense of making public. It is no longer solely the formal issuing of textual entities designed for specific publics, with their specific public interest in mind, although these processes have not been abandoned. With digital literacy, the publishing as net-working dimension, as set of skills that can be developed, is on a par with the read-write dimension, making it harder, from the technical perspective, to ignore the larger action frame in which such literacy operates, yet harder to understand precisely what one is doing socially and politically when one is releasing material into a network, and what kind of social agent one becomes through one's actions. Actions and consequences are loosely connected, and there is no simple register, as, for example, changes in public opinion, against which to measure influence.

As Hartley (2007: 137) notes, an era of read-only media of mass communication, itself in tension with a prior print culture publication system which was read-only except for specific expert groups, is giving way to a more interactive era of read-write-publish multi-media. In this way, digital literacy encompasses in an ambiguous way multi-media literacy, uses of which are largely non-instrumental and which pose different questions about one's digital agency, about what one is doing: engaging in an imaginative activity or continually re-enacting one's exclusion from the still-existing elites, now organised around a financial-technical axis rather than a political-economic one?

Koltay (2011) notes that the three most prevalent literacies in the 2000s are media literacy, information literacy and digital literacy, but restricts their usage to approaches which develop a critical stance towards media messages, on a parallel, one assumes, with literary criticism. This is to underestimate the agential dimension in favour of what could become an aestheticisation of the reading process, weakening its relation to action and emphasising (art/literary) appreciation instead.

A list of potential literacies, including written, information, computer, media and digital literacies, is given in Appendix 1 at the foot of the article.

3. Literacy, education and meaning

The term 'being literate', having basic literacy skills, in any case, was and is still often used as a synonym for 'being educated' in the sense of having gained such literacy through a 'basic education'. For example, such a slippage seems to occur in the following sentences:

"… literate women are better able to care for themselves, their families and participate in economic and social change in their societies. Educated young people and adults are better able to identify their rights and responsibilities as well as options for change that affect them and their communities." (Limage, et al., 2005: 2)

Literacy, as an index of education, becomes a mark of social participation and engagement in society and of self-esteem, self-evaluation or self-worth:

"Adult literacy is a key component to individual self-confidence and participation in society." (Limage, et al., 2005: 2), i.e. in a literate society.

In other words, in addition to imparting instrumental skills for competent operation in a literate society, such education becomes a vehicle of meaning in life, displacing or competing with religion (Halsey, 1997: 264), i.e. it provides resources for meaning-making, part of which processes become resources employed in instrumental action [1]. Through being better able to make sense of one's life, or through having a frame in which to measure one's life and actions, literacy provides access to systems of reasoning and rationalising, as well as perspectivalising. Such literacy, as ability and behaviour, as element of interaction with self, others and world, exists in relation to the environment by means of which it is sustained, the "literate environment" of print resources and increasingly, as noted by Limage et al. (2005: 2), electronic resources.

The issue of electronic resources, however, is not simply an extension of print media. It re-articulates print or textual literacy within (mass) media literacy while adding the several dimensions of digital literacy, a re-articulation that both extends and complicates the interaction between media phenomena and readers/inter/actors.

This is a multiple history, involving new forms of mass publishing (new print forms), their complex inter-relationship with mass media forms (broadcast forms), and the emerging digital media, with their differing degrees of interactivity (read-write, multi-modal, multi-media) as well as their bewildering mix of forms. The "literate environment" now includes print, broadcast, digital textual-graphic-pictorial-audiovisual media, all influencing and interweaving with one another, borrowing one another's forms and strategies.

The ability to act intentionally, with purpose, to achieve specific aims and goals, in this complex environment cannot be taken for granted; nor can the ramifying series of unintended consequences of (inter-)actions be easily understood, as 'the literate society' gradually transforms into 'the information society'. Nevertheless, throughout all these changes, basic literacy remains important:

"…basic reading, writing and numeracy skills and other competencies are both a human right for all and a necessity for further learning in the information societies of the 21st century." (Limage, et al., 2005: 4)

4. Literacy, rights and freedoms

This last quote raises two issues, one around the relationship between literacy and rights and freedoms, i.e. human rights and civil rights; the other around the relationships among literacy, civil society and  'information society'.

In establishing the grounds of 'the civil' in its written records, laws and statutes, civil rights and human rights are articulated on the basis of documents that require a high level of literacy, in its extended sense of reading, interpreting and acting upon, in order to be able to cite them in the context of a basis and a defence for one's actions, that one is free to act in such a way, that not to be permitted to so act is a restriction upon one's rights (to act). In this context, literacy as a competence would have to be supplemented with a knowledge of how to bring one's understanding to an advocate who can fight the legal battle that may be necessary to establish or defend one's rights.

In other words, at a certain stage of its development civil society is equivalent to literate society; at this stage of development, they imply one another. Literacy enables a person to be constituted as a psycho-dynamic entity capable of acting, with self-confidence, and as a (legal) entity/person capable of asserting themselves, through the established rights and freedoms, in civil/literate society.

Civil society, however, is not identical to literate society. Literate societies are textual-bureaucratic. At a certain level of societal event, they rely upon written records to establish what is (legally) permitted and to establish what is happening, the significance of specific events, through the record of what has happened.

5. Informatisation

One aspect of this process of recording events and their contextual frame, and therefore one aspect of literacy, is records management, at its various levels. Records establish what happened and therefore the context for what is happening and hence an orientation or direction of 'the real' as the flow of events.

As records management is computerised, or as bureaucratisation is automated, it becomes information management and file management, with computer files in computer folders, i.e. graphic interface entities, in databases, in computing entities, named after written files, in paper folders, in filing cabinets, in offices to aid human comprehension.

In parallel with such processes, the literate society, already rendered unstable by the influence of the mass media of communication, employing strong audio-visual formats and widespread (broadcast) distribution, gradually becomes the information society.

Information, no longer simply embodied in the written document, and no longer only in the written document, displaces and extends both written textuality and knowledge, generating complex intertextualities and contextualities and proliferating kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing.

Together, the processes of change which lead to the emergence of the information society as the dominant or preferred way of understanding civil society, displacing the literate society and its artefacts, technologies, processes and procedures, and the emergence of a far more complex, automated, textuality as the documentary ground for that society, its record keeping process, require not only traditional literacy, as skill and mode of interacting with the societal, but also information literacy.

Yet this would be an impoverished information literacy if it only dealt with the automation of record keeping in a narrow sense, i.e. a computer literacy. It also needs to incorporate a media literacy, which is always already a multi-media literacy, which literate society had tried its best to hold at bay.

The issue is confused yet further by the use of computing not just to mimic mathematical or textual processes but also graphic, pictorial, cinematic, auditory, i.e. multi-media, multi-modal means of articulation and communication. This seems to require a digital literacy which is beyond the grasp of both information literacy and computer literacy.

Yet to use all of these terms, these literacies, as outlined in section 2, not forgetting their various impacts on oralities, may perhaps be to lose sight of the context in which they operate, which is still that of society, even though under a new heading of information society, which nevertheless remains dominated by the image of civil society and liberal society, and even one grasped as a multiplicity or assemblage rather than a monolithic totality. However, this is a (civil, liberal) society at times dimly grasped because of the complexity of the means of mediation and communication, and because of the influence of commercial exchange and of what must broadly be called entertainment, themselves part of civil society, but reflexively imposing a distorting lens upon it.

Civil society is dimly grasped through the veils of multiple literacies, impacted by commerce and entertainment; and hence participation in civil society, while continuing and necessary, is faltering and discontinuous, or should one say, often incomprehensible. This is to leave out of the picture organised crime, itself a product of the same processes which have led to the emergence of civil society understood as information society.

6. Digital agency as empowerment in an information society model of civil society

If literacy is a symbol for (relative) empowerment in a literate society model of civil society, it is logical that digital literacy be used a symbol of empowerment in an information society model of civil society. However, while action has always been a sub-text in the literacy model of engagement with civil society, understanding the literary logics at play and incorporating them into societal interaction, it seems to retain the possibility of a certain passive consumption of the text as a psychological phenomenon, reading as an end in itself, in the world but not of it, so to speak.

With digital literacy, as already noted above in action comes to the fore. Digital literacy, if it is not to fall under a heading of consumption or entertainment, is unavoidably active, performative. It requires a certain 'agency'. For this reason, digital agency would be a better term to name the set of skills, capabilities, competences and interaction styles required to operate fully in a civil society conceived as an information society or a knowledge-based society.

The library as institution in civil society, a civic institution interpreting through architecture and resources the operations of civil society, in its public modality, stands as a bridge between civic literacy, as active engagement  in civil society, and (literary) literacy as reading to acquire information and knowledge, and to be entertained as well as educated, to engage in the construction of a self as person capable of acting effectively within civil society, understanding its more recondite rules and mores, developing a more nuanced understanding of societal roles and their inter-relationships.

The danger for libraries in their academic modality, for example, as part of the university as institution, is that they may seek to break the links among the civil (societal), the civic (architectural) and literacy in both its psychodynamic and its embodied, inter-corporeal enactive dimensions, in part because of the monastic element to their history.

Academic libraries, in adopting the term literacy, may unintentionally emphasise knowledge as abstract, universal and ideal, as propositional and constative, and reading as a process of disentangling the ideal from the material, rather than engage in understanding knowledge as a complex set of psycho-dynamically embodied and environmentally embedded phenomena that are inextricably interwoven, putting it in these terms in order to attempt to avoid using a subject-object dualistic terminology, and in which reading is part of a more comprehensive field of inter-action.

To talk in terms of 'employability' as a means of restoring action to what is otherwise a too abstract understanding of 'the academic' is itself inadequate, because seeking and gaining employment, while necessary, is only part of understanding and acting in civil society or 'the world'. To attempt to link, say, 'information literacy' and employability, as if they simply complemented and completed one another is to omit large areas of competence and ability which may for ever remain unrealised and unfulfilled, thereby diminishing civil society itself.

In other words, rather than addressing the world and rather than being central to the literacy debate in all its dimension, academic libraries may find themselves (doubly) operating in a void: not engaging with the full agendas of either literacy, and the self-formation of the self as coherent person (autopoiesis), or of civil society, and the collective formation, through interaction, of the inter-personal and environmental grounds for such personhood (environing as autopoiesis through allopoiesis).

7. In medias res: entanglement

In saying all of this, we seem to have arrived too quickly, and too often, at a passage from (typographic) literacy to digital literacy, as if it were a simple passage, from the dominance of print technologies to the dominance of digital technologies, thereby overstepping the moment which has caused the most trouble, that of media literacy, wherein there is not just the difficulty of technical skill but of reflexive engagement in intentional action and intentional collective participation. One way of putting this would be to argue that the moment of informatisation, both as paradigm and spatio-temporal realisation, the dominance of information science in conceptions of information and knowledge, needs to be complemented by the moment of culturalisation: information studies supplemented by cultural studies.

The moment of cultural studies we might take as a complication of the uniformity of civil society, as if all belonged equally, as if society were rationally formed, as if society were just liberal society. Cultural studies re-marks civil society, rethinking its liberal parameters, and acknowledging  it as being a classed society, with class being a complex economic and cultural category; a racialised or ethnicised society, with race and ethnicity equally being economic and cultural categories; a gendered society, gender again being a mixed economic and cultural category. In other words, cultural studies admits an agonistic society, not one reduced to the consensual attachment to (abstract, universal) Reason (Mouffe, 1999 and 2006)

Such categories, while being at one level cultural abstracts, are materialised through the body, or rather through body-in-environment, with class identity, or, better, positionality, primarily articulated through speech, considered as an intercorporeal relation (accent); racial/ethnic positionality articulated through skin colour, again an intercorporeal relation organised around perception; and gender positionality articulated through bodily form and their accompanying dress formats, once more organised around perception, with its implied intercorporeality of sexual relations and sexual orientation (from the one sexed identity to an other, sometimes hetero, sometimes homo). The inflections of positionality continue to proliferate, for example, regional, age-related, stylistic, intellectual, and so on.

This moment brings out into the open the agonistic character of belonging/not belonging to civil society as liberal society, politics inside and outside of the representational/parliamentary tradition.
This does not so much count as digital literacy per se, as digital literacy encodes, through its adoption and modification of the audio-visual stereotypes inherited from the (short-lived) era of mass broadcast communication, and therefore requires a sensitivity to that spectral past. Furthermore, this digital literacy is already a digital agency, in as far as one engages in such perceptual regimes and is subjected to such perceptual regimes: one learns them and learns to adapt to them and learns, where necessary, to subvert them.

Digital agency, therefore, bears an oblique relation to intercorporeal agency (embodied enaction) and intersubjective agency (enroled enaction) through material culture and language, language as intercorporeal relation, societal relation and conceptual relation at once. More mobile, in the sense of having more degrees of freedom in terms of positionality, but less intense, in the sense of not engaging the full complexity of being intercorporeally-intersubjectively-cognitively entangled, bringing imagination (projection-introjection), thought and feeling into some kind of alignment.

8. Post-literacy, post-human  and post-society?

Some writers adopt the notion of post-literacy to refer to the condition whereby multi-modal, multi-media communication is dominant. Given the emphasis above on the significance of the social agential dimension of literacy, would an era of post-literacy not seem to herald an era of post-sociality, an era in which one no longer has agency?

Or is there still an implicit reference to typographic literacy, so that all other forms of literacy are consigned to the post-? This may seem strange, given that the dominant form since the late 1950s might seem to have been 'the image' and not 'the word', i.e. photo-graphy (including cinemato-photo-graphy) and not typo-graphy. Rather, the dominant form in the post-World War Two era has been the articulation of language and culture, i.e. of the categories by means of society is both symbolised and articulated, through 'the image' and 'the moving image'. 

Or, yet again, is post-literacy simply an acknowledgement that agency is a better metaphor than literacy for characterising human interaction with others and with the world in the 21st century?

Note on photograph

* A press release from the Contemporary Art Society explains the thinking behind Fujiwara's sculptural installation as follows,
"Rebekkah is inspired by a 16 year old girl from Hackney, Rebekkah, who was one of the protagonists of the 2011 London Riots. Rebekkah was asked by Fujiwara to travel to China to take part in a unique social experiment, where her access to social media was restricted and she visited factories manufacturing the objects she aspired to own and took for granted (fashion clothing, mobile phones, flat-screen TVs). The trip culminated with a viewing of the Terracotta Army, after which Rebekkah was taken to a factory where casts were made of her body to be assembled into modern day versions of the warriors. Up to 100 figures were created in this assembly line technique, shifting Rebekkah to a new position: a representative of a new breed of British-born warrior and a soldier for social change."

[1] The notion that education becomes a vehicle for meaning in life comes from A.H. Halsey (1997), in his discussion of Dons and Workers: Oxford and adult education since 1850 by Lawrence Goldman. He is talking of the shared idealism of Oxford scholars and working-class elites, both of whom were engaged in an urgent search for a substitute for religion as the vehicle of meaning in life.


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Cormack, Lesley B. (2007). Maps as educational tools in the Renaissance. In D. Woodward, ed. History of cartography. Volume three (part 1): Cartography in the European Renaissance. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 622–636.

Goody, J., Watt, I. (1963). The Consequences of literacy. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5(3), 304–345. Available at Accessed on 20 December 2012.

Halsey, A.H., 1997. Liberals, Marxists and organicists. Oxford Review of Education, 23(2), pp.37–41. Available at: Accessed on 17 December 2012.

Hartley, J. (2007). “There are other ways of being in the truth”: The uses of multimedia literacy. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(1), 135–144. Accessed on 18 December 2012.

Koltay, T. (2011). The media and the literacies: media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy. Media, Culture & Society, 33(2), 211–221. Accessed on 10 October 2012.

Limage, L. J., Aoyagi, S., Aksornkool, N., & Rahman, S. (2005). Session on literacy and empowerment: background and issues paper. Sixth meeting Working Group on Education for All (EFA) UNESCO Headquarters, Paris 19-21 July 2005 Paris, France: UNESCO. Available at Accessed on 17 December 2012.

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Appendix: Selected Literacies

Alphabetical literacy

Aural Literacy

Computer literacy

Digital literacy


Emotional Literacy

Financial Literacy

Information literacy

Interactive literacy

Media literacy

Multicultural literacy

Multimedia literacy

Temporal literacy

Typographic literacy

Visual literacy

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