Thursday, March 1, 2012

Did You Say Secondary Literacy?

Recently, I had a bit of an exchange over on Facebook with my friend Bob Blechman, author of the Twitter-derived mystery, Executive Severance, discussed in my previous post, Twistery Illustrated, and easily ordered via the link over on the right of this post.

The exchange occurred in the comments section following a post by another media ecologist, Peter Fallon, and it was initiated by Bob making a comment about secondary literacy.  Now I know that there are some scholars who believe that Ong's concept of secondary orality suggests an equivalent idea of secondary literacy, but I'm not one of them.  In fact, I have some rather strong objections to the phrase, as you will see.

And yeah, sure, you can say it's just a matter of semantics, and a rose by any other name, yada yada yada.  But we know better, don't we?  We know from general semantics that words are maps of reality, and some maps are more accurate, while others can lead you astray.  In this instance, I think the map points you in the wrong direction, or at best is harder to read than it has to be.

So anyway, here is an edited version of my comments:

There's nothing secondary about electronic text, and in fact, pointing to the decline in importance of spelling and grammar online shows a distinct bias towards typographic literacy, because there is no concept of correct spelling or grammar until well into the print era. 

 I certainly agree that literacy via computers is different from print literacy, but there are distinctions to be made between newspaper literacy and older forms of typographic literacy, between manuscript literacy and print literacy, between reading from the bound books and from scrolls, between reading in the vernacular and in a learned language, and there also are distinctions to be made between alphabetic literacy and literacy involving other types of writing systems, syllabic and logographic, if you were to call those others literacy in the first place (literacy referring to letters, which is only used for the alphabet). Literacy in Chinese ideograms is certainly a different proposition from alphabetic literacy. 

All this complexity is quite distinct from the relatively straightforward distinction Ong makes between orality that occurs in a face-to-face situation, and speech that is recorded and/or transmitted via electronic technology being secondary. This distinction just doesn't work when applied to literacy, there is no equivalent.

The reason why "literacy" is used in so many different contexts (i.e., media literacy, visual literacy, news literacy) is that it was adopted by educators who need to legitimize the teaching of other competencies. It's hard to justify a curriculum devoted to television production, or even critical television viewing, but media literacy makes it sound like it fits in as a subject to be taught in schools.

Ong doesn't fully develop the concept of secondary orality, but the idea is still meaningful, because the meaning of "secondary" is quite clear in making a distinction between first-hand speech and speech heard second-hand via electronic media. He also refers to writing as a secondary symbol system, because writing is a means of representing spoken language. 

 If the term "secondary" were to be used in reference to literacy, it should be used in reference to print, which is used to mass produce handwritten documents, and leaves the reader at a secondary remove from direct contact with the writer's hand, and handwriting, just as printed reproductions of paintings leave the viewer at a remove from direct observation of the painters brushstrokes. 

So if anything, electronic text would be tertiary literacy, but again I don't see what purpose is served by such designations. There are more relevant distinctions, such as that of numeracy as a counterpart to literacy, and Havelock's distinction between craft literacy (where reading and writing is used only vocationally, say by accountants or priests) and social literacy (the type of literacy we are accustomed to, where we read for pleasure, read habitually, the culture itself is encoded in writing, and literacy is taught in early childhood in schools, even before we fully master speech so that that two become hopelessly intertwined).

I should add that for more discussion on the different types of orality, I have an essay entitled "Sounding Out Ong: Orality Across the Media Environments" in the newly published anthology, Of Ong and Media Ecology: Essays in Communication, Composition, and Literary Studies, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup, and published by Hampton Press (2012, pp. 91-116).



Mike Plugh said...

I've always found this discussion interesting. And, thanks largely to your elaboration of these ideas in our primary orality communications, have come to feel quite strongly about the use of the term 'literacy' in connection to descriptions of various competencies.

It seems to me that the difference in the secondary literacy of typography and any tertiary literacy represented in electronic typography is less a matter of screen vs. page interaction (light on vs. light through) and more a matter of the hyperlink. It's the hyperlink that distinguishes electronic text from its print cousin more than anything else, and really that has less to do with anything particular about the typography itself and more to do with 1) the innate quality of electricity and 2) the networked computer.

It's not to say that there's nothing significant in the light on/light through difference, but that it's not really the difference that makes the biggest difference. I see quite a lot of discussion about the properties of social media and online communication, but I keep coming back to the idea that the difference that makes a difference is actually found in the century+ old discovery and harnessing of electricity, first and foremost, and much further down the line we can start to pick at the micro-level differences found in online forms. I could be off base on this, but the more I've spent time thinking about it, the more I think the overwhelming majority of discourse on the subject of social media, computer-mediated communication, really just a slightly myopic discourse about electricty. What do you think?

Lance Strate said...

Absolutely, Mike. I talked about that in my keynote last year at the McLuhan100 event at the University of Bologna, and I have an article coming out about it in a journal, Revista Latinoamericana de Ciencias de La Comunicación (but the article will be in English, I believe).

Robert K. Blechman said...

Lance, you wrote:
"All this complexity is quite distinct from the relatively straightforward distinction Ong makes between orality that occurs in a face-to-face situation, and speech that is recorded and/or transmitted via electronic technology being secondary. This distinction just doesn't work when applied to literacy, there is no equivalent."

I think this is where we are experiencing a disconnect. You focus on the mechanics of orality (face to face vs. electronically mediated). I agree with everything you've said about this. However, I've always interpreted Ong's notion of secondary orality as going beyond mechanics. McLuhan and Carpenter spoke of the differences electronic media had on literate vs. preliterate cultures based on the expectations individuals presented in their respective milieus. Havelock noted that you actually cannot translate Homer into English without doing damage to the mindset that composed the Iliad and the Odyssey, that is , the oral mind that conceived of the poem vs. the literate mind that does things like introduce the verb “To be” to Classic Greek worldview.

My understanding of what Ong was getting at in coining the term “secondary orality” was that it was not like primary orality because its effects took place within a culture already conditioned by literacy. It is secondary, not just because it is electronically mediated, but also because it is building upon a different set of opinions, expectations and unconscious acceptances which can’t be found in a pre-literate culture. I use the term “secondary literacy” to suggest that the values and world assumptions (biases if you will) of the digital era are different than the era of primary literacy, both alphabetic, typographic and so on, and that these assumptions are informed by the culture’s previous oral, literate and secondary oral experiences, and would be different in a society that never experienced print literacy or electronic media.

Perhaps we will someday find a better term than “secondary literacy” to better explain the effects I’m trying to get at here. It probably won’t come from us literals, but from members of the current generation of digital natives.

Robert K. Blechman said...

Anyway, it’s too late. I’ve already used the term “secondary literacy” in my Twitter novel Executive Severance, and as you well know, once a term passes into the literature, or in this case the secondary literature, it is literally set in stone.

Ralph Beliveau said...

Hello. I always take the "literacy" notion as figurative rather than literal (I find that when people take a variety of things literally, it leads to a very (figuratively) dark place.)

I thought about "Epiphenomenal" or "Metonymic" as potentially more specific than "secondary," but I agree that "secondary literacy" misses teh mark. Much could also be gained from considering W. J. T. Mithcell's writing about picture theory.

I've successfully goten a "Media Literacy" course included in our curriculum, but there is now quite a discussion about what to name it to make it more appealing to the non-major undergraduate student. It's often put like this: "We need a sexier title for the class...literacy is a turn-off." I sincerely hope that "sexier" is meant figuratively...but if not I have a whole set of really unpublishable...but much sexier...suggestions.

Mike, I see your way of thinking, but the century-plus difference might have more to do (I might suggest) with the digital-spatio-temporal relationship between act and agent (as Burke would have it, over ice).

Lance Strate said...

Bob, you of course are free to interpret Ong however you like, but as a scholar, I say, look at what Ong wrote. For example, from Orality and Literacy,

"with telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us into the age of 'secondary orality'. This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas. But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well" (p. 136).

So yes, secondary orality is built on literate orality, but that is not the reason for referring to it as secondary. And yes, electronic culture built on top of literate culture is different from electronic culture that leapfrogs from orality to secondary orality (the subject of Robert Albrecht's outstanding book, Mediating the Muse: A Communications Approach to Music, Media and Cultural Change.

But I come back to the point that if you are going to use the designation secondary, you ought to use it in a way that is meaningful. Secondary is not a synonym for electronic, or digital.

But more problematic, for me, is that your usage naturalizes print literacy, which is the literacy that we're all familiar with, and that we all take for granted.

You want to lump together the alphabetic with the non-alphabetic, the manuscript with the printed document, craft literacy with social literacy, and these are very significant differences, indeed, greater differences than the ones we've been experiencing with the transition to an electronic media environment.

I think the better term for what you are referring to, Bob, is post-literacy, which suggests something other than illiteracy, nonliteracy, or aliteracy, but rather a combination of more-than-literacy, altered-literacy, and moving-past-literacy.

And of course, your use of secondary literacy in Executive Severance is not the first time the phrase has appeared in print. I think it may be Stuart Moulthrop who first used it. But no matter. I agree that a comedic novel is the best place for it to appear, at least until it can be used in a more meaningful way.

Lance Strate said...

Ralph, I appreciate the irony of not taking literacy literally, lol!

There is also irony in your faculty arguing that media literacy is not sexy, in that the whole point was to make it seem less trendy and more academic. I think the more accurate phrase would be media education,, but that's not very sexy either.

I'm sure that Neil Postman thought that media ecology was sexy back in the 60s, it was trendy, but it also was meaningful, and there was precedent for such phrases established long before ecology became past of the counterculture movement.