Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts, Deborah Brandt
Chapter One: “Strong Text: Opacity, Autonomy and Anonymity”
I. What is a strong text interpretation? A “strong text” interpretation characterizes literacy in terms of individuals’ interactions with written texts.
A. The theorists who support this interpretation investigate the features of texts to find what printed words require of their readers.
B. The adjective strong is used to describe this theory because printed works are traditionally fixed and unchanging (i.e. strong) and therefore determined, and continue to determine how literacy developed and works.
II. What scholastic tradition permits this understanding of literacy?
Many scholars in a variety of disciplines traditionally investigated literacy in terms of the oral-literate framework, a dichotomy that places texts clearly on the literate side of the pair. According to this dichotomy, linguistic, cognitive and social distinctions can be made between oral-based communication systems and literate (text-based) communication systems.
III. What are the assumptions that ground the strong text model of literacy?
“[Strong text] Literacy is best understood as a technology, a penetrating force that unnaturalizes and reorganizes all that it comes in contact with”(23).
A. The alphabet is opaque because it is a closed, self-referential system of representation: there is no such thing as a subjective letter.
B. Texts are not subject to context, time or other human pressures. Their materiality gives them autonomous status.
C. Texts’ contents exist independent of human identities, so they are anonymous and objective self-referential systems that produce ideas independent of experience.
IV. What are some examples of strong-text scholarship/How is the basic strong text model interpreted or appropriated by different theorists?
A. Jack Goody: Written communication shapes culture.
-Writing distances language users from each other and themselves
-Writing makes hierarchical “anonymous” social systems possible.
-Writing creates an external, self-reflective system of expression that reorganizes the way people understand the world
B.Walter Ong: Written communication shapes the way we can think.
1. Writing creates “social and cognitive disengagement” from lived experience.
2. Writing is a technology that intervenes between language user and lived experiences.
C. Deborah Tannen: The continuum between “message-focused” and “involvement focused” is a movement from communication that prioritizes words to one that prioritizes language users.
D. David Olsen:
1.The literate environment of school demands immediate and continuing adaptation from orality to literacy, thereby privilege written texts over oral communication.
2. Children learn language initially for its uses to demonstrate objects in the world
3. School forces students to use language out of the context of immediate use
4. Students can explore worlds outside their experience in writing, because written language creates alternative possibilities
5. The more [scholastically] literate the household, the easier the transition to school
V. What are the criticisms of this model of literacy/Why is this model incomplete? In general, dissenters are troubled by the privileging and decontextualizing of text and favor a more complex intersubjective interpretation.
A. Scribner and Cole: Literacy is embedded in social practices
-cognitive habits are formed by school and society, not the act of reading
B. Shirley Heath: Practices and meanings of literacy are socially constructed
C. Brian Street: Dominant social groups create dominant capital L literacies
D. Deborah Brandt: Strong text theories do not explain what makes literacy possible. They also rely on an oversimplified dichotomy of oral and literate modes of communication. Context and language acts cannot be separated, so text is not objective or separate from lived experience. In fact, writing demonstrates “the means by which we make the world together”(31). Social involvement is the true “key to literacy and literacy growth” (32).
VI. Responses to the Criticisms
Ong: textual distancing is only possible with the relationship to speech. Knowledge ultimately resides in the mind of the knower, not in print.
Goody: softens the break between orality and literacy to acknowledge a continuum in later works
Tannen: involvement focus may be useful to readers
Olson: orality is the training ground for literacy.
1. The digital age presents us with new opportunities for authorship, like blogs and self-publishing on web sites. Will these new opportunities affect the commonly held idea of published writing as a source of authority and knowledge?
2. How can silent reading possibly be a social act?