Tag Archives: scribes

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

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Normative Language and Spontaneity

In an interview (in French) with Bruno Guglielminetti (site not yet updated with the interview), copy-editor François Hubert discussed the “quality” of the French language on blogs (by which he means the grammatical, typographical, and spelling correctness of blog posts in French).

This concept of language quality, as described by Hubert and many others, is an important component of French language ideology. While speakers of other languages often complain about the poor quality of other speakers’ speech (and, especially, writing), normative language seems to be a more important part of the language ideology for the French language than, say, the language ideology for the English language.

The insistence on normative language, on the part of French-speakers, seems to have very important effects on both non-native speakers of French and native speakers of French. For instance, many non-native speakers of French will refrain from using the language with native speakers because they fear the native speakers will judge them negatively. While this does happen with learners of other languages, it seems especially debilitating for people trying to use French across language communities. In fact, insistence by Hubert and others on the “quality” of written French might be one of the motivating factors for my blogging mostly in English.

Of course, Hubert has the right to his opinions on the matter and his preference for normative language could be interpreted as a part of his job as a copy-editor (my wife is also a copy-editor…). Yet, even those who work on prescriptive grammar in other languages may be more open to non-normative language. For instance, comments by the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style in their Questions and Answers monthly column often display a much more tolerant attitude to non-normative language than many French-speakers with minimal interest in language issues.

There’s a strong tendency in language sciences (my wife and I are both in the field) to adopt a much more neutral view of language prescription. Some language scientists may talk in private about their preference for «un bon français» (“a good French,” as close to the standard register as possible) but the general agreement is that any language variety is as good as any other in linguistic terms.

In this specific interview, Hubert was mostly discussing blog entries and their spontaneity. Pinpointing a known phenomenon linking mistakes with online communication (“What? There’s a ‘Preview’ button?”), Hubert sets up a model opposing spontaneity to quality.  Hubert himself not only sends his blog entries in a word processor to check for typographical mistakes (a spell-checking browser makes this much easier to do) but he even prints out some of his entries before posting them. Thankfully his advice to bloggers is less extreme as it centres on rereading posts before submission and going back to older posts in order to revise them for posterity’s sake.

None of this is inappropriate advice, but it leads us to think about the blurring line between oral and written communication. Hubert’s argument is that, if we care about communication so much, we should revise our texts as they might remain available for a long time. Bloggers often take another approach to revision: readers are like an open-source community of copy-editors. Blogs with active readership communities often attract comments on language issues. Simple typographical mistakes are usually spotted by some astute reader quite early on and deeper issues are sometimes solved by the community. “Given enough eyeballs, all typos are shallow.” This is especially true if the author of the entry is perceived as somewhat condescending to her or his readers. Nothing will motivate someone to write a comment than showing the mistakes the author has made!

This all has to do with not only spontaneity but the “release early, release often.” Bloggers do revisit older entries, if need be. Not necessarily by editing the original entry but by posting a follow up. Blog étiquette seems to have it that entries should be left untouched as much as possible. Otherwise, comments on those entries cease to make sense. And when bloggers are trying to get to publishing quality, they might in fact use the power of the community as an editing team. As such, a blog entry is like a recorded conversation. You don’t change the conversation but you can use it to go further. In such a context, normative language makes fairly little sense. As long as you can post quickly and the gist of your ideas can be understood well-enough to enable readers to ask questions, heavy revision of every single entry is contrary to the very principle of blogging.

IMHO, such emphasis on revision and “language quality” is a reason why so many people have difficulty with writing. Nothing prevents someone from writing more abruptly than thinking about peculiarities of written language. Except if those peculiarities are what this person is writing about, of course!

One thing that few people seem to discuss extensively is the fact that younger people are in fact writing inordinate amounts of text online. Of course, those with a prescriptive and normative view of language will just say that what is written online by a thirteen year old has no value because of the “poor quality of the language.” Yet those teenagers who are instant messaging their way to becoming extremely fast typists are really writing. They are putting ideas into written form. And they develop ways to be as efficient as possible in their writing while still being understood by their interlocutors. More than a skill, it’s an important social change. Writing is not what it was when only a precious few scribes were able to use it for specialized communication and archival (like accounting and religion). Scribes of old have been responsible for a number of changes in language. Why can’t millions of teenagers have more of an impact on written language than a few dead scribes?