Students Reflect (Kate S., Bethany Huff, Jessica Starr, Andrea Grassi)

Once a Literate, Always a Literate?: Anxiety Beyond Literacy – Kate S

Like Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007), Mike Ridley argues that reading is a cultural invention, albeit one with profound capabilities. Different from vision and speech, “reading has no genetic program passing it on to future generations” (Wolf, page 11). Even so, as Ridley points out, reading is understood as “a natural extension of our being.” And, though writing is based on oral speech, it is often considered the basic form of language (Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982, page 5).

Walter Ong offers insights into the impact that written language has on the brain: “A literate person, asked to think of the word ‘nevertheless’, will normally (and I strongly suspect always) have some image, at least vague, of the spelled-out word and be quite unable ever to think of the word ‘nevertheless’ for, let us say, 60 seconds without adverting to any lettering but only to the sound” (Ong, page 12). Ong aptly describes the process by which written language “locks [words] into the visual field forever” as tyrannical (page 12). Once a person becomes literate, separating words from their visual (written) form is impossible: “The words keep coming to you in writing, no matter what you do” (Ong, page 14).

It is no wonder, then, that the potential of a post-literate future is unsettling to us literates. I understand (exercise control over) the world through the written word. It is my primary conceptual mode. Landscapes, memories, faces are transformed, digested, and processed into visible language. Contemplating  the possibility of something beyond literacy is both challenging and anxiety-inducing: It requires an admission of the frailty of our dominant mode of communication and of the way we constitute ourselves and the world around us through language.

Wolf argues that the brain creates “new circuits and pathways” as it learns to read, which become “the foundation for being able to think in different, innovative ways” (Wolf, page 217). Ong echoes this argument when he posits that “without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations” (page 14). According to this logic, brains that have learned to read and write are neuronally equipped for novel thinking. Ong goes even further by arguing that literacy “is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself” (pages 14-15).

Whether or not these arguments are true, defenders of literacy will no doubt claim that learning to read and write is a wholly transformative process. The questions that Beyond Literacy raises abound: Will pharmaceuticals be able to replicate the transformation that the brain undergoes as it learns to read and write (a process that takes years)? Will there be a literature of the post-literate? What will post-literate beings possess that we lack? What are our “fuller potentials” beyond literacy? What is human consciousness beyond literacy?

Post-Literacy from the Perspective of an Evangelical Christian – Bethany Huff

Post-literacy has been something of a difficult concept for me to grasp. As an Evangelical Christian, I have to consider what a post-literate future will mean for me, and for my faith. How will I, as a Christian, live in this post-literate future? How can I, who believes that God’s word is printed on a page, go beyond books?

Literacy has always been an important concept to the Protestant church. The Protestant Reformation in the 1600s placed a strong emphasis on the Word of God not being divided from the people of God. Before this, the Scriptures were in Latin, and only the priests could read them. This meant that ordinary people could not read and interpret God’s word for themselves, but had to go through a priest. Protestant reformers believed that each person should have the ability to read the Scriptures for themselves. There was a heavy emphasis on not only teaching the common people to read, but in translating the Bible into the vernacular, so that the people could read it in their own language. If people could read the Bible themselves, they would not be subject to the abuses of the literate clergy. This strong emphasis on teaching everyone to read has carried over into our modern day theories of free, public education.

What does post-literacy mean for a Christian? I believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and that He speaks directly to me through these words. The Bible is made up of the Jewish Torah and the Psalms and prophets, together with the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and letters written by Paul, Peter, and others. Together they total the 66 books that make up the Word of God.  Although the language being used isn’t important, the meaning behind them is. The Bible is absolutely clear that Scripture is not only “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), but also perfect in its meaning, and cannot be changed. As Jesus Himself says, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Not even an ‘iota’, literally the dot of an ‘I’, can pass from the meaning of the Scriptures until the end of the world.

Words have a very important power in Christian thought. In Genesis 1:2, it is God’s words that create everything “And God said, let there be light.” Similarly, Jesus is called the Logos, the Word of God. John 1:1 says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If Jesus is the Word of God, and I follow Jesus with my whole heart, can I go beyond words?

I have a lot of questions when it comes to a post-literate future and my faith. Most of them, I don’t have answers for. How can I reconcile the idea of a collective consciousness and hive mind with the idea of a personal God? Is post-humanity even possible if we are made in the image of God? Are bionic enhancements ethical, if they require you to be something other than human? Will the Bible be able to transition to a medium without words?

Will post-literacy mean the end of Christianity? Absolutely not. Humans have an innate need for God, a longing which was meant to be fulfilled in Him. C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist and author, calls it the “beautiful ache” for something higher than ourselves. This beautiful ache will not go away, no matter how much machinery we attach to ourselves, or how plugged in we are. We will always feel God tugging at our hearts. There is a place for religion in a post-literate future because a need for God is innate. I strongly believe that just as it has for centuries, Christianity will adapt and overcome. God is not lost in a post-literate future. Even there, He is present. Psalm 119:11 says that “I have hidden your word in my heart”; perhaps in a post-literate this will become literal.

A Literature Lover Ponders Post-Literacy – Jessica Starr

I sent a friend of mine in Vancouver the link to and in response he simply sent me the following Carl Sagan quote:

“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”

Reading and writing are two of my favourite things, so post- literacy is a difficult concept for me to swallow.  In the early days of this course when the majority of the class was still vehemently defending our beloved literacy, Mike asked us to imagine our lives if we could take a pill and know French, or how to build a birch bark canoe.  How about having a hologram of J.K. Rowling tell us the story of Harry Potter rather than having to read the 4000 or so pages of text?  Mike asked us to consider that reading and writing were good, but were not good enough, and that they would inevitably be replaced by something – something different, perhaps as yet unknown, but still something – and so I have contemplated these ideas for many hours over several months.  While I was cooking, and walking to school, and getting groceries, and at the gym I thought very hard about this idea of a post-literate future.  I have not arrived at any real conclusion, but I do have a few reflections of my thinking thus far.

I do think that visual language is cumbersome in the sense that it is difficult to learn, and nearly impossible to perfect, or even become very good at.  In my opinion reading is absolutely an addiction, and can become very detrimental to those who do so compulsively or obsessively.  Computers will continue to play greater and greater roles in our lives, and technology will keep advancing at an astonishing rate and in ways that we cannot even imagine.  We may discover that all people have the ability of telepathy, and our sense of individuality and privacy might go out the window.  We may become post humans – even cyborgs – and walk around seeing the world how we want to instead of how it really is.  I have no doubt that the future will look vastly different than today, and maybe some or all of Mike’s out-there ideas will come true, but we will still read, and we will still enjoy literature – at least I will.

Dr. Sagan basically sums up how I feel about books, or perhaps more specifically literature.  In Beyond Literacy we have often discussed that literacy is a powerful tool, but literature is so much more than that.  Books connect people across time and space in a way that I do not believe any technology will be able to match.  Reading can be a uniting act, but is also deeply personal, and of course these stories can be funny, exciting, moving, or evoke any number of emotions from the reader.  I always find exactly what I am looking for in books in a way that I do not in my everyday life.  Of course I am biased – I was an English major and have loved books since childhood. I read at least a few pages of a novel every day, right now it’s David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and when I suffer from wakefulness before bed I read Pablo Neruda’s “Sonata With Some Pines” until I can sleep.
Like Dr. Sagan I feel that the wonderful stories contained in books are the closest thing that we have to magic.  There are many other ways to experience a story – we can see them unfold on a screen, or in a photograph, or be told around a campfire, but the experience of reading a piece of literature that really speaks to you is unparalleled, and I think it will remain so.  Written language is clumsy, difficult, and imperfect, but it can also be spellbinding, forceful, and, as countless authors throughout history have attested, can be mightier than the sword.  Mike has acknowledged that literacy will only be given up after an exceptionally hard-fought battle, but I think that for the privilege of experiencing and connecting with Chaucer, or Dickens, or the Brontë sisters, I will fight on the frontlines.

Are Even Our Thoughts Purchased by Language? – Andrea Grassi

I have many questions when thinking about thoughts. Are thoughts coded in language, or are thoughts abstract and only outwardly communicated and digested via the tool of language? If we only communicate them to ourselves consciously, are we still encoding them? What are unused thoughts? Just as a computer works on a binary system to make meaning of numbers, I wonder if thoughts have their own systems and we create their meaning through language systems. One could argue that last part is obvious — of course we humans make meaning through language. Deeper, is there anything distinctive about our thoughts that transcends language? And how much does it shape our humanity? How can we (can we ever?) synthesize even our own thoughts, let alone communicate with others, without language?

In a 2007 Science Fiction article titled “Post Media Human Modern: How Nature Was Finished When It Invented the Human Brain”, English professor David Porush argues that we have, essentially, always been post-human because the idea of this other human is so engaged with our literature the two form a feedback loop of which its source is undetectable. Let me rephrase. Porush argues that we have always thought of post-humanity as a facet of our own creation of meaning: “At its root… any definition of post-human must entail the role of artifice itself. The creation of an artificial being from human substrate, even if it is a projection of our intellect of episteme, produces a post-human” (p. 61). Perhaps this aspect of ourselves is the fear of becoming this extended self. As we continually mingle with technology, as our online selves become our real selves and the lines between virtual reality and reality for now become “augmented”, this fear of a future without these “selves” as we know them and whatever they may be, seems to stick with us even way down deep, in our fiction and in the folklore living within the stories we will tell ourselves about ourselves. Porush goes on to argue that nature had completely evolved with the formation of the human brain, so anything beyond that would be artifice. In a way, I see his point. Technology seems to be the anti-matter (that which is not nature but made from nature) into a new nature — a neo nature?) that will propel us further. (NOTE: for further post-human reading, Porush cites Bruce Sterling’s story “Cicada Queen” where post-humans essentially resemble lobsters!)

Are thoughts ever raw and encoded? A telepathic person might know. I think it is interesting we often use the phrase “read thoughts” when talking about telepathy, assuming these thoughts are a language to be “read”. What would thoughts look like as a collection of data? Does telepathy even require these little packets of thoughts? It is perhaps unquantifiable, beyond the boundaries of physics, math and technology and I suspect my humanity will always get in the way of any definite vision. Food for thought. Or food for the data that becomes the thought. Or…well, you know.


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