Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts

By Deborah Brandt | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Strong Text: Opacity, Autonomy, and Anonymity

"Literacy," according to William Frawley, "is equivalent to textuality" (33). What he means is that literacy is culturally dependent on the invention and continued existence of the technology of text. Literacy is the heat generated by the fire of textuality. Frawley also means that literacy lies in one's relationship with texts. Literacy, he says, is "the ability of individuals to deal with texts" (37).

This definition captures the essence of what can be called a "strong- text" explanation of literacy, an explanation that has been quite influential in shaping contemporary conceptions of literacy development and the causes of literacy failure. Strong text perspectives accord an extremely activist role to written language in precipitating and shaping literate orientation, both social and cognitive. In this view, people become literate by coming to terms with the unique demands of alphabetic writing, a technology that forces radical interpretive shifts away from oral discourse habits. Literacy, from this perspective, is said to entail a suppression of ordinary social involvement as the basis of interpretation and a reinvestment in the logical, literal, message-focused conventions of language-on-its-own.

This chapter traces the origins of strong-text assumptions, as they grow out of oral-literate contrasts generally and are represented in the work of a number of leading literacy theorists, including Jack Goody, Walter J. Ong, Deborah Tannen, and David R. Olson. My aim is to show how their characterizations of literacy are shaped with reference to written products, rather than to the acts (and actors) of writing and reading. As the major assumptions of strong-text theories are examined, it will become clear that they define the nature of literacy by working backward from the nature of texts. Most strong-text accounts give little consideration to the processes of writing and reading, to questions of how people actually accomplish literate acts in daily life.

When the focus moves from product to process, as it will in subsequent chapters, a much different picture of literacy emerges. From a process perspective, literacy does not take its nature from texts. Rather, texts take their natures from the ways that they are serving the acts of writing and reading. Further, from a process perspective, social involve

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