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

By Deborah Brandt | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
"The Ties of the Moment": Literacy as Involvement

Insights into the metacommunicative foundations of literacy help to resolve the paradox with which this study began, revealing social involvement as not merely a cultural impetus for literacy but its interpretive underpinning as well. While the move from the oral to the literate does require a new level of symbolic reflectiveness, it does not require a renunciation or reformulation among context, language, and meaning that pertains in oral language use. Rather, it requires a familiarity with the pragmatic work of writing and reading to which literate language refers. Consequently we must see literacy not as a shift of the burden of meaning away from context and onto the formal properties of texts but rather as intensified reflection upon and control over the ways that people use language to sustain the processes of intersubjective life.

There has been a certain willingness (especially in education) to acknowledge literacy as a socially contextualized practice on the large scale while continuing to describe the demands of individual acts of reading and writing -- particularly of so-called autonomous, academic exposition -- in terms of linguistic, cognitive, and interpersonal decontextualization. In other words, we have tended to regard literacy as a technical capacity that is introduced into various social contexts, acknowledging that literacy and context co-condition each other but seeing the two as separate, either antagonistic or conspiratorial sources of influence. What we have to begin to contemplate is that the "technical" capacity of literacy is of a piece with social contexts and is enabled only by them. That in fact is the implication of recent, multidisciplinary findings about the social roots of literacy, as exemplified in the works of Scribner and Cole; Heath; Bleich; Graff; and others. The present study, by deliberately focusing on individual acts of writing and reading and on the "decontextualized" language of expository essays, has been a start toward a more satisfactory reconciliation of social and cognitive explanations of literacy. Viewing reading and writing as forms of meta- communicative knowledge is more consonant with a view of literacy as pluralistically and culturally constituted.

Articulating that consonance is the general business of this chapter. It will explore implications of the "involvement focus" of literate cognition,

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