I Just Want to Write

I might be in over my head.  I started writing my paper a couple weeks ago and I eventually realized I was “writing to learn.”  I still had not developed all the complexities to my argument, and consequently, the writing suffered.  Upon a second rewrite I feel like I have some direction.  And when I say in over my head, I mean that my argument might be too complex; I can’t say what it is I want to say clearly or succinctly, I am having trouble just getting the words on the page in any logical manner, and when I think about the paper my head starts to spin a little.  I need to reevaluate my argument, or maybe just get something on the page.  Where I stand now, however, I am starting to come to some remote understanding, but I still can’t exactly write to a satisfactory level.  I just need to stop reading goddamn realism for Geoff’s class (only one more novel to go! Nana being after Middlemarch) so I can focus on writing.  I just want to write!  I want to stop reading novels and theory and I just want to write something, by God, I just want to write something good.

After watching This Is Water I was a little discouraged because it seems that David Foster Wallace had already said what I wanted to say, and he of course said it much better than I ever could.  I thought my idea was original but there is, of course, always somebody who came before.  Wallace was a huge informant, however, and I am helped by This Is Water in the sense that I want to deviate from his argument slightly, but am also informed by his speech to near copycat levels.  I want to stop being bogged down by research and work and my own thoughts and just sequester myself for hours away from the world and just write something good.  I want to stay here in my hot, stuffy, dimly lit room and write on this laptop, because I think I’m on to something good, I think I can write something really good on this topic, but goddamn it I have class in an hour; not that I dread this class, I actually really enjoy it, but the absence of writing in my life has left me hollow: I’m listening to way too much Pink Floyd and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and I study chess in my free time and I don’t have time to watch the Warriors’ games because I just want to write this paper I think I have a really interesting idea.

I’ve written four pages but I think I might need to restart.

Learning How to Argue

I have here in my hand a book called Literacy in Theory and Practice, written by Brian V. Street.  The cover is laminated and crinkled at the edges from excessive use.  The glue that holds the pages to the spine has begun to disintegrate so some of the pages float loosely from the book.  The colors of the cover are a uniquely loud and hideous combination of orange and salmon, with a seemingly irrelevant, wavelike contraption painted on the cover.  On first glance it is not an appealing book, given the mundane and ambiguous title, and also the revolting cover, but nevertheless, this book should undoubtedly be read by people interested in the studies of literacy.

I say this because Dr. Street gives a marvelous synopsis of the history of literacy.  Starting with the Great Divide and moving through criticism of the Great Divide, Dr. Street gives a very erudite and sophisticated overview of literacy as it was and as it stands today.  Not only is a historically accurate picture of literacy given, but fully detailed with many different studies, each individual theorist’s ideas wonderfully summarized, interpreted, and then applied.  In this light, the book gives a great overview of the entire field of literacy to date—but to not deter you, I must say that it does not feel like a history lesson in the least bit.  Dr. Street does a wonderful job weaving his own argument into the picture, and really the book becomes a grandiose conversation between literacy theorists of the past and present, and how Dr. Street comes to fit in with the conversation as a whole.

This book extends beyond literacy studies as well.  I think if you are interested in literacy it is a must read, but it also must be noted that this book touches upon culture issues of reading writing, political and national elements of literacy, how literacy functions in our daily lives, the various disciplines interested in this conversation, and the list could go on—so what must be mentioned is that Dr. Street does a remarkable job of incorporating all of these elements into one concise picture.  The writing is conversational, easy to grasp yet bold and sophisticated in ideology, and Dr. Street keeps you in engaged the entire way.

As said before, this book also has a fundamental discussion in the field of literacy as its main area of inquiry.  The Great Divide was a discussion that dominated the field of literacy after the monumental work of Jack Goody (and other following in his vein of thought)—essentially, the argument says that written cultures, what Goody would call “literate” cultures, are dominant over oral cultures.

Okay, so why do I bring up the Great Divide again?  I say this because I am heavily influenced by Goody’s ideas.  In fact, Jack Goody and Ian Watt wrote an essay entitled “The Consequences of Literacy”—and as a young student of literacy I was initial captivated by these ideas, the ideas of Western society being more efficient and socially/culturally better than other countries.  That is why, I thought, we had developed so much since then, and how our knowledge of the world burgeoned and became more sophisticated than oral cultures.

However, Street’s book was a pivotal moment for me in questioning these ideas and looking at them through a different lens.  Being impressionable in my early stages of studying literacy, and finding myself staunch in the idea that writing is better!, I came to appreciate Street’s point of view and now view the debate as not so black and white.  Although I still think there is so magical about writing, I am more flexible and malleable about this belief, and through Street’s work, have come to more thoroughly understand the other side of the debate.

Some areas I stumbled across that has made me retract and question some of the ideas I so easily accepted as a young student of literacy: Streets says that, “…it is not possible to test Goody’s hypothesis…” (46), and that if we are to accept Goody’s ideas, we are sinking into “…technological determinism” (44).  Goody also places a lot of faith in the Greeks, most specifically in Plato, who systematized writing and categorized knowledge—by being the first systematic philosopher, Plato gave us categories of inquiry such as epistemology, ethics, political science, to name a few—but Street combats this, saying that Goody has a severe misinterpretation if the Greeks, mostly Greek historians whose objectivity and agenda must come into question.  This is true: although Plato and ancient Greece itself has a profound impact on Western thought and scholarship, I can now see from Street’s work that we should not so easily accept the Greeks or be mesmerized by their achievements and intellect—they, like us, were human and made mistakes.  “Goody’s claims that Greek historians have distinguished myth from history is of a kind with the uncritical faith of these classicists.  His grander claims for the significance of literacy are based, then, upon assumptions about the ‘objectivity’ of Greek historians that turn out, on closer scrutiny, to be unfounded” (55).  And to finalize some of the influence Street has had upon me: “…it is possible to consider both literacy and social change from a perspective which avoids such distinctions and such determinism and which allows us to develop a model from which new and interesting research can emerge” (64).

In the end, Streets arguments have molded me into a more critical observer of literacy studies, which is why you should read the book.  At first, when young and impressionable, we are easily persuaded by arguments that appeal to our desires, or are readily convinced by voices we deem more astute—and Street made me realize that arguments in literacy are not always so black and white, that there is always some ambiguity in the discussion.  This has an impact not only on my understand of literacy, but also my way of argumentation and assessing my own beliefs about subjects beyond literacy—to always have a keen eye to other possibilities and to not fall so easily into the trap of what may sound nice or logical, because there is always something to counter what I hold to be true.

I Used to be an Atheist

I believe I have finally determined what I am going to present at the HFA Symposium this Spring—I am not certain the topic is entirely appropriate for the purposes of the Symposium, but nevertheless it is a subject I have keenly pursued for much of my life.  I want to present on my transformation as a human being and how I came to firmly believe in God about four years ago: my internal struggles, my shortcomings as a person, how I was demolished by depression, excessive drinking, drug use, the pleasures of women, of selfishness—all the ugly details from my young life—and God’s ultimate intervention, how he seized my life.

And of course I am not a “blind follower,” as many atheists or agnostics accuse of a theist.  There are philosophical justifications supporting my belief in God, not merely a wishful and deceived experience of God as some might immediately doubt of me.  One of the reasons is our human sentiment of morality because, as I have come to believe, morality is only possible with some type of God-figure.

If you allow me the abstraction: for morality to exist at all, it must exist in a transcendent, metaphysical realm, a standard of morality that extends beyond a precise human understanding.  Put another way, without morality being transcendent, i.e., of God, then mankind has invented morality, i.e., morality does not exist.  Which leads me to the explanation (that cannot be adequately articulated in such a short amount of space), that morality must be absolute, because if morality is relatively based on culture, time period, circumstance, &c., then there is no standard of morality by which to judge our actions.  Rather, it would become just whatever we wanted it to become—because if morality is relative how can we admonish a serial killer?  Maybe him killing people would be relatively okay for him because he thinks he is doing the right thing, and who would we be to judge his personal ethical code?  Obviously this is ludicrous—so morality, then, must exist in transcendence and universality for it to be viable.

These beliefs lead me to be skeptical toward all relativistic definitions.  So when I read about “multiliteracy” I cannot help but to consider a highly philosophical approach to the entire debate—namely, if we are to say multiliteracy constitutes what literacy means, then we have sunken into a relativistic trap that we cannot escape.  As we discussed, if we begin to say there is a literacy for playing the piano and a literacy for reading the Bible and a literacy for playing Call of Duty, and every facet of human engagement contains a specific literacy, then we have not defined literacy at all but have only added a multifarious complexity to the idea.

I may have some type of bias here because I am repulsed by relativism—but talking about literacy in terms of “multiliteracy” does not actually advance my understanding because we have not grounded or encompassed literacy with a universal definition.  And my annoying tendency to call upon my philosophical training makes me find the inadequacy of this multifariousness interpretation—because if we talk about literacy in terms of relativism we have excluded literacy from being any real thing at all—literacy would become a variety of complex definitions that are constantly changing as we add modes of literacy to our technological repertoire.

But also viewing literacy in terms of absolutes doesn’t solve anything yet either, because then we are back to the question of universally defining what exactly we mean by literacy—but this is exactly why it’s so fascinating to me.  Because it’s so elusive.  Because it’s so damn difficult.  Relativism just makes things too easy.

Meditations at Bidwell Park, While Jogging

Recently I have been running in Bidwell almost every day.  If you have ever run for any considerable distance then you know your mind drifts randomly to the most outrageous thoughts—quite surprisingly these ludicrous thoughts lead to a remarkable clarity because there is rich oxygenated blood coursing through the mind.  So recently on my runs through Bidwell my mind has been preoccupied with two pressing thoughts: one, what I am going to present at the HFA Symposium, and two, my conflicting ideas and theories of literacy.

Today called for 6.5 miles, and over these miles through the trees I recalled some of my notes from last class.  My group had discussed literacy in terms of success, success meaning that the literate are the educated, the educated are employed, and the employed are rich—literacy leads to success I suppose would be more precise, but of course this only an idea of American success (which is really discouraging that we so readily equate paycheck to success).  Either way, my group’s idea of literacy dwindled to having a job (success!), and this made me reticent in our group discussion because I did not entirely agree.  Why should literacy even be tied to success at all? and are we as Americans constrained by our culture because we cannot fully grasp the idea of a transcendent literacy, but can only truly come to understand American literacy? Because ultimately I would like to do away with relativism and find some universal definition for all of this.

Moving on to my next concern, the bias of literacy seems to be held in academic writing, and the question arose in our group discussion that perhaps academic writing, i.e. “higher thinking,” is not necessarily the best literacy.  And one of my English 30 students frustratingly asked: why do they even make us write academically at all?  Fair enough.

One idea that I am strongly rooted in is the fact that academia, or what I call “higher thinking,” is the best mode of understanding, or if we can agree on the use of the term, the best literacy.  This is not to be prejudice, dismissive, or narrow-minded (although these beliefs do qualify as such)—but higher thinking pursues the deepest questions of human nature, that academia (all disciplines) strive to understand man and man’s place in the universe.  And what deeper question is there than that?

Sure, we can say an oral culture also pursue these basic human sentiments of curiosity, this I cannot refute—but what seems quite clear to me is that academia and the written word is a more adequate tool for creating a chronological and systematic ordering of our curiosity.  I can’t internalize and ultimately argue with Aristotle unless I read his writing—so writing, academia, higher thought, they all become a conversation between humans over centuries, and the conversation is of the most vital topic: what is man?—and I am staunch in my belief that writing not only allows human culture to flourish, but it also gives us a higher level of sophistication and understanding of ourselves, the most dire and pressing question we will encounter in this glorious existence of ours.  So to repeat: the disciplines of academia can only be compartmentalized and distinguished by the written word, and we can only begin to satisfactorily question human nature and human existence through writing.  This I am quite sure of, however paradoxical it might seem.

Furthermore, I argue that not writing and not exploring this avenue of human learning and understanding is both irresponsible and detrimental.  If we ignore our ability to write, we become something less than our true fulfillment, we are less than what we could potentially be.  A written culture is superior in this sense: it realizes all faculties of man and explores every possibilities for inquiry and discipline.  I believe our species cannot fully realize our potential unless we write and record our findings—we must continually wield and sharpen our cognitive and rational abilities through writing, and I believe to not do this would be to deprive ourselves of our gift that allows humanity to progress in our understanding of the world, each other, and our own individual selves.  Given that vein of thought, I guess literacy is pretty damn important after all.

Questions in Need of Answering (Before I Can Continue)

I find myself still clinging to the notion that literacy is necessary for social progress, that mankind’s enhancement and growth (scientifically, culturally, technologically, &c.) is only accomplished through some form of literacy.  This may be based entirely on bias and/or ignorance, but something within me still says that literacy is deeply rooted in man’s thirst for knowledge and betterment.

Of course I am against Graff here, who has termed this belief to be a myth—our literacy fooled Western culture into thinking ourselves better than oral culture; our ability to read and write came to be viewed as superior than other exchanges of information, and of course this learning of literacy became formalized through public school systems, now entirely ingrained into our understand of what it means to be “smart”—but Graff prefers to look at alternative reservoirs of knowledge and human cognition, and I am entirely on board with the arguments he presents, but only to a certain extent.

I acknowledge that oral cultures can have rich tradition and language—and what is more striking, oral cultures have customary alternatives to writing, alternatives that are feasibly more mentally engaging and cognitively beneficial than simply writing itself.  I can even understand a relativist approach to literacy, cultures adapting a form of literacy as it pertains to their own strengths and needs—all of this is entirely plausible and well worth considering, but still I am not even sure what I truly believe anymore as it relates to this discussion; almost as if with everything I claim I can readily conjure a counterexample, or everything I believe about literacy is somehow muddled, relational, limited, &c.—but it seems that one thing I will remain steadfast in is the notion that literacy gives us an outlet for social progress.  But this leads to the question: what is social progress anyway?  Is social progress relative?  Does it lie in knowledge and science, culture and art?  Has man “socially progressed” more since the 14th Century because we are more “tolerant” or “knowledgeable” or maybe fancy ourselves as not needing religion or God (because we have science!), or are these present-day social biases?

I hesitantly believe that oral cultures are limited because they are not utilizing our human ability/gift of writing.  They have taken something they are capable of in expanding their knowledge in certain categories, and have removed/ignored this entirely.  But by focusing so much on writing, has Western culture removed its oral ability?  Is it a balance?  I still believe that without writing an oral culture would have to relearn complexities.  Oral cultures can thrive, and perhaps even more aptly perform, tasks such as housework, growing crops, and gathering supplies—these tasks can be learned and passed down orally throughout the generations.  But my contention about their limitations lies in the fact that oral cultures cannot preserve knowledge, document discoveries, and maintain a referable record of history.  I believe that, based simply on my gut, oral cultures develop throughout the years a diminished and unchecked flurry of knowledge because complex discoveries can only be retained through some type of documentation.  But this does not exactly pinpoint what I mean to say.  Because at the end of the day: am I even asking the right questions?

Ultimately, I believe the main distinction lies somewhere else—because how is language and mathematics and observation going to fit into all of this?  Let’s take a circle for example.  I can empirically observe the circle.  I can orally explain the circle.  I can write a description of the circle.  I can calculate the nuances of the circle.  Which operation most accurately portrays my perception of reality, or more philosophically, which human faculty is the most “true.”  That is perhaps where the heart of literacy lies, the meat and bones of this entire discussion.  But are we to begin from the belief that mathematics and language is a priori or a posteriori?

Still I want writing to be important.  There is something still calling within me that makes me think of writing as mankind’s distinction from all other life, that writing is how we truly became “civilized” or how mankind “exited nature.”  But there are also so many complexities to consider, so jumping to any conclusions for the present moment, without considering all the details and nuances of the discussion, is simply what I call bad philosophy.

Writing is the Only Outlet for Progress

Goody and Watt’s “Consequences of Literacy” is something I devoured.  I thought it was all so fascinating.  I even excitedly recounted the ideas to my girlfriend, like only how a nerd would get excited over a perfect coding algorithm, how writing separated man from our primitive state and how society and culture was all connected to writing; I was explaining all this through hurried breaths, how oral societies are inadequate, even primitive, because they cannot record history, and rely on myth, memory, and tradition; how only true progression comes through the written word, and man’s logo-empiricism was only discovered through the act of observatory writing, how we compartmentalize our knowledge (Aristotle) through writing!  I think she just looked at me like I was speaking Mandarin, and that she needed another glass of wine stat, but ultimately I think that’s why she loves me.  My nerd strokes!

In all reality, we must grant Goody and Watt the fact that mankind can only advance through some type of record keeping, what we call writing.  When writing enters into society and man wields this technology, we are able to systematize our cognitive understanding.  Meaning that science, technology, art, any human endeavor: they can only advance through some type of formalized documentation; this being because human fields of inquiry can only progress when future generations have the ability to look back at what was recorded and subsequently edit, improve, question, learn, imitate, revise, &c.

Without writing we are constantly having to relearn what was already discovered.  We can perhaps make the argument that within an oral culture a previous generation can inform the new generation; and even grant that oral cultures have rich culture, tradition, and language; but without writing we have no point of reference on which to check the fact;, and as oral facts are passed down from generation to generation, they become muddled by subjective cognition, bias, individual perspective, &c.  Think of it like scientists playing telephone to document their experiments.  Surely there would still be debate over the Sun revolving around the Earth.

I am entirely open to debate on this matter, but I believe writing is the only way humanity can progress culturally, scientifically, technologically, and ultimately, cognitively.  As we write our history and record our discoveries of the world, we come to understand ourselves, our surroundings, and this whole unfathomable existence in which we are enveloped.  We come to understand ourselves and our origins more thoroughly, and I believe this can only be accomplished through a system of documentation.  The spontaneity of spoken language is subjective, fickle, and muddled; but the precision and meditation of writing gives our consciousness and our cognition time to organize itself and more accurately articulate what exactly we mean when we say E = mc2.  Although spoken language is much of what it means to be human, I believe writing is everything making us not animal.

I Am Listening to 505 by the Arctic Monkeys

This being contra to the idea that literacy is of the written word, an idea proposed by David Barton:

If I may, I have always been entirely steadfast in my love for creative writing, but tonight’s seminar reinvigorated my philosophical appetite—because my focus in creative writing, the forgotten and archaic art of poetry that is; and my more modern philosophical/societal interest; have created a duality in my human curiosity.  Writing to unify these two dichotomies has only caused frustration (and partial abandonment)—but nevertheless, I feel I can here take the opportunity to expound my ideas seamlessly, a word-vomit that I have so keenly pursued (because precision in my previous writing seems paramount)—but let me explain: after all my taxonomical and head-wrecking affiliations, and pursuing this word-vomit endlessly, I still become dejected when I gaze with melancholy at the cloudless blue sky.  Why has California forgotten winter?  Where is the rain I grew up with?

So if you will allow me the liberty of explaining myself minimally: my impulsive definition of literacy is the way in which humanity represents the world to each other (bear with me on this initially crude definition)—but it seems the basis of literacy is a symbolic system that relates to the cognitive empiricism of mankind.  We experience things and these things we experience must be explained to each other.  That, I believe, is inescapable.  Like how this leaf-scented candle can cause nothing but fragrance and comfort.

If you will allow me to get philosophically drenched (and by that I mean taxonomically boring), I will attempt to explain something I was thinking in class today.  Kim’s daughter Ashley (and I pray I have spelled her name correctly), interacted with a book on grandma’s lap: I gravitated towards the word kitty—

Kitty seems to have three origins:

  • Kitty is the combination of alphabetized symbols into a word.
  • “Kitty” is the spoken audio of Ashely (or anybody for that matter)
  • And finally, as not easily shown, there is the physical and natural object of kitty within human observation.

I would like to contend that the first two phenomena in my list are literacy of the purest form, whereas the third object is simply human consciousness and perspective.  Meaning that our physical and natural observation of kitty (insert picture of a cute cat) is only a perspective of the world through our consciousness, and the perpetuation of human thought and observation is not something we should dwindle to call “literacy”—but of course this rendition is only preliminarily informed, and I of course fear my misguidance in dismissing consciousness an “illiterate.”

Ultimately I want to say that literacy is a way in which humans represent the world to each other; literacy is explaining the world through human abilities and cognition—through speaking, writing, and reading—

and although I am poorly read in the field, I could not help my mind to be released upon the page.  I have jotted copious, sporadic notes, and surely I will look back and question these preliminary ideas myself—

but let me not forget about the pictorial representation of “kitty”—I suppose what we might call the imitation of the imitation (Plato)—because not only can humans represent the world through symbolic language and the mechanics of the mouth, but we can also represent the world through pictures and art.  So again I return to my tentative definition that literacy is the way in which humans represent our cognition and consciousness, namely, the fact that we are alive and can understand ourselves as being alive, we consequently must represent what goes on in our heads and what we experience in the world through some type of representative symbolism.  Perhaps the definition is too broad,

so for now I think I will just go to bed, as I see that it is 2:00AM (how writing distracts me from the clock!)