Redefining Literacy: Towards Creative & Critical Reading

How we define what it is to read — how we define literacy — is how we define the happening of the world and our role in it. Nothing is more politically, ethically, & ideologically charged.

When we teach kids to read, we teach them to decode — what sound each letter makes, what each word means. No doubt, this is necessary. But once a kid can decode some words, we say that the kid can read. Literacy, then, becomes defined as the ability to decode an already existing message.

After all, that's what decoding is — the unscrambling of a meaning that already exists. Reading-as-decoding assumes that meaning awaits us and it's the reader's job to find it. This means — ha! — that the world has already delivered its message. And our only job is to figure out what that message is.

Implicit in such a configuration is that the reader — you, me, our kids — is not herself part of the meaning. Meaning is something that already happened and is expressed over there. Readers — which is to say, you and me — happen after meaning happens. This is literacy for, and of, the dead.

This is life lived backwards. We might call it Socratic as Socrates asks how we can come to know anything. How could we even ask a question about something we know nothing about? It's an epistemological dilemma: in order to know, Socrates claims, we have to already know. Learning, he tells us, is a matter of memory, of remembering what we've forgotten.

This of course means the reader doesn't create meaning. Meaning is delivered from on high. To decode is to be at the mercy of the meaning creator; we're looking for his — and, yes, it's usually his — meaning. This is why biography is considered one of the great decoder rings: know the man and you'll know his meaning. The key is probably lodged in his childhood or, more likely, in his duodenum (pace Nietzsche who says all prejudices come from the intestines).

This is great for the powers that be. It is not the reader's job to question the message — and it's certainly not the reader's job to question the code itself. Of course, when we think we're being generous, we teach that readers have the option not to like a message. They can even replace it with another. Don't like Adam Smith? Ok, then who do you like? Marx? Great! And then we believe that the reader has been critical, replacing the dead text with a different dead text. In this world, critique is a kind of discerning necrophilia.

And it demands a posture of witness and recline. In this version of literacy, the reader is not implicated in the process of reading. The reader is not constitutive of the meaning-event, of meaning creation. The reader waits for the word and then tries to decipher it and is told if she's right or wrong. This is called a spelling test — one of the more absurd, egregious pedagogic go-to's — Mom! Dad! I got a 100% on my spelling test! I followed all the rules perfectly! Holy shit! Who invented this nonsense?! Who ever thought that the best way to teach reading was to teach an absolute right and wrong? The spelling test becomes the essay becomes the degree becomes the job becomes what already was and the reader, along with the world, dies in the process.

I want to suggest a different definition of what it means to read. I want to suggest that meaning is made in between — in between letters, in between words, in between people and things, in between reader and text. A text does not just sit there and await decoding; it comes to you who are yourself a text. And the you-text and the text-text resonate, collide, pass each other by in a more or less elaborate calculus — like the San Francisco fog pouring over the hills, a champagne flute shattering as it hits floor, like the warmth that comes the first time she takes your hand, like rain on pavement, rain on dirt, rain on face.

This shifts the posture of the reader. Rather than leaning back and awaiting the text, the reader is in the mix, in the thick of it, in and of and with the event. The reader is leaning a tad forward. But not too much; lean too far forward and you miss the text all together (most ideology critique does just this: it leans so far forward because it's already read the text). The reader is poised, ready, in motion while still, anticipatory without being determinative. Text and reader — neither of which are singular — engage each other in a kind of dance, wrestle, flirtation, fucking, friendship. They become a hybrid within a hybrid world. (The world is hybrid all the way down.)

And literacy becomes something other than decoding: it becomes an engaged, critical, and creative act. Literacy is participatory; it demands all of you, not just your decoder ring. Imagine that. Imagine literacy programs for which decoding was necessary but never sufficient for reading. Imagine how different classrooms would look. Imagine how different we'd all look to each other. We are not things to be decoded. We are things to create and be created.

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