Sunday, 13 February 2011

Problematic Theory

When did the use of the word problematic as a noun cease to be merely the substantive use of the adjective (meaning, thus, problematic [things]) and start to be an object in its own right?

Also: what does this sentence mean?

"It is this context that I want to allude briefly to the problematic of seeing/being seen."

Can one really allude a context to a problematic? I don't think I speak this kind of English :*(

Help. Please.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Theory: For These And Other Reasons...

So a few days ago I was in a ranty mood and started writing a post that Blogger in its bloggy wisdom decided to share before it was done. It was part of a process I've been going through trying to deal with some readings on literary theory that I'm slogging through. I've been trying to figure out what it is that gets my back up about them, what frustrates me so much, and I think a recent post by Sisyphus over at Academic Cog started me down the right path, along with a recent post I did myself here. At least in part.

I come from an increasingly lonely planet where the author -- though he or she may have died a thousand years ago, though we may never have known his or her name -- is still very much alive. At least, more alive than in much of the theory I'm reading. On my home planet, literature is, first and foremost, a communicative medium. It is the process of conveying information (intended and unintended) between two people, the writer and the reader. The writer transmits information, and the reader receives.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The reader interprets what has been written based on whatever social or literary conventions s/he is familiar with. The writer tries to anticipate what the reader's toolbox of conventions contains in order to convey the right meaning. Or maybe s/he doesn't, but her or his writing is grounded in societal conventions and the un-thought-of assumption that the readers have the same social understanding. But the fact remains that every word in a book is the product of a writer in a society, and every time a reader picks up a book s/he is interpreting that.

And from what I'm reading, it's like the writer doesn't matter. Anything you can read into a text is okay. Anachronisms, outright confabulations even, and everyone smiles and nods. I feel like I'm watching the naked emperor wandering down the street.

And yeah, that's fine I guess, but it isn't how I understand the function of literature. It speaks to me of an incredible narcissism on the part of the reader to believe that he or she is living in isolation. That only the reader's response matters. It's a two-part process and we're increasingly focused -at least in the readings I'm wading through- on only the receiving end.

So there's that. I have other beefs, but that's the big one, I think.

There's also the tendency of theorists to make grand sweeping generalizations that have no plausible provability. Like the idea that all art originates in ritual (Benjamin), or that all photographs encode death (Barthes). There's also a pervasive "now-centeredness" of opinion, a feeling that we were all functionally illiterate until the linguistic turn. And of course there's my perennial favourite, the tendency to use high-brow jargon or conveluted sentence structures to obfuscate* the fact that what's being talked about is really very simple.

So those are, I think, the issues at the heart of my resistance to capital-T Theory. I'm still reading the stuff. I'm still trying to get something positive out of it. But damn, if it doesn't automatically put me into a confrontational mood, then nothing does.

*read: "hide" -- haHA irony.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Bruce Greenwood or Sam Neill?

I have, I learned tonight, been mixing up these two guys for years. Sam Neill and Bruce Greenwood. I'm not even sure I see the resemblance anymore. What do you think?

Crap. They look nothing alike. O_o What is wrong with me?

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Kinds of Literacy

A few days ago a commenter named Josef brought up an interesting point (Hi Josef! Glad you're reading!). He'd been reading A World Lit Only By Fire and somehow found his way to my slow but ongoing feature A World Lit Only By Misconceptions. He writes (after some caveats):

I found your discussion regarding literacy bias to be jaw-dropping. Maybe I am just a biased, blinkered individual, but to argue that one should not find literacy to be objectively better than illiteracy strikes me as really, really silly. I am not saying that everything about the Greeks, the Romans, or modern culture is fantastic and the epitome of human development, but reading and writing and recording are clear, obvious positives, no?

And the answer is, it depends:

First, I think we're a ways off from proving that textual literacy rates were higher at all points in Classical Antiquity than in all points in the Middle Ages, so let's not assume that.

Second, widespread literacy is a great thing. It allows a society to record its innovations in a way that preserves as well as transmits. It allows for greater and more frequent improvements on previous ideas. It allows for more general societal understanding of disparate topics. I'm not ever going to say that increased literacy isn't a good thing.

And of course today textual literacy is important, very important, to someone's livelihood in what we typically refer to as "western democracies" (let's just ignore the potential offenses a term like that might cause and move on). Because the literacy rate is so high, if you're not able to read and write, you're at a serious disadvantage.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the same was not the case. Reading and writing of text were only necessary for people in certain occupations, and in those occupations it was of course widespread. If I'm not mistaken the translation of the first books of the Bible into Old English was the first instance of its translation into a vernacular since the general incorporation of the Christian church, so they were doing pretty well, all things considered.

Anyway, the reason I keep saying "textual" literacy, versus other kinds, is because there are other kinds of literacy. We're very good, today, at reading text. But we're also increasingly good at reading visual imagery in a culturally specific way. Internet memes are a fantastic example, but movies and TV are also very good: we understand them, we can draw meaning from them, because we know what to look for. We're familiar with conventions that allow us to interpret them in the way intended by their creators.

Reading can be viewed in many ways, but when we're talking about literacy, we're primarily talking about one half of a two-part process of communication. Person one transmits information and person two receives it. If you as the "reader" don't know the conventions, then the information transmitted is going to come out garbled at best.

Take the Ruthwell or Bewcastle crosses, for instance. We can really only guess at their iconography, because that's information that's been to a great extent lost over the years. We can deduce it to a degree; but, because these are public works, one can only assume that they were meant for some form of public consumption, and that at the time these were made, the general public would have had the literacy skills necessary to read it.

In addition, the Anglo-Saxons had a thriving oral culture, in which stories, legends, poetry, were all passed from person to person, remembered and adapted and created without ever being written down.

Basically, in addition to textual literacy, the people of the Middle Ages were also possessed of a nuanced and complex visual literacy that rivals our own, and a unique and creative oral culture the likes of which the English language hasn't seen in hundreds of years.

To assume that any culture is inferior to our own merely because it is different is dangerous, even when it concerns something so seemingly obvious as literacy. Even though textual literacy is advantageous in many ways, it isn't the only way for a culture to operate, and isn't by any necessity superior.

Hope that clears up things a little bit? :)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Tech Troubles, or, I Hate Blogger Right Now

To anyone following us using an RSS reader: sorry about the completely unfinished, unedited, still-being-thought-through and badly titled piece that went live a minute ago. Blogger decided of its own accord to publish it before it was done. It will be reposted in a short while, finished, and with likely substantial changes.