Precarity and its Sponsors

When you drive as much as I have this year, sometimes you forget exactly what germinates a line of thought, even an obsessional line of thought. All you know is that you were driving at the time. The image I’m reminded of appears off the main road – it might actually be Main Street – to and from Catskills High School off the NY Thruway: there are beautiful views of the mountains cut in zigzags by rust-belt industrialization, a towering railroad bridge, decrepit estates hugging eroded cliffs, businesses racked by plywood, exhausted human beings. My thought, barreling through beauty and blight, is that while it’s cliché to note how cities are alienated from the natural world, there’s barely a city on earth whose locus isn’t a river, a bay, a lake, a shore—and isn’t that a contradiction? March’s issue of Harper’s features a piece by Elizabeth Royte called “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn” about urban spelunking and the search for ancient waterways trickling up in New Yorker’s basements. Only a few months after this recollected I time, I moved to a coastal city, which is, topographically speaking, where you’ll find half of humanity on a given day. Long story short, I don’t know why I am fixated on this absurdity of Modernity where, although we predominantly inhabit the world in indifference to or defiance of our natural surroundings, we predominantly  do so at exactly those geographical spots where nature is its most animate and fertile and chaotic and wondrous.

I’m continually fascinated (and a bit perturbed) by how between the disciplines there are many different names to talk about the same thing; this can be instructive, like a kind of academic Rashomon, but also a kind of decadence where a discipline is simply air-guitaring with newfangled jargon (think Silicon Valley). In my reflections above, I am leaning on the words “contradiction” and “absurdity” – which in other disciplines can be referred to as conflicts, paradoxes, tensions, antagonisms, negations, on and on. In France during the Occupy Wall Street heyday, protestors began using the term “precarity” to name what it was they were protesting (OWS in Zuccotti Park were heavily criticized by sympathetic know-betters who said they needed to adopt a platform so they could achieve a tangible result from their work). Precarity in many ways speaks to being stuck driving-while-thinking, and thus unable to write down one’s thoughts (a sociological study of Cuomo’s 91 texting zones or so-called “Text Stops” would be fascinating to read; commissioning the NSA to produce a Humanities study with their illegally mined data and not military-industrial reports would be an interesting act of bureaucratic atonement). Precarity also is exactly the name that fits Deborah Brandt’s definition of literacy in her deeply insightful paper, Sponsors of Literacy. Brandt writes,

“literacy as a resource becomes available to ordinary people largely through the mediations of more powerful sponsors. These sponsors are engaged in ceaseless processes of positioning and repositioning, seizing and relinquishing control over meanings and materials of literacy as part of their participation in economic and political competition. In the give and take of these struggles, forms of literacy and literacy learning take shape.”

Throughout 2016, the question of just what is “literacy” has proven vexing, but Brandt seems to see fluctuating inconsistency as a key feature of literacy, which has all kinds of repercussions for the initial frame of inquiry.

By focusing on the “sponsors” of literacy, Brandt is smartly consolidating a lot of politically-charged language into a term new in this theoretical form: patrician philanthropy, corporate advertising, community organizing, social customs, wealth concentration, resource distribution, political representation, family structures, on and on. Importantly, Brandt’s personified literacy sponsors are not necessarily intentional actors, nor are literacy practitioners self-consciously intentional in a given literacy’s formation, practice, or outcome. I think because of this point of sponsorship, literacy is sufficiently distinct from Dewey’s “education is life” algebra (i.e., education happens, thus literacy is enabled). The following quote is an extended list of this unintended enabling and its outcomes (which now becomes hard to distinguish from what we call “the world” or “history”):

This analysis of sponsorship forces us to consider not merely how one social group’s literacy practices may differ from another’s, but how everybody’s literacy practices are operating in differential economies, which supply different access routes, different degrees of sponsoring power, and different scales of monetary worth to the practices in use. In fact, the interviews I conducted are filled with examples of how economic and political forces, some of them originating in quite distant corporate and government policies, affect people’s day-to-day ability to seek out and practice literacy. As a telephone company employee, Janelle Hampton enjoyed a brief period in the early 1980s as a fraud investigator, pursuing inquiries and writing up reports of her efforts. But when the breakup of the telephone utility reorganized its workforce, the fraud division was moved two states away and she was returned to less interesting work as a data processor. When, as a seven-year-old in the mid-1970s, Yi Vong made his way with his family from Laos to rural Wisconsin as part of the first resettlement group of Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War, his school district which had no ESL programming-placed him in a school for the blind and deaf, where he learned English on audio and visual language machines. When a meager retirement pension forced Peter Hardaway and his wife out of their house and into a trailer, the couple stopped receiving newspapers and magazines in order to avoid cluttering up the small space they had to share. An analysis of sponsorship systems of literacy would help educators everywhere to think through the effects that economic and political changes in their regions are having on various people’s ability to write and read, their chances to sustain that ability, and their capacities to pass it along to others. Recession, relocation, immigration, technological change, government retreat all can-and do-condition the course by which literate potential develops.

In this way, we are always the authors of our natural disasters since, after all, nature cannot destroy nature but merely makes itself look different. Education seems to become another of these “tensions” if not an outright contradiction: it aims to make people not just aware but knowledgeable of the literacies that they are already practicing, while also making them aware of the literacies of others because by doing this they will become more knowledgeable about not just their own literacies but the nature of their sponsorships, whether governing or precarious.