Post-Word Literacy

The state of Michigan, as argued by lawyers for its Attorney General and acting on behalf of Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s office, currently supports the position that its children’s fundemental right to education does not include a fundamental right to literacy. Their motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit suing the State for unlawful failure of duty to students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District states the position bluntly: “There is no fundamental right to literacy.”

There is something in this argument that escapes the typical criticisms of legal cynicism and semantic decadence. In other words, the supposed plausibility that one’s right to education is provided in the tools to learn alone irrespective of results of having learned, or that there are meaningful distinctions to be made parsing the terms education, learning, schools, and literacy are both insulting arguments, but they both also fail to reveal the truly heartless core of the document. The State of Michigan has, to my hears, entered into Lewis Carroll territory of Catch-22 deadlocks and tyrannical fantasies. Rights themselves are based upon literacy. Our legal system is one elephantine literature. As far as the courts are concerned, citizens are already grafted into this literature of laws and rights (our names, social security numbers, passports, driver’s license number, fingerprints) than our corporeal or emotional experience bares witness. One cannot be a citizen without the literacy of citizenry. So to say that students have no fundamental right to literacy is akin to saying they have no rights to rights, or legal recourse: they are always-already unjustified.

In “A Mad Tea-Paty” (Alice in Wonderland Chapter VII), Alice is relentlessly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ignored to the tune of everyone else’s ignorance, arrogance and stupidity:

`[…] I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Here, the arbiters of logic (Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse) refuse to acknowledge Alice’s inherent human dissonance (i.e. that even though she didn’t say exactly what she meant, she did attempt to communicate with the party with what she did say, and not purposefully confuse the proceedings) while ignoring how their own permutations of proper speech and correct civility reveal further conflict, their absolutist premise that individual particulars always refer to different ideas and never the same breaks down within a few supposedly supportive exchanges.

What makes Michigan’s legal verbiage additionally worrisome is that American society has very recently entered into something close to a post-word era where what you say, what is written, and what words mean, means terrifyingly little. For confirmation of our immediate context, here is The Atlantic‘s James Fallows from just earlier today:

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies.

Since about the 1970s, sociologists and media theorists have speculated that we live in an aliterate society, where people can read but chose not to. And then in more recent decades, critics have discussed the “truthiness” of American public and the failure of evidence to effectively persuade or – in the case of Global Warming – progressively build consensus. Recent days have shown that perhaps these are mere symptoms to a far more oppressive paradox of living utterly outside the sphere of poetry, rhetoric, and apparently also meaning.

Victorian George MacDonald speculated on the what a post-word world might look like in his aphoristic “The Prison”:

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe… It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has (had) its sign, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him… Soon misery will beget on his imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences.

This uncanny vision of modern subjectivity trapped in a feedback-loop of solipsistic misuse, unable to grasp the meaning of something even so basic as a sign, is a nightmare curiously attuned to our current predicament where the consensus path of least resistance is often simultaneously considered to flirt with unprecedented disaster.  The twin gods of Fate and Chaos seem to have superseded any and all principles of Modernity that help shape self-governance, conceptions of social responsibly, or mutual regard for the rights of individuals. The state of Michigan is essentially arguing to students, individuals, people, anyone, everyone—like the Hatter to Alice, like MacDonald’s cosmic prison—that they simply don’t exist. What words will convince them otherwise?

Can you teach counterintuitive-thinking?

I recently read a portion of Thomas Browne’s famous Religio Medici that had me thinking of Seinfeld. The mid-seventeenth century text contains the following passage:

[…] I feele not in me those sordid, and unchristian desires of my profession, I doe not secretly implore and wish for Plagues, rejoyce at Famines, revolve Ephemerides, and Almanacks, in expectation of malignant Aspects, fatall conjunctions, and Eclipses: I rejoyce not at unwholsome springs, nor unsea- sonable Winters; my prayer goes with the Husbandmans; I desire every thing in its proper season, that neither men nor the times bee out of temper. Let mee be sicke my selfe, if sometimes the malady of my patient bee not a disease unto me, I desire rather to cure his infirmities than my own necessities, where I doe him no good me thinkes it is scarce honest gaine, though I confesse ’tis but the worthy salary of our well-in- tended endeavours: I am not onely ashamed, but heartily sorry, that besides death, there are diseases incureable, yet not for my owne sake, or that they be be- yond my art, but for the generall cause & sake of humanity whose common cause I apprehend as mine own […]

Browne implies what a perfect society looks like: not one in which no one gets sick, but one in which those who get sick also happen to be doctors and people carrying expert knowledge about the exact symptoms they then experience. So doctor’s still pay house visits, only they can also stay in bed because they’re the ones sick.

This is a very deft bit of dialectical or counterintuitive thinking. Generally, utopian discourses are based on purgation and exclusion: sicknesses are banished, suffering takes a holiday, longevity reigns (as though the miseries of life would be solved if everyone simply lived longer; hence utopian fiction’s tendency to devolve into dystopian fiction, and visa versa). But here Browne collapses time and space and the cultural divide between doctor and patient to envision a perfect society: What if only lawyers got divorced? Toothaches plagued only those practicing dentistry? It’s still wishful thinking, but it avoids the obvious utopia of envisioning illness gone altogether, or heartbreak, or the sadness of toothaches. Society is not absurdly error-free, just hilariously efficient.

In a silly way, this is reminiscent on Seinfeld joke about opposites:

Waitress : Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee.

George : Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute, I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted … and a cup of tea.

Elaine : Well, there’s no telling what can happen from this.

Jerry : You know chicken salad is not the opposite of tuna, salmon is the opposite of tuna, ‘cos salmon swim against the current, and the tuna swim with it.

George : Good for the tuna.


Buried beneath the joke is the claim that there is no natural opposite; no official opposite (perhaps the “official” opposite reflected in illness/no-illness is what Hegel means by conventional wisdom, or meinung, in Phenomenology of Spirit). The notion of opposite presents the illusion of unity when in fact its construction is equally chaotic and arbitrary and tenuous. The opposite of tuna could be “a nut”, because of the conventions of American spelling; or the opposite of tuna could be a salad made from a rusty hook; or the opposite of tuna salad for lunch would be to skip the midday meal altogether and begin fasting in the hopes that this will alleviate your spiritual malaise (malaise, by the way, goes great on a tuna salad sandwich); on and on and on. The nonlinearity of these plausible opposites illustrate that behind every notion of “opposite” is a perspective, a point of view, a particular vantage point that constructs a supposed unity from the immense difference that we identify as opposition; all the while opposition as such is never a given, even if obvious, its truth is faulty. To my mind, opposition in this way shares an ontology with hypocrisy insofar as, qua themselves, neither concept actually exists (they operate as adjectives, all the while we want them to be nouns).

I am left wondering whether this sense of counterintuitive-thinking, or counter-intuition (I want to write: counterintuity) be taught? It can certainly be modeled, and if it can be modeled, then it can be posed as something important, imitatively valued. If as it seems this is a case where the practice – the thing in the doing of it – is what it is, rather than some produced sum, then emphasizing when writers and artists and thinkers practice their counterintuitive art seems to be important (meanwhile: What’s the relation between counter-intuition and invention?). So often the summative So what? in all the Humanities seems to homogenize across disciplines and dilute into the vagaries of platitudes and solipsistic sloganeering, like: “Find what it is for you,” or: “Discover your path,” (in an absolute butchering of Frost).

Instead, I think allowing students to live will best educational summations of all kinds. Education cannot incorporate lives without allowing for their being lived out, not in a potential sense but in an actual one, and for all students. This is the importance of stressing so-called critical thinking in pedagogical theory: it’s not that this thinking is more comprehensive, it’s that such skillsets encourage the whole life of the student to participate. Critical thinking is un-phone-in-able. In fact, critical thinking practiced habitually is not a even a skill but a social enterprise indistinguishable from “real world” (which so often is mistakenly suggested as the opposite of school).