What the hell?
Postliteracy is basically the idea that there will soon come a time when text and writing will no longer be as dominant as they are now, and we will find other means to communicate.
While the technology of writing has been around for ages, even historically literate societies such as the Chinese only had a small percentage of their population actually literate. Mass literacy is a result of the Gutenberg press and movable type, and subsequent European colonisation.
Why the hell?
Reading and writing are too bloody hard. It takes most people at least 10 years of education to effectively read and write in their first language. Increasingly, 15 years of education is the standard.
Reading and writing are specially too hard for people who belong to pre-literate or recently literate cultures. This is pretty much most of the non-European world. While West, East and South Asian civilisations have had scripts for the longest time, even in these civilisations the ability to read and write was often restricted to a privileged few.
This means that people from these communities are severely disadvantaged with access to information. This is seen in negative health and economic statistics, among others. Examples of this are the comparative well-being of Māori and Pasifika people in Aotearoa New Zealand, Aboriginal peoples in Australia and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India.
A few people think that post-literate ways of communication would be closely related to pre-literate ways of communication. The Pacific islands are full of examples of the use of tattooing, woodwork, speech making, songs and stories as ways to communicate and record culture. So if post-literate strategies are similar to pre-literate strategies, maybe finding what those strategies are will also help communicate import information to people that need it most in the here and now.
Who the hell?
Mostly old white men, I’m sorry. At least they aren’t rich, I don’t think. Not very anyway.
- Marshall McLuhan, 1967, The Gutenberg Galaxy : Talks of the tyranny of the text, and how the electronic age would bring its end.
- Walter J. Ong, 1982, Orality and Literacy: Talks of how orality and literacy are very different cultures, and not variants of each other. Talks of the coming of a ‘secondary orality’ based on electronic technology, that will build on both pre-literate oral cultures as well as literate text based ones.
- Thomas Pettitt and Lars Sauerberg, 2010ish, Gutenberg Parenthesis and The Future is Medieval: Pettitt and Sauerberg see mass literacy as an anomaly that interrupted the development of oral culture, and our current electronic/internet age as a return to that orality.
- James C. Scott, 2009, The Art of Not Being Governed: Anarchist historian James Scott looks at upland South East Asia as a history of resistance to and evasion from Empire. The most controversial and least evidenced chapter deals with the idea of post-literacy as a strategy used by groups…deliberately losing their script to avoid empire.
- Michael Ridley, 2012, Beyond Literacy: Mike looks at a complete abandoning of visual language with improved technology. This is a bit different from Ong’s secondary orality, that would still depend in many ways on literacy.
Why do I care?
My mother belongs to a small tribal group in north east India called the Mizo, based (mostly) in the state of Mizoram. We were litericised and Christianised by Welsh missionaries in the late 1800s. Like everywhere else, this was a complex mix of welfare and destruction. I grew up watching my Mizo cousins wrestle with modern education and literacy, without the cultural underpinnings that highly educated Indians took for granted. Years later my wife and I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, where I see Māori and Pasifika people struggling with similar issues. Something crystallised, and I have been thinking/reading about postliteracy for a little over two years now.
I am currently studying postliteracy in the context of the Pacific, hoping to find strategies that can be used in the here and now to help societies that were recently made literate. I also hope/expect to specifically study the maker movement as a postliterate strategy, and as a way to engage and communicate with people from oral cultures. Maybe the whole thing is a pipe dream, but it is a good dream if it helps improve the world experience of people from recently literate cultures. We have rich oral cultures, but have been tricked and forced into believing that our cultures are inferior to literate ones. No more.
When not studying, I am a librarian with Auckland Libraries. Yeah, ironic, I know. Reachable on twitter @feddabonn, where I rant and swear a lot.