What do you say to an educator or parent who feels that making music remix videos, say, has nothing to do with literacy? In what senses are you describing such forms of expression as literacy practices?
The common sense view of literacy is that it refers to reading and writing alphabetic print and that to be literate is simply a matter of knowing how to encode and decode printed text; that is, to recognise the letters and convert them into words and sequences of words as a reader or a writer. According to this view, literacy is the same thing for everyone. It is the same tool, or the same skill using that tool. Some people might be faster at it and others slower; some may spell better than others, and some may be better at applying text comprehension strategies than others; but at the end of the day, the common sense view is that literacy one single thing, and it is the same for everyone.
This view is flawed, however, and on a number of levels. It’s a bit like saying that computing is the same for everyone, just that some are more fluent with it or more skilled. But in the hands of different people who have different purposes and different understandings of what can be done with computers, and so on, computing takes on many different forms. There are many different practices of computing, such that you could give two people what look like the same tool, but what you see going on subsequently might be so very different that you can’t really even begin to see them as doing “the same thing” or using the same tool. The example may be even better made by reference to “telephoning.” To say that a person calling the dentist on their landline to make an appointment is doing the same thing, using the same tool, employing the same skill – telephoning – as a person in 2010 who uses their mobile phone to video an eyewitness account of what goes on to become a major news event, then uses the phone to upload the video to a social news discussion site along with an explanatory written commentary, and to check back regularly to see what comments have been left by others as well as to track how news of the event itself is playing out across the internet and broadcast media, is to miss the point. What looks like “the same kind of machine” is taken up in very different ways by different people, and has very different meanings for different people. It is to all intents and purposes a “very different thing” in the hands of different people; not the same thing at all.
So it is with literacy, and that is why we think it is best to talk about literacies in the plural rather than literacy in the singular. The singular form focuses our attention on the wrong thing – on thinking that the all-important thing is managing alphabetic text. This is important, but it’s only a part of it.
There are two key points to make here. The first is to recognize what is most important about literacy as a social phenomenon, which is that it enables people to do what cannot be done by orality alone. Literacy enables human beings to communicate and share meanings in ways that go beyond the use of voice within face-to-face settings (which is orality). Literacy checks in when the conditions of everyday life are such that people need more than the use of voice alone to get the meaning-making work done that needs to get done for life to go on. The bottom line for literacy is that it enables meaning-making to occur or “travel” across space and time, mediated by systems of signs in the form of encoded texts of one kind or another. Encoded texts “freeze” or “capture” thought and language in ways that free them from their immediate context of production so that they are “transportable.” Unencoded texts like speech and hand signs “expire” at the point of production other than to the extent that they can live on – fallibly – in the memories of whoever was there at the time. Encoded texts give (semi) permanence and transcendence to thought and language in the sense that they can “travel” without requiring particular people to transport them. Literacies can involve any kind of codification that “captures” language and thought in this sense. Literacy includes letteracy (the alphabet bits), but goes far beyond that. Speech recorded on tape or digitally is frozen and counts as encoded language and thought. The same applies to still and moving images. It is not that memory and speech alone cannot sustain considerable meaning making across distance and contexts. It is just that this is exponentially enabled and facilitated by literacy as encodification, which permits all kinds of procedures and institutions and practices that would be impossible, or impossibly cumbersome, without encoded thought and language.
During the centuries of mass print, following the invention of the printing press, the dominance of print as the paradigm of encoded texts has made it “natural” to associate literacy with alphabetic text. But this is really just an historical contingency. Many centuries prior to that humans used pictorial inscriptions of one kind or another (as well as other markings) to encode language and thought independently of voice. As new ways of encoding come and go, encoding system paradigms change. And right now we are at a point where the dominance – previously, almost the monopoly – of the print paradigm is being challenged by the ease of digital encoding that can combine multiple modes and mixes of multiple modes. Where it is more effective to use alternative sign systems from alphabetic text to mediate meaning-making within mainstream everyday interactions, the alternatives will be used. And people’s ideas about literacy will change accordingly.
The second key point is that literacies vary with contexts. What we mean by context has to do with who the people are within a particular setting, what they are aiming to do, how they are trying to do it, what they are trying to do it with, and who they are or are trying to be within that context. So, if we think about something as obvious as reading a particular text, it is clear that different people, coming from different cultural spaces and possessing different cultural knowledge may read the same text in very different ways and make different meanings from it. For example, during the 1980s, many liberation theology priests who worked with Latin American peasants in ways they hoped would encourage them to mobilise to demand a better share of social wealth interpreted key biblical passages very differently to how conservative urban priests who identified with the existing social order interpreted them. Moreover, both groups worked with biblical texts in different ways and in different settings; liberationists would pore over the texts with peasants within settings where evidence of poverty was immediate, and would encourage the group to think about the meaning in relation to a change agenda. By contrast, other priests would read at large anonymous assemblies, making the interpretation amidst ornate decorative milieux that often dripped gold and spoke to divine rather than popular power. Same text, different people, different purposes, different procedures, different knowledge informing the meaning making and, indeed, a different technology. A bible being read by one person set apart from the listeners is utterly different from a bible being pored over, passed from person to person, and being used to stimulate thought intended to guide political action. Within Latin American settings both of these “ways” of “reading bibles” have been common – along with many other variations we can think of.
Now the point is that these kinds of differences in “ways with encoded texts” can be multiplied many times over. In a famous example, Shirley Brice Heath showed how different social groups within a region of the United States “did bedtime reading” in very different ways. Experts on the philosophy of Kant read and discuss Kant’s works in very different ways from first year philosophy students, and (can) make very different meanings from them. That is why philosophers try to induct philosophy students into sophisticated reading practices, of which following letters and words across a page is only a tiny (albeit very important) part. The expert philosophers are trying to recruit the students to a new social practice, and this involves having to teach them how to read and write philosophically (which involves a lot more than just eyes and texts). Jim Gee uses the word Discourse (with a capital “D”) to signify the idea that there are all different kinds of combinations of types of people and kinds of purposes and goals, and ways of setting about them, and ways of using language within them, and ways of dressing (liberationists in outdoor garb and metropolitan priests in ornate robes) and so on. We can say that different Discourses tend to involve different literacies, and will often involve different (forms of) technologies or tools, and different ways of using them, and so on. And participants in these different Discourses will make different meanings from what look like the same resources, and they will use what look like the same resources (think: computer, phone, bible) in very different ways.
So if we put all of these ideas together (along with others there is not space to mention here) it suddenly becomes very obvious why we would think of making remix music videos as having everything to do with literacy, rather than having nothing to do with literacy. It is one of a very large number of literacies that exist (not to mention new ones that are emerging all the time). That is, when we think of literacies in terms of “so many socially recognized ways in which people who are participating in particular Discourses generate, communicate and negotiate meanings through the medium of encoded texts,” it’s perfectly natural to think of people who are producing and sharing and interacting with remix music videos as engaging in (a) literacy. They are decoding and encoding sophisticated multimedia texts, with a view to communicating and sharing and negotiating meanings with others of their ilk (other members of their Discourse). They set about this in ways that others recognize as appropriate to doing this literacy well. They are freezing thought and “language” so that it can travel and be experienced and negotiated within practices of giving and taking meaning.
When we look at things from this perspective it is the people who cannot see remix music video in terms of literacy that have the problem; not those for whom it is self-evidently a legitimate, pleasurable, widely-practised, and potentially incredibly powerful literacy.
In my Afterword, I raise the question about the value of learning these skills as an isolated set of practices rather than as part of a more diverse affinity space. In other words, is there a difference between learning to make a remix video and learning to be an Otaku (who happens to display his or her skills and knowledge through contributing remix videos to a larger fan culture)?
Yes, there certainly is a difference, although learning to make something like a remix video can – and often does – lead to becoming a fan of something one previously was not a fan of, and to becoming more the kind of fan who happens to display their skills and knowledge through contributing artifacts to a larger fan culture and through other characteristically Otaku practices. Indeed, this is precisely the route that Matt, the co-author of our chapter on AMV remix in the book, took. We came across Matt’s anime music video remixes via YouTube, where his “Konoha Memory Book” video at the time had over half a million views (take-down notices unfortunately mean the video is no longer on YouTube). Half a million views is a significant marker of popularity online, and so we interviewed him about his anime music video production process, and his involvement in remixing AMVs. He was 17 years old at the time, and he explained that he’d started creating AMVs two years earlier. It turns out that prior to that, he hadn’t been a fan of anime or manga or anything like that at all. What happened was that a mate showed him “Narutrix” (an AMV faux movie trailer parodying the Matrix movies) which got Matt interested in watching the Naruto anime series in particular, and then anime in general. It didn’t take him long to start tinkering around with creating his own AMVs, even before he became what could be described a full participant in anime culture. He’s subsequently gone on to become such an avid anime fan that not only does he create AMVs which he posts to AMV.org and YouTube, submit AMVs to convention contests (and for which he regularly wins awards), draw his own original manga figures and comics which he posts online at DeviantArt.org, maintain a blog about his anime interests, contribute to anime dicussion boards, write generous reviews of and comments’ on others’ AMVs, but he spends his weekends cosplaying a rich range of anime characters, and organizes cosplay chess games for different anime conventions as well. He’s now–thanks to his initial interest in AMVs as an expressive form in their own right–most definitely an Otaku!
Other ideas arise here, however, which are relevant to questions about the relationships between identity and practices and to ideas and ideals of learning. For example, it may not be that a person learns DIY media practices as an isolated set of skills but, rather, as skills and knowledges and values and mastery of systems and the like as part of becoming a kind of person that just happens not to be a fan. Hence, a person who identifies as the kind of person who practises the ideal of being as self-sufficient as possible might learn a particular skill and knowledge set under this kind of motivation (e.g., knowing how to sew clothes; knowing how to preserve or can home-grown fruit; knowing how to make solar-powered things). Moreover, we often find a paradox associated with self-sufficiency: people who identify with being self-sufficient often are closely linked with like minded people and inter-relate with them, sharing points of view, solidarity, and resources and so on. But they do this under a much more diffuse kind of identity than members of specific affinity groups. When people who are into “self-sufficiency” interact with one another their specific interests and things they create may have little or no overlap whatsoever, other than as expressions of participating in a general ideal of being as self-sufficient as possible.
Alternatively, the kind of audience we have for this book is of people who might want to get some experience of DIY creativity and production as part of how they see themselves becoming a more effective teacher or, perhaps, a more in touch parent. Here again, the skills and knowledge being learned would not be “isolated”. They might be a long way, at least initially, from Otaku culture or other avid fan cultures, but, equally, they may not at all be isolated but connected to something that is very important to them. In fact, isolation would actually be very difficult to sustain in the context of learning some digital DIY media. The very process tends to put people very quickly into the realm of affinity spaces and, as Matt’s case indicates, from there anything can happen – including the development of full-fledged fan affinities and approximations to Otaku ways of doing and being.
At the same time, there are some important differences and distinctions at stake. One is the difference between a more instrumental orientation to practice and a more intrinsic orientation. There is all the difference in the world between dropping in on a Linux forum to get some help with a problem, leaving feedback, making the information available to others and maybe making a Paypal contribution to an open source software fund, on one hand, and being a full-on contributor who helps code open source software and build the open source movement, on the other. In the first case the relationship is instrumental: minimal participation as a means to an end. In the second, it is intrinsic; one is a devotee of open source ideals and practices and, in effect, becomes a steward of those ideals and practices. Lawrence Eng’s classic statement about fanship and stewardship is a supreme expression of the intrinsic orientation that defines many Otaku identities. Explaining why he proactively sought out other fans of Sasami from the Tenchi Muyo anime and developed the Sasami Appreciation Society as an affinity space, Eng said “it’s our devotion to Sasami … we’re dedicated to bringing her the fanship that she deserves” (as cited by Mimi Ito). This is activity as an end in itself rather than to some further end. It is done for its own sake, as an expression of devotion, rather than as a means to producing an artifact, getting a reputation, or reaping other personal benefits. These may occur, of course, but they are not the point and purpose of the engagement within an intrinsic orientation. Of course, one can learn an incredible amount along the way, but even this is not the motivation to participate.
There is much that is important and valuable about this kind of orientation and way of being. In many ways it constitutes an ideal of active citizenship – of being committed to building something because one believes in it, and of putting that first, and of dedicating one’s activity to contributing to its fullest realisation. At its best, this is what communities of academic practice become, and if we need any reminders of how valuable this ideal can be we need only think of negative examples that are always available of academics who are largely or mainly there for “career prospects”, and of the ugliness that can so quickly surface in the form of academic jealousies, back-biting practices, resentment, clique formation and turf battles and so on. Apart from the quality of learning that can occur within bona fide affinity practices, the fact is that there is much of human beauty to be found there: selflessness, promotion of the greater good, humility, stewardship, generosity, reciprocity and so on. Anyone who doesn’t think we need as much as we can get of such values has not looked outside in a while.
This said, however, it is worth making a couple of cautionary observations about the “structure” of participation and learning within affinity spaces. While we have identified the qualities of stewardship, humility, commitment to a greater (assumed) good, and the priority of intrinsic worth to fan practices, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that humans can be(come) fans of anything, and for these qualities to remain intact and yet, potentially, have regrettable consequences. While becoming a fan of many popular culture practices and icons, as with becoming a fan of environmental science, or mathematics, or democracy might typically be expected to have more or less benign and positive outcomes, the same might not apply to becoming a fan of the Third Reich or Pol Pot or any number of contemporary examples that could be named, where people do in fact become fans (although “bad” fans are often called, fanatics), and do pursue intrinsic goods (as they see them), practice stewardship, collaborate, share, put other people and ideals before themselves and so on. To be a fan has no limits so far as objects of affinity are concerned, and while we may limit the word “Otaku” to some specific range of fanships it may be more difficult to so limit the general concept and its deep grammar. Hence, the “good” of displaying skills and knowledge through contributing to a larger (fan) culture will always be to some extent contingent.
A related point here concerns the structure of learning within practice affinities or, as they are often called, communities of practice. The New Work Order (1996) argues that communities of practice seed values without these values needing some apparent central controlling agency to insist upon them or maintain them: “Immersion into a community of practice [an affinity] can allow individuals or units to internalize values and goals – often without a great deal of negotiation or conscious reflection and without the exercise of very much top-down authority” (p. 65). Participants collaborate, participate, share, reciprocate, “scaffold” and support, for all they are worth, and the net effect of this is building the practice and the community. But it does not necessarily transcend what Kevin Harris (1979), many years ago, referred to as “supportive rhetoric”. It can, and usually does, support critical scrutiny that is internal to the practice/community, but at the same time this critique insulates participants against possibilities of external critique. The more a person invests in an affinity the less space there is for countenancing alternatives. The learning is, to be sure, often “deep,” and deeply social. But “learning works best – it is most enculturating, but (alas) also most indoctrinating – when it is done inside the social practices of a Discourse” such as a fan affinity practice (New Work Order p. 15). It is not for nothing that many “fast capitalist” enterprises have encouraged the development of fandoms around their products, seeding the core values and leaving it to fan collaboration, participation and celebration to build the community (and the profits).
For us, the important thing is trying to keep the baby with the bathwater, in the sense of encouraging multiple fandoms – memberships of multiple affinities – and multiple orders of affinities, such that we strive for Otaku-like membership of practices that embrace intrinsic ends linked to distribution of material social goods as well as to pleasures. Becoming fans of understanding how social practices work for better and for worse so far as contributing materially to promoting long-term human good is concerned seems to us to be of the utmost importance.
Michele Knobel is Professor of Education at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Her research examines new literacy practices across a broad range of contexts. She is joint editor, with Colin Lankshear, of DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies. They have also jointly edited A New Literacies Sampler and Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.
Colin Lankshear is an Adjunct Professor of Education at McGill University in Montreal, and James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia. His research interest is in sociocultural studies of literacy practices and new technologies. He is joint author, with Michele Knobel, of The Handbook for Teacher Research and New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning.