I can spell cannot be the call out of our literacy. No it cannot. A, B, C, D and so on, yes, Alpha, Beta . . . what next? I do not mis-spell my name and so I should say that I am proud of my literacy? Reciting the alphabet is not in itself spelling, and there is something magical about arranging letters to make words, to represent soeech, which is ephemeral at the moment spoken. Yes, this techne is magical, but it is not literacy. Something akin to counting is not going to make it literary, no, never in my estimation will literacy be simply the ability to spell correctly. I know I repeat myself; but let us allow this to become motif.
Being literate is not merely being alphabetic, the later what the French call being able to spell and fill out bureaucratic forms and read the tabloid press (the tabloids never meant to elevate, only inform in the most rudimentary way). This alphabetisme, as the French say, is sometimes referred to by me as having dexterity with the alphabet. I can count correctly; I can add, subtract, multiply and divide; this does not make me a mathematician. There is a syntax to equations; there is an equational form to sentences; what then do I call literacy if what can be called alphabetics is not literacy. What do we mean when we say literacy?
To spell or not to spell is every wizards call–spelling being what every wizard and every school child learns. No mater how much spelling has been associated with magic or magic with forms of writing, we are not performing the rituals of literacy by merely spelling. I remember learning that the Phoenicians, who were great merchants, used their writing system, alphabetic as it was, for the purposes of keeping catalogues of their wares. Their use of the alphabet was what some of us in America call literacy, but since it was mostly and virtually only used for the purposes of their mercantilism, keeping accounts, writing and keeping receipts in their trade, literacy is not what I would call that use. The business of business has always been business; listing one’s wares stored in a warehouse does not a literature make.
Although, the study of literature is sometimes called the study of Letters, spelling one’s name correctly is not what I mean by being literate–I know I have said this already. (The chorus speaks in a chanted speech which employs carefully plotted repetition.) Keeping accurate and sometimes detailed accounts of storage, though, is never going to be my idea of what the literary is or what literature can be. I know the Phoenicians developed more than catalogues, but the alphabet in its inception had little other use, nor was the literary the spur toward developing an alphabet to represent the sounds of speech.
My shopping list is also not what I would call literature, although the aesthetics of this shopping list or shopping lists could be employed in the service of the literary. No? Of course it could. Poetic forms themselves are more in number than can be counted or named offhand by most who are themselves what I would call literate, educated in the study of literature–no? A poem written in the style and manner of a shopping list is an interesting idea, and I just might try my hand at it after I finish this trial of an idea. It is necessary to make the steps toward higher election in matters of the literary sturdy enough for us to climb. We ave not; we do not, certainly not in our schools that have succumbed to a pedagogy of systematized under achievement and under education.
Most of us recoil from what we need to do because it is easier to defer to the mandates of a State administered bureaucracy that will always sponsor less than enough as good enough to insure that the people are always less than free, always less than able to mange their affairs democratically, always manipulated by the media, parroting one or another of the received ideas constructed by power and money through the agencies of the media.
Sometimes I need the help of a dictionary or spell check to spell a word. This has never made me question my level of literacy, no more than anyone’s near perfect ability to spell any word has ever lead me to conclude that who I am talking to is a highly literate man or woman because of this spectacle of spelling. Who we are is a lot more determined by how literate we are than we would like to admit; and I am talking not of the simple separate person who does not need literacy to be good, but the overall overarching us who are the society more dependent on the general state of literacy in that society than we would like to admit. We defer from admitting this because if we were to admit it, we woould have to take responsibility for how much more powerful Power has become, how much more monied Money has become–we would have to admit, or at least we would be able to see, just how much our liberty has waned over the last several decades, most specifically, the decade and a half since 9/11.
What kind of society we are or will be is determined by how literate we are–that is self-evident for me. Civilization is determined by, projected by, formed by and managed by literacy. It really can be no other way. We have devalued literacy in lieu of mistaken ideas about orality. This has left us opened to forms of social decadence and degeneration in the manners and matters of the literary that have left us prey to vices we once thought we had managed for the better. Let this last statement stand as X, where X is a variable in the social equation that stands for any one or another of the many vices in our society; we have abdicated our responsibility as People to our Liberty in favor of a State serving Public, this latter role being an easier one to fulfill, having less responsibility to oppose Power and its attempts to control the People.