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Reading Culture: A Nudge in the Direction of Doubt

Anne Dalke
July 31, 2008

I can barely remember the time when I couldn't read.

I would go to my grandmother early in the morning when she'd slept over. Slipping up to the side of her bed, book in hand, I asked her to read to me. She always said "yes."

I was a child who loved to read. Where there was no reading culture.

I was raised in a small town in northwestern Virginia; my family and their friends were housewives, farmers, small businessmen. Not drawn to the kind of work they did--in part as an escape from that sort of labor--I read voraciously. Books gave me some understanding of the world I lived in; they also served as entry into other, larger worlds than the one we inhabited.

I have spent my life in novels.

Really: I think (if I had been keeping track I'd find) that I have spent more time with fictional characters in imaginative worlds than I have with real people in realtime. My strongest memories (for example) of a family trip to Chincoteague in 1983 are the Nadine Gordimer novels I was lost in then: the heat of South Africa was a stronger experience--and hence now, twenty-five years later, a stronger memory--than the heat on the barrier islands of Virginia. My experience of traveling from Philly to NYC and back yesterday was spent as much--more--in rural Wisconsin (where the novel I'm currently reading--The Story of Edgar Sawtelle--is set) than it was on the various forms of public transportation--Paoli local, Chinatown bus, D-train--that were moving my physical body through real space and time. I am very glad that I am of a generation and location that read/s: I cannot imagine who I would be without the many imaginary companions who people my life, and who have helped me learn not only how to escape from it as necessary, but also how to negotiate it, as fully as my friends and family do and have.

Over the past number of years, I have also embraced the web as rich resource for my own teaching and learning (as well as that of my students). I've written elsewhere about the powerful ways in which the speculative, storytelling, "humanitizing" aspect of web work draws me, and about how

I actually like the absence of in-the-flesh details on the web, which (being absent) open up space for more (to me) *interesting* and creative things to happen. I also like it that my engagement with and contributions to the web are motivated by my own story-construction (so the issue of its practical use-value quite neatly resolves itself). And I like it best of all that, in such on-line spaces of structured play, deliberative self-censure happens less frequently (than it may happen in a classroom or an academic conference, for instance)--so that I, in the company of others, can arrive more readily at some unexpected places, worth examining.

What matters most to me is that this process of ongoing and ever-revisable conversation becomes an open--and constantly edited--record both of the conversations we are conducting within ourselves, in our own heads, and of those we are having with one another, each of them continually altering the other. This, for me, is the key and core of the productivity of technologized education....taken together, those internal externalized conversations provide contributors...with a profound sense--and a record--of ourselves as thinking, re-thinking, ever-revisable beings--which means: as actors in, and contributors to, the shaping and re-shaping of the world.

Given these complimentary experiences--decades spent lost in novels, some years now thoroughly immersed in web-work--I have of course been fascinated by the current discussion regarding literacy and the internet (see, most recently, from The New York Times, R U Really Reading? and, more cogently, from The New Yorker, Twilight of the Books). As an English professor, I have noticed a marked decline in reading interest and skills over the past thirty years, what R U Really Reading? decries as the loss of "sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading," of the "capacity for concentration and contemplation," of the inclination to "ruminate and make inferences and engage the imaginational processing."

But I'm not sure that this distresses me. I've also noticed a marked increase in those capacities celebrated in Literacy and the Web: "the ability to quickly find" and "converse with others online," to "hear from a bunch of people,” to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view," to "skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends." (The punch line of that article, for me, was the observation that “Nobody has taught a single kid to text message. Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.” Now, that gets my vote for radical education: helping kids do not what we think they should, but what they want to....)

So far, so good. But where this conversation gets really complicated and interesting for me is in the question of whether engaging with lots of different people on-line necessarily serves to expand our worlds in the way reading was once said to do/has always done for me--"opens up doors to places that you probably will never get to visit in your lifetime, to cultures, to worlds, to people"--or whether time spent on the web might actually rather-or-also result in the creation of multiple ghettos of the like-minded. Are we using the web to create new or larger social and intellectual networks? Or sites for closed groups who think alike?

For me, the highlight of the review in Twilight of the Books of Walter Ong's description of the differences between the "oral" and a "literate" mind-set, is that the medium of the web might contribute to the latter. Ong's argument is that the emotional responsiveness encouraged by oral and visual culture can short circuit the kind of skepticism that reading and writing exacerbates:

"Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories....In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk....Since there’s no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth....

Emotional responsiveness to streaming media harks back to the world of primary orality, and, as in Plato’s day, the solidarity amounts almost to a mutual possession. “Electronic technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement,” in McLuhan’s words. The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show. And so, in a culture of secondary orality, we may be less likely to spend time with ideas we disagree with.

Self-doubt, therefore, becomes less likely. In fact, doubt of any kind is rarer. It is easy to notice inconsistencies in two written accounts placed side by side. With text, it is even easy to keep track of differing levels of authority behind different pieces of information. The trust that a reader grants to the New York Times, for example, may vary sentence by sentence. A comparison of two video reports, on the other hand, is cumbersome. Forced to choose between conflicting stories on television, the viewer falls back on hunches, or on what he believed before he started watching....he thinks in terms of situations and story lines rather than abstractions."

In the session I did w/ the K-12 teachers in the summer institute last week, I was (among other things) trying to look @ the difference between representing science in words and in images. Following Marguerite Duras, I asked whether a "word might not be worth a 1000 images"--precisely because it is more abstract: more open to interpretation than an image, which is more concrete, and so more directive. The point of asking this question is of course not only which form of representation enables more freedom of interpretation, but which enables more revision, which generates the making of more new stories.

If one of the goals of inquiry-based education is to encourage profound skepticism--to help students acquire the habit of unending questioning--then one very-relevant question is whether an increased engagement with the visual and aural dimensions of the internet might have the opposite effect. One claim in the Twilight of the Books is that reading "makes you smarter because it leaves more of your brain alone," allowing you, in Proust's terms, "to enjoy the intellectual power that one has in solitude and that conversation dissipates immediately." What does web-work do to us? How might it make us differently smarter?

One way to answer this question would be to loop back to the conversations nearby about Education: Between Two Cultures. Trying to imagine a community of inquiry, David suggests that "the difficulties of actual research problems are a powerful reality-check for both teachers and students, and keep the process of inquiry honestly openended." It seems to me rather that "actual research problems" (if by that you mean those defined by disciplines) actually serve to keep the process of inquiry closed: focused on the sorts of queries that the disciplines have been designed to answer, rather than allowing for a larger sort of reach. If, as Paul observes,"disciplines are also social/political groups, and tend to enforce group cohesion whether or not it is of actual intellectual benefit,"

then one of the intellectual benefits of the web might be to break up that cohesion, in search of a wider and more diverse net, one where increased sociality might actually feed intellectual work-in-progress--unless (and here's the main question for me now) the qualities of the medium itself are nudging us in the opposite direction...?


jrlewis's picture

I also share Anne’s

I also share Anne’s passion for reading.  As the daughter of a librarian, the idea that our culture and society might be moving away from the novels, poetry, and the written word worries me.  That there won’t be a bookstore or library in every town.  Students and teachers could abandon the term book bag. 

Perhaps reading and writing will be relegated to an obscure area of the arts.  Removed from public practice and placed in the realm of hobby and luxury.  To be appreciated by the few experienced critics and participants as an antiquated tradition. 

There will be small reminders of the way things once were, like the hitching posts outside old, historic buildings.  A hundred years ago, horses were indispensible for physical labor and transportation, in addition to pleasure.  Today horses and the equestrian arts occupy a more minor role in our culture and society.  Yet you can still find a lot of people at my trainer’s farm on a Saturday morning.  

Paul Grobstein's picture

The web, disciplines, books, and "active decontextualization"

I like the notion of inquiry as "active recontextualization," and see the web as facilitating that rather than a "passive state of decontextualization." It indeed provides a "wider and more diverse net," and I don't see anything in the medium itself "nudging us in the opposite direction." Are there other forces that might do so, that might make the web less a force for active recontextualization? Yes, of course, but that has always been so, for all media. The web is not enough to encourage wide spread "active recontextualization." We still need to encourage it in other ways as well. But the web is, it seems to me, a distinct aid to that process.

So too of course was the development of the printing press. There is no question but that books have been for many (me included) a route to "other larger worlds," i.e. to "recontextualization." But they have limitations in that regard as well (the bottle neck of being selected for publication by some authority, the lack of interactivity). They depend as well on the acquisition of a specialized skill ("reading") that not everybody has, and that is for at least some people nearly impossible to acquire. In these terms, books are a route to decontextualization for some people but a barrier to it for others, and placing unusual value on reading is empowering for some but disabling for others.

Perhaps its not irrelevant that some of the most explosive recent growth of the web relates to video? There are presumably ways to find "other larger worlds" other than in books (as there were before the development of the printing press), perhaps ones that don't have some of the limitations of books and the printed word? Maybe the web is moving us in those less wrong directions, as the printing press did earlier?

Perhaps a similar logic applies in re "disciplines and decontextualization"? Yes, of course, disciplines and their "social/political origins" have been and and will continue to be useful in inquiry. And yes, of course, all inquiry is "contingent". That doesn't say though that one can't recognize, at any given time, particular ways in which particular approaches discourage rather than enhance recontextualization and try to move beyond those. There are things to see and ways of seeing other than those recognized and endorsed by people interested in "how they fit together with others". No "quasi-scientific standard of truth" is involved here, only the kind of "profound skepticism" that drives a persistent effort to get it less wrong.

dmazella's picture

the disciplines and decontextualization?

Hi Anne,

Thanks for the reflections contained here.  There is much in this essay to respond to, but I wanted to pass along a quote I found while I was working on an information literacy/pedagogy piece on undergraduate research.  It's from Sharon Bailin, whose home discipline is philosophy of education, a discipline I had never thought existed until I started reading this stuff over the summer for my article. 

To me, this quote seems commonsensical, but I value it because it articulates the chief usefulness of disciplinary thought, or really what we should call "disciplinary thinking," which has to contain some element of self-criticism and self-assessment:

A point that emerges from the debate regarding the generalizability of critical thinking is that the norms, standards, and criteria of particular domains are vitally important for critical thinking.  This points to the centrality for education of disciplinary knowledge and understandings.  Thus teaching good thinking means doing a good job at teaching the disciplines: that is, teaching them not as static bodies of facts to be memorized but, rather, as modes of inquiry.  Such inquiry must be shown to be critical, which entails teaching the principles and procedures of the disciplines, the methods whereby inquiry proceeds, the criteria according to which reasons are assessed and standards for such assessment, and the overall goals and deep questions that are at issue.  Such inquiry must also be shown to be creative, which entails demonstrating that disciplinary knowledge is open-ended and dynamic, that there are live questions, areas of controversy, and ongoing debates within every discipline that furnish the arena for evolution and change.  Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, but arises, rather, in the context of questions, debates, and methods that are part of an intellectual tradition.  It is the critical principles and procedures of these traditions that allow for constant examination of current beliefs and theories and the generation of new views that are better able to solve the problems and resolve the deep issues in the area and to open up new areas of exploration (162-3)

What is most striking for me here is the suggestion that "Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, but arises, rather, in the context of questions, debates, and methods that are part of an intellectual tradition."  The innovations that matter, or that get picked up by others at any rate, are made against a backdrop, or within a context, of "questions, debates, and methods" constituting an "intellectual tradition," that allow the "community of inquiry" to extract "critical principles and procedures" for the "generation of new views."  What this account of intellectual innovation suggests to me is that innovation does not proceed from decontextualization, but from the active recontextualizations of the inquirer.  This is something that Bailin, I think, would see as a creative process, and indeed, her point that creative and critical thinking are inseparable components of "good thinking" is very apposite here in this kind of discussion.

The only danger of Bailin's point, however , is reading terms like "context" or "intellectual tradition" too narrowly and institutionally (in other words, losing sight of the creative nature of these operations), and losing sight of what Paul has called their social/political nature.  Even Bailin, after this defense, immediately calls for some kind of interdisciplinary understanding.  But I think that if we read context along the lines of Charles Taylor's "social imaginaries," we might get what I conceive, very broadly, as a "context" informing the "community of inquiry": what Taylor calls "the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations" (106). 

In other words,  you and Paul seem to take the positivist position that the contingent social/political origins of the disciplines' "normative notions" diminishes their status and usefulness for analysis (measuring them against some quasi-scientific standard of truth that Paul at least formally abjures), while I'd argue with Taylor that this social/political dimension of the disciplines, functions as a trace of specificity, historicity, and therefore non-universality.  They are no more or less contingent than anything else we rely upon to understand ourselves and the world around us.

So my point is that what we and our students need is not a passive state of decontextualization, which we get anyway by virtue of existing in a web-dominated information environment, but learning how to recontextualize the information that flows into us, and all around us, from every direction.


Anne Dalke's picture

Context is boundless, redux

"social imaginaries" function as a trace of specificity, historicity, and therefore non-universality....

decontextualization...we get anyway by virtue of existing in a web-dominated information environment

David--When we first started talking, months ago, I cited one of my favorite/most used-because-most-useful quotes, from Jonathan Culler's "Very Short Introduction" to Literary Theory: "Meaning is context-bound....context is boundless; there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant."

Now that we're looping back to the matter of context--could you talk some more about how you understand the difference between "de -" and "re-contextualization"? Aren't both gestures towards finding a different context for what we think we know? With perhaps the first being more universalizing, the second more specificizing? But both are moves that help us to see something different than what we thought we knew?

I'm thinking, for example, of the by-now-standard re-readings of classic texts that were achieved by shifting the reader's point of view to that of the marginalized: Chinua Achebe's critique of Conrad's Heart of Darkness for its racist objectifications of Africans, or Gayatri Spivak's similar critique of the "unfortunate reproduction," in Jane Eyre, of the "axioms of imperialism." In both these cases, conventional and widely accepted Anglo-centric readings were de-contextualized (moved beyond England, made increasingly global) in order to be re-contextualized (made differently specific and insistently historic). And so we came to see the novels, and the worlds on which they relied and which they represented, differently. In each case, one (wo)man's de-contextualization was another one's re-contextualization; the two gestures seemed part of a linked process: clearing one ground to lay another.

Within that historical backdrop, I'd like us to think some more together about the current de-or-re-contextualization that is the increasing use of video on the web, this adding visuals to what had been "only words." Where do you see de-contextualization in such visualizations? When we can see others @ work, rather than simply read what they've written....?

dmazella's picture

contexts in contexts

Hi Anne,

I like the Culler quote, and have long treasured a similar observation of his in his introduction to William Empson's Structure of Complex Words, to the effect that contextual readings in Empson do not limit interpretations by restricting them to a single, privileged context, but instead encourage multiple interpretations, by assuming that interpretation always involves choosing from multiple contexts.    In other words, for Empson, contextualizations are not pre-interpretive, but an integral part of the interpretive process. [This is one of the reasons why I leaned so hard on Empson in my own work.]

As for contexts and de- and re-contextualizations, you might be interested in a blog post I did on this subject at the Long 18th, which discussed Peter Burke's very interesting essay on "context."  The money-quote is here:

All the same, the recent interest in the phenomenon of recontextualization or "reframing" is surely unparallelled. 107 In anthropology and sociology, Claude Lévi-Strauss's notion of bricolage and Michel de Certeau's discussion of everyday consumption as a form of production or creativity both depend on the notion of recontextualization. 108 The same concept might be used to mediate in the Goody-Street debate on the contexts of literacy, encouraging a closer analysis of the literacy package, distinguishing between skills that can be "transferred" from the Koranic school to the shop and those that resist adaptation. 109 Rorty goes so far as to describe the whole of philosophical inquiry as recontextualization, on the grounds that (generalizing the point made by Evans-Pritchard about the Azande) "a belief is what it is only by virtue of its position in the web." 110 A similar point might be made about translation.

One might go still further and define originality, innovation, invention, or creativity in terms of the capacity to recontextualize; and this was Arthur Koestler's point in his study of the "act of creation." One of his most telling examples was that of the wine-press, observed by Gutenberg, "lifted out of its context" and employed for a new purpose: printing books. Recontextualization, in other words, is creative adaptation rather than invention ex nihilo. 111 

I was happy to see this acknowledged in Burke, because it seemed to capture the model of de/recontextualization that I had been groping for in the Cynic book: the importance of an active stance of recontextualization.  This to some extent recapitulates the standard distinction between information and knowledge: one is inert, fragmentary, dispersed; the other actively constructed, though not always in a fully conscious or deliberate manner, and it betrays the intentions and purposes of its maker.  This, I assumed, was one of the meanings behind Diogenes' motto of "deface the currency."  

Such recontextualizationis also the distinguishing feature of the pantheon of "philosophic heroes" the book discusses: Diogenes, Wilde, Foucault, though I think there is plenty of room for other once-marginalized writers who attempt to rethink their relation to "traditions" and "communities" and "local moralities." For a start, I'd add Spivak and Butler, though I think there are lots of others.  It's just that these writers gave me something to think with.

As for the visual component of contemporary web discourse, I wonder if the technological transition has simply reminded us of the visuality of reading, which contemporary print culture has forgotten.  Illustrations were once an intrinsic part of the historical experience of book-reading, and equally for both experts and novices, but the expense of illustrations has made them the sole province of children, who less and less visual information in their books in their official curriculum as they get older.  This is a shame, and maybe the web is only reminding us of how much information can be conveyed by such images.


Anne Dalke's picture

New wine in old bottles: making it better? making it worse?

I LOVE this story of wine-press (how have I never before heard this story?) of the winepress "lifted out of its context" and employed for printing books; 'tis sure to become my most telling example of creative "recontextualization" (I've used it already @ two dinner parties....) Thanks so much for that, David--

Where I still want to think some more (and would be glad for company here) is what you're terming the current recontextualization that is the visual component of contemporary web discourse. I acknowledge that web videos are "reminding us of how much information can be conveyed by images," and like what you say about they are also reminding us of the "visuality of reading," but so far I'm really not seeing anything like the sort of "recontextualization" you and Peter Burke seem to be talking about: a creative re-framing that really entails the making of something new. So much of youtube (for instance) seems a refusal to reframe (or to "frame" @ all): it seems an unedited expression of an impulse to archive, rather than to re-think...

For instance, as a test case (since, somewhere around here we've been talking about science education), look @ the cluster/archipelago of science-islands in second life and/or the youtube overview of the science learning opportunities in second life. They seem as dull to me as the RL science classrooms I went running away from decades ago...

Where I ran to, of course, was novels, and their interpretation.

Speaking of which...your mention of Empson put me in mind of the recent novel by Elliot Perlman that plays on--and shares a title with-- his magisterial Seven Types of Ambiguity--do you know it? It's a fictional exploration of Empson's ideas, with the story told, Rashomon-like, by seven different characters. Some of the complexities include the juxtaposition, not just of the different points of view of different characters, but within a single self: "Why was I doing this? It was as though I were two people, one angry and itching for a fight...the other just...listening incredulously to the first guy and unable to stop him..."

Another insight I picked up from reading Perlman's novel has to do with an area of law called the "similar fact rule," which helps me to understand why "we" are all so loathe to entertain the play of multiple stories that Paul so unremittingly advocates for:

"Criminal procedure everywhere in the world suffers from the same quite unavoidable problem. There is a tendency for people to hear a story once and, thereafter, to deem any deviation from that first telling, from the version they heard first, a deviation from the truth, to regard the first version as the true version against which other versions are measured. But since, by necessity, the prosecutor in a criminal trial has to go first or else there is no case to answer, there can never be any way around this. The judge or jury will always hear the prosecution's version first."

This "rule" intrigues me; I'd like to understand a little more the brain structures-- our pattern-making inclinations?--that incline us to attach to a first telling, rather than seeking out, much less valuing, alternatives. If we could understand that a little better, maybe we could understand our slowness to revise stories, political arrangements, affectional one of Perlman's character muses, "There was some small element of truth in the pretext that I wanted to know other men. I just had not considered that their 'otherness' would always make them worse...."

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