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Sunday, July 03, 2011

literacy: shall we eat the book?

"Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel.
So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll.
And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.
And he said unto me, Son of man, go, get thee unto the house of Israel, and speak with my words unto them."


Louis Maggiolo was a French schoolmaster who headed an inquiry, in the 1870s, into the history of schooling and literacy in France. Literacy is a hard item to mold into a statistic: what is it? How do you prove you have it? Maggiolo ended up using the signature as an index of literacy. From the statistical point of view, then, one seeks out documents that have been signed. Testaments. Births. Deaths. And especially marriages. In this inquiry, less attention is paid to an equally interesting sociological fact: the increase in the occasions for signing. Maggiolo plotted the rise of literacy in France using 1686 as a base, when the laws concerning marriage were changed to require that the spouses either sign or have someone sign for them the official marriage documents. Maggiolo did not ask himself why, suddenly, the state needed this process. When Maggiolo’s work was, to an extent, rediscovered in the 1970s by Annales historians – Vovelle, Furet and Ozouf, etc. – it was used to make some broad generalizations about the rise of literate culture. Furet and Ozouf, neo-liberal historians who were in revolt against Marxist historiography, used Maggiolo’s work to claim that the Revolution was a great step backwards in the rise of literacy, and that, further, it was not state schools which cultivated literacy, but …. Well, here they become vague as to just how people learn to read and write. Vovelle used the Maggiolo ‘line’ – dividing the more literate Northern France from the less literate Southern – to explore Southern lagging. The signatures have been used, as well, to picture the gender differences in literacy. As one would expect, men become literate first before women – with the difference in the ratio of literate men to women being larger in the country than the city.

Beneath the statistics, however, one finds a number of ethnographic ambiguities. Signatures, after all, as all agree, aren’t really a sign of literacy. In fact, as Lawrence Stone pointed out in 1969, our contemporary conception of writing and reading as being a unified skill set does not reflect the state of education in the pre-modern and early modern era. There were many woman who read but could not write. There were many men who had learned to write a few things – who had learned a writing routine – but could neither write beyond it, nor read.

The controversies over the ethnography of literacy that took place in the 70s seemed to have little effect on the historiography of literacy, even as historiography was, supposedly, awakening to the ordinary life of the people. That controversy involved the opposition of two theses: on the one hand, a thesis going back to Plato and revived by Jack Goody, which was that writing is a technology that creates vast social changes – for instance, by creating tools to enforce a hierarchical order – versus a pragmatic school that claimed that writing has no predictable cultural effect – rather, as it is embedded in different situations, it produces different changes, or none at all. Maurice Bloch wrote a study of a particular writing system in Madagascar that made this point: Astrology and Writing in Madagascar, which he reprinted in How we think they think – a beautifully Austinian title for a book.

The writing system Bloch explores is derived from the Arabic traders who once had posts along the Madagascar coast. These traders were driven from the island in a long campaign by the Portugese in the 16th century, but their cultural legacy survived, at least in terms of Islam and an Arabic writing system that was jimmied into Malagasay, the language of the Antairnoro and Antambahaoka groups who lived on the Southeastern part of the Island. Oddly, the writing system remained there, instead of in the North, where the Arabic trading posts had been.

However, Bloch’s description of the use and spread of this writing system makes it clear that – from his viewpoint – writing did not mark a sociological rupture with orality. If it is a technique, as Goody claims, it is not a technique that creates a whole new social order.

Bloch, it seems to me, is actually modifying, not annihilating Goody’s point. For one thing, literacy – as we have pointed out – is a multiple skill set. For another thing, like all techniques, it is a set of affordances. To say that it is a technology really is to say that it provides opportunities for this or that kind of technical practice. Bloch points out that the Antairnoro Islamic community was not centered around the Qu’ran. In fact, it was not a religion of the book, but a religion in which writing flows into charms, spells and forecasts.

“The Qur'an is replaced by a series of sacred manuscripts called Sorabe, or "great writings". This is a series of books kept and copied by the scribe aristocracy of the Antaimoro and Antambahaoka.
These books have often been described (Julien 1929 and 1933; Deschamps and Manes 1959). Some are old, although their precise date is uncertain; others are more recent. There are two kinds of works. First are contemporary chronicles and historical works dealing with the mythical origins of "Arabic" peoples of the south-east. It is these Sorabe which have been studied most often (eg, Ferrand 1891; Julien 1929 and 1933). Second, and equally common, are works on the related subjects of medicine, geomancy, divination
and asrtrology. These latter are of particular significance here because these sciences are what gave the possessors of writing such prestige in all pre-colonial Madagascar.”

One notices that Bloch uses the word “book” rather imprecisely. What makes these things physically books? What makes a book a book? For instance, Western books are surrounded with taboos concerning their reproduction that have grown up since the early modern era. Those taboos do not suppose that the reproduction changes the meaning – on the contrary, they suppose that the meaning is held in the copy, which makes it a product that is both reproducible and subject to an extension of the laws of property having to do with goods in which the use value adheres to the uniqueness of the good. Is the same set of properties attributed to the material of the book, or does the meaning change in being copied?

Goody’s thesis, I think, can be modified to accommodate different senses of how writing operates – and in fact he modified it to accommodate what he called “restricted literacy’, in which a certain class or sex is given control of the reading/writing technique.

However, besides books there are other forms of writing and reading. Bloch grants them a major role in the formation of the Imerina kingdom in Madagascar:

There is sufficient evidence to say that before the coming of the British missionaries and the introduction of European script, a certain amount of the business of government was carried out in writing in Arabic script, either by administrators who were themselves literate, or by the ones who used Antaimoro scribes. These scribes had the dual roles of diviner-astrologers and secretaries. The importance of these Antaimoros should not be ignored in understanding how the Merina were able to hold together and administer a kingdom considerably larger than the British Isles."

Yet Bloch’s essay turns away from this point to argue against Goody, for in the end the basic cognitive tools of the Merina were, he argues, unchanged in the transition from orality to literacy – or, rather, orality and literacy were intertwined so that it is a mistake to categorically separate out one from the other. Bloch’s argument rests on a notion of seriousness: how serious is a belief? What is the index of its seriousness? He claims that the beliefs that would have been derived from writing as a technique – for instance, an organization and ordering of spatial and cosmological norms represented in writing – are, in ordinary life, felt otherwise. In fact, the astrology that was organized via a writing system is so modified in its application to everyday life by oral sources that, in essence, it has not changed the order of ordinary life. Or as Bloch sums it up in another essay in his book: “I show how the introduction of literacy into Madagascar has merely meant that a new and better tool became available, but that it was used to do the same things as oratory and other specialized language uses had done before.” [152]

And yet, is this what Bloch really showed?

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