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Higher Education

deictic information literacies

Continuing thoughts on info literacy by way of a detour. I read through Donald Leu et al.’s "Toward a Theory of New Literacies Emerging From the Internet and Other Information and Communication Technologies," which I came across from Collin’s "Weblogs as Deictic Systems" on Computers and Composition. In a nutshell, the basic argument of Leu’s piece is that the rapid pace of developments in communication technologies requires that we alter the way we think about literacy and literacy instruction. Here I’m particularly interested in this idea of literacy as deictic, which is also an important point of Collin’s piece, as his title indicates.

Deixis references the quality of changing over time. Leu explains it in relation to linguistics, where words like "now" or "today" shift in reference. Deictic literacy then essentially means that what we reference by "literacy now" won’t be "literacy now" by the time you read this (ok maybe literacy doesn’t change that fast, but you get the point, and I suppose it depends on when you are reading this as well). So the point is not to master literacy but to develop the practice of becoming literate. One cannot simply learn to read and write and be done with it (as if this was ever the case!). Now one must be committed to an ongoing development of literacy. I always like to emphasize the compositional element because I think it gets short shrift (especially since literacy is generally taught in "reading" programs).

As I see it, this notion is tangentially related to Collin’s argument. As I read it, he’s is suggesting that weblogs are deictic inasmuch as the rhetorical relationships between the elements shift over time. He gives the example of his blogroll and how his interest and connection to the bloggers listed there changes. More importantly, though more abstractly, he argues that blogs can simultaneously serve to apparently contradictory functions: they function as focusing/clustering mechanisms and as diffusing/connecting mechanisms. That is, on the one had a blog can bring together texts, concepts, individuals, and so on into a network: a cluster of friends and ideas that might form a discipline or a specialization within a discipline for example. On the other hand, one can follow the hypertextual drift spinning outward, perhaps to be captured within a different cluster node. In either case, these relations shift over time.

What one might get from these two connected, but not clustered, uses of deixis in relation to textual practice is that within our (ever-) emerging literacy practices the relationship between datapoints/media is in continual flux. As a result, since meaning is contextual afterall, meaning fluctuates; it is unstable. This doesn’t mean its wildly unstable or unpredictable. It "simply" means that literacy requires understanding the material processes of technological development, so that one can understand how meaning emerges through the intersection of body/brain, media, and information systems.

Let me give one example. Collin asks "is it possible to conceive of a technological ‘dwelling place’ that accounts sufficiently for the deictic nature of technology?" I’ve been thinking for a while about this issue in relation to haunting in that a haunt is a dwelling place that is defined by frequency. That is a haunt is a place defined by reference to a use over time. However, a haunt also refers to the spectral/virtual, how the "now" emerges from a virtual, undecided state and how its partial apprehension/capture within cognition, then language and subjectivity, might be described as a haunting feeling (as when we compare our subjective sense of a "now" with a media version of it and experience the uncanny).

I’m just gesturing at a longer conversation here, but here is what I’m getting at:

  • when we "just" taught print literacy, it was hard to see how strange it was. It was easy to imagine that literacy was something we understood, that could be taught and mastered. But now, we should be able to recognize that this is not the case.
  • it’s valuable to understand information literacy as deictic. It forces us to recognize the huge amount of work we have before us. But we should realize that our recognitions about technology should be telling us something about more fundamental levels of cognition. Literacy didn’t suddenly become deitic. It’s just that the rapidity of technological change calls our attention to this quality. Furthermore, there’s likely a reason for this deixis: there is a deictic quality to cognition that is reflected in literacy practices and technologies.
  • what we are really looking at, I would contend, is how information is composed from symbolic-material elements through systems of distributed cognition that include both brain and machine: a process that occurs over time and in context. This is what literacy is, though it obviously gets all mucked up with ideological elements as well so that a literate person is a person who produces "acceptable" information out of a specific set of contexts (e.g. can read an essay and answer reading comprehension questions correctly).

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