Imagining Literacy

[ American Studies ]

Imagining Literacy

Rhizomes of Knowledge in American Culture and Literature

By Ramona Fernandez

An examination of the biases inherent in the idea of "cultural literacy".

2001

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 236 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72522-5

Defining the "common knowledge" a "literate" person should possess has provoked intense debate ever since the publication of E. D. Hirsch's controversial book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Yet the basic concept of "common knowledge," Ramona Fernandez argues, is a Eurocentric model ill-suited to a society composed of many distinct cultures and many local knowledges.

In this book, Fernandez decodes the ideological assumptions that underlie prevailing models of cultural literacy as she offers new ways of imagining and modeling mixed cultural and non-print literacies. In particular, she challenges the biases inherent in the "encyclopedias" of knowledge promulgated by E. D. Hirsch and others, by Disney World's EPCOT Center, and by the Smithsonian Institution. In contrast to these, she places the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Leslie Marmon Silko, whose works model a cultural literacy that weaves connections across many local knowledges and many ways of knowing.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. To Read or Not
  • Chapter 1. The Semiosis of Literacy
  • Chapter 2. Whose Encyclopedia?
  • Chapter 3. Reading Trickster Writing
  • Chapter 4. Disney's Labyrinth: EPCOT, Capital of the Twenty-first Century
  • Chapter 5. The Smithsonian's Encyclopedia: Museum as Canon
  • Conclusion. Imagining Literacy in a Mixed Culture
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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It is easy to forget that the term multiculturalism has been in wide circulation for only about a decade. Its origins are suspect, and there is little evidence that it arose first in the discourses of socially conscious theorists. Furthermore, its history outside the United States is not uniformly positive; for example, its Canadian use suggests institutionalized separatism, and South African blacks dislike the term's connection to apartheid. The Oxford English Dictionary notes one of its earliest uses in the 1966 British journal The Economist, hardly a noted proselytizer of racial justice. Rightist ideologues made the term a bone of contention in the early 1990's when Stanford's "Cultures, Ideas, and Values" course began including non-Western reading selections alongside Western European classics. As the term became part of our everyday vocabulary, it was attacked by conservatives who resist broadening America's school and college curriculum.

What does it name? Often, it seems to be used mindlessly as a mild concession to the many differences around us. While the term seems to challenge established attitudes, it has often been used to depoliticize any effective resistance to those attitudes. Like the melting pot allusions of an earlier era, multiculturalism (spelled with or without the hyphen) can mean almost anything, or nothing, depending on who deploys the term. Wahneema Lubiano, Peter Erickson, and the Chicago Cultural Studies Group have published interesting essays demonstrating that this term is being used in ways that ensure that it will not contest established injustices and cultural norms. On the contrary, administrative agencies have invented self-serving theories of multiculturalism that only reinstitute historical divisions and oppressions. Lubiano advocates a radical or "strong" multiculturalism that reconceptualizes education and its relation to power instead of deploying it as a rhetorical device to "'manage' diverse student populations and curricula."

The connection between "weak" multiculturalism and crude identity politics that falsely name individuals as part of "coherent" and "pure" cultural groups is a central problem in American society. We are all of us as individuals already mixed ethnically and culturally; our roots are historically constructed out of subtly mediated cultural strands.

In response to this conservative discourse, Guillermo Gómez-Peña has put into circulation Roberto Sanchez's countercoinage, culti-multural. This coinage satirizes attitudes toward multiculturalism that refuse to perceive the historical reality of cultural mixing and instead collect "exotic" cultures alongside one another in a Disneyesque "It's a Small World" cacophony. When multiculturalism is used this way, it indeed reinscribes notions of difference as cultish variants from recognized Western European and North American norms. Collecting artifacts and styles from "exotic" cultures into a collage turns differences into curiosities. Curiosities are denuded of their power to challenge; they are absorbed as decoration.

Rejecting crude models of ethnicity might help us reject culti-multuralism and construct a "strong" model of multiculturalism. Increasing our international focus might also help break open American discussions around these issues. If multiculturalism is to fulfill its implied promise to usher in a more egalitarian era, we must all engage in an extended debate around its meaning and political implications. If culti-multuralism is to become strong multiculturalism, sustained and deep changes must take place in our thinking, institutions, policies, ideologies, identities, and epistemologies.

The purposes and implications of this study suggest that the phrase mixed cultures more exactly expresses our present state. "Purity" of culture is a pure illusion. Mixed cultures echoes Lucy Lippard's wonderful book, Mixed Blessing: New Art in a Multicultural America. Lippard cogently explains:

The terminology in which an issue is expressed is indicative of the quality of the discourse, and the fact that there are no euphonious ways to describe today's cross-cultural exchange reflects the deep social and historical awkwardness underlying that exchange. Much has been tried and found wanting. Writing about intercultural art, looking for satisfying ways to describe the groups involved, many of whom are living between cultures, I find myself caught in a web of ungainly, pompous, condescending, even ugly language.

This thesis begs your indulgence should it descend into ugly language. The term mixed cultures is used preferentially and quite deliberately in this text to refer to the borderlands that we all inhabit. I agree with Lippard that "the borderlands are porous, restless, often incoherent territory, virtual minefields of unknowns for both practitioners and theoreticians". May we all be blessed as we negotiate maps of this culturally mixed territory.

 

"There are many wonderful things about this book... all of which indicate a scholar at the cutting-edge of her field.... Indeed, Fernandez's analysis of the ideological trappings of literacy is truly first-rate and illuminating on many counts, especially for those of us concerned with the uses and implications of multiculturalism and its consequent backlash across the curriculum."

—Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Frederick W. Ness Book Award Semi-Finalist
Association of American Colleges and Universities