Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ill Literate

"No books today. Just movies and old Dick Cavett shows."

Icy glance from the librarian as I set the borrowed items in front of her. I smiled in return, then said to the wife, "Wouldn't it be great if the whole library became an upscale video/DVD store? And it's free! No more Hollywood or Blockbuster. Just think of it!"

"Honestly," she sniffed, rolling her eyes, "how did I end up with you?"

"I wonder about that myself." If you saw us side by side, you'd know that was an honest statement. But I still considered what the library would be like sans tomes.

"It's the next logical human stage. We've passed from oral histories to the written word and now rely more and more on the audio/visual. Our kids are developing a literacy of movement, sound, and light. Books will always be around, of course, but little black specks arranged on white paper doesn't really bring the noise. Book readers are already a minority, and that'll remain the case for quite some time, if not for all time."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"Well, that could well be, but I'm willing to bet I'm closer to the mark than not. Did you ever read Hans Magnus Enzensberger's essay 'In Praise of Illiteracy'?"


"It's great. Came out in the mid-80s. He believes that the pre-written age was, if not a golden one, then certainly an interesting and creative one. I dunno if I completely agree with him, but I find it worth thinking about."

"That's absurd," replied the wife, smiling. "You're Absurdy Absurd the Third, the absurdist man I've ever known."

"At your service, m'lady," I said in my Dick Van Dyke "Mary Poppins" cockney accent, bowing.

The librarian finished checking everything out and looked at me with utter disdain. Perhaps it wasn't polite to conceptually reduce her role to that of a video store clerk while in her presence. Ah well, live and learn.

I've since re-read Enzensberger's essay, translated from the original German, and reproduce it here for your appraisal. I'd be interested to hear what you regs have to say about it. I think it's even more pertinent today than it was 20 years ago. But then, I'm a very absurd man.

by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Can we dispense with the written word? That is the question. Anyone who poses it will have to speak about illiteracy. There’s just one problem: the illiterate is never around when he is the subject of conversation. He simply doesn’t show up; he takes no notice of our assertions; he remains silent. I would therefore like to take up his defense.

Every third inhabitant of our planet manages to get by without the art of reading and without the art of writing. This includes roughly 900 million people, and their numbers will certainly increase. The figure is impressive but misleading for Humanity comprises not only the living and the unborn but the dead as well. If they are not forgotten, then the conclusion becomes inevitable that literacy is the exception rather than the rule.

It could occur only to us, that is, to a tiny minority of people who read and write, to think of those who don’t as a tiny minority. This notion betrays an ignorance I find insupportable.

I envy the illiterate his memory, his capacity for concentration, his cunning, his inventiveness, his tenacity, his sensitive ear. Please don’t imagine that I am speaking not about romantic phantoms but about people I have met. I am far from idealizing them. I also see their narrow horizons, their illusions, their obstinacy, their quaintness.

You may ask how it comes about that a writer should take the side of those who cannot read. But it’s obvious! -Because it was illiterates who invented literature. Its elementary forms-from myth to children’s verse, from fairy tale to song, from prayer to riddle-all are older than writing. Without oral tradition, there would be no poetry; without illiterates, no books.

"But" you will object, "what about the Enlightenment?" No need to tell me! Social distress rests not only on the ruler’s material advantages but on immaterial privilege as well. It was the great intellectuals of the eighteenth century who discerned this state of affairs. The people had not come of age, they thought, not only because of political oppression and economic exploitation but also because of their lack of knowledge. From these premises, later generations drew the conclusion that the ability to read and write belongs to any existence fit for a human being.

However, this suggestive idea underwent a succession of noteworthy reinterpretations in the course of time. In the twinkling of an eye the concept of enlightenment was replaced by the concept of education. "In terms of the education of the populace," according to Ignaz Heinrich von Wessenbergm, a German schoolmaster in Napoleon’s time, "the second half of the eighteenth century marks a new epoch. The knowledge of what was accomplished in this regard is joyous news to any friend of mankind, encouraging to the priests of culture, and highly instructive for the leaders of the commonwealth".

As far as the project of literacy goes, we’ve made great strides. Here, it seems, the philanthropists, the priests of culture, and the leaders of the commonwealth have scored triumphantly. By 1880, the illiteracy rate in Germany had fallen below one percent. The rest of the world has also made enormous progress since UNESCO raised its flag in the fight against illiteracy in 1951. In short: Light has conquered darkness.

Our joy over the triumph has certain limits. The news is too good to be true. The people did not learn to read and write because they felt like it, but because they were forced to do so. Their emancipation was controlled by disenfranchisement. From then on learning went hand in hand with the state and its agencies: the schools, the army, the legal administration. The goal pursued in making the populace literate had nothing to do with enlightenment. The friends of mankind and the priests of culture, who stood up for the people, were merely the henchmen of a capitalist industry that pressed the state to provide it with a qualified workforce. It was not a matter of paving the way for the "writing culture", Let alone liberating mankind from its shackles. Quite a different kind of progress was in question. IT consisted in taming the illiterates, this "lowest class of men," in stamping out their will and their fantasy, and in exploiting not only their muscle power and skill in handiwork, but their brains as well.

For the unlettered human to be done away with, he had first to be defined, tracked down, and unmasked. The concept of illiteracy is not very old. Its invention can be dated with some precision. The word appeared for the first time in a French publication in 1876 and quickly spread all over Europe. At about the same time, Edison invented the lightbulb and the phonograph, Bell he telephone, and Otto the gasoline motor. The connection is clear.

Furthermore, the triumph of popular education in Europe coincides with the maximum development of colonialism. And this is no accident. In the dictionaries of the period we can find the assertion that the number of illiterates "as compared with the total population of a country is a measure of the people’s cultural condition." And they do not fail to instruct us that "men stand on a level higher, on the average, than women.:

This is not a matter of statistics, but a process of discrimination and stigmatization. Behind the figure of the illiterate we can discern Hitler’s concept of der Untermensch, the subhuman who must be eliminated. A small, radical minority has reserved civilization for itself and now discriminates against all those who will not dance to its tune.

Today we find that the illiteracy we smoked out has returned. A new figure has conquered the social stage. This new species is the second-order illiterate. He has come a long way: his loss of memory causes him no suffering; his lack of will makes life easy for him; he values his inability to concentrate; he considers it an advantage that he neither knows nor understands what is happening to him. He is mobile. He is adaptive. He has a talent for getting things done. We need have no worries about him. It contributes to the second-order illiterate’s sense of well-being that he has no idea that he is a second-order illiterate. He considers himself well-informed; he can decipher instruction s on appliances and tools; he can decode pictograms and checks. And he moves within an environment hermetically sealed against anything that might infect his consciousness. That he might come to grief in this environment is unthinkable. After all, it produced and educated him in order to guarantee its undisturbed continuation.

The second order illiterate is the product of a new phase of industrialization. An economy whose problem is no longer production but markets has no need of a disciplined reserve of army of workers. The rigid training to which they were subjected also becomes redundant, and literacy becomes a fetter to be done away with. Simultaneous with the development of this problem, our technology has also developed an adequate solution. The ideal medium for the second-order illiterate is television.

The educational policy of the state will have to align itself with the new priorities. By reducing the library budget, a first step has already been taken. And innovations are to be seen in school administration as well. You can go tot school now for eight years without learning German, and even in the universities this German dialect is gradually acquiring the status of a poorly mastered foreign language.

Please do not suppose hat I would want to polemicize against a situation of whose inevitability I am fully aware. I desire only to portray and, as far as I can, explain it. It would be foolish to contest the second-order illiterate’s raison d etre, and I am far from begrudging him on the pleasures or his place in the sun.

On the other hand, it is safe to say that the project of the Enlightenment has failed the slogan "Culture for Everyone" begins to sound comical. And a classless culture is even further from view. On the contrary: we can look forward to a situation I which cultural castes will become more and more distinct. But these castes can no longer be described by using the traditional Marxist model, according to which the ruling culture is the culture of the rulers. Indeed the divergence between economic position and consciousness will continue to grow.

It will become the new rule to see second-order illiterates occupying the top positions in politics and in business. In this connection, it is sufficient to indicate the current president of the United States and the current chancellor of the Federal Republic. On the other hand, you can easily find whole hordes of cabdrivers, newspaper hawkers, manual laborers, and welfare recipients whose thoughtfulness, cultural standards, and wide-ranging knowledge should have taken them far in any other society. But this kind of comparison falls short of portraying the true state of affairs, which admits of no clear analysis. For even among the unemployed you can find zombies; even in the presidential office there are people who can read and write and even think productively. But this also means that in questions of culture social determinism has become obsolete. The so-called privileges of education have lost their fearfulness. If both parents are second-order illiterates, even the wellborn child has no advantage over th worker’s son. One’s cultural cast will hencefoth depend on personal choice, not origin.

For all this I conclude that culture in our country has come to an entirely new situation. As for the perennial claim that culture provides a common denominator for all people-that we can simply forget. The rulers, mostly second-order illiterates, have lost all interest in it. As a result , culture cannot, and need not any longer, serve the interests of a ruling class. It no longer legitimates the social order. It has become useless-but there is a kind of freedom in that. Such a culture is thrown back on its own resouces and the sooner it realizes this the better.

Where does all that leave the writer? For some time now it has not been a class privilege-or requirement to be concerned with literature. The victory of the second-order illiterate can only radicalize literature. When it has lost its value as a status symbol, as a social code, as an educational program, then literature will be noticed only by those who can’t do without it.

Whoever wants to can bemoan all this. I have no such desire. Weeds have always been a minority, and every city gardener knows how hard it is to do away with them. Literature will continue to thrive as long as it commands a certain agility, a certain cunning, a capacity for concentration and a good memory. As you recall, these are the features of the true illiterate. Perhaps he will have the last word, since he requires no other media than a voice and an ear.