Literacy & Agential Literacy

Evelien Geerts & Iris van der Tuin

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary ‘literacy’ refers to “the ability to read and write”, and also to “competence or knowledge in a specified area”. UNESCO, among other organizations, uses the ability to read, to write, and to understand and work with numbers back-to-back with pleas for access to schooling in (girls’ and women’s) empowerment campaigns on individual, community, regional, and national levels. UNESCO agrees that literacy today is also about one’s ability to use ICTs and social media. To understand 21st century literacies, however, we need to acknowledge that our age is more than a globalized screenage: The first decades of the 21st century have namely been and are being characterized by economic, ecological, and postsecular crises. Living in an ‘Interregnum’ and in the ‘Anthropocene’ (see Bauman, 2012; Latour, 2014) suggests that literacy, numeracy, and media literacies must be supplemented by the individual and collective development and renewal of literacies such as civic literacy, economic/financial/algorithmic literacy, and environmental literacy (also known as eco-literacy).

Acting on literacy as a human right complemented with the current-day introduction of a paradigm of ‘multiple literacies’ begs ethical questions, as (higher) education per se and philosophy in particular may no longer own an individual’s and a community’s access to alphabetic, numerical, and civic literacies, apart from the fact that the concept of literacy extends beyond such a basic understanding. What is more, both the Interregnum and the Anthropocene demonstrate that individual and collective levels are now blurred, and natural, cultural, and technoscientific processes are fully intertwined, which invites for a fundamental critique of literacy-speak. Beyond, or better, before, the question ‘who can be literate?’ lies a question about the nature of literacy: When more girls and women worldwide are to become literate, what knowledge, insight, or abilities are they to reproduce, and how? Continental philosopher and literary theorist Claire Colebrook (2012, p. x) argues:

Normative notions of literacy (whereby populations are measured against a single standard) operate in terms of extensive multiplicities: There is a linguistic standard deemed to be crucial to effective communication and the transmission of sense; the project is to include as many persons as possible within this standard. […]

By contrast, [Gilles] Deleuze’s differential and multiple approach operates from an intensive concept of multiplicity: each new attainment of literacy introduces difference into what counts as literacy.

Attuning one’s definition of literacy to such multiplicitous introductions of difference “enables the possibility of reading and writing [and calculation] not as modes of replication (tracing a pattern) but as modes of mapping - marking out new spaces, new dimensions, new lines of filiation” (ibid, p. xi). After all, what is literacy today? Does literacy encapsulate what it means to be human, or are we rather to become posthuman (Braidotti , 2013) with 21st century literacies? That is, does literacy imply complicity with a humanistic (read: Western, Eurocentric, and phallogocentric) standard, or does it mean running with the transversality of a differential literacy (which is neither a single-standard literacy nor a multiplication of literacies)?

A thought-provoking new feminist materialist take on such a thoroughly conceptual approach to literacy and becoming-literate can be found in philosopher-physicist Karen Barad’s work: In articles from 2000 and 2001, Barad touches upon what she calls ‘agential literacy’ or a take on contemporary feminist science studies pedagogies that emphasizes the importance of doing, teaching, and learning about science in an accountable manner, and furthermore focuses on how we, as agents that are keen on producing knowledge, are always already part of the world (see Barad, 2001, p. 229). Agential literacy is not about the reproduction of decontextualized scientific knowledges, or about context as culture-influencing-(the-use-of-)science, or about any other alternative to teaching predicated on one of the two ends of a science-culture continuum. Agential literacy rather is about “responsibility: to teach science in a way that promotes an understanding of the nature of scientific practices. This will make for better, more creative, more responsible participation in the various technoscientific enterprises in which we are all implicated at this historic moment” (Barad, 2000, p. 223). Such a pedagogy necessarily

[…] includes an examination of the way different disciplinary cultures define what counts as ‘nature’ and what counts as ‘culture.’ Furthermore it […] seeks to understand the relationship between material and discursive constraints and conditions. In this way, the role of (human and nonhuman) agency in the production of objective knowledge can be appreciated and students can begin to see the importance of their own participation in doing responsible science: of learning how to intra-act responsibly within the world. (ibid., p. 241)

Barad in these two essays also coins the notion of ‘trans/disciplinarity’ to denote how such a pedagogical model respectfully builds upon a multidisciplinary approach, but at the same time also differs from it: There is an engagement with various disciplines and theories as well, yet, in such a trans/disciplinary approach, the discursive and the material sides of doing (and teaching) science, together with reflections on ontology, epistemology, and ethics, are always already entangled. Trans/disciplinarity hence seems to spotlight the accountability aspects that are – or should be – attached to processes of knowing, learning, and teaching, and this is emphasized by the slash symbol that is at work in the notion of trans/disciplinarity: Transdisciplinarity is reconceptualized by Barad as trans/disciplinarity, as we need to be accountable to both the disciplinary cuts or boundaries that are being made when working with different disciplines and to the “different histories and institutional structures of various disciplinary practices” (Barad, 2001, p. 238).

Such a model could potentially lie at the basis of a new feminist materialist pedagogy; a pedagogy that would uphold ethico-political responsibility, accountability, and intellectual generosity as its critical values, in addition to a non-phallogocentric, explicitly feminist reconceptualization of literacy and the ongoing relationship between teacher and student as a relationship that is now dialogical, respectful towards difference(s), and fully reciprocal.

Keywords: (Agential) literacy, agential realism, new feminist materialist pedagogy, trans/disciplinarity
Genealogies: Claire Colebrook, Karen Barad
Synonyms: Affirmative pedagogy
Antonyms: Objectivity, banking model of education (Freire), the corporatized neoliberal university
Hypernyms: New feminist materialist pedagogy (Baradian agential realism)
Hyponyms: Literacy & agential literacy

Barad, Karen. (2000). “Reconceiving Scientific Literacy as Agential Literacy.” In Doing Science + Culture, pp. 221-258. Edited by Roddey Reid and Sharon Traweek. New York: Routledge.
Barad, Karen. (2001). “Scientific Literacy -> Agential Literacy = (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly.” In Feminist Science Studies. A New Generation, pp. 226-246. Edited by Maralee Mayberry, Banu Subramaniam, and Lisa H. Weasel. New York – London: Routledge.
Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt. (2012). “Times of Interregnum.” Ethics & Global Politics, 5(1), pp. 49-56.
Braidotti, Rosi. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Colebrook, Claire. (2012). “Foreword.” In Mapping Multiple Literacies: An Introduction to Deleuzian Literacy Studies, pp. vii-xii. Edited by Diana Masny and David R. Cole. London and New York: Continuum.
Latour, Bruno. (2014). “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene.” New Literary History 45(1): pp. 1-18.
UNESCO. “Literacy”. (2016). Accessed July 26, 2016.

COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.

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