I think that this week’s readings begin to address some of the criticisms that our class has raised in relation to the focused, local ethnographies that we have read this term. Building outward from the work of New Literacy Studies, the transnational literacy movement recognizes that while the studies of local literacy practices are important and reveal vast amounts of information about a particular population, the studies sometimes “veer too far in a reactive direction, exaggerating the power of local contexts to set or reveal the forms and meanings that literacy takes” (Brandt 338). In an effort to remove the dichotomy between local and global that studies of local literacy practices seem to perpetuate, transnational literacy studies are intended to “provide insights into the specific ways that “local literacy practices” are infused with ideological purpose, institutional structure, and power” (Warriner 210) by “[h]ighlighting the lived experiences, human practices, and “cultural logics” of people whose everyday lives are dramatically shaped by large-scale global and transnational process” (202). I think that this work will be increasingly important as our world continues to become more globalized and as more people begin to identify themselves as transnational citizens.
I also appreciate Brandt’s recommendation for a Latourian conception of literacy as an object that has agency. In Latour’s work on actor-network theory, he makes the argument that while human do possess individual agency to some extent, collective agency allows us the power to get things done outside of our individual experience. However, this network of collective agency is never limited to humans; instead, each network contains an assemblage of humans and objects, all of which work together in the creation of agency. For Latour, everything has agential capacities – humans and nonhumans (objects, animals, even concepts and ideas). In viewing literacy this way, it is much harder (although it was pretty hard before) to accept the claims of scholars like Ong and Goody and Watt, who claim that literacy in and of itself changes the ways in which users think about the world. Instead, literacy is positioned as an actant, a node in the assemblage that has agential capacity, allowing us to “understand that society exists nowhere else except in local situations, but also to understand that, with the help of objects, lots of different kinds of activities can be going on in and across local situations – including aggregating, globalizing, objectifying, disrupting or dislocating” (Brandt 346).
I also wonder if there is any way to connect, or perform a meta-analysis of, the numerous studies of local literacy practices that do not attempt to contextualize the study outside the realm of the local. This project would clearly be wrought with difficulties, as each particular ethnographer studies and reports on a variety of literacy practices and events within a variety of different contexts using a variety of methodological tools. However, I also think that by examining these studies in relation to one another, trends regarding the global or transnational aspects of literacy may begin to emerge.