List Journalism and Literacy


Parody of Buzzfeed from FunnyorDie

There are two myths about literacy which refuse to die. The first is that writing is simply recorded speech, and the second is that since the emergence of so-called “Internet 2.0,” we are moving back to an oral culture.

I’m sorry to say that linguists are among the main propagators of that first myth. Linguists are always quick to point out that writing came along at the eleventh hour in the overall story of human language, and that any impact writing has on speech is minimal. Both of those things are true, but neither of them warrant the further assumption that writing is just a derivative of speech. If that were true, writing—particularly alphabetical writing—would be much easier to do than it is. (As I always tell my students, writing never gets easier but you do get better at it.) More to the point, as David Olson argued, writing is a model of speech which therefore involves interpretation rather than coding and decoding.

The second myth, that we are moving back to orality, is more of a popular assumption in contemporary culture. Some propagators of the myth speak talk about it like it’s the first sign of total collapse, while tech-optimists spread it like the Gospel. The good news and the bad news is that it is simply not true. This second myth is not true precisely because the first myth is not true. Since writing is not recorded speech, it cannot be replaced by speech. True, the linguist John McWhorter has argued pretty persuasively that text messaging is on its way to becoming the first true form of written speech, but even that does not spell the end of written writing. Writing is its own irreplaceable form of expression. The ease of video recording a message or texting back and forth has nothing to do with the fate of writing.

There’s another proclamation of doom floating around, and this one is not so farfetched. It’s the one about the death of journalism. Insofar as quality journalism (the kind of which is sacralized in the U.S. Constitution) is tied to print capitalism, it is indeed in serious trouble. That is a complex problem with no easy solution. But it is easy enough to recognize the signs of decline, and one of the most easily recognizable of these signs is the rise of list-based journalism. Made popular by metanews sites like Buzzfeed and HuffPost, list-articles move seamlessly into sponsored content. Not only do they serve well as Trojan horses for advertisers, but they usually appeal to the lowest common denominator. Usually, they are either lists of celebrity embarrassments/achievements (the categories blur) or else they are appeals to readers’ most vainglorious sense of themselves, such as ‘Top Ten Signs You Were the Zack Morris of Your High School.’ (Totally! I really did make my overworked principal’s life a living hell! I was probably more popular than I remember!)

Another criticism of list journalism is that it is promotes both lazy writing and lazy reading. In some sense this too is true. Part of the hard work of writing is that you are not just communicating a message but you’re also communicating the context in which you need to communicate that message. The same goes for reading, which, again, is interpretation more than it is decoding. Lists, on the other hand, come relatively context-free. Which means that although they are somewhat impoverished meaning-wise, they are also quite easy to read and write.

In one of my classes today, I was teaching Jack Goody’s essay, “What’s in List.” The piece appears in the still useful Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook volume, but it was taken from Goody’s 1977 The Domestication of the Savage Mind. The title of that book alone makes the overall thesis problematic, to say the least. (It was part of a spate of scholarship on the cognitive effects of literacy that saw its heyday somewhere between 1950 and 1980, and it included the works of luminaries such as Marshal McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Walter Ong.) Nonetheless, Goody’s argument about lists and literacy still holds up pretty well. What he says is that written lists from the early days of literacy went from very practical tallies of payment and inventory to entire chronologies and cosmologies. One of the effects of the latter kind of list making was that the objects represented in those lists became decontextualized. So, instead of talking about, for instance, a wren in relation to a particular experience or mythos, the wren becomes just another kind of thing in a list of things. There is, of course, higher level thinking involved in such categorization, but that’s nothing pre-literate societies were incapable of doing (though the proliferation of more and more abstract categories is no doubt aided by writing). As I see it, it’s not really the categorization that is new but the mode of decontextualization. Lists tear signs away from things, and as Goody further points out, they also had the effect of tearing words away from signs. They even serve in some cases to tear sounds away from words, with some list being organized both around classes of things and alliteration.

And, in fact, the main thesis which came out of this mid-20th century anthropology of literacy was that the decontextualization of phonemes and morphemes from lexemes brought with it myriad consequences for the development of human logic. (This, by the way, is where Derrida picks up his argument that reflection on writing gave us the linguistic apparatus with which to think about speech.) As I said, the difficult thing about writing is the introduction of context with the message. I would go so far as to say that context is an impossible ideal in writing, akin to the impossibility of being able to perceive the thing in-itself for Kant. The closest we can come to context in writing, as Derrida points out, is in the citation and the signature, since those are objects which appear to be present in the text as objects.

But what if we go in the opposite direction? Could we say that decontextualized speech is just as impossible? Sure, I could speak to you in complete gobbledygook, but my speech would still be present as phatic or performative. But isn’t it sort of impossible to speak a list? Here, I’m not talking about any constrains on the memory that a super long list might bump up against. I’m thinking more of being able to decode the signs which are being spoken without having a clue as to their intended references. We could infer and make predictions out of patterns of signs, but we would still need a reference point. On the other hand, a written list simply performs and so is present in its performance.

I’ve gone way further into this than I had intended, but my superficial point is that perhaps—crappy though it may be as journalism—list journalism is a sign that writing is going nowhere.






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