Literacy as Listening
By Ben Mattson
Human language is a flexible thing. In linguistics, it is said that language is generative (some scholars use the term productive instead): Through language we can build an infinite number of meaningful sentences with a finite number of building blocks. So there’s quite a lot of room to play in the sandbox. Something I like to do is sample different conceptions of relatively ordinary words, and expand the boundaries of how I use and play with them. We do this all the time in poetry, philosophy, music, theater, etc... we’re trying to read the conventional signs (or phonemes), and have the option of tunneling into different vistas or dimensions through the portals of allegory and spoken, lived-experience language.
In this short piece, I’d like to try doing this just a bit with the word literacy. Here’s a first pass at the space I’d like to explore with you: Literacy as involving our ability to listen to (but not necessarily act on) inner insights, to acknowledge and empower our desire to voyage beyond received knowledge, wisdom, and what it means to be literate in a given domain. Literacy turned in on itself, if you will. We could give this a name..like second-order literacy, meta-literacy, super-sexy-literacy, over-intellectualized-literacy...But in what follows I’m just going to use the term literate. So let us--tree-dwellers, pond-ponderers, what have you--voyage to this pond, and listen to see if it is inviting.
In a phrase associated with Jiddu Krishnamurti, what if we cultivated a desire for freedom from the known? Freedom, or at least reflective distance, from that which we think we know, from norms about how to think, feel, and live. This is one corner of the pond (as I have constructed it), and it applies to not just knowledge of academic stuff like linguistics, but to anything we’d like it to. With the freedom that the generativity of language gives us, we can step back, re-listen to what we think we know and have learned. If I know the words to all of a great poet’s poetry, but am never allowed to apply them in new, creative, unexplored ways, then maybe I’m missing out.
In another way, cultivating reflective distance can be like learning to listen--for instance, learning to hear our own individual voices and needs, rather than staying in well-worn (and many times harmful) grooves and patterns. Speaking personally for a moment, I have young cousins who I care for immensely. I don’t want them to memorize and adopt this ‘other’ notion of literacy as reflective distance or literacy as deep listening... I don’t want them to statically memorize or adopt anything. Especially as rapidly growing youngsters, it’s important to be aware of when we are carrying another’s ideas and emotion, and to choose whether we do so. Without going into specifics, they have a close relative who is controlling and overly critical to the extent they are afraid even to speak. They are incredibly empathetic, and have taken to heart his criticisms. So I want to give them space and autonomy, if they’d like, to sample the notion that literacy can be more than what others think, say, and impute on us. In this context, I want to facilitate for them the process of developing emotional and developmental literacy: Attending to the alphabet of their genuine, valid feelings, and realizing and holding to the insight that they can develop without the harsh negativity of their relative.
In general, literacy which reaches beyond itself can, from the inside, feel like having the freedom to splash and have fun. More than anything, I want my cousins to have the freedom to voyage beyond the pond and develop a love of listening and learning, not just accumulation of learning. It shouldn’t have limits. The idea, then, is to acknowledge the quiet, almost imperceptible yet deeply earnest impulses we’re never taught to acknowledge when we’re learning to read (whether we’re reading books, or other people). Knowledge is based on acknowledgment. Acknowledging that one lives in certain patterns, and for my cousins separating who they are and wish to be from what their relative says, often begins with internal listening.
So it can be more than just cognitively interesting to stretch our immediate conceptions of what a given term involves, or can involve. Reading and writing is essential to contemporary life as we commonly know it, but why should we be limited, contained, bound (see Plato’s allegory of the cave, if you’d like) to rehashing and repeating what’s already been said? Often we operate with one foot in the future — we dream, we make recommendations at work and with friends and family. Sometimes our dreams are vast, and sometimes we yearn to dip more than just a toe in. We build revolutions, even if incrementally. Literacy is lovely. Let it listen, blossom and grow.