Power Shifts Reflected Through Changing Literacies

“The issue—given that representation, especially in the linguistic modes of speech and writing, is so closely bound up with social and ethical values—cannot be debated at the level of representation alone. It does, always, have to be seen in the wider framework of economic, political, social, cultural and technological changes. This is so because on the one hand representation is used as a metaphor for social, cultural, and ethical issues, and because on the other hand representational changes do not happen in isolation. The technologies of representation and those of communication and/or dissemination are everywhere bound up with the larger, wider changes in the (global) economy, in social and political changes, and in accompanying ethnic and cultural changes.” (Kress, 2005, p. 6)

In an examination of gains and losses in new literacies and ways of knowing (Kress, 2005), I cannot help but wonder if our shift from traditional text-based literacy to multiliteracies – spurred in part by the integration and even dominance of the visual image into common information resources – will result in a much more significant shift, that being a power shift from note-worthy authors to the empowerment of every and any individual seizing his or her opportunity to have voice ¹.  So situating the need for multiliteracies, then, demands evaluation of social and ethical values and the greater political, economic and cultural changes that such a power shift may both invite and reflect.

Cautious to avoid being apocalyptic with regards to the possible extreme our shift towards the individual could reach, reading Kress (2005) expounds – for me – that the literary shifts experienced over the last 50 years will be reflected in reassignment of power from author to reader, from leaders to the individualized everyman.  This power shift, encouraged under the worthy guise of goals for children then adolescents to become increasingly independent, may have unintended repercussions.

Kress (2005) details a linguistic shift describing modes of message delivery: where the book has readers, the webpage has visitors.  Websites are being designed to be visited, rather than written to be read.  With only the possibility of websites’ linguistic text being read, this may not only predetermine the change of literacy and reading but also a change in power structures with regards to what constitutes authority.  We are designing pages not to be read but to merely offer information which the visitor may or may not choose to attend to in a way we would traditionally call reading.  Presuming visitors will attend only to the most immediately attainable information, we design pages so as to sculpt a shattering of attention via multimedia, reinforcing scanning behavior, a perceptual literacy rather than attentive literacy.  This invites visitors, learners, to resort not to the traditional authority of the author, but to construct knowledge of their own.  This is in many respects laudable and desirable and rests alongside sound constructivist pedagogy, but ultimately, when or how do we enforce the actuality of authority beyond the individual? And do we need to? While literacy itself is requiring re-evaluation (New London Group, 1996; Dobson and Willinsky, 2009) in today’s cyber-presentation of information, as readers/visitors change their approach to the page, a deeper re-evaluation of how this reflects power structures may also be prudent.

Reflecting the ongoing trend towards the individual associated with the rise of the novel among other historical socio-cultural factors in the 1800s, the shift from competence to critique in the late 1960s to early 1970s (Kress, 2005) also shifted the emphasis from ability (positive) to inability (negative), asking the questions, “where does this fall short?” and, “how does this measure up?”  The confrontation found in critique of an author’s writing is again a power issue, but “the project of critique seems somewhat beside the point” (Kress, 2005, p. 17).  We have already progressed to the next shift Kress (2005) details: from critique as the reader acting upon the author’s work to design as the reader distancing that much further from the author’s work, using it as nothing more than catalyst for one’s own thinking.  With this, the power shifts further toward the individual and the social system is decidedly in crisis (Kress, 2005, p. 17).

There is constructive power involved in knowledge-building within society, but in the way detailed thus far it is not societal; it is individual.  And it is increasingly moving away from dependence and interdependence towards a greater independence, a greater individualism in linguistic expression.  With respect to the less powerful critique (compared to design), Kress (2005) reflects that

It challenges the existing configurations of power and expects that in exposing inequities more equitable social arrangements could be developed. In terms of representation that would amount—at that time when the focus was clearly linguistic—to lessening the effects of power and its realization in linguistic form. (2005, p. 17)

As readers and critics become designers – as opposed to becoming writers, a more difficult transition – incorporating the image as much or more than the word into their designs, the linguistic form becomes less powerful.  Its message is conveyed by its multimedia accompaniments; when the words are not readily comprehensible, the remaining visual and/or audio design elements will ease translation.  In so doing, the words are side-stepped.  They need not be understood in and of themselves.  This may lead to greater social equity, but – for better and worse – it may be at the expense of traditional literacy.  With design, power is shifting from the linguistic to multimedia, and from the author to the reader.  (The shift is not complete, nor may it be for some time – published work such as a journal article carries credentials readers still do not possess and which continues to demand the linguistic form for full explication.  Case in point is my consultation with and reference to Kress as a notable author with published work in a reputable journal.  My work certainly does not stand alone as authority.)

The trend toward the digital is not likely to be ebbed any time soon.  We are not likely to change web design to preserve or enforce traditional text-based literacy, nor should we. With concerns of what this shift means socioculturally, “Reading has to be rethought given that the commonsense of what reading is was developed in the era of the unquestioned dominance of writing, in constellation with the unquestioned dominance of the medium of the book” (Kress, 2005, p. 17).  Multimedia feels more natural, intuitive, but with the shift, we do move against a culture that has been of force for 500 years.  In doing so, we challenge power structures.  Our linguistic freedoms in reading, expression and the expansion of literacy to multiliteracies need to be connected to their effects and correlations in the larger societal picture.

Coming back to this now & subsequent to Jeff’s feedback, I see it is reminiscent this is of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1977).  This was entirely unintentional, but now noted, I think it is worth connecting so here it is.  In this, Barthes also attributes a certain power to the reader (though it is equally important that I note he undermines the reader being anymore than “simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted”):
“Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of
multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of
dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is
focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is
the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any
of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”


Dobson, T. and Willinsky, J. (2009). Digital literacy (draft).  The Cambridge Handbook on Literacy.  Retrieved online at http://pkp.sfu.ca/files/Digital%20Literacy.pdf

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning.  Computers and Composition, 22 (1). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2004.12.004

The New London Group.  (1996).  A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies:Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review 66(1).  Retrieved online at http://newlearningonline.com/~newlearn/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/multiliteracies_her_vol_66_1996.pdf

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