16 Comments
author

So much here, Sam, by you and others. I'll add only that this is an argument for Substack!

Expand full comment

A complex and evolving phenomena (literacy) that in itself seems weird to think about given the age and history of the craft. This was a thought provoking read and thank you. I can’t offer much to the discourse but a couple reflections. A fortunate set of circumstances allowed for a week of embedded observation in the local scouser community of Liverpool. Pubs, dinners, conversations all with locals over a week was an incredible experience in observing an oral tradition as a vibrant culture. Also deeply rooted in music. Literacy and vibrancy are in no way correlated here and it was eye opening. Fast forward to my three 20 something Canadian kids and they too are post literate in their cultural life even though they are working on five degrees amongst themselves. I would consider them in many ways post-literate in that they derive nothing other than information from reading and writing. Cultural and creative information is all delivered by phone to them instead. These two observations are my bookends to the personal idea that it’s okay for a post-literate diaspora to evolve and in many ways will be interesting to observe. Thank you for articulating a lens in which to continue to watch! Especially with AI looming on the horizon.

Expand full comment

What an interesting take on literacy. I liked the approach, almost hedonistic way of defining it and how you put literacy in the historic context. 👏🏼 (hope this emoji doesn't annoy you too much)

Expand full comment

Absolutely fascinating. Thank you for the thought provoking piece.

One thought: What if the new Latin is data science?

The elites are increasingly literate in coding and structuring data. In a society where financial and policy decisions must be “data driven,” only those fluent in data can decide what gets measured and what those metrics mean.

Data scientists are the new priests and python is the language they preach in. Cultural artifacts are less subservient, but their power over everything else holds sway.

Expand full comment
author

Thank you Sean! I absolutely agree with you about data science and the new mandarins. The biggest social divide in my life has been between people who can code and people who can't - and a lot of that comes down to things like how ostracized people were in high school. This guy Mitra thinks that the current type of literacy we have (along with the attendant education system) is already obsolete and that the new class system will be based on computer literacy (a very apposite term).

I guess I would draw a distinction between jargon-y languages that are connected to a new source of power and jargon-y languages that are preservers of the past (and the line can be fluid between the two of them). In the early 20th century, physics suddenly became a language of power when it turned out that physicists were able to devise new weapons - and were correspondingly rewarded with all sorts of academic posts and pecuniary rewards. Already, the language of physics now seems like more of a preserver of memory than a language of power; and the same may be true for computer science in our time. Greek was for a long time a language of power and then became a language for the preservation of memory and for elite communication; same goes for Latin.

Expand full comment
author

Excellent point. I suppose data might "conceal as much as it reveals" (loosely quoting Foucault, I believe), just as language does. But you're making me think about how language was once a kind of currency. Data is much moreso the currency of power now.

And yet. And yet. I'm thinking of Atul Gawande, who has made some powerful arguments for the utility of data in medicine. But he has done so in narrative form. I still think that there is a STORY behind the data that can't be reduced to metrics. This was the subject of my dissertation, you might say. 19th-century doctors made the mistake of thinking that they could compile a permanent and comprehensive map of disease on the corpse. But this led to clinical detachment, which Foucault described as "cadaverizing life" -- and thus to a loss of the public's trust. You see the public fear of physicians in Hawthorne's fiction, for instance. Oliver Wendell Holmes did a great deal to win back the public trust through his columns and poetry for The Atlantic. Story was part of how Holmes made a popular case for things like handwashing to combat purpueral fever. Retreating into data science is not going to strengthen the public trust of physicians or businesspeople.

Expand full comment

Fascinating piece. I’m watching a series (for the last 6-7 years) on Showtime called “Billions.”

What stands out in that series that mirrors this essay? Billionaires, traders, politicians, and general muckety-muck power brokers who all consider themselves “La Crème”.

In the episodes the actors, playing oversized characters fling around cultural references suitable to their egos and standing. Judges and prosecutors still reference great literary works, while the younger, hipper finance set toss around sports and entertainment in equal measure. The bits are one of my favorite parts of the series. In terms of percentages I’d say literary references make up about 10-20% of the total. 🥲

Expand full comment
author

Thank you Dee! I gave Billions a pass - mostly, I think, because I find Paul Giamatti to be just absurdly overrated as an actor. You're making me want to watch it! Yeah, there are a lot of shows where the characters are super-literate, super-articulate; mostly, I assume, that's wishful thinking on the part of the writers, fantasizing that that's how Wall Street machers actually talk. - Sam

Expand full comment

Giamatti is well suited for the role 😉

Expand full comment
author

Gah -- I was trying not to be distracted by this, but now I must out myself as someone who never watched Game of Thrones and who found Billions, like Succession, filled with insufferable people who make me despair. Excuse me while I go watch West Wing again. At least the characters in The Wire and Deadwood had some complexity. I find little to care about in shows about wealthy people behaving badly. End of rant. I'll retire to my monastery now.

Expand full comment

Yeah -- the only TV I've watched recently is Alone: Frozen, which certainly doesn't depend on book-learnin' literacy at all!

Expand full comment

The characters are true to form. That’s the most fascinating part of it: that our “leaders” are truly that vapid 🙄

Expand full comment

A couple thoughts: We don’t even have the kind of shared medium culture that we used to. Look at the TV viewership numbers. We spend a lot of time talking about shows that get only a few million views. I think Game of Thrones might end up being the last shared show. Also, there are still huge audiences for romance, spy, and war novels. Colleen Hoover, who writes pop fiction, sold something like 15 million books last year. She’s the Taylor Swift of the book world.

Expand full comment
author

Hi Sherman! Yeah, that's a really good point - the fragmentation of the global audience. I completely agree with you about Game of Thrones. That literally may have been the last work of art that "everybody" took in together. So maybe there is room for a literary revival along the lines you suggest. Part of what was so appealing/seductive about television was the idea that you "had" to watch the big show in order to be connected to the culture. If television culture fragments, as it's been doing, then that pressure is off a bit and people can find their way to lower-cost forms of entertainment such as reading. - Sam

Expand full comment
author

I posted a long comment on Castalia that I'll copy here, in case it sparks further conversation:

An unnerving argument, Sam, but difficult to contest. My eldest daughter has an encyclopedia knowledge of Greek mythology, wildlife, and scientific ideas that she owes largely to podcasts. But she is also such a voracious reader that she often carries a book or her Kindle with her into the kitchen while she gropes blindly in the refrigerator for her breakfast. There is, for her, a kind of seamless conversation across the genres. And she is presently at work on the first of what she claims will be a 7-part fantasy series. So it's perhaps too soon to say that literacy is dead. I hesitate to use the theoretical buzzword "hybridity," but it's clear that reading and writing are as much influenced by multimedia forms as in reverse. And what is the Substack phenomenon, if not proof of some enduring form of literacy, albeit at a less epic scale?

Your last line resonates with me. I became a writer largely because I could never get the words right in person. But you're making me wonder if this was so because I grew up without a television, necessarily found my escape and entertainment in books, and then as a result found my spontaneous utterances wanting by comparison.

I'll indulge one more observation -- that writing is always different from reading/listening/viewing. My students were saturated in audiovisual stories, but when I assigned a Moth-style performance at the end of a radio storytelling course, they struggled to hone their stories. And I wonder now if the refining capacity of literacy lay not in the medium so much as in the sense of craft, and that anyone who completes a long apprenticeship in craft (in whatever form) gains a kind of refinement as a result? But I suppose one can be an exquisite carpenter and still be terrible at self-reflection. So perhaps the craft must be at least adjacent to what we've known writing to be for it to have that transformative effect. (Now I'm wishing this could go on as a kind of Socratic exchange...)

Expand full comment