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Literacy event, prior text, point of view


The interaction of a reader, or community of readers, with texts of any kind has been called a literacy event. Literacy events are defined by their members' common social practices with written language (for instance, reading/writing/talking about family letters, attending/reciting religious services, attending/performing poetry readings, delivering/listening to scripted professional speeches, reading/writing scientific articles) and common ways of interpreting these practices.

The knowledge that goes into literacy events draws on the larger cultural and historical context of production and reception of texts in a particular discourse community. In the absence of the text's author and of its many other readers/interpreters, each reader has to reconstitute for herself her own understanding of the context, and thereby define her place vis-à-vis that context. This is similar to what happens in conversational exchanges of the kind we discussed at the beginning of Chapter 3. As with conversational contexts, the context for a literacy event includes a situational and a cultural dimension. The situational context includes:

1. The events captured in the propositional content.

2. The intended audience: what knowledge, values, interests, beliefs does the text assumes it shares with its readers? How does the text position its audience, and position itself vis-a-vis its audience?

3. The text's purpose, i.e. the speech acts it contains: every sentence, as discussed in Chapters 2 and 3, both says something about the world (propositional or locutionary value), and performs an action, for example, describe, inform, query, complain (illocutionary value). A text prompts its readers to ask themselves: Is this particular sentence a question? a statement? an order? a reproach? a criticism? an attack? In addition, every text attempts to have a cognitive and emotional effect on its readers, or to prompt its readers to action (perlocutionary value).

4. The text's register, or functional language variation according to the audience.

5. Its key: every text bears the mark of the narrator's stance - for example, ironic, humorous, or factual - vis-à-vis the facts related.


The context of a literacy event also includes a larger socio-historical dimension which relates the text to other texts and to communal knowledge in general.


6. Prior texts: In the same manner as words refer to other words in the semantic world of signs (see Chapter 2), every text is a response to prior texts, prior language, prior issues raised through language. In order to understand a text, one has to understand what the text is responding to or against. This existing prior language, accumulated over the life of a discourse community, has been called Discourse with a capital D. Discourses, in this sense, are more than just language, they are ways of being in the world, or forms of life that integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities. We return to this in the next chapter.

7. Point of view: One can distinguish three senses of the phrase point of view. The spatio-temporal point of view specifies the physical context that the narrator refers to. The psychological point of view has to do with the perspective adopted by the narrator, for example, that of an omniscient witness to the events narrated, or that of one of the characters in the story. The ideological point of view reveals the system of beliefs, values, and categories, by reference to which the narrator comprehends the world he/she refers to in the text. This last type of point of view is reflected in the metaphors that were mentioned in Chapter 2 (for instance, Argument is War) and by which writers and readers understand persons and events. They generally index the type of discourse community the narrator belongs to.


Discourse communities, constituted, as we saw in Chapter 1, by common purposes, common interests, and beliefs, implicitly share a stock of prior texts and ideological points of view that have developed over time. These in turn encourage among their members common norms of interaction with, and interpretation of, texts that may be accepted or rejected by the members of these communities. The pressure to conform to these norms is exerted by the schools, the media, and by national and professional institutions. Thus the notion of literacy event leads inevitably to a consideration of the notion of genre.




Whereas a literacy event is defined as any interaction between readers and written texts within a social context, a genre is a socially sanctioned type of communicative event, either spoken - like a sermon, a joke, a lecture - or printed, like a press report, a novel, or a political manifesto. Although sometimes viewed as a universal type, fixed by literary and other conventions, a genre in a sociocultural perspective is always dependent on being perceived as such within a specific context of situation or culture.

The concept of genre is related to text type and language choice: it is as measured against a prototypical sermon in their culture, for example, that members of a group can assess to what extent the register chosen by a certain preacher conforms to or deviates from the genre 'sermon', even if it is not delivered in a church. As we saw in Chapter 4, misunderstandings can arise when some participants in a speech event believe they are engaged in one genre (for example, problem-solving task) while the other participants in the same event believe they are engaged in another (such as a talk show interview).

What turns a collection of communicative events into a genre is some conventionalized set of communicative purposes. For example, one convention of scientific research papers is that they inform researchers of scientists' findings as clearly, convincingly as possible, and in a manner that furthers future research. However, not every scientific community shares the same views as to how these goals should be achieved. There are striking differences, for example, between the French and the Anglo-Saxon genre 'research paper'. Anglo-Saxon scientists have to legitimize their research by displaying in the first paragraph all extant research on the same topic and showing how their own fills a neglected gap. By contrast, French scientific articles draw their legitimation from the status and affiliation of the researcher, and his/her own work in the field; French scientists find the initial review of the literature rather futile. Unlike their French counter-parts, Anglo-Saxon scientists have to make explicit their adherence to a recognizable school, disciplinary tradition, or theoretical orientation; French scientists prefer their research to stand on its own merits. Whereas American research articles end with the obligatory discussion of 'the limitations of the study', French articles do no such thing; instead, they are obligated to raise larger questions, and point to directions for further areas of study. These two different styles within two scientific communities that otherwise share the same purpose may create difficulties for some French scientists, who may be willing to publish in English but wish to retain their own cultural scientific style.

It is easy to see why genre plays such a central role in the definition of culture. One can learn a lot about a discourse community's culture by looking at the names it gives to genres, for genre is society's way of defining and controlling meaning. In fact, the very definition of a text type as a separate genre, or a stylistic variation of the same genre, is a matter of passionate disputes, and not only among scholars. For, the concept of text type establishes constraints on what one is expected to write about, in what form, for what audience. Religious leaders in some cultures, like, for example, Shi'a Islam, make a difference between texts that tell the truth, for example, the sacred text of the Qur'an, and those that 'lie', such as poetry. Narrative irony, as found in the Western novel, is not a familiar text feature in a culture that expects narrative truth to be identical to real-life truth. Those who use novelistic irony and fiction to criticize Islamic practices, like Salman Rushdie did, are read at face-value and condemned by those who have the authority to be the textual gate-keepers of their culture.




The advent of writing and the invention of the printing press have radically changed the relation of language and culture. The maintenance of historical tradition, the control of collective memory, the authority to interpret events have all been enhanced by the written medium. Thus textual culture has become the dominant culture of research and scholarship.

However, there have always been two ways of looking at written language: as a fixed and stable product, i.e. as text, or as an interactive, highly inferential process between a text and its readers, i.e. as discourse. Through their educational system, their media, and their political institutions, discourse communities play an important role in establishing the parameters of socially acceptable literacy events, in defining the appropriate genres within their boundaries, and in seeing to it that these genres are respected by their members.



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