Since I didn’t pick any specific chapters to read for this week, I thought I’d read the first two chapters of The Anthropology of Writing: Understanding Textually-Mediated Worlds to contextualize everyone else’s discussions. This collection seeks to bring together two writing research traditions: the (French) anthropology of writing and (English-speaking) New Literacy Studies (Barton and Papen 3).
In Chapter 1, David Barton and Uta Papen seek to map out the anthropology of writing—what it is and does, what methods it uses, and its scope. They argue that writing, though traditionally ignored by anthropologists for oral and more “exotic” forms of communication, is an important topic of study: “It was created by people and is passed on culturally; it has symbolic value and material aspects; and it is crucial to interaction between people and central to knowledge creation” (5). By examining writing through an anthropological lens, we can gain a better sense of how societies operate, how institutions interact with the public, and how social groups organize their experiences (5). A growing research interest in writing is seen through discourse analysis, literacy research, historical studies of writing, and educational research. Barton and Papen seem to favor the latter, which values writing as “more than skills,” positioning writing as an activity (8).
Because of this focus of writing as an activity, studying written texts is highly dependent on social and cultural contexts, which privileges research methods that account for these specific contexts. The methods favored are ethnographic and, sometimes, historical (9). These methods highlight the “users and producers of texts” and how they “engage with the broader social practices and discourses their actions are part of” (9). Typically, these texts fall into the category of the marginalized, which we have discussed throughout the semester: “incipient and ordinary, often invisible and hardly known, frequently ignored or mistakenly taken for irrelevant” (10).
Barton and Papen briefly outline the differences between the English and French writing research traditions. In the English tradition, for example, texts are often studied within a “literacy event” or “literacy practices,” which locate writing in social practices (11). Barton and Papen argue that texts must be studied beyond these categories, placed within contexts, spaces, and places that both differ and overlap (13). In France, however, researchers focus on the microprocesses of writing in relation to how they accomplish work-related tasks (22). Whereas an English writing tradition may focus on everyday life, multilingual contexts, or religion, French writing traditions may focus more on writing in the workplace and in public spaces.
In the second chapter, “Writing Acts: When Writing is Done,” Béatrice Fraenkel complicates these differences, showing both extraordinary and ordinary acts of writing. She begins by looking at revolutionary graffiti slogans and how they follow syntactic and rhetorical norms that are structured from other familiar graffiti models (33). Fraenkel argues that these graffiti slogans are “linguistic acts: orders, claims, exhortations, protests, denunciations, etc.” that are performative acts of writing (34). Then, when someone passes by the graffiti and reads the slogans, they participate in the public writing act through reading (36). What this shows is that the writing and reading acts (or processes) have value as a larger part of language and that they also have value specifically from being written, an act more permanent than speech.
Though Fraenkel describes political graffiti as an example of extraordinary writing, she argues that we can also find value in more ordinary public writing, such as signposts, notices, and road signs that both perform writing and modify the places where they appear. Her example, a “Beware of Dog” sign, warns us and labels the house as a forbidden space. I’m not entirely sure why the term label is so clearly defined here, but Fraenkel emphasizes that “labeling” refers to all acts that attach something written to a place, object, or person (38). So with the example of graffiti, labeling asks us to consider the performative uses of the written act of graffiti (39).
Fraenkel also briefly offers the example of post-9/11 memorial public acts of writing, which she designates as “writing events” that together create a collective writing act yet remain individual acts of writing. She asks, “How can we characterize these acts? How can we explain the new forms taken by reactions to such catastrophic events and their commemorations, involving writing practices which are still emerging, and writing actions which are difficult to explain?” (40). I don’t have answers for those questions, and she doesn’t really, either, but they are interesting for thinking about new and emergent forms of writing and how different elements from both the French and English writing traditions break down and rebuild within different contexts. Ultimately, Fraenkel herself makes this point, arguing that writing acts draw our attention as researchers to “the written elements of our environment, and the way in which inscriptions constitute it, manage it and disrupt it” (42).
I’m interested in hearing how other chapters in the book continue to disrupt these two research traditions, how authors use and blend research methods, and how they (and we) study these writing acts, practices, and events within their own contexts. Also, these beginning chapters really pushed the importance of context, reminding me of our heated discussion of the Purcell-Gates article “Analyzing Literacy Practice: Grounded Theory to Model” and how some of us seemed a bit…miffed by the isolation of context within the larger project. I was also reminded of an archive panel that I attended at CCCC last week, “Storying the Archive: Narrative, History, and Identity.” In the panel, Madhu Narayan argued that literacy narratives need to emphasize the historical and rhetorical exigences that allow these narratives to emerge, prompting criticism of The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) for stripping the stories away from their very specific, individual contexts.
- We’ve brought this up before, but what are the values of studying writing on its own vs. researching writing as an activity within specific contexts?
- How do the other chapters work toward bridging the anthropology of writing and New Literacy Studies?
- What research methods are used by other authors in this collection that either support or work against these different research traditions? Barton and Papen mention ethnography and historical research—do any authors branch beyond these two? If not, are there other methods that we think could do this contextual work?
Barton, David, and Uta Papen, eds. The Anthropology of Writing: Understanding Textually-Mediated Worlds. NY: Continuum, 2010. Print.