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On Steiner’s ‘New Literacy’

The new literacy’ to which George Steiner refers in his bracing essay (“A New Literacy,” The Kenyon Review, 24:1, Winter 2007, 10-24) is that relating to our new electronic technologies–the Internet, Electronic Mail, personal computers–rooted in “mathematical logic and electromagnetic equations” and able to “encompass every semantic construct,” whether it has to do with literature, fine arts, or epistemology. As Steiner insightfully points out, such literacy is becoming increasingly important for many in our culture, including those of us trained in what has traditionally been called the humanities, for what Steiner refers to as fundamental literacy’ involves the “capacity to engage with, to respond to what is most creative and dynamic in our culture.” The literacies that a scholar of the humanities must master surely include this fundamental literacy, for without some understanding of and feel for what is most creative and dynamic in one’s culture, the humanist scholar will become a keeper of curios in a museum that no one visits. Tradition remains alive insofar as it remains on the move, meaning that the scholar of past achievements must have at minimum some understanding of the present moment and its creative energies. While Steiner is writing in a context concerned with the traditional British “A-levels, with their invitation to premature constriction,” I believe that his statements have great relevance for a North American context as well.

Certainly, one of the great twentieth-century scholars to meld an understanding of the past (specifically what used to be called the Renaissance) with a feeling for the dynamisms of the present was a North American, the Canadian scholar H. Marshall McLuhan, whose work connects with certain of the concerns of the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida. As one of McLuhan’s great students, the American Jesuit Walter Jackson Ong, emphasizes, both worked very hard to overthrow old styles of thought that would feature an actuality known clearly and and in its essence through the transparent medium of language: “In breaking up what he calls phonocentrism and logocentrism, Derrida is performing a welcome service, in the same territory that Marshall McLuhan swept through with his famous dictum, ???the medium is the message’” (Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982, 167). As Ong also emphasizes, language does get at plenty of actuality (including the realities of how language does and does not relate to actuality), but it does so in deeply complex and often convoluted ways. For every statement conceals at least as much as it reveals; every answer calls forth further questions; every assertion must be qualified by other assertions. There are, in other words, no closed systems of knowledge. Every system or way of knowing must rely on some ???tacit dimension’ (in the language of Michael Polanyi); every system or way of knowing must begin by pointing to an idea or sense of things that we can hold in common.

None of this is to say that there is no true knowledge–were there no true knowledge, we could not know that there are no closed systems. Rather, as the philosopher Bernard Lonergan pointed out in his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957), human cognition is a constant process of experience, understanding, and judgment. Experience is anything that comes into human awareness–let us call a given experience X. An act of understanding responds to the question, What is X?–let us call the response to this question Y. Judgment answers ???Yes’ or ???No’ to the question, Is Y true? The process is ongoing, for judgments lead to further questions of understanding, which lead to further questions of judgment, all of which prepare for and open one to further experiences, moments of understanding, acts of judgment, and so on. One can even confront questions of understanding and judgment about one’s experiences of experience, understanding, and judgment, as Lonergan does throughout his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Much of what I think we can affirm as true is what Communications scholar Lance Strate refers to as dialogical rather than monological: “Dialogic is the logic of difference (in relation to similarity), the logic of relationships, and of mediation, which monologic by its very nature must deny. Dialogic may be a form of paralogic, because it bursts the boundaries of monologic (paralleling the relationship between paradox and orthodox” (Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, 2006, 3). Caught up in the exploration of similarity in relation to difference, human cognition is inherently dynamic; it remains on the move as it continues to break out of or leap beyond whatever interpretive framework it finds itself within. Such also is the constant motion of human traditions, and thus the urgency of Steiner’s essay on his idea of a new literacy. Steiner’s new literacy would include a core syllabus in mathematics, music, and architecture, pursuits that he finds at the present moment to be areas of intense creativity.

In Steiner’s view we are at the end of a long trajectory of intellectual and creative pursuit. As he puts it, while there is no logical contradiction involved in the idea that a “new Shakespeare or Michelangelo or Beethoven” might appear tomorrow, he finds the prospect of such an appearance intuitively unlikely to say the least. As he puts it, “The humanities in the West are the virtuosities of twilight or, to borrow a famous tag, it is “closing time in our gardens.’” But it seems to me that the reason we shall have no more Shakespeares, Michelangelos, and Beethovens is not because there will be no more artistic accomplishment of the first order, but rather because true artistic accomplishment–what it means and how it works–must continue to change, often radically alter, and sometimes even subvert the very tradition that it grows from. As workers in the various arts continue to experiment with shaping the materials in which they specialize–sound (in music), language (in literature and song), color (in painting), three-dimensional shape (in sculpture), etc.–they must continue to strive to create something new, and often enough this something new will not scan neatly in accordance with the protocols of the past, especially when the moment of experimentation is caught up in such powerful changes as is our own electronic age with its burgeoning of new technologies of communication. Here is one reason why now perhaps more than ever we need scholars who are rooted in the past but who also have an openness to and feel for what is taking place in the present. Often it falls to such scholars to explain our present moment to us in its resonances with, relations to, and departures from the past. Often it falls to such scholars to point out to us where and how our great artists are working. It is not that we cannot have artists whose accomplishments can match those of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Beethoven, but rather that in a radically new historical moment, one in which new technologies are restructuring human consciousness and how we relate to the world with our senses, our greatest artists are no longer going to look and sound like those august figures from the past.

It also falls to our best scholars, such as Steiner, to point out some of the directions that our labors need to go. I could hardly agree more that we need to integrate our humanistic pursuits–or whatever we might eventually decide to call such pursuits–with such disciplines as mathematics, architecture, and music, and that we need to study these disciplines in terms of their histories. Steiner puts it extremely well when he points out the “sheer beauty, the elegance in unfolding, even at certain points the wit, of the mathematical enterprise” In fact, I believe that we need to work harder to integrate, and to encourage our students to integrate, what has traditionally been called the humanities with all of the sciences. Some of the thinkers and scholars by whom I’ve been most influenced–some of whom I have mentioned in this present blog–had proficiency and background in the sciences as well as experise in their own fields. I fear that the work of such integration is an area in which I remain woefully behind. Thus, I shall for now break off my considerations of Steiner’s marvelous essay and do a bit more reading in Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman’s G??del’s Proof.