Cultural Literacies Roundtable

Project Convenor: Dr Mark Gibson


The program for the Cultural Literacies node has grown out of discussion among a number of Network members who have indicated an initial interest. Four main perspectives on literacies have been identified here:

  1. Pluralising ideas of cultural literacy

The idea of ‘cultural literacy’ is often associated with calls for a return to a recognised canon of ‘great books’. In the United States, for example, it has been given wide circulation by E.D. Hirsch as part of a lament over the fact that fewer and fewer young people today are able to quote Shakespeare, Virgil or Gibbon. Such positions generally lack sensitivity to the diversity of ways in which people share and communicate meanings. They also tend to have little to say about practices of meaning making appropriate to contemporary societies.

One line of interest within the Cultural Literacies node of the CRN is in investigating the plurality of ways in which people could be considered ‘literate’ today. A possible way in which this might be developed is through a study comparable to Tony Bennett, John Frow and Mike Emmison’s fieldwork on patterns of ‘taste’ in Accounting for Tastes.

  1. ‘Public pedagogy’

In recent years, public institutions – including governments, universities, broadcasters, museums – have increasingly been forced to renegotiate their modes of address. From the 1960s to the 1990s, there was a broad move to question assumptions of gender, race and class embodied in many traditional ways of engaging ‘the public’. Over the last decade, however, this move itself has frequently been attacked as representing the views of ‘elites’.

A second line of interest in the Cultural Literacies node is in identifying new ways in which public institutions are engaging – or might engage – with the public. How are ideas translated into the public sphere? What sorts of interface might be developed between academic and public domains? What possibilities are there for moving beyond the reactive and polemic model of public pedagogy which has often accompanied the breakdown of established forms of cultural authority?

  1. ‘Consumer-led Creativity’

The ways in which meanings are produced and consumed is currently being transformed by major shifts in the technologies and economies in which they are embedded. New technologies are increasingly redefining media from ‘read only’ to ‘read and write’ forms. This has economic implications: as cultural distribution systems become decentralised, economic value is increasingly generated at sites of consumption. But it also have political and cultural implications: we need to think about the relations between ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ differently; we need new models for thinking about the activity of ‘consumption’.

A third line of interest within the Cultural Literacies node is in investigating these shifts and their wider implications: How does literacy in multimedia differ from in print? What tuition is required to move from basic technical skills in new media forms to full creative expressiveness? How can literacies in new media be used for communication rather than simply self expression? What is the role of consumer creativity in political and economic growth?

  1. Literacy ‘proper’

As ideas of literacy are broadened to accommodate new media and greater cultural complexity, it is easy to lose sight of ‘old fashioned’ questions of basic skills in reading and writing – grammar, syntax etc. A fourth line of interest within the Cultural Literacies node is in investigating challenges and possible solutions to maintaining such basis skills. How might it be possible to broaden our understanding of literacy while also maintaining an attention to discipline within particular forms of communication?

Towards a program

The above four perspectives can be seen as coming together – admittedly, at a fairly abstract level – around the question of what communicative forms can, or should, fill the space left by a recession of traditional kinds of cultural authority. To break this into sub-questions:

The immediate aim for the Cultural Literacies node will be to develop a project – or projects – which allows these questions to be addressed in a more concrete way.

An initial meeting was held at the University of Sydney on 3-4 October 2005. There will be a follow-up discussion at UTS on the 16 June 2006.