Monday, November 03, 2003

Reading the Brand Bullies

I like to consider myself a reader. I’ve read all sorts of stuff: fantasy, mystery, erudite biography, hardcover bestsellers, classics, and even a romance (only one). I once even worked my way through a pile of mildewed westerns and hardboiled dime novels I found in a disused footlocker at our cottage.

Even as a reader, I’m not sure why I read. Reading itself is hardly a static activity. We know that people engage in different modes of reading and that the reading of any text is a dynamic process. In Television Culture, Fiske provides a detailed review of the ways in which individuals engage with texts—be they books or television programs (Fiske, 1987). According to Fiske (and many other Reading-Response theorists like Derrida, Stanley Fish, etc.), the reader creates the meaning of the text.

The reader may construct the meaning of the text, but the actual creation of books is within the realm of authors, publishers, and distributors. Certain commentators have noted the increasing commercial motivation of the book industry (Radway, 1991), but it should be noted that this process is similarly dynamic. As demonstrated in studies by Kaestle and Darnton, the creation of books is subject to the vagaries of a cycle of communication between various parties and modalities are injected into the text at each stage. Even texts seemingly immune from discursive interpretations are subject to these production modalities. Pang (1998), for example, provides a fascinating account of how artistic license rather than scientific accuracy governed the creation of illustrations and plates in scientific journals!

So what are the highly unstable things—books—supposed to do? Kaestle (1991) provides a moving argument that books and literacy can be used to both control a population and to free a population. Kaestle, for example, describes the rise of literacy in puritanical New England. His argument is that indoctrination in scripture provided a means of controlling a population. I imagine a bunch of pilgrims deferring to the bible—which they can all read—in order to justify the burning of a witch. This scenario seems to resonate with Chelton’s (1997) description of the “overdue kid” in which a librarian defers to a computer terminal in order to exercise authority.

Despite the rise of literacy in particular eras, I have to wonder about functional literacy. Just because a pilgrim could read a bible does not necessarily mean that they are functionally literate or able to make informed decisions about their communities. The threat of functional illiteracy to democracy has been noted by a number of left wing commentators. It’s interesting to note that the ultra-right wing economist Friedrich Hayek voiced similar concerns. If I didn’t know better, I would rekindle the “fiction problem” (Ross, 1991) and state that Joe Consumer has to be educated in order to overcome functional illiteracy so they can become functional societal members.

Several authors have noted that Joe Consumer does have his own set of texts and his own genres of literature that meet his informational needs (Radway, 1991; Ross, 1991). Commentators consider these works “pap” or “trash” because they are unversed in the genre. Personally, I find in hard to consider texts such as the television programs “Joe Millionaire” or “The Mullets” anything but trash—my own genre illiteracy be damned!

Perhaps the greatest lesson from Kaestle’s review is his discussion of the problems of measuring literacy. From signature studies, for example, it seems that illiteracy followed a general societal ascendancy except for a period when industrialization caused a reverse trend due to breakdowns in family structure and increases in child labour. It seems ominous to me that our media—books and television included—are becoming increasingly banal in an era when most North Americans are employed in service sector jobs with few benefits and no opportunity for advancement (Klein, 2000). What sort of meanings does the Wal-Mart greeter create from primetime television?


Chelton, M. K. (1997). The "overdue kid": A face-to-face library service encounter as ritual interaction. Library & Information Science Research, 19(4), 387-399.
Fiske, J. (1987). Television culture. London ; New York: Methuen.
Kaestle, C. F. (1991). Literacy in the United States : readers and reading since 1880. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Klein, N. (2000). No space, no choice, no jobs, no logo : taking aim at the brand bullies. New York: Picador.
Pang, A. (1998). Technology, aesthetics, and the development of astrophotography at the Lick Observatory. In T. Lenoir (Ed.), Inscribing science: Scientific tests and the materiality of communication (pp. 223-248). Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.
Radway, J. A. (1991). Reading the romance : women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Ross, C. S. (1991). Readers' Advisory Service: New Directions. RQ, 30(4), 503-518.


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