Postliterate Machineries

Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s statement on literacy in early 2008 (“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore”) provides a hint of the postliterate, as does a comment from a ventriloquized Bill Gates: “A generation or two has come along that can’t be bothered to read; it absorbs all its information.” These are hints to postliterate machineries. The postliterate does not merely refer to suggestions that literacy is no longer necessary or to a new era whereby illiterate children or savvy and selective kids can now cope without, given ranges of new media, prostheses and assistive technologies, as one commentator suggested (i.e., the new postliterati: “those who can read, but choose to meet their primary information and recreational needs through audio, video, graphics and gaming”). Nor does it only refer to a time when the digital glow of crystal LEDs washes out the candlelight of the Gutenberg galaxy, a romantic turn of “secondary orality,” electracy, or mediacy against what McLuhanites used to call “print-oriented bastards” (POBs). This is not quite the golden age of literacy yielding to the silicon age of postliteracies or a grand opening of the holographic or virtual pharmakon. It certainly does not simply refer to a de-alphabetization of the mind, as if it now could run on brainpower to codify and autocompile machine language. The postliterate points much less toward a waning state of literacy metaphors, practices, or skills and a cultural stage exceeding literacy than toward a recognition that machineries are no longer subordinate to literacies. The entire edifice is called into question with one modest insubordination—texting needs literacies; sexting needs something else.16

Naturally, it is tempting to answer “postliteracy” to the question “what comes after literacy?” This is sounder than saying that the newer and newest literacies come after the new literacies. Just as modernism has its literacies, postmodernism has its postliteracies. Postliteracy may be a key to decoding all the “posties,” or postconditions, from postmodernism to transhumanism: “With fragmentation now the normal epistemological condition, and knowledge itself increasingly reduced to information which neither has to be memorised (as in oral culture) nor systematically catalogued (as in literate culture), with context downgraded, and audio-visual subsuming written communication, the most important ‘post’ of all comes into its own: post-titeracy.” It is attractive to describe an end of “technologically based dominance of texts over pictures” as “postliteracy,” just as it is inviting to name this as the developmental stage following literacy. In this chapter, after asking what is a successor to “literacies,” considering their saturation in a campaign of total literacies, it is also satisficing to answer “postliteracies.” In postliteracies, does the day of rest occur after six days of work, is the moment of leisure after labor, the lifelong learning after schooling? In this, is the light, networked mind of dumb pipes after the heavy, overworked mind of intelligent letters? Even architects of “digital literacies,” looking quaint and old-fashioned, have to be grandparented into the shadow of postliteracies.17

Inasmuch as the postliterate is commonly associated with the death or exhaustion of literature, it is from the exhaustion of literacies that postliterate machineries make sense and meaning. As Socrates suggests in the Phaedrus, preliterate machineries delivered grammatike as somewhat dead on arrival—a “sacrifice to Mercury” as an ancient commentator phrased it. Bacon nonetheless felt that the “force, virtue, and consequences” of three inventions— namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass—surpassed the wisdom of the ancients and “changed the face and condition of things all over the world.” Analogical printing helped realize a proliferation of literate machineries. At the dawn of literacy at the nineteenth century’s end, critics dreamed that a “literary machine could be invented for compressing fiction, like a cotton or hay press, by which the loose materials that make up the three-volume novel or the serial in twelve monthly parts could be packed into the dimensions of a pamphlet or of a good magazine story.” The death or exhaustion of literature and the “literature of exhaustion,” with its endless periods of anxieties and decline, is just preliterate, literate, and postliterate machineries at play and work. Unwittingly, literary theorist Harold Bloom summed up this dimension of postliterate machineries in a potshot at Harry Potter: “That’s not reading because there’s nothing there to be read.” The best defense mustered thus far is dipping into the unconscious for dreams of twenty-first- century, on-demand, imachinic, and postmachinic literacies.18

Observing that no one reads anymore, Jobs could have stipulated that no one really reads or writes emails anymore. Yet, paradoxically, we have all become a postkid, postman, postwoman, or the gender-neutral and progressive postperson, “merely one stage in the long journey we might call the authorship of the self.” Mobilities have turned us into email carriers anxious of being or going conative, postal, and postliterate, like Moses with the tablet, at any given moment. Fifty years ago and somewhat robotist, it seemed that cyborgs were destined to safeguard humans from machineries to leave them to their cherished literacies. Definitely not your grandmother’s stationary literacies, cyborgs stamped a different postmark on the future and opted for text appeal and flash drive. God and goddess forbid that they would be slaves to literacies but not machineries.19

The postliterate resigns to a fact that digital pulses and analogical impulses are interdependent and coincidental—we are parts genuine and counterfeit, unadulterated and adulterated, lettered and machinic, the distribution of which is haphazard and designed. By and by, there has been a devaluation of currency in the “literacy myth” and “triumph of literacy” archetypes (i.e., civil, literate persons at the wit’s end of uncivil, nonliterate machineries). It is uncertain whether the free will is there to do battle for literacies in the way one battled for literature. When the tide turns, literary technologies and technological literacies need redefining. Still, it will be a lot more meaningful to download previews of the future by spinning wheels of fortune and the world’s horoscope, leveraging masses with mechanical muses, building bridges to unrealized destinations, riding chariots, motoring desires, or otherwise inciting and inventing non- , pre- , a- , and postliterate machineries. All things considered, I want to be preterliterate and machinic.

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