Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.
Since the publication of Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” in two parts in the Bell Laboratory journal in 1948, understanding and research concerning communication and information has received a technicized treatment. As biosemiotics has been at the forefront in arguing, all living organisms communicate, but they do not do so in the digital mode used in information technology (IT) engineering. Life communicates in inherited, evolutionary ways that are traceable from single cells all the way to complex humans. What IT engineers call “redundancy” those studying living organisms call “meaning.” The trade between individual organisms and their environment takes place in the circulation, interpretation, and feedback loops of semiosis. In this way, organisms are able to maintain the features of adaptive, creative, and evolutionary learning systems by modeling their worlds in open, receptive fashion via the use of iconic and indexical signs. In other words, organisms make use of natural, then cultural metaphors and metonyms.
Francisco Vaz da Silva
Because the marvelous elements in fairy tales call for an explanation, a cohort of bright minds have pored over the problem of fairy-tale symbolism. Models sharing the nineteenth-century penchant for genetic inquiries have assumed that symbols are the survivals of archaic metaphors. Thus, Max Müller proposed that myths and fairy tales stem from obscured metaphors about solar phenomena; Sigmund Freud speculated that fairy-tale symbolism is the fossilized residue of primordial sexual metaphors; and Carl Jung submitted that symbols express immanent archetypes of the human psyche. Such early approaches assume that symbols convey fixed meanings, and they disregard the effects of folklore variation on meanings. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did take variation into account. They conceived Märchen in terms of immanent blueprints incessantly recreated in myriad retellings, but they never tried to make sense of the themes by means of the variants. This path was taken by folklorists influenced by Freud. Alan Dundes proposed to harness tale variants to grasp symbolic equivalences, and he pioneered the study of folk metaphors. But Dundes focused on preset Freudian symbols, a trend that Bengt Holbek followed. To this day, the prospect of addressing fairy-tale symbolism beyond Freud’s assumption of fixed translations remains elusive. Nevertheless, the basic tools are available. Maria Tatar remarked that fairy tales are metaphoric devices, and Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that metaphors—in switching terms that belong to different codes—lay bare the broader semantic field underlying each transposition. Müller, Freud, Dundes, Tatar, and Lévi-Strauss variously glimpsed metaphoric patterns in tale variations. The time is ripe to synthesize these intuitions in the light of contemporary cognitive research on conceptual metaphor, so as to address the creative dynamics of symbolism in fairy tales.
The Arabic language has a rich history of literary criticism and theory, starting from the 8th century ce up to the 21st century. This literary criticism and theory engages with a poetic tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. The inquiry into literary quality was motivated by an interest in evaluating poetry, a general concern with eloquent speech, whether in verse or prose, and by the desire to articulate the beauty of the Quran. The transmission of Aristotle’s Poetics into Arabic also spurred interest in the poetic, particularly in Arabic philosophy. The study of eloquence crystallized into a standardized science by the 13th century ce, with branches focusing on (1) the role of syntax in literary beauty (the science of meanings); (2) simile, metaphor, and metonymy (the science of elucidation); and (3) rhetorical figures (the science of rhetorical figures). The aesthetic developed in the early criticism of the 9th and 10th centuries was concerned with articulating the merits of an idealized classical style of pre-Islamic poetry, from which the “modern” poets of the early Abbasid period diverged. This classically oriented aesthetic was dominated by a concern with the truthfulness and naturalness of poetry, typical of the style of the “ancients,” on the one hand, and the limits of unrealistic imagery and affected artificiality, which characterized the more ornate modern Abbasid style, on the other. This binary outlook shifted after the 10th century, however, to an aesthetic of wonder. A theory of aesthetic experience began to develop, therefore, which was based on the ability of poetic language to evoke wonder in the recipient. As a result, wonder-enhancing characteristics such as strangeness, the unexpected, and the rare became essential components of aesthetic judgment. Moreover, the ability of language to make meaning manifest in ways that allow for an experience of discovery and hence wonder, became the foundation of aesthetic inquiry in post-10th century Arabic literary theory.
Michael H. Whitworth
Though “literature and science” has denoted many distinct cultural debates and critical practices, the historicist investigation of literary-scientific relations is of particular interest because of its ambivalence toward theorization. Some accounts have suggested that the work of Bruno Latour supplies a necessary theoretical framework. An examination of the history of critical practice demonstrates that many concepts presently attributed to or associated with Latour have been longer established in the field. Early critical work, exemplified by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, tended to focus one-sidedly on the impact of science on literature. Later work, drawing on Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts, and on Mary Hesse’s and Max Black’s work on metaphor and analogy in science, identified the scope for a cultural influence on science. It was further bolstered by the “strong program” in the sociology of scientific knowledge, especially the work of Barry Barnes and David Bloor. It found ways of reading scientific texts for the traces of the cultural, and literary texts for traces of science; the method is implicitly modeled on psychoanalysis. Bruno Latour’s accounts of literary inscription, black boxing, and the problem of explanation have precedents in the critical practices of critics in the field of literature and science from the 1980s onward.