Critical Literacy

 Every literacy has evolved historically to fulfill some social function. Literacies in general assist cooperative activity in communities, and in particular they help us integrate short-term activities across longer timescales (Lemke, in press –c). A ‘text’ in the sense of some material artifact which survives for times long compared to those of its production, and which circulates in a community over this longer timescale, comes to play a role in many specific short-term activities in which it is semiotically interpreted, and thereby functions most basically to tie together longer-term, larger-scale social processes and networks.

  We can see, therefore, in texts the semiotic lifeblood of a community circulating through the body politic. We encounter in texts all the values and beliefs of that community, all its attitudes and orientations, alliances and conflicts, categories and classifications. We learn what it regards as normal and surprising, assured and doubtful, desirable and undesirable, necessary, permitted, forbidden and optional. But to understand the wider functions of the beliefs and values embodied in texts we must also study how they circulate: which activities, which settings, which persons and artifacts are connected by these texts. How are they used similarly and differently by those who typically handle them? And how is immediate behavior, and larger-scale social order, different because these texts with these beliefs and values circulated where they did rather than other texts with different beliefs and values?

 A social semiotic perspective on literacy is explicitly political. Because it does not see meaning as inherent in texts, but rather in how they are used and interpreted in communities, it points outward to the social functions of texts and not just inward to their formal patterns. Because it sees meaning-making not as an interior mental process but as an ecological, material process in an emergent self-organizing system larger than the isolated organism, it poses questions about the social and material effects of texts and not just about the organismic physiology of their production or interpretation. Because it seeks to understand both the semiotic and material bases of social organization, it regards every text as having a political function on some social scale.

 I believe the goal of education, all education, is to nurture the development of critical intellectual capabilities. The responsible exercise of the power which knowledge gives us requires that we assess the implications, consequences, and alternatives of our actions as best we can. Every text we make, every text in whose circulation we participate, every discourse formation or multimedia genre we adopt and use has larger political and social functions. Ethically and morally we must know what we do. Politically and personally we must learn enough to help our communities do better.

  Advanced multimedia literacy in the genres of science and scientific education confers great power in our society. To empower a wider range of people, we need to understand the specific semiotic and social demands of this literacy. To empower them responsibly, we need to understand equally well its social and political consequences.