To know is to be able to do.

The Civilization of Illiteracy

Semiotics 1981 (J. Deely , M. Lenhart, Eds.). New York: Plenum, 1983


Semiotics 1981 (J. Deely , M. Lenhart, Eds.). New York: Plenum, 1983


L’ année terrible The Terrible Year
Tu viens d’incendier la Bibliothèque?

– 0ui.

J’ai mis le feu là!

– Mais, c’est un crime inoui!

Crime commis par toi contre

toi-même, inf’me!

As-tu donc oublié que ton libérateur, c’est le livre

Le livre est ta richesse à toi!

C’est le savoir

Le droit, la vérité, la vertu, le devoir,

Le progrès, la raison dissipant

tout délire.

Et tu détruis cela, toi!

– Je ne sais pas lire.

You have just burned the Library?

– Yes.

I set it on fire!

– But that is an unheard of crime!

A crime committed by you

against yourself, villain!

Have you for gotten that your liberator is the book?

The book is your wealth!

It is knowledge.

Right, truth, virtue, duty,

Progress, reason dissipating

all madness.

And you, you destroy that !

– I don’t know how to read.

The issue in this paper (which is part of a comprehensive work in progress) is not whether the book, and consequently the library, is the highest attainment of literacy, nor if illiteracy means the inability to read. The various meanings of the term illiteracy are so well documented that they need not be recalled here [1]. (However, as a decent member of the academic species, I do provide footnotes and bibliography in a reference section.) The question I deal with here is not if the infamous arsonist should be forced into the social mechanism that produces literates (be it church, school, social program, etc.) but whether he is a necessary product (necessary will sometimes be involved in the concept of the objective, i.e., independent of us) of a development that, if it does not make the library and the book obsolete, imposes new values and new criteria of civilization. The first objection which could be raised is to what extent this subject is approachable from the perspective of semiotics; a second: How can we infer from a reality not yet resolved and very contradictory to a future already burdened by so many predictions (from extremely fatalistic to fatally extremely optimistic)? Other objections can be raised, too, but it is beyond the point to exhaust every possibility since I am considering one of those processes, which embodies, in the Peircean phaneroscopic categories, transition from Possible to Necessary. I’ve just identified the type of semiotics I apply in my research so that each time the elementary terms of this semiotics are used, you will know that they belong to the terminology set forth by Peirce (and will not expect me to repeat his definitions unless I thought I had to modify or complete them). The common opinion is that illiteracy, a phenomenon far from being peculiar to the United States, is due either to the low quality of the educational system or to the disastrous effects of the new media. In other words, the person listening to Hugo’s romantic rhetoric – and supposed to understand such eccentric words as knowledge, right, truth, virtue, duty, progress – had no access to a school (as still occurs in parts of the world), had bad teachers (I shouldn’t say this here, should I?), or grew up in a half-real world in which radio, television; mixed media, etc. made him neglect the virtues of writing, correct speech, and understanding verbal messages. Without ignoring these causes – actually I consider them symptoms of the necessary development t o be discussed here – I should remark that Hugo’s illiterate, who I choose as a preliminary model, is not the same as the contemporary illiterate, and the latter, in his or her turn, is not the same in the Western world, in the self-proclaimed socialist countries, or in the Third World, although, as it will he pointed out, the illiterates from these parts have more in common than the fact that they live during the same period. What concerns us here is the so-called functional illiteracy in the industrialized countries, i.e., that inability on the part of individuals who have had schooling, some who have university degrees, to properly use and comprehend verbal language.

In order to understand how illiteracy is produced, we should first consider what determined the need for literacy and how this need progressively changed [2]. Semiotics is entitled to introduce its own perspective in this respect since literacy is nothing more than the degree of competence an individual or a group has acquired in the use of language, verbal language being only one among others. (The term competence should not make you think that what follows is a discourse in Chomskyan linguistics, quite to the contrary in some respects, although any polemic will be indirect.) The main instrument I discovered that I have to use in order to explain the processes involved in the transition from illiteracy t o literacy and now to a new stage of illiteracy is the traditional concept of labor division.

Language, as the most complex semiotic system w e know of, corresponds t o that stage of evolution of the natural species homo sapiens, which provided the latter with a social characteristic. Elementary forms of praxis (I prefer the Greek praxis to the often used and obscured English practice) such as hunting, fishing, agriculture, cattle-raising, seeking shelter, involved relatively simple sign systems generally kept near the objects represented, i.e., relating indexically or iconically the represented and the representamen (for orthodox Saussureans, the signified and the signifier, respectively). In fact, this represents a pre-semiotic stage t o be transcended as soon as the division between material and mental labor takes place, i.e., as soon as the field of the interpretant becomes possible and necessary.

However, we must distinguish between the signs involved directly in praxis and those participating in the interactions between individuals or, to put it in a different perspective, between the relational and the functional aspects of the sign as used by man. The relational dimension of the sign is expressed by the way (modus) in which the human subject represents his knowledge, belief, feelings etc.; the functional by the goal (telos), practical, theoretical, aesthetic, etc. that the sign has to accomplish. The development towards literacy – and the variety of ways literacy is embodied in different cultures – offers enough reasons to conclude that verbal language plays an important but contradictory role in the progress of humankind; that is, it participates in the further differentiation of human praxis, but also in the continuous alienation of human beings.

Anthropologists keep disputing over language’s contribution to the historic process leading to contemporary society. Although they are united in explaining the need for literacy, they panic before the reality of a highly developed society in which illiteracy has reappeared and spreads at a fast pace. Contemporary society is far more fragmented than any other earlier society. Earlier types are recognized as being local, sometimes parochial, and generally homogenous. Perspectives and premises were formed and shared within a group and consequently verbal language was adequate to the task of communication in which the essential function accomplished was the conveying of the denotative value of the signs used. Sharing meaning progressively appears in the field of the interpretant and together with it, specialized languages referring to differentiated contexts participate in new forms of the semiotic pragmatic.

In general, there is a tendency towards confusing cause and symptom, and here I return to my statement that the low caliber of the educational system or the influence of the new media are symptoms o f a much deeper process in which our entire axiology is involved. Humankind is at the beginning of a new phase of its social development, a phase in which the human praxis determining our identity in the world we live in changes from direct relation between the subject and object of its work towards mediated relation. The mediation is one carried out through signs – in fact, the definition of the sign should be that of a mediating entity – and it extends from material to intellectual praxis. Labor division in modern society causes traditional activities to become nonessential and symbolic, or it turns them into forms of work mediated through new technologies. In contemporary praxis, the human subject comes less and less in contact with the primary object, be it from the natural environment (soil, animal, meteorological element, etc.) or even from the cultural environment. The cause of labor division is the perceived need to attain the highest possible level of efficiency in order to provide not only enough, at a certain qualitative standard, but also on a competitive basis. In the first stages of this process, verbal language provided the perspective of the whole. Marx said (1844) that the conflict involved in the division between intellectual and material activity could be avoided by transcending labor division, an idea that has proven to be not only romantic but also unrealistic.

The new phase in the development of the industrial society is that of predominantly semiotically oriented human praxis. The semiotization of praxis means not only that mediatization marks each type of activity but also that specialization imposes the need for languages able to take part in productive activities. Specialization improves professional competence mainly in terms of higher efficiency, but also continually undermines the reciprocal communication between those forced by labor division to specialize and the same seen as beneficiaries of specialization. We know that the quality of language diminishes, the perception of meaning deteriorates; we know also that language, as it developed through history, is less and less trusted even by those who we can call professionals in language. This phenomenon extends to all forms of what we call culture, the sphere of interpersonal relationships (love and family included). At the same time, semiotization, taking both the forms of mediatization and specialization, extends outward to social praxis. Labor division, as an objective necessity stemming from our urge to fulfill our needs and desires in an efficient way [3] participates in processes through which we are continuously turned into illiterates in respect to those languages shaping our lives: the language of the lawyer, of the physician, the financier, educator, philosopher, artist, of the politician, and so on.

The phenomenon of illiteracy is thus the reflection of the fact that in a social reality set on high efficiency, people are coming to need written and spoken language, as we have known it up to now, less and less. Phrases like “my lawyer”, “my agent”, and “my representative” are evidence of the fact that responsibility is passed on to those especially trained and skilled for the particular job and tends to disappear from our traditional set of values. In current social praxis, the use of language is progressively taken from the individual and transferred to professionals with high semiotic competence in their specialty. Mediatization takes place also in the sphere where traditional direct contact between subjects, due on the one hand to an expanded normative social status (extending to the intimate) and on the other, to the same subjects’ striving for efficiency. It is not the computer that changed the relationship between the physician and the patient, the seller and the buyer, the teller and the holder of a bank account, the library and the reader, the language laboratory and the student, etc., but, again, the increased mediatization and specialization resulting from labor division, and this the result of our very conscious striving towards more, better, faster, sooner, at the lowest cost (as we perceive that to be). In our days, influence and power are no longer exercised through verbal language [4].

And here we must introduce an aspect related to today’s illiteracy: the unprecedented growth of visual modes of communication. In contrast to that period when written language was the most efficient way of reaching the intended audience (either monarchs, clerics, philosophers, professors, i.e., those who made decisions that effected the material or spiritual life of the individual, of the masses) and enhanced by Gutenberg’s printing press, that period that saw the flowering of literature and language as an art, we are living in an era in which the visual has become the most efficient means of communication. The impetus behind this means has changed due to the intentions of the users and their level of instruction, competence, and moral values. Here, a false sense of democracy equalizes messages to their lowest common denominator where proper use of verbal language is perhaps secondary to the aim of getting the intended message across [5].

Televised debates are a good example of this. During the debates between the Presidential candidates, for instance, the nominees, often not answering the questions put t o them, followed the instructions given by their semiotic experts (public relations people, as they are commonly called): If you are asked a question you cannot answer, say anything but don’t show anger or confusion. (I paraphrase from a news report aired on NBC on the evening of September 26, 1980). We seem to be following the maxim that “One picture is worth a thousand words.” And when the verbal and visual are combined, the experts know that it is what we see which will reach the mind of the perceiver [6]. And why not? That each and every person was ever meant to be or could be literate to the degree that humanists hope for or that modern life demands is an idea that should be re-examined. The disgust and despair resulting from too much language – propaganda in its capitalist and communist forms, which obscure meaning where it once could exist bear the greater guilt here – and the terror towards specialized languages are reactions that do not historically justify the transition to the current illiteracy but which should be seen in the proper perspective.

In view of these developments, we are obliged t o cultivate alternative types of literacy that encompass all its subsystems (the visual, the auditory, probably the olfactory, the tactile, etc). In the domain of communication, we must abandon centralization around the verbal model and return to a concept of decentralization, i.e., a framework in which several semiotic centers co-exist.

The new forms of praxis we are assimilating and adapting to generally reflect, at the beginning, the structure of verbal language. In the process of their better adaptation to the semiotic exigencies of specialization, this structure changes, and accordingly we must develop new ways of approaching the semantics and pragmatics involved. Specialization isolates the individual. His world tends to be limited to the direct environment. At the same time, new semiotic devices integrate the individual into the most comprehensive system of interrelations and interdependency. The world is semiotically brought into his house; work can take place there; education, enjoyment, privacy, everything becomes a “terminal” matter. The arsonist from Hugo’s poem has less and less chance to set a library on fire; it is turning into a means of terminal (ized) instruction in which reading, after writing, becomes a matter of visual perception.

This is not science fiction and should neither be seen as a humanist’s appeal to save our traditional view of literacy. The worry and furor surrounding today’s illiteracy reflect the inability to understand why the civilization we have been moving towards since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has to abate so that we may free ourselves from a certain use of language and the values corresponding to it and cease thinking in terms of a unique literacy. The semiotization of human praxis means the expansion from the civilization dominated by one type of language to one in which several systems function simultaneously. The civilization of illiteracy transforms humankind’s sign-related activity into a major force of production. Man thus turns to the stage of zoon semiotikon (semiotic animal), one more phase in an evolution in which we should never think or believe that humankind is an end in itself. Hugo’s poem can be read through the centuries. Libraries will have been built and burned many times. The character under interrogation is none other than historic necessity, and as we know, necessity is illiterate. Our only hope is to understand it. Semiotics, in its interdisciplinarity and exercising its integrative nature, can assume the challenge and responsibility that historic developments have laid before us.


  1. “That person is literate who, in a language he speaks, can read with understanding anything he would have understood if it had been spoken to him; and can write, so that it can be read, anything that he can say.” S. Gudschinsky, Literacy: The Growing Influence of Linguistics, Mouton: The Hague, 1976″

    The meaning of literacy…changes according to the context, and it is the responsibility of the historian to specify the appropriate level of literary skills consistent with his understanding of t h e context.” R.S. Schofield, The measurement o f literacy in pre-industrial England, in Literacy in Traditional Societies. (J . Goody, ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.Other references can be found in N.S. Baron, Speech, Writing, and Sign, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1981.

  2. E. Havelock, Origins of Western Literacy, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, 1976. “A man sitting alone in his personal library reading is at once the product and begetter of a particular social and moral order. It is a bourgeois order founded on certain hierarchies of literacy, of purchasing power, of leisure, and of caste,” G. Steiner, After the book?, Visible Language, 6, 1972, pp. 197-210.
  3. “The division of labor is a true division only from the moment a division of material and mental labor appears. (The first form of ideologists, priests, is concurrent). [...] From this moment on consciousness can emancipate itself from the world and proceed to the formation of “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc.” K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology; cf. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, (L.D. Easton and K. H. Guddat, eds .and trans.), Garden City: Doubleday, 1967.
  4. C. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Paris: Plon, 1962 .

    “Si l’écriture n ‘a pas suffi à consolider les connaissances, elle était peut-être indispensable pour affermer les dominations. […] La lutte contre l’analphabetisme se confond ainsi avec le renforcement du contrôle des citoyens par le pouvoir. Car il faut que tous sachent lire pour que ce dernier puisse dire: nul n’est censé ignorer la loi.”

  5. R. Heilbroner, The demand for the supply side, The New York Review of Rooks, June 11, 1981.
  6. A.R. Saldich, Electronic Democracy. Television’s Impact on the American Political Process. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979.See also E. Fromm, To Have or To Be? New York: Harper & Row, New York, 1976.
  7. “The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. Physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined.” Albert Einstein. (See G. Bremster, The Creative Process, 1955.)

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