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Transnational Literacies: Redefining Knowledge Mobility for the Digital Age


Literary Migrations, August  9, 2011.Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte

Diana Brydon


My warm thanks to Sandra Goulart Almeida for the invitation to speak to you today. Today’s talk addresses several contexts of literary migration in the early twenty-first century that are changing how literary scholars read, the questions we pose, and the answers we find persuasive. How do ideas travel across time and space in the internet age? How does the literary engage the social, the political, the spatial, and the temporal, at a time of intensifying transworld connections?  How are concepts of knowledge mobilization changing what we mean by the literary and how are globalizing processes changing what we mean by migration?  What is the role of English in the circulation of ideas and the creation of literary value? These questions motivate today’s paper. I cannot answer them here but I can raise issues that might resonate in your discussions over the next few days.

With colleagues in Canada and Brazil, I have been funded by a SSHRC partnership development grant to develop transnational literacies over the next three years, which can help us negotiate migrating meanings within an intensive program of collaborative knowledge exchange. I am grateful to SSHRC and the Canada Research Chairs program for funding this research. The paper is in two parts.

1.     Mobile Imaginaries from the Perspective of Transnational Literacies

Mobile imaginaries have driven engagements with globalization within the human sciences since at least the 1990s. Scholars rely on metaphors of movement to describe how globalization operates. Literature has always migrated across linguistic and political boundaries but for the last century, it has usually been studied either within such recognized borders, as a national literature, or across them, within comparative literature. Those formations for study are now being questioned. Most of us now understand globalization as involving patterns of disjunctive flows and sometimes unpredicatable blockages that mark a world in which everything from finance to the earth’s environment is interconnected. People are on the move, many physically, and many more imaginatively. Many of us are now connected through various forms of new technology, from the internet to the cellphone. New media enable people to be mobile without necessarily moving. There is talk of convergent cultures (Jenkins), in which older forms of textual expression co-exist and interact with the digital. Digital platforms offer new ways of writing and reading stories, which create new patterns of convergence across modalities and new routes for imaginative discoveries. Our times seem to be characterized by rapid changes in the ways we live, learn, and communicate. Those who resist change are often disparaged. In a highly competitive economy, it seems obvious the immobile will be left behind. In such a world, we are told that people need to learn to embrace change, and educational institutions need to change how they help prepare people for this world, or risk becoming redundant themselves.

I believe universities and schools do need to change but I also think we need to question some of the assumptions behind such calls for change. In particular, I am not convinced that some of the changes proposed are either as progressive or as radical as some of their proponents suggest. In today’s talk, I wish to raise some questions about the advantages and drawbacks of this new rhetoric of praise for mobile imaginaries, particularly those associated with migrations from the classroom to the internet and from text-based forms of reading to multimodal participations in digital environments. My approach draws on a postcolonial sensitivity to the legacies of colonialism and a concern for the ideological work that any popular rhetoric performs.

Our Brazil/Canada partnership project is asking about how Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s theorization of transnational literacy can be adapted to enable learning for democratic participation in our changing times. Spivak’s linking of deep language learning with geopolitical engagement, framed within an ethic of care for others and for the wellbeing of the planet, provides a basis for our understanding of what transnational literacies might involve. We pluralize the concept of literacy to indicate our distance from ethnocentric imperialist notions of literacy that were incapable of recognizing or respecting alternative modes of making meaning and to indicate our acknowledgement that the multimodality enabled by new technologies is changing how we understand the experience of reading. From that basis, we see a need to develop a range of literacy practices appropriate to the needs of different localities with Canada and Brazil. We are interested in how meaning-making practices change within different contexts of production and reception, both geopolitical and technological, local, national and hemispheric, and we are interested in the differences that teachers can make within the public schools and public universities we have.

Each of us has our own concerns within the project. Here are some of the questions I am asking within our team approach. How can students and teachers negotiate meanings in ways that truly enhance our autonomy, understood as our capacity to direct our lives as social beings? How can we distinguish between the uses to which physical and imaginative mobilities are put, and between various types of cognitive mobility now associated with educational innovations? What kinds of cognitive mobility might best serve the needs of cognitive justice? What are the roles for linguistic and literary study in such a venture?

By choosing transnational literacies as our overarching framework, we mean to imply that various forms of digital literacies cannot stand outside linguistic, sociopolitical, or geopolitical frames. Literacy is a social skill that requires negotiation across differences. Our partnership recognizes the continuing importance of the nation-state and its sub-regional provinces, states, and cities, particularly for the institutional frames in which educational systems operate, but we also believe these scales need to be placed within broader hemispheric and global frames. Ours is an experimental project in which we understand that there are no established templates for what we hope to discover.  Each of us within the project has our own views and we do not always agree, but we share a broadly-based commitment to a critical literacy approach.

The full text for the talk may be downloaded at this site

Question Leda Martins

Question Pascal Gin

Question Lynn Mario T. Menezes de Souza

Colóquio Internacional “Migrações Literárias” 9 e 10 de agosto de 2011

Procurando fortalecer e ampliar as redes dos estudos literários que discutem as questões das mobilidades culturais contemporâneas e, principalmente, a literatura produzida nesses contextos, o Colóquio Internacional Migrações Literárias propõe-se a reunir pesquisadores que se interessam em refletir sobre os espaços da literatura contemporânea, com um enfoque especial nas representações dos movimentos globais e transnacionais, da diáspora, das migrações, dos deslocamentos, das territorializações e dos exílios.

The research for this talk was made possible, in part, through support from the SSHRC partnership development grant program, the Canada Research Chairs program and the University of Manitoba.

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