Aristotle taught us that spoken words are our symbols of mental experience and words are the symbols of spoken words. We became textually fluent and entered a time of revolution after moveable type made text widely available. But now, we're entering a post-literate time and digital literacy is replacing textual literacy. I'm perplexed, trying to understand this, especially as a bibliophile spending hours this fall unpacking and sorting beloved books from storage.
Most adults didn't read one book last year. Americans watch almost six movies a month on DVD. Those ages 18 -24 watch 88 DVDs each year. The average person saw 6.0 movies in the theater in 2007. And this: Even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.
Our words and language are becoming abbreviated, mere blips and talking points and tag lines, ideas packaged by politicians and pundits and sold like products. We've seen the botched puffery of Palin's words and Bushisms that contorted our language (Palin “joined this team that is a team of mavericks” and the W. Bush classic, “Is our children learning?”). But in the world of Twitter and little lines of friendship via IM and facebook, we're changing.
George Orwell wrote on the Politics of Language but that was in a different time, at the rise of mass communication that made packaged word terms possible and constructed messages for mass audiences powerful.
Brands and icons are non-textual short cuts to literate understanding. So, just compare the symbols at top left, still used in New Mexico, still active as a language in an area where oral language has never given way to text.*
Look at the logos, at right, that are recognizable today without words and hold meaning as stand-alone signs. Meaning and ideas are moving away from text and I would contend also away from face-to-face transmission. Terry Heaton writes that we're in a post-media world. Maybe for now. I think we're headed for a post-literate world.
As I study folk art as part of my docent work at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, and am immersed here in the signs and language of current native american art designs of this region, I'm straddling cultural ideas of literacy transmitted through communities. As we enter global technologies and consumerism that cross country and language boundaries, signs become more important.
*meanings of native american symbols at top left: 1)The labrynth circle which signifies a journey or a homecoming; 2) three wavy lines symbolizing an active intellect, also drawn three lines vertical (three lines horizontal mean the passive intellect). Wavy lines can also be a sign for water. 3) universal brotherhood, (symbol at right), used by the Hopi today; and 4)The labrynth/maze with a cross inside, indicating spiritual homecoming, mother earth.)