The Necessity of Discourse
In reviewing contemporary literacy studies, it is obvious that thought patterns have shifted from the antiquated idea that the study of literacy means solely the study of reading and writing. Literacy studies seem to be taking on a newer, more holistic approach where the study of reading and writing is approached in contexts including social and economic backgrounds, belief systems and cultural aspects. From this idea of literacy studies being more inclusive of diversities, several scholars in the fields of linguistics have dismantled older literacy studies and within their new paradigms coined terms to further define and study the phenomenon of literacy. One such pioneer in this field is James Paul Gee.
Gee’s study of literacy makes use of the term Discourse (with a capital D) in his pieces, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” and “What is Literacy?” Gee defines Discourse as an “identity kit” (537): a way of being in the world that encompasses speaking, gesturing, writing, body language, values, beliefs, attitudes, clothing and other such social practices that people engage in daily amongst family, friends, coworkers and even strangers. He breaks the idea of Discourse down into four categories: primary and secondary, dominant and nondominant.
The primary discourse is one that we are essentially born with or are indoctrinated into at a very young age. It is the Discourse with which we first perceive the world and learn to interact with others. It would seem that everyone should acquire a primary Discourse, as it constitutes ones “original and home-based identity” (527), though primary Discourse will vary greatly from person to person.
Secondary Discourses are those that we acquire throughout our lives as we learn to interact in the various social circles we find ourselves within. These would include schools, work places, churches, peer groups and other sources of social interaction. People can acquire more than one secondary Discourse, though Gee contends that full acquisition of any secondary Discourse requires full immersion and exposure to that Discourse. Acquisition of a secondary Discourse is then defined by Gee as literacy. He says literacy is “the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse” (529).
The dominant Discourse is a secondary discourse which brings us the
“acquisition of social ‘goods’” (528). Gee asserts that the dominant Discourse is the Discourse of the “mainstream,” or the Discourse where most people who find “success” (monetarily, socially, etc.) need to be entrenched.
A nondominant Discourse works for us in our social networks, but not in society as a large (i.e. a Discourse we might acquire as being a member of a social club).
Discourses can overlap, of course, and conflict. The value system of one Discourse may be at odds with the values of another Discourse. Gee notes that Discourses are hard to infiltrate. He writes, “...someone cannot engage in a Discourse in a less than fluent manner. You are either in it or you’re not. Discourses are connected with displays of identity; failing to truly display an identity is tantamount to announcing you don’t have that identity, that at best you’re a pretender or a beginner” (529). Gee’s determination that secondary Discourses are privatized means of communication that might conflict with one another calls for some examination. The questions that arise include: is it necessary to fully acquire a secondary Discourse and is the lack of fully acquiring a secondary Discourse, (even though it might conflict with ones belief systems), and/or the lack of the acquisition of the dominant Discourse detrimental to social well being? Applying Gee’s concepts to a selection of rhetoric will allow for the navigation of these questions.
Enter Gloria Anzaldua, author or “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” and “Towards a New Consciousness.” Anzaldua describes herself as a Mestiza (compromising Indian, Mexican, white and black ethnic backgrounds), Chicana, and lesbian woman who speaks English, and eight different dialects of Spanish whilst managing to pen her aforementioned pieces with a strong voice steeped in academia. She feels her associated cultures have been devalued by the dominant culture and in turn by one another. When applying Gee’s use of Discourse, Anzaldua exemplifies a woman who has no cultural or social group with which to completely identify and no one language that she feels comfortable with. Gee might say that she has not fully acquired any secondary Discourse at all, hence her lack of social and linguistic identity. Instead Anzaldua has found herself in a mangle of linguistic, cultural and social identities with no real comfort zone. It is her lack of secondary Discourse acquisition that leaves her at this crossroads. Anzaldua writes, “Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate Chicano Texas Spanish, Tex-Mex and all the other languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself” (44). Thus she describes her suffering within the conflicts of the discourses that she is juggling. If Gee is correct, it would seem then that full acquisition of a secondary Discourse might ease these identity issues. Had Anzaldua become immersed in a secondary Discourse to the point of full acquisition, perhaps her struggle for legitimacy would lessen. Anzaldua is not “in,” and thus feels very left out.
Anzaldua’s feelings of illegitimacy stem from being excluded from both the Discourse of which she wishes to be a part and from the “mainstream” Discourse. She writes, “Chicanas who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have internalized the belief that we speak poor Spanish. It is illegitimate, a bastard language. And because we internalize how our language has been used against us by the dominant culture, we use our language differences against each other” (43). The pressure of the dominant Discourse on a secondary Discourse seems stressful enough based on this quote, and then to top that with the fact that Anzaldua has no stable secondary discourse from which to make a stance and Gee seems to make perfect sense. One must fit snugly into at least one secondary Discourse to feel some sense of social and cultural stability and ultimately, the dominant Discourse would be the one to strive for as it would cause the least amount of conflict and the most amount of acceptance. Anzaldua has not acquired any one Discourse at all.
Though she admits that she is excluded from the Discourses she identifies with and from the mainstream, and that this causes great conflict within her, Anzaldua’s solution is not what Gee might suggest. Gee might look at the many cultural identities with which Anzaldua associates herself and the many dialects that she speaks and suggest that by choosing one to concentrate on and immerse herself within, Anzaldua would become a prosperous member of that Discourse. If she were to pick the one that is socially the most powerful to concentrate on, it could also serve her as a dominant Discourse. However, Anzaldua will not acquiesce to the mainstream. She will make no further attempt at acquiring a secondary Discourse nor try to learn to be at least a functional part of the dominant Discourse. She has decided to struggle against the dominant culture and in turn, against the dominant Discourse. It is not a matter of the acquisition of an “identity.” Anzaldua feels she has several identities and she refuses to give up any of them in order to become a fluent member of just one. The dominant Discourse is not one of power or prestige to her, but that of an oppressor that needs to be avoided. Here is where Gee’s concepts take a turn. His idea of Discourse and the conflicts they can cause with one another is proven to be true is Anzaldua’s writing, but the assumption that the full acquisition of a secondary Discourse or a dominant Discourse is necessary to bring social well being seems oppositional to Anzaldua’s views. Anzaldua refuses to change to be apart of the dominant Discourse. Instead, she wants the dominant Discourse to change to include her. She says, “...within the culture Chicana, commonly held beliefs of the white culture frequently attack commonly held beliefs of the Mexican culture, and both attack commonly held belief of the indigenous culture” (50). She continues to say that:
...it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed....the counterstance refutes the dominant cultures views and beliefs, and for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority - outer as well as inner- it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and at once see through serpent and eagle eyes (50).
Anzaldua believes that a social change can correct conflicting Discourses. One need not change to acquire a Discourse but the concept of Discourse needs to change to accommodate identity differences.
Another way to exemplify the idea that Discourse acquisition is not tantamount to feelings of social adequacy is to look at a study done by Marcia Farr in the piece, “En Los Dos Idiomas.” Farr conducted a literacy study on a group of Mexican immigrants to examine how they were able to assimilate to the literacy demands brought upon them when moving to the United States.
What Farr learned first was that many of the men in her study had no formal schooling in Mexico but had managed to teach themselves to functionally read and write Spanish using inventive methods such as practicing letters on cigarette boxes. According to Gee’s definition, some of the people in this study never acquired full literacy in their primary Discourse. One man is quoted as saying, “Because those of us that learn to read and write over here, lyrically, what are we going to know about spelling, how are we going to know where an accent goes, that when there is a period you pause when you are reading, what does one know about that?” (473). Yet many of these people, after moving to the United States, were still able to go on and become functionally literate in a secondary Discourse. They were able to meet necessary literacy requirements without fully acquiring either a primary or secondary Discourse. Farr makes no statements of them feeling left out or inadequate. Instead they found support groups of family and friends to help them rise to the literacy demands of places like schools, jobs, the government and commercial institutions. Farr writes that, “...all of them are coping quite well with the literacy demands of their jobs...network members quite adequately respond to the demands for literacy in the commercial domain” (480). She notes that the people in her study had equal success when dealing with the government.
Farr agrees that further study of the English (and Spanish) language will increase the successes of her subjects, but there is no mention of their oppression or conflict of their Discourses. Instead, they found a way to bypass these conflicts, and the need for secondary and dominant Discourses, with strong communal ties. They seem able to cope quite nicely.
In conclusion, James Paul Gee’s literacy model proves true in that secondary Discourses are difficult to fully acquire and they can cause internal conflicts. However, as both Gloria Anzaldua and Marcia Farr demonstrate, not everyone needs, or wants, to be fully immersed in a secondary or dominant Discourse. Literacy can be achieved to the extent that it is socially necessary without full acquisition and without feelings of unease. As Anzaldua’s writing shows, the idea of Discourse may need to be further challenged to change it from being an exclusive social, cultural and linguistic grouping to an inclusive one. This might reduce the internal conflicts caused by contradicting Discourses and provide for more social cohesion.