Literacy Symposium Panel 1: Cultural Dimensions of Literacy

Imagining the ethnically other.

Presenter: Sanja Garic-Komnenic, BCIT

In this paper I will discuss misconceptions about the Ethnically Other and place the notion of cultural literacy into the field of the post-psychoanalytical analysis of cultural relations. Using this theoretical framework, I will consider ethnic identification as an "imaginistic construction" the status of which is always problematic. I am focusing on Lacan's concept of the Imaginary and the transition from the ideal-ego to the ego-ideal (sometimes called superego). Lacan insists that the Imaginary, the place of the Ego, is always a misconception since it is made of "images that capture us" and determine how we see others and ourselves. I will focus on two Bosnian films about Sarajevo as well as on Atom Egoyan's Calendar and will discuss film techniques that expose ideological fantasies about the Ethnically Other. I find this dismantling of misconceptions of about the Ethnically Other an important form of cultural literacy, especially relevant to multicultural societies such as Canada or Bosnia. I will show how the selected films problematize the identification based on ethnicity and expose the gaze of the other as the source of the fantasy of the Ethnically Other.

Critiquing the notion of value-free technology: Lessons from teaching the Holocaust.

Presenter: Gene Homel, BCIT

The value of a "critical literacy" is based on its ability to enhance awareness of how people's experiences are constructed within specific historical power relations. Relationships of power are based largely on technology, and so critical literacy can be seen in part as an ability to understand and critique technology within the context of specific power relations.

Students normally assume that science, engineering and technology are virtually always beneficial for people. Students largely assume that technology itself is morally neutral and value free.

However, in an interdisciplinary course on the Holocaust offered to BCIT students in professional and technical bachelor's degree programs, students are encouraged to engage critically with the role played by technology in Nazi Germany before and during World War Two, including its role in the Holocaust.

This course explores material on technology ranging from the role of IBM and information technologists in providing information-management machine technology, to the role of medical personnel and health professionals in mass murder, to the activities of numerous engineers, architects and building technologists in producing efficient mass-killing technology.

Course readings and discussions offer students the opportunity to consider that technological products, attitudes and processes are endowed with the values of the social and political order that produced them.

Counter to the notion of Albert Speer, Nazi architect and bureaucrat, that technological expertise can be separated from ethical values, students are encouraged to focus on the purposes and reasons behind the creation and deployment of technological products, and the values of the political and social order that created these products.

The goal is to encourage students to ponder how technology embodies the values and purposes of specific power relations. Students are encouraged to cultivate an ability to 'read' technology in a critical way, whilst they consider the varied consequences of technology, and the effects that it has on human lives.

The uses of media literacy.

Presenter: Zoë Druick, SFU

In his work on the history of literacy discourse, Harvey Graff (1987) has shown that by the 1980s the literacy paradigm as a symbol and "measure of modernity" was in serious question. By contrast, since that time, the paradigm of media literacy has only grown. Not only is it prevalent across the field of education, it has become a robust element of communication studies as well, particularly as it is taught at the high school level. This paradigm extends a tension has adhered to communication technologies throughout the past century: they have been singled out as causes of the erosion of literacy, democracy and civility at the same time that they have been presented as the baseline for participation in today's civic culture.

In this paper, I follow Graff's lead and focus on the contradictions of literacy (1987) as they have played out in the media literacy field. Starting with UNESCO's development of the concept in development communication in the 1940s and 1950s, I trace its career through the work of policy makers, marketers, and educators.

Building on the work of Jodi Dean on communicative capitalism (2009) and John Downing on radical media (2001), I explore the uncomfortable political alliance that has been forged in recent years between those on the left, who propose that media literacy will undo the complacency that has settled on our political sphere, bringing about a renewed democracy for the electronic age, and those on the right, who like the idea of media literacy because it places the onus on the individual for choosing to determine the value and meaning of media messages. I argue that media literacy, like communication before it, is a term as fraught with contradiction as "literacy" itself ever was.