Bacon's Tree
Disguised Encyclopedias
Dictionaries without Ideologies

Outsider Literacies
Mono-Cultural vs. Multicultural Literacy
Whose Encyclopedia

Ginger Root Literacy (flash movie)

[64] In contrast to the tyranny of the lists produced by encyclopedias, we must explore the maps created by multiple human cultures. This is a project worthy of our collective attention. It could be said to be the primary epistemological project to which human culture is implicitly devoted. These maps cannot be encompassed in a list, which is at best a series of obscure addresses. An address without a mental map leaves you disoriented even after you have arrived. Alternate imaginings are not only inclusive of uncommon knowledge, other cultural literacies, but they travel between these and the mono-cultural knowledge canonized by the Western intellectual tradition.

[65] In a diverse culture, the ability to juggle common knowledge and uncommon is a result of a struggle to imagine literacy across the dissonance of clashing meanings. Because of their life circumstances, many individuals cannot maintain the illusion of coherent and unified lists. Many others find themselves similarly situated betwixt and between. The results are interesting, complex and fruitful. The results point towards knowledge organized not like an encyclopedia but like a map.

[66] When literacy is conceived as a collection of ever expanding skills, it creates choice and flexibility. It enables invention. Ginger root literacy points toward the acquisition of many existing but not described skills and also to skills which are not yet required but soon will be -- sending a computerized fax, surfing the Internet, deciphering a menu composed of California's multicultural cuisine. Literacy, when understood this way, is comprised of any number of skills in a grab bag collection. This collection is added to and subtracted from as needed. We are all bricoleurs 14 of literacy.

[67] Our imaginings regarding literacy should be liberated to include a whole range of repressed and rejected elements, including the visual literacies required to "read" video and film, the literacies required to negotiate the postmodern architecture of our cities and suburbs, the literacies required to interact with multiple cultures around the globe either directly or indirectly. If we think of the term literacy as a semantic field of contradictory and repressed notions, opening that semantic field and revealing its structure, revealing what has been devalued and repressed, will help us to understand how the ideologies of literacy have limited us and how breaking open the discourse around literacy offers constructive promise. Like all dualisms, literacy/illiteracy traps us in self-defeating loops of meaning which reinscribe us more tightly within the dualism even as we seek to interrogate it.

[68] Multiculturalism (or what I prefer to call mixed cultures) is one place to begin opening up dualistic thinking about literacy. Issues concerning the repression of the knowledges of women is another. But including not just reading and writing, but looking, speaking, viewing, traveling while viewing, manipulating artifacts (photographs and other sign/symbol systems not limited to written texts), video, film, perhaps even singing and dancing) is inevitable if the ideologies of literacy are seriously questioned. But if the notion of literacy is extended to all these fields, what do we have except an expression of what it means to live as a human in culture? Like Jorge Luis Borges, we have made literacy and the world equivalent to the universe of experience. Elspeth Stuckey reminds us that it is widely accepted that "literacy confers special power, the power to be human. To be wanting in literacy is to be wanting in human fulfillment (67)." Borges suggest the same. Is it true?

[69] Forty years ago, American supermarkets did not generally carry ginger root. To find it, a shopper had to visit Asian food markets. Today, it would be hard to find a major market that does not offer ginger root alongside carrots and potatoes. Though many have not come into contact with rhizomes in nature, the iris rhizome being the model I recall from my childhood, most have seen ginger root, if not eaten it. The appearance of ginger root as a commonplace is a result of cuisines traveling with immigrants to this nation. Ginger is a rhizome. An organic structure without a definable center or identifiable edges, rhizomes are capable of budding new growth from any angle, and each bud can repeat that process. Rhizomes can form intricate webs, webs that can double back on themselves, webs that can create layer after layer of knotted growth. Rhizomes imply connection and re-connection, not along a rigid hierarchy of bifurcation downwards or upwards, like Bacon's tree of knowledge, but according to a plastic logic. Indeed, purchasing ginger root often requires an active decision to sever the root from itself, to make an arbitrary decision to isolate a portion and carry it away to a kitchen where it will become invisible to the eye but not to the tongue. Although most produce is countable, "one potato, two potato, three potato, four," and Bacon's tree is an identifiable whole, a singular entity, ginger root has no beginning and no end. It cannot be viewed as a totality or described as a limited territory. Only portions of it can be isolated and manipulated.

[70] Ginger root, then, can be a powerful image for understanding the structure of knowledge. Remember, Umberto Eco tells us that "the universe of semiosis, that is, the universe of human culture, must be conceived" to be analogous to a labyrinth or net, sometimes taking the form of a vegetative rhizome. A rhizome is an unlimited and infinitely expandable territory. It enables connections between elements and positions. New neighborhoods spring up overnight. Unlike Bacon's tree of knowledge, the rhizome's plastic nature suits our historical period. It is an excellent visual model for an imagining of literacy which is not based on lists and trees of knowledge but on rhizomatic maps, a model for an organic mixed cultural literacy which allows for the concatenation of multiple local knowledges.