Understanding the Real Meaning of Literacy

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Literacy has the potential to bring people together through collaboration, but can also tear them apart by lack of understanding, and different means of communication. This topic is explored both in Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone” and in the movie “The Emerald Forest” directed by John Boorman. There’s the written word, which the “white” men know, for the typical definition of literacy. But the other definition – knowledge in a specific area – broadens that border. The indigenous groups are literate in the ways of the jungle: hunting, fishing, having a connection to the animals and land, etc. In terms of who can survive in the jungle, it gives the indigenous a huge advantage, and they are the ones with the power as soon as you step foot in the jungle. “White” men, or whom we would define as a civilized culture, have knowledge of reconstructing land to fit their needs. In their world of guns and machines, they have the advantage over bow and arrows.

In the movie, the newcomers (“white” men) believe that they have the right to cut down the forest, where multiple indigenous tribes live. The invisible refer to them as termites: “They come into The World and chew down all the grandfather trees. Just like termites” (Wanadi, Emerald Forest). They are not wrong to relate them to insects and parasites, as what usually happens when a group of people take over another is the destruction of a culture and community: “legitimacy is defined from the point of view of the party in authority” (494). The dominant culture is at play, showing that the terms of conquering often do not include negotiation. Pratt also brings up the topic of transculturation: “While subordinate peoples do not usually control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what gets absorbed into their own and what it gets used for” (491). This phenomenon is observed in The Emerald Jungle, where you get to see the influence the newcomers have on different tribes.

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The invisible people choose to keep their distance, while the fierce ones decide to collaborate. In exchange for kidnapped women, the newcomers give the fierce ones guns, which severely change the way the tribe behaves. Their entire culture is disrupted because of one factor, which would have never been introduced had the newcomers not taken something that didn’t belong to them. Literacy can also be used to describe a groups’ knowledge about a specific expertise. Pratt discusses how one work of writing can influence a larger audience if there aren’t as many written works circulating. But this can also be said about different forms of literacy. Going back to the example of guns, they had a huge impact on the indigenous tribe, because they had never seen anything like it, and were now biased towards the weapon. The newcomers, and much of modern society, have lost the ability to see beyond material possessions, including possession of land. The indigenous people understand that they don’t own the land, and instead live with it, not off of it. However, the newcomers began to take that away when they gave weapons to the fierce people. Weapons changed the way the tribe viewed hunting, and it was no longer a skill that one had to develop. “ ‘Communities are distinguished,’ …’not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined’ “ (Benedict Anderson qtd. in Pratt 493). “Even as an ideal, the concept of an enlightened citizenry seems to have disappeared from the national imagination” (496).

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