Book review / Signs on the road to Utopia

Colin MacCabe challenges a new Rousseau
Before Writing: rethinking the paths to literacy by Gunther Kress, Routledge, pounds 12.99

As education moves up the political agenda, the topic of literacy looks set fair to become the site of ever more ignorant and ill-tempered debates. On the one side are ranged the traditionalists with their emphasis on phonics and standards, on the other the progressives who stress creativity and change. Gunther Kress's book is an epitome of the virtues and vices of the progressive side of the argument. The virtues are an extraordinary attention to and concern with the world of the child. The vices are its Utopian view of both language and education.

The body of Kress's work is a close and detailed examination of his own children's play and, in particular, their drawing and writing between the ages of three and seven. The book is fascinating as the record of an attentive and intelligent observer's attempt to understand the kinds of logic that animate the way in which pre- literate children draw and write.

Kress would probably object to the phrase "pre-literate", as this work is largely an argument to show that children at a very early age have assumptions and theories of meaning and representation which should be built on as they learn to read and write, rather than discarded. Further, Kress argues that these sophisticated theories and practices are much more in tune with the information society we are becoming than with the Gutenberg era of print, which is now drawing to a close. As we enter a multi-media world where image sound and text are combined, we should make sure that we educate our children in ways that develop their abilities rather than hampering them with outdated notions of the primacy of the printed word.

Much of Kress's local interpretation is brilliant - but the general thesis is sustained by an explicit theory of language which is wrong, and an implicit theory of education which ignores all questions of resources. Kress is violently opposed to any theory of language that stresses its arbitrary nature. For the small child - and this is the brilliance of his interpretations - all representations are motivated. In other words, you can understand that the squiggles on the page are a car when you realise that the squiggles are in fact approximations at circles; and that the circles represent the wheels which are, for the child, the most significant part of the car.

The problem of moving from this material to language is that language is, with very few exceptions, made up of unmotivated signs. While a picture of a cat has to look like a cat, the word bears no such relationship to the animal named. Language therefore poses an enormous problem for anyone who wishes to locate meaning in individual subjectivity. In order to express our personal views and emotions we have to use a medium which is social and arbitrary.

Kress's arguments to get round this obstacle verge on the bizarre. Talking about the German word for tree (Baum), he speculates on its etymological root in the verb "to bend" and suggests that in the Southern steppes of Russia some 4,000 years ago the most striking fact about a tree was that it bent in the wind. But even if we were to accept that etymological origins were motivated, this does not allow us to escape the arbitrary nature of contemporary language.

The only way to make sense of Kress's argument is to view the current state of language as a form of alienation that in some other society might be overcome. There are hints that this is exactly what Kress does believe, and that what he sees promised by the multimedia future is a world freed both from the arbitrary sign and the alphabet, in which pure subjectivities would exchange their emotions in motivated images. Such a Romantic vision would have been all too happily recognised by that doyen of educational progressives, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Independently of the question of whether this view is sense or nonsense (and both Freud and Wittgenstein would suggest nonsense), it is profoundly dangerous. Access to the multi-media world of the future is controlled in the present by those who have mastered the written language. Kress writes eloquently about the bleakness of the increasingly divided society that we are becoming. An education system that does not place traditional literacy at the centre of its concerns will accentuate these divisions, as the world will divide into those who can actively use the new communications technology and those who will merely consume it.

It is true that the schools must engage much more actively with the new technological forms and media. But that engagement must include an emphasis on traditional literacy, which remains ever more central to power and authority as it becomes less central to entertainment and leisure.