- The Light of Knowledge: Literacy Activism and the Politics of Writing in South India by Francis Cody
Studies of literacy since the 1980s have drawn attention to the idea that literacy does not simply consist of the ability to decode written language by making three critical points. The first is that reading and writing are not neutral practices, but they are always embedded within language ideologies and structures of power and subjectification. The second point is that reading and writing, while often imagined as purely mental or intellectual activities, are in fact fully embodied practices into which people must be socialized. The third point, following from these other two, is that literacy is not a universally applicable technology that can be packaged and transported anywhere; reading and writing may consist of different kinds of practices and may have different kinds of meanings, uses, and effects in different places.
In his beautifully written and ethnographically rich study of the Arivoli Iyakkam—literally the “Light of Knowledge” movement—in Tamil South India, Francis Cody advances these insights by offering a sensitive portrait of the interactions between activists and learners. Targeting rural poor Dalit women, the Arivoli Iyakkam has sought to educate and thereby empower a group of people who are doubly marginalized by structures of caste and gender. Considered to be one of the most successful mass literacy movements in recent history, the Arivoli Iyakkam began as a volunteer movement in the late 1980s run by academics and scientists. In 1990, it became part of a joint NGO-state initiative administered by the National Literacy Mission of India and operated as such until 2009, when state funding was discontinued; however, the efforts continued through organizations such as the Tamil Nadu Science Forum and the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association. [End Page 961]
The Arivoli Iyakkam, Cody argues, was not just a development program, but a social movement whose power lay in its capacity to generate new forms of social relation and sociality that conformed neither to “traditional” society nor to the “enlightened” society envisioned by the literacy activists. The movement, in fact, “mobilized large numbers of rural women through logics that often pushed against the very Enlightenment rationality they hoped to foster, and the results of their efforts were often unanticipated” (6). In a series of ethnographically vivid and theoretically wide-ranging chapters, Cody focuses on moments when the planned literacy lessons failed and activists were forced to rethink their strategy. Grounded in ethnographic accounts of literacy lessons, interactions with activists, and analysis of the writings of activists and members of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association, these chapters argue for the unpredictability of the encounter between activists and learners, and it is this space of unpredictability, or “underdetermination,” that emerges as most compelling. It is the unintended effects of these encounters, recognized and cultivated by sensitive activists, that, Cody argues, hold out the greatest potential for positive change.
As an example of this, we could look at the difference between the way the movement sought to mobilize women in rural Tamil Nadu and the way that mobilization actually occurred (the story of Cody’s second chapter). The Arivoli Iyakkam developed materials for use in literacy lessons that relied on two strategies: 1) the idea of cultivating in learners a “societal perspective” in which they place the issues they confront in their daily lives into more general categories, and 2) the use of “traditional” South Indian notions of female power to convince learners that they already possessed the rationality and discipline that literate subjects need to cultivate. Cody takes us through the lessons and logics of these primers, but in turning to the learners’ perspective, he finds that they had little to say about the content of the lessons. What mattered most, rather, was the fact that they had been called to participate by activists who were people they knew and trusted, whom they related to in the idiom of kinship. They spoke of an “obligation” to come to the lessons that Cody...