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Television Literacy

Television Literacy: A Critique
David Buckingham

The term •television literacy’ has been increasingly widely used
in recent years, both by researchers investigating the relationship between children and television and by educationalists
arguingfor the formal study ofthe medium in schools. This paper
discusses some of the theoretical issues which are at stake in the
basic analogy between television and written language, and
argues the case for a social theory of television literacy.

Television literacy: educational theory and
There are a number of parallels between the recurrent waves of
concern which greet the advent of new communication technologies and those which focus on the alleged decline in standards of
literacy. ‘Moral panics’ about the effects of television on children are at least partly motivated by a perceived sense of social
crisis: television, like many other new cultural forms which
preceded it, can function as a reassuringly simple explanation for
a whole range of social ills. While the evidence of any causal
connection between television and, for example, a growth in
juvenile crime or the demise of the traditional nuclear family
may be exceedingly flimsy, the medium can nevertheless serve
as a convenient scapegoat onto which more complex anxieties
can be displaced.

The so-called ‘literacy crisis’ which has been perceived in
many countries over the past twenty years could also be seen as
the vehicle for broader concerns about changing social values.

Certainly, the evidence for such a crisis is far from persuasive.

Historical research suggests that what has changed is not so
much the level of literacy among the general population, but the
standards which are used to measure it criteria which were
formerly applied to limited elites are now being extended to
apply to whole populations, although educational methods to
ensure this extension of literacy have yet to be fully developed
(Resnick and Resnick, 1977). Despite the arguments of traditionalists, there are really no ‘basics’ to go back to.

Coe (1986) has argued that the ‘back-to-basics’ movement is
primarily an attempt to adjust the educational subsystem to new
economic realities, and in particular the increasingly hierarchical
restructuring of white-collar work. In this respect, he suggests, a
‘literacy crisis’ can serve to tighten the constraints within which
social power and status are distributed, and to reassert conformity to established values: while grammar drills may be less than
effective in teaching students to read and write, they have a clear
function in terms of socialisation (cf. Pattison, 1982).

The development of television literacy curricula in schools,
particularly in the United States, could be seen as a parallel
response to a perceived social and moral crisis. Most advocates


of these curricula begin by assuming that television is ‘a serious
social problem’ (Abelman, 1983): it is ‘an illness’, and it must be
treated (Lull, 1981). Television, it is argued, exerts an extremely
powerful, and predominantly negative influence, particularly on
children: it is held to be ‘addictive’, harmful to mental health and
personal relationships, and a cause of social unrest and disintegration (e.g. Singer et al., 1980).

The role of educators in this context is essentially to defend
those who are believed to be less capable of defending themselves. Embedded in their recommendations are prescriptions
about styles of ‘critical viewing’ which are highly normative and
often implicitly moralistic. The ultimate aim of most television
literacy curricula is to encourage children to police their own
viewing behaviour – if not by reducing the amount of television
they watch, then at least by watching it in ways which are
assumed to minimise its influence.

A representative illustration of this approach may be found in
a book entitled The New Literacy: The Language of Film and
Television, by Harold Foster (1979). Like most exponents of
television literacy, Foster argues that the media are primarily
instruments of propaganda and mass persuasion. According to
Foster, the ‘power of the viewing experience’ derives from the
fact that it ‘bypasses the intellect’, ‘hypnotising’ viewers and on
occasion causing them to commit violent acts. The fundamental
aim of teaching about the media is to enable children to exert
rational control over this process, and thereby to help them
‘protect themselves against this powerful, primary emotional
response’. ‘Visual literacy’ , in Foster’s terms, involves an understanding of the ‘structural devices’ which film makers use to
create a ‘realistic facade’ and thereby to mislead and manipulate

This example illustrates three central issues which are raised
by much of the work I shall discuss in this section. The fIrst of
these concerns its model of the relationship between children and
television. Ultimately, children are seen here as simply the
passive victims of a process of emotional manipulation over
which they have no logical control. Foster in fact collapses film
and television together, although nearly all his detailed examples
are taken from mainstream Hollywood films, and he fails to
acknow ledge the very different conditions of television viewing,
or the differences between the ‘languages’ of the two media (cf.

Ellis, 1982). Yet even if we confine the argument to film, the
notion that viewing ‘bypasses the intellect’ and is primarily
’emotional’ is certainly open to question (cf. Bordwell, 1985), as
is the underlying opposition between ’emotional’ and ‘rational’


The second issue which is raised by this account follows
inexorably from the first, and concerns the role of education in
intervening in this process. Foster’s argument that a study of the
devices used by film makers will help children ‘to protect them-


selves’ and ‘to resist media influence and manipulation’ begs
many questions about the purpose and the effectiveness of such
strategies. Can one necessarily assume that viewers are unaware
of such ‘manipulation’, and thus in need of protection? To what
extent is the ‘rational’ awareness of the protective teacher preferable to children’s ‘spontaneous’ emotional responses, even assuming that such a distinction is possible? Does ‘rational’ control
necessarily enable viewe·rs to ‘resist media influence’? Even if
‘resistance’ or ‘protection’ is one’s primary aim, is it not possible
to achieve this by acknowledging ’emotional’ pleasures, rather
than seeking merely to repress them?

The fmal issue I wish to raise here is that of the definition of
television literacy itself. Foster consistently refers to television
and film as forms of ‘visual language ‘ , in which single images
are seen as discrete units analogous to words. Television ‘language’ is defined in terms of an abstract grammatical model- an
approach which implies that images can be lifted out of cOhtext,
and assigned standard ‘dictionary’ meanings to which all would
agree. It is assumed that this study of the elements of ‘television
language’ and of the technical processes of television production
will serve to ‘debunk’ the medium, and thereby lessen its negative impact
Foster’s book is published by the US National Council of
Teachers of English, and his recommendations for classroom
strategies are specifically addressed to teachers of ‘language
arts’. Yet the difference between his definition of the aims of
media literacy teaching and those of dominant approaches to
teaching print literacy are clearly substantial, both in terms of the
underlying assumptions about the relationship between readers
and texts, and in terms of the way the intervention of teachers is
presumed to alter this. How often does one read English teachers
arguing for the importance of rational analysis as a means of
protecting children against the powerful emotional manipulation
exerted by literature? Ultimately, the outwardly neutral notion of
‘literacy’ which is being applied here is based ott a series of
fundamental value judgements about television and its role in
children’s lives.

The work of James Anderson, himself a major exponent of
television literacy curricula, offers a valuable critical overview
in the field in the United States, which provides further instances
of the problems I have addressed above. Anderson (1980, 1983)
identifies a range of different theoretical paradigms which inform such curricula, although in practice these tend to overlap.

Predominant amongst them are what Anderson terms the i impact
mediation’ and the ‘goal attainment’ approaehes. The notion of
‘impact mediation’ derives from the tradition of experimental
‘effects’ research: it presumes that television exerts direct behavioural effects on viewers, and that intervention can reduce its
impact Curricula based on this approach typically focus on
‘problem areas’ such as violent content, advertising and ‘television addiction’ , and are primarily designed to counteract television’s ‘negative’ or ‘anti-social· influence. The 19oalattainment’

approach derives from the ‘uses and gratifications’ paradigm in
mass communication research: the assumption hm is that individuals use the media in purposeful ways in otder to achieve
specific goals or gratifications. According to Andets6n, ‘goal
attainment’ curricula work in three stages: frrstly, helping students to analyse their motives fot viewing; secondly, encourag:;
ing them to evaluate their use of television in terms of its ability
to fulfil or gratify those motives; and finally, providing practice
in the process of making decisions about media use.

While these two approaches might outwardly appear quite
different, they share a number of basic assumptions about the relationship between children and television, which ultimately
derive more from the ‘effects’ paradigm than from ‘uses and
gratifications’ research. Both presume that television exerts a

direct influence which is primarily negative or anti-social, and
that children need to be protected from it. The difference is
essentially one of strategy, rather than overall aims: while the
‘impact mediation’ approach seeks to protect children, for example by encouraging them to reduce the amount of television
they watch, the ‘goal attainment’ approach is designed to enable
children to protect themselves, by becoming their own ‘critical
censors’ (Ashton, 1981).

As Marsha Jones (1984) has argued, both approaches start
from the basic assumption that ‘too much’ television is ‘bad’ for
children. Children are deemed to be ‘unsophisticated’ viewers
who typically fail to understand or evaluate what they watch, and
who are therefore in need of ‘adult assistance’ (Corder-Bolz,
1980). They are ‘passive’ viewers who need to be made ‘active’

(Finn, 1980). They have to be taught to discriminate, to be
‘critical’ and selective, since they are incapable of doing this for
themselves. The idea that children may be as ‘active’ and selective as adults, or that they may have their own critical criteria
which they apply to the medium, is clearly rejected. The fundamental aim of most television literacy curricula is thus to disengage students from their unhealthy preoccupation with the medium, and to encourage a sceptical and suspicious approach to
the false pleasures which it affords. The basic strategy is one of
inducing guilt, and thereby seeking to ‘save children from television’.

As Anderson (1983) argues, the underlying assumption here
is that ‘it is better to reason as an adult than as a child’: rather than
using the meanings and pleasures which childten derive from the
medium as a guide to teaching, it is particular adult defmitions of
‘content’ and adult concepts of productivity and gratification
which are accepted as the norm. ‘Rational’, empiricist approaches are used to identify the literal meanings which reside in
the message, and to distinguish ‘false’ representations or arguments from ‘realistic’ or correct ones. Despite the apparent
neutrality of the ‘uses and gratifications’ approach – in which
‘gratifications’ are to be objectively matched against ‘uses’ there are implicit moral standards which are used to identify
‘acceptable’ gratifications from television viewing, and to discourage ‘unacceptable tones.

Similar criticisms could be made of the ‘receivership skills’

approach which infonns television literacy curricula. The characteristics of the kind of ‘critical viewing’ which is the aim of the
curricula are typically stated in terms of a taxonomy of ‘skills’,
which are then operationalised in the form of behavioural objectives (e.g. Dorr et al., 1980; Lloyd-Kolkin et al., 1980). Yet on
closer examination, many of the ‘skills’ which are specified are
far from being as neutral as this term would imply. As CorderBolz (1982) argues, many of the ‘critical evaluation skills’ which
are idenjfied are more accurately seen as personal dispositions


or attitudes: to choose a couple of examples he cites, it is
certainly difficult to regard the ‘tendency to find television
content fabricated and inaccurate’ or to make ‘less positive
evaluations of television content’ as ‘skills’ in any meaningful
sense of the word. Again, what is clearly being offered here,
under the neutral guise of ‘skills’, is a normative, value-laden
definition of what constitutes ‘literate’ viewing behaviour.

Nevertheless, this emphasis on skills typically leads to highly
mechanistic forms of ‘instruction’ which are very similar to
those advocated by the ‘back-to-basics’ approach to teaching
reading and writing. Literacy is regarded here ~ ‘the sum of a set
of precisely specifiable subskills’ which can be broken down into
sequential hierarchies (de Castell, Luke and MacLennan, 1986).

The standardised instructional systems which proceed from this
definition focus on the transmission of skills which can be
readily and ‘objectively’ measured: simple, quantitative indices
of ‘effectiveness’ then become an essential part of educational
self-justification. This technocratic approach inevitably tends to
ignore ‘higher-order’ or metalinguistic competencies, and the
social and pragmatic contexts within which literacy is acquired
and used: literacy is defined as ‘a context-neutral, content-free,
skill-specific competence that can be imparted to children with
almost scientific precision’ (de Castell and Luke, 1986).

These mechanistic approaches would also appear to pervade
the instructional manuals which are used in television literacy
curricula. Anderson (1983) points to the predominance of what
he calls ‘categorical description’: ‘the largest share of classroom
activities is involved with the development and explication of
classification schemes and the identification of content to fit
those schemes.’ It is assumed that symbols or images ‘contain’

meanings which can be objectively specified, and that the process of recovering these meanings can be atomised into its ‘logical’ components, which are then taught in sequence. As Richard
Eke (1986) has argued, this approach presumes that children will
build up understandings in the same way as teachers break: them
down. Furthermore, it clearly ignores the ways in which meanings are constructed by viewers, and the diverse social knowledge they employ in doing so.

One of the major problems Anderson identifies here is the
failure of television literacy curricula to acknowledge the ‘pragmatics’ of children’s television viewing behaviour – that is, of
the everyday social contexts in which ‘critical viewing’ is to
occur. Thus, most of the curricula which adopt the ‘goal attainment’ approach seek to encourage students to make ‘rational’

choices about their viewing behaviour, and to devise ‘personal
management strategies’ to regulate their selection of viewing. In
certain instances (e.g. Ploghoft and Anderson, 1982), elaborate
monitoring schemes are provided in order to enable students to
categorise their motivations for viewing, the reasons for their
viewing preferences, and the changes in ‘energy level’ or ’emotional state’ which occur as a result.

As with the ‘uses and gratifications’ research on which it is
based, this approach presumes that television viewing is ‘normally’ a purposive activity, which is essentially a matter of


individual choice. Yet as Elliott (1974) has argued, this crucially
ignores the social context of media use: the reasons why people
watch particular programmes may be as much to do with a lack of
functional alternatives as with active, conscious choice – particularly for children, whose lack of power and economic resources
means that their choices are significantly more constrained than
adults. At the very least, this implies that children’s stated
motivations and preferences will not always act as an adequate
guide to their viewing behaviour.

Perhaps as a result of this, evaluations of television literacy
curricula have signally failed to demonstrate their effectiveness
in promoting ‘literate’ or ‘critical’ viewing outside the classroom
context. Evaluations typically follow a standardised input-output
model, using multiple-choice tests to assess whether children
have retained specific pieces of information contained within the
instructional units themselves (e.g. Singer et al., 1980): while
such an approach can certainly provide a good measure of
children’s ability to regurgitate the content teachers have fed
them, it can hardly be said to measure more general learning of
skills or concepts.

Ultimately, the fundamental problem which underlies such
work is the definition of literacy which it employs. Many advocates of television literacy offer general definitions which appear
at first sight to be impossibly broad: Anderson (1981a), for
example, defines media literacy as ‘the skillful collection, interpretation, testing and application of information regardless of
medium or presentation for some purposeful action’. In other
cases, such definitions are merely tautologous: ‘more literate
individuals possess more sophisticated strategies for interpreting
stimuli while the reverse is true of those who are not so skilled’

(Baron, 1985, p. 49). Yet on closer inspection even these definitions embody norms and theoretical assumptions which are at
least contentious. Television, and the media more broadly, are
seen as sources of ‘stimuli’ or ‘information’, which somehow
exists independently of those who perceive it. Viewers are seen
as individual ‘consumers of information’, with predetermined
motives and purposes (Anderson, 1981a). Making sense of television is regarded as a form of ‘data processing’, which involves
a regulated sequence of cognitive strategies. Individual viewers
can be judged more or less ‘skillful’ or ‘sophisticated’ in performing these activities, according to agreed ‘objective’ criteria;
and the ‘effects’ of communication can be controlled by ‘modifying the assimilation and analytical skills of the recei ver’ (ibid.).

In several respects, then, literacy is implicitly regarded here
as a set of competencies which can be objectively defined. Each
medium is seen to have its own specific grammar or syntax – that
is, a set of objective rules which enable it to generate meaning.

The extent to which individuals are seen to ‘possess’ these competencies can thus be measured by their grasp of these rules and
meanings. The definition of literacy which obtains here is fundamentally blind to the diverse social contexts in which these
competencies are acquired and used, and the diverse forms of
social and cultural knowledge which are involved in producing
meaning. In short, it is a definition which fails to acknowledge
that literacy is inevitably a form of social practice.

Before proceeding to a more extended discussion of these
broader theoretical issues, it is worth noting some significant
differences and similarities between the work I have so far
described and that which is characteristic of media education in
Britain. P uhaps what is most immediately striking to a British
reader about this work is its apparent lack of explicit political
motivation. If the theoretical orientation of these curricula derives primarily from the ‘effects’ and ‘uses and gratifications’

paradigm~, that of media education in this country is mainly
informed by ‘critical’ research on the ideological role of the
media. From a ‘critical’ perspective, the ‘uses and gratifications’

approach appears fundamentally individualistic: it is more concerned with enabling students to adapt to their environment,
rather than encouraging them to change it – and in this sense, it
clearly does have a ‘hidden’ political agenda.

It is for this reason that James Lull (1981) attacks the notion
of ‘receivership skills’ which is a central aspect of US television
literacy curricula. Lull shares the view of television as a ‘social
problem’ which characterises much of this work, but argues that
it must be treated ‘organically’ – that is, as a problem which is
essentially caused by capitalism. The notion of ‘receivership
skills’, he suggests, sound too much like that of ‘good citizenship’: it presumes that it is up to the ‘good little citizen’ to deal
with the problems of television, rather than seeking to upset the
status quo which is responsible for them.

argued, cannot be seen independently of the power-relationships
which it embodies and sustains: to teach about the ‘language’ of
television without teaching about the institutions which produce
it is inevitably to treat that language as ‘natural’ and unchangeable (Buckingham, 1989).

Nevertheless, a good deal of classroom practice in media
education is based on a form of ideological analysis derived from
elementary semiotics – an approach which can easily lapse into a
view of language as a set of abstract codes and conventions
which can be taught and learnt in a structured sequence (e.g.

Bethell, 1981). As I have argued elsewhere (Buckingham, 1986),
the dominant approach to media teaching in Britain implicitly
presumes that children are passive’ uncritical’ viewers in need of
ideological inoculation or ‘demystification’ (Masterman, 1985).

It seeks to disabuse children of the ‘false’ beliefs they acquire
from the media by providing them with a kit of analytical skills
and critical concepts handed down from academic work. Such an
approach is dangerously theoreticist, and in practice often adopts
a schematic, mechanistic pedagogy which has much in common
with that of technocratic ‘literacy instruction’.

Is television a language?

Whether or not one shares his view of television as a ‘social
problem’ , Lull’s argument points to a number of important limitations in the broad aims of television literacy curricula. As he
indicates, many such curricula fail to address central questions
about the economic structure of broadcasting, and the political
factors which determine the kinds of programmes which are
made. Indeed, it could be argued that in many respects, educators
are seeking to treat the symptoms rather than the causes of the
problems which concern them: attempting to disabuse students
of their ‘consumerism’ by teaching them about the misleading
claims of television advertising would seem to be attacking the
‘problem’ from the wrong direction, and according television a
‘degree of power whichit almost certainly does not possess.

Despite these criticisms, the notion of television literacy is
one which has become increasingly popular in Britain, at least
partly for the kind of pragmatic reasons which apply in the North
American context. Moves to develop media education in the
primary sector and ‘across the curriculum’ in secondary schools
have particularly relied on the notion of literacy as a means of
arguing for recognition.

Nevertheless, the crucial question here concerns the definition of language and literacy which is being invoked. Certainly,
insofar as media educators in Britain have used such terms, they
have tended to define them in much more explicitly ideological
and political terms. Language is seen here, not as a neutral
vehicle for communicating pre-existing meanings, but on the
contrary as a social, historical phenomenon which crucially
determines the meanings it is possible to produce. Language, it is

The notion of television literacy clearly rests on a prior assumption that television can be regarded as a language – one which is,
at least in some significant respects, analogous to written language. Yet while such analogies may appear superficially attractive, they may also lead one to ignore essential differences and
distinctions. In this instance, the value of the analogy crucially
depends upon what we regard as the ‘essential’ features of
language – and ultimately upon how we define language itself.

One might begin by suggesting a number of broad similarities
between the two media. Both television and written language are
forms of communcation: they are both methods of conveying or
signifying meaning, which are used in different ways by different social agents in different social and cultural contexts. Both
depend upon a degree of shared understanding between their
users, which is learned rather than innate. Both are in a constant
state of historical change and evolution.

In a sense, these statements are too general to be of much use:

and yet they are already contentious. There are no ‘facts’ about
language which are not already derived from theories – despite
the recent arguments of Kenneth Baker! Certainly when one
seeks to extend the analogy beyond the kind of generalities I have
offered here, these difficulties become even more acute.

There have been a number of attempts to develop analogies
between verbal language and the ‘symbolic systems’ of the
visual arts, and to use these as a basis for teaching. Advocates of
‘iconics’, for example, have argued that visual language can be
regarded as a kind of’ alphabet’ , from which basic minimal units
(‘graphemes’) combine to form larger meaningful ones (‘iconemes’), which in turn lead on to visual ‘syntagms’, or statements
(Cossette, 1982).

Similarly, the approach to ‘visual literacy’ pioneered by
Dondis (1973) presumes that visual language can be reduced to
its constituent parts, which may then be taught in sequence.

While Dondis acknowledges that the symbolic system of the
visual arts is not a ‘logical whole’ like that of verbal language, he
does assert that it has a syntax, a set of ‘guidelines for constructing compositions’, which can be explicitly taught, and can
thereby lead to ‘clearer comprehension of visual messages’.

Dondis’ symptomatically-titled Primer of Visual Literacy reduces this ‘basic perceptual system’ to its smallest elements, or
what it terms the ‘tool box’ of visual communication (dot, line,


colour, texture, and so on): these elements may then be combined
according to a series of polar opposites, which derive from the
fundamental ones of contrast and harmony (balance/instability,
repose/stress, roundness/angularity, and so on). This method
effectively seeks to provide an analytical ‘phonics’ approach to
teaching the visual arts which has much in common with the
technocratic approach to literacy instruction I have already described.

Work on cognition in the visual arts has also explored this
analogy, although from a less mechanistic perspective. Thus, it is
argued that, while pictorial systems may not possess a formal
syntax (Goodman, 1968), the perceptual processes which are
involved in ‘reading’ images and written texts are more similar
than conventional wisdom tends to suggest (Luke, 1985). The
idea that reading print is a sequential process of ‘decoding’ word
by word, or even letter by letter, whereas the perception of
images is holistic and instantaneous, is not borne out by research
(Kolers, 1977). The ‘skilled’ reading of print need not preserve
the syntax of the words on the page: on the contrary, as one gains
experience of written texts, reading is guided more by ‘top down’

processes of inference and prediction, by the information and
experience which the reader brings to the text rather than by the
sequential processing of signs (Smith, 1973). Likewise, the processes by which viewers ‘read’ images are guided by the search
for meaning, by attention to their semantic dimension, rather
than simply by the mechanical ‘decoding’ of their constituent

Nevertheless, theories of ‘visual language’ have also acknowledged basic distinctions between visual and linguistic
systems, which are often seen in terms of the differences between
‘analogic’ and ‘digital’ codes. Pierce (1940), for example, distinguishes between iconic, indexical and symbolic signs: while
film, for example, employs primarily iconic and indexical signs,
verbal language is more strictly symbolic (Wollen, 1971). Goodman (1968), however, rejects the notion of ‘resemblance’ or
visual ‘analogy’ on which the theory of the ‘iconic’ sign is based:

resemblance, he argues, is not an inherent property of the sign,
but a judgement about the sign, a quality which the perceiver attributes to it
In place of the analogic/digital distinction, Goodman proposes three different types of codes, which possess different
syntactic structures: notations, languages and representational
systems. The key distinction for our purpose here is between
languages and representational systems. In the case of languages,
Goodman argues, there are a finite number of basic syntactic
elements (phonemes or morphemes) which can be distinguished
from each other unambiguously: the same is not the case with
representational systems, where the relationship between signs
and referents is thus inevitably more ambiguous. As Salomon
(1979) argues, this has significant implications in terms of cognition: different symbolic systems will require different forms of
internal representation – a picture of a dog will ‘make sense’ in a
very different way from the word ‘dog’.

One of the most sustained and rigorous attempts to develop
the analogy between audio-visual languages and verbal language
is in the field of film theory, and in particular in the work of
Christian Metz. What is particularly notable about Metz’ s work
in terms of the concerns of this paper is the way in which his
pursuit of the film language analogy leads to a series of major
shifts in the basic theoretical model of language he employs.

Metz’s early work (1974a) amply illustrates the difficulties
which arise when the film language analogy is pursued in detail.

Indeed, Metz begins by refuting the literal use of this analogy
which he detects in early theories of ‘film grammar’ , and in the
Russian theorists of montage – the notion that films can be constructed and analysed according to strict correspondences be-



tween the shot and the word, the sequence and the sentence, and
so on (e.g. Podovkin, 1960). Like Goodman, Metz argues that
there are no basic, clearly distinguishable syntactic elements in
film which are analogous to phonemes or morphemes in language, and that as a result it is impossible to distinguish between
primary and secondary articulation in film. The language of
cinema, Metz argues, is ‘flexible, never predetermined’: it is ‘a
rich message with a poor code, or a rich text with a poor system’ ,
which is closer to speech than written language.

Using the classic Saussurean distinction, Metz ultimately
concludes that film is a language (langage), but one which does
not possess an underlying language system (langue) – that is, a
‘code’ or ‘grammar’ (cf. Barthes, 1977). Film does not possess
what Metz defines as the three central characteristics of language: it is a one-way form of communication, rather than a form
of ‘intercommunication’; it is only partly a system; and its
images are mainly analogical, rather than ‘arbitrary, conventional and codified’ like ‘true signs’ (Metz, 1974a). As a result,
he suggests, the attempt to base a semiotics of the cinema on its
‘small’ elements (its phonemes or morphemes) is doomed to
failure: these specific units will only be displayed once one
reaches the level of fairly ‘large’ elements – although the question of how one differentiates between ‘small’ and ‘large’ elements is not one Metz himself resolves.

Following this logic, Metz went on to pursue the film language analogy on a broader level, in his attempt to identify the
codes which govern the syntactic combination or ordering of
images (Metz, 1974a). Yet in several respects, Metz’s ‘grande
syntagmatique’ (large-scale syntagmatics) runs into the same
difficulties as the attempts to identify film language on the level
of single images. Again using a Saussurean approach, Metz
constructs a taxonomy of eight different combinations, which is
based on a series of binary oppositions. Yet as subsequent critics
have argued, the distinctions between these different categories

are less fixed than Metz would lead us to believe, particularly
when one seeks to apply the system to films which fall outside
what he ~Ibitrarily designates as ‘classical narrative cinema’

(Daniel, 1976). In certain instances, for example where there is a
series of syntagms of the same type, there is no logical method of
telling where each one ends and the next begins. Perhaps most
crucially, however, many of the key distinctions on which the
system is based are not purely ‘formal’, but derive from a prior
sense of their meaning. As Metz himself acknowledges, one
understands the syntax because one has understood the film, and

not vice-versa: on a historical level, ‘it is not because the cinema
is language that it has told such fine stories, but rather it has
become language because it has told such fine stories’ (1974a, p.


Metz’s use of the film language analogy is both careful and
tentative: each of his major arguments would appear to have
undergone major revisions as his work progressed – a fact which
at least some critics of his early work tend to ignore. Nevertheless, critics such as Abramson (1976) and Nichols (1976) do usefully point to some of the limitations of his approach, and in
particular to the tendency to ignore elements such as ‘style’ and
mise-en-scene which are not easily accounted for in terms of
digitai or linguistic codes. Furthermore, they argue that the use of
categories derived from structural linguistics is often misleading:

film simply does not possess equivalents to many basic properties of language, such as tenses and negatives. Nichols asserts
that there is no such thing as an ‘ungrammatical’ statement in
film, or an abstract standard which can be used to distinguish
‘correct’ from ‘incorrect’ utterances – thus effectively refuting
the idea that film possesses a syntax, and by implication the
notion of film language itself.

Certainly, one of the major problems with Metz’s ‘grande
syntagmatique’ was its failure to account for other aspects of
signification within film: and in developing the film language
analogy beyond this point, Metz (1974b) acknowledges the fact
that cinema uses a diversity of codes, which together constitute
the specificity of the medium. Thus, as well as ‘iconic’ codes,
there are also auditory codes, and codes which govern the combination of images and sounds. Within this revised perspective,
cinema comes to be seen as a meeting place of multiple codes (cf.

Kjorup, 1977), which interact to produce the overall language
system. Meaning can no longer be seen as immanent in the text,
but rather as constantly displaced in the ongoing, dynamic conflict between codes. However, Metz does not fully specify the
relationship between these different codes: it may be, as Kjorup
(1977) argues, that some codes are more ‘basic’ than others, and
thereby serve to ‘elucidate’ more complex codes, but this process
is difficult to formalise.

However, it is at this point that the language analogy – or,
more precisely, the application of Saussurean linguistics to film
– begins to break down. Metz (1974b) implies that the
Saussurean distinction between ‘langue’ and ‘parole’ may itself
be artificial, even in the case of verbal language: by abstracting a
language system from the diversity of individual utterances, the
analyst risks reducing the dynamic complexity of language use to
a fixed set of grammatical rules. The decision to include or
exclude particular elements from consideration as valid components of ‘langue’ inevitably depends upon prior judgements as to
what is or is not meaningful: to exclude aspects of ‘parole’ such
as accent or intonation, for example, is to rule out major aspects
of the social pragmatics of language.

Despite the potential advantages of the model of language
which begins to emerge at this point in Metz’s work (Metz,
1974b), his subsequent writing in my view largely evades the
questions it arises. The shift away from Saussurean linguistics
leads not towards a social theory of language, but towards a psychoanalytic model which, despite claims for its ‘materialist’

status (Coward and Ellis, 1977), appears in practice to be as
idealist as the theory it replaces. As a result, many of the basic
problems of the film language analogy remain.

One aspect of Metz’ s later theory which illustrates this is the
distinction between ‘story’ (histoire) and ‘discourse’ which he
derives from the work of Benveniste (Metz, 1982). Both story
and discourse are forms of linguistic enunciation: but whereas
discourse always contains markers of the source of its enunciation (for example, by the use of pronouns such as ‘I’ and ‘you’),

the story form attempts to suppress these. In psychoanalytic
terms, while both story and discourse are forms of ‘voyeurism’,
story attempts to suppress the awareness of ‘exhibitionism’: the
spectator is permitted to look, but is allowed to feel that (s)he is
‘catching something unawares’. According to Metz and others,
dominant or ‘classical’ realist cinema falls into the category of
story: specific discourses (for example, those of characters
within the film) are present, but they are framed within a narrative ‘metalanguage’ which offers itself as invisible or ‘unspoken’

(MacCabe, 1974).

Nevertheless, the application of this distinction to film is far
from unproblematic. As Nowell-Smith (1976) argues, film cannot totally succeed in presenting itself as story: at the very least,
it offers shifting patterns of secondary identifications which
potentially disrupt the relationship of ‘pure specularity’ which is
offered by the metalanguage of narrative. Furthermore, as
Bordwell (1985) indicates, it is difficult to see how Benveniste’s
linguistic categories could ever be applied to fIlm- for example,
how we would distinguish between first-person and secondperson discourse, or between the utterance (enonce) and the act
of enunciation (enonciation). In a sense, the problem Bordwell
identifies is similar to Metz’s earlier difficulty in identifying the
‘small’ syntactic units (the phonemes or morphemes) which
make up film language. While it may have a certain metaphorical
validity, the linguistic analogy simply does not hold when one
attempts to apply it at the ‘micro’ level of specific textual
features. Ultimately, Bordwell argues that film lacks equivalents
for most basic aspects of verballangauge, and that as a result, the
‘enunciation account’ (that is, the film language analogy) should
be abandoned.

A further problem here arises from the fact that the psychoanalytic model of the spectator which Metz develops in relation
to film is significantly less applicable to television: the basic ‘apparatus’ of television is different in several important respects.

Thus, as Ellis (1982) has argued, the act of watching television is
characterised by the ‘glance’ rather than the ‘gaze’ which is
demanded by film. Far from being ‘transfixed’ in the darkened
space of the cinema, the television viewer is typically located in
the home: watching television is a social activity, which requires
only partial attention and takes up much less of the viewer’s
visual field. Much of the basic visual rhetoric of film which is
central to psychoanalytic theories – the shot/reverse shot, for
example- does not function as consistently, or in the same way,
in television (Flitterman-Lewis, 1987). In a sense, the ‘implied
spectator’ of television is already a social subject, rather than the
‘pre-Oedipal’ subject Metz argues is addressed by film (Feuer,
1986). Nevertheless, there is a significant danger here of erecting
monolithic definitions of the ‘essential’ qualities of film and
television spectatorship – a danger particularly exemplified by
Ellis’s work.

Ultimately, what is lacking in both psychoanalytic and structuralist versions of the film language analogy is a means of
accounting for the social and cultural diversity of language use.

Both offer an historical, asocial account of language: language is
seen either as an abstract system of codes and rules, or as a
monolithic ‘symbolic order’ which is simply imposed on the
subject. Both are essentially determinist theories, which have
considelable difficulty in acknowledging contradiction or the
potential for historical change. While Metz in his ‘middle period’

(Metz, 1974b) begins to show signs of evading these problems,
his recourse to psychoanalytic theory simply compounds them.

It is for these reasons that the social theory of language
developed by the Soviet theorists Volosinov and Bakhtin, and
the related theories of language and consciousness developed by
Vygotsky, appear to offer a potential alternative. Volosinov
(1973) takes issue with Saussure’s fundamental distinction be17

tween ‘langue’ (the language system) and ‘parole’ (speech): he
argues that Saussure’ s approach is unable to account for the
‘individual creative refraction and variation of language forms’ ,
and hence for the relationship between language and consciousness. Saussure’ s ‘abstract objectivism’ conceives of language as
‘a stable, immutable system of normatively identical linguistic
forms’, and hence cannot acknowledge the historical processes
by which languages change, or the social contexts in which they
are used. By contrast, Volosinov regards language and consciousness as inevitably social: ‘the individual consciousness’,
he argues, ‘is a social-ideological fact’

Bakhtin’s central concept of ‘dialogue’ (Bakhtin, 1986) likewise emphasises the social, communicative functions of language, which he argues have effectively been bracketed off from
consideration in structuralist linguistics. For both writers, the
sign is a site on which different discourses intersect: and it is for
this reason that it retains its dynamism and its capacity for
change. At the same time, speech itself is not, as Saussure
suggested, merely individual: Bakhtin’s theory of ‘speech genres’ suggests that speech is inevitably subject to social conventions. Any utterance inevitably draws on, and responds to, previous utterances in a given sphere and is thus far from being selfsufficient
The theory of language which I have briefly sketched here
has considerable potential for a theory of television literacy.

Firstly, it moves beyond the impasse Metz encountered in attempting to develop literal analogies between the ‘basic elements’ of verbal language and the ‘basic elements’ of film.

Rather than seeking to break language down into its smallest
constituent parts, or to define its syntactic system in abstract
terms, its central focus is on the communicative context: from
this perspective, the basic unit of speech communication is not
the word or the sentence, but the utterance. The boundaries of the
utterance are defined by a change in speaking subjects, since
every utterance is always part of a dialogue, even if this fact itself
may be repressed.

Secondly, the theory enables us to move beyond simplistic
theories of ‘passive viewing’. For Volosinov and for Bakhtin,
‘understanding’ is not a passive process, but on the contrary an
act of dialogue, ‘a response to a sign with signs’. Every utterance
implies an addressee, and every response is an active participation in speech communication. The listener, according to
Bakhtin (1981), is active because (s)he is always conscious of
other ‘alien’ words, and interprets the text in a way which is
‘pregnant with responses and objections’.

Thirdly, the theory offers a more satisfactory account of the
contradictory nature of texts and the social diversity of reading
practices than is provided, for example, by the encoding/decoding model in semiotics (Hall, 1980). Bakhtin (1981) argues that
the novel is the site of social ‘heteroglossia’, or multiple languages: while the literary language of the novel seeks to ‘organise’ this heteroglossia in different ways, and thereby to suppress
contradiction, this is constantly disrupted by the intrusion of
‘alien words’ deriving from the ‘low genres’ of popular literature. In several respects, this account can usefully be applied to
television. Rather than regarding television as the bearer of a
unitary, or even a ‘preferred’ meaning, this approach would lead
to a view of the medium as a site of conflict or dialogue between
different social and ideological languages (cf. Newcomb, 1984;
Barker, 1987). While the medium might attempt to control this
by imposing a unitary, institutional ‘voice’, the success of this
attempt can never be guaranteed: as a result, television can
always be interpreted and appropriated in widely divergent ways
by different audiences.

Finally, by dispensing with Saussure’s distinction between
langue and parole, the theory implicitly dispenses with the re18

lated distinction between competence and performance. As Halliday (1978) has argued, the danger of abstracting competence
from performance is that competence becomes idealised: many
of the factors which pertain to linguistic interaction, to the use of
language for the purposes of communication, are simply ruled
out of court. ‘Competence’ thus becomes – as it is in certain
theories of literacy – a property which individuals somehow
‘possess’ , and which they retain at their disposal until it is used.

A social theory of literacy, by contrast, acknowledges that the
display of ‘competence’ will depend upon the social and discursive contexts in which it is required, and the specific purposes of
the user: it thus implicitly rejects this idealised concept of ‘competence’, and the pedagogic practices which are based upon it.


Does understanding television require a form of

In terms of its etymology, the word ‘literacy’ refers explicitly to
written language. To employ the term in relation to television
therefore implies that the competencies which are involved in
using the medium are in some sense analogous to those which are
involved in using written language. Yet again, however, the crux
of the matter is how we defme those competencies in the first
place – in other words, how we define literacy itself.

As I shall indicate in this section, there are a number of
significant differences between the basic processes which are
involved in verbal literacy and those which may be involved in
television !iteracy. The validity of the analogy ultimately depends upon how significant, or indeed essential, we assume these
differences to be.

To begin with, television and written language require different kinds of technologies. While the technologies required for
reading and writing (pens, paper, books etc.) and ·indeed for
watching television, are fairly widely available, at least in Western countries, those required for producing television are much
more scarce, and are largely confined to small elites. While most
of us are able to read and write, and nearly all of us are able to
watch television, few of us will ever get the opportunity to make

The significance of this difference, however, depends upon
one’s position. As we have seen, Metz (1974a) argues that one
essential characteristic of a language is that it is used for ‘intercommunication’: film, as a one-way medium, does not meet this
criterion and thus does not qualify as a language. Likewise,
David Olson (1986) argues that television ‘distorts the fundamental egalitarian relation between a speaker and a hearer, the
relation that makes it possible to engage in genuine discussion’:

it puts ‘an unbridgeable distance between speaker (broadcaster)
and listener (viewer)’, thus concentrating power in the hands of
the former. In both cases, the basic difference between television
(or fum) and written language is seen in terms of the powerrelationships which are inherent in the technology.

Yet there are dangers in posing this distinction in such absolute terms. There are clearly powerful institutions which control
the dissemination of written language, just as there are lwits on
the access to television. Many of us may write, but comparatively
few of us are published. Furthermore, to take up Olson’s point,
not all situations which involve speakers and listeners, let alone
those which involve writers and readers, are necessarily ‘egalitarian’: there are always rules which limit what it is possible to
say, and in certain cases who is allowed to speak. In the case of
verbal literacy , there is a danger of assuming that reading and
writing are symmetrically related. As Stubbs (1980) points out,
many pecple read a lot but barely write at all: only a few people





write to any substantial degree. As Olson acknowledges elsewhere, the reading public in a literate society comprises perhaps
half of its members, whereas the viewing public typically includes almost everybody (Olson, 1982-82).

Beyond this, there is the question of how meaning is created,
and thus where the power lies. Writers or speakers clearly do not
make language anew each time they come to write or speak: on
the contrary, they use the forms of language that are available,
and these inevitably constrain the meanings it is possible to
produce. If one adopts the perspective briefly outlined at the end
of the previous section, reading (or listening or watching television) cannot be seen simply as an act of passive consumption: on
the contrary, the reader actively produces meaning from the indications provided by the text, and has a significant degree of
power to determine it. From a ‘culturalist’ perspective, the central paradox of mass communication is that in order to ensure its
popularity it must allow for a wide diversity of different readings, rather than seeking to impose a single, unitary meaning
(Buckingham, 1987; Fiske, 1987). To apply Bakhtin’s terms,
television is never simply monologic: on the contrary, while on
some occasions it may seek to repress the dialogic dimensions of

its language, on others it positively invites and depends upon
dialogue with its audiences. In this sense, the opposition between
writing and reading can no longer be seen in such absolute terms,
as an opposition between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ modes of
thought: ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ cannot be divided so easily into the ‘powerful’ and the ‘powerless’.

Such oppositions between the ‘essential’ properties of different media are typically overladen with value-judgements – and in
this instance, with the determination to prove that television is
‘inherently’ inferior or less egalitarian or less demanding than
verbal language. While it would certainly be misguided to imply
that these differences are merely illusory, it would also seem
sensible to regard them as differences of degree rather than of
kind, which take specific forms within specific social and historical contexts.

Nevertheless, these differences do have important implications for cognition and leaming, and thus for any conception of
television literacy: at the very least, they should caution us
against simply transferring the reading/writing couplet to television. This relationship between media and cognition has been

systematically and rigorously explored in the work of Gavriel
Salomon. The central question Salomon addresses is whether
there are mental skills which are specific to understanding television – in other words, if there is such a thing as ‘television
literacy’ which is distinct from more general cognitive competencies.

An inevitable prerequisite of this investigation, however, is
the attempt to define what is specific to television as a medium.

Salomon (1979) argues that the most essential attributes of a
given medium are its ‘symbol systems’ – that is, the ‘set of
elements, such as words, numbers, shapes or musical scores, that
are interrelated within each system by syntactic rules or conventions, and are used in specifiable ways in relation to fields of
reference’. Television and film, he suggests, are ‘derived’ systems: they combine aspects of more ‘elementary’ systems (such
as the linguistic, the musical and the iconic) with their own
unique systems, to make a complex system which is specific to
the medium (cf. Metz, 1974b; Kjorup, 1977).

Like Metz and Goodman, Salomon argues that the ‘syntax’ of
film is less rule-goverened than that of verbal language: as in
other non-notational systems, there are no discrete, unambiguous
elements (like phonemes or morphemes) which can be combined
together according to fixed laws. As a result, there can be no
straightforward relationships between symbols and referents:

and there is a far greater degree of ambiguity. Following Goodman, he argues that iconic signs such as those of film or television cannot be defined by their ‘realism’ or ‘resemblance’ to an
objective, external world, but that iconicity is a quality which the
perceiver attributes to the sign: in this sense, iconic signs do not
resemble the world, but the perceiver’s internal representation of
the world.

The focus of Salomon’ s work, then, is on the interaction
between these unique or essential attributes of the medium and
the skills or cognitive processes which are used in ‘translating’

them into internal mental representations. Clearly; as Salomon
argues, ‘language is not the only symbol system that participates
in thinking’: each symbol system requires a different mode of
thought, and thus has a different cognitive potential.

The implications – and the problems – of Salomon’ s work in
terms of a theory of television literacy are best illustrated by an
article in which he specifically seeks to defme the term (Salomon, 1982). The central question, Salomon suggests, is whether
the skills which are required for understanding television are specific to the medium: is ‘television literacy’ a separate set of
abilities, or is it merely part of a more general literacy? As a
complex symbol system, he argues, television is composed of
elements which are less unique to the medium – both ‘the literal
visual and/or auditory portrayal of real-life information’ and the
symbols, such as verbal language, which are used by a variety of
media – and those which are specific to it. It is these latter
elements, which Salomon argues are primarily ‘single, molar
elements such as cuts, fades and zooms, as well as more complex
molecular ones, that blend the molar ones into a whole plot’

(p.8), which surely require a more specific form of literacy.

Salomon goes on to ask what weight these TV -specific skills
have in the overall comprehension of programmes. The answer
to this question, he suggests, depends on how the comprehension
of televi3ion is measured, and on whom. Salomon proposes that
the comrrehension process has three sequential stages. The first
involves the mental recording (or deciphering) of a coded message into a parallel mental representation; the second involves
the chunking or integration of these elements into meaningful
units; an i the third involves elaborations made on that materialdrawing inferences, yielding new attributions or questions, and
so on. Salomon argues that the processes which take place in
earlier stages are more medium-specific, while those which


occur in later stages are more general: thus, if there is a literacy
which is specific to the medium, it is manifested only in the earier
phases of processing a message.

The relative weight of these three stages will therefore depend upon the viewer’s relative competence. For less experienced (that is, less ‘literate’) viewers, the earlier stages will be
more difficult, since the skills which they entail are less automatic: for more experienced viewers, who can carry out the
earlier stages more easily, it is the later stages – that is, those
which are less specific to the medium – which are more important. Salomon concludes by arguing that TV-specific literacy is
acquired easily and early in life, and comes to be applied quite
automatically: as such, he asserts, it carries little weight, except
for younger children (p. 10).

In many respects, Salomon’ s arguments here would appear to
coincide with common sense. If we look at what a ‘competent’

viewer does, and attempt to break it down into its constituent
parts, certain operations do appear to be easier than others, and it
would seem logical to infer that they are both the fIrst things we
learn, and also the frrst things we do in actually making sense of
specifIc programmes. A ‘commonsense’ account of reading and thus a methodology for teaching reading – has been developed in the same way: first of all we learn to decipher letters, then
syllables, words, sentences and so on. Salomon would also seem
to be correct in arguing that these ‘basic’ skills are more mediaspecifIc: just as learning to read involves understanding quite
specifIc principles such as the fact that print goes from left to
right, so learning to make sense of television involves understanding the basic principle of editing, for example. Once we
have grasped these skills, basic ‘decoding’ appears to become
automatic, and most of our mental effort is expended on activities which apply to a range of media.

If we look at the argument more closely, however, there are a
number of questionable assumptions. Firstly, Salomon presumes, as he himself admits, ‘that processing is an orderly
activity that begins with the frrst phase, entailing medium-specific skills, and progresses towards the third phase’ (p. 10).

Research on reading print, however, would suggest that this is
not in fact the case: even beginning readers are actively predicting and making inferences about texts (that is, engaging in ‘third
phase’ activities), and use these as a basis for their ‘decoding’ of
letters and words (that is, ‘first phase’ activities). Expectations
and hypotheses about meaning guide our understanding of language, and ‘mistakes’ (or ‘miscues’) in reading are often the
result of quite logical, if ultimately mistaken, predictions (S mith,
1973). The act of reading does not follow the sequence Salomon
outlines, but on the contrary involves a coordination of these
stages (or, in the jargon, of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processes) (Cole and Griffin, 1986).

Furthermore, the idea that only ‘frrst phase’ skills are medium-specific is also questionable. If one takes one of Salomon’ s
‘third phase’ skills, the ability to generate inferences, it is clear
that this happens in a very different way in television as compared to print. In reading a novel, for example, at least some of
the inferences we generate are visual; we use the writer’s descriptions of people or places to construct mental images, which
are often revised as we read. In watching television, this process
of visual inference may be more redundant: television can show
us things in a way that print cannot. On the other hand, television
has much greater difficulty in representing characters’ motivations or mental states: while novels can provide us with this kind
of information fairly easily (although of course they may. not
always do so), television often leaves us to infer these, for
example from facial expressions or gestures. Only by resorting to
verbal language – to devices such as voice-over or dialogue,
which may appear dangerously ‘literal’ – can it hope to remove


potential ambiguities.

Secondly, Salomon’ s definition of the ‘essential’ characteristics of television’s symbolic system is rather limited, and is
effectively confIned to a list of techniques, such as camera
movements and editing procedures. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, there is a danger of defIning this symbolic system as
a kind of rigid ‘grammar’, in which discrete units are seen to
possess a fIxed, objective meaning. Yet a zoom, for example,
may ‘mean’ very different things at different times; and may on
certain occasions ‘mean’ effectively the same thing as a tracking
shot or an ‘irising’ movement or a cut to close-up. For this
reason, even such apparently ‘basic’ units oftelevision language
cannot be said to be ‘processed’ automatically: however subliminally or momentarily, choices have to be made about their
meaning, even by experienced viewers.

The further problem here is that Salomon’ s defInition effectively ignores the broader levels on which the language of
television is organised the level of narrative structure, of genre,
of mode of address, and so on. These phenomena are also
conventional, institutionalised forms of language which are
equally specific to the medium. For example, while television
genres draw upon genres in other media, they are also inflected in
specifIc ways, and are in some cases unique to the medium.

Likewise, television has its own unique forms of narrative struc-

ture and its own modes of address, which are in a constant state
of evolution and which cannot simply be reduced to a few
characteristic camera movements or conventions of editing. Yet
again, it might be argued that, as in the case of reading, our
understanding of specific small-scale ‘units’ is guided by our
knowledge of these larger-scale phenomena: we make sense of
the freeze frame at the end of Dallas, for example, because of
what we know about the genre of soap opera, rather than viceversa.

The third problem here centres on Salomon’ s concept of
‘skills’. Firstly, it is clear that the skills which he regards as
specifIc to the medium are relatively limited, and are acquired at
a fairly early age. Yet if, as I have argued, the skill of ‘decoding’

even the most basic units of television language depends upon
the context in which they are found – that is, upon the meanings
which viewers attribute to them – this can hardly be regarded as
something which is achieved once and for all: even experienced
viewers will decode these units in different ways, and may even
ignore or fail to register basic cues which are provided by the
text, and thus ‘misinterpret’ what they watch. In this sense, the
basic separation between ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’ (or meaning)
is highly problematic: ‘skills’ are not exercised in the abstract,
but are always developed in the process of producing meaning.

Furthermore, is it necessarily the case that TV -specifIc skills
are relatively fInite and restricted in scope? As in the case of

reading, we might hypothesise that there are ‘metalinguistic’

skills which relate to an understanding of the forms and functions
of television language, or an awareness of that language as an
object in itself (Herriman, 1986): this might provide a means of
understanding the changes which occur beyond the stage at
which children appear to have grasped ‘basic’ skills, for example
in their understanding of the rhetoric of television advertising
(Young, 1986). Yet again, however, it may be wrong to assume
that the process is simply cumulative, and that ‘higher order’

skills necessarily follow the acquisition of ‘basic’ skills.

The danger of conceiving of the process of understanding in
terms of ‘skills’ is the implicit assumption that there are objective
standards by which these may be measured. As Salomon himself
implies, learning is not simply a function of an abstract set of
skills being applied to an inert object: it depends upon the
learner’s motivations, the ways in which the learner perceives
the task, and indeed his or her own abilities. In this sense, ‘skills’

are not simply a function of the demands of the medium: they are
also a function of the social contexts in which meaning is
produced. The relative importance of specific ‘skills’ does not
only depend on whose comprehension is being measured, as
Salomon suggests. It also depends upon the social context in
which it is being measured, on who is doing the measuring, and
on what they choose to define as valid comprehension.

In this respect, Salomon’s defmition of ‘literate viewing’ as
viewing which involves’ deeper processing’ is particularly problematic (see also Cohen and Salomon, 1979). To begin with,
there is the question of how we defme and measure ‘deeper’

processing – in practice, Salomon’s approach is essentially that
of a recognition or memory test, or a matter of counting the
number of ‘inferences’ which children make, which is at least
reductive. Perhaps more crucially, however, his definition is
implicitly normative. The major problem with the way children
watch television, as far as Salomon is concerned, is not to do with
the content of the medium, or its allegedly anti-social effects: nor
is it to do with a lack of the skills which are required to make
sense of it. On the contrary, the trouble is that most children just
don’t make enough effort. Yet again, what is being offered, under
cover of an apparently neutral rhetoric of ‘skills’ and ‘literacy’, is
an implicit definition of the attitudes children should be encouraged to adopt. While this approach does get beyond evaluative
notions about the ‘inherent’ superiority of one medium over
another, it replaces these by similarly prescriptive ideas about the
use of those media (cf. Shannon and Fernie, 1985).

In many respects, the limitations which I have indicated in
Salomon’s work are symptomatic of broader limitations in the
conceptualisation of television literacy which has been developed within cognitive psychology. In terms of their definition of
the ‘language’ or ‘symbolic systems’ which are specific to television, cognitive researchers have typically focussed on a very
limited range of ‘formal features’, and sought to study these in
isolation from questions of ‘content’ or meaning. Insofar as
meanings are addressed, it is presumed that these can simply be
extracted and defined objectively: meanings are seen to be delivered by texts, rather than constructed from them (Anderson,

If television ‘messages’ have all too often been conceived as
a set of ‘stimuli’ or ‘salient features’, without reference to the
social and institutional contexts in which they are produced and
circulated, ‘the child’ has similarly been studied as a solitary
individual, in isolation from broader cultural and social forces.

As a result, the social knowledge which children bring to television, and the social or interpersonal contexts in which it is
viewed and discussed have often been excluded as irrelevant to
the main field of inquiry. In terms of the development of children’s understanding of television, researchers have predomi-

nantly adopted a normative, Piagetian approach: children’s readings of television are typically judged as deficient by comparison
with adults’, and the progression towards adult viewing styles is
conceived in teleological terms.

The theory of television literacy which emerges here is thus
fundamentally asocial. Its basic premise is that television literacy
is a matter of individual ‘skills’ or cognitive processes which
may be identified without regard to the social contexts in which
they are exercised, or the meanings which they are used to
produce. To pose the question in such terms – as a question of the
relationship between television and cognition – is to ignore the
fact that making sense of the medium is inevitably a social
practice, which takes place at least partly in verbal language.

Once one accepts that descriptions of ‘mental states’ are inevitably linguistic or discursive, the question of their ‘accuracy’ or
‘inaccuracy’ ceases to be important: on the contrary, what is
crucial is how that discourse is itself constructed, and its functions and consequences (potter and Wetherell, 1987). This approach leads to a rejection of the cognitive view of literacy as a
property which individuals ‘possess’, or which lives ‘in their
heads’, and towards a view which situates it in the context of
specific social activities. It is this social theory of literacy which
will be discussed in the following section.

Towards a social theory of literacy
One significant danger in many discussions of television literacy
is the underlying assumption that there is an agreed definition of
verbal literacy with which it can be compared. Yet studies of the
social and historical dimensions of verbal literacy clearly indicate that this is not the case. On the contrary, the definition of
literacy itself has been subject to considerable variation.

Brian Street (1984) offers a useful distinctiQn here between
what he terms ‘autonomous’ and ‘ideological’ defmitions of
literacy. The autonomous model presumes that literacy develops
in a single direction, and is associated with notions of social
‘progress’, ‘civilisation’, individual liberty and social mobility.

Literacy is distinguished from the social and educational institutions in which it is typically acquired. It is seen as an independent
variable, which has specific consequences both for societies and
for individuals: it brings about economic prosperity, for example, and facilitates the development of logical thought.

Street identifies a number of problems with this model. He
argues that the methodologies researchers have used to substantiate such claims for literacy often reveal forms of ethnocentric
bias: in many respects, the ‘essentialist’ distinction between
literate and pre-literate societies merely replicates the earlier distinction between ‘primitive’ and ‘modem’ societies – a distinction which anthropologists have increasingly acknowledged to
be based on a misunderstanding of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures
and thought-processes. The use of the term ‘literacy’ here provides an aura of the ‘technical’, and thereby gives legitimacy to
statements which would otherwise be seen as culturally loaded.

Following the work of Labov (1973), Street argues that notions
of ‘logic’, ‘abstraction’ or ‘objectivity’ – which are presumed to
be among the consequences of literacy – are in fact conventional
and culture-bound. Claims for the ‘inferiority’ of oral cultures
are based on an exaggerated polarisation between oral and literate modes of thought, and an underestimation of the capabilities
of speech (cf. Ong, 1982). Ultimately, Street suggests, the function of the autonomous model is to justify and defend Western
educational practices and academic traditions, and to present
these as the norm from which all other cultures are to be judged
– and found wanting.


Street’s argument for an ‘ideological’ model of literacy is
fundamentally opposed to the technological determinism of the
autonomous model. According to the ideological model, literacy
is not an independent variable whose consequences can be studied in isolation: on the contrary, it is inevitably embedded in
specific social practices – reading and writing – which are in turn
embedded in specific cultural and institutional contexts. The
skills and competencies which accompany the acquisition of
literacy do not simply follow from the ‘inherent’ qualities of the
written word: they are socially constructed in the practice of that
literacy, and hence cannot be seen as neutral or merely ‘technical’. What literacy ‘means’ depends on the processes by which it
is learnt, the purposes for which it is used, and the institutions in
which this takes place.

Rather than exploring the cognitive processes which are
presumed to constitute literacy, the ideological model focusses
on the social and historical distribution of literacy practices, and
their political and ideological functions. In this sense, it dispenses with the notion of a single literacy, and replaces it with the
idea of pluralliteracies. Literacy is no longer seen here as a set of
neutral cognitive skills, but as a set of social skills which cannot
be separated from the social processes in which they are exercised.

Street’s ideological model of literacy finds support from a
number of different sources. Recent work in sociolinguistics
fundamentally questions the idea that written language contains
‘objective’ meanings: meaning is produced pragmatically as
well as semantically, within specific social contexts, by social
actors occupying social roles (e.g. Halliday, 1978; Stubbs,
1980). Texts are, in this sense, always ambiguous: and the
production of meaning is not merely a ‘technical’ matter of
‘decoding’ signs, but a social process which is inevitably variable.

Bourdieu (1977), for example, decisively rejects the
Chomskyan notion of competence, and the ‘abstract objectivism’ of the linguistic theory on which it is based. Bourdieu’ s
theory of language is rigorously sociological: there is no such


thing, he asserts, as ‘the’ language, only the legitimate language
– what is conventionally defined as ‘grammatical’ is simply that
which is socially acceptable. In this sense, questions about language and literacy are inevitably questions about the sociology
of knowledge. Relations of communication, Bourdieu argues,
are fundamentally relations of symbolic power, and linguistic
competence is a form of symbolic capital whose value depends
upon the ‘market’ in which it is ‘traded’- that is, the social
context in which it is used. The notion of competence should not
be abstracted from the social relations of linguistic production:

competence is learnt in concrete, practical situations, and involves a mastery, not simply of language, but also of the situations themselves. Bourdieu’s ‘expanded’ sociological notion of
communicative competence would appear to be shared by many
sociolinguists (e.g. Hymes, 1972; Fowler and Kress, 1979).

Likewise, historical research questions many of the broad
claims for literacy embodied in the autonomous model, which
Graff (1979) refers to as ‘the literacy myth’. Here again, the
effects of specific ‘technologies’ of literacy, such as printing,
cannot be separated from the social and institutional contexts in
which they are used: in many cases, these effects are uneven or
contradictory, and merely contribute to other changes, rather
than directly causing them (Eisenstein, 1985).

Ethnographic research in contemporary societies also suggests that the ‘literacies’ of different social groups can only be
interpreted in relation to broader institutional and socio-cultural
forces. Heath (1983), for example, points to the different functions which literacy serves for different social classes and ethnic
groups: the nature, and indeed the consequences, of literacy vary
significantly according to the roles which reading and writing
play in the family, the community and the workplace.

Given these variations in definitions of literacy, it is hardly
surprising that attempts to define standards by which it may be
assessed have been fraught with difficulty. Perhaps the clearest
illustration of this problem is the debate over ‘fuQctionalliteracy’. The work of many adult literacy campaigns, and of
UNESCO in the ‘third world’ context, has typically been informed by the notion of a minimum level of literacy which is
necessary for the individual to ‘survive’ or to function adequately within a particular social sphere. However, such adefinition inevi!ably depends upon what one means by ‘survival’ or
‘adequate functioning’: as Levene (1986) indicates, any notion
of functional literacy is inevitably ideological, in that it depends
upon prior assumptions about social welfare, rights and responsibilities. As such, it cannot be defined simply by impartial,
factual investigation. Indeed, in the case of UNESCO, the debates over functional literacy have been inextricably involved
with broader clashes over cultural values and with the struggle
for economic resources.

In terms of the models of literacy outlined here, much of the
work on television literacy I have discussed implicitly shares the
assumptions of the autonomous model: it presumes that television literacy is a single set of cognitive abilities which individuals ‘possess;, that meaning is objective and inherent in texts, and
that both can be defined irrespective of social or cultural forces.

To adopt an ideological or social definition of television literacy
would em ,ble us to move beyond many of the limitations I have
considered in this paper, and would connect with the broader
theory of language I have identified in the work of Volosinov and
Bakhtin. It would also suggest a rather different agenda for
research ,-:nd teaching.

In terms of research, work on television literacy would need
to draw on the growing body of qualitative research into television audiences which has sought to identify the social distribution of viewing competencies. Significantly, research in this area
is increasmgly taking account of the nature of the viewing


context, and of the social pragmatics of viewing behaviour. The
somewhat determinist emphasis of some earlier research (e.g.

Morley, 1980) has given way to a more complex awareness of the
diverse social and discursive practices in which television viewing is situated. As I have implied, this kind of research might
profitab!y learn from parallel research on print literacy, in particular that which has adopted ethnographic methods, such as the
work of Scribner and Cole (1981) and Heath (1983).

While the educational implications of this approach to television literacy are fairly clear in general terms, they are much less
clear on the level of specific teaching strategies. As I have argued
elsewhere (Buckingham, 1986), many apparently ‘critical’ approaches to media education presume that meanings are somehow contained within texts, and can be recovered by a process of
‘analysis’. Yet in practice, ‘analysis’ all too often becomes an
exercise in guessing what is in teacher’s mind. Rather than
seeking to arrive at a ‘consensus’ reading (Masterman, 1980), it
is necessary to devise pedagogies which will explore and validate the differential readings which students produce. Here too,
there is a need to move beyond normative definitions of ‘critical’

or ‘literate’ viewing, and to acknowledge that both television
viewing and learning itself are inevitably embedded within social relations.

Conclusion: why literacy?

My aim in this paper has been to investigate some of the theoretical issues which are at stake in defining television literacy. I have
sought to question many of the assumptions which underlie the
different uses of the term, and in particular to indicate some of the
dangers in the basic analogy between verbal language and television. In a sense, there is a fundamental paradox here. If television
literacy means anything, it surely refers to the skills or competencies which are specific to the medium – yet to base a definition of
these on an analogy with another medium, which in many respects is quite different, seems at least contradictory.

One response to this objection is to assert the pragmatic value
of the term. The combination of ‘television’ and ‘literacy’ is
partly a rhetorical device – a means whereby some of the status
which is traditionally accorded to reading and writing might ‘rub
off’ onto the study of television. Rather than seeing television as
fundamentally hostile to the development of literacy, it is hoped
that the two will be seen as educational partners. This is, it seems
to me, a potentially risky strategy, particularly if television
literacy is defined as imprecisely as it typically appears to be.

Most teachers are likely to regard verbal literacy as infinitely
more important than television literacy, and might well respond
by arguing that children already know how to watch television,
and certainly don’t need to be taught to do so in schools. To
explicitly invoke a comparison with verbal literacy may be to
invite suspicion and disbelief: the analogy between television
literacy and print literacy may well be perceived as mere empty
rhetoric, and thus prove counter-productive.

On another level, however, what is implicit in the argument
for television literacy is a broader attempt to redefine literacy
itself. Pattison (1982), for example, suggests that the notion of
literacy should not be tied to specific technologies or practices
such as reading and writing: on the contrary, literacy as he
defines it ‘denotes consciousness of the questions posed by
language coupled with mastery of those skills by which a culture
at any given moment in its history manifests this consciousness’.

People who are able to read and write, Pattison argues, may lack
this critical sensitivity to language; while those who are unable to
do so may in fact possess it. The ancient Greeks, for example, had

a ‘critical and self-conscious’ attitude towards language well before the invention of the alphabet: the advent of writing simply
enhanced their’ existing predisposition … to treat language with
critical vigour and wit’.

Like others who have argued for this redefinition of literacy
(e.g. Spencer, 1986; Bazalgette, 1988), Pattison regards the
literacy of the electronic media as simply another addition to the
diversity ofliteracies which are available. This emergent popular
literacy, which is keyed more to spoken than written language, is
a form of vernacular art which explicitly flouts atrophied standards of ‘correct English’. Far from seeking to displace older
forms of literacy, it blends with them, altering their practice in
much the same way as the advent of print changed existing oral
literacies at the time of the Renaissance.

At the very least, this argument would appear to underestimate the potential resistance to such changes – a resistance in
which schools are likely to play a major role. Popular critics of
television tend to regard schools as the last bastion of print
culture, which should be in the vanguard of opposition to the
evils of the electronic media (e.g. Postman, 1983; Winn, 1985).

All the evidence would suggest that such views are shared by
those currently responsible for shaping educational policy in
Britain (e.g. Baker, 1986), and probably by the majority of
teachers as well.

As I have indicated, the notion of television literacy can be
used – as it has been in the United States – precisely in order to
engineer this kind of resistance, to wean children off television
and lead them on to more ‘worthwhile’ activities. As a slogan,
‘television literacy’ can serve to rally those with quite different
motivations into a false unity, in which basic principles are
simply assumed, rather than addressed and debated.

As I have argued, the crucial question here is what one means
by literacy. If dominant definitions of literacy are simply translated to television, much of the radical potential of media education will simply be dissipated. Yet the educational implications
of a social theory ofliteracy have yet to be realised. To talk about
‘redefining literacy’ is perhaps utopian: yet it remains urgent and

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On the Life and Work ofOtto Hagel and Hansel Mieth as Narrated by Hansel Mieth;Juan Antonio Corretjer:

Poet and Political Thinker by Elizam Escobar; “Transformation and Path;” “Poetry and Revolution” {1967 }; Two Poems:

“State of Time;” “Time lTever Ends;” Conversation with Etel Adnan; A Poem of the Intifada by Mahmoud
Darwish, translllted by Hi/ton Obenzinger; “Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Uords; ”” A Brief Visit to the People’s
Republic of the Holy Land” by Hilton Obenzinger; Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts- Portrait of a Political Artist by
Nubia Kai; “Hong Kong: City on Trial” by Peter Engel; Towards a Poetics of National Liberation:

Reflections of A Third World Cultural Activist by E. SanJuan,Jr.; Art of Liberation and Praxis of Death by
El izam Escobar; Misc. Works, Notices, Etc.: Shocking Times: An Interview with Shock Banal ion; Poetry From
Ireland: Seamus Carraher; Dope {poem} by Jack Hirschman; lllustrated History {postcards of an on-going yearly
chroni.cle of current events} by Mariona Barkus; Some New Work by Doug Minkler; Camourade by Paul
Laraque, reviewed by Jack Hirschman; A Bird in Her Hair, short stories by Phillip Bonosky, reviewed by Thomas
Larson; On the destruction of villages in Romania-A Memorandum from Hungary; Home {A Performance Project}
by June Guralnick; A Letter to the Editor – Karl Beveridge; and Robots to Feed East Bay Jail Inmates.

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