Wild Literacies

A call for a reconceptualization of young children’s literacy and language practices as more-than-human is an insistence on the value of literacy and language practices that operate beyond human intentionality, beyond reason and rationality, that are specific to place and community, and unfold according to unpredictable and powerful affective forces. A mark-making table may be left abandoned, or be approached only to upend the crayon pot or rearrange the tiny chairs. A half-eaten strawberry can become a hilarious joke. In a context such as a community playgroup, where children aged 12-36 months move between different activities, objects, spaces, and possibilities, with either a frenetic energy or a slow uncertain intensity, what aspects of what is unfolding might offer clues about emergent literacy and language practices?

Hackett, 2021, p.68

In a world where dinosaurs, cockroaches, lizards, snakes, squirrels and fish appear and disappear spontaneously, objects change from moment to moment, and the world spins faster and faster to get rid of all the rubbish, we need additional nonrepresentational theories where the wild of language resists propositional meaning and yet makes perfect sense.

Somerville and Powell, 2019, p.25

One of the key ideas in my book, More-Than-Human Literacies in Early Childhood is that we could consider young children’s literacies to be wild literacies. By this I mean; messy, provisional and holding in tension multiple possibilities, meanings and affects. In particular, I use wild literacies, firstly, to signal the way in which young children’s literacies are more-than-human. Not only does multimodal meaning making involve (human and nonhuman) bodies moving and sounding in places, but the agency by which this movement and sound might take on meanings, create atmospheres, or set something new in motion, is distributed beyond the human. Secondly, wild literacies indicates an interest in how young children’s meaning making frequently seems to move or slip between the representational and non-representational, between ‘literacy’ and ‘not-literacy’. As the opening quote describes, there is always a sense of something unfolding, of connections or points of reference slipping into and out of view.

There is not time or space here to give a full genealogy of the theoretical underpinnings of ‘wild’, but instead I will share some of the key scholars and ideas that have drawn me to this term. For Deleuze, the term wild implies something inventive, but also something beyond representation. Something excessive that is difficult to pin down. Maggie MacLure (2013) has taken up the notion of wildness to describe those aspects of language that exceed representation yet still seem to have some sort of pull, or powerful affect.  Liselott Olsson (2009) describes a wild approach to empirical research, arguing that, because whatever is being research cannot ever be fully represented, research is always a process of invention and addition, rather than neutral description.

Thus the notion of wildness does not only seem, to me, to be about acknowledging the way in which the world is unpredictable, excessive and impossible to ever fully describe in representational ways (such as words). More than this, ‘wild’ seems to claim, embrace and celebrate this slipperiness, rather than see it as a drawback. I think this stance offers exciting possibilities for understanding the emergence of young children’s language and literacies in more expansive ways that are not underpinned by adults’ literacies as the main point of reference. MacRae (2020), for example, argues for “reframe[ing] the lack that is associated children’s pre-verbal stages of development, instead as a rich ‘wild element’ (Deleuze in MacLure, 2013:657)” (p.94) that is importantly connected to invention, to the emergence of something new. Similarly, Schulte (2019) argues that it is the more-than-human-ness of drawing that makes it ‘wild’, that gives it creative energy.

Schulte (2019) recommends that adults do not insist children attribute meaning to their drawings, but instead we adults should “work against the feeling that we ought to know and that we can know a child’s drawing.” (p.94). For Favareau and Gare (2017) biosemiotic processes do not need stated and transparent pre-defined goals in order to be considered intentional. Similarly, Rautio (2019) has described the process of emergence itself by pointing out that, like any emergent system, emergent literacies, require “a degree of randomness and autonomy, not control, to function” (p.232). In other words, the unstable, multiple and wild aspects of how children encounter and invent in and with the world, are essential routes to genuinely producing something new. These are the ideas I lean on when I write about young children’s wild literacies.

Therefore

  • If the emergence of literacies is more-than-human
  • with randomness and provisionality being important aspects,
  • If literacies manifest when energies, desires or affective flows shape bodies
  • and meanings or responses are set into motion as a result of all of this

Then it is important to honor and take seriously the intensity with which children move and sound “in order to……..” (Favareau and Gare, 2017), without an explicit pre-stated goal. In other words, the ways in which intensities and energies can flow around places and move bodies (Stewart, 2007) should be central to the analysis of young children’s meaning making. Thinking of the wild-ness of young children’s literacies foregrounds the need to think beyond representation, even when this seems to blur the edges of how we might define or recognise literacies.

References

Favareau, D. and Gare, A. (2017). The Biosemiotic Glossary Project: Intentionality. Biosemiotics, 10 (3): 413-459.

Hackett, A. (2021) More-Than-Human Literacies in Early Childhood. London: Bloomsbury.

MacLure, M. (2013). Researching without representation? Language and materiality in post-qualitative methodology. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26 (6): 658-667.

MacRae, C. (2020). Tactful hands and vibrant mattering in the sand tray. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 20 (1): 90-110.

Olsson, L. (2009). Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning. Deleuze and Guattari in Early Childhood Education. Routledge.

Rautio, P. (2019). Theory that cats have about swift louseflies: A Distractive Response. In Kuby, C., Spector, K. & Thiel J. (Eds). Posthumanism and Literacy Education. Knowing/becoming/doing literacies. (pp. 228-134).New York: Routledge.

Schulte, C. (2019). Wild Encounters: A More-Than-Human Approach to Children’s Drawing. Studies in Art Education, 60 (2): 92-102.

Somerville, M. & Powell, S. (2019). Researching With Children of the Anthropocene – A New Paradigm? In Educational research in the age of the anthropocene. Reyes, V., Charteris, J., Nye, A. & Mavropoulou, S. (eds.). Hershey, PA, p. 14-35.

Stewart, K. (2007). Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

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