Queer chickens and queer eggs: Reflection on a class discussion on primary and secondary discourses

I wanted to reflect on some of my thoughts in response to a class discussion of Gee’s Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics.

In one of my graduate classes, we discussed literacy as empowering and transformative. Much of this conversation circulated around the idea of a “home”/”primary” literacy or discourse that was built upon, left behind, or was impacted in the acquisition of a secondary discourse.

This discussion brought up Gee’s articulation of literacy having more to it than the verbal: there is an identity kit to literacy. That literacy is bound up in identity and ideology. The class discussion circled around this idea that the overlap between your primary and secondary [read “school” or “academic”] discourse facilitates your acquisition of the secondary discourse. Through acquiring a secondary discourse, you can look back on your primary and think metacognitively.

That model of thinking may be represented as:


I couldn’t help but think about some things that might complicate this model. For one, what does queerness offer this discussion?

I was thinking of my own situation as a gay man and asking what was my primary discourse? I did not acquire access to a queer community in which I could be apprenticed into norms or contribute to queer discourses until much later in my life, and yet my queerness required no acquisition processes: that is, I was acutely aware of my difference from early on which shaped my interactions with heteronormative discourses. I had to participate and perform in these spaces far earlier; before I was necessarily even conscious of what I was “passing” as. Even if I was not so consciously aware, I was aware enough of my performance—my passing into spaces—and the consequences of performance: which I suppose is to ask where the work of metacognition begins in discursive practice.

So what is primary discourse? Is it the discourse that I acquired “first”—and, if so, is it the discourse that I had access to participate in first despite cognizance of difference? Is it the discourse that most impactfully shapes my identity—and, if that is the case, what does that suggest about the nature of acquisition and apprenticeship, if one can acquire first and be apprenticed second? And what is necessary for metacognition—is it a looking across borders with explicit reasoning, or something that can be intuited through an awareness of consequences and lived experiences?

Which came first, and does that matter?

I think queerness resists this kind of model I’ve depicted above. Most immediately as queer often implies a resistance to binary thinking, such as primary and secondary. I think it raises the question too of orientation (to draw from Sara Ahmed—as one does), to ask what these objects or ideas of literacy orient us toward: some of which I have attempted to make explicit in that model through a visual/spatial representation and the use of arrows. There is a pulling to this model that pulls toward the secondary, the apprenticed, the acquire, the institutional. It seems to value the primary only as it informs and provides explicit vocabulary for reflection on the secondary: it only values the primary as other.

This discussion was interested in primary as facilitating the acquisition of the secondary. There’s space, then, to acknowledge the privileging of those whose primary discourses overlap more, that touch more, that are oriented toward, that allow one to reach more easily the secondary. However, that potential to acknowledge seemed lost in the language of efficiency: how can we facilitate this acquisition?

Many thought the Gee text left students and instructors in a helpless position.

The text seemed to be asking for immersion into a discourse in a way that they felt uncertain of schools being able to facilitate. But I can’t help but wonder about the moments of border crossing, moments that contact, touch, overlap helps facilitate: perhaps even the moment that an oriented trajectory begins its movement. Moments of crossing are invitational and/or transgressive, they are thresholds of being.

Jacqueline Rhodes writes in Techne:

What is a threshold, the site of such unraveling? A point between, belonging to neither. A doorway facing both sides; and when one threshold opens to the next, we find an endless chain of facing/approaching/leaving. Like the rhizome, like rootstock, thresholds assume—no, demand—a dynamic, bobbing-and-weaving approach that, as I wrote in Radical Feminism, Writing, and Critical Agency, is a hallmark of feminist textuality. Our own radical alterity, and our own tangled response to it, can work as resistance, as critical energy.

I’m curious about a queer inhabiting of that threshold, or is it situating queerness in that threshold, or is it making that threshold a site of queering? The potentiality of the endless facing/approaching/leaving, of the orienting and reorienting that happens in situ.

Is a queer literacy a literacy of the threshold? One that was always already primary and yet also secondary and always orienting and reorienting within the “fractured valences” of multiple discourses and identities (Bessette, 2016).

Which is to say that perhaps we should attend to the orientations, trajectories, and movements within us, our pedagogies, our understandings of literacy and how they contribute to the value and valuation of identities.

To take seriously a queering of this model, too, means to also attend to the ordinal, the situated ordination in structural hierarchies, the directive and coordinating force of number and taxonomy, or immediacy and latent, of proximity and distance, of elevation and baseness.

The idea of apprenticeship seems to want deep, contextually rich moments of immersion in a way that this discussion had difficulty situating within classroom contexts: but what if we were to consider literacy as culturally located and mediated through interactions with technologies, such as language or writing tools.

By ordinating literacy (x, y axes brought-to-bear here) we locate literacy within a locative model, but one that loses its abscissa. It’s a one dimensional model of literacy, one that insists that locating yourself in particular regions of a line means success. But what does an abscissa offer us? What do we get if we look at literacy as 2D, 3D, 4D?

I think at the very least we trouble the idea that literacy is singular, linear, and apolitical and we trouble systems and institutions that privilege the singular literacy. We would instead offer more complex ways in which people locate themselves within the big ball of wibbly-wobbly, unstableness that literacy is.

I do not in any way feel as though I am ready to answer these questions and these initial graspings leave so much to consider that I am yet unready to wrestle with.

A Smattering of Citations:

Ahmed, Sara. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Objects, orientations, others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bessette, Jean. (2016). Queer rhetoric in situ. Rhetoric Review, 35(2), 148-164.

Gee, James P. (1989). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education, 171(1), 5-17.

Rhodes, Jacqueline and Jonathan Alexander. (2015). Techne: Queer meditations on writing the self. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press.

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