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Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity

reviewed by Ian Parker Renga - March 15, 2016

coverTitle: Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity
Author(s): Aparna Mishra Tarc
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438457472, Pages: 172, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

Robert Kegan (1982) once argued that his field of psychology had privileged logos to the point where the fragility and wonder of the psyche, or human spirit, had been lost. He suggested that researchers were no longer trained to listen. In the current era of accountability, the same might be said of teachers who are expected to listen mostly to improve student achievement rather than engage learners psyches. The field of literacy studies thankfully offers helpful tools for countering this trend. Aparna Mishra Tarc has added Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity to this field by compellingly reimagining language learning, reading, and psychoanalysis for a new age. Tarcs poetic and rigorous writing capably serves as a renewal of faith in the human spirit and the capacity of teaching to nurture it.

Literacy of the Other is a brief book with two halves. The first encompasses the introduction and first two chapters and presents the authors purpose and framework. Tarc argues that PK-12 literacy instruction fails to address students inner lives. To build her argument, she draws upon Melanie Kleins pioneering psychoanalytic studies of the infant-mother dynamic. Klein theorized that initial language learning entails a break in the infants connection with the mother, recasts her as (m)other, and begins the childs symbolic encounters with an affectively rich inner life, or psychical literacy. Aided by Derrida, Lyotard, Deborah Britzman, and several Freudian psychoanalysts, Tarc sets out to explore the implications of these encounters through literary analysis. In her view, reading literature that constitutes dialogue between inner worlds of the author and reader trains the psychical capacities and is underappreciated.

In the second half, Tarc conducts psychoanalytic readings of three novels. The first reading examines The Adventures of Lord Greystoke: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs to draw attention to the role of language in shaping childrens psychic literacy. She notes how the process of Tarzan learning English humanizes him and positions his ape mother as infantile. While critical of the books colonial narrative, Tarc goes further to observe the symbolic significance of the ape mother as proxy for all mothers. She calls into question the patriarchal assumption that the infant-mother bond must be severed so the child can learn the fathers civilized language. Tarcs psychoanalytic re-reading of Tarzan challenges this dominant storyline and invites a reimagining of psychical development.

With the second reading, Tarc shows how psychical literacy can emerge unexpectedly in adulthood. She turns to J.M. Coetzees novella, The Problem of Evil, in which the protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, is tormented after reading a novel that graphically depicts Nazi sadism. Facing such evil profoundly disturbs Costello and unearths her deeply buried trauma. Tarc uses this tumultuous experience to illustrate the presence of an affective inner world that is latent, but can be piqued through reading. She maintains that fiction places us uncomfortably at home with ones unthinkable thoughts of self in the words of others (p. 92). It can transport us to past selves and leave us in a state of infantile helplessness, thus priming us for psychic reparation and renewal.

In the third reading, Tarc explores the psychical ravages of racial oppression through Toni Morrisons Beloved. The apparition of the baby, murdered by her slave mother and appearing in adult form yet trapped in a preverbal state, permits further inquiry into the destabilizing effects of the infantile psychic state. Tarc reveals how Morrisons language forces readers to reckon with the slaveholders dehumanizing narrative, and its internalization by both Whites and Blacks. If properly framed, she suggests that Morrisons rendering of the psychical harm of slavery can expose the affective resources necessary for constructing healing narratives.

Tarcs three psychoanalytic readings leave a lasting impression. Like the waves of an incoming tide, the ideas of the first half sink in while reading the second half, and subsequently engaging with books and films take on new meaning. For example, as my toddler and I watched Charlottes Web (2006), I became uncomfortable with the idea that the pigs salvation lay in words that reveal his human-like nature. I also found myself questioning why Charlotte had to die once the pigs psychic literacy was established, like Tarzans ape mother. Readers are bound to find similar parallels even if they are not familiar with the novels; for example, I had only seen film adaptations of Tarzan and I still understood Tarcs reading. Unfortunately, thorough synopses are missing and readers are forced to piece together characters and plot as Tarcs analyses unfold.

A few critiques could be levied in terms of the books framework. First, psychoanalysis has been criticized by feminist scholars for lending scientific legitimacy to patriarchal fantasies of gendered roles (Millet, 2000). Tarc briefly addresses this charge, but her intensive focus on breastfeeding and the mother-infant dynamic undercuts the effort. Fathers may indeed be onlookers, but only among heterosexual couples for whom breastfeeding sustains gendered parental roles. In contrast, couples that share bottle-feeding duties or are homosexual may see things differently. The premise of psychical literacy development, while rooted in Kleins century-old study of mothers, seems defensible beyond the confines of gender, a point Tarc insufficiently addresses.

The strident postmodernist might also take issue with the books conception of self-authorship. A dialogic view of self/other construction is hard to maintain with the psychoanalytic focus on reading the other. At times, dualities like self/other, reader/author, and inner/outer assume fixed positions instead of representing spaces of constructive tension that are always unsettled. Also, the role of telos, imagined futures and desired ideals, in self/other construction figures less prominently in her analysis than it could have to counter a charge of modernism (c.f., Packer, 2000). Wrestling with such critiques could build bridges between psychoanalysis and postmodernist theories of learning to benefit both of them. Indeed, Tarc brings needed recognition of the affective imprint of family, culture, and history to discussions of self and identity in educational settings.

In the final chapter, Tarc argues that we need pedagogy attuned to the affective dimensions of language. Along with instructing teachers to teach reading, she recommends instructing teachers to read students; Vivian Paley and other progressives come to mind as exemplars. Tarcs literary view of teaching is also noteworthy. How a disciplinary training in math, science, art, etc., can condition teachers instructional aims and techniques (c.f., Wilson & Wineburg, 1988) is rarely addressed in teacher preparation literature. Tarc concludes by stating her wish that teachers should read novels to improve their instructional practice. For guidance, teachers and those who support them would do well to read Literacy of the Other.


Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kerner, J. (Producer), & Winick, G. (Director). (2006). Charlottes web [Motion Picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures, Walden Media, Kerner Entertainment Company, Nickelodeon Movies, KMP Film Invest, & Sandman Studios.

Millett, K. (2000). Sexual politics. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

Packer, M. J. (2000). Escaping modernity. Human Development, 43(3), 170177.

Wilson, S., & Wineburg, S. (1988). Peering at history through different lenses: The role of disciplinary lenses in teaching history. Teachers College Record, 80(4), 525539.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19633, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:03:35 AM

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About the Author
  • Ian Renga
    Western State Colorado University
    E-mail Author
    IAN PARKER RENGA is Assistant Professor of Education in the Education Department at Western State Colorado University. A scholar of trends and traditions in teaching, he recently published critical examinations of teacher narratives in film, notably in a book, Teacher, Learning, and Schooling in Film: Reel Education (Routledge, 2015), co-edited with Daniel P. Liston. His current work examines the presence and role of desire in teacher education.
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