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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mark making 

'Traces left by our ancestors from 25,000 years ago' the softly spoken guide explains. 'Wow' whispers the American woman in breathy response. But what exactly are we to make of this statement, this 25,000 years ago? It's calculable but still somehow incomprehensible, out of reach - so many generations ago. Let's face it, it's hard enough to imagine the recently deceased let alone those we have never met. And yet here is the gracefully drawn outline of a horse. A carefully executed red ochre line on the wall of the cave. 'We know how but we don't know why' the guide says emphatically. Science can tell us the exact composition of the materials - charcoal, brushes, sticks, hands and pigments. And it can also give us a pretty accurate idea of when this particular horse was drawn, but the purpose, the motivation for making this image escapes us. Yet it is obviously, yes undisputedly the form of a horse. That much speaks clearly and unambiguously across unknowing time. And since we are all convinced that the ability to draw like this is peculiar to the human species, which ever you look at it, this is an act of human communication. Whether its survival in this labyrinth of limestone caves is accidental or not makes little difference. Perched on our millennial ridge we gaze into the mists of human time, knowingly squinting at a hazy horizon. We were here before, leaving our mark.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Always stories 

Out of all the fascinating studies that we've published in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy there's one that holds a special place for me, and I return to it with regularity. We published it in 2002 and it's a case study of two London children who share the same birthday and attended the same school, but are different in significant ways, ways that are likely to have influenced their educational chances (they must be adults by now, hence the past tense). In essence, Liz Brooker's study is a careful analysis of cultural capital. Not the cultural capital that Ofsted have recently defined as 'the essential knowledge that children need to prepare them for future success', but those cultural resources that Bourdieu suggested pattern social inequality. That aside, it is the eloquence with which Liz explains the enduring power of ethnographic research that repeatedly draws me back. She talks about how the detail of descriptive studies sticks with us. And surely that is true. She doesn't go as far as to say that 'the stories we tell' count, but that's what I take from it. In my first university job I leant that the biggest put-down of a colleague's work was to call it journalism. Journalism was a code word for description, and using it was a way of discrediting anything that strayed too far along the qualitative route. In a department then dominated by psychologists it warned against the excesses of storying your research. Of course, there's a clear line between the rigorous collection of data that supports Liz's work and something that is cherry-picked, biased or over-sensationalised - as in bad, misleading or lazy journalism. But telling different stories is as important now as it always was. And that goes for journalism and research.  Crossing the line into fiction - perhaps this is different line altogether, continues to intrigue me. What William Gass describes as 'a sudden slip over the rim of reality' not only evokes a sort of unmooring, but also holds the potential to speak back to the mundane in powerful ways. Isn't that what good stories always do? And that leads me on to wonder whether story could be a research method, too?

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Water level 

It was unseasonably warm with record-breaking temperatures over the Easter period. 'That David Attenborough knows something' the man at the garden centre had said. He'd seen him on TV. 'I feel sorry for the Poles' he added. I must have looked confused. 'Them that run the car wash, I fell sorry for them' he'd said. Then 'we won't get cut off cos of the plants'.  Count your blessings. Hot sun, dry earth. The sky was heavenly blue in Newfoundland as well, and way out in the ocean icebergs like ghostly cruise liners drifted across in stately procession. 'We never saw them as kids - well not that I remember' I heard a local say. But now there's signs up with iceberg water for sale, and the whale watch boats have been pressed into service too, so you can get close up to those huge stacks of solid water drifting by. I clicked on the car radio when I got back - just in time to hear them talking about a 'managed realignment' of the coastline back home. The man from the National Trust was worried about footpath erosion and his cafes and visitors centres getting swept away by the encroaching sea. High water rising, storms battering the cliffs, cracks in the limestone bluffs. And if that wasn't enough there's a trickle of water snaking its way down the shower pipe; I worry about when to flush the toilet. Meanwhile protestors glue their hands to the pavement outside Westminster. Climate change, you could cry.

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Friday, May 03, 2019

Democracy of things 

In a democracy of things every object exists in relation to others. What's more all classes of objects have equal status although some can, of course, have more influence than others. Broadly speaking that is what is meant by DeLanda's much used phrase 'flat ontology'. Thinking about this it occurred to me that someone should document all the different attempts that have been made to give voice to non-human objects, those more or less silent members of this parliament of things. Admittedly some social science researchers have tried, and poets often touch upon it, but in fiction it is usually the preserve of writers of fables or children's stories. The anthropomorphic conceit - for that's what it usually comes down to, is more often than not concerned with bestowing human characteristics on animals. After all it offers a compelling way for us to understand ourselves - here Kipling springs to mind. Animals and their inter-relations become ciphers for human characters, their interactions and even their social organisation (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi for instance). But inanimate objects are much harder to voice. Rilke does this brilliantly by writing about a tin lid, of all things, '...a lid like this could have no other desire than to be sitting on its tin; this must be the limit of what it could imagine; a satisfaction that could not be surpassed, the fulfilment of all its wishes. It almost represents something approaching an ideal, having been twisted patiently and softly into place, to be resting evenly on the little matching protrusion and feeling the interlocking rim within you, elastic and just as sharp as your own edge is when you lie there on your own.' (Rilke, 2016:105). The composition is so finely tuned, but in the end, like all anthropomorphic writing it is, when it comes down to it, a sort of extended metaphorical reflection on the human predicament. I'm still looking for examples!

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

H is for Harry 



A good documentary should dig deep into a topic of interest or concern and judged against this the film 'H is for Harry' is good. Good if the topic of concern is the way in which our school system fails to meet some students' needs, but not so good if the interest is in unscrambling white working class underachievement as it repeatedly claims to do in its titles and voice-over commentary. At just under 90 minutes the film offers a sensitively drawn portrait of Harry's struggles at a sparkling new Academy in London staffed by enthusiastic and well-meaning teachers. Although there is plenty of close-up footage of Harry's intense interaction with teachers, and illuminating reflections from Harry - apparently on his way home from school, I found I wanted more detail. There is nothing about Harry's anger issues, although they are referred to a lot, and despite the fact that Harry's dad is on camera at regular intervals we don't learn very much about Harry's life at home or during his turbulent past. Of course there's only so much you can do in 90 minutes, but there's something deceptive about using Harry as a proxy for the diverse, amorphous and generally problematic social group that we refer to as the white working class. Of course, educators will draw different things from the film and that's inevitable. This one was impressed by the drive and commitment of the young teachers, but their dogged adherence to a regime of motivational slogans and exercises had a Brave New World feel to it. In a classic act of responsibilisation the achievement gap is presented as a tough challenge that individual students have to take on, whilst their unruly energies are pacified by a teacher who plays guided meditation to them on her laptop. But more worrying was the curriculum that played in the background like an old 78 - skill-and-drill phonics, grammar and Shakespeare. It was heart-breaking to watch the the teachers trying so hard to breathe life into something that was so clearly moribund. So what you might call the experience gap loomed large when you saw the world through the students' eyes - friends moving away, holidays that included a visit to a drug shop in Holland, a new swimming pool that magically appeared in Harry's back garden, a school exclusion for a stabbing (or was it an overdose?). Harry's thoughts about his future life? Staying alive. Unfortunately that seems about right. In the end 'H is for Harry' is a sad and moving film. It's very well crafted, but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser about the so-called white working class - or, for that matter, the crucially important 'others' who had walk-on parts at the Academy, but I applaud the film's sincere attempt to address the complex and important issue of the sate of education in state education. Let's have more!

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Eric Carle's book of hope 

1969 – it was the year of the Stonewall Riots, of Woodstock, and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. It was also the year in which The Very Hungry Caterpillar was first published. Author and illustrator Eric Carle had been playing around with a hole punch trying to make a story about a bookworm when his publisher encouraged him to think again. Fifty years on and his picture book is an international best seller, translated into over sixty languages, and has become a recognized classic of children’s literature. What’s more, it shows no sign of losing its appeal. It’s not just the fact that it has dark and light, the sun and moon, the days of the week, common fruit, and the numbers one to five - the brightly painted tissue paper cut-outs are distinctive and carry the simple narrative of transformation that adults and children have come to love. And, of course, at the heart of the story are the five pages of graded size with holes in them to show what the caterpillar eats. The page design is perfectly matched to the story. You see this when the butterfly, emerging from its lumpy brown cocoon, makes a vivid splash of colour across a double-page spread - its wings in harmony with the colours of the fruit in the previous pages. A wall of bright tissue paper circles decorates the end papers suggesting, perhaps, the food the caterpillar consumed. It’s a prompt to reflect on the story you have just read. In these and other ways, form and content are harmoniously woven together in a way that many later picture book illustrators have emulated. In a sense The Very Hungry Caterpillar marked the coming of age of the picture book. Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Jill Murphy, Anthony Browne and the best work of John Burningham were all to follow, helping to raise the status of the simple thirty two page spread layout into an art form in its own right. Together they showed how the verbal and visual could work off each other to create complexity and delight for young readers and the adults who sat with them. They liberated the experience of early reading from the tired predictability and narrative poverty of basal readers, introducing something you could return to time and time again - return to and enjoy. There’s more to learning to read than recognizing words. For example, understanding narrative involves remembering what has happened and predicting what might happen next and the die-cut pages in The Very Hungry Caterpillar naturally support this process. Patterned and predictable language also helps early reading. On Monday he ate through one apple, on Tuesday he ate through two pears, and so on. Eric Carle got it right. And of course, good children’s literature builds on direct experience. In a way you can’t get more direct than food! But more than that all this is the sense of wonder that adults and children can share as they read Carle’s story together. I mean, how unlikely that something that crawls along eating leaves might come to a halt, encase itself in a brittle shell only later to hatch out and take flight as something as colourful – as beautiful as a butterfly? Eric Carle calls it a book of hope. It certainly is, and it was something that seemed to be in the air in 1969 and something that is just as important in 2019.

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Saturday, March 02, 2019

Writing and knitting 

I've spent a considerable amount of time recently  (with Cathy Burnett) trying to develop a credible account of meaning making from a sociomaterial perspective. That journey has taken me down some fascinating byways including cross-species communication, machinic semiosis and into the possibilities of message exchange without sentience. But however you carve it up, it seems that what we call literacy is an exclusively human accomplishment, even when we fully acknowledge the use of signs and symbols in nonhumans. Thinking of literacy like that isn't human exceptionalism - it's just the way it is, a distinction. It's helpful to think of that distinction with respect to text - the word in English derives from the Latin textilis (woven), so we might say text is that which is woven. The etymology is shared with textile (fabric or material) and indeed much has been made of this elsewhere, and part of it is no doubt connected with the historic materiality of the book. The parallels are interesting to think with. Take something like knitting, similar to writing in that it is a human accomplishment. OK, so the artistry of weaver birds is impressive, spiders make impressive webs, and so on - but they are just not the same thing. Knitting is learnt behaviour with a variety of forms and techniques - but it is just an abstract idea without the material dimension - the yarn in all its variety, colour, production and origins and the technology required to knit it together, whether simple (two or three sticks or needles) or complex (automated, machine-powered, programmed). Of course you could elaborate on the process, all the different steps required in making a garment, for instance, but that is the basic process. The garment is, of course, analogous to the text, that which is woven. A garment is a more or less durable product designed to fulfil a particular purpose, and from the point of completion has what amounts to a life of its own. It can be moved across space and time, given, sold, lent, re-purposed or destroyed. It can be cut, copied, shrunk or lost. It assembles, reassembles and disassembles. It is dependent on an entangled process and on complex mechanisms of transmission and exchange - and in this sense is just like text. Thinking like this suggests that the semiotic domain of the social should not be purified and distilled for the purpose of study. Texts are mutable objects in heterogeneous assemblages with human, nonhuman and non-semiotic objects, they emerge out of these entanglements affect them and are affected by them.

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