Friday, June 01, 2018

Dwelling in error 

Creative processes can be as interesting as their final products and that's partly because they are occasions in which thinking really is live, where something different could always come into being, or fail, or just remain in potentiality. I was reminded of this listening to dramaturg Ruth Little speaking about her collaborations with award-winning dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. Part of a Radio 4 series Behind the Scenes followed the development of their project Xenos, the story of the 1.4 million Indians who fought in the Great War. It is reported to be Khan's final outing as a dancer. The process of developing the piece is all about exploring possibilities, working on a difficult theme with a challenging set design. 'It's dwelling in error that takes us forward' explains Ruth Little, working with 'things that are right on the margins of possibility, or likelihood, or logic, in order to discover where they collapse.' I'm convinced that all the experimentation somehow gives weight and texture to the final performance. In the process, though, there's a wonderful sensitivity or faith in what emerges out of uncertainty. What's more, the very idea of dwelling in error is very appealing to someone, like me, who's always making mistakes!

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Fifty years on 

In the recent history of radical progressive politics the student unrest of the late '60s holds a very special place. The momentum for social, cultural and political change, although diffuse in its aims, spread like wildfire particularly across Europe and North America leading to sit-ins, demonstrations and student occupations, often resulting in fractious clashes with the State. This unrest was relatively short-lived but arguably it sowed the seeds of some more lasting social reform as well as a variety of struggles which continue to this day. One of the more colourful, violent and potentially revolutionary manifestations of unrest took place in Paris - culminating in civil disturbances between May 15th and May 29th, 1968 - fifty years ago this week. The dissatisfaction of a growing student population, subjected to archaic regimes and routines was vociferously expressed. Their protests were supported by many public intellectuals, artists and cultural luminaries. At the same time a simmering resentment of the economic conditions under the Gaullist government led to a General Strike and for a short while, at least, France teetered on the edge of revolution - or chaos, depending on your point of view. Les événements (the events), as they came to be called, had a profound effect on French intellectual life. Those working in the social sciences that look to contemporary European thinking - and particularly to what is sometimes dismissively referred to as 'French theory' could, and perhaps do, reflect on this. Like it or not, les événements profoundly influenced Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari and many other too. Given that we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of these events it's hard to work out whether we should mourn the lost opportunity, celebrate their impact or draw a veil over those heady times. I half expected more media interest. The BBC's Vive La Revolution was rather disappointing being more about Joan Bakewell than anything else. An extended interview with one-time student leader Tariq Ali is a lead feature in this month's London Review of Books. Although That Was The Year That Was is both informative and analytical it again tends towards the autobiographical. Hazanavicius's movie Le Redoutable (or Godard Mon Amour) adopts a different approach by explicitly focusing on New Wave filmmaker and political activist Jean-Luc Godard, offering a humorous and rather unflattering portrait of his political activity. This has the effect of lampooning the political rhetoric that circulated around the events May '68. History is inevitably selective and what matters for one generation may not for another. However, it would be a loss if les événements ended up being the story of a few individuals. In fact it would be a grand irony.  The very least we should expect is a reprint of Julian Bourg's excellent study 'From Revolution to Ethics'.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018


One of the things I admire about Virginia Woolf's writing is her precision in describing uncertainty. The most obvious example is her first published piece, The Mark on the Wall, but I suspect it was an ungoing preoccupation or predisposition in her writing life. It's something you can't do so well in academic work where claims, warrants and certainties are only slightly softened by talking about caveats, limitations or alternative perspectives. No matter how uncertain I feel, the writing I do often sounds certain as I read it again. So here is an arena of uncertainty....when I hear about 'data as the new oil', I get that not sure sort of feeling. Of course the analogy - data as oil - has well-rehearsed shortcomings, but I think it may be in danger of missing the point (although note the same theme of exploiting natural resources is found in 'data-mining' and 'harvesting'). The Cambridge Analytica story seems to me to be more about exploiting and monetising private information than about data itself - that comes later. And this monetising is made possible by the ways in which we leave trails of personal information. The way we overtly make our private lives public on social media couples up with the surreptitious tracking of our online activity and that's how we come to produce data - which some argue is the digital labour that fuels a new sort of capitalism. All this may be the case, but where does that leave the poor knowledge worker who is now continually required to update his or her academic profile, to maintain a healthy score on Research Gate, accumulate impressive ratings on Google Scholar and use Twitter to generate impact? I suspect that sort of performativity may be beginning to eclipse the actual contribution made, although I hope not. But that's not the source of my uncertainty. No, it's more about who benefits from such activity as institutions, colleagues and publishers all encourage us to market ourselves. Does our labour just become someone else's data, and someone else's profit? Or is it genuinely a good idea, a more open gesture to draw things to people's attention? Well if that's the case, then I'm encouraging you to look at our piece on reading for pleasure in the digital age, and the paper that's had a longer gestation period - literacy as event. Which leads me on to a whole string of other uncertainties, but you'd have to be Virginia Woolf to get into all those.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Synthetic reading 

Sometime in the mid '60s my father discovered drip-dry shirts. They were one of the many products of the modern world; a world in which science and technology seemed to know no bounds. They released my mother, at least temporarily, from the chore of ironing, because that's how the domestic economy was for them back then. The shirts were hung, rather unceremoniously, over the bath to drip and dry, and that could take rather a long time in the days before central heating. But they were something different, and they were, my father explained, man-made (not that other shirts weren't), and  they were artificial, they were synthetic. And therein lay their downfall. They were still a little creased after drying and what's more they didn't perform particularly well when it, or should I say he, heated up, which happened on regular occasions. Soon he'd had enough of what he called 'that synthetic rubbish', and as a result, synthetic, the very word, became associated in my impressionable mind with the artificial, or the inauthentic - something rather inferior that imitated the real thing but clearly wasn't. So now, when I see that word synthetic associated with reading teaching, I can't help but think that the obsession with phonics-above-all, and particularly phonics taught in a very specific way kind of way, is just that - an artificial product. To cling to that particular dogma, because I'm afraid that's what it is, seems rather like exhuming those shirts from the '60s, hanging them up to dry without central heating and somehow conning yourself into thinking that they perform better than any others. They don't.

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Friday, March 02, 2018

The future of handwriting 

It's perhaps unsurprising that in a discipline so firmly anchored to immediate and practical concerns, educational debate finds it difficult to float free of historical preoccupations. In fact, since the demise of educational philosophy - a useful, but by definition entirely unpractical sub-discipline for teasing out values, purpose, concepts and other fundamentals - there has been precious little scope for the development of rigorous, critical thinking. That seems a shame, because rigorous, critical thinking is just what we need right now. In England, hamstrung by a backward-facing curriculum, education is hobbled by an unpopular and draconian regime of accountability. Furthermore the system has been vulnerable to the capricious meddling of a succession of ill-informed politicians. Thinking clearly about what we might do, how we might respond to a wide array of changing circumstances - environmental degradation, climate change, economic uncertainty, population mobility, shifting social norms and patterns of employment (to name just a few) is important. They are fundamental, educational challenges. The gradual insinuation of new technology into different facets of social and educational practice is another, more immediate concern. And it's one that was hastily resolved into pen or keyboard skills at last week's Guardian Roundtable on the future of handwriting. It is to their credit that the participants agreed that the 'or' choice simply reinforced an unhelpful binary. But there were some old ghosts in the room: penmanship as the mark of good character, handwriting as something that novelists do, the seamless fusing of body and mind in the creative process, the significance of making letter shapes in learning to read. All are open to question. I modestly proposed that we might re-channel the debate to consider 'writing by hand' which seems to me to be inclusive of a much broader range of communication, including, as it does, nearly all of the writing we do. We might also recognise that handwriting (in the traditional sense) can become yet another obstacle to those who are already struggling to keep up with a demanding, traditional curriculum. So what should we do? Perhaps we could allow teachers a little more freedom and discretion, perhaps we should not imagine that yet another debate could be resolved by an RCT, and perhaps we might allow ourselves more time to think, discuss, and evaluate - after all these are central to the business of education - aren't they?

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Here come the non-humans 

It's not just the fact that we're sailing in the wake of Latour's Re-assembling the Social - the growing appetite for all things socio-material or post-human represents an impulse to think differently about our place in the world. Suddenly, or so it seems, the non-humans have risen up to challenge the endeavours of social science. Is it strictly social anymore, you might well ask? That challenge, if taken seriously, is a challenge to what we focus on in research, how we go about studying it, analysing and even reporting it. Conceding to material agency must surely be an all or nothing affair. I've just been reading Adams and Thompson (2011) on 'interviewing objects' - yes, that's right, interviewing objects. Well, the sort of objects they are concerned with are technological, and if we allow them the temporary grace to separate (human) subjects so cleanly from (technological) objects, they make a compelling argument. I resonated with this observation, for instance, 'The technological milieu is shaping substantially - insinuating itself, habituating us and simultaneously informing and interpreting - how we act in and perceive the world (2011:13), and I enjoyed reading about the 'invitational quality of things'. I remembered a conversation with Julia a while back when she wondered out loud if the idea of affordance still worked in a socio-material universe. I suppose in a way an affordance is rather weaker than an invitation. Perhaps it suggests less agency? I can't help thinking that Twitter's 'What's happening?' prompt is a bit more like an invitation, and similarly that the little red dot that says 158 next to the envelope icon on my phone is an invitation - an invitation to worry or to read and delete. So, here come the non-humans, and really when you think about it they're all over us; they have us surrounded.

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Friday, February 09, 2018

Immersive reading 

I think I may have coined the term 'immersive reading' in an attempt to draw parallels between the experience of dwelling in the imaginary world of gameplay and the more traditional experience of reading print fiction. It still works for me, and I imagine a continuum that runs from lightweight to immersive engagement. Not that immersive is in anyway better, it's just a different sort of experience, and one that may, on occasions, be appropriate. Having just spent 3 weeks in India, and a considerable amount of that time on very long train journeys, immersive reading was certainly appealing. I'd taken with me a substantial tome - what you might call a European classic - slow moving and highly descriptive. That turned out to be quite a challenge, partly because of frequent disruptions to my reading, but also because the narrative context (the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) seemed so far removed from the dust, heat and general mayhem of the sub-continent rolling past my open window. Somehow or other there was a dissonance between the jolting carriages, the clanking of couplings and the click-clacking of the train and the slow, dignified conduct of the story's characters. I had to work in order to conjure this faraway place, despite the fact that it was so meticulously described. I returned home with a few chapters to go, and this seems an altogether more fitting context for an immersive reading - at least of this particular book. I now feel I've missed out! Thinking about this, I was reminded of how I'd become completely hooked when I picked up a copy of Panjak Mishra's novel 'The Romantics' where I was staying in Kathmandu a few years ago. It just seemed to fit my mood. Context is a strange thing. Clearly there are no golden rules; if there were, stories would never travel, but nevertheless immersion appears to be a delicate experience and subject to all sorts of complex factors.

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