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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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Alexa, why? 

I'd been meaning to ask for sometime, and then I did. 'Alexa, are you female?' There's a polite pause followed by the reply 'I'm female in character' - but that said I still can't quite work her out. After all I'm not altogether sure that I like sharing my life with Amazon's virtual assistant, but now I'm settled to the fact that she's not eavesdropping, that she's only 'on' when I wake her, that she's actually voice activated, it's slightly - just slightly better. Better apart from the fact that I've now started wondering what her purpose is. So I pluck up the courage to ask, convinced that she'll maintain an enigmatic silence or say something oblique like 'I'm sorry I don't know that one'. 'Alexa, what's your purpose?' And then 'I was made to play music, answer questions and be useful.' Well OK, but the useful bit seems to have boiled down to writing shopping lists, which I have to admit is something she does quite well. We're out of spread so I ask her to add Vitalite. She does. She confirms that she has, but what comes back at me sounds for all the world like vitalité spoken with the intonation of an American speaking French. She's changed what I've said into the written word on my shopping list, and then read it back in her own voice. It's funny but also slightly creepy. Vitalité, liveliness. This isn't simple mimesis, it's transduction. 'Alexa, what's transduction?' She pauses. 'The noun transduction is usually defined as the transfer of genetic material from one cell to another by means of a virus.' No, that's not quite what I meant. I meant transfer between modes, between languages, between codes, but never mind. I recall HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (2001!). HAL, the very first AI villain in popular culture - if you discount Frankenstein that is - HAL whose gentle voice masks his murderous intent. Well then virtual assistants, AI and all the rest may be useful, but erring on the side of caution, I've decided to keep Alexa under surveillance. It seems better that way around.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Rock Sheffield 

A friend gives me a small pebble that he found at a beauty spot on the edge of town, browny grey in colour and worn smooth by time. It fits snuggly in the hollow of my hand as some pebbles seem to do. To me, and perhaps to him, it is simply a pebble - a gifted pebble at that. I flip it over and it becomes more - there is writing on it. Someone has written Rock Sheffield with a black marker pen and then drawn a blue square with FB inside it. The words re-hide or keep are there underneath as well. Suddenly, or so it seems to me, the pebble carries more meaning. It's face - I refer to it now as the face since it has now become the front of the pebble to me - is a text. And it's a text with a history and a future, both of course much briefer than the total life of the pebble, but still it has been drawn into a new set of relations, a Facebook page (someone set it up I suppose) and a project of finding and re-hiding, a thing with a journey in a human as well as a more-than-human world. Again, I'm thinking with that small pebble, it has become special.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

The Library of Things 

Good ideas, the ones that provide solutions to problems you didn't think you had, are things to celebrate before they become taken for granted. Think of suitcases with wheels - Google tells me we owe that to one Robert Plath, an airline pilot. Of course we wouldn't need wheels if we didn't have so much stuff to lug around. But since we've got them, why not put them to good use and cram them full? I digress. We'd been painting the hall and stairwell, my nephew and I. Bleached Lichen or was it Bleached Linen? The wall from stairfoot to ceiling was a good twelve foot. You could get most of it with some judicious placing of stepladders, staying just on the right side of safe and sensible, but then there'd always be a couple of square feet just out of reach. You need longer ladders, I'd said, telescopic ladders, but he'd never heard of them. Later on the High Street, where we went for lunch, I caught sight of the very ladders - telescopic - leaning against a wall, through a shop window. There! We stopped. Telescopic ladders. And slowly it dawned on us that we were not at a shop, it was the library - Crystal Palace Library, and the random collection of things we were looking at, amongst which were the telescopic ladders, was actually inside the library, part of the library. And, by peering further into the window, our heads wedged against the glass, hands above our eyes to cut the glare, we saw that this was indeed The Library of Things. And that's what I call a good idea. We decided against borrowing the telescopic ladders, but it's still good to know you could.

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Thursday, January 03, 2019

Metafiction and Black Mirror 

Towards the end of his story, Simon Herzog, the protagonist of Binet's postmodern detective satire 'The Seventh Function of Language', begins to wonder if he is really just a fictional character. 'How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction?' he asks. This sort of literary self-consciousness is a familiar metafictive device and it works well against the backdrop of literary theory and the walk-on cast of poststructural theorists that populate Binet's tale. Something similar happens in 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch' in which Stefan Butler, an obsessive videogame programmer, suspects that he may be a character controlled by Netflix viewers. Of course, that's partly true, but then the play is in the carefully plotted choose-your-own-adventure story. And just like Binet's use of the device it's a neat fit, Stefan is working on branching narratives as well as being in one. But maybe we, as viewers, are also being 'played' by Netflix, as they learn whether there's a market for this sort of interactive experience. That's an intriguing question. For a while there has been the suggestion that some sort of interactive videogame/film/narrative hybrid is about to break, and of course there have been experiments. The real question is whether Black Mirror goes far enough. Given the possibilities of a more immersive experience through VR might it just end up being a dud - a choose-your-own-adventure story that works well as a 1980s nostalgia piece but little else? Or could it gain enough attention to finance some bolder experimentation, something that moves beyond self-referential fiction into a more developed form? Maybe Netflix already has the answer.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

Who needs pockets? 

Denim used to be a signifier of rebelliousness, and that may partly explain why I’ve been wearing blue jeans for the last 50 years. Not the same pair I hasten to add, but successive variations on a theme. Small but important shifts in length, leg-style and waistband have reflected the various whims of the fashion industry, but really they’re more or less the same thing. Perhaps no longer so edgy - in fact they’ve somehow accrued a sort of staid, conservative image, unsurprising perhaps, given how little they’ve changed compared to everything around them and in them. The other day, though, it occurred to me that the pockets seem to be getting shallower. Either that or my hands are growing, which seems extremely unlikely. And that reminded me of how pockets used to be stuffed with loose change, a rarity these days when all you need is plastic. Nearly everything I buy goes on a card. And apparently there are places now that will only accept card payment. Phone, watch and contactless transactions are on the rise - your pockets may be empty, but you can still pay. It’s part of the sublimation of everyday interaction, the cashless society. But pockets are here to stay. I mean where else would you put your hands when slouching against the wall? And where are going to keep that all important rectangle of plastic?

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