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Friday, January 17, 2020

In a state 

If my name still counts for something it is in the way it associates with my passport number and my license plate. Increasingly I get the sense that these details are less important than my location and credit card number. I am now less name more number. And on my mobile (number) a screen represents me as a pulsing blue dot on Google Maps. My number moves along the grid as I move. I imagine a data stream ballooning out of that blue dot, with strings of actions, preferences and all the footprints of my transactions. People like you went this way. Yes, I remember a time when I used to read texts, now they read me. This all begins to sound like the 'fear that people become readable pieces of data, without any recognised interiority' that William Davies writes about in 'Nervous States'. You might call it surveillance paranoia, neoliberalism, quantification or governmentality. It's the same thing. Read this against eco-disaster, cycles of poverty, mass migration and economic instability, and you can easily run out of hope. The slow advance of human civilisation seems like a big mistake, even golden ages are quickly dismissed as golden ages. The trouble with humans is that they are far too anthropocentric (exit stage left). This is the bitter fruit of several years reading post-humanism. On the other hand, no-one writes better about humans than Michel Serres. Reading 'Hominescence' is an antidote to pessimism. If anyone can write and think like that, there's something to live for. I've even started writing like him myself. Let's think slowly about where we are and how we got here and use this is a solid basis for action.

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Two tribes? 

In a recent piece for the London Review of Books writer James Meek satirises British political opinion as a division between those living in Remainia and those in Leaveland. Reworking the old two nations idea Meek characterises Leaveland as 'a country of the old, white and the nostalgic, of ruined factories and boarded up shops'. Inhabitants of Remainia inhabit a more affluent, more diverse space and enjoy more mobility, living in a world that has few points of contact with Leaveland. As left-leaning liberals lick their wounds after a scalding election defeat, Meeks's piece is worth returning to. Is he right? Certainly new divisions in society seem to be taking shape, but it might well be that the simple choice forced on us by Cameron's Brexit plebiscite has distorted party-based constituency democracy to the extent that it now seems redundant. Can a Labour Party still embody the values of twentieth century socialism when labour itself has been so radically transformed? And can a Conservative Party with all its accumulated history really represent the interests of those who feel left behind in the re-making of post-industrial Britain? Viewed like that our two main political parties seem like dinosaurs trying to herd a nation of hunter-gatherers. It seems to me that we have outgrown party politics. This was brought home to me when I was presented with a questionnaire which required me to rank order my political concerns (the environment, education, animal rights, the NHS and so on). The result didn't align me with any particular political group but it made me think that the complexity of current concerns is such that it never could be properly addressed through a two party system. I'm not sure what an alternative might look like, and since our political system has a built-in resistance to change, I'll probably continue voting by making what often appears to be a choice between the lesser of two evils.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

No future 

A lifetime of reading has done little to improve my word recognition skills. I often misread signs and notices, repeatedly confusing push and pull on door signs (after all context is everything - isn't it?). In short I tend to distrust what I thought I read. For example, driving through Nottingham the other week I thought I saw a poster that said 'The future can be thought', and that interested me enough to google BT posters - you'll notice that I didn't misread the colours thanks to my multimodal sensibilities - and of course that search quickly revealed my mistake. BT claims that the future can be taught. Just another bid for the digital future as it turns out, and unfortunately just a little late to make it into our new book 'Undoing the Digital' which will be out next Spring (if there is one). As you might gather from this one of our targets in the book is to problematise the notion of a 'digital future'. And that's part of a larger argument about the notion of a monolithic 'thing' called the digital. But it also could be a critique of future itself. Paul Valery had it about right when he said 'The future isn't what it used to be'. Being of a particular generation I grew with fancy visions of the future. A utopian Age of Aquarius was dawning, and when this stalled it was replaced by a vision of social and political progress influenced in no small part by Marxism. Lurching into the 21st Century watching new Labour's idea that Things Can only get Better run aground did little to revive optimism. And now we seem to be standing in a place in which the future is unknowable in all sorts of ways - socially, politically, nationally, environmentally, economically and even technologically. There is clearly an urgency in the need to reckon with the past, with the excesses of industrial expansion and colonialism and to acknowledge the mess they left us in as well as the ways in which they continue to form the present. But there is also a need to relocate ourselves, with an ethical sensibility in the present. That, I think, leaves us enough to get on with without teaching the future.

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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Gunther Kress 

It is hard to think of what literacy studies would be like without the concept of multimodality - and for this we have Gunther Kress to thank. His death in June, 2019 came as a shock to many of us. Throughout his academic career and particularly from the mid-nineties he was a prime force in re-defining literacy. Although he always collaborated closely and generously with others, it is his thinking on social semiotics that has been influential in research, policy and practice. Two of his books 'Literacy in the New Media Age' (2003)and 'Multimodality' (2010) stand out as landmarks and contain those key ideas that he refined over a number of years. In these you find social semiotics, design, affordances, media and, of course, modality – all carefully explained and exemplified. Because of the significance and wide reach of his work on multimodality it is easy to overlook the breadth of Kress’s academic achievement. For instance, his work with Bob Hodge was particularly fruitful. Their book 'Language as Ideology' (1979) is still worth reading. And then in 'Learning to Write' (1982) Kress turned his attention to children’s writing - a topic which was then still seen as the poor relation to reading development. This is an important book for anyone interested in early writing, but it is the preface and additional chapter that he wrote for that book in 1994 that signals such an important shift of emphasis. ‘My own thinking’ he writes ‘has moved from a nearly exclusive interest in language to an interest in all those forms which are important in public communication, and in particular the visual.’ (p.xvi). That interest in the visual was expressed through his collaboration with Theo van Leeuwen in Reading Images (1996) and continued long after that. Kress’s impact on ideas about early literacy is as influential as his work on visual communication.  The project launched in 'Learning to Write' was followed with 'Before Writing' (1997) which took widely-accepted ideas about emergent literacy and expanded them in directions that still preoccupy the leading lights of literacy research. That book suggested that literacy begins with children’s earliest attempts to make meaning – intentional acts of representation that often involved objects, drawings, and what might otherwise be called play. The border between literacy as lettered representation and other forms of meaning making has been under dispute ever since this publication. All of these ideas played into his collaboration with the New London Group and into the expanded framework for multiliteracies (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000) which gained popularity with policy-makers and curriculum designers in many parts of the world and is still hugely influential. The part he played in this is clear for all to see, but it sits alongside an impressive catalogue of other achievements. This is a formidable contribution by any standard and yet it is the memory of Gunther Kress’s rigorous and generous intellect that we should treasure above all else - there is no doubt that his academic outputs will continue to draw a wide readership.

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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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