Sunday, December 29, 2013

The discourse of online reviews

Reputation and ranking through comment and consumer review are a ubiquitous feature of new media. Reviewing involves online performances of identity and taste that are highly influential in the consumer-led participatory culture of late modernity. Based on an analysis of a corpus of 1000 such texts, Camilla Vasquez's book 'The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews', due to be published by Bloomsbury later this year, explores the linguistic features of this new online genre. Using an eclectic range of approaches, the discourse of these (often humorous) reviews is given a detailed treatment. In a compelling exploration of stance-taking Vasquez shows how the quest for the perfect product inflects the comments of these self-appointed reviewers. As she observes in the conclusion to the second chapter 'on our quest to have a "mind-blowing" dining experience, or with our hopes of finding the "perfect" diaper bag - we will continue to consume.' We see how reviewers work hard to position themselves on the expertise continuum, often evoking professional knowledge or the views of others to bolster their credentials - and, of course, all this is indexed in their written comments. Advice, warning and product endorsement all feature here as review-writers gain reader involvement and encourage interaction. Vasquez majors on reviews of specific items such as multi speed blenders, diaper bags and yoga mats, throwing in more general ones such as hotel reviews from TripAdvisor, movie reviews from NetFlix, and recipes from Epicurious for good measure. A highlight, for me, was the mushroom tortellini debate on the recipe site - witty, yet spirited - and this is lovingly analysed for the play of voices in the extended online interaction! Through their evaluations and short narratives these reviewers create a shifting online community of consumer advice, and Vasquez shows how they deploy discursive resources to achieve this. All this makes goes to make this book an essential for anyone who is interested in online discourse.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Political speeches, presentations, ritual invocations, announcements, radio broadcast and so on are closed one-to-many forms of communication in which interaction is constrained through the ways in which the speaker occupies a position of power in relation to the audience. Often enough, although not exclusively, their textual power is achieved through appropriation of the linguistic structures of writing and in fact part of the process of their production may involve the use of scripts, notes, prompts, the inclusion of quotation from written sources, or the memorisation of sacred texts. Casual conversation,with its diversions, its vagueness, hesitation and the prevailing condition of incompleteness is tinctured by provisionality and is in contrast more open, more democratic and more context-dependent. These contrasts, however, are extremes on a continuum and perhaps, because of this, the in-between ground is as interesting as the extremes. We often use the context dependent/independent continuum as a way of differentiating between texts, but really we have to accept that text must always have a context. Perhaps it's more a case of foreground and background. In much of the casual traffic of texts it almost seems as if the text (by which I mean, in this case, the linguistic element) is an elaborating detail that surrounds the action. When we're fixing something perhaps, we are involved in action and that's foregrounded. The linguistic detail attaches to that. In other instances - reading a novel or writing a paper, it seems that we work the other way round. The linguistic content is central and reference moves both within the text as well as to the world, real or imagined, that is outside it. It can be no different with digital text, except that it may be the case that there is more possibility for extra-linguistic material to become part of the situation. Perhaps, by moving away from a text-centric way of looking at things we are simply becoming more interested in action, activity and relationship, and maybe they are the underplayed dimensions of communication.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The text vanishes

I found this year's LRA conference provided a rich fare. Some familiar things were being re-stated, some key work felt yet further developed and some radically new ideas seemed to be emerging. Cathy commented that the text itself received relatively little attention, and it does seem that with a growing interest in mobilties, and embodiment and affect, new constellations of sociotechnical and sociomaterial engagements are coming to the fore. Any signs of the text have now become ghostlike. Especially since now they have become open, provisional and often multi-authored, and in some senses ephemeral. Karen Wohlwend said something like 'I don't really like to talk about texts anymore, it seems that the kids are producing contexts.' I liked this, and although you could see in her work, and in that of many others, things that looked like texts - texts that formed and reformed - they were marginal things, like pencil shavings to the real sharpening of meaning that was occurring. The frozen fixed texts we used to pour over, the multimodal designs we read into them now seem to move backstage, as we watch gesture, movement and the claiming or enacting of meaning making spaces through mobility and countermobility. But what if the researcher's gaze is actually produced as much by data capture tools as it is by new representational practices and related theoretical advances? Does the availability of head-cams, spy-pens and flip cameras simply frame the segments of reality that we study in a different way? Perhaps though, we are learning more about the contexts that we always knew were there. Perhaps we have started to neglect text, or maybe it is slowly erasing itself as a fixed thing, a thing of privileged interest. When early emergent writing was a hot topic, we ran those paper-based artefacts under the photocopier and poured over the products while they were still warm. The contexts we tended to capture back then, if we had the time, the resource, and the inclination were more about talk, the stretches of verbal interaction that we caught on dictaphone tapes and then lovingly transcribed. As different then as new literacies might be, so are the possibilities for data collection. If we remain true to our reflexive project we are duty bound to think about what is newly acknowledged as well as what is omitted, erased or remains hidden, and how this influences the construction of knowledge. Did the play of power and the enactment of inequality, for example, just slip from our gaze or, if we are attentive, are those same forces simply seen in new ways and understood afresh?

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Tenth anniversary

The act of writing has held my interest for a long time. It's partly because of its openness: the fact that possibility exists. There may be an idea that you hadn't quite thought through yet, but somehow it can come out in the process of writing. Writing, it seems, is a tool for thinking. Perhaps that's simply because writing is an imagined conversation with another and the presence of that imagined reader confers upon it a dialogic character. That conversation, it seems, is very attractive - almost to the point of addiction. Despite that, I completely forgot the tenth anniversary of this blog (here's my first post), but what surprises me when I look back is that even then I was preoccupied with trying to make sense of writing. A lot has happened in the intervening time, but that fascination certainly hasn't dimmed. Blogging for me now is about condensing my reflections into something that's about the size of an average paragraph and then finding a still or moving image that can sit alongside it. The post may be more or less complete in its own right, or it may simply be work in progress. But always it's what Rosenblatt describes as a transactional process: '....always an event in time, occurring at a particular moment in the writer's biography, in particular circumstances, and under particular external and internal pressures. In short, the writer is always transacting with a personal, social and cultural environment.' (1989:163). And in posting on the blog, at times it forms the basis of something I'll write more about, extend in some way, but more often than not it's just a sketch, complete in itself. The piece of writing that I started the first blog with actually turned into a book chapter entitled 'Barbie meets Bob the Builder at the Workstation', but many subsequent posts have been of the moment, a passing observation or a whimsical thought. Nevertheless they all form an important expression of writing as exploration, as a transactional process.

Monday, December 02, 2013

The grassy knoll

Visiting Dallas 50 years after the Kennedy assassination could be a significant experience. After all, the shooting was a defining moment in contemporary life, wasn't it? But today looking down on that rather familiar-looking stretch of road, standing on the grassy knoll, gazing up at the box-like structure of the book depository, up to the sixth floor, it all seems rather flat and clean. Sterile, you might say. The memorial fountains are bathed in full sunshine. The sky is a deep blue. It's so neat and clean it's hyper-real. Museum staff are on the streets selling facsimiles of the Dallas newspaper of 22/11/63, but those events have already been swallowed up by history, they are long gone. So, how is it that we can best relate to recent historical events? The most familiar way, I suppose, is to think about what we were doing on that particular day. That helps to pinpoint it, to remember, to tie it to our experience in order to make it more real. In this case I can remember it well. We had been walking in Bradgate Park. It was a cold day, and my father had the gas fire on full when he tuned in the radio for the six o'clock news. That was how he kept up, it was like a religious ritual - listening to the BBC on the wireless (and that's what he called it, the wireless). He was shocked by the headlines, nodding his head saying 'Crikey',or something like that. But my mother's reaction made a much stronger impact on me, because when she came in the room, the rest of the news was playing. Aldous Huxley had died, and that upset her more, and I think she made the mistake of saying so. My father ridiculed her, as he often did. But Huxley was one of her literary heroes, and there was no denying that. Huxley was a towering figure, in more ways than one, and his death was inevitably rather overshadowed by Kennedy's, which is a shame. But they weren't the only newsworthy deaths that day. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, which I had read, and loved, also died that day. And in my still impressionable young mind, I understood my mother's viewpoint completely. Narnia was brilliant; Kennedy was just someone on the news. I'd never been to Dallas, but I had been to Narnia. That was a strange day then: Huxley first, then about 10 minutes later Lewis, followed an hour later by Kennedy. Each died in a very different way, each left a distinctive legacy. I'd very much like to return to Narnia in the same way that I first did, slipping between the fur coats into that snowy landscape, but the warm Texas sunshine seems to place it far out of reach. In some ways it's all in the past.

Place hacking

Like many cities that prospered in late Victorian times, the centre of Nottingham still has those imposing multi-storey buildings or chambers that served as the office blocks of that era. In my youth, these were the premises of solicitors, surveyors, small businesses and suppliers, and they were often half hidden behind anonymous-looking doors set in between the shops, banks and department stores of the city centre, accessed through a labyrinth of winding corridors and dim stairwells. They were, in some way at least, the private areas of that urban environment. And in my teen years, when the city seemed like a playground, my friend and I filled many an exciting afternoon exploring these spaces. Sneaking down passageways, tip-toeing up linoleum-covered stairs, opening creaking unlabelled doors, the unexpected and unannounced thrilled us in the very moment, at every turn. We would never wittingly take the same route twice.  Our exploits were halfway between playful investigation and trespass. One moment blundering into a typing pool, a reception desk, the back room of a shop, an office workers' tea station, a stationery cupboard; another stumbling into a jumble of brooms, mops, cans of cleaning fluid and tin buckets.These spaces weren't exactly private, but neither were they public. What's more we had no good reason for being there in the first place. Part of the fun lay in that. We might get caught, or challenged (and sometimes we were - and that, of course, was half the fun), but at the same time we would be rewarded by a different view of the city, some novel connection, some unexpected learning, spilling out onto a different street. But after all where were we in this city in our youth? Too young for pubs, sometimes too noisy, too raucous for the caf├ęs and tea shops, and still unqualified and woefully ill-equipped for the world of work. Nothing bad came of it. And it gave us the taste of freedom, as we worked our way between and outside the lines of what was expected; it filled time that was otherwise unaccounted for, school having become too tedious, too regimented, altogether too much. That youthful diversion now has a name: it's called urban exploration. In fact, it was reading about urban exploration (or place hacking), in Bradley Garrett's  excellent ethnography 'Explore Everything', that brought all this back to me. In a strange sort of way it offered me an intelligent rationale for something that had seemed like a half-forgotten, and somewhat quirky adolescent pursuit. At that time, I am sure that we didn't know quite what we were doing or why we were doing it, we certainly didn't discuss it, we just did it. It was fun. Yet we were 'reclaiming the city', blissfully unaware of Debord, or the situationists, or any guiding theory or politic, for that matter. If it was covered in the underground press of the time, I certainly missed it and so did my friend. And so all this makes me think how we may often do quite reasonable, intelligent things without exactly knowing why - at least at the time. Either that or we have an astonishing capacity to make sense out of the most random of things, thereby dignifying our seemingly unending acts of human foolishness. But once something like this is given a name, explored in a thoughtful way, it seems to articulate the motive - or at least part of the motive that propelled it in the first place. That journey of reading and recalling urban exploring reminded me of how my longstanding interest in visiting and sometimes photographing ignored, dilapidated and abandoned buildings took on new meaning when I read about the ideas of 'ruin porn' and bunkerology, how my regular and random zigzag walks around Sheffield looked and felt different when they were rethought as psychogeography. Now, or so it seems, I know why it interested me in the first place. Did a name, a theory, bestow new meaning upon it? Or was the meaning there, already awaiting its later discovery - in some way immanent? Did the incoherent blind interest simply gain respectability through a post-hoc rationalisation? Or more likely, or at least more attractively to me as an academic, did the act of reflection, in a dialogic relationship with others who have done and thought about similar things, help in bringing into being new experiences, and new perspectives on old experiences? A new way of looking. And does all this - this process of re-thinking, help us in imagining possible future actions, experiences, diversions or misdemeanours? I don't know, but either way one thing is certain, I will continue to explore, in my own way, buoyed up by what I have read, what I have talked about and what I have thought. Perhaps, just perhaps, that constitutes an invitation, too. After all, those old Victorian buildings are still there somewhere, as are both our current and our remembered experiences and actions!

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Massumi makes a useful contribution to the problem with affect when he says:' There seems to be a growing feeling within media, literary and art theory that affect is central to an understanding of our information- and image-based late capitalist culture, in which so-called master narratives are perceived to have foundered....belief has waned for many but not affect. If anything,our condition is characterized by a surfeit of it. The problem is that there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect. Our entire vocabulary has derived from theories of signification...' (Parables for the Virtual, 2002:27). Good point, well made. Still confusing affect with emotion? I found that this helped to unscramble the two (and 'feeling' at the same time).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reality check

 The relationship between academic and everyday life is a fascinating area, best typified I guess by blurred boundaries. Yesterday, for example, we were celebrating two 'new doctorates' - or perhaps I should say two people whose lives had, in different ways, been entangled with doctoral study. In the course of this celebration I got talking to a researcher who I haven't had much previous contact with, and through our conversation I learned that she was a parent of two teenage boys. Perhaps inevitably the conversation turned on literacy. What she said in a few minutes seemed to me to sum up, perhaps even to validate, what I've been writing about over the last ten years or so. It was, if you like, an everyday validation of my research pre-occupations. Perhaps it's easiest just to list the themes that came up in her observations, grounded, as they were, in her everyday life as a parent. Of course, inevitably, this is my summary:
1. Teenagers are reading as much, if not more than they have in previous generations.
2. Very little of the material they read is in print books.
3. They make good use of a very wide range of online sources.
4. Their level of informal learning, understanding and knowledge is impressive.
5. They find (perhaps as a consequence) that what's on offer in schools is uninspiring.
6. They are developing social skills, literacy and learning through online gaming and social networking.
7. Parental concerns about regulating the frequency and duration of screen-time and the suitability of online content are persistent and under continual review and renegotiation.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

New writing

At the moment I'm writing about textual toys and the commodification of early literacy. I've noted before how a wide range of games and activity centres designed for young babies now have digital components - as do baby walkers, play mats and plush toys. Embedded in these toys are digitally-reproduced nursery rhymes, counting games and alphabet songs providing ‘edutainment’ for infants and toddlers. Although toys and toy manufacturers have always played an important part in early childhood, their role in young children’s learning is ill-defined,and under-theorised. This is especially true for early literacy in which everything from alphabet building blocks and jigsaw puzzles to  educational tablets like,the LeapPad, carries an implicit message about what literacy is, how it develops, and what roles adults, care-givers and children themselves should adopt. What is more, these implied roles blend in with current conceptions of parenting, defined by ‘social investment’ initiatives that reach into the relationship between children and adults to underscore the significance of what is done with as well as what is provided for the very young. Scollon's idea of a nexus of practice is proving to be a useful way of articulating the confluence of play practices involving literacy that are singular and situated, whilst at the same time acknowledging that play objects themselves are part of a political economy located in a global mediascape.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Ways of knowing

It has been argued that the aesthetic is a distinctive ‘way of knowing’ that integrates the cognitive and the affective. In school systems, cultivating this way of knowing has traditionally been the province of literature study. As a result literary fiction has occupied a central position in the liberal arts curriculum but, until recently, less attention has been given to newer forms of narrative. Students participation in digital culture brings challenges in description since their responses often involve them ‘playing the text’, producing meaning through both text and embodied action in ways that draw on narratives and themes in other forms and on other platforms, constituting part of the wider mediascape . But this is suggestive of the need for a literacy curriculum that can: help students to articulate transmedia connections; foster understandings of how texts draw on the affordances of different modes; provide a metalanguage that is helpful in the appreciation of how texts work and how texts and related materials position readers, players and consumers - not one that makes the study of narrative an option.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Placed resources

New technology means different things in different places as we can see in the variety of ways in which hardware and software are taken up and integrated into existing and emerging social practices. Mastin Prinsloo's concept of 'placed resources', and the way in which he uses this in documenting practices in South Africa is particularly useful in this respect. I'm also interested in how the resources themselves are adapted and this is illustrated in Glenn Auld's work with the Kunibidji community in Maningrida in Australia's Northern Territory. Central to this work is the adaptation of old-style iMacs so that they can be operated as touchscreens, and this is described in non-technical detail here. It's a fascinating account, strengthen by the description of how the adaptation supported literacy practices that were embedded in the everyday social practices of the Kunibidji. This sort of approach could be a template for the next wave of iPad developments.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

For your pleasure in this present state

Reading for pleasure and self-improvement has an enduring and emotive appeal, and through its close association with typographic print, with the book, and with immersion in literary fiction the idea has significant currency in recent debates in literacy education. This is indeed welcome when understood as a re-statement of the importance of the liberal arts curriculum in an educational landscape dominated by accountability and assessment regimes that carve up learning into measurable parcels. In England the backwash of testing in spelling and grammar is emblematic of how progress in literacy can result in learning that is parcelled up and quantified. As a counter-narrative then, reading for pleasure evokes everything that is good from individual choice and independence to interest-led autonomous learning - qualities that by their very nature elude measurement. Yet even though the challenge to an atomised and autonomous model of literacy is desperately needed, this should not place the idea of reading for pleasure beyond scrutiny. Reading for pleasure sits at the centre of a nexus of ideas about literacy that constitute an ideology that requires careful examination. Reading for pleasure derives its justification from a number of different traditions. What the Cox Report called 'cultural heritage' is a justification that draws on (well-deserved) pride in the tradition of English literature. How empathy and vicarious experience may develop moral virtue is a second justification, and one popularly articulated in Pinker's recent work. And since no educational debate now seems complete without a contribution from neuroscience, the influence of what we presume is immersive reading on our neural pathways surfaces here. But what might the challenges be to reading for pleasure in our densely mediated, highly mobile and increasingly digital world? This is the project I'm now embarking upon! Watch this space.....

Friday, October 04, 2013

The pleasure principle

Good quality research data on reading for pleasure is always a useful complement to the rhetoric on the topic. So it's great to see the clear message that 'children who read for pleasure are likely to do significantly better at school than their peers' (who presumably don't). This comes from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies report here. If you delve into the report you see that the key influence is defined in rather broader terms - 'home reading culture' and 'leisure reading' are described in some detail and these are to my mind rather more sophisticated concepts. However, put the headlines alongside this and you might quickly get the picture that print culture is doomed and with it the written word. I don't actually think is the case - there's probably more reading and writing going on with everyday uses of technology than ever before in history, and there are also more possibilities for narrative pleasure. But digital media are an 'and' not an 'or'. Children and young people simply have far more textual choices than ever before. We know about the claims made about bedtime stories - but rather than simply accepting this as a privileged ritual (or a ritual of the privileged), we need to understand more about what's going on. I'd put my money on the shared endeavour of skilled and apprentice meaning-makers making sense of text together. If this is accurate then the benefits could extend to any media, unlocking a wider palette of pleasures.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Social media: evolution and change

Over the last few years blogging has become a bit of an occasional pursuit for me, and I've been wondering why. The answer came to me last week, as I reflected on three rather different incidents - all relating in rather different ways to that question. Firstly, I was reading a paper on academic blogging that was so radically different in emphasis to the study I did with Julia Davies (review), that it made me wonder what an academic blog actually was in the first place! We had written about the first wave of blogging, and looked at how academics took up the practice and how, in quite creative ways they/we performed their academic identities online. This paper, on the other hand, took a much more limited view and addressed how academic bloggers wrote about and lobbied for change in university learning and teaching. Secondly, a round-robin email (to all staff) announced the VC's new blog post on MOOCs - one in which he makes reference to the impact of digital distribution on the music industry (draw your own conclusions). But it wasn't really about the content it was the mere fact that someone in a senior managerial position was using the blog to stimulate discussion - and canvassing readership through an institutional mailout. Like the first incident it all seemed to me very safe and mainstream, as if the edge had gone out of blogging. Then, thirdly, another completely unrelated incident. A random email from a researcher who produces materials for college students who'd read a rant on referencing I'd posted back in 2006, in the first flush of blogging. My despondency over the institutionalization and narrowing down of blogging was somewhat alleviated. Your humble blogger's voice might just be heard!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Technology and learning

You might guess that a publication addressing the state of the art in pedagogical uses of technology would include MOOCs, learning analytics and badges - and that's exactly what you get in the OU review Innovating Pedagogy 2013. But you also get more varied material on geo-learning and 'maker culture' alongside useful critiques of familiar topics like learning from gaming and digital scholarship. I thought the idea of rating the impact and timescale for adoption was an interesting and original approach - much better than that tiresome trick of lifting a sentence from the text and putting it in a large font, as if it is more significant or somehow captures the essence of what's being said without subjecting you to the chore of reading the whole page. One of these inserts is 'technologies may change, but the innovations in  pedagogy bring lasting benefit' - it's a rather vacuous statement in my opinion. Meanwhile the idea of 'one tablet per child', recently adopted in Thailand shows the extent to which national governments are willing to invest in technology - the scheme, still in the pilot stage is apparently paying off already. It's the sort of investment that's needed before innovating pedagogy can take place.

Monday, September 09, 2013

What's on it?

It's getting quite common to hear about how technology can solve all our literacy issues in one fell swoop. But this story about using e-readers in Ghana as a way of raising literacy levels was inspiring, and an outcome of the work done by the Worldreader charity. So it begins to look like e-readers can be a relatively simple way of enhancing the reading experience of students of all ages. But yet it seems to me that there's two crucial things that are missing in this largely technocentric debate, and they are - perhaps inevitably - to do with the social dimension. Firstly, we know that something like a Kindle or an iPad is simply a platform for digital content. What counts then, once you've got over the love of technology, is the quality and values of that content. Is it a commercially-bundled curriculum? Is it worthwhile reading material, and does it really explore the multimodal (and other) affordances of digital content? Secondly, what happens when you insert this kind of device into everyday pedagogical situations? What sorts of new roles and routines develop (or could develop) for teachers and learners? There's a significant research agenda here, and we need some answers to avoid being blown away by technologists, or bundled into oblivion by commercial publishers.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Twitter paper

In retrospect I think Julia Gillen and I managed to capture something of the essence of microblogging in studying how Twitter was used in what you might now call 'the early days'. But it was still great to see that the paper 'Contact Calls: Twitter as dialogic social and linguistic practice' was the top downloaded article in Language Sciences, and as a special deal it's now available free till 31st October! The paper has a natural partner with one I wrote with Julia Davies on blogging. Both are insider accounts of how we as academics have taken up social media and used it for our own purposes. Trying to describe the approach we used is quite hard - insider account is probably the best, but we've also tried 'dual autoethnography' to try to capture the idea of a parallel and reflexive endeavour. Neither study really has the depth and nuance of autoethnography, but the idea of a two-handed approach in looking at adoption/ early adoption has its advantages. See what you think!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Your books are reading you

The flurry of concern over data harvesting has taken up quite a few column inches lately. It seemed that no-one was particularly concerned when Amazon first started recommending books to you, or when it was revealed that Tesco collected smart data on local shopping trends, but now a more general paranoia has set in. This is mass surveillance and where will it all lead, say some; what about personal freedom they ask. Now there's renewed concern that your books are reading you (see here, for example). Electronic devices know where you are, what you bought, what page you're on and so on. Do I care? Not really, to be honest. I don't think I've ever once bought what Amazon recommended - it's clever, but not that clever. After all smart databases are only as good as the people that design them, and I challenge anyone to design one that fits my fickle taste. And if they could design one, I myself would be the first to be interested. The police only seem threatening when you're involved in some wrong doing, and by the same token surveillance only becomes problematic if you've got something to hide. But the root problem lies in those definitions 'wrong doing' and 'something to hide'. If you live in a democratic and genuinely open society those things are relatively unproblematic, reflecting principles like freedom of speech, freedom of movement (and in a market-led economy - freedom to consume), but as soon as that changes, data harvesting turns into surveillance. That's the time to start getting worried.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Itinerant academic

The rather sudden decline in my posting frequency is probably largely the product of a very busy year that's included trips to the US, Malaysia, Hong Kong and now Australia. The funny thing is that you find yourself catching up on work tasks and conversations in the most unlikely places - a day out with Catherine Beavis and her partner at Purling Brook Falls (above), and now reviews, journal work, emails and some writing at Noosa. Although it may sound glamorous it gets very tiring, and I'm now looking forward to some down time. Moving about has highlighted some interesting, and perhaps unsurprising, themes in literacy education. The most dominant of these by a long way is the work that literacy educators have to do to legitimise what they already know, or think they know to be worthwhile in the light of  new centralised curriculum and accountability measures. In the realm of new/digital literacies this is particularly noticeable, and makes little sense when seen alongside political rhetoric about economic competitiveness and 21st Century skills. Another theme concerns raising the achievement of marginalised groups, and particularly the recognition of different languages, cultures and forms of representation. In sum, for all the newness of these policy initiatives and curriculum changes, the same old issues come to the fore. Given increased connectivity, it now seems timely to encourage transnational connections between educators - connections that may provide challenge and support for those committed to real change.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Body hacking

Any self-respecting cyborg has to be a fan of body hacking. Rather than some sort of grim ritual of zombie-like mutilation this sort of hacking is about collecting (and sharing) data on yourself, or as Gary Wolf founder of the self-quantifying movement puts it, turning windows into mirrors. It's not just about logging your life - that's been going on a while - but the whole idea is to collect your own physiological and psychological data. learn to read it (becoming data-literate in the process) and then use the wisdom of crowds (and experts) to improve your well-being, your physical and mental state. You could see it as digitally-enhanced self-improvement or extreme narcissism. The Quantified Self movement may not be your cup of tea, but when I heard Rodney Jones it made me think how it just is the logical extension of a more general trend in digital life. The supermarket knows what I eat, Amazon what I read, Insight knows when I meditate, and Mappiness knows how I'm doing. Put it altogether, invest in a FitBit and then you're truly post-human. It's the way to go...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


As a sort of postscript to yesterday's piece on the commodification of early learning and literacy, I wanted to underline that this isn't a new phenomenon at all. From Dinky toys and Meccano to Helix geometry sets, Chambers pencils and Beacon Readers, my own childhood learning was strongly patterned by commercially-produced artefacts that often enjoyed global circulation. What has changed, I think, is the extent to which the tools of edutainment are scripted, mediated and marketed to consumers - both parents and their children. In a sense some of the products are more specialised and they tap into curriculum discourses about what early learning should look like, and an increasingly high-profile set of messages about the home as a site for influential early learning. Most of us in the field would agree about the significance of early learning, but the backwash effect from narrow models of curriculum could end up with narrow models of early learning - a toddler's home curriculum which is characterised by endless and unimaginative routines based on the alpahabet, the cardinal numbers, and shape - all driven by digital toys. If I'm right then it's important that we champion those toys, media products and apps that are informed by a more diverse, expansive and flexible view of literacy and learning.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Multiple things

Research Story from Chris Thomson on Vimeo.
We all  have to juggle with competing demands and priorities, and it seems to get even worse when we start to research things! I was moved by this digital story produced by one of my Masters students - it illustrates the cost, the struggle and the emotional underlife in an elegant way, but also it highlights some of the benefits that accrue from doing this sort of work. It's well worth keeping all this in mind as we go on. In my own work, I've been wrestling with ideas about pleasure, everyday life and the commodification of early learning and literacy. In the light of this I returned to Helen Nixon's piece  'From bricks to clicks.' and the more recent piece, with Erica Hateley in Children's Literacy, Learning and Culture which ends with this: 'As children are inducted younger and younger into particular modes of literacy, and particular dispositions as 'consuming citizens', researchers committed to learning from and contributing to young people's agency and social opportunities need to pay attention to what is happening culturally when reading and playing and literacy and learning means tapping, touching, swiping, and scroling and combining online and offline activities.' (2013:39)

Thursday, May 30, 2013


In our paper, Points of View, Cathy and I use some virtual worlds data to problematise a whole range of issues in literacy studies. Starting from the use of virtual worlds in classrooms a number of common assumptions about the material and the virtual; space and place; and even temporality are called into question. But we also go further than that to offer some alternative perspectives on researching literacies. In looking at this data, the whole notion of segmenting our observations into discreet events was a fundamental challenge and so we experiment in the paper with providing alternative accounts, or stories, which we suggest can 'stack up' in different ways. The theoretical dimension of the paper is inspired by Kwa's reading of the baroque. Following this we suggest that a focus on baroque complexity helps us to ask the important question: what else is going on here? In doing this it provides a useful counter-narrative to over-simplified conceptualisations of literacy. Read all about it over here!

Monday, May 27, 2013


When you're travelling it sometimes seems that the whole of humanity is also involved in this restless journeying, burdened by luggage and the unpredictability of their arrangements, the regrets and sadness of departure, and the anticipation, or otherwise, of arrival. Dragging their stuff, rushing, waiting, trying to negotiate complex information, dealing with other languages, unknown currencies and the inadequate approximation of translation. This movement of people is a communication - in fact transport systems are often described in this way - and the exchanges that occur as a result of it involve sharing stuff, giving stuff, getting new things as well as loosing or forgetting what is dear to you. The communication of human travel is embodied and materialised. It also takes place across space and time, and this is so eloquently captured in Doreen Massey's essay 'Some Times of Space '. It is similarly comprised of convergence and divergence as well as by the inclusions and exclusions wrought by the distribution of power. And yet, when we return 'home' , what have we got to show for it? Well we may return with something substantial, something we purposefully went to get, but more often than not it is with a small souvenir, or perhaps just a jumble of recollections, the feeling that we've changed in some subtle and indefinable way. The communication was often an end in itself; the subtle change, the intangible was a little like learning, hard to define, difficult to articulate a shadowy form in the mists of memory.

Friday, May 24, 2013


I'm really enjoying the Fifth International Roundtable on Discourse Analysis with its focus on Digital Practices. Presenters have brought a wide variety of perspectives to a wide range of topics. There have been different takes on discourse itself and work that's focused on mobile technologies, machinima, MOOCs, Flickr, 'netspeak', virtual worlds, self-quantifiers and the comment genre - to mention just a few. Today is the final day and there's the unknown dimension of what themes will arise and what new questions will emerge. I always find that an interesting process. At the moment all that I've heard re-inforces the view that thinking about the online/offline binary is unhelpful. In some way's David Barton's notion of 'writing spaces' works a little better for me. The whole debate also confirms my belief that studying practices without a close look at people and things leaves out the complex and messy nature of the work that gets done. So materiality, embodiment and affect seem to me to be important emergent themes. But, as ever, what I think may well be modified by what others say; if it isn't, perhaps that's not discourse.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Five years ago, convergence technology was the real buzzword, and with early smartphones we began to see this on the high street - the phone was the camera, was the MP3 player. We're so used to that now that the powerful handheld device, aka smartphone, is often referred to in terms of its computing power and its internet capability. Early critics of iPhones often complained that it was good with media, but not wonderful as a phone. That's changed quite a bit over the years, but there is still a recognition that in order to get all that computing power into a small space some compromises have to be made. Commonly these compromises are about battery life and signal transmission/reception. Most people probably just live with this, but others have begun to invest in a simple phone too, so that they have at least one thing that works well. That's all very well, but as I pack for a trip to Hong Kong it's a logistical nightmare making sure I've got my phone, my camera, my iPad and my laptop and all the various leads and cables (each being completely different, of course). So, actually I'm a big fan of convergence technology, just because it makes life simpler, but it does seem that there's a way to go.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

All fingers and thumbs

I've just been writing another paper about toddlers and touchscreens, and it returns to the same themes about gesture that I explored before. Essentially, looking at the video data we have, you see how hand gestures and pointing are woven into adult-child conversations and that they also appear to extend quite naturally into taps and swipes on the touchscreen. Often someone starts off pointing at something on the screen and then ends up tapping - it becomes part of the interactional flow. And the toddlers (see index finger in pic) often seem to have their trigger fingers at the ready, perhaps mimicking adult gestures or maybe in readiness for when they need to deploy them. I'd been using the word 'index finger' so often in the writing that I began to wonder about its origin. For one feverish moment I thought it was connected to print literacy, being the finger that turns the pages at the index. But in the end I was convinced by this account, which simply connects it with indicating or pointing. Well even that is enough to confer on it a very significant place in human communication. I reckon there's a book to be written about the role the first finger plays in human culture. Someone's probably already written it,, just got lost at Amazon only to discover that someone called Al Fingers has written a book on Clarks in Jamaica (bring on Vybz Kartel). How random!

Monday, May 06, 2013

Slightly potty

The BBC has quite a knack of digging out enthusiastic and slightly potty boffins to drive their distinctive brand of middlebrow edutainment. These characters seem to race around various glamorous locations in the UK, and elsewhere, talking nineteen to the dozen about their favourite idea. (Why hasn't anybody ever discovered me I wonder?) Returning home, I just had to catch up with the latest, Adam Nicholson - a historian with impeccable qualifications - who dazzled viewers with his take on literacy in  seventeenth century England. It was, or so the title goes, the century that wrote itself and he had lots of quirky examples to illustrate this idea. Although very entertaining, the major shortcoming was its rather narrow determinist view. That's the way we became modern: through literacy, through individual expression, from discovering the power of writing and so on and so forth. Major social, political and religious changes were relegated to the sidelines in these programmes- as if they were simply caused by literacy rather than intimately bound up with it. Power, and that century's particular shifts in economic and civic life were always hovering in the background: class, gender and race reared up as another version of how we became modern. Nonetheless this is better than a lot of TV, and if you're in the UK you might still catch the series on demand on iPlayer.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mediated publics

I like Thompson's idea of mediated publics. He argues that public was once defined in terms of people, places and events that share a common locale. Print media disturbed this convergence by creating a 'reading public which was not localised in space and time.' (Thompson, 1995:126). Other media have helped to accelerate fractured or reconfigured publics. In the UK, the 1952 Coronation is often cited as a landmark event, in which the spectating public was dispersed as television ownership grew exponentially. A public event was witnessed in private surroundings by many people, often with neighbours crowding into houses to share the spectacle. Perhaps it could be argued that the first moon landing was another key moment in that the immediate audience was particularly small, but the mediated event reached out to a large and very diverse public. Interestingly though, for the upcoming funeral of Thatcher, the public is divided in other ways, but there's bound to be a heavy media presence.

Monday, April 01, 2013


Yes, I finally let go of my Flickr account last year, realizing that it no longer served any real purpose for me or, in fact, held my interest. There's a sort of archive of memory there, but a lot of it was rather ephemeral - or so it seems now, at least. Interestingly though, I'm using Instagram more intensively, and almost exclusively to share more intimate family-related images. In some ways it's a more traditional network. Barton & Lee pick up on a passage from Wellman that fits in very well with this: 'CMC supplements, arranges and amplifies in-person and telephone communications rather than replacing them ' (2001:18). This relates to our family use of Instagram which for me hybridizes the phone-call, the blog and the family photo album without replacing any of them. It all seems far more old-school than the sort of transformational social networking associated with Web 2.0 that I, and others, have written about extensively. Appadurai (2003) suggests that 'where natural social collectivities build commonality out of memory, virtual communities build memory out of connectivity.' - well he might just have produced a killer quote, but certainly the first half matches what we do on Instagram. We must be a natural social collectivity, then. For me this points to a very interesting research area which would look at how new media gets adopted and absorbed into family interactions. Next project?

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Sometimes you just can't find what you're looking for even when you're using really sophisticated search engines. To put it another way somethings are just...well, ungoogleable. Sorry Google if I just invented a word that contains your corporate name, but I think it has a certain ring to it. But of course when it comes to getting my new word in the dictionary our corporate searching outfit may object. That's exactly what the Language Council of Sweden found with the word 'ogooglebar' which means the same. You can read all about how Google stepped in, and how the Swedes reacted over here. Welcome to the weird world of technology. Maybe I'll get out the vacuum-cleaner instead - do a bit of hoovering (sorry Hoover) if they'll let me!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Le papier ne sera jamais mort / Paper is not dead on ! from INfluencia on Vimeo.

I always thought that the idea of the paperless office was somehow flawed, and this video really brings home the point! Last week I was involved in so many discussions that helped to cement the view that the relationship between literacy and digital technology is additive rather than transformative. By that I mean, that it's not really a question of either pen and paper or keyboard and screen more 'both...and'. Literacies just got more complex, that's all! So rather than being digital, I'm enjoying a really good book at the moment (and I'm reading it on my Kindle and my iPad in turn, depending on which device is closer to hand - oops digital, sorry). It's by one of my favourite writers Michael Chabon. I thought that 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay' was a wonderful exploration of the world of early comic book artists and that got me hooked. Chabon has this wonderful ability to weave narrative around strong themes of popular culture in contemporary American life. Telegraph Avenue follows a similar pattern, based in and around a record shop - a purveyor of second-hand vinyl with a community-oriented feel to it, that's Brokeland Records. Collectors, fans, and the sort of loose (and tight) affinities that emerge are lovingly explored. I always like to quote and there's a bit set in trading card fair that I thought was brilliant (and also very funny) - but this, spoken by one of the characters sticks out: 'Trading cards? Little rectangles of cardboard? Stained with bubblegum? Pop one in the spokes of your bicycle, make it sound like a Harley-Davidson'. Why? Because, I think it captures multiple meanings so well. The cards, part of children's culture, can just as easily be taken seriously as they can be re-purposed in creative play; but at the same time, when they are re-contextualized at a card fair, there's an economy of circulation that takes place in a hallowed atmosphere of reverential seriousness liberally mixed with nostalgia. The same dynamic seems to lie at the heart of the vinylist culture as well. Let's hear it for Chabon - nice website, too. Paper, too could one day become a collectors' item. Imagine that.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The surface of the news

By some accounts, one of the problems with digital literacy is that our reading has become shallow - we stay on the surface, reading widely but rarely in any depth. Of course this doesn't need to be constituted as a problem, it all depends which side you sit on in the big debate. That's if you believe there really is a debate, and one with two opposing camps. This article seems to suggest that a) there is a debate and b) there are two dominant positions. Pushed for time, and faithful to the 'shallowness' principle, I decided to remain on the surface and just read the headlines this Sunday. In sympathy with readers who like a bit of depth, I've included the links. In my reading I learnt that some novelists are excited by the possibilities of digital fiction; that Collen Rooney tweeted: "Can't believe @WayneRooney isn't starting" at the beginning of Manchester United's big match on Thursday; that 'geek aesthetics' come into play as fashion meets Google Glass; that Samsung is taking the mobile market by storm; that Apple may have run out of juice, and that smart technology can help police detect crime before it happens!And I probably missed a lot more simply because I read on the surface. But isn't there a subtle irony, here? The same newspaper that berates our obsession with technology is the one that regularly feeds that obsession. It simplifies the issues about new technologies and then tells us off for simplifying the issues. It's a no-brainer: so stick to surfing and broaden your views!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Material signs

In the introduction to this book, Kallinikos, Leonardi and Nardi comment that: 'materiality is indicative of both the embodied and embedded nature of human experience, the multiple entanglements of humans with materials objects and artifacts, and the various supports these provide to human pursuits' (17)- and I find that very well put. As the edited collection progresses, ideas about materiality get more and more hazy - and the book is none the worse for that, by the way. We seem to land on terra firma with Borgman who re-iterates that matter matters and reminds us how we used to think that it must be 'tangible, have weight, and occupy a definite place and time.' But the rise of 'immaterial obects' he argues (and most of these are digital or textual) throws all this into disarray, and with a pleasing turn of phrase he suggests that the 'material solidity of the world seems to be slipping over the horizon' (335). Perhaps all we've got left is signs.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Movement of signs

In the geosemiotics of traffic signs, this warning slips between being 'situated' and 'transgressive' (Scollon & Scollon, 2003: 22). In some ways it only works in the upright position. I've often wondered then, at what stage in its history a sign of this sort can be said to loose its authority? When it is fallen, rusted or removed, or simply out of date, what it is intended to signify begins to wear away, as it comes to represent something else - something for which it was not originally intended. Around where I live, signs often disappear. I am reliably informed that they have good scrap value, and in times and places of economic hardship this counts for something. Their meaning value is exchanged for economic value. Ironically, the one in the picture is just outside a scrap yard - it's probably been displaced by a reversing heavy goods vehicle, but at this point in time nobody has cashed in. Perhaps this sequence of events contributes to a sense of the ambiguities surrounding text and context, and how these shift over time: is this, perhaps, another version of the traffic of texts?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Signs of movement

Cathy and I did a seminar at Lancaster the other week based, at least in part, on the virtual worlds work we've been involved in. The journey was an epic of delayed trains, missed connections and travel adjustments, all of which worked out quite happily in the end. In the process we seemed to collect a rainforest of tickets (see pic). It all made me think of tickets as signs of movement. There's all sorts that can happen - wrong tickets, lost tickets, no tickets - whole stories can turn on the ticket. The ticket becomes the bookmark - even the souvenir. And sometimes the ticket is the proof - it tells the journey taken, the time, the cost and even (I noticed this on close inspection) the name of the purchaser. All very handy for those acts of surveillance connected with claiming expenses! I loved tickets as a child. The top-deck journey around the suburbs, the foot of Nottingham Castle and into the Old Market Square signified glorious independence. Often the journey was the best bit. I held on to my ticket as if my life depended on it (if an inspector got on and you couldn't find it, you'd be turfed off). After the excitement of the journey all you had left was the ticket. It was symbolic of something. I tried to collect them....and failed. I've never been the collecting type. But still so much connects to the ticket. It's all woven into the totality of the journeying experience - a bit like one of the nodal points Cathy and I were talking about. Yesterday I read something that seemed to capture this. In a review of the latest novel by Javier Marias, Alberto Manguel wrote 'every event, however minuscule, might develop into a sprawling web of roots and branches.' Despite a slight technical uneasiness with the word 'event' I found inspiring. In fact inspiring enough to re-mix as 'every ticket could explode into a sprawling web of roots and branches'. Apologies Alberto if that's plagiarism; I'm sure you understand.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Generating data

I've been looking closely at video footage of toddlers on iPads using a coding frame of my own design to try to understand what's going on. This is fascinating work, but as I'm doing it I've become aware of how the limitations of the video have already reduced and transformed the 'real' world into something else. The real has been transformed into data. Then in attempting to make sense of this data, my so-called analysis is actually creating a new kind of data - data which may well be the raw material that I end up writing about. From some points of view even that writing process itself is generating further layers of data - successive accretions or reductions, depending on one's preference. In the thick of all this there's a trajectory, a telos, an attempt to make sense of something. And only time will tell how that works out!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Putting things first

Joining the interdisciplinary group on space and place last Friday felt like taking time out. It was really fascinating to learn about the ways in which other academics are approaching different aspects of space/place in different ways. I learnt about ruin porn and object-oriented ontology (OOO), and some of the processes of artists - and somehow, in all that, it struck me that artists are often researchers and researchers are often artists. There's some really interesting blurring going on. In putting things first, humans often get erased - or at least all you see are their traces. Some of us wanted to re-insert people into their accounts, but presumably in ways that don't foreground or privilege them. All that was very stimulating, and the group project that we seemed to agree hovered somewhere between methodology and praxis. It's hard to say at the moment whether this signals a new direction for me, or whether it just sheds a different light on existing concerns. I'm content just to sit back and see what takes shape. So yesterday I took time out from taking time out, and spent the morning looking at ducks. Today there's only the duck sign left.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Trashmaster: literacy and new media

Language and Education have just published my paper 'The Trashmaster: literacy and new media' which is an attempt to turn the tables on the whole disadvantage debate. I argue that schools are failing students by not providing them with the skills to negotiate the new media environment. I use an analysis of the Trashmaster machinima to explore the literacy practices that are associated with new media and then bemoan the fact that children and young people are not provided with tools that might help them to produce and consume in these textual environments effectively or critically. I'm sure friends and colleagues will point out its shortcomings, but from my perspective, I wish I'd had enough space to put this analysis alongside some extracts from curriculum documents. That would sharpen the argument - I don't know, maybe there's a chapter to be written from that. Going forward from that there is a complexities paper with my colleague Cathy Burnett (that's very exciting) and then I'm sketching out a first piece on very young children and their interactions with iPads. Somewhere, also, swishing around in virtual space is a book chapter written with Julia Davies which looks at digital literacy and teacher education, drawing on the work of the Deft project. Plenty of writing....and then there's the day job!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Going Dutch

Last week it was officially announced that the EBacc was dead. At the wake, Gove re-iterated his homespun philosophy of education. We already know he's living in the past but he seems to really believe in the battle between 'traditionalists' and 'progressives' - the signature binary of educational debates in the late 70s and early 80s. I thought we'd all moved on. Anyway, in trying to rally his troops, he's been re-asserting the importance of a content-based curriculum stuffed full of facts. Education has always been far more than that, and learning far richer. Jean Lave pointed out the habit that reformers have of trying to improve learning by focusing on teaching, powerfully asserting that whilst the two may overlap, they are by no means the same thing. Asking ourselves what is important to learn, is always a good starting point. But even before we get to that point we need some handle on learning itself. Gove seems to equate it with memorising. Remembering the capital cities of the world may depend more on memory than learning. What, for example, if they change - as they have the annoying habit of doing. Does that mean we've remembered wrongly or just remembered redundant information? Did we learn anything at all in memorising them? Would it help me in a pub quizz? It's not a simple matter. This is not to argue that we shouldn't commit anything to memory, merely to suggest that we should disentangle this from learning....and from education. I can remember the names of the original Clash line-up, the album names and most track titles: I didn't learn them; but I can't seem to forget them, either. It doesn't really help me in daily life, but then neither does knowing about the ins and outs of the English monarchy in history. Could I honestly say that I'm a better citizen, or a more cultured individual because I learnt these things in school and then forgot them as a young adult? My interest in the Glorious Revolution and what the Dutch monarch brought to England has been fired by living close to Revolution House and reading this book. We never did William of Orange at school; I thought it was humorous to have a king who was also a fruit, it appealed to my schoolboy humour. It was only relatively recently that I learnt about how oranges were actually used iconographically in portraits. That seems to be something called learning, and how it's bound up with relevance, interest and tactics. Can the same be said for non-human agents - I'm also interested in how we might say that the Tesco Clubcard (or Amazon) 'learns' about my consumerist peccadilloes - should we be sending technology to school. What might it learn?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Coding and all that

The English curriculum has repeatedly been the site of ideological conflict. Opinions on how we should teach students to talk about language have often divided educators. Traditionalists have tended to extoll the virtues of grammar teaching as a way of maintaining or improving standards of English, whereas radical voices have argued for teaching different kinds of meta-language, often aimed at exposing the operation of power and manipulation in various kinds of texts. The original formulation of the genre approach, and the wranglings over Knowledge about Language reveal the highly contested nature of developing a critical or emancipatory perspective. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to demonstrate the relative merits of inculcating a critical perspective through different approaches. But now the whole debate seems to be shifting from English to the technology curriculum. Coding and programming are being touted as the magic bullet to giving students a better understanding of how technology works 'under the hood', as opposed to 'in the 'hood'. John Naughton is an academic and journalist who is usually worth listening to, however, his celebration of the inclusion of programming in Gove's flawed EBacc is misguided. The idea that understanding coding might somehow inoculate us and our children against the ravages of corporate manipulation (ie: Facebook, Google etc), has already been elaborated by Lanier in his book 'You are not a Gadget', but if we look at the parallels - ie grammar in the English/literacy curriculum, we may have serious misgivings. In fact, given that digital communication is the cutting edge of new and emerging social practices we might be better to focus on promoting productive and ethical consumption and production. In an article written in 2007 'Writing the future in the digital age', I called this approach critical digital literacy. The term has been rehashed and developed by others since, and last year I revisited the idea, with my colleague Cathy Burnett. The result is here - I'm not claiming that it goes the whole way, but I think it introduces a perspective that the hastily reconstructed ICT brigade are in danger of missing.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Language, signs and so on

According to Adam Kendon, the sort of gesture you make when you're going through the mental lexicon looking for that illusive word is called a Butterworth - itself a lexical item of some merit. I usually make rather disparaging comments when I hear people say they find language 'fascinating': after all it is a rather trite comment, but nonetheless there are some interesting and obscure terms around, like the aforesaid Butterworth. I'll now be trying to weave it into my everyday conversation. Just watch! But aside from the interesting and obscure, I must confess to being rather impressed with prose that has a good flow to it. Although Kendon's book on gesture is well-written it doesn't really flow. On the other hand in Calasso's book 'La Folie Baudelaire' it seems as if every single word is measured. I could see how it might be irritating, but I just love things like: 'On March 13, 1856, a Thursday, Baudelaire was woken at five by Jeanne, who was making a noise shifting a piece of furniture in her room. His awakening interrupted a complex dream.' (129). This gentleman-from-Porlock moment introduces the surreal Dream of the Brothel Museum, which Calasso then explores in an oblique way. For me he writes very well - even though he tackles the life of Baudelaire at a tangent. What he does with language is accomplished, and if that is fascinating, then I've just contradicted myself!