Saturday, December 21, 2019
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.
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
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.
Sunday, October 20, 2019
Sunday, July 21, 2019
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.
Wednesday, June 05, 2019
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?
Sunday, May 12, 2019
Friday, May 03, 2019
In a democracy of things every object exists in relation to others. What's more all classes of objects have equal status although some can, of course, have more influence than others. Broadly speaking that is what is meant by DeLanda's much used phrase 'flat ontology'. Thinking about this it occurred to me that someone should document all the different attempts that have been made to give voice to non-human objects, those more or less silent members of this parliament of things. Admittedly some social science researchers have tried, and poets often touch upon it, but in fiction it is usually the preserve of writers of fables or children's stories. The anthropomorphic conceit - for that's what it usually comes down to, is more often than not concerned with bestowing human characteristics on animals. After all it offers a compelling way for us to understand ourselves - here Kipling springs to mind. Animals and their inter-relations become ciphers for human characters, their interactions and even their social organisation (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi for instance). But inanimate objects are much harder to voice. Rilke does this brilliantly by writing about a tin lid, of all things, '...a lid like this could have no other desire than to be sitting on its tin; this must be the limit of what it could imagine; a satisfaction that could not be surpassed, the fulfilment of all its wishes. It almost represents something approaching an ideal, having been twisted patiently and softly into place, to be resting evenly on the little matching protrusion and feeling the interlocking rim within you, elastic and just as sharp as your own edge is when you lie there on your own.' (Rilke, 2016:105). The composition is so finely tuned, but in the end, like all anthropomorphic writing it is, when it comes down to it, a sort of extended metaphorical reflection on the human predicament. I'm still looking for examples!
Saturday, April 13, 2019
A good documentary should dig deep into a topic of interest or concern and judged against this the film 'H is for Harry' is good. Good if the topic of concern is the way in which our school system fails to meet some students' needs, but not so good if the interest is in unscrambling white working class underachievement as it repeatedly claims to do in its titles and voice-over commentary. At just under 90 minutes the film offers a sensitively drawn portrait of Harry's struggles at a sparkling new Academy in London staffed by enthusiastic and well-meaning teachers. Although there is plenty of close-up footage of Harry's intense interaction with teachers, and illuminating reflections from Harry - apparently on his way home from school, I found I wanted more detail. There is nothing about Harry's anger issues, although they are referred to a lot, and despite the fact that Harry's dad is on camera at regular intervals we don't learn very much about Harry's life at home or during his turbulent past. Of course there's only so much you can do in 90 minutes, but there's something deceptive about using Harry as a proxy for the diverse, amorphous and generally problematic social group that we refer to as the white working class. Of course, educators will draw different things from the film and that's inevitable. This one was impressed by the drive and commitment of the young teachers, but their dogged adherence to a regime of motivational slogans and exercises had a Brave New World feel to it. In a classic act of responsibilisation the achievement gap is presented as a tough challenge that individual students have to take on, whilst their unruly energies are pacified by a teacher who plays guided meditation to them on her laptop. But more worrying was the curriculum that played in the background like an old 78 - skill-and-drill phonics, grammar and Shakespeare. It was heart-breaking to watch the the teachers trying so hard to breathe life into something that was so clearly moribund. So what you might call the experience gap loomed large when you saw the world through the students' eyes - friends moving away, holidays that included a visit to a drug shop in Holland, a new swimming pool that magically appeared in Harry's back garden, a school exclusion for a stabbing (or was it an overdose?). Harry's thoughts about his future life? Staying alive. Unfortunately that seems about right. In the end 'H is for Harry' is a sad and moving film. It's very well crafted, but I'm not sure I'm any the wiser about the so-called white working class - or, for that matter, the crucially important 'others' who had walk-on parts at the Academy, but I applaud the film's sincere attempt to address the complex and important issue of the sate of education in state education. Let's have more!
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Saturday, March 02, 2019
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.
Sunday, February 03, 2019
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.
Monday, January 21, 2019
Friday, January 18, 2019
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.
Thursday, January 03, 2019
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.