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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Democracy of things

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

H is for Harry



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

Eric Carle's book of hope

1969 – it was the year of the Stonewall Riots, of Woodstock, and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. It was also the year in which The Very Hungry Caterpillar was first published. Author and illustrator Eric Carle had been playing around with a hole punch trying to make a story about a bookworm when his publisher encouraged him to think again. Fifty years on and his picture book is an international best seller, translated into over sixty languages, and has become a recognized classic of children’s literature. What’s more, it shows no sign of losing its appeal. It’s not just the fact that it has dark and light, the sun and moon, the days of the week, common fruit, and the numbers one to five - the brightly painted tissue paper cut-outs are distinctive and carry the simple narrative of transformation that adults and children have come to love. And, of course, at the heart of the story are the five pages of graded size with holes in them to show what the caterpillar eats. The page design is perfectly matched to the story. You see this when the butterfly, emerging from its lumpy brown cocoon, makes a vivid splash of colour across a double-page spread - its wings in harmony with the colours of the fruit in the previous pages. A wall of bright tissue paper circles decorates the end papers suggesting, perhaps, the food the caterpillar consumed. It’s a prompt to reflect on the story you have just read. In these and other ways, form and content are harmoniously woven together in a way that many later picture book illustrators have emulated. In a sense The Very Hungry Caterpillar marked the coming of age of the picture book. Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Jill Murphy, Anthony Browne and the best work of John Burningham were all to follow, helping to raise the status of the simple thirty two page spread layout into an art form in its own right. Together they showed how the verbal and visual could work off each other to create complexity and delight for young readers and the adults who sat with them. They liberated the experience of early reading from the tired predictability and narrative poverty of basal readers, introducing something you could return to time and time again - return to and enjoy. There’s more to learning to read than recognizing words. For example, understanding narrative involves remembering what has happened and predicting what might happen next and the die-cut pages in The Very Hungry Caterpillar naturally support this process. Patterned and predictable language also helps early reading. On Monday he ate through one apple, on Tuesday he ate through two pears, and so on. Eric Carle got it right. And of course, good children’s literature builds on direct experience. In a way you can’t get more direct than food! But more than that all this is the sense of wonder that adults and children can share as they read Carle’s story together. I mean, how unlikely that something that crawls along eating leaves might come to a halt, encase itself in a brittle shell only later to hatch out and take flight as something as colourful – as beautiful as a butterfly? Eric Carle calls it a book of hope. It certainly is, and it was something that seemed to be in the air in 1969 and something that is just as important in 2019.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Writing and knitting

I've spent a considerable amount of time recently  (with Cathy Burnett) trying to develop a credible account of meaning making from a sociomaterial perspective. That journey has taken me down some fascinating byways including cross-species communication, machinic semiosis and into the possibilities of message exchange without sentience. But however you carve it up, it seems that what we call literacy is an exclusively human accomplishment, even when we fully acknowledge the use of signs and symbols in nonhumans. Thinking of literacy like that isn't human exceptionalism - it's just the way it is, a distinction. It's helpful to think of that distinction with respect to text - the word in English derives from the Latin textilis (woven), so we might say text is that which is woven. The etymology is shared with textile (fabric or material) and indeed much has been made of this elsewhere, and part of it is no doubt connected with the historic materiality of the book. The parallels are interesting to think with. Take something like knitting, similar to writing in that it is a human accomplishment. OK, so the artistry of weaver birds is impressive, spiders make impressive webs, and so on - but they are just not the same thing. Knitting is learnt behaviour with a variety of forms and techniques - but it is just an abstract idea without the material dimension - the yarn in all its variety, colour, production and origins and the technology required to knit it together, whether simple (two or three sticks or needles) or complex (automated, machine-powered, programmed). Of course you could elaborate on the process, all the different steps required in making a garment, for instance, but that is the basic process. The garment is, of course, analogous to the text, that which is woven. A garment is a more or less durable product designed to fulfil a particular purpose, and from the point of completion has what amounts to a life of its own. It can be moved across space and time, given, sold, lent, re-purposed or destroyed. It can be cut, copied, shrunk or lost. It assembles, reassembles and disassembles. It is dependent on an entangled process and on complex mechanisms of transmission and exchange - and in this sense is just like text. Thinking like this suggests that the semiotic domain of the social should not be purified and distilled for the purpose of study. Texts are mutable objects in heterogeneous assemblages with human, nonhuman and non-semiotic objects, they emerge out of these entanglements affect them and are affected by them.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Alexa, why?



I'd been meaning to ask for sometime, and then I did. 'Alexa, are you female?' There's a polite pause followed by the reply 'I'm female in character' - but that said I still can't quite work her out. After all I'm not altogether sure that I like sharing my life with Amazon's virtual assistant, but now I'm settled to the fact that she's not eavesdropping, that she's only 'on' when I wake her, that she's actually voice activated, it's slightly - just slightly better. Better apart from the fact that I've now started wondering what her purpose is. So I pluck up the courage to ask, convinced that she'll maintain an enigmatic silence or say something oblique like 'I'm sorry I don't know that one'. 'Alexa, what's your purpose?' And then 'I was made to play music, answer questions and be useful.' Well OK, but the useful bit seems to have boiled down to writing shopping lists, which I have to admit is something she does quite well. We're out of spread so I ask her to add Vitalite. She does. She confirms that she has, but what comes back at me sounds for all the world like vitalit√© 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. Vitalit√©, 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

Rock Sheffield

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

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Library of Things

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

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Metafiction and Black Mirror

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