Saturday, December 04, 2021

Powerpoint fiction....anybody?

If you'd told me that the novel I was about to read contained over 60 pages of Powerpoint slides using some of the standard insert graphics you get, I think I'd change my mind and pick something else. Haven't we all had enough of Powerpoint? Surprisingly though, Jennifer Egan makes this device work so well in A Visit from the Goon Squad that I actually found myself really enjoying it. It's one of the many small triumphs in this Pulitzer Prize winner - a work that is packed full of insights and intrigues. I'd missed it when it won in 2011, but came to it late through the first chapter, Found Objects, which appeared as a short story in the New Yorker. It could be argued that the freestanding piece Found Objects has the edge. After all, it's tightly written and only hints at the broader landscape of events. In that sense it's more open for the reader. You can speculate all you like about Sasha, the focal character, about what is lost, found or stolen in her life and the fragmented dialogue with her therapist works very well in prompting this sort of perspective. I like the economy of the short story form for some of these reasons. I think George Saunders writes about making every word count in a short story - and that's why Found Objects works. Egan's stand alone tale raises all sorts of questions most of which are answered in the novel, so I suppose if you're the sort who hopes for some sort of closure in fiction you'd prefer A Visit from the Goon Squad; but both are very good. After several unsuccessful attempts to surf the wave of enthusiasm for Richard Powers, Egan has re-established my flagging confidence in American fiction.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Going slow

It's been a while. Perhaps it seems as if I'm a blogger on a go-slow, but really it's just the sign of a changing relationship with what I write. Recently posting has become a way of rehearsing thoughts that later become more extended pieces of writing - but somehow or other I didn't need to do that for the book Stacking Stories (out soon!). So that's where my energies have gone, writing that. But I still like the blog. I like it for its continuity, or to be precise for the way it maps change. Colin and Michele once described it as a 'wunderkammer' in their typology of blogs, but it long since changed direction. Gradually it became more performative. I tried to capture where I'd been, what I was reading and what was getting published. In other words it surfed the breaking wave of self-promoting academic identity performance (yuk!). Even quite recent posts - up to and including this one - seem to draw attention to what I've been up to in my professional life (such as this!). But I've also tried to stay faithful to the notion of capturing the main gist of what I'm thinking about, what inspires me. And it perhaps goes without saying, writing in one way or another always seems to come to the top of the pile. Producing it, consuming it, the two inextricably woven together. Everyday notes, graffiti, literature, sky-writing, logos, subtitles, digital, non-digital - the lot. That has to be the next (the last?) major project, translating that fascination into something that is both insightful and readable. Will I get round to it? I think so, although my current fascination with the Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero might be trying to tell me something. His short book Empty Words and the bible-sized tome The Luminous Novel are masterpieces in exploring the many ways you can avoid writing what you really want to write - or, how that avoidance can itself become a thing of fascination. Following that model I should probably post regularly about how I'm not getting round to starting work on that substantive topic. But I don't want to make a promise that I don't think I could keep.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Works in progress

I've come to think of all work as work in progress. A busy couple of months have seen me mulling over what things in the literacy world look like after lockdown, and several things are out there already including this bulletin and this contribution to a UKLA symposium. At the same time I've been working for the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy on our pro-Black initiative and wanted to show my appreciation to the wonderful Susi Long who has been convening an important group. One of the most significant aspects of this discussion for me is the idea that returning to normal is not a viable option if normal involves perpetuating old injustices and inequalities. Bettina Love is an uncompromising and forthright campaigner for this perspective, and of course she's right. I'm not yet sure how my writing intersects with this - that too is work in progress. In the mean time I'm helping to bring an old project to print, a project that operationalises the stacking stories idea that Cathy and I have been working on for a number of years. There's a lovely bit in this collaborative work that evokes rich memories for anyone who has ever taught. 'Most teachers can relate to the experience of arriving in a classroom, perhaps at the start of a school year - four walls, a cupboard if you're lucky, and a collection of desks and chairs - of rooting around in store rooms and drawers, sifting though resources of variable age and quality, shunting furniture about to create pleasant spaces or groupings, and playing with texture and colour for a less institutional feel.' Some of the resources you find in dusty cupboards and dingy stock rooms have their own histories. In the second school I taught in I found a class set of books called 'An Introduction to the King's English'. Which king, I wondered? Could that be George V? The book was published in 1932! This certainly wasn't work in progress; it was a museum piece. As a seasonal gesture, one of the book's colour plates is shown above. It's entitled 'At the Seaside' and it shows an English holiday scene - an idealised portrait of family life between the wars. Dad reads a broadsheet and smokes a pipe whilst mum keeps an eye on the children making a sandcastle. The page opposite informs us that dad is Mr Jackson, mum is Mrs Jackson and the children are Tom and Kate. Students of the King's English practice sentences rehearsing words like 'father', 'mother', 'sister' and 'children'. It perhaps goes without saying that not all families looked like that in Hyson Green in the 1970s.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Fake profiles

The Pinterest algorithm got to know me pretty quickly. I'm not sure if it knows when and where I was born but it must be narrowing it down. The app feeds me old photographs of where I grew up, some are even in the black and white of old memory. I spend time on these images. Then I get poster art from the sixties and photos of the bands I used to follow back then. Pinterest serves me up with ideas for creative projects. Card models to make with the grandchildren and, more annoyingly, it shows me a brand of slippers I quite like. So it's not exactly got a full or nuanced idea of me and my interests but its still uncanny what Pinterest learns and knows about, how it gives me more of what I like. It's an example of how the internet has captured desire at the level of immediacy. You like this it says, emphatically. And it seems to say it before you've had time to think about it. Yes, that fast, particularly with push notifications. Speed is both its power and its promise. Faster processors, faster broadband. See-it like-it quickly converts into buy-it. See-it, like-it, buy-it simply produces frictionless consumerism. No frustration, no time for a (second) thought, just get it, delivered to your doorstep. It's tempting to experiment with a counter profile, to search for things that don't (p)interest you, things that you don't like or don't want to buy, to feign interest in different places, different people, different things. If I maintained a factitious interest in say Frank Sinatra, in old Amsterdam, in pre-Raphaelite painting - whatever, how might that change my online experience? Would Pinterest get confused or think my account had been hacked? I doubt it. Would it worry about my mental health? I doubt that, too. Or would it continue to serve up the things I'm not interested in? Or worse still, might I start to get interested in what I'm not interested in? Probably, but really why would I want that? Fake profiles aren't really that interesting in the first place.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Three short pieces

One. Events pass through novelty and nowness to become history, obviously. I'm thinking of when doing things or going places one perhaps registers either to one's self or whoever you're with, that you're here. This is happening, I'm in Santiago, Singapore, Cyprus or some other place, doing this and conscious of doing it, too. And then looking back on it, that was life, that was what happened, the novelty or uniqueness flattening off, smoothing out. It settles down into the narrative of a life. Not only is it unrepeatable, after all we already knew that didn't we? but it settles down into ordinariness in a way we didn't quite expect somehow. That was what we did. We went to different places and did different things. it was all gradually absorbed like sugar into the sum total of experience. What at the time seemed remarkable or unusual gradually became part of the texture of things. There's a sort of doubling effect, events are at the same time both very special and rather ordinary. But yes, we did these things. Didn't we? Two. Variations on the blind man's cane. Husserl or Heidegger? No actually Merleau-Ponty: 'The blind man's stick has ceased to become an object for him'. The cane has become an extension of the senses. The hammer (probably Heidegger?) recedes as it becomes an everyday tool. We only realise how invisible such things have become when they go wrong, break. The cane snaps. The head falls off the hammer. We miss the nail and strike our thumb instead. So much of Pandemic experience has been like this. The head fell off the hammer of our lives. The everyday gets suspended, at least for a while. We quickly call conditions the new normal and then slowly they become normalized. So normal we stop noticing them (face masks). A different sense of the everyday arises. We get accustomed to it, slowly forgetting how things were or romanticising our memory of how they were. We lockdown. And then lockdown eases and the way things scurry back to normality is unsettling too. Our memories are short, we are quick to adapt, in fact adaptation is our strength. Three. Blind spots, literally blind spots. The bits we don't see we quickly fill in. Our reality like rickety Super-8 footage, badly spliced, jump cut, ill-matched film stock with different colour tones, sometimes out of focus, the sound out of sync. Is it really like that, reality? Yes, all of that spliced in with random bits of information and all slicked over with the gel of consciousness. Consciousness pulling it altogether, imposing pattern, predictability, superimposing meaning. Making sense out of nonsense. Stitching it together, smoothing it over always making it normal. That was life. It was what we did.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A hall of mirrors

Narrative fiction has become an important site for exploring interiority and the complexities of self-reflection. The conscious separation of author from narrator always present in fiction opens possibilities that twentieth century writers have been keen to exploit. Think of the unbelievable narrator of 'The Good Soldier' or the pathological one that tells us all about 'Lolita'. Stefan Zweig is a master of this art of separation. In his short stories and novellas he taps into psychological revelations by creating a series of layers of narration. Sometimes in this hall of mirrors we wonder who is who. In 'Fantastic Night', for instance, the narrator opens a sealed packet that contains the story of a Baron who has just died. The Baron's tale is something of an epiphany, but the way in which it is told allows for a forensic exploration of the self. Initially, or so it seems, the Baron is as hesitant about his writing abilities as he is about himself - but, of course, this is all beautifully written by Zweig. Take this, for example, 'But once more I feel I must pause, for yet again, and with some alarm, I become aware of the double-edged ambiguity of a single word.' Who is it that is really experiencing this ambiguity we wonder? Is it our Narrator, the Baron, or the author himself? The reader is destabilised. And a couple of sentences later, this sense of separation is extended further 'I have just written "I" and said that I took a cab at noon on the 7th of June 1913. But the word itself is not really straightforward....'. Well, no, it certainly isn't - however you think about it! He goes on '...I am by no means still the "I" of that time, that 7th of June, although only four months have passed since that day, although I live in the apartment of that former "I" and write at his desk, with his pen, and with his own hand'. All this is elegantly crafted - but we can't help but think of Zweig himself, sitting at his desk in Vienna, or wherever he was in 1922, writing about pretending to be a man who has opened a package containing the story of someone who has experienced a dramatic shift in his sense of self. Our attention is drawn to what writing is and what writing can do, at that same time as asking us who we really are. In this sense I can see parallels with Foucault's extended commentary on Velazquez's 'Las Meninas'. Zweig's 'Fantastic Night' disrupts our certainties about the world as well as being an excellent storyteller.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Back to school

On Monday children in England returned to their classrooms for the first time since the 2021 lockdown was introduced. I knew that because I heard them clattering past my house on their way to school. There was an exuberant atmosphere, much swinging of bags, slamming of doors and rattling of railings. And there were voices, too. Some subdued, some loud and unruly - but it all reminded me of how these diverse energies are so often overlooked, reined in and brought to serve adult purposes. In this I find myself in sympathy with the work of some scholars and researchers who wish to dislodge reductive accounts of meaning making and even to challenge reductive ideas about what children, learning and school are and could be. Yes, on Monday there was an almost palpable sense of relief. Children were back in school, they were back together, and the event underlined my understanding of how children thrive in each others company as well as through the sensitive guidance of adults. Of course they may also have been some reluctance, let's not forget that there will have been children who were less enthralled by the prospect of school, children who were not excited, were worried, anxious, or just uncertain. But all told, the crucially important function of public education is that it provides spaces for children to be together - not only classrooms and other places designed for learning, but also outside, at the school gate, in playgrounds as well as in corridors and doorways. Such spaces tend to be less regulated, but they are the spaces in which the energy of childhood culture thrives, where children play and interact, often under the watchful eye of adults but not usually through their explicit direction. In this way schools - and primary schools in particular, have always offered so much more than the learning on offer. Unsurprisingly this is a large part of what children will have missed. Parents and children have been thrown back on their own resources these past months, often heroically supported by teachers who have worked under extremely difficult circumstances to provide learning opportunities remotely. All told, being back together feels like something worth celebrating. That said, I don't subscribe to the notion that children are now massively behind, or that they should necessarily be subjected to additional days and hours of study. Those arguments seem to come from the outdated view that children are like empty tanks to be topped up daily with fresh content, a view often held by those who mistake the arbitrary construction of age-related norms for objective truth. If anything, we need something more like the summer play schemes which used to be modestly funded by local government. The school premises were vacant, the curriculum was put to sleep and the normal rules of engagement could be re-negotiated. Volunteer teachers and parents worked informally together to organise games, creative activities and outings for children of all ages. Above all children could be children together in a loosely structured permissive context. What better as an economical and humane approach to healing the scars of lockdown?

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Doing the Romans


Apparently school in lockdown has arbitrary rules just like school in real life. I have it on good authority that one such rule is that you don't do online learning in bed. But rules are there to be broken and when there's nowhere else it's obviously the most sensible option. And, after all that's been written about the benefits of family learning we could probably be making a lot more out of a difficult situation. We could. That's if we weren't doing the Romans. Again. Parents and professionals in primary education will be familiar with that word 'doing' and what it really means. Doing is about kindling curiosity but it can also mean rehearsing a rather random collection of half-truths on a subject, and then doing it to death. At its best doing is inspirational, at worst dull. Take the Romans - well no wait, let's start a little further back - why take the Romans in the first place? Because they were brutal oppressors who robbed the English of their sovereignty? Or because they were Europeans operating a frictionless border? Or maybe it's something about their culture, their language - Latin that 'special' language of theirs we learnt in school. Ostensibly it helped us to be better at English. Laid bare it was an historical remnant of the mutually supporting edifices of church and school - lauda finem! No, I strongly suspect that we do the Romans because we've always done the Romans. We've done their fancy legionary helmets, done their flowing togas and if we're lucky we've done their mosaics in art and their numerals in maths. So how come teachers and children have no time for the Romans? How come they say that the Romans are boring? Yes, partly it's because they've been done to death, but it's also because of the enormous vacuum of relevance (vacuum, from the Latin vacuus meaning empty). It's the yawning gap that separates contemporary childhood from those imagined Romans (yawn, from Old English yonen). I have to come clean now. I love history, and I also happen to love those long straight roads, I love the monumental failure of Hadrian's Wall, doomed like so many other geopolitical follies around the world - the Great Wall, the Berlin Wall and all the rest. It's just that when you line up all the things you could do with primary children in lockdown, and all the history you could do in pandemic, the Romans aren't the first to spring to mind. I'm sure they had the odd virus to contend with (virus, from the Latin for slimy liquid) but it's not in the popular stories - it's not one of their greatest hits. Why not just leave them to luxuriate in their mosaic-tiled villas, lounging around in their flouncy togas, sipping from their flagons of wine, maybe having the occasional orgy if they can rouse themselves? Come on now, I'm sure they'd prefer that to being done again.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Doing it differently

I really enjoyed the Doing Data Differently project because it was a move out of my comfort zone and into the realms of educational data - an area that I'd previously been extremely wary of. Cathy has written a great blogpost about the project, there are several journal publications out there and some examples of the postcards and discussions can be seen here. But just like all of the projects and initiatives that I've been involved in, there's so much more to that work that can't easily be told. I notice the same phenomenon with many doctoral students I work with - it's often as if the pulse that animates the work has grown faint, or it's essence has somehow evaporated. The skill in getting a successful outcome is rather like an alchemical process of bringing something meaningful into existence even as it threatens to disappear. Educational projects are nearly always greater than the sum of their parts. And like good teaching you can never be entirely sure about what has really happened. Of course you can have plans and objectives, you can predict some outcomes, and even measure them, but then there's always the particular atmosphere and the sense of being there. Those restless modulations and mutations of affect resist clear verbal description. The complexity and heterogeneity of entangled experience baffles us, and the unanticipated, unpredictable and sometimes unknowable effects slip through our fingers. When we try to include these in our writing what was always messy, as John Law observes, seems to become even messier - and quite a number of us have fallen into that particular trap! Despite these pitfalls I think it's still worth the effort of producing accounts that acknowledge the missing elements, of trying to capture the things that get lost, and of saying the unsayable - or at least gesturing towards it. After all it's very often those very things that should be returned to, and not necessarily the detail that gets written up (although that might be important in other ways, too).