In praise of Kazuo Ishiguro

Last week the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the writer Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro was born in Japan but grew up, and continued to live, in England, and took UK nationality. The news of his award was covered widely in the papers and on television and Ishuguro himself appeared well regarded by his peers and popular with the British reading public. However Ishiguro did not stay in the news for very long – though, to be fair, longer than Richard Henderson who shared in the Nobel prize for Chemistry. Ishiguro was newsworthy, the award was well received but it was all a long way from dancing in the street. This muted response seemed to say quite a lot about British attitudes to literature.

Other countries do it differently. I remember years ago in Costa Rica when García Márquez, a Columbian and ‘leftist’, got the Nobel literature prize. It was headlined on the front pages of all the papers and seen as an honour for the American continent – even though the press was conservative and Columbia was a long way from Costa Rica. I don’t know how they celebrated in, say, Iceland when Halldór Laxness got the prize or in Germany when Gunter Grass won it, but we were told that if it had been Haruki Murakami this time his Japanese fans would have hit the roof, though they found plenty to cheer about in the choice of Ishiguro, with his Japanese heritage.

I wondered how Ishiguro’s prize went down in other European countries, with British insularity being such a live issue. What struck me was the interest and seriousness with which the award was discussed, albeit in the more liberal arts centred press. In Italy, La Republica [1] had several online articles and a long discussion of Ishiguro contribution to literature. In Spain, El Pais also offered a literary breakdown of Ishiguro’s work [2] and in France, Le Monde dealt with it in less depth but helpfully reminded readers that France had the most recipients for the literature prize. Most strikingly Deutsche Welle, a German portal aimed at an international audience, led their news of the day with a twenty minute discussion of Ishiguro [3].

I don’t have much to offer about Ishuguro as a writer. Most commentators describe his writing as intelligent and accessible and an ex-editor describes it as a ‘weird mix of classic English and minatory Japanese prose’ (weird is a good thing in this context) [4]. I can recognise this description in the books I have read.

I am more interested in how literature talks / or does not talk to social research. A friend of mine believed that there was no point in reading social research (at least that part that dealt with how we live) when fiction was much more interesting and covered most or all of what could be said. Ishuguro provides a good example of this.

Ishuguro’s two most well-known books are the Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – both made into films. Both covered, amongst other things, the capacity we have for self-deception. In the first, a butler (Mr Stevens) reflects back on his life in service to a ‘great family’ and we can see that in the telling this is a story of denial: denial about the pro-Nazi sympathies of his employer; denial that there was anything emotionally absent in his relationship with his father; denial that there was an opportunity for love or at least companionship with the housekeeper [5]. Through Ishuguro’s subtle telling we can see the deception and by the end the Mr Stevens comes tantalisingly close to seeing it himself. It is a gentle account and we are sucked into sympathy and understanding – Mr Stevens has hung on to what he calls his dignity by turning his back on other ways of living. In sociological terms he entirely inhabits the role of butler; he has closed down any inner voice telling him that there was any other way of seeing the world.

In the second, Never Let Me Go, we are also given an unreliable narrator, this is Kathy. The story is about the experimental cloning of children for donations of body parts. What I really liked about the novel was that it countered expectations: you imagined that this was going to be about the ethics of cloning or a kind of horror fantasy. Instead, it was recognisably about the everyday. The setting was very different from Remains of the Day but Ishuguro had the same concern to show how we rein in our ambition and accept the life that is mapped out for us [6]. Again he does this with subtlety and considerable compassion.

Of course the Nobel prize has generated a fair amount of controversy both for the choice of particular awardees; for a general male white bias; and for being funded by Alfred Nobel, who made his money in arms manufacturing. However, at least in literature, the Nobel prize is the highest accolade for writers and in the main, I don’t think we made enough of Ishuguro’s achievements.

References
[1] Know How Nobel Letteratura – La vittoria di Ishiguro at
https://video.repubblica.it/spettacoli-e-cultura/know-how-nobel-letteratura-la-vittoria-di-ishiguro/286418/287036
[2] PREMIO NOBEL DE LITERATURA 2017
https://elpais.com/cultura/2017/10/06/babelia/1507307119_168668.html
[3] Literaturnobelpreis an Kazuo Ishiguro: Stiller Meister der Seelenerforschung
http://www.dw.com/de/literaturnobelpreis-an-kazuo-ishiguro-stiller-meister-der-seelenerforschung/a-40819390
[4] My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/my-friend-kazuo-ishiguro-artist-without-ego-nobel-prize-robert-mccrum
[5] This is a well known clip of Mr Stevens retreating in the face of his housekeeper’s teasing. I think it is a bit more melodramatic than what Ishuguro intended:

[6] The children are brought up in a kind of 1950’s private school, here a sympathetic teacher tries to tell the children the grisly future that awaits them.

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Graffiti and comment forums: An essentially social act gone wrong?

When I find myself disappointed by the tone of online comment forums my mind goes back to toilet graffiti.

I am no expert, but there was, I think, a spike in interest in researching toilet (or what Americans might call ‘restroom’) graffiti in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not difficult to see why. Graffiti research sounds quirky and it is instantly relatable to the general public.

I missed out on the golden age of toilet graffiti reporting, but the other day I went back to look at some of these past studies. The paper that interested me most was one by Bruner and Kelso (1980) on bathroom graffiti in a university in the USA. The university is not identified but the study seems to have taken place in Chicago with some of the students described as coming from ‘rural downstate Illinois’.

Bruner and Kelso (1980) discussed two well established ways of approaching the study of graffiti – or let us call it ‘on wall’ (rather than online) text.

The first was a kind of thematic content analysis. Here you choose a ‘corpus’ of text. Labels are then selected / constructed which to help to capture the meanings of these these texts. In graffiti studies these labels may include terms such as racial insults, sexual insults, racial/sexual insults, general insults, sexual humour, general humour, political, drugs, religion, morals and so on. Researchers can then apply these labels to texts, or parts of text, and draw conclusions based on the frequency with which labels are applied and associations between the content of discussion and, say, gender difference.

The second approach to research graffiti and one which Bruner and Kelso saw as mainstream, perhaps reflecting the spirit of the age, was a psychoanalytical one. This approach analysed texts in term of ‘unconscious impulses, infantile sexuality and primitive thoughts’.

Bruner and Kelso rejected both these two approaches and went with what they described as a ‘semiotic’ approach. As they put it:

restroom graffiti are communication, a silent conversation among anonymous partners. Although written in the privacy of a toilet stall, the writing of graffiti is an essentially social act that cannot be understood in terms of the expressive functions performed for an isolated individual. To write graffiti is to communicate; one never finds graffiti where they cannot be seen by others. A new person coming to a toilet stall who chooses to write a graffito must take account of what has previously been written, even in the minimal sense of choosing an appropriate location on the wall, and a message is left for those who will subsequently come to that stall. The graffiti writings build up on the walls until an anonymous janitor comes in the night to wipe it all away, and the cycle of the silent discourse begins again the following day.

They wanted to understand the purpose of graffiti and they did this by looking at power. Not surprisingly this led them first to focus on male and female communication. They felt that female graffiti was more interactive and interpersonal (they cite a supportive on-wall discussion prompted by a female student pondering whether she should sleep with her boyfriend). In contrast much male graffiti tended to be ‘individualistic, graphic and derogatory’. In fact the examples they cite are quite vile. In particular they argued that some men were using use the opportunity to communicate in a public space to assert their dominance and seek to put others in their place – in this case, ‘others’ were ‘Jews, blacks, homosexuals and women’. This had to be understood in a context of the promotion of affirmative action programmes at the time and in many ways the men were not so much putting these others in their place but questioning whether they had a legitimate place at all.

The paper interested me on different levels. First, and this is a side point, it struck me that I see very little graffiti today. The paper talks about graffiti disappearing at the end of the day – it used to hang around for much longer but now seems to disappear in many private / public spaces, such as Universities, right away. The second, and main point for me, was the obvious link with research into online texts. When we research any online activity we tend to think we are doing something completely new. However anonymous public forums are not new and we can learn from the past. In this case Bruner and Kelso help me to understand power and voice online. Let me expand.

I have spent a great deal of my research time looking at online texts, counting categories and drawing conclusions. Much of this has been looking at the rather particular context of forums for members of taught programmes and, for the most part, the kinds of discussions I have looked at are often tentative, interpersonal and thoughtful. At their best forums can stimulate ideas but they can also help you see where the writer is coming from in terms of past experience and present expectations.

Forums can often disappoint of course. For example there are considerable constraints on engagement, but in my experience students are never derogatory and, for that matter, when I have looked into it, I have not seen a great gender divide in styles of communication in mixed groups [1]. I remain positive about the role of forums for education but very aware of the constraints.

I have been much less interested in open forums, though of course I do come across some from time to time. However, recently with a research student colleague, I became interested in comparing closed education-focused discussion with open comment forums. One story I followed concerned the BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg. (For overseas readers BBC is our public broadcaster and BBC political correspondents are expected to offer a balanced analysis of events, without being servile to the main parties or unduly bland.). Discussion of her work was triggered by an article claiming that she was ‘the most divisive woman on TV’ [2]

Kuenssberg was also discussed in the Guardian, a liberal newspaper with an international online reach. Most of the comment forum debates in the Guardian web site are reasonably well mannered but anything associated with Jeremy Corbyn (Kuenssberg is not seen as sympathetic to Corbyn, at least by Corbyn supporters) brings out more vitriolic comments far removed from the general tone of the paper’s reporting. Some of the comments made about Laura Kuenssberg for example included:

  • Well Laura Kuenssberg’s been saying “fuck Labour” for long enough. Just less swearily.
  • Laura Kuenssberg is a disgrace to journalism.
  • And yet the BBC still refuses to acknowledge her bias.

I wanted to compare the responses in the right wing press but got sidetracked into looking at a web site for ‘Conservative woman’ [3]. Opinion on BBC and on Laura Kuenssberg was extreme and derogatory as well:

  • Cancel your licence fee payment today.
  • You do not have to pay for the paedobeeb’s poisonous and pervasive propaganda.
  • Never give them any information at all.
  • I don’t watch BBC news or current affairs my wife can’t stand Laura K, and it doesn’t sound like a good old British name anyway.
  • In years to come, dictionaries will have the following entry: Smug – see Laura Kuenssberg

So why should this be happening? Why should public spaces, even ones occupied by special interest groups, put their case in such a derogatory manner. Why should people who are taking the trouble of making an argument have no interest in trying to win opponents around to their point of view by the force of their argument? Here my thoughts went back to Bruner and Kelso. As they suggest we can understand anonymous postings in terms of transgression at some psychoanalytic level and / or we can count the labels and say how many times this or that happened. For that matter we can understand texts as shaped by technology itself (for example the way that technology seems to trigger an instant response). But, as Bruno and Kelso explain, we can see texts as ways of exercising power – the power not so much to organise opinion in favour of something but the power to deny legitimacy to anyone you disagree with. It is about making sure others know their place and that is at root all I can say about the way some people write online or for that matter the way they write on walls.

[1] For a counter example see

Eve, J., & Brabazon, T. (2008). Learning to leisure? failure, flame, blame, shame, homophobia and other everyday practices in online education. The Journal of Literacy and Technology, 9(1), 36-61.

[2] The claim about divisiveness was made in the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, and discussed in several publications, see for example Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/bbc-laura-kuenssberg-telegraph_uk_59524553e4b02734df2d42b0

[3] http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk

I thought for a minute that this was a mainstream Conservative party web site but in fact it is a fringe group.

[In my original post I did not provide a reference for Bruno and Kelso. It is:

Bruner, E. And Kelso, J. (1980) Gender differences in graffiti: a semiotic perspective, Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 3, 239-252

 

 

Football, schools and a changing world

Every year our research students put on a conference and the theme for this year was education in a changing world. For me one of the most obvious but far reaching features of this changing world is our interconnectedness. What happens faraway can have a resonance in ways that were not envisaged in the past. This has many implications for education but, as often seems to happen these days, during the conference my thoughts ended up focused more on football than teaching and learning.

I grew up playing football, it seemed like every day, with friends in streets and parks and became attached to a local team. I got a glimpse of international footballers on when there was a World cup on television, but after these competitions were over they disappeared as far as I was concerned. Football was local – the players lived locally and modestly. Indeed, without too much difficulty my friend and I, as ten or eleven year olds, found out where one of our team’s leading strikers lived. We went round and offered to wash his car. He declined but chatted to us for a while about his international career and being a footballer. It is impossible to imagine that today. We were only vaguely aware of clubs being owned – but they were – usually by long established local families with business connections.

English football was historically slow to take part in European and World cup competitions but both clubs and the national team had some success [1]. To grow up supporting England was to carry a sense of superiority which lingered for long after its sell by date. It is only in more recent years that most of us not only rule out the possibility of England winning an international competition but we hardly expect the national side to progress beyond the first world.

Like many others I fell out of love with the game in the 1980’s. I still went when I could but at worst football became tribal and intolerant. This is touched on well by Nick Hornby [2] who describes taking a group of international students to Wembley to watch an England play Holland in 1988. He explains how he first had to negotiate a ‘determined and indiscriminate’ mounted police charge and he and his students were only reluctantly let into a stadium in which the entrance doors were ‘hanging by a thread’. Once inside they found themselves outnumbered by thuggish looking individuals who had taken their seats:

There wasn’t a steward in sight we stood and watched for half an hour during which Holland took a two one lead; the dreadlocked Gullit, the main reason why the game had sold out in the first place, provoked monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Just before half time we gave up and went home. (Hornby, 1992: 202)

For me (and for many) attachment to the game changed with 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was by some accounts one of the poorest events in terms of the football played but England for the first time in a while were great and were involved in most of the best, or at least most watchable, games in the tournament [3]. Even those not interested in football would talk about Lineker and Gascoine the morning after a game.

Since then English league football, as with other European leagues, quickly went on to become a global phenomenon. Owners, players and coaching staff came from around the world, top games were televised globally. Why did this happen? Well you don’t have to be an economist to see that those with money are chasing markets and doing so in a world with fewer borders. It becomes quite attractive to buy into the top clubs in Europe. It is not that they make a lot of trading profit but the value of the club goes up year on year as the money going into the game increases. And you don’t have to be technologist to realise that this global appeal is made possible by technology. But with what consequences?

If you want to draw up a balance sheet you will find, the game is played better, barriers of nation state seem looser, football seems to capture a cosy cosmopolitanism. The unthinking tribalism of the game has not gone away but is much reduced. We periodically take international footballers to our hearts; what matters is style, commitment and results [4].

Football’s global appeal works in good ways. Consider here the example of five-year-old Afghani Murtaza Ahmadi. His image ‘went viral’ on the Intenret when he was captured wearing a shirt made of a blue and white plastic bag with 10 coloured on on his back. Ten was the number of his hero Leionil Messi and the blue and white ‘shirt’ was the colour of the Argentinian team. According to reports Murtaza knew about Messi as the family could watch a solar panel powered televison in his village in Afghanistan. Murtaza became an Internet hit, he got to meet Messi. The end of the story is complicated but in short, and I am relying on journalist accounts, Murtaza and his family found it difficult to continue to live in Afghanistan. [5]

So what is the flip side of this globalization. First, we don’t ask enough questions about where the money is coming from and where it is going. It can leave as quickly as it came and it leaks in and out in appalling ways – even as became the case in Spain with the brilliant and saintly Messi [6]. In England we now has several clubs who have been taken over by owners who have led them close to ruin. Of course the common element here is naivety (the new owners do not get the fundamental point about football that you do not know if you are going to win), rather than international ownership, but there is no doubt that the connection with the local is being lost [7]. In the past you had supporters with a higher sense of identification with their club albeit with all the risks of insularity and conservatism that brought. Now you can have looser knit supporters and clubs with global appeal, but this has left many alienated from the clubs they have long supported [8].

I did manage to refocus my thoughts on the conference and away from football and this confirmed for me this almost universal challenge of balancing local and global attachment [9]. At the conference I was able to speak to several teachers strongly committed to their local communities but also trying to help their children think about global citizenship. As ever some of this work took your breath away in terms of imagination and commitment but I was left thinking that, once again, that we are asking a lot of our schools and our teachers.

[1] The UK is unique in world football in having recognised leagues in each of the countries of the union. For the record, Scottish clubs (Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen) all experienced success in European competitions too.

[2] Fever Pitch – this is Nick Hornby’s account of obsession with Arsenal, the book was first published in 1992.

[3] England were knocked out in the semi-final on penalties.

[4] To be fair this was always the case. Bert Trautmann a German prisoner of war who stayed on in England at the end of the war (1945) became a legend at Manchester City, as did the Argentinian Osie Ardiles at Spurs even with the interruption of war with Argentina (1982).

[5] Here is some background to Murtaza Ahmadi

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/38301293

and a follow up story at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36192300

[6] More on Messi, who is on some accounts paid 400, 000 Euro a week, at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36721892

[7] If you want to follow these things further here are blogs and articles on English clubs in trouble. This is Coventry (owned by hedge fund SISU):

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/oct/12/coventry-city-decline-despair-league-one

and Blackburn owned by Indian entrepreneurs, the Venkys:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/feb/18/blackburn-manchester-united-venkys-fa-cup

This is a more general piece including the goings on at Blackpool (owned by the Royston family) and Charlton (owned by Belgian entrepreneur Roland Duchâtelet:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/oct/03/football-fans-protest-club-owners-blackburn-coventry-charlton

[8] Here are some filmed interviews around identification with a club, covering supporters of Charlton and then supporters of Leyton Orient. The latter owned by the Italian Francesco Becchetti

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/26/charlton-athletic-and-the-fight-for-the-clubs-future-video

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/24/its-like-a-circus-here-leyton-orient-fans-furious-with-owner-after-relegation-video

[9] I tried to think about this more in the context of social media at

http://www.inderscienceonline.com/doi/abs/10.1504/IJWBC.2017.082717

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-truth and a good argument

The term post-truth was, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the Word of the Year 2016. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

In USA of course the term became widely used in the context of the US presidential campaign, and in UK it was aired in the debates on Brexit. It was these two recent campaigns that formed the backdrop to a fascinating programme on a BBC Radio 4 on post truth politics:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg

One thing the programme did very well was to alert us to different kinds of untruths and facts [1]. For example Trump in his campaign said many things which were simply untrue by any reasonable definition of the word. This was illustrated when, talking about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York 2001, he said ‘I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down’. It either happened or it did not and as much as far as we can take anything as objective, then Trump is simply wrong [2]. However pointing this out seems to have had little effect; those disposed to vote for Trump did not care, the statement expressed a sentiment – presumably that there were groups of different ethnicity that were not patriotic in the same way as they were.

In our own Brexit campaign a different kind of fact emerged: if we left the EU then there could be £350 million extra for a new hospital to be built every week [3]. You can say it is a lie if you like, and I don’t think any economist would say that we would have an extra £350 million a week by leaving the EU – or if by some miracle we did have the money it is unlikely that it would find its way into building hospitals. However the claim about the hospital is not an untruth in the same way that Trump’s claim about the Twin Towers is. It is describing something counter factual, extremely unlikely, but not a fact that can be disproved.

Finally there are arguments which seem to be about facts which are really about values –for example more egalitarian societies are better than ones in which wealth is unevenly distributed. This has an appeal to the facts and is often dressed up as an argument about the facts but it cannot really be divorced from value judgements about what kind of society we want. The distinction was put very well in the BBC Radio 4 programme by Professor Peter Mandler who offered objective comments as an academic on Brexit (again as far as objective has any meaning) while recognising that in terms of values and identity he was aghast at the decision taken.

Why is post-truth on the rise? One presenter felt that all this started with the claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in 2002, but I don’t really buy that, at least not in UK. For example, the issue of missing WMD was well known before the 2005 election in UK and it did not seem to be a significant factor in the result [4]. Of course the consequences of missing WMDs has been lingering and toxic particularly for those who supported the war in Iraq but I don’t think it has undermined our belief in the possibility of establishing truth. Quite the opposite. For example when it came to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war it was striking how far most people believed that this inquiry had really got to the truth by painstakingly sifting through evidence.

A second candidate for the rise of post-truth is that we increasingly live in ‘echo chambers’ – another term that has ‘spiked’ over the last couple of year. The idea here is that we tend to move around only with ‘people like us’ so that what we take for granted is rarely challenged; when we meet at work or socially, opinions are  echoed not challenged. Predictably the internet gets the blame for this increasing polarisation as, particularly in the USA, people are said to get their news from social media and block out dissenting views – or social media algorithms block dissenting views for them. To compound matters, if and when we do access views from those outside of our echo chamber then we make an active attempt to rationalise our views rather than reason about them. In fact this process of rationalisation might end up strengthening our prejudices, for rather than loosely go along with something we have now actively worked out a line of defence; interaction with others no longer seems a way to strengthen democratic debate but to reduce it. I find interesting  here the claim that those with ‘cognitive advantages’ (e.g. higher levels of literacy or numeracy) might be more adept at rationalising and better able to undermine the arguments that disturb their thinking. This offers a new take on the idea that the problem with democracy is that it leaves those with less education vulnerable to populist movements, but that is for another day.

The thing about echo chambers is that by design or by accident, or more likely both, we have ended up living in increasingly segregated worlds [5]. This argument is expressed particularly strongly in the USA. It is something that is widely discussed in UK too though my hunch is that the effects of ‘echoing’ are softened by the position of the BBC as a national broadcaster and the more inclusive character of organised religion.

Hope for addressing the consequences of the echo chamber was given by a ‘die hard’ conservative Bob Inglis, someone who had changed his view of climate change, but nothing else as far as I could see. As he put it, if the arguments come from  ‘another tribe’ (‘liberals and Al Gore’) you don’t need to engage with them, it is only, as in his case, when the argument came from someone with similar values that he was prepared to listen.

I find post-truth disturbing as a phenomenon. My career has been in teaching and learning and like many others I believe that being educated is about being able to weigh up arguments and to understand values. It is also very much about learning to get on with other people as a community. Some of my recent work has been about what it might mean to strive for a rational consensus online; we might not ever be objective but we have the concept of objectivity for a reason, it is something that we can measure our patterns of argument against. We know we can do much better online than attack others and shut down argument.

It is tempting to see post-truth as a new phenomenon but it is not. We have always stayed firm in a belief when evidence points the other way and we have always been manipulated by the media and those controlling the media have always sought to manipulate us [6]. My hunch is much of the thinking about post-truth is generated not by WMDs but by the recent banking and economic crises; we are returning to politics as a zero sum game with whatever advantage going to one group being seen as at the expense of another and it is in this climate in which selective reasoning thrives.

[1] Toulmin is a common point of reference for those interested in theory of argument – Toulmin, S. (2012) The Use of Argument, Cambridge, CUP.

[2] See for example fact checking sites such as:

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/22/donald-trump/fact-checking-trumps-claim-thousands-new-jersey-ch/

[3] I am not sure anyone wants to revisit this but the claim was:

‘The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.’

[4] If interested in the result go to the BBC site at

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4360597.stm

[5] On the day after the Brexit vote I was talking to a friend who said how pleased he was with the result and how he had not met anyone who voted to remain. Until that point I don’t think I had met anyone who voted to leave. This kind of polarised experience was I think fairly common.

[6] This is Orwell in 1943 reflecting back on the Spanish civil war:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1942’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Looking back on the Spanish War http://orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1

 

Photography and social research

I have often felt in doing research that I have missed out on using photographs, but when it comes to it I am not sure what an image tells us. Or rather my suspicion is, to borrow a phrase from Ryle [1], that an image gives you a ‘thin’ description’, it shows you what is happening but not why it is happening or the intention of the person doing it. Words offer the possibility of a thick description and I would much prefer, for example, to read George Orwell on shooting an elephant [2] rather than look at a photo or see a film of the same thing – though to be fair a photo has the particular value that it could have established whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant or not.

Two sets of photographs have recently grabbed my attention. Both from 1930’s and early 1940’s. The historical context is important as this is the period in which small, reliable and affordable hand held cameras were coming on to the market triggering a new interest in photography, just as hand held video cameras and now Smart/ I phones have led to an explosion of moving images being taken today.

The first set of photographs were taken by [3] Bateson and Mead – in fact of the two Bateson seems to have led on the photography. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both established social researchers and were excited about using photos in their ethnographic reporting as this might fill a gap between ‘journalistic description’ and ‘over analytical disembodied discussion’. The book they produced was a mix of text (Mead provided the written descriptions of Balinese culture, for example, covering topics including learning, integration of the body, parents and children, rites of passages and so on) Bateson’s photographs could illustrate through image what was being described in text. The book was first published in 1942 though the images were taken some time earlier when, over a period of time, they immersed themselves into Balinese life. [4]

Bateson and Mead worked with a great many photos as well as some short film clips. Interestingly they did not ask permission to take photographs and their subjects, they suggest, had lost a sense of self consciousness as they had got used to the sight of cameras being carried around the village. Very few of the compositions were in any sense ‘posed’ and this the authors see as giving their work greater authenticity.

Mead and Bateson were leading social researchers of the last century and they have been rightly celebrated; if judgments are to be made about their work then these should be framed by the times in which they lived. Mead and Bateson wanted to learn from the communities they studied and they offer some fascinating insight not least in respect to education. In a section about learning Mead describes a socialisation framework which might be seen as a community of practice. Children it is said learn virtually nothing from verbal instruction and even in story telling words must be repeated to have meaning. However some of the text really grates to the contemporary reader and many would question  the process by which western ethnographers come to enter and appraise traditional community. The photos look horribly intrusive and Mead and Bateson did not follow through on the ethical issues raised by their methods and I doubt if any of their colleagues or readers at the time would have done so either. [5]   The pictures are helpful to support the text but they are secondary. To be honest they remind me of tourist ‘snapshots’ more than anything else (nothing wrong with that of course but unsettling in the context of social research). Mead and Bateson set out to avoid presenting Balinese culture as disembodied and being over analytical, yet in tone that is what they have done.

Around the same time that Mead and Bateson were in Bali, other American photographers, some of the key names were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and Roy Stryker, were working on documenting the experiences of smallholders in the USA itself.  This was the work of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA) – the FSA programme being part of the interventionist New Deal to tackle unemployment and poverty. In particular smallholders in central USA were made destitute not only by the economic depression but also by ecological catastrophe. Farm land in the plains was always susceptible to drought and erosion but the soil could be held together by grass. As the great plains were ploughed up the soil lost its binding and come the droughts the soil simply blew away in great dust clouds [7]. Faced with the destitution of farmers the government at first did very little but the New Deal offered by Roosevelt offered more, though how radical has always remained a matter of debate. The idea of a historical section seems to have been to record the lives and trials of shareholder farmers in the hope that this would generate a sense of social solidarity leading to action to address their plight. The photographers working on the project produced a very large numbers of images which can be accessed in library of Congress web site [6].

Many of the photos draw the viewer in and do what they set out to do which is to provoke an emotional response. I don’t want to overdo the contrast between these photographs and those of Bateson as the FSA ones were taken by professional photographers and were designed to persuade not just to document. However it needs to be said that the photos are engaging and humanist in ways that Bateson’s are not. Interestingly though, similar ethical issues are raised by both sets of photographs as the FSA photographers did not seek permission from their subjects either  and there has been some talk of smallholder  being unhappy at the way their lives were documented.

The FSA collection remains haunting. And particularly so as it seems to offer a direct  comparison with the images we have of, displacement and forced migration  in particular from Syria into Europe.

Photographs

The images below are available from the Library of Congress and are respectively titled:

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (Arthur Rubinstein April 1936)

dust-storm

Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, October 1935)

destitute-children

Toward Los Angeles, Calif. (Dorothea Lange March 1937).

next-time

Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (Dorothea Lange, February or March 1936)

pea-picker

(Note the collection is available to view via the Library of Congress and I understand is copyright free but apologise in advance if this is not case.)

[1] Ryle, G. (1968) The Thinking of thoughts, What is ‘Le Penseur’ doing?, University Lectures No 18, University of Saskatchewan. Online. Available HTTP: <http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/CSACSIA/Vol14/Papers/ryle_1.html>

[2] Orwell (1936) Shooting an Elephant is in various collections but can be accessed at the Orwell archive online at http://orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph

[3] Bateson, G.and Mead, M. (1942) Balinese Character A photographic analysis New York Academy of Sciences, New York

[4] It is a grey area but I don’t think I have permission to upload photographs to the site but you can see them on a web site publicising a ibrary of congress event at

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/mead/field-bali.html

[5] a contrasting approach is to give cameras to participants in order that they may make their own images and discuss them together – see for a example Johnsen, S. et al (2008) Imagining ‘homeless places’ Area, 40, 2. 194-207.

[6] I became aware of these photos via an exhibition at my university: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930’s America http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/whats-on/2016/the-human-document/

[7] Some of the context can be seen in the film ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’.  I found it extraordinary. The film can be easily accessed on You Tube, for example at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQCwhjWNcH8

.

Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/skypes-real-time-translator-end-language-learning

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G87pHe6mP0I

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rek3jjbYRLo

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/events/distinguishedlecture/andrewblake

[3] DW Lernen is at http://www.dw.com/en/learn-german/s-2469

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

http://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Early-spoken-word-recordings/024M-1CS0011542XX-0100V0

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

http://www.channel4learning.com/sites/extra/

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt

Looking Back: Herbert Marcuse

I attended a conference on computer interfaces the other week. This provided a mix of the stimulating and not so stimulating, but above all it was a break from education based research. There I found unexpectedly frequent references to the Frankfurt school [1] including one reference to Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man [2]. ODM was published back in 1964. It created a stir in its day and I was prompted to recall what Marcuse had to say and ask about its relevance now.

ODM is a critique of mass society, very much focused on the USA of the 1950s and 1960s. For Marcuse the so-called consumer society was malign – we were being manipulated by mass media into wanting things we should not want and did not need. This lead us to be complicit in a comfortable consensus in which dissent and counter cultural ideas were absent. All this is summed up by the idea of society as irrational and in which:

productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence–individual, national, and international. (pp ix –x)

Thus if society is repressive (and for Marcuse it was) the problem was ‘Technology rather than Terror’; technology subdues us through an ‘overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living’. If there was hope of change it came from those outside the system, those who find themselves more marginal, for example the young, radical intelligentsia, the women’s movement. Marcuse rather portentously finished the book citing Benjamin that ‘It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us’.

Marcuse was not of course alone in offering this kind of extreme – I would say romanticised – pessimism and some of the key themes were, for example, presaged much earlier, in Riesman and Glazer’s more restrained and readable Lonely Crowd [3] and for that matter in anti-utopian novels of the period.

In my late teens I thought ODM was great (this was the mid 1970s and more than ten years after it was first printed). Here was someone from an older generation speaking to me and saying ‘yes you are right, the world you have been born into is irrational, the older generation is deluded and it is up to you to change it’. At least this is how I read the book and how it was read by any of my peers who had bothered to read it. How Marcuse intended ODM to be read is of course a different and more controversial question. There is a short clip on You Tube of Marcuse at the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London 1967. This was a meet up of a counter culture constituted in the main by left wing academics and students, poets, writers, artists, plus the odd celebrity. In the clip you can see the suited figure of Marcuse offering, what seems to me, a pedantic discourse on dialectical liberation while the audience looks in a mix of reverence or polite disinterest. To be honest a fair number look half stoned [4]. It is all very odd and who knows what Marcuse makes of it.

I came back to ODM twice more. The first time was in the 1990s. I was talking to a colleague who had told me how important she still found Marcuse and I wondered why this was. I reread the first couple of chapters and could get no further. I was taken aback at how much I disagreed with it. I had an interest in technology by now and Marcuse’s views seems determinist, pessimistic and out of date. His writing was horribly sanctimonious too. For example, Marcuse lays into advertising:

the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negative of himself) and his society. Deprived of his false fathers, leaders, friends, and representatives, he would have to learn his ABC’s again. But the words and sentences which he would form might come out very differently, and so might his aspirations and fears (pp 245-6).

This resonated with me as, in the spirit of Marcuse, when we took our teenagers on holiday we would ask for televisions to be taken out of the cottages we rented in order to give us all a break from the media and indeed the adverts. (Mobile phone coverage tended to be poor and there was no wifi). However this did not leave us in a ‘traumatic void’ and I would never write about the viewers or readers of advertising as though they were idiotic in the way that Marcuse describes.

It was with low expectations that I went back to ODM. I dipped in and out and to be fair I found things to value in it. For example, the picture of technology he offers is more sophisticated than I had realised. It was not technology itself which was oppressive but our attitudes to it. In particular we had internalised an instrumental mentality through technology in which we took the goals of efficiency and output for granted. This left technological controls appearing to be:

the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests – to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible. (p9)

But Marcuse does recognise that there were other ways of using technology that ‘might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity’.

Marcuse also spent a great deal of time in ODM as elsewhere arguing for an space for independent thought and dissent, he valued:

the existence of an inner dimension distinguished from and even antagonistic to the external exigencies—an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior. The idea of “inner freedom” here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain “himself.” Today this private space has been invaded and whittled down by technological reality. (p10)

His argument is long and complex but there are echoes here of the contemporary critique that networked technology has left us with the sensation of being always online, always monitored and uncomfortable with our own thoughts.

Is there enough in my rereading of ODM to reverse my opinion of ODM? Well no and perhaps the harshest thing I can say is that ODM is an example itself of one dimensional thinking. If you are going to critique society you should deal fairly, or try to deal fairly, with the pros and cons of what you see in front of you. Show understanding but remember others will see things differently. Of course there is a space for a sustained, more rhetorical critique, but it is has got to be engaging and for me best lightened with irony if not humour. Instead ODM feels like a rant, and Marcuse’s underlying argument could be summarised as a tabloid headline: ‘We are going to hell in a handcart’.

My judgement of ODM is, as I say, harsh. Marcuse is serious scholar who writes in a dense and erudite way. However in ODM you feel assailed rather than enlightened. Part of the problem is that he shows little engagement with empirical research other than to cherry pick evidence to support his argument. But my greater complaint is that when he writes of people he lacks imaginative empathy or even curiosity. Here he is bemoaning contemporary materialism:

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality…….The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced. (p. 8)

By all means critique consumer society but show you understand why people might be happy watching television, driving cars, or listening to music on the hi fi even if you want to show there are contradictions in what they say. Unable to engage with people as they are, Marcuse resorts to finding that they are wrong and he is right:

Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing. (pp. xiii-xiv)

Oh dear.

So the same book has over time given me a spirit of rebelliousness; provoked a critique and finally a more balanced view alongside an enduring discomfort. Will today’s youth find the same in Marcuse as I did? Well, he is singularly ill suited for the climate of austerity in which we live but this will change one day and I don’t see why his time won’t come again.

References

[1] Frankfurt school: These were theorists who were based at the Goethe University in Germany who took a critical stance capitalist and indeed communist systems in the interwar years of the last century. Leading theorists escaped with the rise of Nazism.

[2] Marcuse, H. (2013 [1964]). One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. London: Routledge.

The text can be found online at

http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/64onedim/odmcontents.html

[3] Riesman, D., & Glazer, N. (2001 [1953]). The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character. CT: Yale University Press.

[4] Herbert Marcuse, “Liberation from the Affluent Society” (1967) – YouTube [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQLpqno6J_g