Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Can't Shake The Devil's Hand And Say You're Only Kidding

‘Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding’

They Might Be Giants - ‘Your Racist Friend’


Three years ago I attended the ResearchEd conference in London. Whilst there I witnessed a presentation by the blogger who goes by ‘Old Andrew’ online.

He spoke on ‘How To Have A Rational Debate About Education’ which boiled down disappointingly to a list of  logical fallacies and some examples drawn from the work of people who were given no public chance to reply.

At a certain point in his speech, found here, he began to speak about Dr Jo Boaler.

This came during a section on ‘Ad Hominems’:

‘This is a list of accusations and comments made by an education researcher, a professor at Stanford, when she was accused of having research methods that weren’t completely valid and reliable. Highlights are the accusations of racism (???) but also that it’s harassment to argue with her. It’s all Ad Hominem, not “is there something to do with my research?”…’

Ironically enough the actual research or even the source of these ‘comments’ was not mentioned in the presentation. This suited the gossipy tone of the proceedings.

However, recent concerns about the content of debate with regard to race in education took me back to the presentation.

By transcribing the slides used and feeding them into Google I was able to find Jo Boaler’s statement of events. This I had to do because the slides themselves contained no visible references. As you might imagine, it differs quite a lot from the way in which it was characterised by ‘Mr Old’. The statement, published by Stanford University on their site and still publicly available, details attempts to undermine her research by ‘James Milgram (Stanford, retired) and Wayne Bishop (Cal State, LA)’ (ibid.) Her rebuttal of these two individuals’ accusations includes an extensive and rather hair-raising timeline of events which culminated in her leaving, then being invited back to Stanford over a thirteen year period.

Boaler is not, as I had assumed from the presentation three years ago, black. The phrase ‘accusation of racism’ does not in fact come from a section where she was discussing racism directed at her, but rather at students. Here is the relevant section of her article, which ‘Old Andrew’ did not quote in his presentation:

‘The particular area of my research that Milgram and Bishop have tried to discredit is focused upon equity and the ways that the mathematics achievement of all students in the US may be raised. Bishop has used explicitly racist language when discussing issues of equity, claiming that teachers and other ‘experts’ believe that “little pickaninnies just don't learn math like we do.”’ (’

That link is now broken, but nothing ever dies on the internet. HERE is the relevant link as recorded by the Web Archive. It seems that Bishop, in private correspondance, did indeed follow up the original use of the outrageous slur. It is remarkable how similar his convoluted justifications are to other ‘not really’ racists:

"I don't think that way," said Bishop, who is white. "[The e-mail] is not insulting little black kids, it's insulting people who make assumptions that they don't learn like everybody else. I was deprecating that idea and using deliberately inflammatory language to do it. This was supposed to be private. If I had known it was going to have worldwide circulation, I wouldn't have used the word."

It’s an exhausting read. It amounts to 'I was kidding...Jeez!' The corkscrewed prose seems, apart from being at the avant garde of expert-disparagement, to assume that readers cannot understand irony. This is not, however, the substance of the printed objection. Ellen Lee of the California Mathematics Council of the California State Board of Education forwarded the original email. She wrote in 2002 that she and her fellow ‘experts’ absolutely do not hold those views, nor have I been able to see any evidence that they do. As she puts it:

“We don't go around thinking in those terms. If someone would use that word in print, then something else is going on that person's mind."

But what? It is what the original statement, as well as the willingness of its maker to characterise opponents in this way, reveals about Bishop’s character that concerns people.

So why was none of this mentioned at ResearchEd? As we have seen, the blogger known pseudonymously as ‘Andrew Old’ quoted Boaler’s original article. Had he read the article? It seems so. Was he aware that he was leaping to the defence of a person who used such language, even if ironically?

Yes. Note this Tweet from 2012:

So it is clear that, at the time of making his presentation two years later, he definitely knew about Bishop’s racist language, and had done since 2012. It is also certainly true, as stated in the  article to which he links, that Bishop was using the word as an ironic characterisation of what he took to be his opponents’ views. However, the important counterpoint made by Lee, not to mention his interlocutor in the above exchange, was left unstated in the ResearchEd presentation. That is as much to ask, what possible grounds did he have? It is a further irony that Bishop was characterising his opponents as holding these views in order to discredit them, and only flipped the script to ‘I am the victim here’ when called out. The standards of debate involved are piss-poor.

Given that the whole putative content of the presentation was exactly that issue, it seems disingenuous of the pseudonymous ‘Andrew Old’ to have elided this extremely complex matter of which he had evidently been well informed for at least two years, before an audience of his peers. He could have provided links, references, readings. He did none of these things.

Can we deduce his views from any of this or the surrounding discussions? Again, we can. When Boaler herself entered the discussion on Twitter around the above article, the exchange went as follows:

Whatever your views, the question remains: if this is someone’s sincerely held view, then why not mention it? Why, if such language is perfectly fair, did ‘Old’ not stand up at ResearchEd and use the offending word? After all it ‘seems pretty reasonable’ to him.

It certainly doesn't fit with his 'tell it like it is' persona.

I wish to note in closing the weary tone with which Boaler entered this discussion. This might seem to imply that she has had this conversation before. And she has. As Boaler tells it:

‘After appearing on the national news and writing in the Irish Times, my work was attacked by Milgram/Bishop followers, who asserted that my research evidence should be ignored and claimed that a “peer review” of my work had found it to be “flawed”, citing and providing the link to the Milgram/Bishop “paper” on Milgram’s website.’

The word ‘followers’ is telling here. Much of this ‘following’ seems, from a plunge into the relevant maths forums, to be digital. I would also note in passing that Boaler’s article, referenced in the 2014 presentation and dating from 2012, seems to preempt the Anglicising of such dog-pile tactics in the so-called ‘debates’ around education, where followers trash rivals of their online ‘bosses’. It is almost as if the current playbook was devised and workshopped around this issue.

This thought itself is dismaying. The existence of forums where small cliques of maths teachers play researcher and concoct defamatory statements in defence of users of racist language should surprise me.

Alas, it does not.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Lack in Machines - reflections on a philosophical panic

Only you and I
It means nothing to me
This means nothing to me
Oh, Vienna
- Ultravox, ‘Vienna’

1. Background

‘The feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain process: how come this plays no role in reflections of ordinary life?

- Wittgenstein, ‘Philosophical Investigations’ §412 (1963)

As has been widely reported, Facebook recently shut down an AI which was beginning to develop what has been called its ‘own language’. This led many to conclude that the eschatological horror of sentient AI was upon us, mankind’s imminent destruction at hand. This was wrong; but why?
Bad luck, Donaghy, machines are coming for your job

One answer to this spasmodic response has since been moderated by some intelligent commentary by Tom McKay which established the real reason the machine was turned off. The experiment went wrong not because it was apocalyptic but because it wasn’t meeting its goals. The idea was to create a negotiating machine which could replace a human. Bad news for buyers. Whilst this was initially successful, when the AI was told to talk to itself, it created what looks like near-gibberish.

Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Creepy, then, but not threatening. This might frighten us, but we are not, if we believe Mr McKay, in danger from this AI.

Now, most people never think about AI, or the questions like at what point something moves from processing to being. Indeed, in the sixty or so years since Wittgenstein asked the question at the top of this page, it has been asked regularly only by people doomed to do so, which is to say philosophers. Periodically, however, moments of philosophical panic emerge where everyone gets stuck in. Well, misery loves company. I am going to be considering why the panic occurred. Why do we find what the machines are saying creepy? Why does it panic us?

2. Getting the Categories Right - Singular or Plural?

Firstly, is it right to talk about what we are reading here as a transcript of a conversation between two entities? Put another way, is this ‘an AI’ or ‘two AIs’?

From reading what the developers say, it seems to be clearly the former. The machines are in fact one AI, much as I can set up a videogame to play against itself. There are not ‘really’ two brains, because they are running the same script, albeit (perhaps) with different settings. Now, it might be different if I developed two completely different AIs and put them against each other, but that has not happened here. So, given that their purpose (to divide the objects) is the same, and they are processing the problem in the same way, I think we can dispense with loose talk of ‘Bob and Alice’. We don’t imagine that ‘Mario’ and ‘Luigi’ are in competition for the hand of the Princess after all. They’re the same sprite with different colour hats. Although they appear to be in competition, in fact they do not really need the objects being negotiated, indeed there are no objects. Instead they need a solution, they need equilibrium. So does my calculator.

Thus a better analogy would be perhaps with a single body allocating resources internally so as to meet certain requirements, e.g. to ensure that the heart has enough energy to beat enough times to circulate the oxygen and so on. What is being sought is a balancing of the books in a way that only appears to us to be competitive because that is the metaphor through which we are viewing it. In fact, these calculations are just elaborated versions of set problems.  They use picture language to represent this. But self talk is a strange thing, and this does beg the question: why can’t something be conscious simply because there is only one of them? After all, you are yourself conscious, but you are also an individual. This is a fair question and deserves answering.

3. The Private Language Argument and the Uncanny

The question drives at the notion of what happens when someone thinks to themself.

In the passage from the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ knows as the ‘Private Language Argument’, Wittgenstein asks that we imagine that explorers might come across a tribe where people spoke aloud to themselves constantly, when working alone. This, he says, would let the observer predict their decisions over what they were to do, to ‘see’ those decisions being worked through. Is this not what has happened her, even if the AI is singular and not plural?

Facebook’s computer scientists were in exactly this position. They were able to watch the (single) AI moving towards equilibrium. What if the language used words in a novel way, though, as began to happen in the experiment? Then the standards of correctness would, says Wittgenstein, become just that ‘whatever is going to seem correct to me is correct. And that only means that here we can’t talk about correct’. (PI § 259) ‘Whatever works’ would be the only rule. Thus, he goes on to say, it seems to make no sense to speak of ‘inner dialogue’, really, because such dialogue would lack all regulation. This is because it is only when standards of correctness are applied, when we externalise the impressions we have formed and submit them to the ‘rules’ of a particular language game played with other beings that our language becomes real.

Image result for annabelle
Of course, I'm as freaked out as anyone by all this.
Of course in this particular case the language used horrified the rule following community of you and me. It seemed in a strictly uncanny way that the AI had come to life. This feeling of uncanny horror has long been observed. In the late 1800s the German psychiatrist Ernst Jensch believed ‘that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not.’ This is often used to explain the success of modern horror films about dolls come to life such as ‘Annabelle’ (2014). We feel a deep dread when we cannot work out if something is animate or not. This is what happened here.

4. Desire and Motive

Why should this ‘uncertainty’ emerge in this case? The answer has to do with desire and motivation.

We tend to define living beings as motivated. That is to say, they follow wants, desire, needs and so on. Wittgenstein is not the first writer to make this a problem for thought. Indeed, fellow Viennese, Sigmund Freud thought and wrote of little else. In the late Wittgenstein, however, we are drawn repeatedly to the question of how language may not have the meaning it seems to have, which is relevant in this case. Wittgenstein’s method involves stating that wishes are very particular types of experience. They lead us to act, and we can furthermore develop wishes without  or only somewhat related to objects (PI § 437), a wish that only ‘seems to know what will or would satisfy it’ (ibid. my emphasis) even if its object is absent or impossible. Thus they are remarkable facts of our existences, existences that can come to be dominated by feelings of non-satisfaction that develop a reality to us.

Where the confusion lies is best understood with reference to what Wittgenstein called ‘language games’ - games such as the AI here seems to play, although without criteria for ‘correctness’ and thus not games proper. To help us understand this, we can think of one specific type of language game: the play of children. Children in play may set up a shop and ‘negotiate’ over the stock. Perhaps it is a greengrocer. There they may ask for non-existent apples. A similar thing may happen on stage. In any case, the words,

‘“I’d like an apple” does not mean: I believe an apple will quell my feeling of non-satisfaction. This  [the latter] utterance is an expression not of a wish but of non-satisfaction.’ - (PI § 441)

This child does not believe the ‘apple’ is linked to his happiness - her real wish is to continue the game, perhaps.

The machines can be given the language of normal human life, including normal human wishing, in order to attempt to solve a type of equation, whereby objects need to be divided according to rules. That is surely not very frightening. It does not mean they will then begin to wish at all, let alone with the complexity of which a three year old is capable. After all, other types of machines may be given names; boats are. Only magical thinking leads us to think that the name gives it a matching personality, matching desires. The real question is: what do the machines ‘want’? Nothing. They are slaves to their programming. Therefore they can have no dominant feeling of non-satisfaction such as we think we perceive in the script above.

Then why are we frightened by that dialogue? People did not freak out over the AIs when they were translating Spanish or calculating stock returns, when a different kind of equilibrium was being sought. I believe the answer may be simply found in the vocabulary used. Specifically what is uncanny about that dialogue is the fact that it appears to contain the germs of wanting and of lack. This gives rise to uncertainty over the status of the AI as ‘living’.  To take the most commonly quoted, and most chilling, example:

Bob: i can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me

The similarities with common everyday expressions of negotiatory language are a function of the AI’s original purpose, which is to pass a Turing test with negotiators. Thus remnants of desire, the everyday name for non-satisfaction, lie in the script because it was necessary to communicate with us. ‘I can i i everything else’ and ‘balls have zero to me’, as statements, are too close to ‘I can take everything else’ and ‘balls mean nothing to me’. This is intolerable to us not because it borrows and adapts human symbol systems but because of what sorts of symbols there are. We cannot tolerate it because it appears that the machines have begun to want.


The machines have not, in fact begun to want. This is a mistake in our perception of a set of symbols. This mistake was caused by an AI’s adoption of human language of desire which was itself a remnant of an earlier experiment. In fact, the AI sought equilibrium because that is part of its code. It was slaved to the task. It remains an open question whether forcing something to act like it wants things is enough to cause that to be so, though skepticism in this regard seems sensible. However, the panic here has more to do with our psychology, specifically in regard to what we find uncanny, than any real and present threat.


Freud, S. (1919) The uncanny.
Griffin, A. (2017). Facebook robots shut down after they talk to each other in language only they understand. The Independent. Retrieved 2 August 2017, from
McKay, T. (2017). No, Facebook Did Not Panic and Shut Down an AI Program That Was Getting Dangerously Smart. Retrieved 2 August 2017, from
Wittgenstein, L. (1963). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: B. Blackwell.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

There Are No Lessons Here: A Response To Deirdre Coyle's 'Men Recommend David Foster Wallace To Me'

If you ask people what books they have read, they will often list some familiar titles: ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘Lord of the Flies’. A good enough list, but they were often read at school. Some people will cheerfully admit that they haven’t read anything since. Some people won’t, but haven’t. I don’t judge people for that, I haven’t done a bunch of algebra since school. What concerns me here is that this creates a bogus impression of reading: the impression that didacticism is the purpose of fiction writing, that every book is in some way intended to teach us something.

On this view, Steinbeck wrote ‘Of Mice and Men’ to teach us not to be cruel to the disabled, Lee wrote ‘Mocking Bird’ to warn us against discrimination and Golding wrote ‘Lord of the Flies to teach us not to be bullies. The other implicit conclusion of this line of thought is that if somebody hands you a book they are trying to become your teacher.

Deirdre Coyle, a writer for ‘Electric Lit’ published a piece called ‘Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me’. As a person who: a) is a man, and b) has recommended David Foster Wallace to people, my friend sent it to me in the spirit of provocation. I worry that it suffers from this thinking.

The picture that emerged from Coyle’s writing about people like me was, unfortunately for my ego, merciless. The men she discusses are, in the worst examples, ghastly, stunted individuals. One appears to have sexually assaulted her with a quantity of cocaine. In general, broad strokes the picture emerges that these men are found in, “Small, liberal arts colleges” which are a, “spawning ground for Wallace fans”. The language used to describe the men, “spawn”, indicates a sense that all these men are fundamentally incomplete, not yet fully adult. They are characterised as students and not workers, boyfriends but not fathers. They “persevere after college”, true, but as what? Presumably still as spawn, never to become frogs, let alone princes.

This is not, however, the substance of her argument. The real point is that Coyle thinks that men recommend this writer to her in order to try to teach her something. But is this true? Much of the solitary book by Foster Wallace she discusses in depth, “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, presents the titular monsters holding forth on sexual politics, rape, consent, seduction. In particular relation to this and to Wallace’s depictions in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” of sexual assault, she asks:

“But why have so many men been so insistent that I should read his work? What do they think Wallace has to teach me?”

The first part of this question is extremely good. The second half is, to my mind fatal to her argument. I am going to try and say why I think that is, and in the process hopefully answer the first part.

It is a complete straw man to suggest that Wallace wrote, and that all readers of Wallace who recommend him do so, in order to teach. Wallace’s work, especially “Infinite Jest” expresses an extreme scepticism about the value of many types of teaching, and academics often appear as villains and tormentors. Not only this, it’s wrong to think that everybody who offers a book does so in order to teach the recipient a lesson, let alone a lesson about sexual assault. The unspoken assumption of Coyle's argument is that art always tries to teach us something. Worse, it is taken for granted that recommending art to somebody is done in the spirit of teaching a lesson.

So why does she continually meet men who insist that she read him? One answer to the first half of the question, could be ‘In order to teach her something’. It’s possible. In that case it is fair to say that these men are acting like dickheads, unless they are actually teaching a course that she has submitted to learn on. It is, however, equally plausible that they feel something and want to share that feeling with somebody to whom they feel close. This sharing of a particular mood seems to me to be of the first order of critical functions, many leagues ahead of the pedagogical. It also, naturally, involves tact, which would have been a more persuasive line of enquiry.

There is no universally beloved work of art. I have friends with whom I would watch Von Trier films, and friends with whom I would not watch Von Trier films. Likewise Herzog. Likewise bands like The Body and Boredoms. It would end some friendships pretty quickly if I started booking tickets to the wrong things. This has to do with knowing what sort of moods you can meaningfully share with which people. It would end friendships with similar speed if I handed people the story from “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” where one of the aforementioned Hideous Men asks the unspeaking interviewer, “What if I did it to you? Right here? Raped you with a bottle?”, in part of a passage quoted at great length in the article, without context. This is not because I imagine they would misinterpret the writer’s intention as approving of the superficial sentiment - in an era of content warnings ‘Hideous Men’ in block capitals is about as clear as you can get without going into details - but rather because they wouldn’t enjoy it. It would be tactless of me. This would have to take precedence over the shared experience of both having read the same stuff. But I still hold that we share things in order to connect more deeply with those we care about, but we have to be sensitive to what they won’t enjoy. More succinctly, as a friend put it, “‘Read this, it will make you feel bad but I will feel less lonely’, isn’t a compelling argument”.

That is a fair challenge to the point I am making about connection, but I think it misreads the intention. What I want to do is distinguish between making arguments and claims to truth as we do when we teach, and sharing a mood as we do when we enjoy art. A recommendation of a work of art is the offering of a pathway to a particular mood. The study of emotional states and the artifacts which induce them is aesthetics, and although there are political and pedagogical consequences from this, the shared experience of meaning is of prime importance.

Thinking that someone might enjoy a book is one reason to recommend it to them, but not a reason that book is right. It is not even clear that true and false or right and wrong usually obtains in the aesthetic domain. Coyle’s objections seem to rely a great deal on the assumption that the men who recommend Wallace to her believe he is right and true and good and are trying to teach her about these right, true, and good things. If this is the case, she can prosecute them for priggishness and didacticism. To reject a shared experience, on the other hand, because you either don’t like that person or you anticipate the experience will create a mood you don’t enjoy, is the stuff of everyday life. I don’t mean ‘everyday’ and therefore worthless; I mean ‘everyday’ and therefore of central importance.

There are, therefore, two possible reasons for rejecting the recommendation, and this second is the more important. It appears that she has focused on the first, the assumption that ‘men’ are trying to teach her something, and rightly identified it as something troubling. I agree. If we stop passing meaningful objects along to one another for any reason other than teaching, some important part of our humanity has been lost.

I don’t feel like it is overstating it to say that people can only bear existing because we can share our experiences even in very terrible times. In the worst times in history people sang songs, wrote books and performed plays. Friendship, in particular, involves shared experiences of great meaning to the participants that can seem incomprehensible to outsiders. Imagine, for example, the endlessly creative in-jokes of teenagers. Each friendship therefore involves and requires a gradual initiation into each individual’s sacred artefacts: we bring out our favourite albums, novels that changed us. We expose them to the light, blow the dust off them and say earnestly, ‘I resonate to this’.

It's true that if someone offered Coyle the experience of Wallace in order to ‘teach her about rape’ then that is fucked up. I do find it strange however, that with no evident provocation, she seems to imagine that people write and recommend in order to teach things to one another. Perhaps the evidence for this was cut for reasons of space, but as it stands it seems a little like assuming I would invite you to see “Fast and Furious 8” to teach you about cars. Coyle makes the point well that we need to examine our motives for this. Do we recommend artworks, even containing extreme material to one another in order to look smart, or tough, or superior? If we do, then shame on us.

There is another possibility, though. Our motives can be of more benign, even if they are confusingly mixed in with this first, corrupted sort.  We could be seeking to become, in a small way, less lonely in a world that can be breathtakingly callous and unthinkingly cruel. The strange mixture of this and 'lesson teaching' is something we all need to deal with.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

"Helping the Kids Know the Stuff" or The Perverse Pleasure of Contributing Nothing of Value

Welcome to the Institute of the Crushingly Blatant Truism -

"We help the kids know more stuff."

"We teach them the things."

"In my class they learn difficult things which I help them understand".

Oh good, oh wow, oh you mean absolutely obviously everything one would expect? What a relief. What a blessing. What a bleeding touch. With that sort of clarity your thoughts obviously flow like a crystal river. Verily.

Friendly phrases designed to stupefy and baffle: "you don't object to clever stuff do you?" Oh you mean stuff? Of course not, why didn't you say so? One wouldn't possibly want to disagree with that.

Hovering just in the wings of all discussions lurks the second man of the intellect, the understudy of wisdom, the friendly phrase, the homily, the truism. Well ram 'im. Just because solid, square shouldered statements like "100%, no excuses" look great on a massive banner hung in reception doesn't mean they mean a chocolate drop on a hot pavement.

I ask them to put a little meat on the carcass they waltz around with and they blink.

"We are giving them knowledge for life," they say,  and they blink.

Oh you hollow men, oh you less than nothings, prance off a cliff with your corpse bride of ossified horse sense. Asinine, obvious dispensers of comfort to the already crushed: notice is served.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Signs and Wonders

We are witnessing a political class in the process of meltdown and it is a sign and a wonder.

Literally all Burnham had to do was break the rules. The public demanded opposition to the welfare bill. The government did not care if it was opposed or not. In fact, they probably quite enjoy the punch up. So the grass roots of socialism in this country were not silenced by a thought police but - mirabile dictu - their own party. And Burnham would not refuse the orders of his high commander.

It was this, open rebellion, that he could not do - and it was this that Corbyn could. Indeed, the new heir apparent has done little else these last three decades. Rousseau wrote that the first rule is always to know when the rules do not apply. The meaning of leadership, in certain circumstances, is to do what nobody else will. Here, however, Burnham's allegiance to his party's systems may have cost him and his (well-funded) campaign final victory.

In this Burnham is very much in a tradition. He is that twenty first century phenomenon, the "Systems Guy". Systems Guy does what he should, not what he wants. Systems Guy knows that if he follows the rules the system will protect him. Systems Guy says procedure. Systems Guy says " there is a time and a place".

The problem is that the public are not buying it. Try telling a generation of young people who were promised that being polite leads to working hard leads to university degree leads to good job leads to home ownership about the System.

"Student Loans" they reply. "House Prices" they reply. "Underemployment" they say.

When you have spent four years doing contract work six months of the year and then other six months chasing those contracts with no rest until you are broken and exhausted and do not know how you are going to eat, all because you believed Systems Guys, watch how your tolerance for his errant nonsense plummets.

The public has learned the hard way to distrust Burnham's narrative, the narrative that says "patience, once you have the job/house/degree we can start to change things". We know what we want and we want it now. Hence we vote for people who speak to us where we stand, not good boys and girls queuing up for their go at the big job.

The truth is that the Labour Party created this situation. They created it mainly with years of disdain for the public. They called the public racist, ignorant plebs who did not know their own interests and as the pendulum swings they still claim we are on the other side of the parabola. Like some cracked Jay Gatsby, Blair shows up in his beautiful shirts trying to turn back the clock but the clock shows midnight. The hell with their poxy machine, I am not greasing it.

All you had to do, Burnham, was show us which side you were on.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Johnny Can't Read

"Teachers today frequently find that students who can't read a page of history are becoming experts in code"

Marshall McLuhan, "Understanding Media" pp.229

Everyone gets really hot about literacy rates. Ask people why and the same answer is thrown up again and again: Attention span! Yes yes, apparently it is all a question of working memory. (Engle 2002, Bosse and Valdois 2009 etc. etc.). It is an idea which has entered the public consciousness. Why don't we read? Smartphones! Google! This is also an idea which has been picked up during our present cognitive turn in education.

The question which this debate stands to leave aside is: what if attention spans are poor because the task is boring?

"Johnny can't read because reading, as customarily taught, is too superficial and consumerlike an activity...The problem is not that Johnny can't read but that, in an age of depth involvement, Johnny can't visualize distant goals"

- ibid. my emphasis

The Inattentive Reader - Henri Matisse
At this point it is traditional to haul out somebody who frequently reads five Victorian novels in an afternoon to make everybody feel bad. In this way the social norm is asserted and we can go back to skimming the abstracts of those papers we are sure somebody read. (Sure they did: ten of them in fact). 

We need to get rid of the idea of reading-as-engrossment. Reading is in fact an extremely precarious activity. When reading, we linger permanently on the edge of distraction. This is a fact reinforced by a painting called "The Inattentive Reader" by Henri Matisse which one of my teachers, in their wisdom, hung in the English Department common room at UCL's Foster Court.

In fact, the truth is that reading was always pretty superficial as an activity. In Pride and Prejudice, set at the heyday of the novel, Elizabeth Bennett sits on the edge of a conversation reading a novel with half an ear on the conversation. Eventually she drops the book and wanders over to join the party. Bingley's sister, when she tries to impress Darcy by declaring "How much sooner one tires of anything than a book!" is regarded with major side-eye as a fake-ass bitch. To Austen, reading is just a diversion: Mr Bennett uses it to escape from his wife, the girls to escape from tedium. A trip to a theme park of imagination it ain't. 

This is not an isolated event. Tolstoy's Levin in Anna Karenina is described as reading vaguely whilst his housekeeper gossips happily at him. It doesn't seem to bother either of them. My point is that reading is a gleefully, openly consumerist activity which when done well involves no real engrossment at all.

Sorry what was that about attention spans? I wasn't listening.
It is not that we are too superficial to read but rather not superficial enough. "Johnny", as McLuhan argues, is living in an age of "depth involvement". He is not distracted too easily but rather he demands too absolute an engrossment. The "Call of Duty" series demands a level of concentration that Austen would simply not have comprehended. To expect a book to be able to provide this is bonkers, and yet this is what those who are all-in on reading-as-engrossment peddle.

Reading-as-engrossment carries with it a set of cultural assumptions that are culturally assimilated at university and earlier: Reading is study. Reading is hard. Reading is concentrating. Reading is work.

Yet if students are interested in anything it is a kind of digital cataclysm, the onrushing clash of colour and sound provided by an IMAX, and XBOX and many other things with an "X" in them. It is this which has perfected "engrossment" and "depth involvement". It is hard work to play these games, and it requires concentration. These provide the impression, according to McLuhan, of emergence from the gaping maw of "superficiality" and "consumerism" in search for authenticity; this occurs even as we plunge deeper into the belly of the whale itself. Simply put, the students feel as if reading is not hard enough to be important, because that is what we have taught them.

It may be a tragic consequence of the quest for "realness" that just this depth involvement could prove to be consumerism perfected. 

Perhaps then what we need as teachers is to make a virtue of our weakness: superficiality and artifice, the very "fakeness" of reading, its precarious status as a diversion and a pastime may well be, as the advertisers like to say, its Unique Selling Point. 

It is not shameful to spend an hour on a single page. There is nothing wrong with "glancing" or "skimming" or "flicking-through". Why are we always supposed to be mining the smithy of our souls? Why does boredom have to reflect badly on us? What if poetry could be recaptured as Byronic "hours of idleness" rather than a sort of grimly determined ploughing for poetic features? What if we stopped talking about "getting into a book" and instead thought about literacy as something which returns us to, rather than keeps us from, the party?

(To be continued)