Digital Ruins and Ghost Towns

reflections on functional realism and decay in 3D virtual worlds

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Recently an article was shared by a friend on Facebook, it concerned Second Life, the article was an account of walking through Second Life (SL) empty halls and campuses, and wondering where all the hope had gone (see here). A thread developed around the post. Some noting it had not died at all, reflecting on the temporary trends that often fixate learning technology with those who chase the latest new thing often the fore. Two things struck me:

First the idea of ruins, abandoned physical appear to have an aesthetic value that these digital ones do not;

Secondly, I wondered on the relation to other legacy spaces, do we feel the same way about an old project website as a do about an abandoned virtual campus, and if not why not.

In this post I explore the implications of these questions for the design of online spaces.

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Figure 1: RoughBounds Sparker on the Teen Grid in 2007, Image by Rebecca Ferguson, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Ruins in Second Life

Before exploring this I should admit I have engaged with SL but not for some time. From July 2007 to late 2008 I was part of an OU project on the Teen Grid as part of a programme called Schome, and then later as a consultant on a JISC funded project. I wrote a paper for the second SL conference based on my experiences, of feeling neither in the place nor fully at my desk at home, somehow inbetween. In particular with the arrival of sound and hearing the background noises on others audio which brought their world in, and reminded me they were not fully there either (Macintyre 2008). At the time I was thrall to Heidegger and the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (Heidegger [1950] 2000) and wondered what neither dwelling in one place or the other meant for authentic learning.

While I am no longer as interested in Heidegger and dwelling as I once was, it was a formative experience, and questions of authenticity, of place making and of where learning takes place shape my design work. Therefore while it was “not for me”, I still hold onto a bunch of questions about these spaces. Perhaps this relates back to the earlier question about the aesthetics of ruins. In the physical world it is not the absence of people that signals that something is no longer used, it is the decay, the crumbling buildings, the grass and trees sprouting forth, the work of man [sic] succumbing to nature is part of the sublime, at its peak people built ruins. In his book “In Ruins” Woodward (2001) notes the importance of impermanence in Christianity, when Pope Pious II introduced a law in 1462 to protect Rome’s ruins it was to act as a reminder, a memento mori, of the fragility of human creation in the face of divineness.

Walking around SL one does not experience decay, when I logged in for the first time in a decade what I experienced on landing was a naked people. I think this is perhaps a different matter. Moving on, SL still partly remembered me and I had a list of addresses  already in place, the island’s I visited were empty, in many cases I could not tell if they were still education islands as they were filled with adverts, but not people. The buildings, hours of time rendered in digital form stood as fresh as the day they were created. It is not the decaying hope of Fordlandia, Fords experimental rubber plant and city in the Brazilian jungle now overgrown, nor is it Robert Owen’s New Lanark another Utopian vision now rendered as a heritage experience.  Though these pristine spaces do feel like a photo essay in a design magazine, and the lack of decay in a space you know to be neglected is jarring, it almost as if the idea that once abandoned it ought to fall into ruin foreshadows our understanding of these spaces.

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Figure 2: A Domestic Mememto Mori, a gift from my partners mother, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Legacy Sites

Compare this with project websites, the sites often remain, mostly they still works. Do these sites feel strangely abandoned, eerily quiet? No they don’t. They are more like an unread project report that sits on a shelf, or those old files in a shared folder, one day it might be useful.  The sense of emptiness is something that only occurs when project has social presence built in. Project websites are information repositories. The lack of people is visible in SL, and the lack is different from being without people because they are yet to be inhabited and carry with them expectations like Fordlandia, and once empty the decay of unrealised hope.

In robotics people talk about the “uncanny valley”, the sense of uneasiness that comes from perceiving a humanoid robot falls in the uncomfortable position between being too real and not quite real enough. 3D virtual worlds are a long way from this level of visual realism, but designer do use functional realism, ways of knowing about spaces, of throughways, of buildings, they call to our familiarity with the built environment as cues to what one might use these spaces for. So there is an element of uncanniness, what is missing from this low resolution functional realism is decay.  This question of decay reminds of another question I had about SL, the role of forgetting. At the time I was observing, note taking, recording reflections about SL one of my colleagues suggested I could double check the SL logs in case I missed anything, and the logs might be usefully mined for insights.  It was the first time I realised how important forgetting was.

As a researcher it is the other side of remembering, sometimes through repetition, sometimes through their singular occurrence and sometimes through their absence you recognise and remember. In his book on remembering in the digital age “delete” Mayer-Schonberger (2011) notes the important role forgetting has in allowing people to make decisions, too much information is too much. He suggested digital memory form embarrassing videos on you tube to project files ought to have an expiration date.  You can see an inkling of how expiration might work if you wander around the UK OER site JORUM now hosted on The Way Back Machine . It is broken links and unsaved pages, the next step would be for it to slowly fade. So how is this relevant to SL. Educators and learners interest in SL is on the wane, and they are like old project sites. However, something else will emerge, we will find ourselves in 3D virtual worlds perhaps in VR worlds like Decentraland, and when we do we will need to have a sense of what happens once it is over, I am going to suggest if we are to mimic the use of physical spaces then we build in entropy,  we allow them to decay.

Conclusion and Design Implications

One of the common archetypes in SL is the garden, in her essay on Little Sparta addressing Finlay as “he” Susan Stewart (2005) opens the essay with the phrase

“He who makes a garden is own unmaking makes”,

closing with

“He who makes a garden, his own remembering makes”

Perhaps useful for the makers of 3D virtual worlds in the future, as it means attending to what happens without maintenance. Sites that are neglected but do not decay alert us to their uncanniness, as designers we need to attend to the cues we draw from the physical into the virtual and how following or disturbing the pattern alters how we experience these spaces when they are live with people and when they are dead.

 

References

Heidegger M. ([1950] 2000) Building Dwelling Thinking, in Krell D. F. Ed., Basic Writing: Revised and Expanded Edition, Routledge: London, pp343-364

Macintyre R. (2008) Inbetweenness OR in two places at once, In Peachey A. Ed., ReLIVE 08 Researching Learning on Virtual Worlds, Open University 20th -21st of November 2008,  pp208-216

Mayer-Schonberger V. (2011) delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press: Oxford

Stewart S. (2005) The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetic”, University of Chicago Press: London

Woodward C. (2001) In Ruins, Chatto & Windus: London

 

A visit to “edgelands” of research in management

I was not sure what to expect at a conference called Qualitative Research in Management, of course the abstract titles and the organisers name should have proved some inkling, after all Anne Cunliffe is well known as an academic who thoughtfully and carefully pushes us to think about practice based research. However, I am a more accustomed to education conferences, and the word management in the title spooked me, and later I realised I had self-policed my own presentation on design, value and soft systems (see here), to make it into what I thought would be acceptable, I need not have.

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Figure 1, Make America Great Again, Chad Browneagle, 2017.  Macintyre, 2018, Santa Fe, CC BY NC SA 4.0

I am afraid I cannot do justice to the breadth of research on offer in sufficient depth, therefore I am just going to brush over the top.  The first paper I went to was Lynn Beckles,  it was an ethnography of the tourism industry in Fiji, Lynn is from Barbados, and she reflected on her own position as a researcher in Fiji, and how she negotiated the norms of ethnographic research within the academic community with the ways of knowing and being she observed in the field. In particular, how the dissonance between them led her to the work of Nabobo-Baba and the Vanua Research Framework, a framework developed to account for specific ontology and epistemologies encountered during educational ethnographic research Nabobo-Baba conducted with Vugalei Fijians (see here). I don’t know the field, or the writers, but it had a familiarity, which made me feel at home.

They do say, or at someone once did, the role of the researcher is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.  There was certainly lots of opportunities to experience this. For example, the winner of the “best paper” Yvonne Black work on community gardens as therapy turned into something else when Hulls position as “City of Culture” led to the arrival of a playwright and through the play the ability to talk about things and to people whose stories would otherwise have been obscured. Or Michael Butler’s   (co-authored with Ann) investigation of a coffin furniture factory in Birmingham, the pattern of work, and the patterns left on the material them, the image of the dent left in the flagstone floor by workers standing in front of a pressing machine resonate with me,  as I look back, and it echoes forward.  As does Jill Birch work on leadership, talking through her experiences as a practitioner and academic, the phrase “edge walking” will stick with me, as it seems to embody the difficulties in a way formulations like pracademic don’t.

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Figure 2: I Love my Country: Anti Gun Demonstration, Santa Fe, 24th of March 2018, Macintyre, Santa Fe 2018, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Jack Harris was looking at networks in Disaster Relief in the US, the paper draws on existing and emerging work in Hurricanes Harvey in Houston Texas and Sandy in New Jersey (see here). Listening  to Jack talk about networks I felt I had to talk to him later about the question he posed, why do we know so little about tie formation. Our clumsy thoughts were we only observe the presence of connections and what it enables. It is a conversation that probably means I am going to be thinking about the networks that don’t exist, and the ephemeral ones, for some time.

Finally this papers tour takes me to the familiar ground of distance learning. Jean Saludadez from the University of the Phillipines Open University was looking at temporality and place making in tutor student discussion, as a researcher and tutor I felt the gentle nodding of familiarity. At the end someone asked why she had inferred a particular thing from the data, as they didn’t see it that way. It seemed obvious to me, and I said so, but when Jean spoke about her process, how she unpicked the meaning, I felt the jolt, as my tacit routines, the ways I have of knowing as an educator were surfaced, and by extension how they conditioned my view of this research. Perhaps this was the main lesson from the conference, the jolts.

selfpFigure 3: Black Mesa Landscape, Georgia O’Keefe, 1930. Macintyre, Santa Fe, 2018, CC BY NC SA 4.0

Those jolts were not just at the convention, as what might have been a placeless hotel venue at the Airport was in New Mexico, in Albquerque. While I could reflect on “Breaking Bad”, and the feeling I got on the train  to Santa Fe as it passed over a dry river bed and the scene where the child is shot flashed, or the Georgia O’Keefe Gallery again in Santa Fe, and her resistance to the eroticising of her paintings under the male gaze. Instead I couldn’t help think about Kafka and his book Amerika, and wondering to what degree the books, Films and TV series shape my own sense of this place, just as my reading of the word management shaped my expecations of the conference.

Community and other Bloody Projects

Introduction

After a long delay this post returns to more certain ground, the Highlands, and with it a sense of uncertainty that comes from looking at what you think you know. One of the issues with the familiar is the way it falls into your assumptions about it. Earlier posts in this series touched on these assumptions and confirmation biases and their role in shaping our worldview in relation to totalitarianism and post colonialism. For example, Achebe (1978) threw Western Liberal assumptions back at us, and Comaroff and Comaroff (2012) asked us to consider our assumptions about what a functioning democracy looks like. I cannot promise anything on Western Liberalism, however, I am going to consider our assumptions about the functioning of democracy through examining local decision making practices in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I focus on two books, the first is by anthropologist Susan Parman (2005) entitled “Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village” based on early 1970’s doctoral research. The second is Booker Winner “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnett (2015).

Bloody Projects

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Figure 1: Bloody Prints, source: Sara Band, http://saraband.net/2016/07/27/bloody-project-longlisted-man-booker-prize-2016/ Fair Use

“His Bloody Project” uses a familiar literary trope, found or narrated accounts that are put together or narrated to the author. In this novel the accounts centre on Roddy Macrae and the events leading up to a triple murder.  This is not a spoiler, so does not contain anything about whodunit, or perhaps more appropriately whydunit, instead I focus on a particular character, Lachlan MacKenzie. Lachlan, and his daughter and son, are murdered, we know this at the start, the narrative unfolds through the events leading up to and then past the murders. The Macrae’s and the Mackenzie’s have a fractious relationship, made even more difficult when Lachlan takes on the post of the village constable, and begins to exercise his power over the village and in particular the Macrae’s. The position of village constable is seen as a burden, organising compulsory works, communal events, adjudicating local disputes, but mainly being the link with the local landlord and enforcing their rules.

The novel suggest people take on the role reluctantly, accepting it on through the fear of a “willing constable” being imposed. The best candidate for constable is the person who wants it least. Roddy’s father, a somewhat withdrawn man, is approached in a roundabout way typical of the Highlands, while not asked directly he understands what is being asked and refuses.  Lachlan makes a grab for and gets the position.  In Roddy’s account the power brings out the worst in Lachlan, the accounts from other villagers add to this sense,  through these Macrae Burnett creates a sense that wanting this type of power and influence over your neighbours is “not a Highland thing”. Indeed it is not. While I cannot do justice to the passages, I think it is one of the best descriptions of how decisions are still reached in some Highland communities, a mode of indirection that bewilders some. It reminds me of debates around whether questions around temporality explored in narratives concerned with remembering and forgetting are actually concerned place. For example, whether “Being and Time” by Heidegger uses the temporal as a way to approach place making by indirection (Malpass 2006).

The Scottish Crofters

Parman’s account of her time in the Western Isles contains a similar set of stories, of reluctant “township clerks” taking their turn, or of those who relished the role being subject to ridicule.  Of a distrust of authority and official process’s, while also recognising  communities needed to learn how to operate in these spaces, and individuals who could act as translators (even approximate ones) of local issues into official rhetoric were useful, even if they were not to be trusted. Parman’s was a young student from the US, and what is interesting is her confusion. Her own missteps as she found it difficult to get “straight answers” to questions, or when she made appointments  and they were not kept, or trying to get the heart of how decisions were made.

I first read Parman’s in 2005 when the second edition came out and an online colloquium on a Highland discussion board was set up, with the great and the good from rural/Highland sociology and anthropology commenting. I read it as an ethnography, asking how closely it sat with my own experience, it is only now I am able to ask what it says about decision making in local communities. Parman identifies some interesting areas, the importance of informal networks, of the ripples that flow through a community, of issues that appear fully formed and unamiously supported when they suddenly appear in official documents. Rather than deliberate discussions in public, the risk of open disagreement is minimised through indirection, through carefully structured discussions which never surface the matter at hand. It is familiar, and you can see why I referenced Heidegger earlier, clearly a politically troubling figure whose arcane language does little to hide distasteful views, yet I  often think about his work on the “close at hand” (Heidegger 1993), how one reads things through those things that are close, and thus don’t need to be spoken. I suppose here I situate my own approach to understanding place in relation to Heidegger, and Ingold’s (2000) use of Heidegger, to suggest place making arises first from dwelling and through this building the social and structural, contested of course, but we can read the close at hand, and to whose hand it is close to, as a way to read these places.

What Parman does it set out the unspoken, the ripples go out, but not directly, one does not ask what do think of this when you pop round, you say well this person has suggested this, what do you think. But of you don’t, you would never come straight out and ask, the suggestion must appear to come as a natural part of the conversation, maybe even an “ah yes I forgot … did you hear” on parting at the door. Likewise people will not disagree directly, but suggest someone else who might not agree, or a hypothetical position to depersonalise what they are saying. Even though everyone knows “the rules”, it is a way of communicating that allows extended relations who live in close proximity to engage in shared activities.

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Figure 2:  The Public Sphere, Frederic Sorrieu lithograph from 1848 commemortating universal male suffrage in France entitled “Suffrage universal dedie a Ledru-Rollin, Public Domain

Parman does not extend the analysis, or make the political points, and perhaps it is not for anthropologists to do. However, I can tease this out, as I have earlier asking, how culturally specific the modes of deliberation privileged within western models of democracy are, how they don’t even account for decision making, but describe particular sets of relations amongst particular social a class. I could argue these normative accounts of what a functioning deliberative decision making spaces should look like are more than cultural blindness but are themselves as system of exclusion (Negt O., Kluge A. ([1993] 2016), and certainly Parman  and Macrae Burnett touch on these themes. The way it favours particular forms of communication and rhetoric, and as aspect of communities life become tied into apparently democratic structures how it excludes some voices, and promotes others. However, I am going to make a practical point relating to the operation of community development. Over the years I have seen community development initiatives, community animators, local development workers, community consultations come and go. What I have often heard, as a local “they can talk to”, is a frustration, “… after all  …we had a meeting, open to anyone,  people could have come, spoken up if they objected. No one did, we have gone head, and now I can’t get anyone to help me …”

Coming Round to Community Development through Indirection

The problem in community development is people like me, we have experience of professional discourse, this means when there is a consultation, or a review, or letter to write, a person to meet, we can engage them, we are heard. For me this comes with the additional issues of being “a local” that can be wheeled out always ready with an opinion. We thrive in community consultations, and community development workers are drawn to us. It is easy to speak to those who share the same language and approach, even better if they are viewed as a legitimate actor through their temporal connections – being of the place. However, this bridging does little to challenge the structuring of consultation, community empowerment/right to buy [delete as applicable] which assume deliberative decision making based on cultural assumptions which do not always hold.

It is not just community development workers who are drawn in, as the community I live has enjoyed the benefits of having knowledge and time rich people who can perform in these spaces, so researchers also come. They look at places that have been successful in the community market place created by competitive funding bids and those that have done less well. One of the fashionable research and policy readings of the differences between communities focussed on social capital, and while the fashion has faded the imprint remains, the sense that some communities have something others need to develop. It tends to focus on the need to be able to engage with the formal structures, the need  for people who can bridge. However, in reaching for this solution one needs to ask whether this is the case, and what kinds of questions it stops us asking. I can see two questions it obscures. First whether these people who can bridge and claim a legitimate right to speak for others have such a right. Might the very act of accepting the rhetoric of professional community development mean they are no longer legitimate, they are alienated from those experiences (Laclau and Mouffe [1985] 2014), and like Roddy are unreliable narrators of their own and the experience of others.

Secondly, and more importantly, asking what these places lack that would allow them to engage with those structures means setting aside the sense it is the structures themselves that ought to change. Arriving at this point I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who worked in international development musing on a particular issue and the difference between UK and international development work. We began to wonder whether the soul searching that went on within international development around the role of Western educated development workers telling people across the globe how to develop needed to happen within the UK sector. Neither of us could remember the source until their partner reminded us of the work done by Chalmers on participatory approaches and Inglis on asking why it only applied in the Global South.  The influence of their work has clearly sat dully in the back of my mind, as I still ask myself why the participatory approaches common in international contexts are rarely applied in here. I have a perspective, perhaps it is because participatory approaches to deliberative decision making destabilise existing power relations, and while we are happy to use them internationally, we might be less keen at home. Or am I just getting too cynical, take your pick.

References

Achebe C.  (1978), An Image of Africa, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15

Comaroff J., Comaroff J. L. (2012) Theory from the South: How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa, Paradigm Publishing: London

Heidegger M. (1993) Basic Writing: from Being and Time (1927) to Tasks of Thinking (1964), Ed D F Krell, Routledge: London

Ingold, Tim 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge

Laclau E., Mouffe C. ([1985] 2014) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso: London

Malpass J. (2006) Heideggers Typology: Being, Place, World, MIT Press: London

Negt O., Kluge A. ([1993] 2016) Public Sphere of Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proleterian Public Sphere. Verso: London

Parman S. (2005) Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village, Thomson Wadsworth: London

 

The Co-op Uni: From Pedagogy to Governance and Back

Despite having banked with the Co-op for most of my adult life, being a member, and using its services, I don’t know much about the Co-op Group, and as Chrissi Nerantzi and I walked to the Co-operative Quarter in Manchester it was odd to pass 1 Balloon St Manchester, whose only previous life for me was in the completion of direct debits. We were heading towards the Co-operative College along with 90 or so others to attend “Making the Co-operative University: New Places, Spaces and Models of Learning” .

selfpFigure 1: The Co-op Uni, A long time coming, An idea whose time has come, Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

I admit I struggled through the day with the question that kept rattling through my head, if a Co-op University is the solution, what was the problem in the first place. It was a question that arose from a sense that many of the people here were disaffected with Higher Education, and articulated it through the lens of losing their own jobs. A mood that obscured other problems, and for me clouded the day somewhat until, I was able to read the blog Chrissi put together, and go away and think about it. In thinking about it I pulled “Building a Co-operative: A Business History of The Co-operative Group, 1863-2013” of the shelf. Written before some of the groups recent troubles it has a tone of, this is our time, and I recollected how at the start of the day we were told the time was right for a Co-op Uni,  a tone that reminds of many struggles in a state of becoming, where success is perpetually immanent.

So, having thought about this immanence, my mind settled on the pedagogy workshop I attended, and the question of whether I attended the right one, should I have gone to governance, a thought process I tease out below.

One of the key aspects for me from the day were the questions around co-design/production, when people talked about it I couldn’t get the sense whether it was brought up as a novel approach, or a just as good practice. I suspect the former, and this was a surprise as it has been fashionable with the Higher Education Academy and Quality Assurance Agency for some time, albeit with little traction within the academy, a thin participation I blogged about  a couple of years ago (see here ).  Where I suggest learner co-design as articulated in a context where the learner is a customer, leads to the application of co-design models from the private sector, so called Service Design Logic, which is thin participation and does not address underlying social and structural relations within education. However, that simply describes the problem, how do we move beyond that.

selfpFigure 2: The Pedagogy Subgroup Questions, Ronald Macintyre CC BY SA 4.0

One view, which I have tried to explore in the past in relation to widening participation, is to see learner’s engagement as academic labour, learning involves everyone doing work, they need to have the skills to do the work, the opportunity to express that skills, and to be able to benefit from the value which accrues through this shared labour. My original analysis focussed on the barriers experienced by some learners as the look to do this work (see here ), it was really a thinly veiled Marxist analysis of adult learning. However, having attended the event I see where co-operation could lead, and perhaps unblock some of the issues which have made co-design/production in HE an unreachable aspiration.

I have long been interested in participatory design, in particular its roots in labour movements in Scandinavia, here it was called co-operative design focussed on how workers, managers and academics might work together to design work process’s (for a critical reading from OU academic and Co-op Tech person Steve Walker see here). I do not draw attention to the historical development of participatory design, or the connection to labour movements idly. Could a Co-op University be an organisation that was just as concerned with the organisation and power relations in work finally see the application of co-operative/participatory design to Higher Education. Perhaps it could. Perhaps the thin sense of this approach that has informed co-design, which takes some of the practices but filters them through a commercial logic will be undone by a co-operative logic. I take Richard Hall’s point regarding the sense in simulating a thing whose image of itself is predicated in unequal power relations. However, perhaps the co-operative model, the flattening of power relations within the whole academic community might be the thing to turn learner engagement into something more than a rhetorical device. With the flattening of labour relations within the broader academic community, i.e. a change in governance relations, ushering in many of the pedagogic ones that remain unrealised.

Clearly lots of things need to align before perhaps becomes real. Some of the things that seem to clear to me are a need to connect with Labour movements more broadly, Workers Education Association of course, but also Trade Union Learning. I would also ask those in this space to reach out to those in Open Education, not just the Open University, or those in Open Education Resources/Practices, though clearly they have much in common, in particular similar challenges.  With lessons from the former about sustainability and the latter about emerging models of provision and accreditation as organisations like University of the People and OERu  look to establish challengers as well. But also the wider Open Education movement, for example, “The Jane Austen” series by Casey and Greller (see here for a recent update) which draws inspiration from Art Schools to combat neoliberalism , or Alex Dunedin harking back to ragged schools though the Ragged University , or the miners libraries and weavers reading groups.

Talking of further reading Joss Winn from Lincoln University has produced a bibliography see here

 

Things Fall Apart … and they keep falling and remaking and falling …

Introduction

In this second post in the series (for the first see here)  I continue the theme of using notable novels to examine aspects of how we imagine the public. Looking along my shelves I thought I might focus on “A Grain of Wheat” or “Petals of Blood” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or “Seasons of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih, or perhaps “The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born” by Ayi Kwei Armah. Having looked at them again, and in particular read the back covers of my mostly Penguin Classics or Heinemann I was struck by how much the reviews were less about the writer and the locale than Western Influences, for example Kwei Armah is described as a Ghanaian Sartre. So in the end I picked a book by the writer whose essays I knew, and knew to forcefully resist this inclination, Chinua Achebe.

Things Fall Apart

In his 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” Nigerian author Chinua Achebe tells the story of Oknonkwo an Igbo man who attempts to resist the creeping colonisation of the British, as it encroaches on the land, the culture and spiritual beliefs, looking to shape politics and identity. Oknonkwo seems at first to be a typical “strong man”, a wrestling champion, who owes his renown within the area to his physical prowess, and a general sense that he is unwielding. His position is tenuous, his father was lazy, and such was his poverty he never got to marry the woman he loved, only later when she ran away from her husband did they marry. They produced a daughter, who he favours over his son, a son he sees as weak like his grandfather. He is often harsh, Achebe does not pretend that his protagonist is an easy person even a good person as he seeks to protect traditional ways form the influence of the “white man”.

Oknonkwo is asked to take a boy into his compound who is a hostage from a neighbouring village, given as recompense for the killing of the women from that village by the boy’s father. They grow close, becoming more of a son than his own. So when “the spirits” decree the boy should be killed, Oknonkwo seeks counsel from a village elder, Ezeudu. The elder advises him not to take part in the killing, but Oknonkwo is deeply conflicted, and in the end he strikes the final blow himself. Somehow in this scene, when he must sacrifice what he wants most, a strong son, for the ability to remain the defender of Igbo ways, Achebe manages to pivot the narrative.

When Oknonkwo’s gun explodes during Ezeudu funeral and he friend’s son is killed he is exiled. Returning after seven years he tries to remake himself, as a focus for resistance against the three prongs of colonialism, administration and private property, symbolic and actual violence and the church as supporter and apologist for the primacy of “Western Values”, while he is able to call some support his attempts to make himself up once again fail, and rather than be captured he kills himself, something forbidden in Igbo culture. Achebe does not give us a neat story of redemption, Oknonkwo does not stand against, or absent himself from killing his adopted son, neither does he come back as the village saviour, he is not redeemed.

Screenshot-2017-10-4 Apocalypse Now
Figure 1: A Poster from Apocolypse Now with Other Film Posters Reflected in the Glass, Cliff (2008) Apocalypse Now, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/2869509074/in/photostream/ CC BY SA 2.0

What is Achebe trying to do in this novel, what is it he wants to show us? In a talk about Africa in the imagination Achebe (1978) suggests that where Africa appears in Western literature and thought it does so as a counterpoint, an example of what somewhere without the social political and economic structures of Europe looks, which is somehow other and universal. When he examines “The Heart of Darkness”, he focused on the characterisation, where the local people are at once uncivilised and inferior, but with recognisable universal human traits which civilised European only a slip away from.  Thus he suggests, Africa its land and people, are treated by Conrad as a neutral backdrop, where narratives are set to play out very Western concerns.  He admits his analysis of Conrad is concerned with recognising the superficial way Africa is represented. However, just like in “Things Fall Apart” he is not about to offer “… bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa (p14-15 Achebe 1978). Instead we must give this up ourselves, it is up to us to stop, and ceasing will be our reward.

Achebe shows us the way we tend to think we know more about Africa than the African, with this knowing itself part of the colonial project, for to know is to control. In Oknonkwo he has a character who beats his wives, who it is hard for liberals to sympathise, a spectre of domestic violence that “Western Values” exorcised. Achebe ([1988] 1990) rejects this assertion from critics, he is also at pains to take aim at universalism, in particular the trope that sees African authors seen as making a break through when they are able to universalise the African experience, of course Euro-American authors never have to universalise, as “Western Values” are universal.

Personhood and Political

Reading the book again, as I did for this post, my mind started to wander over all I had read in the intervening years, in particular “Theory from the South” by Comaroff and Comaroff (2012). In particular, the question they ask “is the idea of an autonomous person a European invention?” (p 51).  It was a question they were asked, and a trap they felt they ought not to fall into, is the person asking the question suggesting the absence of a sense of the autonomous self as somehow an indication of failure, a deficit, is it where we are all going, it is universal. After all most of our ideas about society, democratic structures, the public are based on these autonomous individuals. On the other hand to suggest that it is a European invention whose application as a universal value is inappropriate, as it ignores complex constructions of personhood outside Europe.

I want to draw two examples from their collected essays, which have a bearing on this question and also on our previous exploration of “Things Fall Apart”. The first concerns the concept of personhood as it relates to the democratic process in South Africa through the exploring Tswana experiences in the late colonial period.  Settlers first arrived in the 1820s’, then gradually the apparatus of the British state, which created hybrid identities between European “sekgoa” ways and Tswana “setswana” ways, while also clearly demarcating a line between white and black, between the rulers and the ruled. Setswana ways were socially fluid, while gendered and not without inequities, a person’s status was largely of their own construction, even though relatedness played a part, self and status needed to be constantly made –  either you do to the world, or the world does to you. Personhood was not being, but becoming. This personhood was made and manifest materially through work and the land and property you tended and maintained, and symbolically how one made oneself through relations with others.

The second from  is post-colonial Botswana. Botswana is generally reckoned to one the best examples of a functioning democracy in Africa, so the occasions in the 1970’s and 1980’s when there appeared a demand a move away multi-party democracy, in particular by opposition parties, and a wish for one party rule, seems odd. Prior to the colonial period what is today Botswana was organised into about eight chiefdoms. Chiefs were hereditary, but it was unstable, the chief was understood as being separate from the chiefdom, he was judged and how well he performed “good governance”, subject to open challenge in the many public forums he was expected to hold to discuss decisions, and unsatisfactory performance would see his birth status challenged. The chief was chief with the people, and expected to set around him key advisors and hold public forums where these could be challenged. His exclusive right to wield power was based how inclusive the decision making process was.

While these spaces were filled with factions, and many of the actions followed a set formulae, often concerned with reminded the chief of his duties and the “setswana”, people did speak out against the chief, alliances made and remade off stage. These discussions were understood as being a reflection of the chief’s ability and also determined their ability.  This was the reason that people started to become disillusioned by party politics and the dominant Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), cycles of elections only to give life to these discourses when there is an election. While the parliament itself often behaved like these spaces, with members from all parties including the ruling one criticising the executive as they saw fit. It did not foster open debate. Interestingly the BDP rejection of one party politics made others suspicious of it, with the sense that they wanted to hold onto Western democratic models so they could get on with government away from public scrutiny.

Screenshot-2017-10-4 #MayMustGo Maybot It's Time to Go
Figure 2: MayBot Shown the Way, From Garry Knight (2017) #MayMustGo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/35235492871/in/photostream/, PD 0

Closing Remarks

It is not been my intention to hold up Oknonkwo’s story or the ones from Comaroff and Comaroff as some exotic other, nor indeed to argue for some kind of universalism, instead I merely hold them up in order that we might examine them. Reflect on them in relation to the how well, or badly, or our own political process function.

Postscript

Of course I am being disingenuous. I framed the argument in a certain way, picked the books, in particular Comaroff and Comaroff, with its subtitle “How Euro-America is Evolving towards Africa” is very deliberate. I want you to look at how “strong men” look to make themselves up, and remake themselves, how well the stages debates within our cycles of democracy and party politics function as a means for us to assess good governance. Let us examine the recent UK election in relation to “setswana”, For the Conservatives it was a series of staged and controlled debates, often through the media. It spoke of a party that is concerned with how it might appear and what people might say in these forums, in closing these down it shows its weakness.  It resulted in the Conservatives asserting a mandate they don’t have, and our “sekgoa” ways, our focus on procedural democracy, mean we have to live with it. The party political machine fights to stop challenges from inside and out, looking to shore up power and undermine political debate, so here we have what we call democracy.

 

References

Achebe C. ([1958 2001) Things Fall Apart, Penguin Books: London

 

Achebe C.  (1978), An Image of Africa, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15

 

Achebe C. ([1988] 1990), Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, Penguin Random House: London

Comaroff J., Comaroff J. L. (2012) Theory from the South: How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa, Paradigm Publishing: London

 

Half Awake in a Fake Empire …

The National, Usher Hall Edinburgh, 21st of September 2017

I am half awake in a fake empire …, I could be anyone/where in the present political climate, in the UK with the neoliberals chasing post Brexit trade deals with former colonies. In the US trading insults, a dotard to a rocket man. Instead I am watching “The National” at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. With the name like “The National” one might expect them to be a political band in some way, though clearly it is not the same as the type of nationalism promoted by Trump, it is probably more akin to the constitutional patriotism suggested by writers like Habermas (see here ), the inclusive sense that looks beyond ethnicity or citizenship to pluralistic values, the nationalism claimed by people in Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Which, given the intellectualism of the band, they have probably read.

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Figure 1: Matt Berninger from the National, Edinburgh Usher Hall 21st of September 2017: Credit Hollie Taylor, CC BY SA 4.0

While we waited for them to come on, the screens at the back of the stage provided a glimpse backstage, they didn’t appear to be sitting around reading the New Yorker, all was strumming, stretching and guitar picking. At the front, there was no pushing, once the band came on I didn’t feel myself pinned to the barriers at the front, and indeed the only drink that was thrown was from the stage itself. At one point I went to the bar, “IPA please”, “sorry love, sold out”. Only at something as middle class as “The National” could you go to the bar in Scotland and find the only thing left was the Tennent’s Lager.

Getting back to the front was easy, polite and without a drop spilled. If the crowd was polite, the bands carefully constructed sounds, building waves of noise seemed in rude health. As the gig progressed the drummer shed layers, his brother head down sweating the bass. With the Dessner brothers on guitar/piano watching each other cool and knowingly, as the singer become more and more of a dishevelled angry middle aged man. I note the Guardian suggested this new album was their middle aged album , to me, on that evening, it was the older ones like “Mistaken for Strangers” that seemed filled weary melancholy. And anger, the first time I saw them live (not on YouTube) was 2008 at the Green Man. I remember the musicianship, the tightness of movement, but I don’t recall the rasping anger of now.

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Figure 2: The National in Full Flow, Matt has a moment by himself to scream into the mic, Credit Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

As he sang the opening lines of “Fake Empire” I was reminded of a poem I had read years ago, called the “Mushroom Gatherers”, all together in the woods, passing, not talking,  written in the 1950’s, inspired by the work of Polish poet Mickiewicz, it is often read as a comment on the performance of political process. To me it seemed to speak to the way without care we can sleepwalk through ill times.  If you scroll to 13:30 you can listen to a reading of it here.  And learn more about Donald Davie here.

Of the songs that seemed most filled with angry sadness it was “Mr November”, with the band thrashing about and Matt foetal on the floor. For me it seemed to capture this strange feeling one has these days – what the fuck is going on!?!. Mr November was Obama, and even though they claim to be not too political, Obama went to their songs time again for a bit of hope.

Now, how are we to feel constitutionally patriotic, soaked in shared values, when our systems have thrown up odd these odd replacements.

 

The Captive Mind, Publics and THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE [TINA]

Introduction

In this series of posts I want to explore the notion of the public, the public within public services and as articulated within discourses in public administration. While I do not make explicit reference to scholarship in the area, as this is not a review of scholars in public administration real or imagined publics.  It is an attempt to frame similar issues, like democratic process, and the public sphere that concern researchers in this area. In particular to think about how designers imagine the public.

It is an attempt to frame them in relation to different ways of knowing, and I am indebted to post-colonial writers and those who write about what is sometimes called Southern Theory, specifically  the feminist thinker Connell, who write about the dominance of western sociology, assumptions and about individuals and publics and their application in the global south through the colonial projects and the role of academic research in subjection and/or exotic othering. Her work and others like Comaroff and Comaroff have led to me question normative accounts of the public, and the dominance of a particular notion of the relationship between the self and society, and I wanted to explore this in relation to literary and academic sources.

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Figure 1: Listening to History, Bill Woodrow, 1995, Used as Front Cover to “A Captive Mind” in recent editions. Source: Karsten 11, 2010, https://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Listening_to_History.jpg

The Captive Mind

In this first post I want to explore Ketman, or Kitman an idea I first encountered through the work of Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and then the subsequent communist state that followed its “liberation” by the Red Army. He continued to write poetry under the communists and indeed served as a public servant in Poland and the US. His book “The Captive Mind” is concerned with creativity under totalitarian regimes, regimes which seem to use and encourage openness and debate as a way to manage conformity and weed out errant thought. Kitman is concerned with hiding ones true thoughts from the public, and comes to Milosz from the work of a French public servant and is based on his writing about Persia and Islam.  Khan (2008), in her examination of selfhood and secrecy in Islam examines Kitman in the work of al-Jahiz (circa 776AD to 868AD) and his book “Kitab Kitman al-Sirr” (the book of concealing the secret), he suggests Kitman is the watcher within. Khan suggests we read al-Jahiz text on concealment of true beliefs, of care about what one says, and the need to match utterance to context in relation to the heated political period it was written (the complex Abbasid politics of Baghdad) and the audience for whom it was meant, administrators and those in what we might loosely call “public office”. While read in this way it seems little more than Hamlets father advice to “lend everyman your ear but few your words”, however according to Khan, for al-Jahiz it goes a lot deeper. She notes the interest in embodiment, in the way the body represents thoughts, and the way bodies can betray that which words attempt to conceal. The suggestion is not that we need to act in ways that help us conceal our true thoughts or beliefs, but we should also be concerned with how we censor the inner self in relation to the context in which we live. Here the public self needs also to become the private self to avoid our bodies betraying our real thoughts.

It is an interesting idea, and not without political baggage, one only need google it to see the right wing vitriol and anti-islamic sentiment that goes with it. With lazy commentators  of “The Captive Mind” and Kitman suggesting it is a prime example of the lies and falsehood within Islam more generally. It is probably because it is actually quite a difficult idea to grasp that right wing propaganda can grasp onto it as a marker of untrustworthiness in Islam. It deals with a slightly different relationship between the public and the private from the one we are used to.  For example, Feinberg (2017) notes reviews of “The Captive Mind” in the US often failed to grasp the nature of the argument, reading it in relation to ideas around self, “the American Dream”, binary opposition between the freedoms of capitalism and the heavy fist and control of communism. It read the text as concerned with the ability of the creative mind to resist control. While Kitman is concerned with resistance and Milosz makes much of the pride in those practicing Kitman in  knowing “the truth” of not believing while performing as a believer, it is also about how the self changes, the difficulty in understanding your self when you police the internal self as part of presenting the public self. Where the self you are when alone becomes the public self, where any creative or resistant acts can only be understood in relation to the public face you have turned inwards. Your public self now structures your sense of who you are.  For Milosz the ambiguity also came from the sense of wonder amongst intellectuals and writers in Poland at the time as to whether this act served a broader political goal of creating a more equal society – that it was for “the greater good”.

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE

One cannot help thinking about the work of Arendt, in particular the “Origins of Totalitarianism”, where she suggests what totalitarian regimes do is attempt to colonise every part of one’s life, to fold the private into the public discourse. Nancy Fraser suggests that while Arendt was concerned with the way these regimes destroyed public space, the sense of individuality, and also the notion of plurality, her work was not simply critique of these regimes, but also a commentary on the “free world” (Fraser 2004). While Fraser is careful to situate the work of Arendt in her time, Arendt contribution to our understanding of how nation states as breaking with its geographic boundaries through colonialism which led to things like stateless people, persecution of minorities, the delegitimisation of democratic process, and the “view from nowhere”. The sense of a totalising view of world events, which in treating things as global issues outside the scope of the nation state and its democratic process, depoliticises actions. The views from nowhere which are often presented as being apolitical are all around us in institutions like the World Trade Organisation, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund. The degree to which these bodies depoliticise decisions can be read in the consternation (see the UK Guardian here) around a recent report from the IMF that acknowledged there was such a thing as neoliberalism and it might not be a good thing. This from the body whose sole prescription for economic ills was a short sharp shock of the stuff (Harvey 2006). In that sense what Fraser is suggesting is  a situation which Arendt might recognise, and even wonders about, totalitarianism beyond the nation state, the feeling There is No Alternative.

What has this got to do with Ketman and Design

The connection of Ketman is whether and how we voice our dissent. For example I have often observed a dissonance amongst hard and soft advocates of neoliberalism, in part this is created by the disjunction between the assumptions within neoliberalism that we are all rational self-interested individuals and as Game Theorists suggest any altruism is simply a product of that self-interest – e.g. herd theory in animal behaviour, and how people actually live. These self-interested rational consumers are not them, or me, or the people I know, they are someone else, it is a view from nowhere, it does not reflect how people feel, or act, nor how they would imagine themselves being in the world. However, if we do build systems that assume people are all rational and self-interested, then we should not be surprised when people behave as if they are. Or at least perform as if they are. Therefore should we understand the fact political discourses rarely alight on the dissonance between a neoliberal view from nowhere and our own lived experience as a form of Ketman?

Perhaps.

So what has this got to do with design, as this just seems to be a critique of neoliberalism, and of course it is. However, it is also concerned with framing, and how ones imagines the public. As governments become increasingly interested in using design in the development and delivery of public services I think we have to ask, just how are they, and indeed how are we, imagining the public.

References

Feinberg M. (2017) Curtain of Lies: The Battle over Truth in Stalinist Eastern Europe, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Fraser, N. (2004). Hannah Arendt in the 21st Century. Contemporary Political Theory, 3(3), pp.253–261.

Harvey D. (2006) Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, Verso: London

Khan R. Y. (2008), Self and Secrecy in Early Islam. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia

Milosz C. ([1953] 1981) The Captive Mind, Penguin Books: London