Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Visualisation in Music and the Internet

There is a long tradition of trying to represent the meaning of music in a visual way - very similar to attempts to render meaningful visual representations of the unfolding of life on the internet. The most striking attempt to render the unfolding of a piece of music was made by Heinrich Schenker in the early 20th century. But Schenker's graphs are interesting and relevant to a broader discussion on visualisation because what they try to convey is the meaning, or rather the essence of the musical unfolding over time: it is an attempt to somehow compress time and convey the fundamental characteristics of the musical work in a representation around which confusions and ambiguities can be distilled and discussion concentrated on the salient points highlighted by the graph.

If the musical work were the unfolding of a business (or a university) or the unfolding of a learner's progress, one might imagine that a graph of those unfoldings would be of direct benefit to making decisions, to focusing discussion and to taking control. The fundamental objective of any visualisation is decision and control.

Schenker's approach in producing his graphs is phenomenological in the Husserlian sense. The distinctions between background, middleground and foreground (the different levels in the diagram above) are effectively different levels of 'bracketing-out' of phenomena: the higher you go up the graph, the more is removed.

But importantly, this bracketing-out process has most deeply been driven by a an underlying theory.. an underlying ontology, and at some level, this is quite a mystical thing with Schenker. But it is the ontological position that he adopts that renders his work meaningful because it gives it coherence. Schenker has invested his graphs with an idea - and his graphs are interesting because his idea is interesting, and still resonates for us today.

This is the distinction between Schenker's approach to musical unfolding and the current approaches to the visualisation of the unfolding of life on the internet. The images which have emerged of internet communications have been produced through an automated process, and through the construction of complex algorithms which plot data and draw lines according to simple rules of correspondence and relationship. In being automated in this way, these images also have their ontology... they also rest on an idea. But the idea of these auto-visualisations is never inspected: it is instead hidden behind the magic box of techno-wizardry. Its opaqueness results in the resulting images being pretty, but on the whole no less open to interpretation than the original time-based phenomena: they do not contribute to decision and control.

We need to ask "What is the idea invested in these images of internet communications? " And in response, I might suggest that there are some key issues:

  1. communication is a matter of information exchange
  2. meaning is conflated with the amassed exchanges of information
  3. agency is reduced to communicative utterances
  4. reflexivity is subordinated to utterances
  5. utterances made away from the internet can be bracketed-out
  6. a visual representation of information exchange is an aid to decision and control

There are obvious problems here.
But I suspect that visualisation will remain a 'flash in the pan' (even if it's a pretty flash) until deeper questions about the ontology of an approach to visualising the unfolding of online life are addressed.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Vincent D'Indy and the breath of music

I'm going to have a musical interlude - partly because I think it relates to other things I've been talking about recently.

Of all the music theorists I admire, I find the most interesting (and the  most useful from a compositional point of view) is the French composer Vincent D'Indy. D'Indy is an unusual character - a devout Catholic who tended to be musically conservative, opposing the 'parallelism' of Debussy, favouring (like Schoenberg) an idea of harmony as functional. But most importantly, he founded his own school with his own pedagogical approach.

Music for D'Indy was a spiritual matter. In his "Cours de composition musicale" (which I quote here, and you can download here: http://imslp.org/wiki/Cours_de_Composition_Musicale_(Indy,_Vincent_d')) D'Indy states that it's fundamental elements are melody, rhythm and harmony. He has many fascinating things to say about the first two, but it's harmony I want to focus on here, because it was D'Indy's harmonic theory which was highly influential with a number of great composers who came after him - most particularly Olivier Messaien and Michael Tippett.

D'Indean theory of harmony is the most striking thing. He draws our attention to the cycle of 5ths, suggesting that in the major mode, a move up the cycle of 5ths is a process of increasing 'light' (montée vers la lumière), whereas descending increases darkness (la chute vers les ténèbres). This leads him to produce the following table:

Thus D'Indy sets out his harmonic system. The 'lightening' and 'darkening' processes are reversed when the mode is minor. In the minor mode, descent down the cycle of 5ths is lightening, and rising is darkening. 

What really grabs me, though, is what he says next. That a rise up the 5ths in the major mode requires the expense of effort, whilst falling down the 5ths is a 'detènte', a 'letting go'. 

It is like the muscular movement of the stomach.

What fascinates me about all this is that it presents itself as an approach to harmony which is part-biological and realistic in a bio-pschosocial respect as well as the more common physical realism. This is in contrast to both to Schoenberg's approach to functional harmony (who may be 'idealistic'), or to Schenker (who may be ultimately considered naively realistic in pinning too much to the harmonic series).

The idea of biological tension and release tie into so much else of what is interesting me at the moment. But most of all I am thinking about the simple application of cybernetic ideas to music analysis which I did last year some time. I had an interesting comment about my commentary of Lachenmann (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdVpOyN5Y-U) Might D'Indy help with a re-interpretation of prolongation?

Thinking about this, the central issue about prolongation is that in Schenker it is restricted to tonal music - the perfect cadence is central to his prolonging architecture. But what is the I - V - I progression if not a rising of effort and then a release? But the rising of effort doesn't have to specifically take that form. Indeed, in polytonal and atonal music, where there is simultaneous rising and falling, simultaneous keys, etc, moments where falling or rising fade in and out. As they do so, I think there might be a way of constructing a mechanism for describing prologations which are not as restrictive as Schenker's.

But I'm more interested in this because I wonder whether life itself is prolongation - or more formally, that the form of life is a way of prolonging life. That may be another way of saying 'viability', but it is at least a way that infers that we breath in and we breath out; we expend effort, and then we release it. 

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Luxury of Education

Is education necessary? Alison Wolf asked asked a similar question when she wrote "Does education matter?". Here I want to approach it from a different angle. I've been reading "The accursed share" by Georges Bataille and it is making me think about luxury. I've also been thinking about my dad, who spent much of his life reading and thinking and creating... and how important I believe it is to do that (what a good use of a life!). But at the same time, it is a glorious and wonderful indulgence.

Bataille is interested in indulgence and excess. At the core of his work is one of the most intelligent and profound commentaries on sexual life - 'Eroticism' is an extraordinary book. But beyond sex, Bataille turns his attention to economics, and influenced by Marcel Mauss's idea of "The Potlatch" which he expressed in the 'Essai sur la Don' ("The Gift"), Bataille argues that economics is upside-down. Classical economic theory turns about the principle of necessity. Bataille argues that in fact the world turns on moments of outrageous squandering of wealth, and that our inability to see this 'squandering principle' rests with a misplaced ethic which runs through classical economics which results in a misplaced focus on the commodity.

Of the squandering that stands out most clearly, there is of course the 'catastrophic expenditure' of war. Bataille analyses the Aztec civilization and the prime role of human sacrifice in that culture. Stomach-churning stuff. He considers the "Three luxuries of nature: Eating, Death and Sexual reproduction". Bataille is particularly concerned with the role of technology, and the fact that
"the revivals of development that are due to human activity, that are maintained or made possible by new techniques, always have a double effect: initially, they use a portion of the surplus energy, but then they produce a larger and larger surplus. This surplus eventually contributes to making growth difficult, for growth no longer suffices to use it up. At a certain point, the advantage of extension is neutralized by the contrary advantage, that of luxury; the former remains operative, but in a dissapointing - uncertain, often powerless - way."
This argument seems to me to be very reminiscent of the arguments about technology put forward by Ivan Illich. Illich too worried about 'surpluses', but (perhaps he was more tied to Catholicism than Bataille was), he argued against surpluses: he said the solution to the energy crisis could not be more energy, but less - we already had an energy glut! (and a speed glut, and a health glut and an education glut!). Bataille is on the same page, but comes to a different conclusion.
"I insist on the fact that there is generally no growth but only a luxurious squandering of energy in every form! The history of life on earth is mainly the effect of a wild exhuberance; the dominant event is the development of luxury, the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life."
But at the point of technological advancement in creating more and more surplus is that some sumptious way must be found to spend it all...
"at this point, immense squanderings are about to take place: after a century of populating and of industrial peace, the temporary limit of development being encountered, the two world wars organized the greatest orgies of wealth - and of human beings - that history has recorded. Yet these orgies coincide with an appreciable rise in the general standard of living: the majority of the population  benefits from more and more unproductive services" 

He goes on to argue that the mantra to 'raise living standards' is the only response of classical economics to dealing with the surplus of energy that must be spent. But
"a curse obviously weighs on human life insofar as it does not have the strength to control a vertiginous movement. It must be stated that the lifting of such a curse depends on man and only on man. But it cannot be lifted if the movement from which it emanates does not appear clearly in consciousness."
Reading this, I wonder about the burgeoning education industry. Bataille would see education as a sumptuous extravagance.  Individuals are increasingly having to spend their own money on education, but do appear willing to do so. Might the waste and the luxury have a purpose in Bataille's system? Is it the kind of 'necessary squandering' of surplus energy? Would it help us avoid war?

Whilst we've spent the last year or so arguing about the cost of education (and the lack of state support for it), at the same time we have seen that student numbers may not collapse as we thought they might. This needs explaining. Also we have seen another form of squandering in the squandering of talent through budget cuts, which was the inevitable result of the previous squandering of resources in propping up the bank industry.

Wherever we look, we see waste. Yet we see it negatively as the shadow image of classical economics. Bataille is making me think we need to look at waste again, and to examine its functioning in the deep processes of human existance.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The rise of Techno-Education 2011 - 2020

There was a point in the history of education where technology was quite a separate matter from education. Whilst schools and Universities had for many decades made use of classrooms, blackboards, slates, exercise books, pencils, textbooks, etc, not to mention the impact of printing a few centuries earlier, with the beginning of the explosion of information technology, the world of Universities and schools was far apart from the world of technology.

In the early years of the 21st century, the gap between them was narrowed, and within the first decade of the century, a point was arrived at where one could reasonably argue that they were 'coupled', or as other commentators preferred at the time, locked-in. Of course, this pattern of the resolution of the gap between the technological world and the educational world had been repeated many times before, the coupling of computers and education has particular implications which would spell the beginning of what would eventually be called the "age of techno-education".

The lock-in process also coincided with the great world economic collapse, which precipitated what was later  referred to as the end of the capitalist hegemony. The internal contradictions of capitalism which pitted the primeval needs of humankind against the workings of a production machine became more explicitly discernable, with many writers of the period  (of whom the most significant were Kernohan, Hall, Wilson, Grant and Sherlock) starting to identify new categories for understanding of economic and historical process. As with Marx, the process of 'changing' began with 'naming'.

Amongst the most significant categories of the new understanding were an increased awareness of the importance of 'care', 'attachment', 'compassion' and 'community', and the relations between these categories and the old priorities of 'profit', 'reward' and 'wealth'. As with Marx, the process of change brought about new human industries in the form of professionalised bureaucracies, but this time it was not the bureaucracies of the trades unions and the national welfare state that proliferated, but those of an energised and now global education industry.

The reasons for this rise of what was now a 'techno-education' are complex. Education wasn't cheap - but it seemed that however expensive it became (and by 2012, much state support for education had been withdrawn), individuals would pour the majority of their meagre resources (which included much of the resources that they might hope to accrue in the future) into it. Indeed, in the following years, there was a pattern of increasing resource being poured into education, and less into the ownership of property.

Education made itself more available and accessible through technology. Courses delivered through what were still very crude technological means gained in popularity. Moreover, as the scale of technologically-empowered delivery increased, and institutions converged on patterns of practice which could inter-operate, the autonomy of individual institutions lessened, and the large 'educorps' with which we are now familiar grew, "Oxbridge Enterprises" (now OXBRAND) becoming the largest in the world having been established in 2015.

But the rise of techno-education was a puzzle, because much of what education delivered up until about 2020 was, on the whole, not very good. Levels of student ability upon graduation, and levels of employment did not reflect the levels of investment that had been made in education. Until 2013, 'student satisfaction surveys' had been conducted regularly which seemed to indicate that everything was fine - until the emerging realisation that any individual who spends the vast bulk of their resources on an unwise venture is more than likely to defend their decision!

It was this realisation, however, that underpinned the way things were working in techno-education. For it appeared that the profligacy of individual educational expenditure was part-and-parcel of its continued viability, and no level of inadequacy of what was delivered would ultimately cause it to collapse (although one or two institutions did effectively collapse, but only into each other!). Techno-education was rooted in basic human needs which were channeled through a combination of the massification enabled by technology together with a socio-economic 'credo', promoted by governments around the world, which made sure that the individual profligacy was deemed absolutely essential. In this way, the world's economy turned away from manufacturing towards a combination of the techno-education industry and the techno-health industry to keep itself going.

However, by the end of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the weaknesses of this model were starting to become apparent. Aside from the often excruciating levels of personal taxation which individuals had to bear as a result of their educational exploits, the social order was increasingly suffering from the problem that some aspects of the pre-techno education system were now lacking: most notably, the ability to think critically and to posses deep historical, philosophical and cultural perspective on the current situation. For whilst techno-education has attempted  to address precisely these issues directly (with compulsory 'critical thinking', 'internationalisation' and 'employability' addenda to courses, for example), in fact these addenda didn't work. What emerged was in fact a new kind of caste system: it was the children of educated families who possessed the critical qualities lacking in those who may well have had the same education, but did not have the same parents. And so, in 2020, the family reform act attempted to directly address the inherent inequalities of the relationship between family and techno-education, which resulted in the gradual convergence of 'techno-parenting' and 'techno-education'...

Friday, 20 January 2012


A couple of years ago I was discussing the nature of heaven with my dad, he quoted a poem by Francis Thompson, a highly unusual mystical catholic poet, with the lines "tis ye, tis your estanged faces /that  miss the many-splendoured thing". It was an extended quote at a time when it was difficult to get much out of him. His ability to remember large chunks of poetry never left him, and even towards the end, our conversations would yield some valuable and rich reference or other. I ache for the impossibility of this happening again.

Obviously I have thought about heaven (and Francis Thompson) in the last week. Whilst the physical pain of grief (and it is physical - which surprised me) has subsided, I have wondered about where he is, what he is doing, who he has met, etc. I'm sure he'd have wanted to chat to Graham Greene, or Evelyn Waugh, or Alec Guinness and Charles Laughton. But talk where? Are the pubs? Theatres? Universities? I'd be a bit disappointed if there weren't. But then Thompson reminds us that it is in us: "tis ye, tis your estranged faces". They are still our pubs, our theatres, our universities.

I'd often thought (I think I said this to him) that the only thing we can say with certainty about death is that it constrains our capacity to act. But it only constrains it. It doesn't stop it altogether. My dad lives on in the hearts of those who love him. He lives on in the art and writing and books he left behind. And those things still have causal power, over which I feel a certain shepherding responsibility.

But I wouldn't exclude the possibility that the causal power of the dead extends to mechanisms that we cannot apprehend. We just cannot know this; but we should have the sense and humility to acknowledge the possibility.

The Kingdom of God - Francis Thompson (1859–1907)

O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Why does grief come in waves?

Upholding the principal of "everything is relevant" which I always emphasise with my students, I want to write about my experience now at a very difficult time. There's too much to say about my dad so soon after he has gone - I will do that another time when things have settled down. Right now, it is my experience of grieving (which I have not really had since I was a child) that is dominating my thoughts.

Grief is a strange phenomenon. No-one can really know what the experience might be until they are experiencing it. That is because it is hard to get a feel for an experience where the meaning of the world is transformed in ways which are outside our current comprehension. For the person experiencing it, the world is transformed. For those who sympathise with that person, things are 'as normal', although most people recognise the impact of the loss and offer condolences which serve to acknowledge the fact that there has indeed been a transformation. For myself when this happens, the impact is very emotional: "Did I imagine that the world just changed? No, the world has really changed." - and it hurts.

So the pain, the condolences, the tears and the transformation go hand-in-hand. The sense of identity which I had, having become certain of its security, is challenged by something that happens in my environment. The inter-dependence, history and togetherness which my independence often tries so hard to escape, returns to remind me of my own dependence, history and the need to be together. On the one hand, it is comforting; but on the other, I know it is reminder of what is true, what relates to the primeval existence of the species, and it is a challenge to reflect; more importantly it is a challenge to reflect on that which is universally recognised by all other human beings.

So why the 'waves'? Maybe it's a kind of oscillation between two forms of life: the old one, of known habits, and the new one where those same habits reveal their entwinedness with the person who has died and consequently show the world as transformed. The pain of grief marks the difference between the two: it causes a breakdown. In doing so, it also starts the healing. Slowly life, death, history, togetherness and inter-dependence are reconciled: the oscillations lessen as time passes. What I am left with is a deepened sense of the wonder, beauty and sacredness of life and a love for the world which is more profound, and certainly more keenly felt, than it was before.

But as I think about that, I think my dad would like this: in the entry on 'Algebra' in W.H. Auden's 'commonplace' book "A certain world", Auden wrote:

David Hartley offered a vest-pocket edition of his moral and religious philosophy in the formula
where W is the love of the world, F is the  fear of God, and L is the love of God. It is necessary to add only this. Hartley said that as one grows older, L increases and indeed becomes infinite. It follows then that W, the love of the world, decreases and approaches zero.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Unwellness, Moods and 'Flat' Systems

I'm not feeling very well at the moment: a post-Christmas cold and a general sense of irritation with the world are weighing on my judgement. However, I find that in such states I get things done. This is often because nothing seems good enough. Everything needs more attention. Consequently, I tend to take (rather ill-tempered) action to try and move things along, fix things, etc. Although I can't see it at the moment, I have a feeling that when I am feeling better, I will be pleased I took some of this action (although the results of my lack of temper might have some consequences!).

Everyone has down-periods, and our moods generally have an enormous impact on our creativity. Since so much effective agency has to do with timing and seizing the moment, shifts in mood, psychological well-being, and physical wellness  all have a bearing on the unfolding of events. Yet we rarely acknowledge it. Our systems have to be designed as though people inhabited flat 'mood spaces', where there are no fluctuations of feeling. Yet, having designed flat systems, we should not be surprised if the actual behaviour with those systems is a little erratic. The danger for us is to assume that behaviour is as flat as the intended behaviour that is presupposed by the flat system.

To make such an assumption is basically to fail to anticipate what is likely to occur, and consequently to lose control of the situation in which the system operates. Yet, in our thinking about socio-technical systems, we need not be so poor at anticipating the behaviour of people. Only a terrible teacher would ever make such an assumption about their class - and they would be destined for a rather vexing experience! 'Flat systems' present us with an opportunity, because for all the other unknowns about human experience, we can rely on the fact that the system will always behave the same (I always thought this was one of the most interesting things about Learning Design).

But we need richer models of people, and within those models, it would be reasonable to think not only of the 'well' person, but also of the 'unwell' person; not only of the 'good' person, but of the 'bad' person; not only of the 'authentic' person, but of the 'inauthentic' person... and all  the shades in between. Psychological models are unlikely to help (at least on their own): ecological models are needed. And whilst it seems ambitious, it is not impossible to begin to model the shades of being in social situations.

I believe that we posses a rich array of cybernetic models of forms of life, and that these models are often commensurable. The Viable System Model, Luhmann's social systems model, Bowlby's models of attachment, models of anticipatory systems and eigenforms... the dynamics behind these mechanisms are sufficiently rich for us to conceive of both wellness and unwwellness, of authenticity and inauthenticity, and the relationships between the viability of an organism, the communications it makes, and the attachments it maintains.

And curiously, as I write this, I feel slightly better (still coughing though!). It is as if through the effort of looking upwards, of dragging myself back onto my feet is at once transformative of my perspective and the communications I make, but also predicated on the depression which I seeks to escape. In other words, the unwellness is fundamental and constructive in the process. I'll have to stick that in my model and play with it!!

Monday, 9 January 2012

Knowledge and the Performance Art of visualisation

Whilst all those graphs of Twitter connections are very pretty, I can't help wondering that they're probably useless: it is hard to see how a map of Twitter connections can lead to informed and effective decision-making. Visualisation is about decision and control. It is about managing the complexity of the world, which (thanks to technology) is now too great for our outdated modes of governance, and outdated approach to data collection and analysis. The hope for visualisation is that powerful representations of the world can yield deep collective insights and coordinated action. Most deeply, the problem that visualisation tries to address is one of the human intellect and human organisation.

Thinking about my last post, where I alluded to a passage in Newman's "The idea of  a University" where he talked about knowledge (which I found quoted by Edward Said), I've now found the fuller quote. I think this is relevant to thinking about visualisation:

The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause.
In visualisation, we make the sights (of course, only sights... why not sounds?) upon which the intellect of managers might act. Our governance problems rest on the fact that our intellects "sieze and unite" the inadequate statistics and graphs we are presented with, and consequently give them the wrong meaning and the wrong idea.

In the business of management, of course, there is always a disconnect. The surrogate world of the statistics jars against the real world of real people. The conversations muttered in corridors hide the back-story behind a sloping line in the graph. Those managers who listen best to what's going on on the ground will try to reconcile the difference between the graphs they see and what they actually hear. But their problem is always that the graph alone exists as a shared representation; it alone is defensible. Intuition isn't.

What can be done? I want to draw a kind of metaphor here to highlight what I think is the real problem. Fundamentally, I believe the problem is to do with the difference between straightness and curvedness. All the statistical representations we examine are straight: whether the straight lines linking twitter connections, or the lines showing the link between different student satisfactions rates. Intuition, on the other hand, is curved: it is felt as a movement which ebbs and flows as the intellect considers the reality of experience in an act of empathy.

This is where I find Newman's allusion to music most interesting. "It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole". That's what intuition (which may be the proper functioning of the intellect?) does. That succession of notes is a curved unfolding. It is in the curved unfolding that the idea is borne.

But what can be done? Is there a way in which the unfolding of experience can be shared? Of course, music does just this (as do all the performance arts). Does that mean visualisation needs to become a performance art? Thinking about the presentations by Hans Rosling, I think there's more sense in this than at first appears. Our question then should concern the ways in which the performance art of visualisation can be made more powerful.

Friday, 6 January 2012

"There are many ways in which the thing I am trying in vain to say may be tried in vain to be said"

I'm grateful to Ranulph Glanville for highlighting this wonderful phrase that Samuel Beckett wrote in Bram van Velde in 1965. Ranulph raised it at the Heinz von Foerster congress in Vienna, and on googling it now, I see him quoting it in an equally interesting paper on the self and distinction-making: see http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/papers/glanville/glanville90-selfother.pdf

In his talk in Vienna, however, Glanville discussed the family relationships (and family resemblances) that took shape in early 20th century Vienna, and (in particular, because it was the theme of his talk) how Heinz von Foerster related to those developments: rubbing shoulders with the Wittgensteins, Schoenbergs, Freuds, Kraus, etc. It never ceases to amaze me how certain places at certain times in history become the place. Of course, Vienna was getting 'second wind' after its previous (largely musical) high in the 19th century, but other examples include Paris around 1910, restoration London, and so on. In cybernetics, the Tavistock institute seemed to be something of a Mecca after the war... so much management theory, systems theory and psychoanalysis seemed to migrate there with the Freud's move to Hamstead.

There's something about place. There's something about 'home'... and something about the communities which live there... where a large number of people feel mutual attachments to each other, to the environment.

But maybe it's not just place. As I think of Ranulph's talk, I'm also thinking about the musical extract he played of music by a relatively unknown Viennese composer called Josef Hauer (you can hear his music here: Josef Matthias Hauer – Tanz Op. 10). Music makes me feel at home. In fact, so does religion.. I felt more at home in Ras Al Khaimah on discovering a Catholic church (an unlikely discovery there!).

So what is it about 'home' and having a 'home'? Maybe the question is "what is it about a home that we can leave it?" That may be a more interesting question because my attachment to music (and to religion) took place in a place at some point in time and space. In my mind I can go back there without having to physically go back there. What did the place do to me that I can do that?

I'll find the Newman quote on this (I saw it yesterday in an article on the University by Edward Said), but paraphrasing, I think what we gain through attachments early in life is knowledge. What knowledge gives is the ability to see meaning in new surroundings.. where perception gives rise to an idea. That means (and I've said this before, I think) that attachment is fundamental to learning. Education is not instrumental; it is about love.

Strangely (in this rather strange blog post), I have been listening to Joseph Hauer's music on a track in Spotify, which was directly followed by a fascinating interview with Walter Gropius on the foundation of the Bauhaus. If you have time, it's worth giving it some careful attention! see Walter Gropius – On the Origins of the Bauhaus

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Find a place to fart (and to think...): reflections on forms of life in academia

I'm in the pub at the moment because my university is still closed for Christmas! The pub has a different atmosphere to the University: it's relaxed, is aesthetically interesting, people around me are also relaxed and very varied (the old drunk in the corner, the young students around a table... and the geeky academic blogging on his laptop!)... and the food is better (and cheaper) than the University. And it's got WiFi, so I can Skype my colleagues, catch up on email, etc. But I'm conscious that the form of life I live here is different from that which I live when I go into the University. Here I can reflect, think, write, eat, drink, piss and fart with relative impunity. With regard to the latter two, I simply wouldn't risk it in the University! But the others are not so easy either. Because my form of life in the University is to walk (from office to office), talk, drink (coffee), bump-into (whilst drinking coffee), organise, strategise, talk to students, bemoan, nudge, remind... and struggle (sometimes) to find time to piss, but certainly to find a place to think. And farting is out of the question.

Not that any of that is bad... it's just different. A different form of life. But it leads me to reflect that my academic life needs both the pub and the University. It also includes a bigger library  (where I can occasionally fart) and the church (where I would never dream of farting). But these reflections lead me to the astounding conclusion that my favourite places to think are places to fart. Farting and thinking seem to be related. But more than that, I seem to benefit from traversing different forms of life (I wouldn't want to think (or fart) all the time.. I benefit from the stuff on-campus too, which gives me something to think about).

I am lucky in being able to traverse forms of life and to integrate them. But also it is important to recognise the barriers between forms of life within an environmental setting. My experience of the pub is different to that of the barmaid. Her experience of the pub is much like mine of the University, except that her time is filled with serving customers, pulling pints, making coffee, organising rotas, etc. Farting is probably out of the question. She told me about her disappointment about not being able to spend Christmas with her family. That is another form of life, but for her, quite separate from the form of life behind the bar... and the two sometimes conflict. But she doesn't seem too unhappy.

All this leads me to focus on a particular question of education:
"How can one move from one form of life to another?"
We do this all the time, and the business of education is to prepare individuals for a new form of life. But the difference between the novice engineer and the expert is the extent to which they not only inhabit the form of life of the workplace, but integrate it with other forms of life they experience. The difference between the student and the novice is the extent to which attachments to teachers and academic structure for support in the environment of work is lessened. The difference between the student and the delinquent is the extent to which attachments are formed within learning environments that nurture development, rather than being spuriously formed to transitory objects (things and people) in an attempt to avert emotional catastrophe.

Particularly in the latter case, the language of 'opportunity' is hollow. In cases of damaged attachments, deep sensual togetherness is required which goes deeper than linguistic and strategic communications of 'opportunity'. Technology is partly to blame for the macroeconomic forces which have damaged attachments. A sensible strategy for dealing with this is to use technology to fix the things that technology has broken. And we all need a place to fart/think!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Beyond Good and Evil: Creativity and transversal competency

Whilst I'm working on an EU bid on creativity, I'm wondering about the idea that creativity can be considered to be (in the terrible jargon of the European Commission) a 'transversal competency'. I've struggled with the idea of competency generally, and the business of seeing creativity as 'competency' seems to be the most extreme example. What the commission, governments, education ministries, universities want us to think is that creativity can be taught. Now within that assertion, there is a presupposition that creativity sits within the individual's psychological and bodily predispositions and that these dispositions can be acquired through educational processes.

I have no doubt that creativity can be acquired - I have attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in instilling greater creativity in my students. But I believe creativity is a form of life which sits neither within the person or within their environment alone, but is situated as a relation between the two. In our educational processes to establish it, we change the environment as much as try to influence psychological attitude: indeed, our exhortations to change attitude (which the commission might see as instilling competency), or to play (which is the key to creativity) are themselves changes in the environment of the individual, who would hopefully see our efforts as a 'breath of fresh air' after the staid and oppressive social environment of their everyday practice.

But behind such attempts to 'instill' creativity, there is - when they are successful - something deeper. Because creativity is relational there is something fundamentally good about the situation which transforms the form of life of an individual from one where oppression rules to one where individuals feel free to play. The essence of this is the absenting of fear, for it is fear - which is the human reaction to pathological material and social environments - which gets in the way of creativity.

So that then leads me to think that the logical corollary of creativity as a transversal competency is to see 'goodness' as a transversal competency. What would that mean? Would it mean 'goodness' could be learnt through educational process? Of course, goodness is genuinely transversal - applicable is so many contexts! What would the educational processes around instilling 'goodness' look like? But then we might similarly be tempted to say "goodness is a form of life". Which I think it probably is - and indeed related to creativity, as it is related to the absenting of fear.

What then about evil? Could that too be a transversal competency? Let us say that that too is, for the sake of argument, a form of life.. But unlike goodness and creativity, evil is characterised by pathological relations and by individual fear which either constrains creativity, or focuses it to pathological and selfish ends. Of course it is possible to be evil and creative (think of the Nazis), in a way that it may not be possible to be good and uncreative. But that then gives us a problem in thinking about creativity. Because, for those who wish to assert the goodness of creativity and raise it to the status of a transversal competence, do not want to think about the possibility of creative competence used to do evil. That in itself may be a failure of thinking about competency, not creativity.

Competencies are really forms of life: the form of life of being a doctor, builder, academic, computer programmer or hairdresser. Living creatively is to live a particular form of life (which may co-exist with other aspects of a form of life). Those who elevate creativity as a 'competency' mean to think of creativity as essentially good, where the form of life of creativity is the form of life of goodness, and an absenting of fear. But the idea of instilling a 'creative competency' already contains within it a fear of deeper critique of creative processes (which would highlight the meaninglessness of 'competency'). It may contain the seeds of its own pathological unfolding, and the antithesis of the hoped-for 'goodness' of creativity.