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Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied VERY PERSONAL REVIEW

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 2 Mar 2017, 15:40

Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied London, Faber &  Faber

Simon Armitage

What’s in a name? Armitage could have called this volume ‘Solitude’ and in a stroke joined the army of poets and poetasters who have milked this hackneyed stereotype of the poet and poetry. Instead he asks the question: who or what and how do we become ‘the unaccompanied’. Armitage becomes therefore yet again a ‘measure’ (in all its senses) of the social forms and functions of loneliness and its professions in poetry – even down to the wonderful, funny and intensely moving evocation and pastiche of Wordsworth written about an ‘accompanied’ (though the company is ‘borrowed dog’) walk from Dove Cottage (‘The Candlelighter’ p. 56):

I stood in some blind spot of its dark eye

and deer and dog were still and unaware

and stayed that way, divided by that wall:

wild stag and hunting hound in separate worlds,

The sense that ‘division’ whilst real and solidified in objects might be some temporary loss of a fuller and more connected vision persists, lifting poetry back into its social function. The stance we take both connects and distinguishes (at their respective line ends) ‘I’ and ‘its dark eye’, and whilst not promising greater light admits of its possibility.

Hence, a poem that starts with a sorry ghost of Wordsworth in the ‘corpse road’ from Dove Cottage, ends with a kind of secular communion of company that is both also a sorry ghost of community but an admission of its underlying potential. It is as potent as the ambiguities in its half-rhyme (tarn / cairn):

Then I hacked up the ghyll to higher ground

Counting the hikers striding along the ridge,

Thinking of taking a drink from the tarn,

Thinking of adding a new stone to the cairn.

My favourite poem has to be ‘The Claim’ (p. 47). It, like other poems here, shows what I feel to be a new (or perhaps deeper) interest in the unconscious (whatever we take that to be) that is, as in ‘The Candlelighter’, ‘still and unaware’. This poem joins others that humorously or otherwise explore the realms of the undead or, in his most literary of jokes that conjoins Homer with Ezra, ‘Poundland’ (pp. 10f), by pastiching Ulysses’ visitation and libations in Homer’s Hades. The deep mine in ‘The Claim’ is that of the US West but it applies to any claim to own a deeper selfhood (private and dark), let alone that of being a ‘poet’: ‘operation mind-fuck’.

This is a poem about dredging creation out of a thing that feels like death and yet still (the hope is – gloriously realised in this poem) resurrected in a passage that uses snow like one of my other favourite poets, John Burnside, and likewise his deeply ambivalent religious analogy and metaphor.

‘The Unaccompanied’, finally (p. 74), is a glorious poem – one that, were it not too universal for that purpose alone, seems a poem about unaccompanied, sad but ungenerous Brexit Britain, as do others –satirical of the notion that we can ever ‘walk alone’, other than over a precipice. The Company we keep is in the past, present and future – it builds our ‘suspension bridge’ structures that fly in hope of joint survival in each other. I love this great piece because, ambivalent Yorkshireman myself, it bridges for me some of the poets that belong to what Armitage himself wanted to see as a Yorkshire tradition: Tony Harrison, himself (forgive me the others) but also that son of new Yorkshire, the just-risen star of Andrew Macmillan  (there’s father, there’s son)[1]:

Songs about mills and mines and a great war,

About mermaid brides and solid gold hills,

Songs from broken hymnbooks and cheesy films.

 

Then his father’s voice rising out of that choir,

And his father’s father’s voice, and voices

Of fathers before, concerning him only.

Arcing through charged air and spanning the gorge.

He steps over the cliff edge and walks across.

I wonder how much that ‘cliff edge’ owes to the imagery of fear and hope in the Brexit lexicon.   

But to be honest, I am not at all confident that I know why these poems are something new – just that they are. Becoming recognised, midst the ‘alpha males’ of his sixth form as ‘the poet in my heart’ (from Fleetwood Mac of course) raises an image that will forever remind me (now in my 60s) of being ‘outed’ in my Yorkshire school in quite another way although the fear seems less fixable to an event that has or might happen now – just significant of the excitement of transition (in ‘Gravity’ (p. 22f.):

And the airspace that followed

was instantly baubled

with orbs and globes

from the mouths of angels

and an outed choirboy’s

helium bubbles,

 

Till the heavens ballooned

with unworldly apples.

 

Of course, this is clever. In a stanza or two earlier, he sets himself the task of bringing together Isaac Newton and Robert Browning (rhymed with ‘brown-nosing’) but it isn’t the cleverness (the metaphysical wit) I love it is the ability to dig down deep into feeling that emerge from his readers as their own in ways he cannot have known would have happened.

Read them. Enjoy them! They will ‘interpellate’ (I knew that word from Althusser would come in handy one day) you too!

All the best

Steve



[1] Although I think this was just wishful thinking on my part. Those mermaid brides surely come from George Mackay Brown (a first edition of whose poems holds its favoured place in Armitage’s coming-of-age poem (p. 20).


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Hailing Frederick Toates of the OU

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 17 Feb 2017, 19:16

This month's The Psychologist has a brilliant interview with Frederick Toates (click here to open in new window):

Advantages in reading this now are:

He talks sense about the role of biology and psychology, understanding for us some of the silliest turf wars between different 'schools' of psychology - or (but I'm wickedevil) different 'narrow minds' in psychology.

He outlines his own contribution to material on Addiction  - on wanting & liking - current NOW (p. 66).

He talks about his own perspective as an 'expert-by-experience' as a person  combatting OCD (about which he has written a mixed self-help / academic book).

He mentions Skinner and Freud in the same sentence WITHOUT disparaging either.

He extends 'wanting and like' neuropsychology to the study of sex and talks of his recent book.

He talks about his hopes and fears for universities (and the OU).

All the best

Steve



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Lewis, Marc (2015) The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a Disease

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 10 Feb 2017, 20:21

Review of:

Lewis, Marc (2015) The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a Disease Melbourne & London, Scribe Publications

The value of this book can’t be under-estimated and should not be dismissed. Its target is the biomedical model of addiction – the disease model – and its success as a book for me was to further clarify the slipperiness of the term ‘biopsychosocial’ common to contemporary discussions of the aetiology, maintenance and the structuring of supportive interventions in addictions. My background in social work was an early attraction to the term ‘biopsychosocial’ as a means of bridging the divide in the debate between biomedical and psychosocial theories of addiction. However, in practice, this bridging tended to further bolster the biomedical model and relegate psychosocial intervention to a secondary role both in specialist intervention team structures and operations. Such teams often continued to be headed by a psychiatrist.

This for two reasons (although these reasons are solely the product of a retired practitioner’s reflections on past experience):

1.       The ‘bio’ in the biopsychosocial was often regarded as essentially focused conceptually and owned therapeutically by biomedical sub-teams.

2.       Biomedical sub-teams increasingly colonised the psychosocial and, in doing so, gave them a medical flavour, especially at the level of qualification to practice and demonstration of that qualification in role and appearance.

This feature is, of course, in part a product of institutionalised state health providers and less apparent therefore to Lewis in the USA, where the biopsychosocial is conceived as somewhat apart from the biomedical model. In his book, the 'bio' in biopsychosocial is a merely the name of organisation of a knowledge of embodied systems and is much easier to pit against a biomedical system that is essentiall run for profit. 

I tried to draw this distinction in the following figure.

Biopsychosocial & Biomedical

 

In the figure, the biomedical merely occupies the same terrain as a conceptual biopsychosocial model but it interprets that terrain differently – through the lens of qualified and exclusive practice. Any realistic understanding of that figure will, of course, readily admit that there will be a trade between the biomedical and conceptual biopsychosocial but that both need to be kept distant in our thinking, at least at the level of theory and intervention planning. As Lewis shows, some descriptions of neuronal activity can describe change in neurobiological and neuroanatomy in terms other than ‘disease’ and can make legitimate analogy between the features of socially validated and socially invalidated learning. 

Thus while the life-processes in the life of a ‘junkie’ are seen now as best described in arcs of ‘recovery’ from a deficit position, the processes involved in falling in, and out of, love and learning literature or neurobiology are seen as ‘normative’ learning processes. Yet all these processes can be described throughout the nested processes shown in our circular system set in the figure above. For Lewis, given free reign and dominance, the biomedical (even when it imports and colonises aspects of the psychosocial) retains interests that are solely its own – those of professional exclusiveness and top-down control of the person experiencing learning through addiction. His stories of the horrors of treatment centres ring so true to me from my working life (p. 212) - although that is not to say I didn't see islands of good personal practice.

One sign of the difference in the way the biopsychosocial is conceived in Lewis is the Birmingham Reach Out Recovery (p. 214) intervention in which a large part of the intervention was fuelled by consulting groups of former addicts who worked with each other to socialise and increase access to support. Often that support appears little less than avenues and ‘recovery-friendly shops’ for the ‘addict’ to build on and generate new story from their old stories, stories which appear to have got stuck in 'now-appeal' as he calls it. That this is more truly biopsychosocial, Lewis argues, is seen in the deficiencies of time and professional personnel controlled CBT and even mindfulness interventions that measure input and output but do not generate motivation or change (in themselves). The stress is on narrative (I can see the biomedical teams now developing training for nurses in ‘narrative therapy’ - indeed it has been happening some time) but not narrative aimed at 'therapy' as such but in generating motivated movement in the stalled neuroplasticity in the brain of the addict (locked into what Lewis call ‘now-appeal’).

So if desire cannot be turned off or seduced away from addictive goals, then it has to be fastened to goals incompatible with addiction – goals such as freedom from suffering, achievement of life projects, access to loving relationships, and the sense of coherence and self-love that can come with abstinence. And if those goals cannot be envisioned, because of a static pre-occupation with the present, then self-narrative and desire need to be packaged together – self-narrative to shift perspective to long-range goals, desire to power the pursuit of these goals.

Stories don’t work without emotional themes. They would be impossible to follow. ….

This (from a neuro-scientist) is now conceivable because neuroscience, unlike the sterile discipline of cognitive psychology, has freed itself from a merely cognitive and merely behavioural interest – its interest in those brain processes called emotion and drive would have shocked Skinner, Pavlov, and Beck. Now no-one dare write about psychology without recognising ‘Descartes’ Error’ (Antonio Damasio).  

So this book genuinely revels in all its centre parts on biographical (and some autobiographical), stories of addiction that are a long way from the mechanical nature of the Jellinek curve. Its bookend chapters are helpful though with definitions of brain anatomy and processes that can be understood by anyone – and while this book can replace no textbook accounts for a learner in higher education, it can make their limitations and gaps clear to both pure scientists and practitioners: pure science, that is, which is not still married merely to positivism. Look for instance at the genius of the everyday science explanation of the anatomy and function of the Orbito-Frontal Cortex (p. 82). If you are a beginning learner (or even if you began a whole ago) you can learn a lot from that.

I love this book.

Steve

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Nadeem Aslam (2017) The Golden Legend London, Faber & Faber

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 22 Jan 2017, 08:12

Nadeem Aslam (2017) The Golden Legend London, Faber & Faber

Reading Nadeem Aslam is like returning to the great Victorians – he is a writer who like them does not consider belief, thought and thinking, writing and reading to be the prerogative of writers alone – his characters do that. We share their reading sometimes and the irreducibility of the marriage of their sources of thought, thinking and belief in understanding their actions. That makes him a complex troubling writer because he does not deny even the most ‘dangerous’ of beliefs its voice. Hence people find him either too ‘preachy’ (mistaking the intellectual life of his characters for his own) or too inclusive. In fact he makes readers experience the very conflict in which his characters are absorbed.

Thus an intellectual and retired architect, the Christian Margaret who is also the Muslim Nargis, is often seen with a book – to be repaired or absorbed or shared. We share with her (on p, 245) a reading that emphasises the complicity of power with the maintenance of conflicts he pretends to despise, even in its self-regarding architecture. Her thought moves to an everyday conversation and thence onto reflection (p.245f) on the idea of history and talk about history as a present force in everyday conversation. The processes are those of the perpetuation of conflict in interaction, and the role in it of all discourses – written or oral and every day;

…she and Massud had fallen into a conversation with a Tunisian air steward, who had said, ‘There are a lot of Italian visitors in my country.’ And when Nargis had asked him to explain, he replied, @It is due to the Punic Wars. They haven’t left yet.’ Nargis had to look up the detail of the Punic wars. They had taken place between 264 BC and 164 BC.

To the minds of combatants causes are located in actions and reactions to contingent events and thence to ideas that shape action. No cause is seen as entirely reducible to its circumstances – even when that cause persists as a moment of inter-group (as in the air-steward) of inherited distrust and hate. It animate conflict between groupings and within groupings – a point from which Aslan started his writing career. Aslam understands the persistence of belief to sustain action – whether religious or political – his characters live in the beliefs of global Communism as much as the recurring waves of conflict within and between Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities. Places become confluences where these beliefs conglomerate throwing up architectural and other cultural traces or their simulacrums.

Moscow, otherwise known as Imran, remembers from his youth the following chilling summary, although he does not reflect on it. He lets it stay hard and gem-like as a vignette of Aslams’s own writing:

‘… things being as bad as they are,’ the baker said to the two brothers earlier ‘this world won’t last for much longer.’

‘I’ve got news for you, uncle’, Laal had replied. ‘The world will survive forever, with everything staying exactly as it is now.’ (p. 243)

On the day after Trump’s inauguration into bile, this makes me feel that hope and fear for the world are much the same thing. Only characters who become ghosts absorbed into the quotidian beyond its boundary-setting (in this great books final chapters) ever escape – and, in fact, do they? The question in this fiction remains open.

Deeply embedded pessimism is not the feel of this novel however, although it finds its hope in the most visceral of responses to belief and in the most desperate acts. A key one is where Lily journeys through a black sewer in which his blood flows and human shit contaminates him to the very core, Bishop Solomon, on a journey to one such act, contemplates what survives acknowledgement that the reduction of self to matter – flesh, bone, blood and ‘waste’ in a beautiful phrase that A.S, Byatt (as another novelist of this ambition) would thrill to. The Bishop finds ‘a brilliant splinter in the meat or bone’ (p. 318).

A man of deep reflection that splinter is of the meat and bone but also imported to it from crystalline sources without. The passage ends with the Bishop taking down and reading with us, his reader, a picture of William Blake, reading Milton, the Bible and Shakespeare in the ‘horrid light’ (the Miltonic penumbra of ‘a mighty and awful change (that) threatened the Earth. The American War began. All its dark horrors…’ (p. 319)

I quote these parts because they represent for me the sheer grandeur of the novelist standing against the modish novel of feeling. Few novelists would dare to go the journey of reliving the Victorian novel – a hero of my own, Tom McCarthy, actually only picks out the symptoms of why such novels could be considered impossible for his sparse but beautiful art.

Read this novel then for its belief in ‘character’ (a belief under great threat of course) and for its refusal to embrace easy options – even in the shape of one’s plot – for feeling good about the world. And let’s face it: Donald Trump’s fatuous sense that a nation can choose to feel good within severely restricted boundaries is impossible to contemplate without the victory of Seligman’s sham ‘positive psychology’ behind it.

Don’t listen to me. The book is full of life and beauty. Read it and live it. You will, I am sure.

All the best

Steve


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Reading Burnside, John (2017) Ashland and Vine London, Jonathan Cape.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 17 Jan 2017, 16:41

Burnside, John (2017) Ashland and Vine London, Jonathan Cape.

Some writers seem, when you have grown to love their writing, to be continually writing the same novel – a novel that does not exist in the past or present but is ever emergent in the future. Some of the same issues get raised and some iconic landscapes – For Burnside it is deserted snowscapes – but what emerges in each outing is truly new, liberating for its reader and writer because it allows one’s history to resonate in a new place, as if it belonged there. The major theme is of ‘Elsewhere’.

It took me a while to see it clear, but from the start, no matter how far I travelled, it was always elsewhere that I truly loved. … Blown snow muddling the road and a few horses standing off by themselves, in a dark that might just go on forever. Elsewhere. You find it from time to time and then it’s gone. … When you catch a glimpse of elsewhere, no matter how brief it is, you could be forgiven for thinking happiness and time are the same thing. (p. 317)

This describes the scene of Burnside’s novels, a place that is hard to locate but exists nevertheless though always as immanent, if on occasion emergent. In this case what has emerged is a truly great novel that absorbs itself in and articulates American experience in ways that very few novels do – whilst keeping its foot ‘elsewhere’ in time and space. It is not only Burnside’s own novels and life -experience (as we have it in his multi-form memoirs) that we have here – in the animal prints in the snow and the patterns they suggest - but also a bricolage of literary traditions that might seem miles from each other in purpose and form. Hence American Road novel can meet up with the thematic and purpose of Iris Murdoch’s search for a temporal solace that might enable us to give up hopes of ‘elsewhere’ as a place outside human time: a false heaven known to be so because all heavens are false. Even a short novel like this can, at this point in Burnside’s career bear a weight of metaphysics (p. 335):

… history is not the sum of what matters here. That it’s not a single, or even manifold, narrative that makes reality. What matters is the fabric of time and place, …

These excerpts necessarily hide the novel you read because generically this novel is impossible to classify: bildungsroman, spy thriller, political novel and war story. All of them make part of the ‘manifold narrative that yet is more, since its patterns are yet to be realised. In this uncertainty, I felt a pressure I have not felt before so strongly in Burnside on the everyday experience of gender and sexual identification (though it is clearly there at the mythic level in A Summer of Drowning (another novel that took me by storm). I think this is perhaps because this novel of rediscovery of the memory of a whole family so clearly charts the mix of the political, the personal and the liberating so clear to us now in the accumulated ‘happenings’ and self-disclosures of the seventies, lead inevitably from the USA, the ‘Forgotten History of America (p. 9).

Hence this story, which sort of hangs around a central theme of love between two women (still tentatively suppressed by other narrative accidents, resonates elsewhere in difficulties in locating together notions of self and gender that make one whole.  I have not (maybe through insensitivity but I don’t think, if so, it was that alone) in Burnside before.

For instance, I had troubled ambivalence about ‘sexing’ the primary narrative voice from the beginning of the novel. I missed something perhaps but there was (for a gay follower like myself of a novelist not usually working anywhere near the arena of gay writing) something like a frisson when I hear the narrative voice speak of having moved on from being ‘with a girl …, a beautiful dark-eyed Minnesotan called Ruth …’ (p. 6) to a ‘an arrangement, mostly tacit, but an arrangement nevertheless’ with the novel’s dark-heart, almost a parodic romantic male lead:

He was tall, good-looking, highly intelligent, imaginative; he was an artist, with a resumé to prove it and there was an added attraction of a dark side … (p. 8).

In my eyes the chance that this mirrored my own youthful crushes was a potential about which I was only later let down from (horrible deposition) lightly. Right or wrong about this effect, it is entirely possible a consummate artist like Burnside could have planned it, so much does it shadow the central story of Jean and Lee, a story we only get in full in the novel’s final chapter.

This novel, though short, reads like an epic, like the cult films its characters so often watch. Burnside was on the Booker panel that shortlisted Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (though I wouldn’t dare to blame him for that), an American novel of enormous size and pretension  which was at the time widely mistaken for ‘epic’ qualities, whose outcomes could be more nearly satisfactory in a very short story. Sometimes I wonder, though Burnside began Ashland and Vine well before that point, whether he, a master in my eyes, is showing the novice debut novelist how an apprenticeship to epic value is truly to be won – by locking time and space into a shorter space and working within it. If he was, he has proved himself, as indeed he has if he wasn’t aiming to deliver that lesson.

A novel that can tell the story of My Lai amongst narratives that encapsulate other histories that add up to a notion of the USA and yet totally involve you with its heroine and her break from booze to some sort of apprehension of passing time and history is a very great novel indeed. Burnside’s finer points continue to be missed by Booker panels however, so I can only hope that this time he will be rewarded in that way. A novelist who can write a short novel about so much and yet also attempt to discover within it why and how we tell stories in the ways we do (and sometimes don’t) surely has his reward ‘elsewhere’ but that may be to take metaphysics too far.

But I feel like finishing, since I’m trying to avoid spoilers, with a taste of its grasp of tale-telling, history and the search for personal and communal meaning. Its subtlety is typical – so much so that it might still go unnoticed how narrative and historic space and time coincide as a form of looking back to the forgotten and forward to its potential yet to come. I know Burnside continues a prophet of the left – however defeated we may seem.

… it seemed clear to me that, now she was halfway through the telling she had hit a place she couldn’t get past, or not easily, not for now. She was walking quickly, not looking back, as if she had forgotten me, and I hesitated a moment, wondering if she needed to be left to herself for a while, before I made up my mind and followed her along the bright empty street, past the old county court buildings, before she swerved off to the right and headed down Ridgeview, past empty lots and anonymous commercial buildings, heading for Shelleyville, the workers’ cooperative village built by a nineteenth century industrialist and social visionary back in the 1890s, Finally, she stopped at a crossways and stood at a kerb, looking out toward what once would have been the edge of town and was now all sprawl. (pp. 117f.)

I hope you find that as rich and impressive as I do.

All the best

Steve


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Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, visited 13/01/17 ‘Out of Chaos’

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 14 Jan 2017, 16:46

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, visited 13/01/17 ‘Out of Chaos’

 

There is no doubt that the issue of identity and migration feels a pretty important one at the moment from whatever angle or perspective you look at it – even more so the ‘unheimlich’ (‘uncanny’ as it is translated from Freud to English) feeling that what passes under the name of ‘home’ is no such thing, bearing threats under a fragile surface.

‘Out of Chaos’ displays exhibits from the Ben Uri Museum detailing the long experience of migration and identity preservation under the most appalling circumstances of Jewish people. Here we see lots of interiors that feel exposed but also other interiorities that are exposed to an unsympathetic gaze. The wonder of those paintings is that they show us that this gaze might be our own – that of the viewer / voyeur. The huge painting variously identified as ‘The Family’ or ‘The Emigrants’ by Hageman (1910) dominates a long wall, such that it can only be seen by real or virtual (the roving eye) parade across it. What we see as we do so is a line of eyes that engage aggressively or proudly and not at all (as it seems) with our own – whilst others look, especially the young girl nearest our own gaze somewhat afraid of what they see in us. Either that or she is lost in the kind of vacancy of the person supposed to remain unseen and whom supposes herself to be so.

Grosz Interrogation The reality of anti-Semitism as an enforced aspect of Jewish identity is as evident here as in the more appalling exhibits that paint a permanent record of the Holocaust such as Grosz’s (1938) ‘The Interrogation’ where Jewish flesh softens, quavers and bleeds against the brittle hardness of an appalling interrogation or Herman’s (1941) saga of the flight of Jewish families during the Warsaw night (under the appalling dominion of a black cat devouring a mouse as it stalks roofs smaller than itself.

Chagall Apocalypse 

One painting gave me a sense of the potential of visual art to take on the qualities of poetic narrative epic and has now allowed to see, for the first time, a painter I have struggled to like, Marc Chagall.  ‘APOCALYPSE AT LILAS, Capriccio’ (1945) use spare colours – formed from different kinds of ink and washes together with pencil – to capture the central Jewish Christ (a common icon for Jewish suffering under the Nazis) in all her naked androgyny. Surrounded by smaller discrete finely drawn narratives of rape and dispossession of the symbols of identity, including a Torah, the artist plays with symbols of ascent, descent – of time itself in a huge inverted clock and pendulum – animal and human boundaries – including the metamorphosis of the Nazi to the dog it tramples. I cannot talk about this picture. It is beautiful but painful – and epic.

These motifs do not die out but their political intent changes with context and disturbs. Thus a powerful photograph by Dvir (2007) of the Homesh Evacuation / Taken Down again uses crucifixion imagery – here recalling the deposition genre of Christian art (at its best perhaps in Rubens) on behalf of Israeli West Bank settlers. This is complexly emotional, as Dvir describes it ‘the intensity of belief driving people to extreme and sometimes surreal situations.’(quoted Cork et. al. 2015:147).

Bomber Ghetto Theatre 

What comes home to us is that the themes of Holocaust art are also clearly seen in the painting of those Jewish artists called, it seems, the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, Bomberg, Gertler Soutine & Kossof, These paintings speak of an identity under threat – protective and dislocated. We barely have the comfort of an understandable perspective for instance on the harmonies and disunities of Bomberg’s great oil, Ghetto Theatre (1920). I kept coming back to that.

There is light and shade – the awful angst of Simeon Solomon’s pained exploration of same-sex desire (Night Looking upon Sleep 1895) with its Pre-Raphaelite yearning and tragedy can be compared to Assayag’s (2004) celebration of a male to male marriage (Michael and Elie).

Segal Harbour 

And then there are paintings that merely make us see and are so beautiful. Segal’s ‘Halen, Le Ciotat (1929) is merely a harbour – one that yearns to be seen as style alone on first glance – being an amalgam of effects from Cubism, Impressionism and pointillism but here serving a greater gain that puts these schools in the shade – making us see beyond and behind its prettiness and ‘colours’, assemblages of people on the harbour that appear and disappear – are there but, at the same time, are not. That on the sunny verge of Nazi occupation and devastating loss of those same people. A poem and a painting – whose idyll is deceptive.

All the best

 

Steve


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Putative Teaching Exercises on Reflection for Learning DD210

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 8 Jan 2017, 08:29


Here is an exercise I am aiming to use to teach skills in multimodal literacy for the purposes of reflection & learning - with apologies to the great Charles Fernyhough for mangling his lovely text in Slide 1. In Slide 2, the categories in the coloured boxes are ones introduced in the particular Block of the course textbook (Turner et. al. 2015). The TMA that learnrer are preparing for requires them to reflect, using concepts from the textbook block on 2 diary entries about their personal experience AND on a multi-media object.

This exercise tries to combine diary-like writing (even if of a very high ordedr in the original) with picture.

Slide 3 is one I use that is of a lesser order for contrast.

Slide 1

Slide 2

Me in my study

All the best

Steve

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Flesh – Exhibition York Art Gallery visited 05/01/17

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 6 Jan 2017, 08:56

Flesh – Exhibition York Art Gallery visited 05/01/17

I suppose you visit exhibitions such as this drawn by ‘great’ names, and indeed the exhibits by Rubens, Rodin, Bacon, Lucian Freud and Kneebone are all worth the entrance fee. However, I came away with largely surprised by the work of William Etty, particularly the exploration of skin, ‘race’ and sexuality in some featured pieces. Suddenly the Etty world of doughy white ‘female beauties’ that I wrongly associated with this artist and wrongly disliked him for were put into a rare and radical context. One piece shows a nude male tied by the hands (somewhat decoratively), from a high studio scaffold such that, the information given on the wall tells us, Etty could help the model to display the fall of flesh over the torso under such restraint in ways impossible to unaided poses over the durations possible for life-modelling. Yet here is a painting that recalls the homoerotic material in Caravaggio more than any other one might see. Yet divorced from the underpinning of a story of significant torture, such as the Christian stories offered earlier artists: what remains is a study of flesh itself as an empty container for meanings that are uncomfortable but pressing and necessary.

This exhibition explores the use of flesh as a signifying model across multiple domains and potentials for meaning. Flesh as the material of predation – meat – and its meaning determined by drives within predation (whether as commodity offered to the appetite for food or erotic fulfillment), or flesh as that commonality which makes our mortality bearable and bounded (a common vulnerability). If all ‘flesh is grass’, flesh ties us to death and yet sublimes within itself the potential for massive non-corporeal meaning and attempts at transcendence.

Etty’s nude wrestlers contrast black and white skin and flesh in a moment of male combat where other meanings emerge – even changes in skin colour as a white man’s embrace recolours the skin of an encircling arm (a trick of light or of meaning). We see all that differently again in a wonderful study of male flesh in animated combat in Steve McQueen’s Bear (1993) where every meaning and attribution of the significance of flesh is dramatically tested as action morphs aggression and predation into balletic dance, as light turns flesh colour and surface into many forms, merely by the act of looking from multiple perspectives.

Sometimes flesh is the material of art – the patches of preserved skin from convicts bearing tattoos etched by needle or whatever sharp (or blunt) instrument that the prisoner could procure and then suddenly flesh that is on the cusp between life and death becomes to bear meanings that inevitably evoke iconic representations of metaphor of flesh as animal and human. Flesh in decay or in consumption be an animated. The animated videos showing the decomposition by maggots of a dead hare twists that body into wondrous shapes but this is recalled in the painted series of the death and decomposition of a high-class Japanese woman in a series of paintings in another room.

The still life corpses of Dutch art of the everyday get recalled precisely by a manufactured corpse of a deer, in which its potential to be embodied humanity often gets realised as we wander round it. The otherwise difficult-to-watch video installation ‘Meat Joy’ shows naked volunteer actors demonstrating fleshly manipulations as on the cusp of animal and human, drive or sublimation, sex as conjoined with predation or empathy or both together.

A tile-wall erupts into monstrous life only to display ambiguous signs of death and deindividuated and uncontained fleshly parts (Varejão 2000). An image that contains reference to the complex mix of the means of sustaining life and losing. And then flesh and fat. There are potent images here of how these ‘ideas’ are linked in socio-cultural and aesthetic configurations – although very unstable ones, where the definition of beauty and its opposite are in play, sometimes joyfully (as some may feel about Rubens and Benglis’ ‘Eat Meat’ - a mass of fatty fluid flesh on the floor styled in bronze.

There is SO much more to say but see it – PLEASE. It is mind-changing, which is perhaps to also say flesh metamorphosing.

All the best

Steve


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Monica Bonvicini: Exhibition Gateshead BALTIC Visited 28/12 16

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 28 Dec 2016, 17:57

Monica Bonvicini: Exhibition Gateshead BALTIC Visited 28/12 16. Below: Bonvicini (2014)Bonvicini (2014)

Geoff & I attended this exhibition (click here to open BALTIC website in a new window) with no prior knowledge of Monica Bonvicini and with little expectation that we would enjoy the experience. But what we found was better than enjoyment. It strikes me the best that can be achieved in viewing art is not enjoyment but the ability to ‘experience’ the ‘experience’ as an effect of the bodily senses, emotions and cognition – which is to find no difference between these categories whilst the experience remains that – just an experience.

Analysing experience is different but it happens simultaneously with ‘experiencing’ in the best art. This experience is not easy to put a name to –Freud called it a ‘sublimation’ and a defence against more primal ideas, but continuing to use the word is to expect the word ‘sublimation’ in a post Freudian context to do a lot more work that it is used to doing. The word is insanely elitist in association – a thing of high art.

What Bonvicini does is to take something basic, every day – in this sense alone ‘primal’ – and ask us to experience it anew – ‘queered’ by previously unexplored contexts. She links two senses of the ‘primal’ – what is basic – the ‘room’ or ‘space’ we live in throughout different phases of living – home, work, and leisure – and ties it to the ‘erotic’. The wall of the Baltic (an old flour mill – designed like ‘Mother’s Pride to satisfy) yells in large letters ‘SATISFY ME’, challenging the institution within or its temporary inhabitants – guests like ourselves – to begin to query on our intellect, senses and emotion what ‘satisfaction’ artistic institutions claim to give and the nature of the experience itself. We see those words again, printed on a dining table in a space mimicking a dining room / space. Who or what is satisfied here – by what? Spread out along a table the words call to be penetrated by experience but of what precisely would ‘satisfying experience’ consist.

Elsewhere hammock like swings mime the mechanism of sado-masochistic ‘pleasure’. The themes of ‘construction of space – architecture plus painful work – merge with those of deconstruction and pleasure. It is a complex disturbing experience. How better to see than by reading the completed questionnaire pro-formas adorning a whole wall in which construction workers answer questions about ‘how well do you get on with gay workers who work alongside you?’. Suddenly it seems a sensible question to ask: is traditional architecture and its probing tools inescapably heterosexist and ‘masculinist’ (if we look long enough we find a form completed by a woman who is a lesbian and a construction: ‘I only know me and I get on with myself just fine!’ she says. Plenty of those tools and chain-mail (‘male’) constructions and illusions of construction and disappearance get experienced as you pass them by in all their tarry or silvery/glittery hardness.

And then a repeated image of a pair of pincers embroidered differently in 200 different small frames show pincers (created in this most feminine (traditionally) mode such that gender, sex and sexuality all come to the fore. These hard pincers variably have to come to terms with the soft materials that construct them – woven images where mimesis of hard metal deconstructs into twine surrounding pincers – but in multiple ways. Twine that binds the pincers open (partially or wholly) or shut, twine that merely decorates and softens, twine that hardens and rigidifies a tool meant to be flexible.

And a hard wall – huge – called ‘Weaving’ (masculine / feminine in contrast even here) made of a collage / bricolage of regularly cut (but of varying sizes) rectangles containing pictures of soft body parts – legs especially. This is a work that literally absorbs the gaze in a very embodied manner.

There is too much of great wonder here. We bought two books on her and left in a daze to glance through at our ease and hopefully – perhaps – to return.

Did the artist demand the signs for the exhibits – ‘Do not Touch’ with the insistence that these sets of leather, chain and tar aggregations of construction materials and tools are vulnerable (easy to sustain damage) from our tentative touch. In this sense the ‘exhibition’ queries itself and its artists through the construction of a notion of art itself as ‘untouchable’ – as separate from the body, while miming it. Coming back from a visit to the toilet I passed the entrance door again where a young woman, a custodian of the Baltic, stood near the ‘Do Not TOUCH sign. AS I passed her towards the exit staircase a man heading to the toilet I had exited passed by both of us. He said very loudly to the woman and to an audience, of which I constituted a part: ‘Does that mean you’ in as cheeky a Geordie accent as I have heard. Nothing in that was meant to be threatening. But art makes us see and perhaps absorbs contingent experiences like this, into its orbit of reflection so that we are reflexively compromised by the meanings of the art itself.

Or at least that is what I thought. As we left and walked back along the Tyne, I had to hold Geoff’s hand.

All the best

Steve

Bonvicini, M. (2014) Self-portrait from 'Monica Bonvicini: Bio' on Bonvicini website. Available from: http://monicabonvicini.net/bio/ (Accessed 28/12/16).

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Academics & Anecdote

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 11 Dec 2016, 16:02

Academics & Anecdote

My experience of the world of people who identify as ‘academics’ – now a very wide category indeed - is mixed and I don’t myself now make the self-identification but one thing is sure, public pronouncements of their purpose and function are often compromised by the very contradictory manifestation of how ‘academics’ operate in institutions revealed by anecdote.

Sometimes this, more than anything reveals the practical consequences of very dangerous assumptions – about the purity and independence of subjects from applied interests or vocations.

What raised this question for me is the following from Guy Claxton (2015). Claxton is a very serious educational psychologist but he is also a ‘populariser’ as a writer in psychological sciences – writing person to person to his audience. In fact I like him for that – it makes him an even better educator.

He contrasts in his book the long period in which Psychology valorised its function as a pure science of reason, with its peak achievement in cognitive psychology (understood as the study of mind divorced from ‘reductive’ physical sciences). The pendulum has swung but I wonder if the anecdote Claxton (2015:30) uses to illustrate its effects still holds water in the practice of selective interview for undergraduate entry.

So human beings… pared down to their most rational and abstract capabilities, were deprived of almost everything that made them rich and interesting and real. Anything to do with psychoanalysis, or feelings, or friendships, or even ordinary interests …, was treated with a neglect that bordered on disdain. In my days as a young graduate student at Oxford in the early 1970s, I became involved in interviewing sixth-formers who wanted to read psychology. The only bit of advice I was given, for this important task, was to ask them if they were interested in ‘what makes people tick’, and if they said they were, to reject them.

Not long ago I remember that some university-based interviewers in social work would likewise boast that they would automatically reject applicants who said they wanted to enter the profession because they cared about people.

Claxton, G. (2015) Intelligence in the Flesh: Why your Mind needs your Body much more than it Thinks New Haven, Yale University Press.

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Matthew Griffin (2016) Hide London, Bloomsbury

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 10 Dec 2016, 21:03

Matthew Griffin (2016) Hide London, Bloomsbury

It is difficult to over-state the significance of this novel either as a transformation of the niche quality of the male gay novel but also of the metaphysical novel –exploring the experience mortality torn free of false hopes of salvation or eternity.

The title indicates the rich themes. It is a novel in which things are hidden – not least the central relationship (a marriage if there ever was one) between Wendell and Frank that is forever disguising its meaning in fear of the disgust and retribution of others – perhaps even from their introjections in these men’s (especially Frank’s) lives. But ‘hide’ is also that we bear in common with the animals – skin and covering hair, and a thing of great importance to Wendell, a retired but still practicing, in every way, taxidermist – resurrecting skin to a notion of its contents.

What skin covers or hides is very much the topic of the novel at its most painful – I cannot even bear to recollect the fate of Daisy, the dog representing in part the love of the two men for each other (their baby p.203) – but our inattentive disgust at bodily effluvia and slippery inner organs or matter released is a constant in the novel. In Frank’s bodily deterioration – to a collector of his own urine and faeces to other secret or dark interiors which people in the novel variously find disturbing, even potentially disgusting like the inadequately sized implements Frank fills with urine and sometimes faeces or ‘secrets’ so deep no-one knows their contents:

For a moment he stands absolutely still, as I’ve caught him at something illicit (p.180).

There is a moment where Frank and Wendell hold hands together under the skin of a deer as the work on it, feeling its edges tremble ‘with surface tension as they stretched wide’. That is a precise description of the prose here as if gives away its themes just below the ‘hide’ (a passage in which the word ‘married’ does a lot of work):

I watched our fingers creep under it, a little bit at a time, along the warm, slick neck, all the way to the top of the spine, nearly to the skull, until the skin was so delicate and married to the muscle we could see it stretch across our fingertips, the hairs that covered it spreading apart to show the paled hide underneath. … He looked like he was going to be sick. If we pushed any further, our fingers would tear through, out into the cold, thin air.     

This novel strains to comprehend mortal love like no other while being enmeshed in selves, bodies, communities and changing social mores and ideologies. The moving passages refuse to hide what sustainable love must mean – which is to confront pain, waste and death. In a novel almost where what is spoken of as ’sex’ is absent, physical love is experienced when Wendell clears the ‘mess’ off of Frank’s now odorous body. This passage is painfully beautiful that shows him handling Frank’s ‘privates’:

When I touch them, they rise a little, then fall again, like a wounded animal heaving a shallow breath: like the first bird I ever held in my hands, … I felt its life gutter and go out. I was surprised by the brittleness of its wings. There was no grace in them at all. (p. 246)

As in The Winter’s Tale the search for love is confounded by the search for grace. If grace exists, it is still, cold, statuesque. Love lives when it cares and remembers, compares and remains:

He kisses me on the corner of the mouth, whiskers tickling my lips, and turns to go. His stubble’s soft now. Used to scrape me till I was sore. (p. 25)

That kiss recalls the one given to the dying Daisy which captures the dog’s saliva (a tense moment of disgust and passion) at the corner of her mouth, a kiss for Frank who like ‘each man’ has ‘killed the thing he loves’.

Read this book if you can. I write about it in the hope I can lose some of the visceral nature of the memories it leaves in me.Biut it really is worth it. Pain or no pain!

All the best

 

Steve


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Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool; THE SYNTAX OF POWER AND THE OU

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 26 Nov 2016, 15:46

BLOG 25/11/16 Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool; THE SYNTAX OF POWER AND THE OU

 

It has been brought to my attention that a number of ~~~~~ students have been using Facebook to discuss TMA 01. Not only have students been asking questions on Facebook that would more appropriately have been raised in their ~~~~~ cluster forum, but also other students have been answering those questions in, effectively, the role of a tutor".

 

 

This missive has very recently been sent (via a course newsletter) to the learners on an OU module. I have tried to let it rest on my mind,but  as a tutor in the OU and more importantly, one of its learners, have FAILED TO DO SO. Why I thought?

 

I think it is because of the combination of notions of authority and power in the portrayed notion of tutor identity. this phenomenon was once examined by the wonderful Sian Bayne in Bayne (2005) in which she demonstrated the gap between learners and tutors on OU online interactions. The former learned through the play of identity afforded by forums, the other not. Why? Because 'tutor identity' was fixed (discourse analysis seemed to show) in models of authority.

 

In my view those models are uncomfortably mixed, as it authority unexamined, were easily to fall into an exercise of pure power.

 

But there is something in the syntax too of our note to learners that worried me. What is it? The rhythms of prose and verse have sung in my head since grammar school – it took some doing and it seemed a transformation of identity too far, but then in the 1960s transformation of class and status (the working class boy made good) were both painful and in some sense delicious – accessing new potential powers . It was work but now it’s some kind of secret joy, but also worry (now I no longer work formally).

 

What rankled here was the ‘Not only … but also’ clause. It seemed a means of suggesting the enormity of some error or sin that it was difficult to specify. But what is that sin? Transgression of role – a learner has dared to act ‘as if’ a tutor.

 

This is I suddenly remembered the position of Lear – losing authority but seeking to retain some shadow of it from studied refection on his life. What does he get from his daughter – a ‘not only but also’ clause, that appears in its order and organization to attempt to control the very riot of excess to which it points.

Goneril, Lear & Fool


GONERIL

(to LEAR) Not only, sir, this your all-licensed fool,

But other of your insolent retinue

Do hourly carp and quarrel, breaking forth

In rank and not-to-be-endurèd riots. Sir,

I had thought by making this well known unto you

To have found a safe redress, but now grow fearful

By what yourself too late have spoke and done

That you protect this course and put it on

By your allowance—which if you should, the fault

Would not ’scape censure, nor the redresses sleep

Which in the tender of a wholesome weal

Might in their working do you that offense,

Which else were shame, that then necessity

Will call discreet proceeding.

 

That is what I was hearing in the shadow of the module leader. Do not presume to do as I do – do not take on the role of teacher. Why, we might ask. It is not appropriate?  Because it constitutes an anomaly in the hierarchy of authority power dreams to be sacred and unchangeable. It is ‘not to be endured riot’ for someone to take on the role of protector where power is, in fact none. The fact of powerlessness lies in the effect of Goneril’s imaginings of an order that will harm those who disturb it :

 

Might in their working do you that offense

 

You will be put down – put in your place, act within the license I give you – or all ‘necessity’ will seem harsh to you. The same powers our module leader takes on in their syntax and lexis – attention, and proper distribution of the relative rights to raise and answer questions. Challenged by learners, that same module leader said they were doing it for learners' own good. Having taken it in the subject Academic Board, all agreed that ‘prevention was better than cure’. However, the ‘cure’ is the same hidden threat as that now possessed by Goneril – to exclude and unhouse – to threaten any chance of identity at all if you do not take the one I give you. Lear on the heath in the storm. The threat of deinstitutionalisation – the threat of loss of ‘degree’.

 

Once noble, Open University! How can you support this discourse? I can just about stomach the hatred of Facebook. I don’t like Facebook that much myself but of the right to cross boundaries – that is another matter. In a sense, great educationalists (Vygotsky, Bruner, and Engestrom) teach us that learning is transgression and boundary-crossing. That which needs ‘scaffolding’ will be that that requests it be taken down or that THAT FINDS a better way of providing it amongst peers – without the costs of patronage it once had (another rich word).

 

All the best

 

Steve


Bayne, S (2005) Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace in Land, R and Bayne, S (eds) Education in Cyberspace. London: RoutledgeFalmer

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Who cares about Harriet Martineau

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 24 Nov 2016, 19:00

If you have a chance go and see this play at the Live Theatre at Newcastle (just across from the Sage). CLICK HERE for details in a NEW WINDOW.

I went (TODAY) because (now an old man ruined by psychology and psychologists) I was once a raw Literature student in London. Since then, I have loved Harriet Martineau. Known as a 'bluestocking' in the nineteenth century and a classic bore (Thomas Carlyle's comment is used in the play), she was the intellectual equal of George Eliot - even worked with the latter on the Westminster Review under Eliot's editorship and was writing work on Comtian theories of social change (and the peasantry) when Eliot was preparing Romola.

Her causes linked always to her feminism but never stopped there, such that she was a grew into an international anti-slavery campaigner. She wrote for children to bring to them an international idea (Feast on the Fjords) as well as adults and was resuscitated in her novel Deerbrook by Virago, the feminist publisher in its heyday.

But she also lived in an upstairs room in Tynemouth (for 5 years I believe but I'm going from a poor memory) where she wrote - Life In a Sick Room. Convinced she was dying, some theorists link her role as an invalid (like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's) to the invalidity once the damning judgement of the worth (outside vapid ideals) of women's lives in the nineteenth century.

This play's Martineau has a lighter turn (though equipped with the same ear trumpet). It is a feel-good play (almost an adult pantomime as the play once self-consciously jokes) about values of social justice, life and transformative learning. Class, race, gender (all get mixed) - the beautiful symbol for instance of Beulah, a cross -dressing young woman whose memories span her mother's enslavement passage (in a memory reminiscent of Turner's Slave-Ship) to A London that was changing though Tynemouth was not. Funny - it therefore sanitises white racism in humour in order to emphasise a positive youthful changefulness and hope. For a time, in the clog dancing passage for instance, I believed it all possible - and still want to do.

This is a play to cheer us up in Brexit Northern England. See it, please. It is a joy!!!!

All the best

Steve

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The Suppliant Women Aeschylus translated David Grieg

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 11 Nov 2016, 21:20

The Suppliant Women Aeschylus translated David Grieg

Following my tweet, I did indeed see this production at Newcastle.

The Making of The Suppliant Women can be still seen on https://youtu.be/Pj_qYUeYU2A  via @YouTube I saw this in Newcastle, although the film is of the Lyceum Edinburgh local cast.

Strangely enough I have always liked this play, stark as it seemed then to me to be.

It is not only that you get to hear the effect of the aulos (the double flute of Classical Greek music) and drums but that you get as near to the experience of seeing classical theatre as it is possible to do in a modern theatre, even down to the practice of pouring libations (minus the sacrificial blood fortunately), dance and absolutely profound effects in choric voice management. A bare stage otherwise comes alive.

The cast make visual illusions, using black veils to realize and lie upon their ancestor, cow Io. The themes of rape, migration, restlessness and stability, acceptance and fear as legitimate responses to primal fear just leap across time and suddenly evils like Trumpism & Farageism seem understandable in their primitive reality.

And the complexity. The idea of chastity in the context of a triangular relationship (with rape and marriage) is typically Greek (Carson Eros the Bittersweet) such that each of the three prongs interpret each other. The Danaid virgins in this production sing as a underlying accompaniment to the verse of the play, ‘Equal power to women’, and suddenly that seems a possibility –if only notionally and emotionally (in the wild rage of Artemis) only when Aphrodite (and her inevitable marriage to Ares – War) is tempered.

At the beginning of the play a fragment of the final play of Aeschylus’ Danaid trilogy is read out – the enconium which shows Aphrodite wins out and justifies female submission to reproductive role in the trilogy as a whole. Yet had this fragment stayed in the rubbish heap at Oxyrhynnchus, would we have been able to temper the radicalism of this first play, I think not.

It was great to see a great figure of modern theatre, Grieg, working with a great contemporary classicist, Ian Ruffell, but great too to see, as in Greek theatre, the blurring of the boundaries between the local and global, the amateur and the professional, high art and low emotion, doggerel and lofty verse in this play in ways that were once thought to be a reflection of a modern poet’s leftist bias when Tony Harrison first experimented in this line decades ago.

I wish I could say: 'See it!'. I can’t. ‘Tis gone. Will it return. It ought. Will it set a trend for revivals of other plays on the way to oblivion – The Persians (the link is to the OU resource on the play from Oliver Taplin and the wonderful Edith Hall) for instance. We need it, lest we ever fall into the trap of thinking that Trumpist hate is a legitimate way of understanding that continentally proportioned but co-empathetic huge difference that lies between cultures.

If you saw the wonderful adaption of Euripides’ The Women of Troy (as Queens of Syria) by real exiles from cities like the lately fallen Aleppo, you will have loved and been pained too by this too.

All the best

Steve


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Hearing Voices: Durham 5th November 2016 – 26th February 2017

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 10 Nov 2016, 16:32

Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration, the everyday. A Free and wonderful exhibition at Palace Green Library in the City of Durham 5th November 2016 – 26th February 2017

For information about the exhibition and how to get there, click here. For an online version of the curation of the museum select this too.

See especially the wonderful audio-visual installation based on participation by people who hear voices and see visions by Victoria Hume. This is available on the online version. However, experiencing the simulated recorded voices and sounds on the screens, in the context of a university building corridor on which it is placed, mixed together with the contingent voices and sounds of the learners conversing as they pass you on their way to their studies, the sounds of the café nearby and so on – is UNBEATABLE.

Curation is an art – selecting materials and placing those ‘objects’ in space and time is always part of the multimodal experience offered and facilitated by a true exhibition. All of these factors are included in this great exhibition, which is not only academically multi-disciplinary but experientially multimodal – a continual integration and tense separation of auditory, visual, kinetic, and tactile experience. Yes tactile – as you brush against the banners, for instance bearing the words of ‘voice-hearers’ on both sides you experience not an exhibit but also complex relationships to it as you turn your body and parts of your body to assimilate, if never quite accommodate the experience that surrounds you.

The space contains multiple pathway and niches – in one you may stop and sit and write, touching the material by which to get ‘heard’. Two others places sport a round black rug in positions at which you experience what ‘hearing voices in the head’ MIGHT be like – created by suspended auditory equipment well above your head. These simulations help you not only to experience but to experience in context. Hearing the kind of voice that motivated Samuel Beckett,  you gaze at his words and artefacts that memorialise him and his art. Compare that to the chance to don headphones and, momentarily escaping the curation’s multiple pathways, hear the VOICE of Virginia Woolf in both ears.

You don’t just see exhibits you begin to understand what it means to see ‘exhibits’, which is to hear, feel, touch both as sequential and sometimes integrated experiences. Yet you enter the curation through a most ‘conventional’ portal. Displayed in the requisite cases are copies of an ancient Chaucer and Boethius’s ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ side by side (although I would have loved to see Chaucer’s translation of the latter too). Read the text that introduces it though and begin to see what the rest of the exhibition forces you to see. Chaucer’s verse in Troilus and Cryseide mimes, or attempt to do so, some of the multimodality of experience we miss if we merely SEE text.

And the space defies conventional hierarchies. The hegemony of science (cognitive and / or neurobiological) is in the exhibit but not dominantly. It is present in three small video-slide installations in a pathway at the back of the exhibition. They provide a coherent narrative of neuroscience that is reaching out to other disciplines, through the thought of Vygotsky on the origin of speech in external dialogue and its journey through the child’s private speech to inner speech, being transformed as it travels (in part by abbreviation). Next to this is an exhibit on the phenomenon of childhood experience and the ‘imaginary friend’, facing its literary expressions in children's literature.

Around the corner are exhibits on the asylums, including the soft jackets which replaced straitjackets. No obvious constraints but long sleeves so that ‘patients’ lost use of their hands (a version of the liquid cosh of largactil). Prepare yourself for real suffering.

There are other traditional ‘rare’ pieces in the exhibit. An original drawing by Charles Dickens of the podium he designed in order that people would hear and ‘see’ (in his energetic gestural communication) in his ‘readings’ the characters he claimed to see and hear (such as Nancy as she is murdered by Bill Sikes). Similarly the religious reliquary which takes up the theme of mystical experience of voice-hearing and its translation, as in Shakespeare’s depiction of Joan of Arc, into fearsome metaphors – of witchcraft, black magic and sorcery.

And there as well is Marius Romme and the texts and persons by which a Hearing Voices network began to be born in the Netherlands. In Britain, the great Ron Coleman (whose teaching as nurse and voice-hearer I remember through its reflection in training on the ‘normalisation’ of hallucinatory experience when I myself worked in mental health services) features. The exhibition includes a letter to Ron from Community Integrated Care (a charity I once worked for) – a remarkable exhibit.

But most of all people who hear and see voices both curate and become a presence in this exhibition – asked to record that on noticeboards as they pass. And what we might we see in that is that ‘hallucination’ is not merely pathological but on a continuum of experience, where the issues that make experience into what we recognise as ‘hearing’, ‘seeing', ‘touching’ get made into problems to be thought about as well as experienced. I’d like to call it ‘multimodal metacognition’ (so tainted with the notion of ‘abnormality’ is conventional psychology’s take on synaesthesia).

But burble on no more, Steve. Do see this exhibition!

When I went with my husband, I had an interesting experience – people seeing the entrance and corridor exhibits skirted the entrance to pass it by, although it was clear that these people were tourists out to see Durham's sights. My worry is that the biggest exhibit of this exhibition might be stigma against the very portents associated with ‘mental illnesses’.

To go and see is to take a step against such stigma. To begin to understand – and experience the beginning of your understanding – is a step further.

All the best

Steve


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Reviewing John Foot ‘The man who closed asylums’[1]

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Reviewing John Foot ‘The man who closed asylums’[1]

This is an urgent book that is about much more than anti-psychiatry or movements allied with it. It is a book about an era of situated political change: situated geographically, historically and socio-culturally and animated by an awareness of the proximity of massive changes, in apparently discrete areas like mental health care, to discourse of global social change. Some of these discourses were naïve, as Foot shows, and some exaggerated their historical, if not their aesthetic importance – such as the episode of the Marco Cavallo.

‘Marco the Horse’ was the name of the dray horse which carried goods and other things in and out of the hospital – famed by inmates as the only named thing that ever, other than the staff, got out of the hospital. Emerging as a partial and symbolic product of the long and complex networks of democratic meetings inside the most radical of the psychiatric experiments, that of the asylum at Reggio Emilia, Marco became mythicized and in various sculpted forms, originally in papier-maché, was the symbol of the reversed myth of the wooden horse of Troy – a liberation where a horse and an army of the branded ‘mad’ dramatized the story of the period of ‘decarceration’ of asylum inmates.

Marco Cavallo bannerA bronze Marco Cavallo still exists in the city but people have forgotten its significance. It graces the university grounds where once the ‘mad’ were incarcerated – locked in closed wards and often living in their own faeces, subjected to treatments that seem to us now, and did to the inmates then, like torture. One of the first small steps in the movement, started by Basaglia in Gorizia, an asylum on the Yugoslav border, was stopping the tying of children who had been labelled ‘insane’ physically to their chairs or beds. And here is the politician, Tommasini’s (one of the first to reject the idea of anything less radical than asylum closure), first visit to the asylum in Perugia:

…a vision of hell. In one small room, there were around sixty women, ‘who were screaming and rolling around on the ground, sometimes in their own excrement.’

But the book shows how much the anti-asylum movement, leading to the slow closure of all Italian asylums after Law 180, in May 1978, owed much to the great diversity of Italian politics and its history of alliances between what the great Italian Communist leader, Antonio Gramsci (who died of neglect and starvation in Mussolini’s prisons), called historical ‘blocs’. These were historical groups, diverse in nature but ready to unite over specific change. Historic blocs like the Roman Catholic Church, The Italian Communist Party – PSI - (in whose areas decarceration started), intellectuals and reforming professional teams and even the Centre democratic Parties. It is a politics that needs to be studied in these deep and dark days of right-wing hegemony that Theresa May is trying to bolster under the flag of a nostalgic nationalism.

In Italy nationalism in the 1970s got tied to forces for progressive (but not necessarily ‘left-wing-inspired’) changes, such as the closure of the asylums and the secularisation of laws binding women (under the eyes of the Catholic Church at one of the moments of its greatest reactionary fervour in personal politics). This is a politics we yearn for in the present.

Yet this is not ever a book of polemic. Politics were merely part of the discourse of Italian reform. The most moving moments in this book are the narratives in which the agency of the incarcerated began to show itself in political discourse and agency. Transcripts of meetings in which they spoke and voted and acted form part of the movement’s great flagship publication: The Negated Institution. It was also demonstrated in acts of physical openness – the tearing down of fences and walls: ‘the people took the fence down’ as Gheradi reports of the asylum in Arezzo.

This is only partially a book about a man, Franco Basaglia, it is about a movement, which inspired his lifelong learning and his agency as a reform leader and who died on the eve of reforms being brought to a general conclusion, if only then in Italy. It is about many people: people who learned to stand against institutionalisation. It does not balk at stating the naivety and over-simplicity of some of the ideas of the movement or noticing the great risks it took. It is a book about the triumph of humanity inspired not just by Goffman, Laing (who rather prevaricated when it came to the real social issues and deferred to mysticism) and Maxwell Jones, but by Primo Levi lessons about the ultimate institution, the concentration camps in Fascist Europe, a phenomenon recently re-emerging in the ghettos of Calais and, of course, a true great British invention (in the Boer War). Indeed the English-speaking tradition of reform emerges as rather limited and contradictory.

I love this book. It is about faith in democracy – direct democracy of the sort we envisage in 5th Century BCE Athens (p. 331):

Meetings performed a variety of functions; they had ‘cultural value, a social value … They were also a ‘collective epistemological process’, giving a sense of identity to the patients … They felt very important at the time. The patients were given a platform; it appeared they had power. As to their long term influence, this is still to be assessed.

This is historical prose of the first magnitude. Read it if you can.

All the best

Steve

[1] Foot, J. The man who closed asylums: Franco Basaglia and the revolution in mental health care London, Verso

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A Problem in Multimodal Assessment Imagined

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 4 Oct 2016, 10:11

© Steve Bamlett

This blog relates to a problem I confront in myself in imagining the process of understanding and complying with any possible Assessment Guidance relating to Multimodal Assessment. The ‘musings’ here relate to the problem and how to formulate a personal response and feedback to learners should such a task ever be set.

It may form part of formal research on the topic of multimodal assessment.

The Problem as I see it.

Imagine that a learner is tasked to provide a multimedia project (in PowerPoint or some other multimedia carrier platform) that uses multiple media to illustrate some everyday experience that they have recorded and reflected upon. In the same product, they are asked to ‘analyse how the way you have illustrated the experience’ can be connected to ‘psychological theories and research’ in part of the curriculum.

This assessment task is both innovative and potentially transformative in its educational potential, but as it stands it feels to me that it might result in less than clear outcomes in summative assessment for putative learners, tutors or marking moderators.

The problems are, for me, as follows:

  1. The distinction between i) products that are multimedia and, ii) analyses of them that are necessarily multimodal.

    1. The terms aren’t always distinguished but it is appropriate to do so here, such that ‘media’ covers material objects which employ a particular mix of ‘modes’ of communication and representation (visual, auditory, gestural) but may privilege one, as radio, for instance privileges the auditory.

    2. Media are not culturally stable however, either synchronically or diachronically. The modes used in ‘newspapers’ vary over a number of diachronic and synchronic domains.

    3. Mode emphasises the conceptual tools through which communication and representation is afforded. One medium will certainly carry multiple modes in any of its realizations. Even a ‘book without pictures or conversation’ (such as that imagined by Alice) can be read multimodally. Written text is also distributed spatially and often uses modal variants – of font and emphasis in text, for instance.

    4. Whilst you can produce a multimedia product without any cognisance of multimodality, you cannot analyse it without the latter, since any language of description requires awareness of the affordances of visual or auditory or connectivity (hyperlinkage) modalities

  2. The level of multimodal literacy required.

    1. Such literacy is not a given but will vary both in quality, quantity and metacognition across a large learner group varied by ranges of age, employment, social, economic and other variables. Not all the trends of the appropriate literacies can be gauged or predicted and will be open to unhelpful assumptions (such as the effects of a ‘digital generation’).

    2. The language of description of ‘the way you have illustrated the experience’ available to each learner.

    3. The existence of an emergent potential ‘language of description’. The most sophisticated but pedagogically usable one is that in Bezemer & Kress (2016: 76 – 78). It urges the analysis of ‘multimodal’ across 4 semiotic principles: framing, selection, arrangement and foregrounding.

  3. The level of awareness of appropriate language of description in assessors, the assessed learners and the variability of the gap between assessors and assessed learners across the possible combinations of interaction between both groups in the pedagogic (and assessment) process.

I tried to imagine visually the tension I see between what Bezemer & Kress see as fundamental to multimedia meaning-making and an assessment criteria.

Figure A

Let us imagine, for instance that an assessment criterion is the clarity of the exposition of the experience recounted, later reflection on it and the way in which a multimedia representation on that is linked to curricular content. I imagined Fig A.

 Figure A imagines Bezemer & Kress’ components for a language of description as sandwiched between the learner’s awareness that a project has been set and the assessor’s awareness that the clarity of this product’s communication is to be tested.

Eating sandwich

As with, any other sandwich it can be assessed without analysing its contents – in terms of the assessor’s culturally modified and professionally orientated taste.

Figure B

Fig B complicates the picture a lot. I have made two intellectual leaps here. I am, in line with relevant theorists, naming the product of multimodal production process, a text, which does not imply the modality of written language. A photograph can be a text. I use this term to relate ‘text’ to its circumambient contexts.

Fig B insets out TEXT (fig A) as the product of a process of composition that possesses DESIGN and RHETORICAL VARIANTS – different affordances in each of its modes for telling its story. That text is influenced by many contexts. I include 3:

  1. The Culture which prescribes the resources and their conventional readings.

  2. The Teaching and Learning Context, which covers learning in the context of a number of teaching media (not all being human), and

  3. The context of the Prescribed Curriculum which includes the social construction of the discipline of Psychology as well as institutional and societal  or governmental requirements.

Our project replaces the potential duality of text in facilitating assessment of both a material outcome of learning task AND the process of the text’s composition revealed in decisions about the use of variable affordance within and between the relevant modes used in it. Only the latter can yield sure ‘signs of learning’ (Bezemer & Kress 2016: 54)

Having felt that, I found it said in an early article by Molle & Prior (2008:557), although in a different context, that of English for academic purposes.

All the Best

Steve

Bezemer, J. & Kress, G. (2016) Multimodality, Learning and Communication: A Social Semiotic Frame London, Routledge 

Molle, D. & Prior, P. (2008) ‘Multimodal Genre systems in EAP Writing pedagogy: Reflecting on a Needs Analysis’ in TESOL Quarterly 42 (4). 541 – 556.

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Scoping or Crowd-Sourcing for interest in Multimodal Assessment

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 19 Sep 2016, 16:10

Dear colleagues

I am hoping to enrol to study on a Ed.D this year and my current passion, largely arising from personal teaching and learning experience,  is the role multimodality and genre awareness in assessment. Although the physical sciences have long embraced an approach to assessment that necessitates developing literacies in different communicative modes, the process of adoption has been slower in Psychology – although of course many Psychology courses that are hybrid with the physical sciences (such as the bio-psychological ones) are already a long-term exception.

Nevertheless, Psychology has a clear link to application in different work settings and academic disciplines, in which genre and multimodal awareness is crucial in understanding its subject-matter and critiquing its tools (IQ scales for instance). This is sometimes disguised by terminology used in pedagogies – for instance, a report might cover very different genres – and even shape knowledge differently – when its function is varied between ‘pure academic’ (if such can be said to exist now) and workplace and other contexts. The role of the internet in necessitating literacy across different modes, contexts and audiences likewise emerges as a factor here.

Psychology IS now asking students to respond to assessment tasks in ways that necessitate at least a lay awareness of genre and multimodality’, requiring perhaps:

  • 1.       context-specific or ‘situated’ knowledge of reporting skills, or;
  • 2.       ability to read and / or compose products of an ensemble of modes that demand awareness of how different modes of making-meaning shape that meaning.

 It is probable that my approach will be entirely based on documentation (subject to permissions) in the 3 different Psychology courses I teach but I may (again subject to permission being given by appropriate sources and ethical considerations being covered) extend to recruiting (a) focus group(s). The theoretical background will use social semiotic and multi-literacy theories, as well as querying assessment from an assessment-for-learning perspective.

My rough title at the moment is to be:

“What do concepts of multimodality and genre offer to the re-formulation of Assessment-For-Learning in Applied Psychology?”

I am not yet near completing a Proposal and am not here asking for participants – but rather ‘crowd-sourcing’ ideas and thoughts. If stimulus is required, compare the quotations below:

1.       “Assessment needs to be seen and rethought in the context of multimodality.” (Kress et. al. 2014:3341)

2.       “Without adequately addressing (other educational) issues, hasty implementation of MEA (Multimodal Educational Assessment) is akin to a blind man riding on a blind horse[1].” (Liu 2014:3)

References

Kress, G., Jewitt, C., Ogborn, J. & Tsatarelis, C. (2014) Multimodal Teaching and Learning: The Rhetorics of the Science Classroom (first published 2001) Bloomsbury Classics in Linguistics Ed. London, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. Kindle Ed.

Liu, J. (2014) ‘Multimodal Educational Assessment: From Transmissive Learning to Creative Production’ in Journal of Educational Policies and Current Practices 1 (1): 1 – 11.



[1] I find that analogy to be a rather inappropriate misuse of a reference to disability, but there you go!


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Ancient Worlds Michael Scott Some Thoughts

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 18 Sep 2016, 14:42

I have just read this great book by Michael Scott. 

Michael Scott has in the past changed my life (a bit at least). I saw his TV series on Greek Drama and that hooked me - and as a result I completed a PG course in Greek Drama to test the ideas - they remained relevant and telling. His last book on Delphi was equally fascinating , especially if seen as part of the whole history of the means cultures, nations and global commonalities use to predict political futures for themselves.

This new one breaks new boundaries because it self-consciously sets out to show that the only reason we see ancient cultures as irrelevant to a global political economy is that  we have used paradigms that imported nationalism or cultural monoliths into the picture that weren't necessarily the best approach to those cultures - even when there were more useful - as in Ancient China - they stop us seeing the significance of what happens to Chinese culture in the late ancient era post Confucius. 

The most stunning section is the one on the co-molding of religion and the state in the first to fourth century AD. Illuminating though on so many things and makes you want to read more history of this sort. The assessment of the Emperors Constantine and 'apostate' Julian enthralled me.

There are insights throughout - no doubt many that will be questioned and critiqued from other perspectives - but that makes it all the more interesting.

All the best

Steve

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The Booker SHORTLIST

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I thought Coetzee ought to be there (and I’m still sore about Kelman not even making the Long List). 

I also can’t see the rationale for Thien, but then I couldn’t finish it – perhaps I’ll try again). 

Of the remainder I half-predicted the Burnet, which is a wonderful novel and deserves its place. I made more sure predictions of Levy and Szalay. My predicted winner is still Mossfegh. This is a stunning novel. 

The pleasant surprise for me is Beatty. I did not think this would make the shortlist, but I’m glad it has. Here is a truly anti-racist novel. One that grabs you as a reader by the scruff of the neck and exposes you to yourself. It was a good counter-balance to Virginia Reeves, which I thought unintentionally promoted an Uncle-Tom type stereotype – of the sort satirised by Beatty.

I might be happy to see Burnet, Levy or Szalay win, although not Thien, but for the ‘hot favourite’ is surely Mossfegh. Here is a novel of absolute genius. But, of course, maybe reading Thien fully might change my mind. I doubt it – the prose has nothing of the artistic quality of the other novels.


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