Wednesday, 7 July 2010

What changes? What doesn't?

I am currently vexed by questions of change and the unchanging. Last week I attended Middlesex University's annual Learning and Teaching Conference, the title of which was Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy. Much of the conference was spent on the challenges and opportunities offered by new technologies  - Web2.0, social networking sites, new hardware and software – and whether contemporary students really are a new animal, Frankenstein creatures with short attention spans, addicted to being always plugged into the Matrix of iPods and mobile phones. Briefly, my own view is that some of them are a lot, some of them aren't at all and some of them are a bit like this (and this isn't simply true of the younger generation). Figures quoted by one of the keynote speakers, William Wong, bear this out, with something like 27% being native children of the Matrix, 57% using low levels of technology to support their learning and 20% being complete technophobes (Wong, 2010, slide 9), which bears out my own experience in teaching.

One of the moments which struck me at the conference was during another of the keynote sessions, when Steve Wheeler quotes Heraclitus' "The only constant is change." He followed this with a presentation (Wheeler, 2010) taking us through various theories about the ways in which younger people (I should add "in the West") interact with new technologies and how we are living in a world which has changed massively in the last two decades, with the velocity of change ever-increasing, which has been a theory ever since someone came up with the phrase "future shock". At one point, Wheeler mentioned Smart Mobs and quoted one Howard Rheingold saying "Smart Mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert when they don't know each other. [They can] cooperate in ways never before possible." (Rheingold, 2002) This sent me into a bit of a reverie in which I came over a little like the author of Ecclesiastes, wondering whether there was anything new under the sun. Mobs have always existed; certainly the mob that Shakespeare portrays in Julius Caesar act in concert when they riot and kill the poet Cinna simply because he has the same name as one of the conspirators.  Perhaps the ways in which the members of a mob can communicate their mass concerns has developed, certainly it might have increased in reach and velocity. But is this a fundamental change in human behaviour rather than a new way of facilitating behaviour as old as time? Are we in danger of losing site of the wood for the trees? As befits a wanderer in a wood, I was visited by the voice of various bards, ancient and modern. One of them was Dylan, who in his 1985 Biograph booklet interview with Cameron Crowe says

"…I like to stay a part of that stuff that don't change. Actually, it's not that difficult – people still love and they hate, they marry and they have children, still slaves in their minds to their desires, still slap each other in the face, and say 'honey can you turn off the light' just like in ancient Greece. What's changed? When did Abraham break his father's idols? I think it was last Tuesday." (Crowe, 1985)

I also mulled on William Blake's Note in his Descriptive Catalogue with reference to his Canterbury Pilgrims painting, where he writes

"The characters of Chaucer's pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations; as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men; nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never change nor decay." (Blake, 2009, p. 49)

Blake's point is nuanced and Zen-like here, and he is certainly having his cake and eating it. Nothing occurs in exactly the same way twice but the same things occur again and again in different guises.

This isn't a fashionable view, and can all too easily fall into a bourgeois inability to comprehend that others are not the same as him. As Barthes writes, "The petit bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other." (Barthes, 1993, p. 151).  I was reminded of this only yesterday when I came across some sloppy thinking in the programme note to The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a Neil Simon play revived in London as a vehicle for the excellent (though wasted in this) Jeff Goldblum. Kevin Spacey writes that Simon is "a brilliant writer  (…) with a deep sensitivity for the truths we all share" (Spacey, 2010), a theme which Matt Wolf continues in an article on Simon, writing

"The resonances of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, nearly 40 years on, are due to a playwright grounding his concerns fully in the specifics of the era, only to discover that the uncertainty and fears to which humankind is subject never dates." (Wolf, 2010)

Does this mean anything? Simon's play is about a New York businessman who has a nervous breakdown after he loses his job, his problems compounded by the pressures of city life; the piece also concentrates on his relationship with his wife. Certainly there are themes which link this 1971 play's content to more recent concerns – the crisis in masculinity which everyone was talking about in the 80s and 90s, and the current climate of economic concern and impending job-losses in the public sector. Yet it is hardly surprising that we recognise these factors in Simon's play, as we live under the same economic system as his characters! Would the play's story and characters be able to be translated into Other, more profoundly different times and places? Would the play be able to be re-set in a feudal society, long before the changes wrought by Reformation, Enclosure and Industrialisation? Blake and Dylan suggest that there are works of art and culture which can weather such changes in time; I am not convinced that Neil Simon's play is one of them…

A more convincing claim to long-lasting relevance is made in the programme for the Henry IV plays, currently on at Shakespeare's Globe (I caught Part 2 on Sunday).  Peter Staccio analyses the central dynamic in the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and posits that

"Shakespeare has created one of the governing myths of Western culture. Hal heeds the Protestant ethic: duty, hard work, devotion to public welfare. Falstaff belongs to the counter culture: the ethic of personal warmth, loyalty in friendship, and scepticism about the claims of the establishment." (Staccio, 2010)

Although I am not sure that "devotion to public welfare" is one of Hal's aims (more like devotion to the continuance of the bloodline power he inherited from his father), certainly Hal caught between the twin pull of  blood family and duty (his father, Henry IV) and chosen friendship and irresponsibility (Falstaff) does present us with a choice that most free human beings since civilisation began have faced (even in feudal societies, one could presumably join bands of robbers, prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells). I am tempted to say that it is in the dynamics of the ethical choice(s) portrayed that a work's "universality" is contained, and in the characteristics of those involved in the choice (the suggestion being that not only will Hal's choice be between duty and licence but also that those pulling him in either direction will always share the character of Henry IV or Falstaff).

To come back to the subject of the conference, does my reverie have any bearing on the education of the young? Perhaps not, if what they are learning is a purely technological subject, although surely ethics, which involves thinking about the stuff that never changes as well as the stuff that does, will be involved when developing new forms of technology. But teaching (and writing) as I do working in the imagination, then encouraging the students to see why some stories and characters have more lasting appeal than others must be central to my work.

Returning again to Dylan's statement, I can read about Abraham breaking his father's idols in a print edition of the Bible or on the Bible app I have on my iPhone (along with the Shakespeare and Great Philosophers apps) or in a podcast or a film of the story but the essence of the story remains the same, no matter the medium through which I receive it.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. London: Vintage.
Blake, W. (2009). Seen in my Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. London: Tate Publishing.
Crowe, C. (1985). Biograph Liner Notes. Sony.
Rheingold, H. (2002). Revolution, Smart Mobs: The Next Social. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
Spacey, K. (2010, June 30). Hello. The Prisoner of Second Avenue Vaudeville Theatre Programme.
Staccio, P. (2010, June). Prodigal's Progress. Henry IV Part One & Part Two programme , pp. 7-11.
Wheeler, S. (2010, June 29). Digital Tribes and the Social Web. Retrieved July 7, 2010, from MDX Annual Learning & Teaching Conference 2010 Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy:
Wolf, M. (2010, June 30). New York in the 1970s. The Prisoner of Second Avenue Vaudeville Theatre programme.
Wong, W. (2010, July 2). What Matters? Retrieved July 7, 2010, from MDX Annual Learning & Teaching Conference 2010: Engaging the Digital Generation in Academic Literacy:

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