Detroit in Ruins (Again)

Detroit is in ruins again. Here’s Juan Cole on the recent petition for bankruptcy, on the relationship between the city and the country as a whole, and on the fact that Detroit’s crisis is contemporary, not merely historical:

The 1% did a special number on southeast Michigan with its derivatives and unregulated mortgage markets; the 2008 crash hit the region hard, and it had already been being hit hard. The Detroit area is a prime example of the blight that comes from having extreme wealth (Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe) and extreme poverty (most of Detroit) co-existing in an urban metropolitan area. It doesn’t work. The wealthy have no city to play in, and the city does not have the ability to tax or benefit from the local wealthy in the suburbs. These problems are exacerbated by de facto racial segregation, such that African-Americans are many times more likely to be unemployed than are whites, and to live in urban blight rather than in nice suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Guardian took this as the opportunity to publish yet another slideshow of the city’s fabulous ruins. Their aesthetic appeal is meant, I think, as some kind of compensation for the devastation that they document. But it’s not insignificant that these images are depopulated, empty of all but material detritus: the human toll of this ruination is registered and elided at the same time. Here’s “the ballroom of the 15-floor art-deco Lee Plaza Hotel, an apartment building with hotel services built in 1929 and derelict since the early 1990s”:

Detroit ballroom

Speculative Fictions

Speculative Fictions coverIn an epoch of postmodern, neoliberal “dedifferentiation,” in which the distinctions between the once-separate spheres of politics, economics, and culture have been steadily erased, what are the possibilities of “making a difference” through writing, film, or art? This is the question that Alessandro Fornazzari’s Speculative Fictions sets out to answer, with a focus on the Chilean transition from Pinochet’s dictatorship to the revived party system of the past couple of decades.

But looking merely at the political transition, Fornazzari suggests (in the steps of Willy Thayer, among others) would be misleading. For the shift from state violence to today’s liberal democracy conceals other continuities, and perhaps other, more significant changes that have taken place on a different timescale. Indeed, the book outlines three “different transitional forms: the economic (the neoliberal transition from the state to the market), the political (the transition from dictatorship to democracy), and the aesthetic” (115). And it is ultimately the relation between the economic and the aesthetic that is of most interest here.

Latin American fiction has often been read in terms of “national allegory” (in Fredric Jameson’s famous phrase). So, for instance, when the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century charted (say) a love affair between creole boy and indigenous girl, something was being said about the racial politics of the nascent nation state. Or Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo was not simply a small town somewhere on the Colombian litoral: it was Colombia as a whole, in microcosm, and in reading its story we also learned something about broader issues of (under)development and (post)colonialism. Or to take the example that Fornazzari studies at some length, the Chilean novelist José Donoso could publish an oblique yet unmistakeable critique of the Pinochet coup in part by dressing it up as a tale of a house in the country taken over by its servants. But what happens to allegory–and so to an entire mode of cultural representation–now that “the commodity exceeds and surpasses it” (35)?

I’m not sure I entirely buy this argument. The claim for an equivalence between literature and the commodity form is too quick and, well, too abstract. And after all, it is by means of an allegorical reading that Fornazzari can declare allegory’s contemporary exhaustion; so it still in fact has its uses. But this is not to say that we can’t contemplate other modes of aesthetic and/or political engagement; Jameson’s reduction of all “third-world fiction” to national allegory was limiting in any event. And as Fornazzari points out, reading only in such terms is impoverishing: once the appropriate key is found (Macondo = Colombia; the country house = Chile), then it’s as though “all hermeneutical work can be considered over and done” (33). But the correspondences are always inexact, there is always too much or too little in the literary text to map out a one-to-one series of equivalences. Hence this book is dedicated to exploring the (allegedly) new “speculative cultural forms” that Fornazzari categorizes in terms of “antiallegorical strategies, second-order forms of abstraction, the dissemination of a stock-market model of value, and avant-garde models of political economy” (116).

Some of these cultural forms are, frankly, more interesting than others. In some cases they are little more than symptoms of transformations located elsewhere, and at times Fornazzari struggles to differentiate his analysis from a rather crude economic determinism: new models of labor or subjectivity emerge and are duly registered or reflected in a book such as Arturo Fontaine’s Oír su voz. Fornazzari claims that in this paean to finance capitalism, “the realist storyteller ultimately eludes the neoliberal ideologue” (47), but he doesn’t sound too convincing or even too convinced of this himself when he concludes that the book can be read as “a literary treatise on the concept of human capital” (51). A lot’s riding here on the adjective “literary,” which is rather undermined by the account of the “saturation of the novel with the discourse of political economics” (45). How different is it really from the text that Fornazzari immediately goes on to consider, El ladrillo: Bases de la política económica del Gobierno Militar Chileno, characterized here as “in an of itself, an unremarkable economic text” (52).

Or is the point that, in an age in which the line between economics and culture is blurred, the economic text takes on something of the literary? If so, it’s not particularly shown for El ladrillo. Elsewhere in fact it’s suggested that neoliberalism ushers in “a brutally realist order of things” that has no time for “literary rhetoric” (32)–as though realism itself were not simply another rhetorical mode. I wonder, too, how this argument meshes with that of Erika Beckman, whose recent Capital Fictions demonstrates the complicity of literature and mercantile economics in the early part of the twentieth century. Indeed, the further one progresses with Speculative Fictions, the more dubious its central premise becomes, that (now, for the first time) “everything including commodity production has become cultural, and culture has become profoundly economic” (7). If anything it’s a testament to the rather more complex and detailed cultural readings that Fornazzari provides–of the novelist Diamela Eltit and, perhaps especially, the work of visual artist Catalina Parra–that we soon become dissatisfied with such sweeping generalizations.

For in the end, though there have no doubt been profound changes in Chile (and elsewhere) in economics, politics, and culture, and their mutual relations, these developments have taken place on different timescales and in line with each domain’s own (never fully autonomous but never fully dependent) logics and rhythms. So, for instance, this book also shows that the ground for Pinochet and the Chicago Boys’ transformation of the country’s economy was already laid by the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei in the 1960s. The political regime, by contrast, was repeatedly upended in a much swifter (and traumatically abrupt) series of ruptures and upheavals. And in cultural production we see plenty of residual elements as well as (what Fornazzari suggests may be) emergent forms that point beyond our contemporary condition.

So the three spheres are not (yet) fully aligned, and each has its own history and its own trajectory. It’s perhaps this feature of what we could (however old-fashioned it sounds) call “combined and uneven development” that ensures that there is some space still for critique and contestation. The immense virtue of Fornazzari’s book is that it quickly points us away from its somewhat simplistic premises and towards the far more interesting task of exploring the real complexity, the paradoxes and ironies as well as the continuing cruelties, of a society that is in no way as dedifferentiated as its right-wing boosters (and many of its left-wing critics) would like to think.

Eric Mazur and the Suppression of a Utopian Past

Eric MazurThe past few days my institution has been hosting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has made a name for himself in the world of “flexible learning” for his tweaks to the university lecture format to create what is sometimes called a “flipped classroom.”

His visit was much hyped by the university, and drew a large crowd. As he himself tells us, it was his fourth lecture in as many countries and as many days. Mazur is a big shot.

Essentially, his pedagogical tweaks involve the use of technology to incorporate student feedback and discussion. His technique is for the lecturer to introduce a concept, then pose a question. After responses to the question have been gathered, students discuss their answers among themselves before answering the question again; the lecturer goes over the correct answer and moves on. The point is that ideally students will have taught each other during the discussion phase, as will be demonstrated by their improved responses the second time they answer the same question. Not a bad idea per se, but hardly earth-shattering.

In short, Mazur argues for the inclusion of brief bouts of so-called formative assessment in what is otherwise a rather traditional teaching model. Mazur calls this “peer instruction.” He has a book on the topic. These days, more importantly, he also has a website he’d like to sell you. And so the product pitch is on.

Because otherwise there was little of any substance to his presentation. Yesterday, Mazur spent the first third of his uninterrupted two-hour spiel with some fairly jokey and anecdotal critique of the lecture format as a vehicle for student learning. The second third was devoted to selling us on the peer instruction technique. And the final third was a pitch for the product itself.

Pedagogy of the OppressedMazur’s thoughts on pedagogical theory were astonishingly superficial and, frankly, uninformed. Early on in the lecture, in response to a question, someone in the audience mentioned Paulo Freire’s “banking model”. For this indeed was precisely what Mazur was saying, that (in Freire’s words) in the conventional system:

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

But Mazur had patently never heard of Freire. Nor, it seems, was he aware of any other aspect of educational theory from the past fifty years.

It is not that one cannot criticize Freire (not least for a somewhat simplistic view of how banking works). But such criticism and dialogue with the past is impossible from Mazur’s position of total ignorance. An entire body of knowledge is being forgotten or suppressed. And this is rather convenient for the bevy of people who are trying to sell us their latest tweaks and gadgets.

For the point is that Freire was against the banking model in part because he was against banks: his argument is a radical critique of a hierarchical social structure and its economic underpinnings. His is a “pedagogy of the oppressed” because he believes that the current educational system perpetuates inequality, and he wants to do something about it.

Mazur’s aims are precisely the opposite: he wants to benefit from social stratification (leveraging his Harvard credentials) to make financial profit. A few weeks ago he sold his technology start-up to the corporate giant Pearson for somewhere between five and ten million dollars in hard cash (though he retains a position as consultant). For a company that’s less than two years old, that’s a quick buck indeed.

It is insulting on many levels to sit through a presentation such as Mazur’s: insulting to anyone who has spent any time reading and thinking about education; and insulting to be treated only as potential customers for a hard sell. But the broader issues are more concerning still.

For this is where we are at, with the current fuss about flexible education and the like. The radical educational proposals of the 1960s and 1970s are being rediscovered, now that their promise is finally realizable thanks to technological innovation. But their utopian thrust has been lost, their politics have been gutted, and everything has to be “monetized” as part of a massive round of enclosures in which for-profit start-ups and mega-corporations colonize the captive educational market.

The tragedy and the scandal is that universities such as my own allow this to happen. Driven by a desire to do what Harvard (and Stanford and the like) do, they lay down the red carpet, this week to Mazur’s shallow shill, last week to the founder of Coursera. They turn their backs on a whole field of educational theory and enquiry, in favour of the latest huckster with a fancy website. And they forget entirely what the university is supposed to be about, or what in the 1960s and 1970s we thought it could be about.

We have the means to make a previous generation’s utopian dreams real. But we have forgotten their vision, and want only to buy and sell the means as though it were an end of its own.


The Wednesday quotation, part XVII: Nathan Heller on TED:

TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel. (“Listen and Learn: The TED Talk Phenomenon”. New Yorker [July 9 and 16, 2012]: 73.)

I really dislike TED. For what it’s worth, there’s nothing I dislike more about it than the cult of the nauseous Sir Ken Robinson. But that’s just a symptom, one among many. We could put it this way, rewriting TED’s trademark slogan: they’re not ideas, and they’re not worth spreading. They’re merely balm for the neoliberal soul, a cynical veneer of supposed intellectualism to leaven the effects of the market.


Here’s the keynote address I gave recently to “Access 2011: The Library is Open”: “From Access to Interactivity”.

You can also, if you are so minded, watch a video of me delivering the talk.

It’s about Borges, libraries, library fines, open source, primitive accumulation, and difficulty, among other things. What follows is the opening paragraph or two:

Librarians have seldom been paid a handsome wage. At the Miguel Cané Library, in the Buenos Aires suburb of Almagro Sur, in the late 1930s the going rate was some 210 Argentine pesos a month. On the other hand, it could hardly be said that the work was particularly taxing. The library assistant tasked with cataloguing found that he could do his job in an hour or so each day, which left plenty of time for reading, thinking, and writing. Sometimes he got to thinking about the library itself, or about the place of the library in the world. He thought, for instance, that in some ways the library was a mirror of the world: after all, if you wanted to find out about some aspect of the world, you could come to the library and look it up. The library had books of Geography, History, Physics, Maths, Literature, Art: every conceivable topic. It might be an unprepossessing building in the suburbs of a city in an obscure Southern Hemisphere country, at the periphery of civilization, but a library had everything. You could spend your life there, without ever exhausting what it had to offer. If the library was big enough (and the assistant librarian imagined a library that had every book ever published, and perhaps even every book that could conceivably be published) you could even get lost in it. The library was a labyrinth, but also a rather miraculous thing, a double of the universe.

In September 1945, the library assistant published a short story about just such a miraculous double of the universe, hidden in an obscure corner of Buenos Aires that was nearly as unlikely as the Miguel Cané library itself. In this story, the narrator, a rather awkward and shy middle-aged man, discovers that an acquaintance of his, an aspiring but not very talented poet, has a secret. He still lives in the house where he grew up, which is located on a non-descript city-centre street. But the house harbors a surprise: on the staircase in a basement under the dining room is an object that is only some “two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained within it” (Borges, “The Aleph” 283). This is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist” (281). This strange, mysterious thing takes the logic of the library to the limit: it is the absolutely universal contained within an extremely limited, compressed and particular space. The poet calls it an “Aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the number one in Hebrew, which in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition is the number that contains all other numbers. As the narrator tells us of his encounter with the Aleph, in it he “saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spider-web at the center of a black pyramid [. . .] saw horses with hand-whipped manes on a beach in the Caspian Sea at dawn, saw the delicate bones of a hand” and so on and so forth (283). He is practically struck dumb by the experience: “I had a sense of infinite veneration, infinite pity” (284).

But if the Aleph is a fantastical version of the library, a library that takes up the smallest amount of physical space but encompasses the entirety of the universe, there is one significant difference between the two. The library is public, while the Aleph is private. The incompetent poet emphases, “his words fairly tumbl[ing] out,” that “It’s mine, it’s mine; I discovered it in my childhood, before I ever attended school” (280). It’s his prized possession, and he keeps it absolutely to himself, hiding it from everyone else. He only shows it to the narrator in desperation, as his landlords threaten to tear down the house and so destroy the basement, the staircase, and the secret they harbor. But the narrator, having seen this precious thing, is struck by a fit of jealousy and refuses to help the pathetic poet’s campaign to preserve his precious property. Cruelly, the twist in the tale comes when the narrator refuses to admit that he has seen unusual at all in the cellar, and suggests therefore that the poet must be suffering from some kind of delusion. He should “take advantage of the demolition of his house to remove himself from the pernicious influence of the metropolis [. . . ]. I clasped him by both shoulders as I took my leave and told him again that the country–peace and quiet, you know–was the very best medicine one could take” (284). The poet will pay the price for keeping his Aleph secret, a private hoard rather than a public good: by prohibiting access he has sacrificed even his own opportunity to enjoy this miraculous discovery. He will be laughed out of town as a madman if he so much as mentions the existence of this all-capacious universal library.

The universal and all that comes with it–the university, the library–is always in peril if it is treated as private possession rather than common treasury. It would be nice if we could conclude that, by contrast, it is in safe hands if it is the property of the state. But shortly after publishing the story of the Aleph, its author, the library assistant, was summarily fired and offered in compensation only the post of “the inspectorship of poultry and rabbits in the public markets” (qtd. in Williamson, Borges 292). Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest writer (and incidentally also the country’s most famous librarian), was out of a job.

Read more…


The Wednesday quotation, part XVI: Stephan Collini from his excellent, if frightening, account of recent UK government policy on higher education:

The paradox of real learning is that you don’t get what you “want” – and you certainly can’t buy it. The really vital aspects of the experience of studying something (a condition very different from “the student experience”) are bafflement and effort. Hacking your way through the jungle of unintelligibility to a few small clearings of partial intelligibility is a demanding and not always enjoyable process. (“From Robbins to McKinsey.” London Review of Books 33.16 [25 August 2011])


[The other day there was a small book launch for Posthegemony here at UBC. My colleagues and friends Brianne Orr-Alvarez, Oscar Cabezas, and Gastón Gordillo all presented critical reviews of the book. Here, by kind permission, is Oscar’s…]

This book is an attempt to re-think the concept of politics beyond cultural studies and political theories on civil society. In his approach to various Latin American cultural and political phenomena, Jon Beasley-Murray re-opens a debate on key concepts of politics —hegemony, civil society and the State, among others— in order to criticize any conceptualization in which the State excludes the Negrian concept of multitude. Through neo-Spinozan notions derived from Antonio Negri, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, and the Bourdieusian concept of habits, Beasley-Murray proposes to undermine not only Laclau and Mouffe’s Post-Marxist concept of hegemony, but also the understanding of ideology as the master concept of the Marxist tradition. Thus, posthegemony is not simply a transitional concept that overcomes the concept of hegemony, but also an alternative mode of thinking political theory and Latin American studies. Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America engages with the richest debates in political theory and simultaneously with the most paradigmatic events in Latin American history.

The wonderfully written five chapters of this book develop the notion of posthegemony in the following manner. In the prologue “October 10, 1492,” Beasley-Murray analyses the legitimating mechanisms of colonization by the Spaniards in the 15th Century (the so-called Requerimiento). The author argues that the Requerimiento has nothing to do with the construction of hegemony but with a violent act of coercion. This preliminary remark leads to the first chapter, “Argentina 1972: Cultural Studies and Populism,” which contains a discussion of National-Populism in Argentina (1972). The author denounces the love-pact between people and the nation in its exclusion of the multitude. This chapter is not only a critique of national populism but also a critique of Laclau and Mouffe’s post-Marxist concept of hegemony. What the author denounces is the imbrication between the concept of hegemony and neo-populism. The second chapter, “Ayacucho 1982: Civil Society Theory and Neoliberalism,” offers a description of Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato’s theory of civil society and shows its failure in the study of one of the bloodiest Maoist guerrilla movements that took place in Peru (Sendero Luminoso). By the same token, it also shows the structural violence inherent to neo-liberalism in the Southern Cone. In the third chapter, “Escalón 1989: Deleuze and Affect,” one of the book’s best, Beasley-Murray describes the offensive of the FMLN in El Salvador as a paradox between political violence and “lines of flight.” He also develops the Deleuzian theory of affects as an attempt to de-territorialize the capture of the revolutionary movement into the state-apparatus. In the fourth chapter, “Chile 1992: Bourdieu and Habit,” the author extends the theory of affects in Deleuze through Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habit”. The chapter offers an analytical understanding of the correlations between power and bodies through the history of the traumatic Chilean transition from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship to a neoliberal democracy. In the concluding chapter of the book, “Conclusion: Negri and Multitude,” Beasley-Murray describes Negri’s concept of multitude as an opening to rethinking politics in Latin America. This chapter could be read side by side with the Epilogue, “April 13, 2002,” where the author shows how the constituent power of the multitude breaks the “fiction” of hegemony in the paradigmatic conflict of the so-called Caracazo in Venezuela.

Read more… (pdf file)


I wonder whether it is the pressure of the Nobel prize acceptance speech itself, which marks the point at which the writer is thrust into a new form of public celebrity, or the burden that Latin American literature takes upon itself to be politically engaged where other literatures do not feel the same need, but it’s notable how little Mario Vargas Llosa has to say about literature in his recent Nobel lecture.

The speech is entitled “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” an echo no doubt of Vargas Llosa’s own book, In Praise of the Stepmother, which is by chance one of his least obviously political books. But it might equally have gone by a title such as “In Denunciation of Authoritarianism,” for beyond some well-worn homilies about the power of fiction (“Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better”), and a little bit of incidental autobiography, Vargas Llosa has more to say about politics than anything else.

In denouncing authoritarianism, the Nobel laureate takes the opportunity to launch pot-shots at Cuba (of course), but also Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Morales, as well as indulging in a long digression whose main purpose is to denigrate Catalan nationalism.

Generally, it’s interesting how Vargas Llosa constructs and tries to balance his various audiences. He speaks in praise of Spain, the country of his current residence and citizenship, and presumably the comments on Catalonia are a function of his self-positioning as a specifically Spanish intellectual. But he also appeals to his Peruvian roots and tries to deflect the charge that he has in any way betrayed them by moving to Europe and taking up with the former conquistadors who did so much damage to Peru’s pre-Columbian cultures. And he further has to present himself as a fully cosmopolitan, global figure whose ties to any one particular place are necessarily weaker than his allegiance to the world republic of letters.

And yet, for all his purported praise of reading and fiction, ultimately his investment in the world republic of letters (that “false representation of life”) always has to cede to the greater calling offered by the res publica itself. Why, for instance, does he feel compelled to tell us that “Latin America has made progress”, that “We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before,” and that “if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present”?

He has, after all, much less to say about the state of Latin American literature; indeed, his literary references are all at least half a century old: to José María Arguedas and Juan Rulfo, to the Boom writers “Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso,” when not to figures such as “Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust.” His literary narrative is soaked in nostalgia; but when it comes to politics he feels the need to renounce all lost loves (socialism, above all) in the name of a paean to democratic progress and a concomitant warning against the excesses of the contemporary “left turns.”

Literary dreams are, apparently, to be indulged; political dreams, however, are to be disparaged.

Finally, it may be a strange kind of false modesty (or justified by the fact that the prize itself presumably attests to his pre-eminence in the field), but Vargas Llosa make precious little reference to his own works of fiction. He says somewhat more about his love of the theater, and still more about his work as a journalist.

In short, it is as though the Nobel laureate himself shared some of the fear of literature that he projects upon those in power. He claims that “all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear [literature] so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it,” In fact, this is at best a half-truth: as many literary and cultural historians have observed, Latin American literature is a good a place as any to research the ways in which elites use the written word to their own advantage. From the privileged role of the church and letrados under colonialism, to the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century that continue to imbue the virtues of citizenship in contemporary school curricula, literature has historically been as much handmaiden of power as its opponent.

In sum, Vargas Llosa seems to want to confine sedition to fiction: literature, in his conception, invokes romantic images of the past, with sweet memories of big-nosed grandfathers and enthusiastic Uncle Luchos. When it comes to the present, however, he steps outside this literary role so as to curb the foolishness of those who have not followed his example in putting behind them their youthful dreams.


I’m currently in Barcelona, for an event called the Drumbeat Festival, organized by Mozilla, the folk who bring us Firefox. Sponsorship and support are also provided by the Macarthur Foundation, tbe Carnegie Foundation, and Creative Commons, among others.

The event’s themes are “Learning, Freedom and the Web.” It’s quite a hybrid of academics, teachers, educational technologists, programmers, hackers, and others. It’s a diverse and sometimes chaotic collection of activities. I’ve met a few good people, and there are no doubt some interesting ideas buzzing around.

Some quick, perhaps contrarian, thoughts…

  • The event has essentially been parachuted into Barcelona. There is almost no Spanish (all the signage, for instance, is completely monolingual English), let alone Catalan. There is certainly no attempt at simultaneous translation. There’s no sign of any local organizers. As Liz Castro puts it, it’s “pretty surreal being surrounded by Americans and English speaking Europeans right in the center of Barcelona”. Frankly, the festival might as well be in Timbuktu, or on the moon. Barcelona provides local color and evening diversion, is all. The strangest instance of this imposition of English upon the landscape is on the map that all attendees were given: we’re told of some rooms that are on the “fourth floor (push 3 in elevator).” Um, you mean in fact this is the third floor. Yes, they count differently over here, but it’s bizarre that the organizers feel the need to re-map and redescribe the local environment so thoroughly.
  • Not unrelatedly, there’s an awful amount of money swishing around here. This event can’t have been cheap to put on, and plenty of the organizations represented here have clearly shelled out plenty for the privilege.
  • Even so, in a rousing opening session yesterday morning, we were told that we were disruptive forces, who were gathered to participate in the “joy of insurgency.” The session at which we told this had the feel of a religious revivalist meeting, or (perhaps better) an American sales convention: hyped-up applause at every point, led by an over-excited MC. It seemed rude to disrupt the so-called disruption, so fully were we expected to buy into it. Now, I’m a fan of joyous insurgency as much as the next insurgent (it’s much better than the miserable sort, after all), and in fact I liked Cathy Davidson’s mini-keynote in which the phrase was introduced. What makes me suspicious is how enthusiastically everyone felt able to be coerced into it. Surely it couldn’t last?
  • And indeed, later that day I went to a couple of sessions on “badges.” The idea is interesting: how to come up with other forms of credential for non-traditional or extra-institutional learning. Should not people have confirmation of the skills they learn as they participate in wikis or other online communities, as they teach themselves programming or facilitation? Shouldn’t blogs or even twitter feeds be counted as achievements in some way, and rewarded with some kind of symbolic capital? The problem of credentialling is indeed worth discussing. Unfortunately, the discussion soon devolved into ideas as to how to replace university degrees… with modes of assessment that were more “granular” (involving closer surveillance, no doubt) and more transparent to students’ future employers. Better still: shouldn’t businesses and corporations have input into the ways in which universities constructed and awarded credentials? Shouldn’t, in short, capital be more fully involved in determining the shape of tertiary education? Shouldn’t universities be more fully instrumental for commerce? No wonder that the role models suggested for these new credentials were those well-known insurgents… Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

So, Drumbeat is full of well-intentioned people, full of energy. But the insurgent optimism of the opening session lasted all of a couple of hours, soon turning into the dystopia of how to realize more fully an over-surveilled society of control, without anyone seeming to note the contradiction or (at best) tension between the various elements of the Mozilla / Open Education vision.

The fact that all this is taking place in an Anglophone, North American bubble that crassly rewrites even the basic signs of the environment into which its resources and money have been dropped, is perhaps not unrelated to the event’s rah-rah enthusiasm and (so far as I could tell) blithe refusal to consider nuance, contradiction, or complications to its techno-utopian vision.

Update: and now a follow-up here.

Further update: Ha! For all the championing of disruption, I note that neither this post nor its follow-up are featured in Mark Surman’s otherwise comprehensive collection of Drumbeat links. (Now, thanks to my pointing this fact out, Surman has finally added them.)