NATION AS (IS) A BRAND. PART 3

Huntley & Palmers Biscuits and Pears’ Soap. Crispy military might and the bleaching purity of civilization

 

COMMODITIES AND NATIONAL NARRATIVES

The global cultural economy marks in many aspects the intensification of flows and exchanges. In fact, its trajectory started centuries ago with warfare and the dissemination of religions of conversion (Appadurai 1991) followed by commercial maritime expeditions that made the circulation of capital, commodities, individuals, and information transcend territorial frontiers.

The new technologies of transport and communication, according to David Harvey (1996), have been increasingly compressing the spatio-temporal dimensions with a direct impact on the life-experience of the social body. They facilitated the flows at transnational level to the extent that the original identities (of capital, commodities, individuals, information, etc) have become more complex and multilayered, thus asking for a new politics of representation in order to secure the continuity of the nation as a symbolic platform for the politico-capitalist project of modern states.

A useful example is provided in the book ‘Imperial Leather’ by Anne McClintock (1995). From her studies of commodity circulation during the Victorian period emerges an intricate politics of representation of nation – in this case Great Britain – utilizing manufactured commodities as a medium platform whereby narratives of the then British Empire were displayed and its ideology disseminated in a kind of propaganda exercise.
“More than a mere symbol of imperial progress, the domestic commodity becomes the agent of history itself.” (McClintock, 1995: 220)

The collective national identity of Britain supposed a technological (and moral) superiority implicit in the Empire’s relation to the colonized world – with a strong element of binary opposition in the construction of meaning and identity predicated on difference (Hall, 1997). That collective sentiment was tacitly embedded in the manufactured objects at the time: civilized/primitive, rational/instinctive, modern/backward, white/black and so on. I would suggest that the power of such discourses reproduced in manufactured goods contributed to the assimilation and reproduction of a shared collective identity – or ‘imagined community’ as we have seen – and as a result it reinforced a system of Eurocentric, protestant-capitalist moral values both at homeland and in the extended national territories of the colonies. Furthermore, the transport technologies and logistics involved in the commodity flows increased the scope and frequency with which this plethora of goods and messages were being delivered to their consumers. Finally, the fetishization of commodities, as Marx put it, transformed commodities from mere use-values into a powerful mechanism of ideological dissemination, primarily driven by capital but quietly functioning in the interest of political powers too as the impetus for consumption started to see an upward trajectory among both the working classes and the bourgeoisie.

Next week I am going to talk about the different dimensions of the nation beyond the territorial landscape. Thank you and stay tuned!

TEDxLondon 2011: Education Revolution

TEDxLondon: Education Revolution

Here we are again, one year later at another TEDx London event. This time the topic moved from the Millenium Goals to another no less ambitious: Education. To begin with the choice of venue couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the frequency with which the theme had been discussed in relation to creativity, engagement, experience and so on. The organizers competently transformed the Roundhouse in a (surprisingly comfy) auditorium hosting an audience of nearly a thousand people who came to witness what the speakers had to say about a supposed educational revolution, and specially in relation to Sir Ken Robinson’s views – him, a creative expert who led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creativity and cultural education who, back then, coordinated a comprehensive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy.

In his introduction note Sir Robinson called for a thorough rethink of the educational system in the UK and beyond. He highlighted the necessity to transform the processes through which kids are taught in schools based not on a mechanic approach but one that is, according to him, personalized, creative, inspiring and which, above all, meets the community needs in the context of 21st century ‘modern economies’. So, the panel comprised of 17 speakers was, to a considerable measure, assembled to support this particular view. One that is useful as it helps to establish a clear line of sight separating the old paradigms from new alternative routes. To which extent these talks and the ideas they bring about offer effective alternatives or, at least, point to new possibilities is something that needs to be further examined.

Sir Ken Robinson calls for an overhaul of the education system in the UK

Let’s see for example the coalition government’s new policy in relation to educational reform in the UK. This month 24 new free schools set up by teachers, charities, education experts and parents will start operating in the country under a state-funded plan. The education secretary Michael Gove maintains that by handing power to the community to manage their children’s schools they are offering an opportunity to improve the level of education in areas where the current system is failing. The curricula is collectively agreed and built by all stakeholders and decisions concerning the budget are made independently from local governments. He also claims that prior to the set up of free schools, a very rigorous assessment process is put in place to ensure that the community have the necessary capabilities and resources to run them efficiently and with tangible gains over the current system. Despite Sir Robinson’s calls on educational reform bearing some semantic similarities to the Tory’s policy they pose several problems in my opinion: the first one is the availability of expertise to run the schools – remember the socio-economic divide between the north and south of England, for example. One cannot assume that adequate human resources are evenly distributed across the country, which would only exacerbate the problem and ultimately see schools closing down and as a result students would be left with fewer or no options available.

Head Teacher Mike Foley on an interview for BBC Radio4 demonstrated his preoccupation with the tendency of free schools to increase skewed intakes of students. According to him some catchments could attract a high number of privileged pupils whereas others would become pockets of underperforming students. “Motivation drops, and aspiration drops as well. In the end that will have an effect on results and it’s a downward spiral,” Mr Mike claims. Furthermore, the rhetoric employed by the government where words  such as ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ are extensively used is a clear indication that they are unashamedly pushing their neoliberal agenda in a dangerously haphazardly way. The fear is also that the privatisation of education would become only one step away since more deregulation and state withdrawal would be very likely to follow in the future should the government continue to pursue its current programme.

The other problem is the basis on which these special curricula will be designed. If on the one hand parents and students have more freedom to decide what they want to learn on the other governments loose the capacity to coordinate policies that, in theory, should aim at reducing inequality and offer stimuli in areas that are critical to socio-economic development. This assumption is based on the incapacity (or unwillingness) of free markets to self-regulate, contrary to what Friedmanite doctrine advocates. Another motive for worry is the religious affiliation of some communities and how that would filter through children’s education creating further polarization between social groups and communities as it currently happens in many parts of the United States.

The panel of speakers: students, practitioners and thinkers

Considerations such as the above were not discussed during the TEDx event for the simple reason the organization tries to be as neutral and non-partisan as possible, even when discussing a topic that is so intrinsically political such as education. Instead, the speakers presented cases and initiatives connecting creativity and technology with new possibilities for modes of learning and, to a certain degree, a concern with an epistemological question of what the new generations can/should learn. The points presented during the event were certainly valid: children, specially in deprived areas (and not only in the UK) have been increasingly disengaged despite the efforts made by policymakers and teachers either because the methods used in the classroom are failing to capture students’ imagination or because they feel the subjects taught are unrelated to their everyday lives – one example being the importance of ICT in young people’s attitudes toward information and socialization.

Goldie's anthem Inner City Life: from drum'n bass to education

DJ, producer and Jungle/Drum’n Bass godfather Goldie explained how he had had “an education out of school”. It was only when he dropped formal education and had the time to pursue his vision, in this case artistic expression, that he fulfilled his potential as an individual. He went on saying that his ideal of a schooling model would be so outrageous but every kid would nonetheless want to study there. His point, i.e. the combination of creativity and exploration as fundamental components of learning, was recurrent in most of the speeches during the day. The experiential element in these processes was gracefully demonstrated by scientist and filmmaker Max Whitby in a fun experiment involving a tin foil box and a tank filled with invisible gas, which ended with him inhaling it and delivering his last lines in a rather cartoon-esque voice. Tim Exile, also a musician, delivers an on-flight performance followed by a quick talk on his artistic practice where he highlights the importance of spontaneity in the process of learning/creating. Finally, Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, advocates the urgency in putting creativity into the heart of the learning experience and as a means of community-building through the involvement of its members in art-oriented activities.

Other discussions gravitated around issues like the decentralization of learning mechanisms and the transcendence of physical spaces (read schools) in favour of mobile, technology-supported platforms where knowledge can be simultaneously assessed and built. However, the talk that grabbed my attention the most was delivered by Ewan Mcintosh. He elegantly raised the question of a paradigmatic change based on not simply equipping students to be able to deliver solutions but, instead, to encourage them to interrogate what the problems that need solving are in the first place. In that he understatedly makes a call for establishing a new angle based on activities where individuals are, therefore, not problem solvers but  “problem finders” rather. I think he grasped the true nature of the challenge that awaits the future generations. That’s why, in my view, the ‘problem finders’ concept pretty much sums up the most relevant issues traversing education which, in turn, should lead to other critical, and even more urgent, debates which converge to ontological questions and the grand-narratives of the future, i.e. the long-term vision for genuinely sustainable economies at both national and global levels, and a viable, more equitable social contract that can promote truly functioning societies.

The educational revolution as discussed at TEDxLondon is relevant, but only insofar as it takes the opportunity provided by the severe shake-up of the  current economic foundations to ask fundamental questions about what kind of education we want and for what purposes? In other words, thinking of a future narrative that is progressive in a revolutionary way. The talks therefore provided a glimpse into a new scenario marked by technology, creativity and space for free-thinking. However, in the light of a chronic economic crisis battering developed countries new forms of education predicated on developing economies under more or less the same paradigms (e.g. factor-driven, efficiency enhancers and innovation-driven) will not suffice. There is an urgent need for truly radical-thinking at a cross-sectional level of societies involving educators, policymakers, economists, scientists and everyone else in between, to start an articulation (rather belatedly) of viable alternatives for a sustainable future.

Dan Roberts: "geeks will rule the world"

In that sense the proposed discussion about education revolution on TEDxLondon was perhaps overrated, considering the complexity of the issue and the sensitivities of stakeholders involved in this area. Nevertheless, we should probably bear in mind that the TED format is first and foremost an attempt to share knowledge and lead by example which is made possible by a group of dedicated volunteers. Even if it fell short of providing answers that some in the audience might have expected it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Evan Grant and his team of collaborators

[Education] Revolution = Radical Thinking

See you at TEDxLondon 2012