Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Spiderland

One of my early memories is my grandmother taking me through her large garden in Strathfield, teaching me the names of all the plants. Never being the great gardener she is, I can't remember most of them anymore. But I do remember the spiders.

When a spiderweb was in our way - often the case - she would stop me and ask me to look at the web and note how beautiful it was and how much work the spider had put into creating such a lovely home for itself - and a home that very cleverly doubled as a means of getting food. She would then ask me to hold a couple of the web's threads and would take a couple herself and we would very carefully move it, sticking our threads to new plants so we could get past without disrupting the spider or getting its web in our hair. Undoubtedly we also destroyed its chances of catching insects, as the web was in the way for a reason - but I didn't know that.

I've never been particularly scared of spiders and I've always believed that those days in Nana's garden were why.

And of course, I've also pointed out the beautiful webs and almost equally beautiful spiders to my son, Cooper.

For the last couple of days a spider has made its home in our bathtub. Just a daddy long legs, but a big one, whose body you could see and whose legs had an elegance and stance a sense of wisdom - as far as a daddy long legs can look wise, that is.

Cooper had already said, yesterday "there is a spider in the bath and I don't want to kill it", but I thought he meant he didn't want the squishy sensation, like our reluctance to squish cockroaches 'cos it is gross.

This morning we talked about the spider again and Cooper and I both agreed that the problem was he was a real beauty and we did not want to hurt him. Cooper went further, saying he didn't want to hurt any spiders. He suggested that we move him. He went and found a piece of paper and tried to pick the spider up himself - but only succeeded in spooking spidey a little.

Worried he might make it worse for the spider, it was declared to be my turn - we collected spidey and walked together outside, triumphantly depositing him on the brick wall.

I don't know where spidey went and think he probably liked the bathtub better, but I am really glad that Cooper wanted to move him. And I like to think it is all because of the care my Nana showed for her spiders when I was a tiny girl.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Objectivity, construction, agency

“Our atrocity is exactly the reverse of that of earlier centuries. It consists in eradicating the blood and cruelty by use of objectivity. A colourless, programmatic, bloodless atrocity, like the white-noise of torture of sensory deprivation cells” (Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, published 1990, from Chapter October 1980)

As I read this today, I was struck by how much I now find myself not relating (anymore) to Baudrillard’s sense of the violence of objectivity. I find it sometimes difficult to see whether this is a result of my growing up intellectually (mind you I was in Kindergarten when Baudrillard wrote this), whether the environment in which I operate has changed, whether theory has more broadly moved on or something else entirely.

Today I am sick and indulging in reading theory I have no current use for, which recently has been against the rules for the sake of efficiency. So I was also reading Bruno Latour (2005), and jumped back to the section on constructivism versus social constructivism. In this Latour distinguishes between a scheme in which the reality that all knowledge is socially constructed enables the creation of a site for sociological investigation – that is, how did people come to know this, how did they construct it, did they construct it well, kind of thing (constructivism) as opposed to social constructivism that acts as an accusatory (sort of…) tool, declaring the fictive state of all knowledge – that is, it is “constructed”, not real. So thereafter there are endless boring debates with scientists who declare that facts exist and a bunch of humanitities wankers (like me…) declaring they are constructed. And Latour kindly points out that both are right – the fact of construction does not prevent reality (in fact it created…or constructed…reality) nor does it need to imply that facts do not exist (and this is absurd anyway).

It reminds me of a criticism of a work-in-progress I had once: “Hannah it sounds like you think it is real, not constructed.” I had trouble answering this – as a well-brung-up arts graduate of the 1990s of course I think it is constructed but…isn’t it time to move on? Just because it is constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t real and I don’t want to be stuck doing what Meaghan Morris once described as the (boring…well, she didn’t say that, but everything in the article did, really) coded/decoding task that simply demonstrates what we all already know: that this, too, is constructed.

But then I was thinking about why construction was (see, I’ve decided it is inherently past tense…) important. For in, say, the 1980s this was a new-ish idea and it meant that cultural meanings were not immutable. This is important in a political sense, for when meanings are structured and made to seem natural (as many a social scientist has shown) social construction offers a set of tools that can highlight this process of naturalization and enable political agency.

My feeling is that agency is not a problem for Latour, in the way that prompted social constructivism/ anti-objectivity to be a significant thing for the likes of Baudrillard and others in the 1980s (who then went on to teach me in the early-mid 90s). Why is this? I guess I sort of think it is because, for Latour, agency is assumed and, in fact, any structure that emerges is a result of agency, rather than needing to somehow figure out how agency fits into structure.

A little bit like, I have sometimes wondered, if educational constructivism is a statement of fact (that is, learners really do construct knowledge themselves) then there is absolutely no necessity for adopting a constructivism approach to teaching, as it will happen anyway. (Of course, adopting an approach that aligns to the mechanisms of learning might be more efficient). But some seem to suggest knowledge is individually constructed only comes about when the teacher takes a constructivist approach, which seems utterly absurd. But, without wanting to move onto yet another topic, perhaps the idea of affordances assists in this: perhaps knowledge construction is afforded more readily in one environment than another.

There is no stopping agency, it simply is. But perhaps it is possible for some agents to contribute (or even construct) an environment that affords more agency than others.