Lyndon Hood - (Cult)ural Theorist, Lower Hutt

Monday, April 24, 2006

Lyndon Hood - (Cult)ural Theorist, Lower Hutt

In a burst ANZAC spirt (well, it was more a riot RAMSI spirit) I happened to look at the Aussie media, and discovered it's funny what presses my buttons.

John Howard is standing up to prevent the dumbing-down of English classes.

This from the man whose Education Minister sounded happy for 'intelligent' design to be taught as science. I demand equal time for the standard response!

The transcripts of the Howard thing also includes some sterling support of Keith Windschuttle, who teaches us that the Aboriginies all died without help from the settlers. Standing up for History too, I see.

But of all the things I could be railing against, for some reason it's the complaint that there is postmodernism in Australian schools.

Now I have my problems with postmodernism. For starters, the associated intellectual relativism thing does not suit every occasion - witness the teching of 'intelligent' design. Also, high pomo writing is indistinguishable from nonsense (though it's not the first time in philosophy or literary theory that that's happened).

But, as far as 'the problem with the world today' goes, I think postmodernism is more of a diagnosis than a cause.

There are also things I like. For one thing, it's a useful tool for attacking modernism with - that's modernism as in all the false certainties that prevailed from about the Renaissanse and burst circa WWI. I haven't gone to deep with this, but I suspect that some of the Islamic thinking that alarms people could be described as modern. Certainly, if Australia thinks that, no matter what the question, there is only one right answer (which by coincidence tends to be "what I think"), it has another thing coming.

For another thing, when it come to the subjective old Arts, it's actually very useful. For things like explaining why Tom Stoppard is so good, for starters.

Now, I had imagined any threat of postmodernist insurrection had petered out by the mid 90s. But Australia remains ready. Also against political correctness.

So what's the fuss about? Well, partly, about Western Australia's move to 'outcomes based' education, which apparently rates student with respect to each other. Terrifying. But what set me going was when The Australian cited this bit of evidence:
The criticism of teaching standards followed revelations in The Weekend Australian that a prestigious Sydney school, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, had asked students to interpret Othello from Marxist, feminist and racial perspectives.

Of course, they also mentioned this:
Western Australia's introduction of a Year 12 English exam that fails to penalise students for poor spelling or grammar and asks students to compare two film posters but not read a book has also been blasted by Canberra.
But I missed that on account of I'd already got mad. I'm writing my blog about the first quote. I suppose I'm really complaining about The Australian, but I'll bitch abut Howard anyway.

So they call the Othello thing 'dumbing down'?

I would personally have been against teaching high school kids postmodernism too. I'd have said it's too hard. The author of the winning high school review from the Arts Festival, for example (can't find it online), seemed to find the idea of getting to decide what a performance was all about for yourself inherently bad.*

That question is actually more difficult that a standard one. You don't just have to know the text, and use it to support your assertions. You also have to look at it in some kind of cultural context. Of course you apply cultural context anyway - probably that kind of reactionary one people seem to think great literature requires. Doing it the default way requires less thought and while it's inhernetly acceptable to people's prejudices sometimes that's not good enough.

Perhaps Howard thinks teaching applied marxist theory is outside a high school's brief. Fine. He might be concerned that if they start propogating postmodern ideas, Australia may one day be forced to take Aboriginal culture seriously. That, if not okay, at least is based on assessments I can understand.

But dumbing down? It may be (though it doesn't strike me that way) that then person who set the exam is thrying to put Shakepeare on the level of any other cultural artefact. While I far prefer to think of Othello as a text for performance than as ephemera, I do think that a) cultural artefacts are, per se worthy of study, and b) for all that people should read books for English lessons, the analysis and study involved in analysing pop culture well are much like those involved in the study of literature. The issue of quanity may need addressing in WA, though. And I suppose there is a difference between teaching postmodernism and - eek - applying postmodern theory in teaching.

But the the Othello thing: Dumbing down? Could John Howard answer that exam question? Well, maybe he could.

Anyway, applied to theatre - not least to Shakespeare - the idea of a text having some kind of fixed meaning looks particularly bizarre. Not only has every single performance of eeach different production been filtered through a whole squad of people - actors, directors, producers, designers and tech operators, all competent or inept by turns - but after all that the meaning is ultimately something that is sparked in the mind of the audience by what they experience (as is the case with all art, high and low).

I was once involved in a production of the Merchant of Venice whose director's vision was "as Shakespeare intended". When you get down to it, this is an excuse not to do any of your own thinking. If one actually sits down and tries to work out what Shakespeare might have been thinking**, working from those marvellous, dense, theatrical*** texts, you will end up with something that is uniquely you own and you still won't have a full set of instructions for a full production.

Then you might try thinking about all those words as if you had come up with them. Powerful magic. I tend to think of Shakespeare's play as magic crystals make significant patterns no matter what way you shine the light through them.

As it happened, that production of The Merchant wasn't at all 16th century, but then neither was the audience. The show was just mostly fairly obvious, which is not a recipie for earth-shattering theatre. And if the question of whether it's all right to be antisemitic like the heroes of the play - or of whether the The Merchant can become something it's actually ethical to perform - was faced at all, it was by the actors rather than the director.

So leaving the naming of ()modernisms aside, students must be taught to look at Shakespeare in modern contexts. Because, what was your other option?

* The review is of DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation. You may be diverted by my review (which was not in competition) and here's an interview. The whole collage nature of remixing makes it inherently postmodern; Spooky is more aware of that than most. (back)

** We'll leave aside the way the putative author's intention was probably 'a full house at a penny each on the floor and tuppence for the gallery'. (back)

*** I had an English lecturer once called King Lear a poem. It's a play. (back)

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Lyndon Hood - Reading it so you don't have to, Lower Hutt

Monday, April 03, 2006

PTSD 127: Press Releases and Postmodern Theory

Please answer the following questions:

1) With reference to the ACT Party press releases 'New Crime Stats Show East Auckland Suffers 5 Violent Crimes A Day' and '16 Violent Offences Every Day In Wellington', responding to the release of new crime figures:

a) Both releases contain the assumption that that people's perception of their own safety is directly related to the actual crime rate rather than political and media hype. Demolish this sarcastically.

b) Consider the following parallelisms:

- Hide: "It's no wonder that the people I speak to in Epsom don't feel safe in their homes or communities."
Roy: "It's no wonder that law abiding Wellingtonians still feel under seige in their homes and communities."

- Hide: "Our Police do a good job, but they are often frustrated by a weak, revolving door justice system."
Roy: "Our Police do a good job, but they are often overwhelmed and frustrated by a weak, revolving door justice system"

- Hide: "Our cops, courts and corrections services deserve to get the resources they need to keep law abiding Kiwis safe from thugs and thieves"
Roy: "Our cops, courts and corrections services deserve to get the resources and leadership they need to keep law abiding Kiwis safe from thugs and thieves"

Last time this kind of plagiarism was discovered, someone resigned. Discuss.

2) Consider this statement from Winston Peters of the announcement of the new Governor-General.

a) The role of the Queen's is described as "diverse", our nation as "evolving" and our heritages as "mixed", but Judge Anand Satyanand's race or ethnicity is never mentioned. Does anyone else find that convoluted and bizarre?

b) Peters assure us that Judge Satyanand has "respect" and is "respectful". Which is more dangerous, a Governor-General who is "uppity" or one who is "cheeky"?

Bonus Questions: (April 4, Hat-tip Mr Edgeler): Peters lists service as a High Court Judge as one of the qualifications for nation-nuance-acquaintance. Judge Satyanand was a district court judge.

a) How funny is that?

b) Does this mean Satyanand's disqualified now?

Lyndon Hood - bioinsecure, Lower Hutt

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Le Didymo Juste

Speaking as a blogger, my highest aim in life is have an issue which features prominently in my weblog raised in Parliament. So - as I'm sure you will all understand - it was with an actual orgasm that I greeted the following in response to Share Ardern question time on Wednesday:
I can say to the member that I do not think I was wrong about that, but I do know that the member was wrong when he said recently that didymo can be killed but that unfortunately one has to kill a river for a few years to do it, and that surely it would be better to sacrifice one or two rivers than to let it spread through the South Island.

Now, I'm sure that the relevant people in Anderton's office read the opposition's press releases no matter what I do, and I'm sure that Russell Brown did his share in publicising my post, but it's clearly all to do with me. Do I get a medal or what? Can I join the exhaled ranks of elite political bloggers?

Actually, the saga has had some life in the meantime too.

In December, when one RWDB displaying his talent for diving headfirst into the meme pool without checking the depth. Noting Mr Tumeke's assertion that flushing is the only solution (apparently this was inspired by a use of the stupid-press-release grenade by Anderton that I missed. That's twice!). In contrasting this with Brown's statements, RWDB did some of the obligatory Hard News sneering and then asked for comments on who might be right. Rather than, you know, having a look for himself. Well anyhow, he got told.

Now, I didn't go into all the things that were wrong with the idea because I thought anyone who had the faintest idea about ecology would be able to work it out for themselves. Seeing as there's clearly at least two people in the world outside that category, here goes: instructions for cleaning your fishing geaar do not translate to entire river systems. The idea is unfounded and impractical, it probably wouldn't work, it would be a widly conterproductive solution to destructive but not catastrophic problem and YOU JUST DON'T DELIBERATELY KILL RIVERS BECAUSE IT'S OBVIOUSLY BATSHIT INSANE. Tane's comments at Sir Hump's and in this thread on Frog for details. Also Biosecurity's page for info.

Should I be raising this post so long after it happened? Well, RWDB's post was 2 months after Brown's, so why not?

And then, in February the Nats' Associate Conservation spokesman Eric Roy
thanks goodness for my alma mater, which has show that "the larvae of some native insects may feed on didymo".

As if this had somehow solved the problem.

Now, this idea is less horrifingly dangerous and it might even be less lacking in gorm - it's not like I've looked up the paper in question - but I don't think so. What are you going to do? Dump tonnes of insect larvae on the rivers? Every year? And are they only going to eat didymo? Or are you just going to set up a breeding population? Given that this is a native insect we are talking about, it's probably there already and say and watch while didymo got established in the first place. Who suggested this research? Might it have been Biosecurity NZ? Those people sitting on their hands in Wellington? Just a thought.

We might note that Anderton used the stream-killing suggestion for purposes somewhat peripheral to the actual question. Now, while the nation proably does deserve straight answers (especially considering that the start of the didymo response could have been quicker), I have to agree that perhaps the opposition spokeman doesn't.

Not least for failing to shape up after I gave Ardern what for. Maybe I should turn down that medal after all, because I have this tiny suspicion that actually they don't listen.

Further evidence of this was provided about the same time by Tariana Turia. Just days after I pulled her up for her comments on Corrections and the horrors of psychologists, she's at it again. The fact that the psych-baiting doesn't actually fit in with the rest of speech (for instance, she's quite right about the Ombudsman's report) suggests to me she really does have an axe to grind. She might well want to grind it, because it's clearly not the sharpest tool in the box.

If the names of these measures and concepts and programmes (not that she differentiates) sound a little strange, this is not in itself grounds for dumping them. And if you know what they all actually are, Turia's outburst sounds the stranger of the two, because she clearly has no idea.

One glaring is mention of the Risk of (Re)conviction and Risk of Imprisonment tool. This is barely psychological at all. It uses statistics about who actually has reoffended to predict what the chance of particular people reoffending based on facts about their criminal history. Processing people is a clerical than a psychological thing.

So yeah, you should proabably keep the medal. If there's any cash, though, I'll take that.

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