I am sitting at a kitchen table with my back to the sun and the view below of endless tiled roofs until green mountains rise abruptly behind them. In spite of this captivating view, I am once again absorbed in my computer screen. Every day we feel a constant tug of war to ‘catch up’ and ‘enliven’ our ‘enlivened learning’ blog and write what can often seem as an endless stream of emails to connect with friends, family, colleagues, places to visit, people yet to meet. We are reminded how much computers suck away energy – draining colour from our faces and brightness in our eyes – quite a far cry from an enlivened state of learning! Yet, using these machines is essential as part of our learning and communication – to connect with and relate to so many different people from different parts of the world, building perhaps new communities, new relationships.
Today I am writing up my notes and Kelly’s notes that were jotted down previously sitting by another window overlooking a different view. These notes were registers of my memories of our time in Unitierra and in particular our exchanges with Gustavo around the topic of literacy, orality and the screen culture or society that seems to be emerging in all corners of the world.
On the first day visiting Unitierra, we attended the Wednesday weekly afternoon seminar. When we walked into the front room, at least 10 people were busy peering into their computer, typing furiously. Side conversations occurred intermittently without much eye contact.
It was a curious thing to see the wall of computers encircling the large table that is actually 10 tables pushed together. The computer screens nearly blocked the faces and bodies behind them, looking as if it is a meeting of computers rather than of bodies. I wondered how different this scene would have been 10 years ago. Would there have been books and notebooks as the center of focus instead? How does our reliance on computers play a part in community, and in comunalidad (see previous post)? How does it strip away the atmosphere of comunalidad? And, how does it offer another type of comunalidad?
The writer Bennedict Anderson used the term Imagined Communities (title of his 1983 book) to refer to how nationalism emerges as a historical phenomenon in which large groups of people come to envisage themselves as part of a community with shared attributes and a common identity. These communities, acquired a social consciousness as being part of a larger group in parallel to processes of self-organisation around the institutions of a state. For Anderson one of the key catalysts in this is the emergence of what he called ‘print-capitalism’, that is, the wide availability of printed books published in the vernacular, through a newly established print industry that included literary productions, pamphlets, newspapers and so on. Anderson’s influential work then brought together these technologies of communication with new forms of political organisations, imaginations and identities.
Peering at the screens before us in the front room of Unitierra that afternoon, and reflecting on our own experiences with computers we also wondered about the role and effects of communication and information technologies like computers and the Internet in transforming our societies, forms of organising, our identities and imaginations. But beyond these questions, which Bennedict addressed in his work in relation to the printed press, we wondered how these mediating technologies changed our interactions with the world and each other. How do these technologies alienate us from immediate experience and each other whilst at the sane time bring us together in new ways, allowing for novel forms of organising, creating, communicating? How do these technologies make our lives easier and more enjoyable — and how have they made us more anxious, obsessively needing to ‘stay in touch’ and consume an overwhelming amount of random information? How have these machines liberated or enslaved us?
We guessed the answers would be obvious and subtle. These technologies have made it possible that we can publish our experiences and ideas, across the world, unmediated by publishers or other gatekeepers of the printed press. But they have also tied us to hours of typing and tinkering in front of screens, as Kelly notes describe above, away from the world unmediated by screens. Much has been written on the transformations at different times and places of mediating technologies, whether the computer or book, on societies and cultural practice. More subtle are the impacts of these technologies on the ways we experience and relate to the world and each other.
This had also been the topic of a long running seminar in Unitierra, using some of Ivan Illich’s work on the theme of literacy – he wrote two books on this topic, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1988, co-written with Barry Sanders), and In the Vineyard of the Text (1993). The seminar met weekly over a period of several months discussing these and other texts and bringing diverse experiences and ideas. A story Gustavo told from this seminar stuck with me. This involved a young man who, excited about these discussions on literacy and orality, returned to his village outside Oaxaca to interview his indigenous grandfather with a recording device over a period of several days. When he explained to his grandfather what he was doing with the machine, recording every statement, the elderly man laughed uncontrollably for a while. He then told his grandson the stories and experiences he was telling him changed depending on what he was feeling, what day it was, what he ate. So all he was recording was his mood.
The story chimed with us and speaks to the working practice of every researcher, how the seeming permanence of registering words, in recording devices or text, solidifies the transient and changing flux of lived experience. How does growing up in a ‘society of the book’ and increasingly ‘of the screen’ affect our experiences? What kinds of experiences, relationships and ways of communicating do those forms of literacy foreclose or render more difficult as they replace other ways of being? Is it even possible to remember what is forgotten through the introduction of these new mediating technologies and the practices of relating, reading and writing the world they introduce? Can these deeply ingrained sensibilities be unlearned?
Whilst learning with the Blackfoot, from Blackfoot ways of knowing and from the sites that were important to them we had a taste of what it might be like to learn from and listen to place, to plants and animals, to the sky, the mountains, the weather – to gain new forms of literacy with the land – reading and relating to the land. This required a legitimising of these aspects of the natural world as sources of knowledge, as things we can also ‘read’ and learn from on par with that which we might acquire from books. Cynthia Chambers, Narcisse Blood, Ryan Heavy Head, whom we spent some time with in Alberta, helped us become more sensitive to these ways of being in place. Cynthia has also worked with Inuit Aboriginal communities in the Arctic on mapping their ’embodied memoryscapes’ or literacies of the land, stories that developed through centuries about different land formations that guided their migration patterns annually without any printed text.
What we consider ‘literacy’ or legitimize as being ‘literate’ is completely embedded within relationships of power. What this means is that any definitions and forms of measurement about what ‘literacy’ or ‘being literate’ is, is about including some forms of knowing that automatically excludes others. These acts of inclusion and exclusion exercise power, that often many people, primarily those being excluded, have no control over. In the international development and education worlds, UNESCO (United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization) provides the global definition of what ‘being literate’ means. This definition has changed significantly over the past 50 years because of being inadequate and hotly debated. Currently, wider definitions and understandings of literacy do exist because of these debates, although the focus on textual literacy (as reading and writing) tends to consistently predominate because of its fundamental importance in the global economy.
Munir Fasheh, the Palestinian activist and scholar, often gives the example of his own mother who was conventionally ‘illiterate’ but was a gifted seamstress who not just functioned, but excelled at her craft without literacy or numeracy skills as typically ascribed. Kelly met Munir in 2004, when she was living in Karachi and found him deeply inspiring – intellectually and spiritually. His critiques of education and international development were centred first on ourselves – how we need to reflect critically and spiritually on our own practices before changing the world around us. Munir gave a Tedx Talk in Ramallah in April (2012) which is well-worth watching (spoken in Arabic but with English subtitles). Other noted scholars and authors, particularly Brian Street (Kelly’s former PhD supervisor whose work has really inspired her thinking), Tim Ingold (see his collection of essays in The Perception of the Environment amongst many others) and David Abram (see Spell of the Sensuous) have also expressed in their work a similar sensibility to considering different interpretations and analyses of what literacy/ies are and in particular, how these relate to learning from our particular environment. That, in different contexts, being ‘literate’ can and should mean far more than a simplified and abstract definition.
A further re/un-learning around textual literacies that we both had been experiencing in this journey also came up in our conversation with Gustavo. This has to do with the importance of the conversation as a more embodied, interactive and present way of being together and communicating. In academia there is a fetishising of publications; the article, book, ‘publish or perish’, number of citations, journal ranking. Texts are the currency of exchange and the way of quantifying people’s productive capacity, reach and worth. Unfortunately, rare are the spaces created purposively for good conversations. The formulaic nature of most conferences and seminars do not make fertile ground for this beautiful interpersonal flowering of the good conversation to flourish. Academic departments are often too busy discussing the latest bureaucratic procedures or increasing hardships of academic day to day life for people to really talk about the passions and ideas that drive their work.
Here on this journey, in the open plains of southern Alberta, the forests of northern British Columbia, or in the bustling cities of Vancouver, Mexico City or Oaxaca we are rediscovering the enlivening joy of conversations and its importance for mutual learning. We have spent hundreds of hours over the last three months talking to people, those involved in the initiatives we are visiting, new and old friends we have stayed with or met along the way and others with whom we crossed paths. Conversations are the pulsing beat of our journey.
Kelly reminded me of the conversation we had with Cynthia when she told us how visiting is fundamental to her work and learning with Aboriginal communities and how this is not often appreciated within academic circles. The importance of visiting, of engaging in conversations is primary to the ways in which we are learning with and from the organizations and people that we are encountering on this journey. This ‘approach’ is in stark contrast to social research methods that we have both been educated about and have followed within our academic work (we will write more about this later). We have loved returning to the spoken word and storytelling as a medium through which to engage with others and share our experiences, questions and hopes. We have also loved the conversation as a present moment, immediate and embodied medium of exchange.