Posted in Writing

Lecture notes: Experimentality and the Digital

Dr Dean Lockwood recently gave some lectures where he reflected on Student as Producer in the context of digital media theory. Below, is an excerpt. Click here to download the lecture [PDF].

Interesting things are happening – a window has opened. Let’s focus on the university. For a couple of decades and more, higher education has increasingly been pushed towards running on a business model, a market model, in which the student is understood as a consumer. The current struggle over tuition fees highlights the extent to which this model is in crisis, in common with the market model more generally. Many are arguing again, just as they did in 68, that education must be politicized, connected back up to struggles against exploitation. Here, at Lincoln, the institution of the university itself is showing signs of moving this way, or at least there is an initiative, an experiment, at large within the university which is based on the argument that those who teach can no longer remain politically indifferent. Mike Neary, our Dean of Teaching and Learning, has even gone so far as to call for an agenda for ‘revolutionary teaching’, what he calls a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (see bibliography).

This agenda has become dominated by an organizing principle for teaching and learning which goes by the name of ‘Student as Producer’, which I want to say a few words about. SaP takes its inspiration from a lecture given in 1934 by the Marxist critic, Walter Benjamin, entitled ‘The Author as Producer’. Benjamin argued that it was not enough for writers simply to be committed to the cause of ordinary working people (to demonstrate ‘political correctness’, we might say); writers need technical correctness as well; they need to experiment to find appropriate new forms and techniques in which to write. Wishing oppressed people well is insufficient – the author has to achieve solidarity with the oppressed in terms of how they engage with the process of production. The emphasis is firmly on the process, production and its function rather than the finished product – above all, what you do and how you do things…For Benjamin, it’s imperative to ‘functionally transform’ the apparatuses, the machines, the organization of production, to innovate and create new ways of doing things, new roles and identities for ourselves.

An important part of this transformation involves breaking through the barriers between different forms of production, ‘melting down’ these forms, as he puts it, into ‘an incandescent liquid mass from which the new forms will be cast’. His primary model for this was the work of his friend, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Brecht introduced techniques from the new media of film and radio into the machinery of his theatre. In particular, he took ideas from editing practices, especially the montage theory of Soviet film-makers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov which made use of the juxtaposition of images to create new, unexpected and often shocking collisions. Brecht experimented with interrupting the ongoing action at key moments to create similar shocks – this would astonish the audience, setting up a sudden distance between them and the drama (Brecht called it ‘alienation-effect’), a halt in the action which would effectively diagram the conflicting forces present in a situation and compel the spectator to take sides. This was conceived as a counter to the typical bourgeois drama which was bent on creating a naturalistic illusion, bringing characters and situations to life and inviting empathy. In such a drama, you could thoroughly empathize with the ‘underdog’, swept along with the tragedy through to some final vindication or epiphany. But this solution is illusory – nothing changes in actuality – instead, Brecht insisted that the audience has to be forced to become a critical collective, be compelled to think and even act together to change the way things are, to rectify the injustice exposed diagrammatically by the dramatic interruption. For Benjamin, this appropriation of new media techniques in Brecht’s theatrical laboratory is a valuable model for how production processes might be functionally transformed.

The author that is satisfied with traditional forms, that shows no interest in revolutionising his or her own production process, in breaking down barriers between different media forms, for example, is a mere ‘hack’, Benjamin says. They’re really just in the business of entertainment, turning out products for consumption. Mike Neary, in his supporting essays for SaP, attempts to show how these ideas are relevant for university education. A great deal of teaching in higher education is in thrall to the market model and churns out content – lectures, modules – for consumption. It says quite openly that the student is a consumer. It contemplates ways of branding itself to become more attractive. Even radical ideas are transformed into consumable product – this is what concerned Benjamin and Brecht. Nobody is expected to really think or act on this material. No one really expects more than indifference on the part of the student. The way education is organized is along the lines of the capitalist organization of work, which depends upon a process of abstraction. Ideas, inventions, creative power, the ‘general intellect’, as Marx once put it, is abstracted from people and embodied in machines. Workers are alienated from this power, made to serve as mere appendages to the machine. Just so in education, the student is not much more than an appendage to an instructional machine. Consider the children’s activity of ‘Join the Dots’. Let’s say I have a simple drawing of an elephant – along the outline of the elephant I mark a series of dots and number them, say 1-20. Then I erase the drawing. With a pencil, a child joins the dots together in sequence and hopefully they’ll recognize the elephant and will have been entertained. A lot of teaching is like that. I, the module co-ordinator, hope that you will follow me through the course of the semester in joining together the dots I’ve set out for you until, at the end, you will in your assignments demonstrate that you have recognized the elephant. If you’ve been entertained, maybe you’ll give the module good scores in your end-of-semester module evaluations. But you are a mere appendage to the game…you’ve contributed almost nothing to the production process. SaP insists that the student must not merely be appended to the process of knowledge production, mustn’t simply consume and reproduce its results. The organizing principle of SaP is the engagement of both student and lecturer together, collaboratively, in research. The aspiration is to move towards a new social teaching machine which functions to produce something new, something unexpected, even beyond what everyone thought they could achieve. It might even change who we are, how we act together and what we do when we go out into the world. We have to reach beyond what we already know and understand, what currently seems possible and realistic. Education must strive for the impossible. We will not be able to know ahead of time where we are going. In the SaP vision, there is no elephant lurking behind everything we say and do. That is to say, we are no longer merely representing and consuming existing facts, identities and meanings. We are creatively producing the new. In the context of a degree in Media Production, these ideas suggest that our course should not be primarily engaged in getting you skilled up and rehearsed for your future role in one of the media industries. Instead, it suggests that together we could overpower this conformism, aspire to create a new future, some alternative practice.

It’s important that we conceive of this as collaboration, as a collective and social activity. We have to think beyond our individual needs and interests and try to begin with our social context, the collective conditions which form the way we all relate to one another. The individual must learn for all, in essence. As Mike Neary and Andy Hagyard say, in their essay, ‘Pedagogy of Excess’, the tutor is merely a guide, a participant. All involved should ‘look beyond their own self-interest and identity’, refuse to accept their given role. Think in terms of excess, going beyond the given, the actual. Try to seize the virtual potentials of the situation. Neary and Hagyard say that students can escape their roles as consumers, and their assumed political indifference, to become bearers of a ‘power of rupture’, ‘revealers of a general crisis’.