Myth and structures of feeling

Over at the ever interesting Revealer, Gregory Grieve expands on an earlier post about "moral values" as a Barthian myth.

The
category of “moral values” was rhetorically powerful because it
operated as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of "myth,"
onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes
in "Myth Today":
"The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: It is at the same
time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other."

What is it that gives this empty form authority? “Moral values” are
empowered by "scripturalism," a pattern of mediation that represents
texts as ahistorical and uses them to legitimize a specific regime of
practices and beliefs. Scripturalism rests upon a transcendental
understanding of religious texts. Scripturalism differentiates itself
from other forms of understanding those religious texts by accusing
them of idolatry—the worship of material human constructions.

He goes on to define scriptualism in relation to his own area of specialty, South East Asian religious movements,  and notes that it is "an
idolized notion of scripture that by denying the materiality and
history of the text, authorizes a vision of Christianity that is far
from moral".

Far from being a neutral taxonomy,
scripturalism tends to structure knowledge so as to benefit a elite,
educated, conservative worldview. It tends to privilege the linguistic,
the discursive, and the cognitized over the visceral and tacit. For
instance, in South Asian religions, scripturalism has forced local
traditions into a "world religion’s" echo of Christian theology. While
in the 19th century the scripturalism may have been solely a Western
concern, by the 20th century scripturalism had become one of the most
powerful rhetorical tropes of Hindutva fundamentalist political groups
such as India’s religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In another Revealer post Omri Elisha proposes a different yet complimentary way  of understanding the rhetorical force of evangelical Christianity. If Grieves is interested in the broad discursive level Elisha focuses on the intimate language of believers:

I’m
not an evangelical, but I study them as an ethnographer. I listen to
the desires, fears, and ambitions of white, conservative evangelicals
in the so-called red state of Tennessee. I’ve come to know the
evangelicals who are the focus of my research very well, and I’ve
learned to anticipate their sentiments the way that one anticipates the
reactions of a close friend. If nothing else, I can speculate on a
particular structure of feeling that made many American evangelicals
rally their support and their blessings behind the President because,
rather than despite, the fact that his life before September 11, 2001,
seemed to contain so little that would have prepared him for what was
to come.

In a beautifully written piece Elisha argues that evangelicals see Bush not as a Messianic harbinger of Armageddon but as a reluctant Queen Esther, "called for a time such as this" as Laura Bush has described her husband in a widely circulated letter to evangelicals and as Esther is described in the Old Testament. Just as Michael Moore has done in a different context, Elisha tries to envision what Bush might
have been thinking while he sat in the classroom looking bewildered for seven minutes after learning that a second plane struck the Twin
Towers:

What remains significant is how conservative evangelicals read that
moment, and every presidential moment since then. If we come at this
from a perspective that they might take, it follows that evangelicals
did not see a bewildered politician, a man in over his head, stymied by
his own inexperience and geo-political entanglements. Rather they saw
the reluctant Queen Esther struggling to come to terms with the abrupt
realization that she is implicated in a drama much larger than herself.

At that moment, Bush, like Esther, represented the evangelical’s
greatest ambition and anxiety — that one day he/she will be called
upon to surrender him/herself to an irreversible state of being where
personal faith and historical destiny become one and the same. The
higher the stakes, the tougher the personal challenge. Consequently,
the firmer the resolve to follow through — regardless of obstacles or
substantive realities — the greater the faithfulness.

Elisha links this specific Biblical reading into the broader ways in which the American media dramatize and personalise public life

On September 11 we all watched the towers fall, and those who see the
world through particular kinds of dramaturgical lenses — biblical,
cosmic, or nationalistic — also saw what they believe to be the birth
of an unwitting commander. This may be why so many Bush supporters seem
to care less about his past indiscretions: his substance abuse,
questionable service record, and spotty corporate career, for example.
All of that happened before. I don’t just mean before he was “born
again” — this is about a lot more than washing sins away. I mean
before the whisper in his ear that told him “America is under attack,”
and before everyone else saw it happen.

Three years later, people who support Bush are still waiting to see how
the drama will play itself out. Even those disappointed with his
presidency want to know what happens next, how the story will be
resolved. As for evangelicals, they are clearly deeply invested in the
Bush drama for a host of theological and political reasons. But Bush’s
appeal to evangelicals is tied to a particular structure of feeling,
one that expresses itself through scriptural allegories that evoke
notions of obedience, sacrifice, and piety, and affections of
sentimental affinity, barely distinguishable from that which makes
evangelicals feel spiritually connected to that ancient Persian queen,
the one who knew when “such a time” had come.

It is this set of "sentimental affinities" this "structure of feeling," which evolves through public media portrayals, interpretive communities, sub-cultural practices, conversations and private sense making processes, that makes the broader "scripturalist" discourse resonate so powerfully.

Project blogging and categories

RedMorals a blog set-up to track the hypocrisy of the “so-called moral majority.” Quite aside from its content RedMorals showcases an excellent use of categories for a project blog.

The unnamed blogger set out with a very definite purpose and judging from the datelines they have has obviously put the whole project together in a couple of days. He writes:

A lot of people, red and blue, seem to think that the Republicans rode the red wave of morals in the Election of November 2004…..So I think it’s only fair that we examine the morals of this so called “moral majority.” There’s a lot of catching up to do on a lot of people, but I’m going to do my best to chronicle the morals of this alleged oh-so-red “moral majority.” Even as I was posting my first entry, another “pissed off progressive” noticed, and referred to it as a Watchblog. I like that: The Red Moral’s Watchblog is hereby inaugurated.

What is interesting is that every entry is categorised against a series of what/when/where/who categories. So if I want to find out about religious leaders I can go to the “who” categories (red religious leaders/politicians/staffers etc), or if its a time period or type of scandal that I want I can search against the dated “when” categories (by year) or the “what” categories (abortion/money/drugs etc).

Assessing Participation

Another fascinating post from Adrian Miles about his approach to assessment:

I routinely (these days) require all my students to assess their participation. Everyone contributes ideas about what things they think they will have to do to learn through the semester, and I collate these, tidy them up, and this forms the basis of an assessment diary that they complete each week. At the end of semester they use the same form to determine their participation across the semester, and to award themselves their final mark.

The list of things is pretty constant, with interesting variations. For example my third year students in an applied research subject just completed included “getting grubby” as one of their activities, by which they meant they should get their hands dirty in thinking, making, that they should get out of their academic comfort zone.

I have tried in limited ways with some classes to talk about approaches to learning and get students to identify goals for themselves, the class and myself as tutor. But Miles’ approach provides a great, integrated model, particularly the focus on evaluating participation, which as he notes is often merely equated with attendance by both students and teachers.

One of the things that I am finding as I learn to teach in more cohesive and developed ways is that the more I foreground the process of learning and create a conversation about both content areas and learning processes, the more focused responses I get from students.

I was really pleased the other day when one of my students spontaneously wrote a 1000 word addendum to his debate contribution because he felt he had been unable to fully work through his ideas previously. He then noted: “I am really pleased with the quality of work that the assessment process in this course is getting out of me.”

I think this had something to do with his sense of ownership over his work because it had been through several processes: small group development, personal development, tutorial group presentation, debate interaction, group discussion/critique, tutor response. This became a rolling, self-motivating process that drove him to desire some sort of learning conclusion rather than just the conclusion of handing in the assignment. He became more interested in communicating his ideas fully than he did in his final mark.

Blogs versus discussion boards

James Framer at his new blog Incorporated Subversion has an excellent article:Communication dynamics: Discussion boards, weblogs and the development of communities of inquiry in online learning environments. His general conclusions fuel my doubts about the appropriateness of threaded discussions as effective learning forums. His notion that they support a very limited “social presence” is interesting in light of my thinking about blogs as personal publication spaces.

In terms of social presence this kind of discussion board could be seen to offer little opportunity for users to “project themselves socially and emotionally, as ‘real’ people” (Garrison & Anderson 2003) as the opportunity for projection is limited and when and if it is achieved, the ability of the projector to project and appear as a “real” person is also severely limited. For example, in a face-to-face context individuals are able to project themselves in many ways, primarily through verbal and physical contributions to the people present in the area. However, in a discussion board, as well as being limited to the ability to express themselves through text, users are unable to express themselves to people in the area because there may not be any people there. A contribution can be viewed and read by one person, the whole group or nobody and because how a writer understands the intended audience of their work dramatically impacts on their entire approach to the task of writing (Abdullah 2003), this uncertainty impacts considerably on the ability of the individual to project themselves….

In establishing cognitive presence, issues associated with the lack of any definable audience do not only affect the nature of the way in which an individual writes, but also the discourse possible and in this the ability of a writer to reflect on their thoughts and “construct and confirm” meaning.

Blogs on the other hand, he argues, contribute a significant sense of presence that potentially assists and motivates communication, discourse and learning:

In terms establishing social presence it can be argued that weblogs offer a significant opportunity for users to project themselves as “real” people. Primarily the blogger is writing to their own area and context, designed to their liking (if the blogger is not a web designer there are a wide range of templates available with every provider) and developing on their previous postings from the online persona they have developed. Indeed, the fact that the blogger is also able to retain ownership of their writing, edit at will, refer to previous items and ideas, and control in its entirety the space and manner in which the weblog is published, can significantly augment their control over their expression and hence increase the opportunity to project and the motivation for doing so.

He quotes research which indicates that weblogs encourage more in-depth wrtiting.

A weblog is a reflective medium (hence comparisons with and use as journals and diaries), and the nature of publishing to an audience in a manner that will be archived, can be referred to and for which the author maintains responsibility and ownership has developed a certain style of expression. Certain research (Herring et al. 2004) across the blogging spectrum has indicated that there is a possibility that weblogs encourage significantly more in-depth and extended writing than communication by email or through discussion board environments and yet less extensive than more formal modes of publication, producing in an academic sense a kind of discourse somewhere between the conversational and the article. The value of this is evidenced through numerous examples of academic weblogs taking advantage of weblogs in order to engage with their peers and students and to reflect on their own learning (e.g. PhDWeblogs, Crooked Timber).

Note: I discovered this article through another great web sharing device, that I am loving: Furl. Specifically by tracking the furl list of a bloger I like: Amy Gahran who writes about her own love of furl here.

Categories

I’m becoming increasingly interested in the “category” function of blogs. I’ve noticed that as this blog evolves I have had to keep adding categories, which in turn have helped point me in new directions for further research.

This has been particularly true in my Ph.D blog which at the moment is all about exploring the key terms of my research and finding an appropriate typology and framework.

The gradual emergence of key categories is a major tenet of grounded research methodology and in thinking about blogging as a research method it would be interesting to look at the connections between blogging and grounded research. The notion of a category in grounded theory method is much more rigorously produced than blog categories but I think there is certainly value in using some of the thinking about categoires that grounded theorists have done to help us understand better the function of categories in research and academic blogging.

Honoria Madelyn Starbuck for her disertation on internet correspondence art develops a model that links grounded theory research method with the artistic practice of collage. She writes:

In both grounded theory and collage techniques there are a number of things happening simultaneously. Pieces of the whole are moved around and put next to each other and moved away from each other to find their final relationship in terms of the composition.

Interestingly Blogger doesn’t seem to easily provide categories as part of its set-up and this is a major disadvantage of using this free system for student blogs.

Blair gradually softens language

The Guardian navigates changes in Tony Blair’s language about Saddam and WMDs:

How PM’s language changed

Saddam Hussein’s regime is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked
April 10 2002, House of Commons

There are literally thousands of sites. I have no doubt that they will find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction
June 4 2003, House of Commons

I don’t concede it at all that the intelligence at the time was wrong. I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will find evidence of weapons of mass destruction programmes
July 8 2003, evidence to Commons liaison committee

But I have to accept, as the months have passed, it seems increasingly clear that at the time of invasion, Saddam did not have stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready to deploy
July 14 2004, statement on the Butler report

The information, some of it, the intelligence on which we founded our case, has turned out to be wrong
September 26 2004, BBC Breakfast with Frost

The evidence about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong.I acknowledge that and accept it
Yesterday, Labour party conference

Bush and Blair

The Guardian’s Ros Taylor makes an interesting comparison between Tony Blair’s and George Bush’s rhetorical strategies.

And there was a great deal of Bushery about today’s speech. Like the US president, Tony has developed a winning habit of acknowledging his opponents’ views, plucking them out, and flicking them far away into the bushes of the Rose Garden. “People say I’m …” opens George. “I know people say …” echoes Tony. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.

This may well be the case but after a quick sail through the text of Blair’s speech to the current Labour Conference, what struck me were the differences of style. Blair punctutaes the speech with humour and rhetorical questions that creates a humour and a sense of inclusion that often seems to be lacking from Bush’s presidential pronouncements.

I need to do a close reading of the speech and compare it Bush’s convention speech.

Some more pertinent and funny comments from Taylor:

God may move in mysterious ways, but the Labour party – well, Tony knows just how to elicit their forgiveness. It’s part belief, part a base appeal to their love of power. “I’m like any other human being,” he told delegates, “as fallible and as capable of being wrong.” The difference, of course, is that when Tony’s wrong, he’s still fundamentally right….

“It’s been hard for you,” he said. “Like the delegate who told me: ‘I’ve defended you so well to everyone I’ve almost convinced myself.’ That’s loyalty for you.”

This was startling stuff, when you thought about it. Tony was thanking a delegate for lying on his behalf. Still, that’s what it takes to be a Blairite – the courage, not of your own convictions, but of Tony’s: the belief in a higher cause, and the readiness to endure the dirty fighting, the sexed-up dossiers, the unsavoury bedfellows along the way. He denied that the battle is a religious war. But it sure as hell sounds like a crusade, and a damned uncomfortable one at that.

The rhetorical strategies of Bush, Blair and Howard and how these played to the American, British and Australian media would make for a very interesting study. Maybe this is an alternative point of comparison rather than the historic comparison of the cold war.

The new iron curtain

In more rhetoric that draws parallels between our current sense of crisis and the cold-war Pakistan’s President Musharraf warned the United Nations General Assembley of a new ‘iron curtain’:

The president said the causes of terrorism had to be tackled, pointing to international disputes such as the “tragedy of Palestine”.

“Action has to be taken before an iron curtain finally descends between the West and the Islamic world,” he said.

“The major powers of the West have yet to show movement by seriously trying to resolve internationally recognised disputes affecting the Muslim world.”

More evaluation research

This evaluation report from a University of Arizona course, Learning, Reading and Culture, provides interesting feedback on the blog experience

The survey used was an informal instrument to see how the blog was viewed as a part of this course. Thirteen students (of 17 present) responded to a survey that was distributed on the last night of class with the University Student Evaluation Forms for the course. Most respondents had not had experience in Web publishing. Only one person indicated that she had participated in “something like a blog” before. Six individuals indicated that they wanted to continue using blog551, although in point of fact, no messages were posted the following semester. Responding to a question about whether they would use a blog in a future class (either teaching or taking), five said “yes,” and three indicated “maybe.” Students in LRC551 were asked what they liked most about using the LRC551 blogs. Comments included: “It was an opportunity to participate,” it was “easily accessible” and “user friendly.” The blog “extended class discussions …without taking class time.” It was a “‘safe’ way to participate.” One student noted that she liked being able to “participate in writing, not necessarily verbally.” Asked how they might use a blog themselves, responses included: “as a journal,” “for notes,” and “to post examples.” One student wrote that she saw it as a way to introduce “new technology as a way to study new literacies.” Another suggested using blogs as “a way for scholars to discuss articles.” Several mentioned that it could be a “place for students” that could promote “interactivity.” A small number of students were negative on the value of blogging as a good way to learn or to participate in class. One student wrote that blogs invaded her privacy.

And the evaluation from another U of A course, Decision Making for Information Professionals, is even more interesting:

The end-of-course survey revealed that although the vast majority (95 percent) of students responding were novice blog users, 90 percent agreed that the “Technology News Web log was a good way for me to learn more about technology.” Twenty-nine percent reported that they joined another blog since the course began, 70 percent of the students planned to join at least one blog in the coming six months, and 76 percent “would like to continue using the Technology News Web log.” One student commented that the best thing about using a blog was its “casual sharing of information.” She wrote: “I almost got the feeling I was sitting in a coffee shop somewhere and the person next to me poring over the newspaper casually said, ‘Hey, did you hear about this new thing that just came out…?'” This is the sort of sense of place that we do not realize fully with threaded discussion forums, e-mails and chatrooms.

This notion that a blog can sustain a sense of place that does not occur within a discussion board context is a very interesting insight. This relates to some thoughts I have been having about the blog as a “publication”. Both blog as “place” and blog as “publication” require the development of a strong sense of identity. In journalism we talk about magazine identities which are really personalised brands that combine the different elements of content, design, visual style and more amorphous things like the “attitude” of the writing. I think that the best blogs build this very strong individual sense of identity.

This may seem very individualistic and contrary to my previous posts about blogs as conversational/collaborative spaces, but I don’t think this is really the case. A well developed publication identity actually encourages interaction because the familiarity encourages a sense of comfort and identification.

This ability to create a particular sense of blog space, to create a specific publication identity has implications for many course related blogs but is particularly important for journalism and writing students. Blogs may be a good way of helping them to develop a real sense of individual style and purpose, which are often the type of amorphous but essential qualities which are overlooked in the traditional curricula.

Blogs and journalism education

It is interesting that in my searches I have found lots of stuff about blogs and higher education, lots of stuff about bloggs and writing courses, lots of stuff about blogs and journalism but almost nothing about blogs in journalism education. This is not surprising because blogging is still suspect in journalism although this is changing rapidly.

One journalism course blogg that I did find from Seaton Hill University has an interesting discussion about the old chesnut: “Is blogging Journalism?”

When bloggs take the lead in showing how 60 Minutes was duped then this appears to be a silly question. The recent debate over the authenticity of the documents used by Dan Rather, in his story about President Bush’s service in the National Guard, has been a blogger led story. Dan Gilmour sums up the sequence of events that led to bloggers exposing one of America’s most senior reporters. He comments:

Yet I’m also convinced that the emergent online community known as the “blogosphere” – the world of Weblogs, or blogs – has played an essential role in this bizarre sequence of events. The major shift, however, is one of perception, less in what happened than its high visibility and velocity.

Jay Rosen at Press Think is one of the best bloggers about journalism on the web and he has posted one of his typically masterful essay/posts about the Rather incident. He points out it is about much more than the triumph of the blogs:

We’re in the theatre of reputation, and Rather is himself the major character, although it was supposed to be not Dan Rather under trial but fellow Texan George W. Bush. Big Journalism is involved. Kid Internet. Military Service. Democratic Activists. The Liberal Media. The Bush Clan. Texas Power Circles. The DNC? To say “this is theatre” is not to diminish the story, but to suggest why it’s grown so big.

Rosen and Dan Gilmour have a great conversation about blogging, the web and journalism here . Gilmour says:

The first thing we’d need to do is listen, pay attention to what is being said. To really get out of the lecture mode that we’ve been in and to recognize that something new is going on that will benefit not just our journalism — which of course we want to do — but benefit the people who are reading or listening to or viewing our journalism. Those are the people who we say we want to serve. So, the conversation part of it — the listening part, the responding part — is not just for journalists. It’s for all of us, it’s for everybody. And it comes back to what I’ve made a kind of a cliché in my own world, which is that my readers know more than I do.

It seems that resistance to blogging/web-based initiatives in both journalism and in education may result from this inability of its practitioners to “get out of the lecture mode”.

While educators like to make a distinction between different approaches to learning, (deep/surface; holistic/atomistic; connected/isolated) journalism academics such as James Carey have made similar distinctions about journalism. Carey famously drew a distinction between the transmission model and the ritual model of communication. One is about information transfer and the other is about fellowship and meaning making. Carey argues that the transmission model is dominant in “objectivity” obsessed modern journalism. This leads to a focus on the “what” but not the “why”.

Bloggs and web-based communication/collaboration destabilize these models.