Free Labor & Immaterial Labor: Terranova & Lazzarato

I love Italian intellectuals. And Italian intellectuals love writing manifests. Therefore, I love Italian manifests.

Perhaps this is because I cut my professional teeth on both. Before I got involved in New York’s digital media culture via “Silicon Alley”, I studied in Italy as an undergrad and worked/researched as a post-grad Fellow in a museum in Venice, Italy, which houses a large collection of Italian futurist painters. I then editorially assisted a radical, Italian investigative reporter for Italy’s largest newsweekly magazine, L’Europeo (Rizzoli). Transitioning from the “old” or tradition/legacy media to the “new” digital media, I “produced culture” sometimes as a  “free labor NetSlave/NetPioneer” and sometimes for a salary “hyper-compensated by the capricious logic of venture capitalism.” [p. 48, Terranova]. So I found myself relating to Terranova and Lazzarato on a personal and professional level while reading them, particularly when Terranova mentioned Gerry Laybourne, who is an alumna of my alma mater, and with whom I’ve had digital media-related business and social meetings.

Tiziana Terranova, whose surname interestingly translates to “new world”, is an Italian theorist and activist. Her work focuses on the effects of information technology on society through such concepts as digital work. She lectures at the Univ. of Naples and wrote “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” in 2000.

Maurizio Lazzarato is an Italian sociologist and philosopher who resides in Paris. He was an activist in the worker’s movement in Italy in the late 1970’s and wrote “Immaterial Labor” in 1996.

Both “Free Labor” and “Immaterial Labor” read to me as manifests and Terranova gives a significant nod to Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” when she writes that since its publication in 1985, the “triangulation [of cybernetics, labor and capital] has become even more evident”. [p. 34, Terranova]

I’m glad I read Terranova first as she refers to and cites Lazzarato which made reading his “Immaterial Labor” a bit easier to grasp. Both authors are also writing pre-Web 2.0 and Terranova accurately identifies that the “New Web” is made of the big players rather than the unemployed, the dreamy and the iconoclastic who went to the Old Web as a place to reinvent themselves. [p. 52, Wired in Terranova] (I can attest to the accuracy of this, paralleled in my own career, as an Indie Producer of a web pioneering netcast from 1996-98 at the iconoclastic and then as an Associate Producer at in 2000 with my hire date the very week that AOL bought Time Warner–and we all know where that wound up!)

To summarize the highlights of Terranova’s and Lazzarato’s manifests, both are quite complex and reference the Marxian concepts from his Grundrisse, which the autonomists adopted. Grundrisse translates as “Outline” and its full title is “Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism”. The work was unfinished by Marx, and yet its concepts were still used in the Italian workers’ movement.

Terranova seeks to “map the way in which the Internet connects to the [Italian] autonomists’ ‘social factory’ [defined as] a process whereby work has shifted from factory to society.” [p. 33, Terranova] She contends that “cultural and technical work is central to the Internet and is also a widespread activity throughout capitalist societies [arguing] that such labor is not exclusive to the so-called knowledge workers, but is a pervasive feature of the postindustrial economy.” [p. 34-35, Terranova].

Before citing Lazzarato, Terranova argues, and urges, that we must ask WHO is participating in the “digital economy” before we can pass judgment on it. [p. 40, Terranova] To answer this, she found it useful to think in terms of what the Italian autonomists and especially Lazzarato describe as “immaterial labor” [p. 41, Terranova] which is labor that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity. [p. 1, Lazzarato].

Lazzarato furthers the concept: “immaterial labor produces a social relationship (a relationship of innovation, production, consumption) [but] only if it succeeds in this production does its activity have an economic value.” [p. 4, Lazzarato] He specifies: “immaterial labor produces first and foremost a social relation – it produces not only commodities, but also the capital relation.” [p. 7, Lazzarato]

Lazzarato elaborates: “immaterial workers (those who work in advertising, fashion, marketing, television, cybernetics, and so forth) satisfy a demand by the consumer and at the same time establish that demand…immaterial labor produces subjectivity and economic value at the same time [demonstrating how capitalist production has invaded our lives.]” [p. 7, Lazzarato]

I must admit, I am lost when he then arrives at his main hypothesis: “the process of the production of communication tends to become immediately the process of valorization.” [p. 8, Lazzarato]

Can you shed light on this and help unpack and/or break Lazzarato down?

Meanwhile, back to Terranova who asserts that “the digital economy is the fastest and most visible zone of production within late capitalist societies, with reliance on mostly ‘immaterial products’ (commodities whose essence is said to be meaning (or lack of) rather than labor.” [p. 47, Terranova] Such commodities result from “affective labor”.  Here’s a video primer from Audiopedia:

Do you agree or disagree with Terranova’s position on affective production?

The heart of Terranova’s argument/essay/manifesto is “the over reliance of the digital economy on free labor…is part of larger mechanisms of capitalist extraction of value which are fundamental to late capitalism as a whole” [p. 51] Both Terranova and Lazzarato are adept at pointing out dualities, as Terranova continues, “the field [of late capitalism] both sustains free labor and exhausts it.” [p. 51]

I particularly liked it when Terranova observed that “[what] the digital economy…really cares about is an abundance of production, an immediate interface with cultural and technical labor” which has resonance for me with Lazzarato’s concept of immaterial labor producing a social relation.

But then, Terranova, in pointing out the most significant duality, asks in her Conclusion, “does the Internet embody a continuation of capital or break with it?” [p. 54, Terranova] She concludes “neither” which I found anti-climactic to both her essay and my experience reading it. She concludes that “rather, it’s a mutation of a wide-spread cultural and economic logic” [p. 54]

I do appreciate, however, that she maturely recognizes that “in this context, it is not enough just to demystify the Internet as the latest capitalist machination against labor.” [p. 54]

Do you find Terranova’s conclusion anti-climactic also or not? If not, why not?

I find it noteworthy that while Lazzarato uses the term “content” in 1996, Terranova appears to avoid it in 2000. She only uses it when citing Lazzarato and then in referring to “web content” and “user-based content” toward the end of her essay. This is curious to me, as this was a red-hot media keyword/buzzword particularly in the years 1996-2000.

I love Italian intellectuals.

Planned Obsolescence. Kathleen Fitzpatrick 2011

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence. Publishing, Technology, and the Future of Academy. New York University Press: 2011.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick makes a compelling case for the need to reform university publishing. She starts with ways to revise the peer review system, and advocates for post-publication, “transparent” review rather than pre-publication, anonymous review. She navigates multiple levels throughout the book: broad forms of institutional forms of resistance – epitomized by the motto “This Is How We Have Always Done It” – but also individual anxieties triggered by the destabilization of the notion of authorship. I also appreciated her relatively balanced view on technological innovation, as she addresses the potentialities, but also the flaws of different initiatives (Slashdot, Philica, MediaCommons, etc). The politics of it all come to the fore in the last chapter, when she expounds the problems related to the trade-oriented model of US university publishing that came to prevail in the 20th century, and what to do to reconnect university press to the university community.

I shall here focus on the way Planned Obsolescence came to existence. In her conclusion, Kathleen Fitzpatrick explains the peculiar genesis of her book. After submitting her manuscript to the publishing press, she posted it online. It thus received both “traditional” and online peer review. By engaging in such process (and reporting on it), Fitzpatrick crossed the bridge between theory and practice and directly put to the test some of the ideas expounded in her book. While going over the online draft of the book, I was struck by the overall quality and supportive tone of the comments it received there. Fitzpatrick’s dual peer review experiment was able to reconcile both models of peer review for the best, perhaps because they were articulated as to be complementary while sharing a same purpose, and not in competition. A key element – and limit of the experiment, perhaps – is that Fitzpatrick got to decide on the “first circle” of reviewers. It is likely that this selection at the outset of her experiment shaped the ensuing audience, paving the way for “sharp, thoughtful criticism to make the project better” (190). As a matter of fact, the online comments she got seemed overall much nicer than anonymous feedback from journals I have read (and no need to say, much, much nicer than the average comment you get online these days). Yet, does such process of cherry-picking one’s reviewers really stand for open peer-review?

I also could not help thinking of Fitzpatrick’s early example of dual peer review in the light of the most recent Hypatia Transracialism Controversy. Instead of fostering “sharp, thoughtful criticism to make the project better”, the social-media response that followed the publication of an article on transracialism in a peer-reviewed journal (Hypatia) plainly aimed at having this article deleted. This was a textbook case of technological disruption, inasmuch as I properly understand this concept. Some counter-commentators contended that the arguments this campaign was making were mostly baseless and that they provided evidence that some of the most outspoken opponents had not even read the article they wanted to see taken down. Yet the screenshot below shows how hastily a part of Hypatia’s board of associate editors yielded to the bashing (that also included online shaming targeting an untenured assistant professor).Was that the darker side of open peer review we just saw?

Hypatia’s Facebook page. Part of an apology, posted by Hypatia’s board of associate editors on 1 May 2017, for the publication of one of the journal’s peer-reviewed articles. At the top is a statement, added 25 May 2017, that the apology does not reflect the views of the editor or board of directors (Source: Wikipedia page)


Yochai Benkler. The Wealth of Networks, 2006

Yochai Benkler assesses a shift from “Industrial Information Economy” to “Networked Information Economy” (31 – 32). The former was characterized by the high cost of the means of producing and sharing (the media), which buttressed a much centralized and concentrated production of content (TV, newspapers, etc). The latter is characterized by a dramatic decrease in these costs. It opened the door a democratic, participatory and rhizomatic production of content, and to the flourishing of “nonmarket production” (56); that is, to a world in which individuals fully retrieve their power to create. Through his advocating of the saint trilogy “information, knowledge, culture”, Benkler outlines technological affordances personal computers and access to the Internet have bestowed, while responding to problems that were coming to a head at the time he was writing. Indeed, in the 2000s, and under the pressure of music and movie industries, many countries were enacting repressive regulations aimed at sanctioning and circumscribing the sprawling of copyright infringement that the Internet made possible. Taking a firm stance against such institutional, vertical forms of regulation, Benkler supports horizontal forms of self- or peer-regulation (he illustrates his point through the example of Wikipedia (71-74) Slashdot (76-80), and Amazon (!), if I remember well). Benkler also demonstrates the economic sustainability of the model of free culture, and how “libre” knowledge fosters further innovations.

Although optimistic in tone, Benkler cautions us that “there is no guarantee that networked information technology will lead to the improvements in innovation, freedom, and justice that I suggest are possible. That is a choice we face as a society”(18)… It is good to be reminded that it is at least partly thanks to idealists and altruists that we are able to share our thoughts on this blog, amongst many other things. Yet from our 2017 standpoint, Benkler’s “techno-future” sounds in many ways like a path not taken. As Tim Berners-Lee – hardly suspected of having a prejudice against the Internet – bluntly puts it in a recent interview: “The system is failing“. This failure is arguably due to phenomena that may not have been predictable back in 2006, but also to problems embedded in the ideological tenets of “hacker culture”, and stemming from the blind spots of the idealistic views on which Benkler draws. I especially take issue with the idea that voluntarily creating for free is a practice everyone can equally afford, and that sharing is an inherently altruistic practice. I shall summarize some of these problems below. Please feel free to comment, correct, and add up any thought.

Common knowledge“, “semiotic democracy and transparency” and “participatory culture” are all predicated on a generous view of humanity. Granted, Benkler does mention the possibility of misinformation (“gobbledygook”) and even trolling (75-77), but these are posited as problems that peer-production will easily redress. And… well. I will not dwell on this point, for we are all too aware of what’s happened: the destabilizing of traditional forms of knowledge hierarchization and validation has given way to the rampant spread of fake news and propagandistic forms of disinformation, to an extent only comparable to what happens during wartime, and in the face of which peer processes of accreditation have seemed mostly powerless. It is disheartening to see that faith in humanity can be proven so wrong. But perhaps this error of judgment is related to the way enemies were picked…

Indeed, Benkler posits liberal States – jointly with traditional mass industries – as the main villain of the story. An “anarchic/libertarian” view, as he puts it. From what I can remember, the debate on intellectual property was very much constructed under these terms in the 2000s. Those terms and the enemy thus picked seem to have made Benkler (along with everyone involved at the time) oblivious/unaware of the fact that digital sharing was to be done through (private and for-profits) intermediaries. Material ones (cables, physical storages aka “clouds” etc) bring up the issue of net neutrality. Digital intermediaries, such as web search engines, social media, and social networking services have generated a whole set of problems of which we are now all too aware as well. Perhaps “nonmarket behavior is becoming central to producing our information and environment” (56), but it’s also turned out that intermediaries did find ways to turn those “nonmarket” exchanges into commodities. The advent of social media and social networking services has thus dramatically reshaped the terms of the discussion throughout the last decade. The opaque processing of citizens’ data, subsequent manipulations of public opinion, the looming threat over democracies etc. spring from the ways companies have taken hold of the sharing culture the Networked Information Economy fosters (see Adeline Koh). A bit of wariness towards the very private companies (Google, Amazon, etc) that sounded so nice back then, a bit of state regulation instead of laissez-faire towards them (and instead of targeting and criminalizing individuals) might have been an answer. This is an easy thing to say now…

Keeping in mind the terms of the debate in which Benkler was engaged is also helpful to account for the insufficiencies of the binary he builds on to think of intellectual property. I  exaggerate a little bit, but the big picture is copyright = big bad industries protected by big bad states vs. commons/copyleft = universally good model for altruistic individuals. Benkler promotes an unbridled access to, reworking, and sharing of creative contents. His view is buttressed by a representation of “information, knowledge, culture” as non-rivals goods, i.e goods whose value does not decrease when sharing them, just like love or friendship (vs. rival ones, 35-36). At the individual level, that framework leaves out some important issues. In a capitalist context, one risk is to have “libre” content creation reduced to a privilege granted to those who are sufficiently stable/safe, economically and emotionally speaking, to take risks, and/or who are from a culture which encourages risks taking, and/or who are somehow insiders having a sense of which kind of creations is worth investing time and energy on. In the meantime, the rest is silenced or pressed to take more or less informed risks in the hope that their time and energy will eventually generate earnings. More bluntly: how do individuals make a living out of their creations in the reign of unbridled “cultural freedom”?

This American Life’s latest episode illustrates some of the limits entailed in Benkler’s radical stance:

The story began in 2011 when the wildlife photographer David J. Slater got stunning photos of monkeys in Indonesia. The trick is that these pictures were selfies, which made Wikipedia claim them as public domain. Wikipedians got pretty nasty about it, publicly ridiculing Slater when he asked for compensation (nicely asking, not suing). One thing led to another, and the photographer ended up being sued, for copyright infringement, by one of the monkeys… It is an interesting case for diverse reasons, notably for the blurring of the concept of “authorship” (is the monkey the author for having pressed the button?). Here, the point is that if we were to follow Benkler’s altruistic, volunteering and disinterested conception of individual content creation, this photographer could not make a living and pay for the months he spent in Indonesia. Perhaps Benkler would respond that Slater should rather become a “Joe Einstein” (p43). But then, how does one reach such status in the first place? I felt that Fred Benenson‘s framework (fungible vs. nonfungible work) and the nuances he makes between different models, along with Lewis Hyde‘s historically-based definition of commons (workable in a “stinted market, one constrained by moral concerns”, Hyde: 36) addresses these issues in a much more effective way.

“Democracy for anyone with a fifteen-hundred-dollar computer”

Lawrence Lessig is one of the most important figures in shaping the movement for free (libre) technology and media. Since my time as a teenager playing with linux, he and other figures of the FOSS and creative commons movement instilled an image of a better society where everyone can be free of state oppression and freely collaborate. Contributing to the commons according to their ability, and in turn getting what they need. This all culminates into their vision of a new political future of… sensibly regulated capitalism?

It pains me to criticize these heroic figures, but it pains me even more to read the Liberalism in their work. Endorsement of the market place of ideas (“certain fantastic ideas will win in this cultural debate”) and similar sentiments reduce creativity and speech to mere inevitablities of greater economic intensives. His sentiments are far kinder than the status quo, but throughout he defends the interests of those with access from those without. Like many family members I will be seeing this holiday weekend, I just want to shake Lawrence and say “I love you, but please wake up”.

This, but unionically

This post and all images are covered by the Creative Communism license. Use anything according to your needs, provided you participate in group solidarity, resist state oppression, and embody trans-inclusive feminism(s).

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Klein & Manovich: a Textual Analysis

As someone in academia, and who cares about non-academics’ access to information, the first thing that strikes me is that Lauren Klein‘s article is published in a paywalled academic journal, American Literature published by the prestigious Duke University Press. I’m disappointed that she did not contribute the article to her institutional repository. Naughty DH scholar! In contrast, Lev Manovich‘s article is published on his personal website. Self-publishing may lead readers to grant Manovich’s writing to be less authoritative than a refereed journal like American Literature. Also, Manovich’s article is full of usage errors, beginning with the title, “What is Visualization?,” which proper usage would render “What Is Visualization?” The usage errors prompt me to observe that Manovich is a non-native English speaker, having emigrated to the US when he was 21. At the same age, more or less, Klein was graduating from Harvard. Fancy! Continue reading

Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading (Franco Moretti)


Before coming to Graduate Center’s Theatre Program, I studied in English program (in Korea) for about six years. Back then “distant reading” was not part of the academic curriculum (not sure if it is now) and I remember how canonical “the rise of the novel” (Ian Watt) was. My provocation is partly based on my journey from literary to theatre studies, although not always exclusive, so please do correct my response and add comments if there is any misreading/interpretation (as I am reading it alone for the first time).

Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti

In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, Franco Moretti provides an alternative/radical methodology of doing literary studies, which has traditionally been based on close reading of an individual text. Moretti’s interdisciplinary approach proposes “distance reading” as a new form of knowledge, based not on individual (canonic) texts but three “deliberately” abstract models—graphs (from quantitative history), maps (from geography, though closer to geometry), and trees (from evolutionary theory). The book was first published in 2005 and developed out of three essays that Moretti wrote for New Left Review.

The Polemics?

The recent New York Times article on Moretti (as well as the book cover of GMT) states that he is “famous for urging his colleagues to stop reading books.” Moretti might have been more polemical and radical in proposing his views in other places (please add comments if you know more about it) and I also understand that it might have become a signature of distant reading. However, I think that more helpful way to read GMT is learning different ways of engaging with the “books” to find out patterns, structures, and relations that are independent of/or unavailable from interpretations (close reading).

I find it worth noting that Moretti’s work received criticism for comparing natural evolution with cultural change or for not providing connections with other fields of study. In addition to that, Harold Bloom’s dismissive reaction toward Moretti, described in another New York Times article published in 2004, is also worth noting as Bloom said “with an audible shudder” that he is interested in reading and that’s all he is interested in. Bloom’s definition of “reading” here is that of interpretive reading, a traditional way of engaging with the books (remember: he is the author of The Western Canon).

Based on the assumption that people in our class might have varying degrees of acceptance/rejection of Moretti’s argument, I would like to ask the following questions: Do you buy Moretti’s concept of distant reading in literary studies? How about for other fields? Have the scholars in your field of study accepted, criticized, or wholly abandoned this type of reading? Is Moretti’s argument helpful in understanding and expanding our discussion on “what is text” and “what is data” last week? Reading GMT in 2017, I wonder if digitization and database (in the context of data visualization) have played (or will play) an important role in circulating and/or expanding Moretti’s models. As far as I know, distant reading has not been a big thing in theatre studies (other than Shakespeare-related work), but as I have recently discovered an example of “distant watching” (visualizing Broadway project), I would like to hear about any interesting projects in your fields.

The Canon, the Genre, and the Model?

Rather than discussing the specific examples-figures Moretti provided, I would like to focus more on a methodological perspective. On the one hand, Moretti’s GMT can be understood as a political project (or can it be?) as the approach problematizes the literary history written out of “the one per cent of the cannon and the ninety-nine of forgotten literature” (77). Since the 1960s, feminist, queer, postcolonial theories (to name but a few) have challenged the construction of the Western canon, but in a way they have also created other sets of canon that are now frequently part of the curriculum. I think Moretti’s approach is fundamentally different because it is not about evaluating the aesthetic quality of the canon or would-be-canon, but about teasing out the relations between the canonical and the non-canonical work (either by abolishing all qualitative difference or articulating the very difference). Then, is there a place for aesthetic connoisseurship as such? How will it change the status of the canon (or the “high” and “low” forms)?

Moretti’s analysis in GMT is grounded in literary genres. By discovering patterns and devices of genres/cycles, he often aims to understand the structural whole which is larger than the sum of individual parts (in case of the literary maps, 53 & also in the New York Times articles). I am mindful of speaking the language of “the whole” and wonder if this seemingly “scientific” view would provoke any backlash. Although larger sample sizes can offer more accurate analysis, we should also be mindful of differentiating large “samples” from “the whole.” After all, as an extension of last week’s discussion, what is available in the archive or database can influence directions and results of the studies proposed by Moretti. Thsn, is it always the better way to map the “world literature” as such?


In sum, I like that Moretti does not propose his models (“materialist concept of form”) as “the ultimate” model for rational literary history. He states in the last sentence of GMT that “opening new conceptual possibilities seemed more important than justifying in every detail” (92). Are we still at the stage of opening new possibilities, or now it is time to justify details? What Moretti said as a “dream” in 2004, which is “a literary class that would look more like a lab than a Platonic academy,” is still a dream? How can you (or do you want to) use the methods of distant reading in your classroom?

Have a great weekend!

Database and Narrative

Lev Manovich notes that traditional GUI use elements of the “real” work place to make its interface more readily understandable–files for storing, a trash can for deleting, etc.  However, he notes that if elements from our physical environment first migrated into the computational sphere, now the conventions of computation are migrating back into our physical reality.  It is an essentially bidirectional movement: just as we first used elements from the physical world to understand and represent computerized space, elements from computerized space are now being used to understand and represent the physical world.  The “database” is one such conception–it is, as Manovich describes it, the “symbolic form” of the computer age, a particular way of making meaning out of the world that fundamentally opposes traditional forms of meaning-making (in particular, narrative).  In short, the fundamental idea seems to be that changes in ways of thinking are the direct result of changes in the technology we design and use.

Manovich suggests that database and narrative are “natural enemies.”  In his view, databases are non-linear while narratives are linear, and narratives focus on rigid processes of selection while at the heart of database logic lies unlimited combination and juxtaposition.  Yet the very issue of order here demonstrates how messy such distinctions can get. While an impetus to cause-effect principles may lurk in the background of any narrative, it must be said that narrative form often complicates or calls into question such chronological or teleological order. And while databases always offer the possibility of re-ordering or relocating their records, any given representation of a database must, finally, present its contents in some order.   A database needs to be able to both collect and store new data and yet retain a certain (relatively) changeless underlying structure for organizing and presenting that data.

Katherine Hayles, I think more correctly, describes these two modes (database/narrative) as symbiotic and not antagonistic. As the various authors we read point out, the human impetus to “collect data” has always been present.  We see this, for instance, in the case of Whitman and his many catalogues. But typically, the mere collection of data is only the means to an end–to a certain interpretation of that data.  And in the fundamental logic of database design itself, the selection, collection, description, organization, and presentation of a database’s contents almost always involves narrative structures, including assumptions about how the information will be manipulated and used through the interface. Narrative and database, it seems, cannot easily be disentangled.  But I do think Manovich is on to something interesting when he considers the need for an “info-aesthetic” understanding of the database itself: what happens when a database becomes not merely the means to an end but an end in itself?

Drawing upon his experience as co-editor of The Walt Whitman Archive (headquarted in my hometown of Lincoln, NE) Folsom observes that traditional notions of genre are too rigid—or have been deployed too rigidly—to do justice to the “rhizomorphous” nature of many authors, Whitman in particular. Folsom happily argues that the database resists this rigidity of traditional notions of genre; and indeed, declares that database is itself a “new genre, the genre of the twenty-first century” (1576), one that fundamentally challenges two traditional cultural forms, narrative and archive. Yet if we consider the database as a concrete form of cultural expression, I wonder if conceptually pairing it with narrative only serves to efface its own idiosyncracies.  For undoubtedly, our way of accessing narratives (e.g., reading, listening, watching) is strikingly different than our way of accessing databases.  You may browse or search information contained within a database (i.e., the metadata), but you certainly don’t read that information in the very important sense of the word in which we read (or view or listen to) more traditional literary narratives.  It seems to me that the difference is not really one of genre, but of access or engagement, and the very different positional attitudes each mode asks us to assume. Folsom does indeed point out that “Leaves of Grass as a database is a text very different from Leaves of Grass contained within covers” (1578); however, what is key is not the different ontologies of the two texts, but rather the fundamentally different experiences of engaging with them (and this is perhaps the point, for if database is to be an entirely new form of aesthetics, it cannot, and should not, simply digitally replicate the experience of reading a printed book).


Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapters 1 and 2

Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapters 1 and 2

In Chapters 1 and 2, Freire explains how the current education system, which he termed “banking concept of education,” functioned as the major instrument of sustaining the oppressive system and justifies the need for pedagogy of the oppressed for liberation of both the oppressed and the oppressor. I think Freire’s intentional use of “of ” here is important, as he proposes a pedagogy “with” the oppressed, not “for” the oppressed. As he criticizes several times the forms of “false generosity” or “false charity,” I agree with his idea that liberation/independence cannot be given as a gift for the oppressed, but they should be the subjects of the liberating process. However, one aspect that made me curious was his distinction of the educational projects from the systematic education. He states that educational projects “should be carried out with the oppressed in the process of organizing them” while systematic education “can only be changed by political power” (54). I believe most of what Freire proposes are within the boundary of educational projects, but I also wonder if (and how) these educational projects can be the changing forces of the systematic education. In other words, are there always this clear-cut binary between the oppressed and the oppressors and between the educational projects and the systematic education? How central is Freire’s pedagogy in the curricula of most schools in the U.S. or outside the educational system?

I think Freire’s pedagogy has been a good starting point for many educators and academics to think about it in a more specific context (i.e. Feminist pedagogy, etc.). Other way to put it, rather more critically, is that Freire’s critique on the oppressive system can be read as generalizing “the” oppressive system hugely based on Marxist class analysis, without specifying the different layers of oppression or proposing different possibilities of the very experience of oppression. We had a discussion on “intersectionality” and we are not well aware of how social inequality and injustice is sustained by multiple forms of oppression including gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. Drawing from your own theoretical background and/or practical educational experiences, what’s your take on this?

Sometimes Freire seems to be romanticizing the inner values of the oppressed (laborers and peasants), although he understands the double/contradictory consciousness. In part to continue our discussion on pedagogy of the oppressed and “Trump voting masses,” I thought about if we have a clear-cut agreement on who are the oppressed and who are the oppressors under current political and cultural geographies (e.g. white supremacy rallies). How can we use Freire’s pedagogy in the current political context in (seemingly) democratized and societies (especially the U.S. and some countries in Europe)? Can interactive technologies be any useful platform for pedagogy of the oppressed in the twenty-first century?

I would like to end with quoting feminist scholar bell hooks talking on Freire and his sexism (refereing back to the second paragraph of this blog post). In the chapter 4 of her book Teaching to Transgress (1994), which is a playful conversation between herself (Gloria Jean Watkins) and her pen persona bell hooks, she powerfully states that Freire’s work is like water that contains some dirt in it. Do you agree with her statement? Can you let me know other scholars or practitioners against this position? More importantly, how can we think about Freire’s work in a more global context?

“In talking with academic feminists (usually white women) who feel they must either dismiss or devalue the work of Freire because of sexism, I see clearly how our different responses are shaped by the standpoint that we bring to the work. I came to Freire thirsty, dying of thirst (in that way that the colonized, marginalized subject who is still unsure of how to break the hold of the status quo, who longs for change, is needy, is thirsty), and I found in his work (and the work of Malcom X, Fanon, etc.) a way to quench that thirst. To have work that promotes one’s liberation is such a powerful gift that it does not matter so much if the gift is flawed. Think of the work as water that contains some dirt. Because you are thirsty you are not too proud to extract the dirt and be nourished by the water. For me this is an experience that corresponds very much to the way individuals of privilege respond to the use of water in the First World context. When you are privileged, living in one of the richest countries in the world, you can waste resources. And you can especially justify your disposal of something that you consider impure. […] If we approach the drinking of water that comes from the tap from a global perspective we would have to talk about it differently. We would have to consider what the vast majority of the people in the world also are thirsty must do to obtain water. Paulo’s work has been living water for me.” (Teaching to Transgress, 50)

Image result for theatre of the oppressedAs a theatre-major student, I previously commented on Zhang’s post about Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal‘s Theatre of the Oppressed. I write it here again just in case you are interested in reading more about the application of Freire’s pedagogy in theatre. Boal was hugely influenced by Freire and emphasized interaction and communication between the performers and the audience (he coined the term, “spect-actor”). As a form of activism and theatre, the methodologies of Theatre of the Oppressed have been performed around the world and you can check out “Theatre of the Oppressed NYC” too.


added on October 23 Monday after reading some comments:

Here is description of what Boal termed as Forum Theatre: (From Theatre of the Oppressed NYC Website)
“a troupe performs their original play, in which each scene depicts a specific obstacle based on actors’ real-life experiences; this is followed by a “forum” in which a facilitator asks audience members to come on stage and step into the role of the protagonist to try out an alternative response to the problem(s) depicted onstage. Throughout the forum a trained TO ‘joker’ facilitates dialogue about the potential of each alternative, and what social, legal, legislative, and/or institutional changes could make various alternatives viable. These interactive forums have proven to be an effective, inspiring way to engage audiences in a laboratory to ‘rehearse’ practical, creative actions that we can individually and collectively take to challenge systems of oppression.”

Based on our previous discussions regarding the role of “facilitator” it is interesting to note Boal called this as a “joker” in reference to the neutrality of the Joker card.

Could Shaughnessy Have Been More Holistic in Her Approach?

Born in 1924 to a father who didn’t finish high school and a mother with a two-year teaching certificate, Mina Shaughnessy earned her BA & MA from prestigious private universities: Northwestern and Columbia, respectively. For financial reasons, she did not pursue a Ph.D. Her modest rural roots, her reputable education, and her own frustration at not feeling free to attain the highest academic achievement provide context for the pioneering work she did at the end of her relatively short life in 1978, a year before Errors and Expectations was published.

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Disruptive Innovation in Higher Ed

In The Innovative University, Christensen and Eyring introduce several means for disruptively innovating higher education and to revitalize the embedded academic culture that has not changed much in 150 years, which had mostly just grown and improved upon tried and true practices of educating students in higher education.  Some of the disruptions include, but are not limited to the following:

  • removal of intercollegiate athletics,
  • offering classes throughout the calendar year,
  • faculty scholarship should focus on integrative and applied forms over discovery,
  • more collaboration with students on faculty scholarship
  • consolidation and specialization of programs offered at a particular institution – program prioritization
  • offering credit for life / work experience
  • provide more experiential learning opportunities (i.e. Internships)
  • articulation agreements with high schools, community colleges, and companies
  • changes in accreditation practices to address different learning outcomes
  • technological changes that allow for students to learn at their own pace, increase cognitive outcomes, and provide adaptive technologies

The authors also point out that the value of a higher education is often intagnible in the form of value of social tolerance, personal responsibility, and respect for the rule of law.

In The Disruption Machine, Jill Lepore also points out that colleges and universities have been “subjected to disruptive innovation” but are not industries in the same way as other companies that have benefited from disruption.  Schools have “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings” like the social values introduced through a college education as mentioned above.

What additional disruptive innovation is needed in the university to curb the rising cost of higher education and to better prepare college graduates for the modern workforce?  How will these disruptions maintain the social obligations that universities have long bestowed upon the graduates of the institutions?