Friday, October 31, 2008


The irony of "Woman Hollering Creek," the titular story in Sandra Cisneros's collection Women Hollering creek and Other Stories, is that its central character's tragedy is to have fulfilled her dreams without realizing it, having misunderstood or misinterpreted the object of her own desire.

Cleófilas is a young Mexican woman who crosses multiple frontiers: in marrying one Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez she is taken not only across "her father's threshold" but also "over one border and beyond to a town en el otro lado--on the other side" and so to a new life in the United States (43). But she hopes for still greater transformations: "What Cleófilas has been waiting for, has been whispering and sighing and giggling for, has been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion" (44).

Hence the frontier that she most keenly feels is the translucent but stubbornly real distinction between her life and the world depicted in the commercial culture that lies on the other side of the shop window. She desires above all the emotional intensity that she senses lies on the other side of her television screen, "the kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds, finally, the great love of one's life" (44).

Sadly, it seems, Juan Pedro is not the man to provide this soap opera exhilaration. Though Cleófilas likes the sound of her new hometown, Seguín, Texas, which resonates with "the tinkle of money" and inspires in her the notion that "she would get to wear outfits like the women on the tele" (45), the reality is that life in Texas is marked by "dust, despair" without even the compensation of a "leafy zócalo" or "huddled whispering on the church steps each Sunday" (50). This is a privatized despair, particularly claustrophobic for women, who have to learn "to depend on husbands" (51). But the menfolk can offer no salvation: they too are ground down, and they take out their own disappointment on their women. Juan Pedro starts slapping his wife around; Cleófilas comes to realize that "he doesn't look like the men on the telenovelas" (49).

Beset by her husband's violence and indifference (he doesn't even "music or telenovelas or romance or roses" [49]), and fearful of an even darker undercurrent of murder and death, Cleófilas turns to the creek that borders her world: named perhaps Woman Hollering or Woman Weeping (La Gritona or La Llorona) it seems to articulate what she herself can still barely make out. For she has found passion and emotional intensity: but only in the form of passivity and suffering. And she is indeed living the life of a telenovela, "only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight" (52-53).

Pregnant (for a second time), Cleófilas goes for an ante-natal check-up, where her bruises are all too evident. The doctor examining her calls a friend with a plan to spirit the battered woman away from her husband, back to the rather different despair incarnated by life back home with her father and brothers again. As the two would-be rescuers chat about the situation, the inadvertently confirm the souring of Cleófilas's dream: "Yeah, you got it. A regular soap opera sometimes. Qué vida, comadre. Bueno bye" (55).

We live the scripts that popular culture provides for us, Cisneros suggests both here and throughout this entire collection, if not necessarily in the ways we might originally hope or anticipate. Sometimes we can adapt them to our own ends; after all, Cleófilas's putative saviors feel that they too are part of the same soap opera. That goes as much for the confident and aptly-named Felice who, in her own car, drives her hesitant charge out of town and over the creek, hollering in resonance with its unusual name and ceaseless flow.

Cisneros neither celebrates nor damns either telenovelas or Barbie, Marlboro Man or Flash Gordon or the litany of popular singers that thread their way through these stories. She understands the seduction of this commercial culture and also the way in which it provides a sort of common set of feelings that unsettles geographic or linguistic borders. And in the end, even the cheesiest of soap operas or the tackiest of song lyrics remind us indeed of the utopian injunction to affect and be affected that Cisneros, too, appears to embrace:
One way or another. Even if it's only the lyrics to a stupid pop hit. We're going to right the world and live. I mean live our lives the way lives were meant to be lived. With the throat and wrists. With rage and desire, and joy and grief, and love till it hurts, maybe. But goddamn, girl. Live. (163)

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Elizabeth Hay's Late Nights on Air conjures up the strange half-light of the northern summer, which also stands in for the half-remembered aura that is memory's version of the past. It is a tale of Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories, back in the 1970s. It is a book about nostalgia and loss: a loss only made worse by the fact that what is lost was never really possessed in the first place; it is the loss of what might have been or what should have been.

The story centers around a radio station and its unlikely employees: a semi-alcoholic acting manager suddenly promoted when the boss leaves town without warning; two young women who turn up unannounced looking for a job; an older woman receptionist who is the only one to stay on in this town of transients; a technician who hints at barely-concealed violence; a book critic who finally, and perhaps belatedly, discovers tenderness and love; and an indigenous woman who is at turns sympathetic and scathing about the presence of these white folk, all of whom are in some way lost in her ancestors' lands.

The issue of the land, and who owns it or has the rights to it, forms the rumbling political backdrop to the book's plot. A federal inquiry is underway into a proposed pipeline that would be built through the Arctic, the biggest private construction project in history. For perhaps the first time, however, the native people are being asked for their opinions and are starting to find their collective voice.

And if the land is the book's backdrop (or subsoil), it is the apparently more insubstantial and fleeting qualities of voice and air that are front and center. Hay is interested in the way in which the voice can take on a life of its own, not least in the long nights through which a small team of broadcasters reach out to whoever may be listening, sleepless in the endless twilight.

On the radio, the presenters are invisible, but have to project a sense of presence and personality to an audience they have to imagine, literally, out of thin air. They are faced with the stark contrast between the tiny studio in which they speak into their microphones, and the vast tundra over which the radio waves will travel. They have to learn the trick that an older radio hand describes as "trying to be almost yourself. [. . .] You're giving a performance as your natural self" (114).

And off air as much as on, each character, wounded and withdrawn in different ways from the previous lives that led them to seek refuge in the far-distant north, likewise struggles with the effort of performing their "natural" selves. They endeavor to make connections with the people around them, to get beyond their shynesses and inhibitions, their fear of (once again) losing out or becoming hurt. They learn to produce and to desire, to connect and to go beyond themselves.

The story's centerpiece is a trip to the so-called barren lands, a desolate and uninhabited stretch of tundra on the other side of Great Slave Lake. For five weeks four friends canoe and camp in this remote wilderness, following the tracks of a disastrous early twentieth-century expedition that perished through starvation. This voyage is both the consummation and the downfall of their precarious community. At its end, nothing is the same, and they have to face up to the reality of "irretrievable loss" (303): first the sound recordings patiently gathered over the course of the expedition, though as nothing ever really decays at this latitude, there's the possibility that someone will stumble across the tapes one day; and then an abrupt death that comes (again, literally) out of thin air.

A concluding couple of chapters offer a brief coda on the characters' lives some years later: the transients all leave the Northwest Territories almost as soon as they return from their canoe expedition; two of them do pick up where they left off, though they are perhaps unaware that there was ever anything to leave off; but even the reconciliation and repose they manage to achieve remains troubled by the sense that this is still a substitute for what might have been.

The world is changing. Sometimes for the better, as with the final judicial report that at least delays the pipeline that would transform the Arctic's delicate ecology. But sometimes for the worse, feels the character who had been the radio station's acting manager in Yellowknife, as television's literalness and homogeneity forces out the mystery and localism of radio. At the end, when he hears of one more death, and one more irretrievable loss, even though he has by now cemented new bonds the most comfort he can achieve is when "for some reason the tangle in his heart let go a little" (363).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


This somehow seems to encapsulate everything wrong not just with educational technology, but also with the university today.

Let's take a closer look. Starting with the following map:

What is this? It's a map of the UK, from Google maps, with an apparently random number of cities and town marked (Bolton and Slough, but not Manchester and Newcastle). On the left hand side, under the legend "uk city pop test," the city and town names are provided in alphabetical order, with "population" and a figure. Beside each name is a checked box.

What earthly use is this map? None, as far as I can see. The population information is correlated with geography, but not in such a way that it might be useful. A series of population figures have been recontextualized, to give the appearance of added value, but in fact provide no clear benefit to man, bird, or beast. What is the principle of selection of these particular towns and cities? How does the geographical correlation add to our understanding of UK demographics? What in fact does this map and its accompanying table tell us about geography, population, or the UK? Nothing.

And yet, this map is presented to us as "kewel" (whatever exactly that means), and a host of apparently otherwise rational people are celebrating the fact that this is supposedly "good shit," "awesome," "amazingly cool," "a fine thing indeed," "awesomely nifty," and so on ad nauseam. One commenter even reported "I think my head just exploded". He (or she) is not the only one.

So why the plaudits? Well, it has to do with the process by which the map was produced which, in short, involved taking some data from a Wikipedia article and subjecting it to various repackaging and transformations, using technical devices such as RSS feeds. The presentation of this process is interspersed with comments such as "lurvely" before the final "kewel" conclusion. My friend Brian Lamb then tells us that this is an instance of "data literacy".

But not only is the final product bafflingly useless. And not only has, along the way, much of the data (on cities such as Manchester and Newcastle) apparently been lost. It is also clear by looking at the original Wikipedia article--and only by looking at the original Wikipedia article--that the data requires commentary and explanation for it to be effectively understood.

For you might be surprised to learn, if you actually read the data on the map above rather than staring agog while your head exploded, that London is apparently eight times larger than any other city in the UK. The UK, in this rendering, comes to appear more like a country such as Chile, in which Santiago is practically the only city of any note, than the collection of regions with which anyone who has actually visited the place is familiar. How has this strange distortion come about?

Well, by reading the Wikipedia article, in which virtually each and every figure comes with some kind of note, and in which the entire list has a seven-paragraph explanatory introduction, it soon becomes clear how the very definition of a city and city population is a tricky construct. The Wikipedia text explains the difference between city councils, local authorities, conurbations, and so on. It notes, for instance, the difference between the population of Manchester (at 394,269, well below that of Bristol's 420,556) and Greater Manchester (at 2,244,931 well above that of Greater Bristol's 551,066). The Wikipedia article also has footnotes and references, as well as a thriving discussion page, all of which are essentially for any "data literacy" worthy of the name. That is, a data literacy that does not dispense with literacy per se, replacing explanatory text with "kewel" ejaculations and exploding heads.

Yet the very first step in the process led to the map above was to strip the figures of their accompanying text.

It seems that neither Tony Hirst, the person who set this operation into motion, nor any of those who are blithely praising his work, bothered to think about the data itself or what it meant. That, indeed, as Hirst himself has repeatedly stated in response to my comments, "wasn't the point." But if someone can advocate, and others can gasp at, such mangling of data without even thinking about what happens to that data in the process, believing it to be somehow beside the point... well, that's a textbook case of data illiteracy as far as I'm concerned.

The final product is a swish little graphic that turns out to be totally meaningless, much like the visual data points for which USA Today has become notorious. Moreover, this re-presentation of the data in fact distorts of UK geography: in so far as it does in fact hold minimal meaning, it elides all the subtleties of the original source so as to end up as a vapid misrepresentation.

I'm reminded of nothing so much as the various swish repackagings and representations of debt, by which dodgy high-interest loans made out to poor people in heartland USA became class AA securities traded in decontextualized form by people who thought of themselves as the smartest people in the room. In the world of high finance and complex derivatives, too, what mattered only was the "kewel" ways in which figures could be abstracted from people and contexts, mashed up and resold in dashing and "awesomely nifty" ways.

The chickens have come home to roost for this fundamental corruption in the banking and finance sectors. Of course, a little educational technology mashup "goodness" can't be as important or as harmful, right? It's only knowledge and education that's at stake here as the university parodies the neoliberal landscape that it sets out to imitate, rather than critique. This is the university of excellence once more, but now in the sense of Bill and Ted's "excellent" adventure: a couple of goofy guys saying "kewel" as the lights go out on the institution's real mission.