Antigonish 2.0 – the plan

America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories
I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

– Allen Ginsberg, America, 1956

The Backstory: Fifteen years ago, I lived in the suburbs of Bratislava, Slovakia, next to a corner store that sold absinthe.

Bratislava’s medieval city centre was all cobblestone and Hapsburg extravagance, but the suburbs where the teachers’ sublets were located were concrete sameness for miles, broken only by public statuary and tram stops and the requisite pubs and potravinys.

My apartment came furnished with an old secretary desk, two chairs, a bright red plastic rotary phone, and a folding couch that served as a bed. I thought of it as mid-century modern, even if was more Soviet than stylish. I loved that apartment.

In Bratislava in 2002, I drank absinthe and cheap wine and listened to mixtape CDs I’d burned on Napster: Tom Waits and Edith Piaf and Stevie Wonder and Allen Ginsberg reading America, aloud. I was thirty; a Canadian English teacher abroad. I only made $400 a month, but I’d paid off my student loans and I’d helped out my mother and I didn’t know enough to know that I should aspire to more. I read Umberto Eco. I was trying to self-educate my way into getting a grip on the 20th century, even as the 21st was shaping up post-911 to be a spectacle of a different sort.

I walked a lot. In the middle of Bratislava, in a square near the Danube, there was a monument…a striking, harsh-looking modernist metal sculpture topped by the Star of David, and chains. It stood out from the other Fathers of the Revolution monuments.

This sculpture is Slovakia’s monument to its Jews. It is a strange, stark public penance. A plaque tells its story.

In WWII, Slovakia sold its Jews.

The Slovak Republic – a client state of Nazi Germany established in 1939 after Hitler mobilized into Czech territory – made a deal. In exchange for keeping Slovak workers out the war effort, they agreed to deport their Jewish population, whose roots in Slovakia went back 500 years. In the deal, the “republic would pay for each Jew deported, and, in return, Germany promised that the Jews would never return to the republic.” According to Wikipedia, the deal was initially for “20,000 young, strong Jews,” but the Slovaks eventually agreed to deport the entire Jewish population for “evacuation to territories in the east.”

In 1942, the first mass transport to Auschwitz came out of Slovakia. In total, in 1942 alone, 58,000 Jews were deported by the Slovak Republic. 99% of them are reported to have died in the concentration camps.

I took the above picture of the monument one sunny autumn afternoon, in black and white film on an old Pentax K-1000.  I framed it in the frame with the little wooden doors, and it has lived with me on three continents since. I still don’t know entirely why.

It makes me think of Allen Ginsberg’s voice, intoning America aloud in that little Soviet-stark apartment, teaching me histories I didn’t know. It reminds me of things I’d rather not acknowledge about human nature.

We sell each other out, we humans, the picture cautions me. Our better angels regret it later. But we sell each other out.

The picture forces me to ask what part I am playing in the world, what wheel my shoulder is turned to, or turned away from.
***

The Rest of the Story: Back at the end of November, I wrote about adult education and a piece of history far closer to my own part of the world.

The Antigonish Movement was, in the 1920s and 30s, an adult education & cooperative movement based out of the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Led by Father Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, Irish Catholic cousins from Cape Breton, the Antigonish Movement fostered the idea that ordinary people could take control of their circumstances and their economy through critical thinking, scientific methods of planning and production, and co-operative entrepreneurship, taught in kitchens and community halls, and via radio and whatever means were available.

It had a huge impact. Even today, the legacy of the Antigonish Movement dots the Maritime provinces in the form of credit union buildings, which got their start through the cooperatives that Coady and Tompkins fostered.

So.

I look at our media literacy and information literacy landscape – our democratic society, interconnected and border-blurred as it is – in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States on January 20th, and I shudder. Arms race tweets. Putin. Fake news. White supremacists gloating. Wikileaks uber alles. Basically, it’s the West Wing version of what danah boyd calls the hacking of the attention economy, not just by trolls but by a Troll in Chief.  Messy through multiple lenses…and by my lights, potentially terrifying no matter where one lives or what one’s party affiliations are.

But I am not a foreign policy analyst. I am a digital literacies educator…and that is the lens I focus through.

So I proposed a new adult education movement for our times, an Antigonish 2.0. With a media and information literacy focus.

I said: To me, at this current moment, it is our societal lack of understanding and agency regarding media literacies and digital literacies – and thus the stories we tell ourselves about truth, decency, and each other – that is the poverty I know how to address.

And a whole freaking whack of you said…ME TOO.

So I’ve spent the past month in conversations with people – individual educators, people on the street, government folks, the excellent & quick-thinking Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier from the Coady Institute (yes, named after THAT Coady) at St. FX University – and we officially really and fer real *do* have an Antigonish 2.0.

We’ll draw on the model of the original Antigonish Movement of participatory learning – see below – but re-tooled for the 21st century and the local and global connections that digital makes possible. It’s particularly meaningful to get to do this with Wendy at St FX.

The Plan, As It Stands: As I noted in the first post, the Antigonish Movement had three key structural components: mass meetings, organized with community members from villages and towns around the entire region, study clubs, where community members gathered together in homes to study materials available, and the school for leaders, where members of the study clubs could attend six-week programs at the university in Antigonish, to prepare people for action and minimize business failures.

I see Antigonish 2.0 as having three potential layers or structural pieces, too.

The first layer will likely be mostly the people who commented on the original post – a distributed international network of people. Maybe mostly educators, with relatively high digital presence and the knowledge capacity to lead this kind of work, but in need of something to coordinate around and up-to-date resources on specific media/information literacy conversations. And the broader epistemology and truth conversations that we all need to work our way through to understand the times we’re living through.

Building a site and awareness and a hashtag around this first layer – and getting people connected to the work that initiatives like the Digital Polarization Institute are on about – would be how this layer would get started. INPUT WELCOME ON WHAT IT WOULD ACTUALLY NEED TO FUNCTION FOR PEOPLE. But basically the first layer would be self-selecting and networked; our mass meetings, for people who might be interested in taking on aspects of levels two or three in their institutions or their communities or spreading the good word.

The second layer – from our perspective here in the Maritimes – would be capacity-building among local institutions as well as among any Layer One individuals interested in joining in with an eye to building institutional media/digital literacies and capacity. We’re looking at a grant to hold a summer institute or mini-conference – essentially our school for leaders – that would be open both to members of Layer One but also focus on getting buy-in from Atlantic institutions, for faculty and staff development….for people interested doing media literacies and critical literacies stuff in formal classes. We’re looking at August 2017. We have a lot to figure out.

The third layer is my real, original goal, the study clubs: getting past institutional boundaries to having the Layer One and Two people starting up localized workshops for people in their own communities, people not necessarily affiliated with higher ed. Workshops at libraries. Discussion series in bars or restaurants. Participatory art events. Kitchen parties. This is the part where people get – collaboratively – the kind of information they need to be critical citizens and consumers within an attention economy run from the top down; our Hunger Games mediasphere come to life. This is the part where people (maybe?) learn to rise and hold mass media accountable for the narratives we are sold. This is where, in whatever small part, I can put my queer shoulder to the wheel of spectacle that’s turning our time, right now, and try to make a difference.

So that sometime down the road I don’t find myself standing in a square in front of a sculpture, saying about some population being symbolized in wrought iron, Yes, a terrible shame. We sold them out, to Nazis. We even saw it coming. (shrug) What can you do?
***
If you’d like updates on this initiative as Wendy and I work to get it up and running…send an email to bstewart@upei.ca. We welcome you. :)

What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.
***

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.
***

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)