Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Case for Conceptual Literature

My regular readers (Hi Mum!) will know that I am not teaching this year; I'm doing the learning instead. I'm studying for an MA in Modernism and Contemporary Literature, and the quite esoteric nature of the course has made me think about the distance between the English A-Level syllabus and the current trends in literature, particularly conceptual literature.

One of the things that surprised me when I started this course was that I was surprised to see Literature like Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget. I was surprised to see works that were so revolutionary that they questioned even the integrity and purpose of the word literature. I was surprised to see it, not because of the nature of the course, or the institution, but that through GCSE, A-Level, a Degree and my own rambling reading, I had never seen anything like it before. After lecture number one on conceptual poetry I had difficulty reattaching my face, so much had it been taken off.

So I was forced to have a little check of myself and question what it was, really, that I knew, or thought I knew about literature. I have long thought myself a pretty up-to-date student. I've read a lot of things that other people wouldn't touch because they are shocking, or controversial, or push the boundaries of form. Stuff like Sarah Kane's 4.41 Psychosis, or Will Self's Dorian, or A M Homes' The End of Alice. Difficult stuff, but, inevitably, not that relevant. Why not that relevant, and relevant to what? Not relevant because they are the sort of works that are bought by and given awards by the sort of people that our students absolutely aren't. Fundamentally, these, and pretty much anything in a bookshop no longer looks anything like a student's life.

What do our students' lives look like, in literary terms? Twitter. Facebook. BBM. (Definitely not MSN messenger, God rest its troubled soul.) The literature that students come into contact with most is abbreviated, disparate, instant. To quote Kenneth Goldsmith himself,

What do people read? People read Facebook posts and they read them, I believe, very carefully. They read a Twitter feed. Y'know, short forms. Things that have information. But poetry, and literature, at this point? I'd say less so.  (Source)

 He's right. Most students read. They read a lot. More than we think they do, it's just what they read does not fit in with a 20th century schema. I am not suggesting that at the start of the lesson everyone gets on Facebook and we do a close textual analysis of their ex's mate's sisters latest status about last night's dinner but we should be having students look at what is actually happening now in literature. Questions of authenticity, spontaneity and digital culture are critically relevant to 21st century living. The question of whether Literature with a capital L actually has a place in modern culture as we currently conceive it is something that may well shape these students expectations of their own lives. (In fact, get them to look at their Facebook wall. Might be quite interesting.)

At the last school I worked at, Twitter was blocked on the school network through the innate fear that schools have of social media. This is primarily based on a fear of salubrious types grooming students for sex rings/religious cults/UKIP (Delete as your area dictates)but what I found appalling was that teachers had Twitter blocked as well. An entire piece of 21st century human existence stymied by the fear that teachers might gossip on it instead of do their marking. 21st century humanity is one of multiple digital and real-world selves. We are chimeras that exist both in cyberspace and realspace. Our students are digital cyborgs; to them the internet is as real as the classroom; Facebook is a life in itself and it is far more relevant than any Victorian novel because for 99% of the canon of English literature the digital cyborg did not exist. It is stupid to unleash students into the post-education world thinking that literature is not relevant to them at all.

In the tradition of editorial rhetoric prolepsis, I should now anticipate the argument against. It is an age-old one; that students should be forced to crawl while we know that they can run. English Literature is a wonderful subject because, unlike Maths or the Sciences, sometimes you can jump to the back of the textbook (read as: Burn the stupid piece of crap) and students will understand. I don't need to teach basic literary theory for students to understand Goldsmith. I need them to think. I need them to think about their own lives and then care about the future. It's not that hard.

I should probably, wittily, appropriate someone else's closing statement for my own in a kind of self-referential didactic wonder, but I'm not. Instead, a challenge. Throw out your lesson plan for Monday and tomorrow set a KS5 class a website for their homework. This website. Or this one They don't have to read it all, in fact, to quote Goldsmith again,

I don't expect you to even read my books cover to cover. It's for that reason I like the idea that you can know each of my books in one sentence. For instance, there's the book of every word I spoke for a week unedited. Or the book of every move my body made over the course of a day, a process so dry and tedious that I had to get drunk halfway though the day in order to make it to the end. Or my most recent book, Day, in which I retyped a day's copy of the New York Times and published it as a 900 page book. Now you know what I do without ever having to have read a word of it.

Tell them that they don't have to read it at all. Tell them that what is really important is that they think about it. Some will think it's utter shit that they could've done themselves. But isn't that the point?, that not only could they have done it themselves, they probably have.

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