Talking to ghosts

Jazbo Gross

I was about to conduct a survey of my own memories from education to find out if I would have traded the grizzly one and a half hours on the 19 from Finsbury Park to Battersea for a streamlined online learning experience. I had hardly begun writing up the questionnaire when I saw these two adverts side by side on my screen: One for the Master-programme in the arts that I finished 4 years ago, coming in at £29,000/year and one for a Master-class with Jeff Koons coming in at £180/year. As I researched a little further I found out that with the Master-class, I could even throw in “Cooking with Gordon Ramsay” for another £180/year and come out the other side a better artist and chef, all for 1.25% of the price of the Master-programme. Now, if that isn’t a bargain! So online learning it is.

With the marketisation of higher education in full bloom institutions must satisfy one criteria before all others; competitive edge. It is only after having proven yourself fit for survival in the cutthroat competitive education market that you can start to think of such lofty notions as quality of education. Ideas that should be central to education become features of those institutions that are able to leverage their competitive advantages in such a way that staying afloat does not occupy the majority of their operational resources. This is the current condition, not a future scenario. And in this scenario what we need more than anything is business advice. I turn to Glenn Llopis’ article in Forbes from 17th of October 2020:

“There are many schools out there that right now literally are fighting for survival […] Instead of trying to copy elite schools that are much better off resource-wise, this is an opportunity for somebody to be a real standout, to rise from the pack of pencils. And, and be bold and different and come up with new models.”

We are in times of crisis and times of crisis are times of change. Business advice will tell us that online teaching is the way forward. Think of overcrowded classrooms as a thing of the past. I recently taught some classes over Zoom and felt quite confident that AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Microsoft Azure servers weren’t getting overcrowded any time soon. There is plenty of bandwidth there for students to Zoom in from all over the world and we can strike the complications that come with students having to relocate to other countries. But going back to the survey of my memories from education that I got distracted from conducting when I saw the Jeff Koons masterclass ad. My own defining educational moments, the ones that continue to have the greatest influence on my decisions and actions today, are complex events involving bodies taking up space around me; other bodies that quite literally move me, make me understand my place in the room differently and by extension my place in other social spaces, virtual and physical.

These ‘educational moments’ are like little symphonies of mutual exchange that inspire retention in a larger network of significant events, some of which take place online, in books, in solitude, etc. As events they are entangled with my emotions, increasing my capacity for returning to related information at a later stage. I remember someone’s argument, and understand more about the world that argument is made in through the degree of sweatiness and breathlessness of the person to my left as they muster the courage to disagree, than I ever will from being presented with any number of versions of the same justification or its contestation. In Berardi’s words, there is an important distinction to be made between connection and conjunction when it comes to communication, and I might add, education:

“conjunctive communication is a tentative approach to the intentions of meaning of a body which sends ambiguous messages whose interpretation is object of negotiation and uncertainty, connective communication implies and presupposes a perfectly unambiguous interaction between agents of signification syntactically compatible.”

Syntactic compatibility is a prerequisite for taking part in online teaching and a barrier to empathic comprehension. It leaves out the important element of risk. Education should involve risk and I’m not talking about the wasting £58,000 kind of risk. I’m talking about the much greater and far more significant risk of transformation; of becoming someone else than who we thought we were. Education is a form of crisis.

Has 2020 taught us that it is time to disrupt education? What seems to be often implied in disrupting education, or rising from the pack of pencils, are technical fixes and foresight in terms of how we tailor education to the individual student’s needs. We do this because students know what they want. It is a kind of credit attributed to them that they know what they want. We are saying don’t underestimate students. I’m not going to argue with that. But I have a suspicion that what is actually being said is that we know what students want because we have the market analysis data to prove what they are going to buy. Education is a time for exploration, curiosity and not knowing. These qualities should be encouraged and nurtured. There is a strange power in these spectral qualities that belong to the student as they approach the firmness of knowledge. But knowledge is the easy part. It’s what we do with that knowledge that requires the greatest effort and risk on every student’s (and teacher’s) part.

One of the lessons we have learned from the events of 2020 is that “we need to make sure students graduate with the emotional resiliency and leadership skills they’ll need in this uncertain world.“ I couldn’t agree more. And that means online teaching is off the table. We need bodies in rooms. We need personalities, quirks, the look on a teacher’s face when a discussion suddenly gets heated, how they deal with it, or don’t. For the time being, the environment we are stuck with is largely devoid of emotion. Faces are replaced by graphic contours of human figures, each denoting a potential listener in the same way that a Facebook-like is evidence of a potential like but only assures us of a double-click.

It seemed to me, in the last lesson I gave over Zoom, that students find it more difficult than usual to respond. I look out over a silent graveyard of muted voices with profile icons lined up like ghostly tombstones of personalisation and wonder what they were all thinking. Is it possible that they are not even listening? Is it possible that I am calling on them as I might call on a spirit, in hope of an answer? In Thou Shall Not Freeze Frame, Latour gives us a useful distinction that might help us understand this situation better. He gives us the difference between informational speech and transformational speech as well as the kind of deplorable communication that imagines one without the other:

“[…] such is exactly the yardstick of double-click communication: it wants us to believe that it is feasible to transport without any deformation whatsoever of some accurate information about states of affairs which are not presently here.”  

The pandemic has presented us with and revealed myriad crises in communication. I believe that Zoom represents a crisis in education. Zoom is not a natural extension of the classroom. The images of our faces and voices are carried smoothly across the atlantic and to the other side of the equator, but no matter how seamlessly the powers of video conferencing can connect us from all over the world, some crucial part of our understanding of the situation we are in is altered by the differences in our life-making activities across diverse geographies and political realities. A strangeness is introduced that does not exist when sharing a physical space. We don’t sweat, we shimmer. But the shimmering has more to do with where we are than who we are. At times we convulse involuntarily, we appear to become frozen in time. I ask a question to a particular student and while waiting for an answer another student interjects: “They seem to have disappeared”. When students start inexplicably disappearing from class I feel it is time to act. I hope you are not frightened or put off by my ghost story, but I can’t help myself – it’s emotional:

“[…] we can’t stop moving or acting. From here, however, we also cannot move with an offhanded “one, two, three!” […] We cannot move “forward” with the certainty that two will follow one, and three will follow two.”

In this short text by Smudge Studio on Sion Sono’s film Land of Hope the authors bring to light the existential shifts portrayed in the film in the wake of ecological catastrophe in Japan. The characters “struggle to adapt to their new conditions of daily life, including irrevocably altered senses of self, nation, agency, and time”. To me this resonates as a description of the global crisis we are currently living through and the advice to us comes, in Sono’s movie, from two ghost children instructing us to move forward like ippo, ippo, ippo ( 一歩。一歩。一歩。trans. “one step, one step, one step”) instead of with a zealous one, two, three. ‘Looking ahead’ is framed here as a kind of first instinct survival tactic. A way of mentally coping with the current situation that does not involve facing the realities of the environment we are confronted with; what is around us. We urgently need to attune ourselves to practices – like that of Anna Tsing – aligned with looking around rather than ahead. Smudge Studio goes on to provide a kind of formula for acting according to the ghostly advice of ippo, ippo, ippo:

“One step. Pause. Pay attention. Sit with the consequences and potentials that arise and fall away with and in that step. Adjust. Reconfigure. One step. Pause. Pay attention. Sit with the (new) consequences and potentials that arise and fall away with and in that (different) step. Revise. Readjust. The generative repetition of ippo, ippo, ippo moves us out of circular returns to the same and into elliptical returns with a difference.”

This is more than a reactionary posture. It is the kind of attitude to time, or sense of time, that we need to adopt to move towards what is described by David A. Banks as recursivity in social structures leading to anti-authoritarian ways of organising. It might be tempting to carry on as we were and pretend that this new framing of our activities (ie. online teaching) is an annoying temporary obstacle. Or, as some might have it, an amazing new opportunity that requires us to do everything differently. Let’s not be blind to the shape in which a ghost might present itself. Let’s allow time, before imagining the post-pandemic, to pay attention to and sit with the consequences and potentials of the pandemic before adjusting and reconfiguring. The time that we are in and living with this pandemic is the time that we can learn the most from it.

I suggest we leave ‘communication that connects’ at the door for a moment and instead commune. We could call it an act of rebellion against that which would have us be less present in a time of ghostly presence. We could call it a rebellion against double-click communication. We could call it a time to imagine ourselves to be what Freddie Mason calls a ‘jellied ghost’: in a state “between the spectral and the material […] not materialising the immaterial, but bridging the two within its body.“ I’m not going to say that I know exactly what this online communion looks like but in my imagination it leaves time to better understand the textures of our current environment.

It does not object to the sharing of intimate thoughts and spiritual revelations. It is concerned with the here and now, not as an end in itself but as a – perhaps counterintuitive – elliptical exit that lets us return to how things were with difference beyond the crisis. It might have us call on each other to try and answer questions about the social spaces in which and through which we interact online and how we perceive ourselves in these spaces, even if that is not the exact focus of our studies. Let us see this as an opportunity to materialise as ghostly matter and commune with the other ghosts; our fellow students and teachers.

Photo by Zoya Loonohod on Unsplash

Jazbo Gross is a Danish/American artist living and working in London. He works with video and installation and is currently visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art where he graduated in 2017. His work has screened and been exhibited in the UK, Europe, India and the US. Most recently at St. Peter’s House, Manchester, Oneroom Gallery, London and Weserhalle, Berlin

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