Monday, August 3, 2015

Ongoing struggle between our academic Cartesians and the pragmatic empiricism of the public

Oh, the poor Hunger Games, a vehicle for every pop psychologist and cultural commentator to load with the entirety of their tired thinking. Jonathan Alexander gives us his thoughts in The Literacy Games: Summer Lessons About Media from YA Fiction. Clearly the LA Times was needing to fill a lot of space.

I did try. I read the first half dozen paragraphs, then skimmed the next half dozen and finally skipped to the last three. Kludge is the word that comes to mind. The review is so filled with asides and non sequiturs and intellectual preening that it is difficult to discern Alexander's argument. There's a lot of speculation and very little conclusion.

I think what Alexander is trying to say is that the entire media-industrial complex around books to films to TV to books, etc. is one fraught with oddities and the unknowable. I think he wants to find a greater significance to the phenomenon of The Hunger Games than actual thinking can sustain and therefore we are pelted with the clots of abstractions and speculations.

The penultimate paragraph tries to bring the many strings together into a rope of an argument.
Dystopic stories are attractive. They appeal to a readership that feels threatened — economically in an age of downward mobility, and politically in an age of terror. But we need to be asking what kinds of stories about living and working with media these influential narratives offer. How do the stories orient young peoples to the potential power and danger of media use? What kinds of literacy practices are sponsored in them?
It is interesting to interrogate each assumption and proposition.

"Dystopic stories are attractive" - A testable statement. Yes, we can establish that Dystopic stories have a long history in YA literature (and adult) and that the genre represents a thriving component of YA book sales. We can quibble about relative standing against other genres but there is sufficient empirical evidence to take the argument at face value.

"They appeal to a readership that feels threatened" - Again, an empirically testable hypothesis. Do YA read dystopian novels because they feel threatened by economic insecurity and political terror? That seems a major reach. And what might be the effect size? Dystopian novels are a small segment of the entirety of YA literature. There are significant reasons to believe that what a child chooses to read has no measurable impact on their life-outcomes. Do people read dystopian book because they actually feel threatened? I don't know but it is worth investigating. There are alternative plausible hypotheses such as "They appeal to a readership secure in their anticipation of the future who derive pleasure from might-have-been narratives."

"we need to be asking what kinds of stories about living and working with media these influential narratives offer" - Do they offer any stories about living and working with media? I can see where a professor of literature might conjure such an insight but how many readers actually consider this type of question and intellectually drive to an answer. I think a first approximation would be "None." Do they offer such stories and are those stories decrypted? We need evidence to support that bland assumption.

"How do the stories orient young peoples to the potential power and danger of media use?" - Much as above. There is precious little evidence that any of these stories have any lasting effect of any kind. They are read recreationally and the donut is forgotten as soon as it eaten.

Alexander's review offers an interesting insight to the lengths to which some papers will go in order to appear relevant and cutting edge. In other respects this comes across as another in the long line of skirmishers between the Continental Rationalists (Descartes, et al) dealing in abstractions and speculative theories and the British Empiricists (Locke, et al) who likely would respond to this speculative contortion with Sergeant Friday's "Just the facts, ma'am."

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