Student Blogs from my MA Course “Writing, Photography, Blogging”

This is becoming more obvious to me now.

A creative detour of sorts (from poetry to street photography as well as my interest in film cameras) which began a few years ago seems to be now taking over my work.

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I’ve been teaching an MA level course at my department with the generic title “Special Topics in Genre Studies”. I’ve shaped it around what I thought would be key genres that are of contemporary interest (Writing, Photography, Blogging). This is the second time I’m running the course.

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An external reviewer from another university who’ve looked at the students’ assignments as well as course materials from the first run of the course commented that this is a course which puts together “creative and critical, theoretical and practical insights” and that it connects “popular culture activities to major strands of 20th century theoretical discourse on creative media”.

I am very much encouraged by this comment and I think the bit about combining the critical with the creative is spot-on in terms of describing what I’m setting out to do.

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Basically, it’s a course for those who are interested in Hong Kong culture.

It’s a project-based course whereby students are encouraged to explore different micro-cultures of Hong Kong and present them (in any way they want) via blogs.

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We would read and discuss the following works together in class:

Clifford Geertz. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”.

Leon Anderson. “Analytic Autoethnography”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35 (4): 373-395.

Marshall McLuhan. Selection sections from Understanding Media.

Georg Simmel. “Metropolis and Mental Life”

Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.

Roland Barthes. Selected sections from Camera Lucida.

Martin Heidegger. Selected sections from “The Question Concerning Technology”.

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Selected sections from “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”.

Sontag, Susan. Selected sections from On Photography.

John Berger. “Understanding a Photograph”.

Clive Scott. Selected sections from Street Photography: From Atget to Cartier-Bresson.

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There would be group presentations, and students would write individual auto-ethnographic essays on their learning experience and the experience of micro-cultures they’ve chosen to explore.

I keep telling my students in class that I don’t fully know what I’m doing, and that we’re making it up as we go along. To my mind, this is a course that begins with a few fixed parameters, without fully determining the scope of what is to be learnt.

We start from a few well-known ideas and essays in critical theory and extend the insights to the various HK micro-cultures we’re interested in. A group (some of them are teachers) is working on school culture. Another is working on what 5.30pm means to Hong Kong. They’ve more or less decided on taking (street) photographs at exactly 5.30pm. Another group is working on wet markets.

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I remember that in the previous run of the course, there were projects on the neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, street temples, as well as interviews with the practitioners of “da siu yan” (people you hire to beat paper figurines of your enemies in public with slippers). There was an essay on the travel discourse of Hong Kong people via the analysis of a video by the Hong Kong indie band My Little Airport.

The projects, incorporating elements of street photography, are turning out to be urban ethnographies of sorts.

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Here’re the student blogs:

hkbynight.wordpress.com

fishflops.blogspot.hk

fragmentsofeducation.wordpress.com

lifeiselsewhere2015wordpresscom.wordpress.com

memorystoresite.wordpress.com

revitalisesoldhongkong.wordpress.com

libraryofunicorns.wordpress.com

530inhk.wordpress.com

ohgeno.wordpress.com

I tell my class that perhaps blogging could be a tool for intellectual engagement.

In some ways, I’m already doing it myself.

A series of entries on the Umbrella Movement in this blog have culminated in a conference presentation, which in turn have been reworked into the editorial essay “The Poetics of the Umbrella Movement” in the literary journal Cha.

Thanks for reading!

Camera: Leica M6

Lens: Voigtlander Nokton Classic 35mm f/1.4 SC

Film: Kodak BW400CN

The Metropolis and Mental Life

The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. (“The Metropolis and Mental Life” p. 409)

All quotations here are taken from Georg Simmel (from The Sociology of George Simmel, translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff, The Free Press, 1950), whose writings I dip into once in a while because it’s still so potent as a commentary on how modern city life affects the way we think and feel. We don’t see these effects, just as a fish fails to see the water it swims in.

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Modern mind has become more and more calculating. The calculative exactness of practical life which the money economy has brought about corresponds to the ideal of natural science: to transform the world into an arithmetic problem, to fix every part of the world by mathematical formulas. Only money economy has filled the days of so many people with weighing, calculating, with numerical determinations, with a reduction of qualitative values to quantitative ones. (“The Metropolis and Mental Life” p.412)

I guess the vulgar word for me is “positivism” – the idea that it is possible to come up with consistent and reliable formulas to how life works. Formulas are re-assuring, such as “be a banker/lawyer/accountant/doctor, because these jobs translate into big numbers, and these big numbers mean success”.

Of course, there are many successful bankers/lawyers/accountants/doctors who lead meaningful lives and who enjoy their jobs. I’m only arguing against the confusion between quality and quantity. Quality cannot be easily quantified. Sometimes we play this soundtrack too readily.

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Here in buildings and educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technology, in the formations of community life, and in the visible institutions of the state, is offered such an overwhelming fullness of crystallized and impersonalized spirit that the personality, so to speak, cannot maintain itself under its impact. On the one hand, life is made infinitely easy for the personality in that stimulations, interests, uses of time and consciousness are offered to it from all sides. They carry the person as if in a stream, and one needs hardly to swim for oneself. On the other hand, however, life is composed more and more of these impersonal contents and offerings which tend to displace the genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities. This results in the individual’s summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself.  (“The Metropolis and Mental Life” p. 422)

I’ve always found the above passage to be rather depressing. The modern concern with the uniqueness of our personality emerges out of an anxiety. Now that everything is for sale, we’re compelled to be “unique”, “autonomous” and “individual” so as to differentiate ourselves from other cogs in the giant capitalist machine. “Look at me I’m so unique and interesting,” I tell myself and others, knowing that there are tens of thousands of people around me (and many with blogs like this) saying precisely the same thing.

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We are surrounded by things we buy with numbers. And these things, whether tangible or intangible, which we buy and sell, turn us into who we are.

Is it possible to walk away from such a situation?

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