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Audiovisual Storytelling in Secondary Schools Located in the Slums of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Region

Postmedia Videolanguaging

In: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy
Author:
Silvia Grinberg PhD in Education
Master in Social Sciences
Professor in Sociology of Education
Head of Human Sciences Research Laboratory ( lich_ eh), conicet/ School of Humanities, University of San Martín (UNSAM), Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Abstract

School in postmedia society falls prey to “systemic stupidity” (), while the teacher-cum-coach heeds what is considered the new divine calling for education. In this framework, this video-article looks to elements from research that the author believes might serve as a roadmap for work with words and images in schools that lie beyond that stupidity. Through the audiovisual narratives of students in secondary schools located in a slum in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, the author explores possible approaches to the question of the audiovisual narrative in school and how school is or, rather, can continue to be the repository of the hopes that critical thought harbors. More specifically, the author asks whether audiovisual narratives can contribute to more complex conceptions of the world that help us go beyond the binary logics and infantilization.

FEATURE
FEATURE

Silvia Grinberg’s article is based on a video, which can be viewed here.

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 2024; 10.1163/23644583-bja10047

  1. This article is part of the special topic ‘Postmedia Videolanguaging’ edited by Joff P. N. Bradley, Silvia Grinberg and Masayuki Iwase.

1 Introduction

Our lives are saturated in images—a statement as pertinent as the question regarding the place of school when the now-old mass media coexist with the forms of a postmedia society. Everything is or can be the object of a narrative; when those narratives are uploaded on social networks, diversity seems to have a place on the stage. At the same time, those social-media narratives stem from an unprecedented homogenization (see minute 0-2). School in postmedia society falls prey, it seems, to “systemic stupidity” (Stiegler, 2011), while the teacher-cum-coach heeds what is considered the new divine calling for education (Biesta, 2005, 2020; Grinberg, 2008). In that framework, this video-article looks to elements from research that we believe might serve as a roadmap for work with words and images in schools that lie beyond that stupidity. Through the audiovisual narratives of students in secondary schools located in a slum in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, we explore possible approaches to the question of the audiovisual narrative in school and how school is or, rather, can continue to be the repository of the hopes that critical thought harbors. More specifically, we ask whether audiovisual narratives can contribute to more complex conceptions of the world that help us go beyond the binary logics and infantilization that, as Guattari foretold (2013), seem to besiege screens in postmedia society.

Our answer is a resounding yes: While schools may not be able to provide shelter from the current morass and confusion, they can provide a much needed and privileged space for conversation and listening. As Britzman points out (1992), pedagogy refers to the unknown, and “more often than not, things do not go according to plan” (151). Pedagogy, and schools themselves, ushers in an intangibility that can be called “uncanny.” School is a place to approach the multiple voices and contradictions that occur daily not only in them but also in life itself in times when diversity and homogeneity overlap with such intensity. In other words, schools should not be envisioned as a place where the world once again becomes coherent, but as a place where the contradictory, freaky, or creepy voices they house can be heard. And audiovisual narratives are a space well suited to that task.

At stake in postmedia society is, according to Guattari (2008), “… the infantilization of the production of subjectivity, with the intense binarization of messages, uniformization and unidimensionization of relations to the world and [at the same time, the] expansion of other non-denotative functions of language: the composition of rhythms and the unprecedented production of relations to the world” (p. 74). In other words, a sort of liberation of the collective subject that resists the capitalist subjectivation that favors nondifferentiation and generalized equivalence. In fact, systemic stupidity is engendered by generalised proletarianization, resulting precisely “from a pharmacological development, where the pharmakon short-circuits those whom, it inscribes in the circuit of production, consumption and speculation, and does so by destroying investment, that is, the desiring projection of imagination” (Stielgler, 2011, p. 298, emphasis in the original). The question, then, is whether audiovisual narratives in school can interrupt the circuits of production by projecting other modes of imagining and conceptualizing the world, that is, whether they can invent and create new ways of wording the world to broaden thinking about that world. As Bradley and Iwase point out, “the video qua technology of the ‘pharmakon’ embraces both a poisonous and curative mode” (Iwase and Bradley, 2021, p. 4). Insofar as education and school seem trapped in these logics and learned culture condemned to retreat because an image is worth a thousand words, interrogating audiovisual language qua poison while testing out possible curative modes within that same language becomes a key challenge. We do not set out to confirm that poisonousness but to pedagogically navigate that language in what might be called a noncompliant pedagogy (Iwase and Bradley, 2021). While critique of that venomous nature is certainly indispensable, it also runs the risk of uploading that poison that circulates so ravenously around it. Delving into other modes of audiovisual narrative at school challenges us to make way for a pedagogy that strays from the systemic stupidity that the world of the algorithms has, it would seem, condemned us to; all we can do is like and post.

Some of the results of the research we will discuss here provide clues to debate the place of school as space for the creation and conceptualization of the world in postmedia society (Guattari, 2013). The act of giving the word is, as Freire showed us, a central task to any educational practice, and audiovisual production can become a key opportunity to that end. The video produced by the students is the result of an audiovisual-production workshop that began in 2008 and has existed, albeit with variations, ever since. In the workshop, students are provided with a space for their own voices, a space to narrate their own experiences. More specifically, they are invited to produce material linked to their own lives in some way. The workshop also yielded narratives that combat the abjection usually rife in narratives of slums in the metropolises of the global South (Grinberg, 2010, Arabindoo, 2011), hence enabling other ways of conceiving and grappling with the world for both the students who make the audiovisual work and their teachers and communities. The works produced at the workshop surf, so to speak, networks that challenge the abject vision that reduces the other—that is, these young people—to aestheticized images of criminalization and/or romanticization, to a “poor little thing”. The workshop, then, is based on the narrative capacity of audiovisual language at school to create a space where students’ experience can become knowable (minute 2 and so on).

By way of hypothesis, we posit that in times of self/ies where google has become a verb (Buchanan, 2007) and artificial intelligence can produce more and more impeccable texts, school becomes a place of the uncanny. Students repeatedly express anger at teachers who tell them to look for tutorials on the internet: What they expect and want is teachers who teach them and make them think (Grinberg, 2013). As a hiatus, school becomes a place to encounter different others and, moreover, otherness; lieu for the production and circulation of words, for conceptualizing and grappling with the world. In line with that hypothesis, we treat audiovisual narrative as object and as subject, as means of apparition but also as zone where that apparition occurs. Hence, our reading of audiovisual production in school engages two elements: a) the video that students produced in 2008 and their reflection on it ten years later; and b) the contents of those videos. Regarding that second point, we found the readings of the slums in those works to be much more complex and interesting than so many other narratives of those spaces that reduce them in a rhetoric of criminalization and/or aestheticization.

2 Audiovisual Production and Educational Research: Wording the World

The following scene we observed in our fieldwork in the classroom served as the springboard for future audiovisual works by students at schools in contexts of extreme urban poverty:

A teacher is talking about hunter-gatherers and nomads. A student interrupts her to say, “I get it. The nomads would walk around looking for food just like we cartoneros1 walk around the streets looking for food.” The teacher, speechless, looked at him for a minute and went on with the class. A few moments later, the student had stopped paying attention. He was now walking around the classroom, talking to his classmates.

Fieldnotes, 2006
A first reading would certainly observe that the teacher did not pay attention to her student’s comment and so he disconnected from the class. But another scene in school at the end of the next school year suggests something different:

We proposed that the teachers make a model of the neighborhood, and in the process that student’s comment about nomads came up. This time, the teachers were all affected; they were either speechless, speaking in hushed tones, or crying.

Fieldnotes, 2007

This second scene stamps out that first reading. What we see here is not an indifferent teacher, but the need for words and the difficulty in finding them. The linear reading that sees apathetic teachers gives way to a reading that heeds the multiple traumatic situations faced by students on a daily basis and the enormous difficulty that implies for the teachers who bear witness. The face of the speechless teacher attests to the trauma and hardship in the student’s remark, as well as to the need to render it knowable. We brought that year’s research to a close by proposing practices that would enable the word and, from there, in 2008 we began the audiovisual production workshop. In 2023, the artistic practices and lines of work proposed at that time have, like a rhizome, worked their way into the life of the school. One of those lines is evident in the words of Nair, now twenty-three (see video minute 1:26). She explains that the word was not only present as possibility in making the video, but that “we knew what we wanted to ask.” In Recopada, the video she and her classmates had made ten years prior, she says that they are showing something hidden, something that no one, no government agency or administration, wants to show (minute 3:59). And it is true: Recopada compiles images that in no way confirm the stereotype of the slums (Grinberg, 2010).

The video product, the act of filming, as well as the debate occasioned turn school into a space—or even an excuse—to generate other modes of thinking. Audiovisual production opens up a slanted line for other narrations. The need for the word and to capture memories and affects at school is key; texts are the tissue of an interface of audiovisual language. Through them, how we think and how we are thought is questioned. The pharmacological vainglorious exaltation of the self, the diy notion of self-improvement, and the age of individualization where more and more educational proposals are reduced to algorithms that promise to work out all our problems run headlong into a school where people meet others. Indeed, school is today one of the few institutions where we must touch one another, look at one another, where we have to think and even disagree but still face one another. All the more so in times when the act of grappling with and conceptualizing the world is diluted to vanishing point in curricula in a society governed by self-help narratives where school is called upon to stop teaching and instead orient learning. Audiovisual production in school can, potentially, turn its back on that call; it is, rather, an instance to discuss, question, and conceptualize the world—a world where the self is not there to be redeemed but to take a position and narrate its struggles.

And that is central to educational research insofar as it enables us access to details, multiplicities, fragments, folds, and contrasts in the school experience. The word/gaze, which dwells on those folds, becomes key to the research itself. First, because it draws paths toward the juxtaposed, overlapping, and contradictory voices heard at schools on a daily basis. At stake is the possibility of the word and its performative capacity to position the self in the world, in history. This is not the self of selfies but the one formed in the tensions confronted every day when life puts the word on hold. At the crux of our research is the question of what happens when that impossibility—the impossibility of the word—is embodied at school, as it is in the scenes recounted above. In other words, what happens when the word is interrupted and paralyzed at the social institution whose supreme task is to give the word and conceptualize the world? We suggest that it is in that very capacity to conceptualize and grapple with the world that we might be able to imagine other worlds, new worlds, and from there reconstruct an image for a pedagogy to come, one that, echoing Benjamin’s image, brushes history against the grain.

And here we come upon a second question key to educational research and its practices: the creation of spaces of conceptualization. At play in them is envisioning the world or even discussing the ideas with which to do so, thus enabling encounters with other voices, and understanding that the classroom is often a space blessed by contradictions and overlapping and intersecting lines. The voices we hear in classrooms are, luckily, much less coherent and homogenous than we might imagine. And that gaze, that other gaze, is what we will turn to now.

3 Frames of Vision

The video includes a brief segment of an interview on a news program (see video minute 0:31-0:55) that narrates life in the slums in a rhetoric of stigma and pity. In this narrative, the other—the ones who are always the other—is positioned in its eternal place as object of suspicion and woe, a place that also incites a certain sense of disgust: mountains of trash and people going through it to find things to eat or sell. The journalist seems to revel in the suffering he shows and reproaches. Stigma, pity, but also what Sontag (2012) describes as the aestheticization of suffering. The images (video minute 0:49) have a romantic air: the evening bathes the act of rummaging through the trash in a certain calm. What we are shown here is not the savage but the hero.

The question, then, is how to generate instances to produce knowledge that escapes, or at least tries to escape, the theater of cruelty (Guattari, 2008) that we are subjected to on a daily basis. To what extent has that aestheticization worked its way into us as frame for the interpretation and regulation of the image and of narrative? How can we produce other frames that break through that saturation and produce other images? Butler (2010) both looks to and questions Sontag. She proposes that photography requires the caption to be understood. “Our potential for affect is, inescapably, colored and influenced by the frames through which we interpret different events” (Butler, 2010, p. 107). While Butler is speaking of state, we could expand that statement to include postmedia society in general through its many channels. None of us is immune to that framing of interpretation. Indeed, the word circulates within that frame, not despite it. And that is particularly true in schools, especially in schools located in slums beset by the aestheticization of suffering and the criminalization articulated by narration and conceptualization. That is the case because precarity is what needs to be measured in order to be conceived in scenes like the one where the student finds parallels between his life and the life of nomads. In other words, at stake is not contesting the rhetoric of slums by denying it but rather contributing to a knowledge that enables understanding, that broadens our thinking about the world. And that is what this video sets out to do.

And hence the possibility of positioning the subject in and from school goes from being a private and personal question to being a political and collective one as soon as it becomes an instance for the production of knowledge or of a space of citizenship. It becomes, then, a political word that finds in artistic and audiovisual production a space not to illustrate trauma, but to produce language, to produce words. The video is an assemblage of inquiry that attempts to work its way between the lines that make an experience happen not only but also in that trash dump narrated on tv. The schools inhabit that territory. Hence, when Nair remembers how, camera in hand at the age of thirteen, she said “we knew what we wanted to ask,” (see minute 1:30) she is remembering how she and her classmates contested the programs that turn the trash dump into a morbid set. What they knew was that they wanted not only to condemn that vision, but also, through small turns of the camera, stop being freaks, stop being a spectacle.

In the video, one first comes upon and then approaches that other, but not as other. Instead, one finds in that place of otherness multiplicity. The one and the multiple in action. Lives difficult to live that are, nonetheless, simply and marvelously lives (see minute 1:58-, 4:17). Young people, just thirteen years old, in that place, in school, compose, decide what to tell, what to show, what to say to offer us a complete and new image of what we already know. A new story that they show us as they speak. Images where life, friendship, flowers, fights and love, a child on a tricycle with a balloon, the open-air drainage ditch, and trash overlap and act as a bonus truck to research and education (see minute 5:24-).

4 By Way of a Sequel

Grappling with audiovisual narrative in school as pharmakon means delving into the folds in that narrative. This video-article problematizes the rhetoric of the slums (Arabindoo, 2011) by means of the audiovisual production of the young people who live and study in them. The video provides hints for possible pharmacological responses to the school-place and the potential of audiovisual media in an at least two-way turn. First, the mastery of facts is destabilized, which ushers in a denser and richer, as well as unromanticized, vision of the neighborhood. And that, in turn, enables modes of wording and thinking the world where precarity and the politics of trauma would mute them.

The production and circulation of the word are key to finding vanishing points in school and subterfuge in audiovisual narrative. We delve into the lines that couple the moment/space where the word withdraws such that its bridges to the world dissolve, on the one hand, and the images/words produced by the students that bloom amidst the silences that the urban experience confronts us with, on the other (Grinberg, 2013; Grinberg, 2023). As Arendt (1992) writes regarding Isak Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: When the storyteller is loyal […] to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence” (p. 83). Something of that is at play in this research: It attempts to produce a story and silences, to word spaces that might question postmedia infantilization and frames of interpretation (Butler, 2010), to challenge dominant narratives, here on the megacity and slums.

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” Arendt goes on (1992, p. 91). Audiovisual narrative in school can become an ally, a pharmakon, of a noncompliant pedagogy (Iwase and Bradley, 2021) insofar as it puts the word into circulation. The word, in contemporary societies, is more and more enmeshed in the image, and at play in its frames of interpretation is, as Sontag (2012) points out, a grammar and an ethics of vision. Word and image explain why people consume stories, both real and fictional, with such hunger—“they are,” as Hustvedt points out (2013) “at once drawn to and horrified by them.” A heap of memories, the author goes on, that have, since the eighteenth century, been based on unfortunate situations that must be overcome by an act of will or personal inspiration. The image adds dramatic flair to those stories, but it also brings a saturation that, as Sontag (2012) points out, has helped both to numb and to rouse our consciences—and a certain aestheticization of suffering comes along with that saturation. The industrialization of the image, first with photography and then with the mass media, has enabled the absorption and rational use of the image, as well as a certain rationalization of the world—and that rationalization is at play in how we see and see ourselves, how we account for the world and for ourselves.

Audiovisual production in school both requires and is capable of becoming an alternative route to explore other semantic possibilities, to generate narratives of life experiences that can only be put in words if mediated (Das, 2003). A knowledge, whether in the contexts in which that audiovisual material is produced or in which it is observed, an exercise based on the decentralization of the gaze in order to engage other discourse and visions also capable of becoming an active agent in the construction and reflection of that discourse. That is because “the manufactured image is also a product, a means of action, and a meaning” (Debray, 1994, p. 92). At stake is creating alongside students the possibility of coming upon other narrative modes, ones where the image can contribute not only to wording silences, but also to generating instances that offset how frames of interpretation affect the ways teachers and students grapple with and perceive, in this case, the life in the slums and in their schools. As we see in Nair’s reflection ten years after the fact, audiovisual production can help vindicate identity where the film archive frames struggles.

Work with audiovisual narration does not mean that, through their gaze, the teachers or researchers are the ones charged with building a discourse, with restoring lost coherence. The task, rather, is to enable a space for the word with an ethics of vision and an ethics of being its object. If we are lucky, it will also teach us other ways of looking in general and of looking at ourselves.

And that is how audiovisual production becomes collective assemblage. As Deleuze (2010) points out, Chatelet discovers “discourse’s great facility to make the inhumanity of man speak: Specific to discourse is inciting the process of its own rationalization, but only in a becoming under the pressure of certain motifs and thanks to certain events” (p. 22). This video-article draws some of the lines where, because of the affectation of the stories, a becoming ensues in that (un)folding where multiple faces, faces that are multifocal and juxtaposed, converge, faces that exceed and work their way between the binary logics and dichotomies of postmedia society. These are the images that often have the most to tell us about the slums. If there is nothing by rotting garbage in the neighborhood, if its inhabitants are presented as woeful, images of abjection seem almost inevitable. But when Nair and Daniela talk about life, about the life in their neighborhood, that reductive woefulness is harder to sustain. That is why, at thirteen, Nair wrote, “Everyone thinks that the Carcova is a toxic place, that the people who live there are freaks just because they are from there. But that’s not how it is. I am from there and I am not freaky. I am super cool.” (see minute 5:26-5:57). In that statement, she constructs and shows us another image/conception of the other.

In sum, and in closing, we are venturing modes of research, of knowledge production, and of pedagogical practice that circulate in the between spaces that neither negate nor attempt to redeem the other. Paraphrasing Stiegler (2011) machines do not frighten me insofar as they widen perception and multiply human behaviors. What does unsettle me is attempts to bring them down to the level of human stupidity. Audiovisual narratives in school can become a place to venture alternative and noncompliant paths into the uncanny without trying to save anyone. What those narratives offer, rather, is a place to grapple with the world, to ask ourselves how we have become who we are, and—chiefly—to question what we are being.

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1

This word stemming from the word carton, Spanish for cardboard, refers to the thousands of people who comb the streets of Buenos Aires and the trash dumps on its outskirts looking for food and recyclable materials.

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