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Teaching and learning in the ‘network society’

Teaching at university in the early 21st century requires of lecturers that they take the “lifeworld” in which students live seriously. This lifeworld comprises what Manuel Castells (2010) calls the “Network Society” (see here) – a global society that has actualised an ever-expanding web or network of electronic means of information and communication. The fact that the latter has been the basis of transforming the very notions of space and time does not concern me here, but that our students live in the thick of this unprecedented communication hub is of decisive importance for successful, edifying teaching today.

This has nothing to do with being “Eurocentric”; anyone who believes that it does, does not understand the concept of globalisation. The latter implies that we live in an interconnected world, where everything is connected to everything else – not only ideas and political events, but ecological systems and subsystems as well. When 9/11 happened in the US in 2001, images of the passenger aircraft and the collapsing buildings were being transmitted around the world as the attacks unfolded, and the economic and military consequences were not slow in coming either.

Hence, when one adopts an interdisciplinary approach to teaching (and research), it does not matter whether one uses a novel by John Fowles or by South African author, Bessie Head, in conjunction with Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory. In both cases Lacan’s theory will enable one to understand aspects of the novels that other theories would not resonate with in the same manner. Besides, Lacan can be used in conjunction with an African thinker like Fanon. And when it comes to global awareness, one’s students are likely to be more aware of living in an interconnected, globalised (and still globalising) world than many of their teachers. Unless one keeps it in mind all the time, you are likely to experience far-reaching misunderstandings with your students.

What I mean is this: I have taught the philosophy of architecture to final-year students for many years, and while the question of reading prescribed texts and writing essays was not an issue in the 1980s, more recently it has become one. As one final-year class told me: “We are the video and DVD-generation; don’t ask us to read and write too much, please!” My response was to explain to them that, while working with images – as in design and in cinema – is exciting and imaginatively rewarding, there was something that images by themselves do not allow you to do the way verbal and written language does. The image is more conspicuously multi-vocal than words, although in principle the latter are multi-vocal too, especially in different contexts.

For example, a picture of a rose signifies in a different way from the word “rose”, because the manner in which its colour (red, pink, or black), shape (open or still as a bud) and condition (fresh or wilted) are depicted, points one’s interpretation of its meaning(s) in a certain direction. But the important point is that, without words at one’s disposal, you could not articulate such an interpretation in a critical, reflective manner. You might respond to the image of a wilted rose by producing one of a fresh-looking rose, but whether anyone would understand what you mean by this is another matter.

As I explained to the class, the written text is particularly powerful in this regard: when one is reading and a word or phrase catches your eye – either because it is unusual, or striking, or new, it forces one into reflective mode. You either have to look it up in a dictionary, or re-read the pages preceding its specific use, or reflect on its implications for the subject of the book you are reading; in other words, one might say that written texts have a “reflective moment” built into them, which is not the case with the unfolding image-sequences of film, which succeed one another along the “syntagmatic axis of sequential meaning” (meaning altered by “what follows what”) at such a rate that one usually only reflects on them afterwards, if at all.

This is the reason for doing both – reading as well as viewing images. The former provides the verbal and conceptual means that are indispensable for “distance” and critical, comparative reflection; the latter supplies holistic totalities at the level of the “paradigmatic axis of association” (meaning derived from “what belongs with what”) that one can grasp and assimilate at the level of the imagination. We live in an audio-visually dominated culture, but as university teachers that is no reason to give up on inculcating in students the ability to think critically on the plethora of images that inundate their senses every day.

Another way of teaching students to read critically without neglecting the realm of images, which they hold so dear, is to let them read a written text and show them a film based on it, followed by a discussion of the differences between the two experiences. In one instance I invited them to read the autobiographical novel, Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006), and then showed them the film based on the novel.

It was not difficult, via a discussion where I asked them questions such as, “What is the theme of the novel?” and “Does the film approach this theme in the same way?”, to get them to recognise that there was a world of difference between the two. The novel traces the difficult quest, on the part of a woman writer experiencing a painful divorce, for meaning in her life; the film ostensibly follows the same narrative trajectory, but with a crucial difference: it becomes the tale of a woman’s quest for a (new) man in her life (which is unfortunately often the case in Hollywood movies).

Needless to say, critical attention was given to the choice of actress for representing the writer, as well as to the different emphasis that was placed on events in the narrative as presented in the novel and film, respectively. Importantly, the difference between reading the novel and viewing the film also received extensive attention, with some satisfying results on the part of students regarding their increased comprehension of what is at stake.

One should remember, however, that it is not always the case that a movie based on a novel compares unfavourably with the literary work; there are many instances where the film turns out to be as outstanding a work of art as the novel, as is the case with the films that took as their point of departure Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient (1992) and Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962). What makes the difference is whether the directors of such films know cinema as medium well enough to make the most of its capacity, which differs fundamentally from that of literature. In the case of the two films mentioned here – directed by Anthony Minghella (1996) and Stanley Kubrick (1971), respectively – it is undoubtedly the case, judging by the finished product.

Instead of trying to “translate” the literary artwork into an audio-visual medium in a literal, one-to-one manner, these directors set out to find the iconic and auditory counterparts to the written literary signifiers, but without attempting to retain the exact sequential narrative structure. Even literary tropes such as metaphors and metonymies usually have to be replaced by image-configurations that convey the same idea, but in a way suited to the audio-visual medium, where a verbal description of a landscape is matched by a panoramic shot of such a landscape, for instance, making a voice-over description redundant.

There are therefore numerous ways in which one’s teaching can take the fact into account, that our students live in the “Network Society” – it simply takes some imagination on the part of the teacher.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Rory Short Rory Short 23 February 2015

    Thanks @Bert. As a past lecturer in Business Information Systems I really enjoyed this thought provoking post. My lecturing days were before the networked society really hit us but what you have to say of the comparison between visual story-telling and textual-story telling would have been as highly relevant then as it is now.

  2. Doom Doom 24 February 2015

    I find the comment about the DVD-generation very interesting, my interest emanates from the fact that I have always understand the emergence of the network society as a change in media. Where once upon a time people read books, they now have e-books, what has changed is the media not the content. I would have expected the so called DVD-generation to value portability and ease of use, think online newspapers.

    More interestingly the emerge of the network society has resulted in a massive increase in the amount of information at the disposal of people living in the network society, this information although visual is largely textual, think tweeter, facebook etc. Given this people living in a network society actually consume more information than people pre-information society. Is the issue than a question of quantity versus quality, does the network society provide its inhabitants with a large number of sound bites as opposed to meaningful information?

  3. Bert Bert 25 February 2015

    Thanks for the constructive comments, Rory and Doom. Regarding the glut of information, Doom, I believe you are right about the massive quantity of information available, and I believe this stands in inverse proportion to the amount that any individual can appropriate in an insightful manner. Sure, some can assimilate more than others, but no one, within the waking hours of a day, can do justice to the excess floating in cyberspace. My own way of dealing with it is to be selective across a spectrum of things that interests me. Besides, information is not yet knowledge; it is up to every person whether she or he makes the available information their ‘own’ by actively interpreting it with a view to understanding.

  4. Anton Anton 26 February 2015

    Thanks for your interesting post, Bert. There is much I agree with but I also disagree with some aspects of what you say. I have two problems with your argument that the visual is “holistic” but discourages reflection, whereas the written provides critical and comparative distance. Firstly, you seem to me to conflate a particular mode of image construction and consumption (roughly, TV, mainstream cinema) with the nature of image itself. There are a good number of film makers who have successfully made images and sequences of images that are critical (Jean-Luc Godard, Bela Tarr – to name just two very diferent filmmakers) and who have struggled against the power of the commodified “syntagmatic” images you draw attention to. Secondly, you seem to counterpose this frequently banal and conventional image making to a particular mode of reading (roughly, the highbrow novel) and conveniently avoid the fact that most written (and spoken) language we encounter is not critical but an endless regurgitation of what Flaubert had famously called “current received ideas.” To me this suggests that the task of education in the network society is not to revive the age-old suspicion of images (remember the 2nd commandment is an injunction against graven images!), but to find ways to understand and extend the possibilities of critical image making beyond the conventional images of film and TV which are, ironically enough, usually banal and uncritical because they are made overly subservient to linguistic structures like narrative.

  5. Bernpm Bernpm 28 February 2015

    Recently I had the pleasure to listen to a radio discussion on the difference between “learning” using the ipod/computer technology and the classic paper methods.
    Students and lecturers both argued that the “paper method” gave better support to memorizing the material as it offered the student more interlinks between the various parts of the material to be memorized.
    Benefits mentioned: reference to the books used remained and were better anchored in the memory. A little difference in priority between Alpha an Beta students was mentioned with Alpha students being a little more prone to paper than the Beta students.
    With the Education dept in SA seemingly to have been sold on the use of Ipods in high schools (going paperless) I wonder if the experts in the Department have considered the above,

  6. Bert Bert 2 March 2015

    Anton – Thank you for that informed response, which makes a number of points I am in agreement with, despite having given the impression that I am not. I certainly do not ever, in my teaching or writing, cast suspicion on the image – I love painting and cinema far too much to do that. But at the same time I respect the irreducible differences between image and word, for example those brought forward by both Jean-Luc Nancy and Lacan in their respective phenomenologies of the image. In both cases what emerges is that images are, by virtue of being images, desirable, and in Lacan’s case this points to the function of the image as a locus of identification, with all the “imaginary” potential this has for ideology. The image as such, and in this specific sense, does not have “built into it”, as it were, the same critical dimension that language possesses by virtue of the fact that every signifier is connected to an indefinite number of other signifiers (or signifieds, if you will, which again function as signifiers). This does not mean that filmmakers cannot treat the cinematic (or photographic) image in a “critical”, reflection-inducing manner – the directors you mention have done precisely that, and one could add other names to them, including Kieslowski (think of his Decalogue), Fellini (think of the fantasy slide-sequence in City of Women) and Tornatore (think of Cinema Paradiso), where the way in which paradigmatically functioning images follow one another syntagmatically encourages critical reflection on the part of the viewer.
    Similarly, I did not have in mind the highbrow novel only as a model for texts to be read; reading as such encourages critical reflection, as discourse analysis – which can be carried out regarding Salman Rushdie’s or Ondaatje’s novels, but just as easily of the mission statements of universities (which are easily unmasked as ideological), or of articles in tabloid newspapers – demonstrates. It is ultimately a filmmaker or photographer’s treatment of images that is decisive for the question, whether it is “critical” or not.

  7. Anton Anton 2 March 2015

    Hi Bert. I know full well that you have read (and understood) far more Lacan etc. than I have! Still, what bothers me here is defining the opposition between images and language in such an ahistorical way. Firstly, even if the “irreducible difference” between word and image is as you describe it, that hardly matters if, as you say, the image can in practice also be deployed in a critical fashion (or, conversely, language can be used with no attention to its “built in” critical dimension). But I also fear that the ahistorical phenemenology you invoke puts us at risk of misunderstanding the emerging of new media regime of the networked, digital word/ image. It is just possible that the digital media are ushering in as big a change as did the invention of writing, and I believe we would be well advised to pay close attention to the structure of this new medium. Like Stiegler, I don’t believe that human being can be adequately described without paying proper attention to the material history of the technologies that have been deployed to support and extend that humanness.

  8. Bert Bert 3 March 2015

    Anton – Thanks again; regarding phenomenology, it need not be a-historical, as Husserl’s tended to be; the radicalization of phenomenology is precisely what thinkers like Stiegler and Castells render. One has to be faithful to what is different in every era, including the present one, indeed. But what that draws attention to is sometimes something even more disturbing than the ideological potential of the easy-to-identify-with cinematic image; Castells, for example, is sensitive to the embeddedness of images, today (which include digital images), in the “space of flows” – the dominant spatial mode that alienates humans from the indispensable “space of places”, and perhaps more disturbingly, from “glacial (geological) time” and sequential time. Baudrillard, Germain and Virilio go even further by pointing out that images produced in cyberspace are “unreal”, that is, incompatible with the concrete life-world, although, paradoxically, they are rapidly becoming a new life-world, but one increasingly removed from the earth. Luckily these are not the only kind of images around, and while I also believe that we should take note of what is happening historically and materially, some of what is happening is quite disturbing.

  9. Maria Maria 3 November 2015

    Words versus images? “Everything on the stage is a sign” (Veltruský [1940]) – or a trace/spoor in Derrida’s terms (or more precisely, in a term he found used abundantly in both philosophy and the physical sciences … very telling …).

    But, the abstract word is less dogmatic and more writerly (à la Barthes) – it allows the reader more “freedom of speech”, more space to form/make his/her own images. I.e. it requires a less lazy and more creative reader, a reader who can use his/her own mind, a courageous reader. I quote a piece I’ve quoted before in a discussion about the illustration of poetry – it is by Amanda McKinlay, from her essay “Art for Art’s Sake: The Illustrated Poem”:


    The idea of illustrating poems seems almost ludicrous. A poem’s ambiguity can be its greatest asset – even Carl Sandburg does not expect to fully understand his own poetry. Poetry is about the word, the sound, the “search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable” (Sandburg). Nevertheless, illustrators of children’s picture poetry books presume to know.

    “I know the ‘Jabberwocky’,” said Megan, eleven, when I pulled Graeme Base’s illustrated version of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” out of my bag. “Our teacher told it to us from his memory.”

    “What is a jabberwocky?” I asked.

    “Our teacher made us draw what we thought it looked like. Mine was part lion and part dragon. But I don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like.”

    Megan took the book from me and flipped through the pages. “Oh, now I know. I guess I was wrong.”

    Children who read illustrated poems accept the illustrator’s interpretations as factual representations of the poem’s words. Hence, they may have “trouble overriding an interpretation that was imposed on them” (MacDonald). Graeme Base explains that his illustrations are the fulfillment of a “long-cherished ambition to illustrate this highly evocative poem.” Indeed, a “highly evocative poem” such as “Jabberwocky” does stimulate wild images within the imagination. Unfortunately, Base’s ambition to bring his pictures to children robs these children of the opportunity to experience the highly evocative poem that so enchanted Base. Even after I explained to Megan that no one really knows what a jabberwocky looks like, Megan still felt that her interpretation was incorrect.

    Base’s Jabberwocky is an example of a picture book that uses poetry as a showcase for an artist’s work. Pictures completely dominate the text; their excessive detail leaves nothing to the imagination. Stretching the seven-stanza poem across thirty-two pages also detracts from the rhythm of the poetry, which is often one of the most engaging elements of a poem. Illustrations compete with a poem’s rhythm: the poem “begs readers to continue while the illustration tempts him to linger” (MacDonald). Charles Keeping’s interpretation of Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman errs foremost in this way.


    Television and a lack of oral storytelling may have altered the way in which our children’s minds work. Librarians, educators, and parents have the opportunity to revive the power of the spoken word, and thereby revive the imagination. “We pass the word around […] we read poetry; we meditate over the literature […]; we reach an understanding. Society evolves this way” (Thomas). Let children originate their own images. Let children meditate. Let us “make a commitment to the power of the word and to renew our trust in childrens ability to be moved by that power alone” (MacDonald).”


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