I wanted push on a bit with Bayne’s “Academetron, automaton, phantom: uncanny digital pedagogies” article, if only to further experience the oddity (perhaps uncanny?) experience of speaking of our professor in the abstract. I took to the following quote as it fleshed out something that had been disjointed in my mind, namely the coupling of intellectual uncertainty and the blurring of fantasy and reality. This is expressed, and indeed probably most acutely experienced by myself and perhaps my fellow students, in the use of symbols and signs and how these assume a real importance. First the quote:

This crumbling away of material reality in favour of a ‘psychical reality’ (Freud 1919/2003) connects with the aspect of the uncanny which is to do with intellectual uncertainty, and the blurring of fantasy and reality. For Freud, ‘an uncanny effect often arises… when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolises’ (150). Kristeva (1991) expands on this aspect of the uncanny:

In other words, the sign is not experienced as arbitrary but assumes a real importance. As a consequence, the material reality that the sign was commonly supposed to point to crumbles away to the benefit of imagination, which is no more than ‘the over-accentuation of psychical reality in comparison with material reality’. (Kristeva 1991, 186)

Lets use a case study here. The University of Edinburgh. A physical place with physical tradition, years of history, and perceived as excellent in education. The symbol itself has become iconic for me, a representation of something I have experienced innately, emotionally, but have never “seen” with my own eyes. I have never been to Scotland physically, but have experienced it digitally. The emblem below takes on a certain significance digitally; it ceases to be arbitrary as it a tattoo of experience, of shared learning, of endless search and questioning.

For me at least, the physical reality that the above was supposed to point to has disappeared to the benefit of my own imagination of what the University of Edinburgh is, what it affords, what association I have with it. A certain psychical reality emerges, a construct of Edinburgh as not only a place, but a language, a culture, a pursuit, an embryonic amoebic orb of people, mediations, and knowledge. The symbols take on a greater meaning; they are indeed the signposts of institutional construction.

Does Edinburgh afford a sense of the uncanny? For myself, yes. I often feel adrift (positive), bewildered (positive) and have experienced numerous instances of deja vu, more than I can even remember. It is through this deja vu that sometimes I see boundaries appear, lines being delineated. And I wake to find those lines obliterated. It is learning, certainly, but that icon, that symbol above, lets me know that I am afforded some sanctuary in this uncanny realm. It is a beacon, divorced from its physical reality.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

2 thoughts on “The University of Edinburgh and the crumbling of physical realities”
  1. Great post Michael and I think your identification of ‘The University’ with a psychical over material reality is spot on. One of those things that is very exciting about ‘doing’ distance learning! I also love the way you use the logo as a way of thinking through the various shifts in signification among symbol, place, community and institution.

    I really like your post on the ‘many faces’ too, and thought you might like this comment that Tracy Swallow made during the last iteration of this course:

    “The lifestream is a response to this enigma of absence/presence. We become present through our streams. This is why I noted that the act of selecting gained for me a performative value. It represented my engagement. Initially I was concerned with populating my lifestream in order to prove I existed (and was doing valuable work), but as I grew more comfortable with it I allowed it to give voice to my absence.”

    It seems like a very posthuman and uncanny moment to me – allowing the machine to speak absence into a kind of presence – your comments reminded me of it.

    1. Thanks for this, Sian. Agreed about this being one of the advantages of elearning, that sense of the psychical construct over the material. That logo is very important to me, yet I have yet to articulate why. As a student, it is something to latch onto, but it evolves. The more I work through the course, the more I fully embed myself in Edinburgh.

      I like that comment from Tracy. Sometimes we say much more when we choose not to say anything at all. This works well in the Lifestream as a learning construct, but I find absence is not something that is encouraged online, especially in social media. We are rewarded for hyperactivity as opposed to careful reflection, pondering, speculation, internal thought processes. Our only option is to disengage, which is perceived as a retreat, even if a tactical one.

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