Part 4, Conclusion – The Hunger Games
I've defined critical literacy as the ability to both:
#1 observe, analyse, deconstruct a system (aka the observer’s perspective, from without), and
#2 engage with the system, complicitly but seeking agency.
Now then, The Hunger Games, in a long line of texts where the protagonist seeks an exit sign from a curated system.
The Hunger Games is a critical literacy lolly-shop. It is metacognitive bliss. It goes to the heart of reality and representation. Katniss Everdeen’s first-person journey switches frame and context throughout the series, each context deconstructed around dilemma-questions amounting to “In whose interest is it that I see reality this way?” aka “who is exploiting me here?” The actual Hunger Games at the centre of the books is a metaphor for the wider game being played across the districts and the Capitol.
The Hunger Games in The Hunger Games is, of course, no game at all, but a political apparatus. The distinction between 'game' and 'system' collapses. It is an invitation to the reader to deconstruct their own contexts, and ask “Whose game am I playing here?”
Hence my obsession with game-language being applied to schooling. Schooling is a system. Game-language helps us recognise systems as systems, drawing attention to artifice, implying the quesion: "How might this be redesigned?"
Collins’ grotesque portrayal of the media, especially reality TV, diagnoses Mode #2 disguised as Mode #1, i.e. I engage the media as if in the shoes of an outside observer, but am in fact, without knowing, complicit in a Mode #2 system. This is the worst possible scenario: I think I’m observing, but I’m participating. It may indeed be a critique of my very distinction between Mode #1 and #2.
For instance, refusing to play ball, is still playing ball on a wider playing field.
You can quit your job, and live in the desert in a shack, but this still constitutes a legitimate game move, employed by many others in the past, and many to come. It’s a clichéd move, not original at all. It amounts to participation, albeit with the illusion of pure Mode #1 detachment. Many escape strategies turn out not to be escape strategies. Observation is participation. Even not-observing is participation.
Katniss finds herself at the nexus of an epistemological and ontological crisis. Who is she? How does the system define her? She can't not participate. No neutral moves for her. A context she does not want is defining her. Her actions, and words, are repurposed by others, come to mean something new. What makes her such an interesting character is the messiness of her engagement with messy dystopic systems.
Superior to the mythic simplicity of the Twilight series in every way.
There are no easy answers, fortunately. Yet the books offer wisdom in the form of functional processes. I mean to say: practical wisdom. Some rough words I would put to these, from The Hunger Games, are:
- Watch out, someone’s playing you.
- Don’t get cocky about WHO is playing you, and why. You might be wrong.
- Even people who play the system are themselves played by the system.
- Suspect and deconstruct your own actions, even as you engage with them.
- Be prepared for frame-shifts, be ready to reinterpret your story-so-far based on new evidence.
- Above all: suspect ideologies that define in-groups and out-groups.
- Others are looking out for you. You’re blessed. Recognise this, it’s precious, at the heart of everything: acts of kindness, self-sacrifice for others.
- At your best you’re looking out for others in the same way.
- At your worst you’re complicit in systems that marginalise. Kindness between two individuals crosses all boundaries. Suspect the boundaries, embrace kindness.
I found the series surprising didactic, surprisingly direct with a surprisingly clear message, considering the utter ambiguity around Katniss’ navigation of systems. That is to say: the system is ambiguous, but the rules of engagement are straightforward, if painful: doubt, deconstruct, love.
Doubt, deconstruct, and love. We would do well to apply these lessons to schooling.
They feed into critical literacy. We’re not duped, but we don’t disconnect either. Or, we’re duped, but suspect that we’re duped, and look to minimise the harm. All this an antidote to hubris.
I think we need to be paranoid about getting duped. That's The Hunger Games: watch out, lest you become a pawn in someone else's game.
What to do, where to go from here?
I, for one, am explicitly and deliberately on the lookout for texts and mindsets that mesh Mode #1 and #2, and suggest this mode of engagement to others. Game based learning is one avenue: I play the game, but I am not the game. Texts like The Hunger Games are of great value at exploring what critical literacy looks like in action, in all its rawness.
For our own perception of school:
Meta-language is always helpful. Stand back, observe, analyse.
But afterwards, into the fray! There’s a system to reinvent, so let’s get cracking on it.
Beware the lessons of the French revolution (a sidetrack, a whole new post).
For our younglings:
We need to draw attention to the artificial nature of the school system, and teach kids to see beyond it. Gaming language provides an excellent way of doing this.
I'd love to think that many young people are intuitively 'wised-up' and become at least somewhat systems-literate by virtue of computer games, and texts like The Hunger Games. I wouldn't want to leave it to chance.
Teacher readers, I ask you as I ask myself: while we establish learning environments, do we also promote a second thread, a deconstruction process, to wise up our students to its arbitrary nature? They need Mode #1 as much as Mode #2. Do we teach them to flick between the two? They need Mode #2 as much as Mode #1 (we're not trying to breed smarmy Bachelor of Arts students here! Doers, not observers!)
Does this all sound too theoretical (I've did a B.A.)
What I mean is, when the teacher is in teacher mode, student in student mode, playing out their roles, locking horns, in the pressure-cooker classroom, dehumanised by a relic system of the industrial era, SNAP OUT OF IT. These are two human beings, who'd get along great in any other context. The snapping out happens via a shift into Mode #1 disinvestment. The shift can be as easy as a laugh. A moment of humour. But it can go much deeper than that. The de-fusion process can be embedded in business-as-usual.
Critical literacy for the win!