Military Mashups: Remixing Literacy Practices

Script for the Videos

Overview. Overlooking Kikar Rabin, the square in central Tel Aviv where the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I feel the apartment shake from the sound of traffic and construction crews at work assembling tents, plastic chairs, wooden platforms, and metal scaffolding in preparation for one of a seemingly endless series of political rallies, fairs, festivals, celebrations, and commemorations that take place on a weekly basis. This continual assembly and disassembly are the processes of a state under continual reconstruction. The myriad of groups that flow through this square are part of wider social, cultural, and political flows or scapes—as Appadurai (1996) refers to them—embodied in everyday mundane and routine practices within Israeli society. The political rally here, for instance, is a protest against the handling of the Lebanon war in 2006 after the release of the Winograd report finding fault with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The banner in the background says “failure” in Hebrew and reflects a wide spread sense of frustration at the failure of the government over the wider political situation (and at this particular time Olmert’s approval rating had actually reached zero percent). One image that epitomized this failure was defense minister Amir Peretz’s inspection of troops on the Golan Heights through binoculars with the lens caps still on. In this presentation, I wish to take the lens caps off (so to speak) to examine the ways that the military and security situation in Israel are deeply woven into the fabric of the society. More specifically, I wish to examine the ways that the military is woven into popular culture, the high-tech industry, and a language learning classroom. In doing this work, I draw on and contribute to work in multilingualism where there has been attention to code switching, code mixing, and code meshing. In this research, I extend this work by taking up the term mashup from the Web 2.0 community to study what I refer to as code mashing or the complex blending of multilingual and multimodal literacy practices across global contexts.

Popular Culture. In this section, I wish to begin by examining the ways that the military is mashed into popular culture within Israeli society. Useful for understanding this process is what Hawisher, Selfe, Guo, and Lu (2006) refer to as a cultural ecology. Taking up this concept, I examine the ways that the military is a complex constellation of factors mashed into everyday literacy practices. We can find this blending in the Tel Aviv train station terminal where soldiers routinely travel back and forth between their military bases and their homes. Evidence of this mashing is found on advertisements strategically placed through the station. In the first example, we find two images side by side: a kitchen colander and an upside-down military helmet. These two images placed side-by-side reflect the ways that these segments of life are aligned in everyday and routine contexts within Israeli society. We can furthermore find parallels in the language itself, which translates as “over the oven range” and “at the shooting range.” In this manner, we can begin to see the ways that the military is deeply woven into everyday contexts as images and texts are taken up, resisted, and transformed in process that Daniel Lefkowitz in his book Words and Stones refers to as an “ongoing spiral negotiation” (p. 211).

Taking another look at the ways that the military is deeply mashed into text and image in which we similarly find two images juxtaposed side-by-side: The first is an image of a pencil with a sharpened tip positioned alongside a picture of a bullet with a sharpened tip. There are once again parallels in the language, which translates as “in a commando unit” or “in a bureaucratic unit” (neyeret). [In Hebrew, the word neeyret also refers to “red tape.”] With this information, we can begin to understand the contrast between a “pencil pusher” and an elite commando. In this manner, we can (literally) see the ways that the military is blended into the national imag(e)ination. The narrative is that in Israel one can always be reached not matter what the situation, whether battling bureaucracy or terrorists. In this manner we see a complex mashing of different spheres of activity.

The Rhetoric of the Military and High-Tech in Israeli Society. Central to the collective identity and national imagination is the symbol of a small, agile commando unit. In Sherry Ortner’s (1972) terms one might understand this image as a key symbol in Israeli society. More recently, however, with the rapid growth of the high-tech industry, this symbol is being replaced—or more accurately transformed—as the new warriors are those of high-tech, battling in a global marketplace and helping to put Israel on the map. During the last twenty years in Israel the high-tech industry has grown exponentially, now accounting for nearly half of all Israeli exports. To provide an even better sense of the size of the industry, there are more high-tech start-up companies in Israel than any other place in the world, other than the United States, and more start-up companies relative to the size of its population than any other place in the world.

To locate the links between high-tech and the military one does not need to look far to find stories of successful high-tech companies that have been started by army buddies. One of the most famous is of two friends in military intelligence who started a software security company called Check Point that at one point became the highest traded company on the NASDAQ. The word checkpoint itself indexes not only software security but also the checkpoints along Israel’s borders.

In another well known story that has become part of the national narrative, four army buddies started the online chat program called ICQ, which was purchased in 1998 by America Online for $287 million dollars. This story became ingrained in the national imagination and inspired a television show called mesudarim or “we are set.” These shifts in the national narratives are also mashed into everyday mundane and routine literate practices in the high-tech industry.

Turning to the website of the web design company Networld, which designs websites and online applications for the high-tech industry, one can see the ways that the military is blended into text and image. Perhaps most notable on this site is a picture of a commando unit as the image used for a small start-up team. In this case, the instruments of power have been replaced with a megaphone, pencil, and a wrench. One, furthermore, finds the military blended into the language itself, with words such as megeyes, which means "to draft." In this case megeyes refers to the recruitment of employees, but the term also refers to the recruitment or drafting of soldiers in the military. One can find further references to the military with the Hebrew word gibush used three times in the text. The word itself means unification or crystallization and describes the process of group bonding. Similar to the chemical bonding process in crystallization, gibush refers to the formation of a concrete, durable bond or the cementing (and continual reinforcement) of relationships. Widely deployed in the military, one can see this language deployed on the website itself with references to a cohesive start-up team and crystallized group of experts. In this manner, we can begin to glimpse the ways that the military shapes and is shaped by workplace practices. In the sections that follow, I wish to examine the ways that gibush is manifested in everyday mundane and routine literate practices across another context, the writing classroom.

Classroom 1. In order to examine the ways the military, as well as a constellation of other factors, is mashed into situated practices I return to the concept of “gibush.” Discussing this concept in a study of the Israeli solider, Reuven Gal argues that the prevalence of “gibush” is not just from the military; above all it reflects educational and societal values in Israel, not only in the kibbutz but also in cities and townships. Critically, he turns to the Israeli school system where gibush is promoted, and indeed it is common to hear the phrase “kita megushet” or cohesive class. In this manner, we can begin to glimpse the ways the military is mashed into a constellation of institutional, national, and cultural ecologies. To examine this complex mashing I turn to an English teacher training program at a college, Seminar Hakibbutzim, located in the northern district of Ramat Aviv. It is worthwhile noting that most of the students in this program have served in the military, and in fact many were first exposed as teachers and trainers in the army. For this reason and for others, the military serves as a powerful socializing force mashed into everyday classroom activities. Additionally, we find evidence of other types of mashing pointing to the ways that the military is bound up in wider cultural ecologies. This includes the name of the college itself: Seminar Hakibbutzim indexing the socialist ideals of the kibbutz. One finds further mashing on a sign posted outside the gated entrance to the college with the slogan that reads “a symbol or sign that you are exceptional.” This language points to the infiltration of American ideologies, “believe in yourself,” and “you are the best." Despite this influence, the ideals of the collective are still alive and well.

To examine this mashing we turn to a scene in a writing classroom at the college. The scene here is a final in-class essay for a composition course taken by a cohort of students. This in-class writing assignment was designed in response at least in part to plagiarism at the school as in-class writing ensured that students did their own work. This rationale highlights the social nature of the writing activities and ways they were deeply bound up in gibush. The in-class mini-research paper, as it was called, was the culmination of the semester in which the students had prepared materials to write in response to a prompt during the day of class. Students then composed with their notes, research articles, textbooks, highlighters, pencils, pens, papers, electronic dictionaries, Wite-out™, and other materials. These objects all formed what Clay Spinuzzi (2002) calls a genre ecology. These ecologies were furthermore mashed into wider national and global ecologies with connections to the military. Turning to the in-class writing, I will examine the ways that these ecologies were mashed into gibush and then turn more explicitly to the ways that the military is woven in this process. Key to these interactions is the rapid and multidirectional nature of the exchanges mediating the activity.

In this particular scene we find four students sitting in a row, with the student closest to the camera, Tal, engaged in the process of writing her exam. In the opening scene, for instance, we find Chen reaching over to Tal threes time to take an eraser, marker, and finally electronic dictionary, as Chen repeatedly reaches across to Tal. This reaching across signifies not only the collective sense of ownership over the objects but also the sense of shared personal space.

These exchanges are furthermore reciprocal and multidirectional, as we see Tal reach over for an eraser from Chen and then return it. The speed with which these actions occur is important, as it reinforces the continual sense of contact among the students, contributing to gibush.

– There are furthermore not only physical exchanges, but also verbal ones, as we see here, as Chen reaches over to take an eraser, while Tal in return turns to Chen to make a side comment.

– Once again, the positioning of objects is also significant. Here the dictionary is placed in the middle of the two women, so, in fact, we are not able to tell to whom the dictionary belongs.

– The multidirectional nature of the exchanges furthermore extends to other students. Here Chen takes a paper dictionary from Adir, to her right, while Tal simultaneously takes an electronic dictionary from Chen. These multiple points of exchange and contact reinforce the sense of gibush in the classroom.

– There are also written exchanges. In this case Tal takes Chen’s pen and writes on her paper. We can see the sense of shared ownership here, as Tal (in essence) appropriates Chen’s materials.

– Gesture, gaze, and bodily positioning are also critical. Here Chen looks at Tal.

– Then Tal makes a gesture towards Chen and then back towards herself, pointing to the connections between them.

– We again see Tal writing on Chen’s paper and then returning an electronic dictionary.

– We can finally see the wide extent and range of these exchanges (both official and unofficial) with the passing of a cake moving from person to person. This is similar to the way that discourse itself functions, and it is useful here to draw on Bakhtin’s (1986) concept of an utterance as “a link in the chain of speech communication” (p. 91). In this manner, we can see the ways these exchanges shape the flow--or recontextualization--of discourse as well as the connections among the student ‘body.’ Significantly, Tal turns towards the camera frame to offer me a piece of cake, and in this way I myself as a participant-observer am brought into the frame and made part of the gibush. In this manner, we can see the ways that wider ideologies are mashed into everyday literacy practices.

Classroom II. At Seminar Hakibbutzim this informal system of material and linguistic exchanges furthermore shaped and were shaped by the reading, writing, speaking, and literacy practices of the students inside and outside the walls of the classroom. In preparation for this exam, for instance, there was frequent sharing among the students of articles, notes, anxieties, and ideas about the exam itself, with many of the exchanges taking place on MSN Instant Messenger in libraries, homes, workplaces, and community contexts. In this manner, we can begin to see the mashing of virtual and physical spaces with many of the processes in the classroom—such as the rapid and multidirectional nature of the exchanges—recontextualized (or remediated) into an online environment. In these online exchanges, we can furthermore glimpse the ways in which wider social structures such as the military were remixed and mashed into everyday contexts and the literate practices of the students.

For instance, in line 1 of this exchange, Dana has the women “count off” in order to confirm who will be visiting Tal’s house. In addressing the other women she authoritatively says, “Ladies,” and then includes ritual insults when they do not respond, as she says “Nu, [the equivalent of well] am I speaking to stones ” (line 5). These count-offs are done by officers in the army to make sure everyone is accounted for in the unit. It is probably not coincidental that as the oldest member of the group Dana assumes this role.

In the next entry, we again see the military indexed as one of the students comments on the “baligan” or mess created by the large number of participants in the chat, again pointing to the collective and social nature of the class. As a result of the confusion, one of the women, BeAna, in line 8 initiates a “bidkat kesher” or connections check, a military term referring to a general procedure for checking radio communications. In this manner, we can see the women keeping track of each other, making sure that everyone is present and accounted for.

We can finally see how other social and political contexts filter into the conversation, such as when Dew, who is hosting the women’s gathering at her home, suggests that she should contribute something. In response another of the women, Dana, suggests that this is not necessary because they are already mitnaxlot or “settling” in her house. This word refers to settlements in the occupied territories and is used in this scenario as a way to suggest the women are occupying or taking over Dew’s house.

I conclude this presentation by turning to the book Worlds Apart, in which Dias, Freedman, Medway, and Paré discuss writing in the workplace and classroom as two different spheres of activity, and while I would not dispute the differences between school and workplace writing, it is also important to acknowledge the similarities. In other words, instead of conceptualizing these worlds as discrete spheres of activity, we need to attend to intersections and links among them with the recognition that spaces are fluid, dynamic, heterogeneous, emergent, and co-constituted by the participants. In this manner, we can trace the ways that wider cultural, national, and global ecologies filter into everyday literate activity across contexts. Attending to these issues, we can see the ways that wider institutional, cultural, and national spheres—such as the rhetorics of the military—are mashed into everyday reading, writing, speaking, and design. I wish to emphasize that these rhetorics are not conceptualized as static or bounded, but rather as dialogic, dynamic, contested, and co-constituted by the participants. In this manner, we might understand the rhetorics of the military as stabilized-for-now formations that are part of an ongoing negotiation of the construction of national identities and everyday literacy practices. More broadly this presentation has been an argument for attending to the mashing between multilingual and multimodal literacy practices across institutional, national, and global contexts.



by Steven Fraiberg