Thursday, 5 December 2013

In my virtual absence…

Hi everyone. Like yesterday, I'm not properly back online: too much to do. But I thought some of you might like to see some photos of Jack Zipes' public lecture here at the Dark Place on Monday. 

On the big day itself I was away giving a lecture to first year students at the University of Gloucestershire, on the Mabinogi, myth and post-realist readers. Before my bit, I joined them for a lecture on nationalism by an incredibly charismatic historian who started off with Braveheart in French (a 'slightly more historically accurate' story of feuding Normans led by Robert le Bruce and Henri Plantagenet, as he put it) and explored the origins and ideologies of nationalism with some panache. As much as I loved it, I did wonder how on earth I could follow such a performance. 

Thankfully, his lecture segued into mine beautifully, as I was talking about the translation, revival and retelling of ancient Welsh myths in new cultural conditions, particularly Alan Garner's wonderful and disturbing The Owl Service and Gwyneth Lewis's The Meat Tree, both retellings of the Blodeuwedd story (man cursed never to have a human wife makes a wife out of flowers; she winkles out of him the extraordinary conditions needed for him to die; attempts to kill him with her lover; he escapes by turning into an eagle; she's turned into an owl, which is why they sneak around at night and are objects of hatred in Welsh tradition). The students hadn't read The Meat Tree but had seen a translation of the Mabinogi version, and talked really intelligently and interestingly. We talked about imperialism, the Enlightenment, Freud, Jung, postmodernism, science fiction and devolution. I made some Star Trek references and raised some pitying laughs, which was kind of them. 

It was fascinating being at a different university. The students were a very different demographic, so it was a bit like being on holiday. Not better or worse, but different. And of course I didn't have to mark anything!

As soon as that was over, it was on to the train and back to the Dark Place for Zipes. Posters to replace, welcomes to arrange and I had to work out how to use a professional video camera. Not quite well enough, it turns out: I now have 30Gb of Jack Zipes as a silent movie. I still can't work out why the sound didn't work, but nor can my Broadcasting and Journalism colleague, so I'm only feeling disappointed rather than moronic. For a change. 

Crowds gather for Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes

Jack Zipes

Candi Miller, Jack Zipes

The lecture itself went really well. I think there were about 230 people in the 250 capacity hall, many of them from outside the university. The Vice-Chancellor welcomed Jack, the interpreters did their thing and Jack was fascinating. He spoke mostly about the Disneyfication of Red Riding Hood, showing multiple versions of the story by Disney and others, including some compelling independent productions. Largely based on classical Marxist analysis, the lecture ended with an attack on the way the rape at the heart of the story has been elided or silenced. This, Zipes concludes, mirrors the way sexual assault has been marginalised or denied in society itself. 

Here's one rather outré version, starring Betty Boop:

and this rather racy (not to say misogynist) version by Tex Avery:

After the lecture, we went off for a curry with Jack which was joyful too: he's a master raconteur with a lot of tales to tell. Eventually we parted and he wished us well for the next morning's strike. 

5 hours later I was dragging myself out of bed and on to the picket line. Considering the employers have unilaterally imposed their settlement, the turnout was pretty good. We spoke to students and handed out lots of leaflets, and soaked up the usual parade of abuse and lies from so-called colleagues. One Principal Lecturer claimed it was 'illegal' for PLs to strike, which was news to the PLs on the picket line with us. Another claimed that she couldn't strike because she had a cold, the logic of which defeated me. Yet another claimed that striking was impossible because there were children to feed - which rather misses the point that missing one day's pay for striking is nothing compared with a fifth real-terms pay cut in a row. Honestly, I prefer the honest opponents who crossed the line. At least one guy had the selfish honesty to say 'my pay isn't going down, I've had a promotion'. Solidarity, baby! But at least he didn't bullshit us, unlike the Vice-Chancellor who keeps sending emails claiming that 'the majority' wanted to work, and that we're 'moving forward positively', which might cut the mustard at a meeting of PR Bullshitters and Management Consultants Anonymous but means precisely nothing other than 'tough shit: more pay cuts ahoy!'. 

By this point, i.e. Tueaday lunchtime I was exhausted and cold. As an antidote, I headed off to a colleague's house to plan some new research which will take in Dr Who, Star Trek, Beards of Evil, Poe and Lacan, just for starters. It'll knock your socks off, I promise. Unless this is just stoner logic of course. 

Wednesday was another killer - two long sessions without a break. I was already feeling exhausted and slightly ill, but the students were so good that I felt thoroughly revived. In the Shakespeare class I gave them several sonnets with the lines jumbled up. All they had to do was use their knowledge of poetic form and of sonnet conceits and narrative to get them in the right order. Nobody was completely right, but they were pretty good. The last one I gave them was a bit of a favourite, Wendy Cope's 'Strugnell's Sonnets VI':

Let me not to the marriage of true swine
Admit impediments. With his big car
He's won your heart, and you have punctured mine.
I have no spare; henceforth I'll bear the scar.
Since women are not worth the booze you buy them
I dedicate myself to Higher Things.
If men deride and sneer, I shall defy them
And soar above Tulse Hill on poet's wings --
A brother to the thrush in Brockwell Park,
Whose song, though sometimes drowned by rock guitars,
Outlives their din. One day I'll make my mark,
Although I'm not from Ulster or from Mars,
And when I'm published in some classy mag
You'll rue the day you scarpered in his Jag.

The students liked it too, which cheered me up a lot. 

After that, it was straight into my Ethics and the Media class, focussing on social media. We looked at footballers' tweets, openness and privacy, Bentham and Foucault, sock-puppetry, online reputation management, honesty on dating sites (research shows people are comfortable about stretching the truth a fair way because they assume everyone else is doing the same) and Glenn Mulcaire. We toyed with the ethics of editing the university's Wikipedia page, and discussed why nobody would tell the class when they last had a poo. There was a reason for this:

‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’. - Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google

‘You already have zero privacy. Get over it’. - Scott G. McNealy CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc

All this was illustrated along the way by excerpts from The Circle, Dave Eggers' new novel. It is, like all of Eggers' works, written without any literary style whatsoever (the symbolism is astoundingly clunky) but it's packed with good ideas fairly carefully worked out. It's only a small step from the quotations above to the fictional CEOs of social media company The Circle saying things like this:
when thousands, or even millions, are watching, you perform your best self. You are cheerier, more positive, more polite, more generous, more inquisitive…Every day she’d done without things she didn’t want to want. Things she didn’t need…Anything immoderate would provoke a flurry of zings of concern, so she stayed within the bounds of moderation. And she found it freeing.
Mae is the central protagonist. At first resistant to the company's insistence on 100% surveillance, she is eventually converted and becomes an evangelist for the effect it has on the individual and society despite the increasingly oppressive demands on her to share every experience and constantly interact with others to build social capital.

It's an interesting novel not only for its exploration of the techno-utopians' ideology, but also for its fears about the nature of identity in a fully-integrated surveillance society. It is, quite literally, Foucauldian. Mae and others not only welcome surveillance, they internalise it. As Foucault points out in Panopticism, you don't need omniscient surveillance at this point, because the inmates act as if they're being watched at all times. This is where the conversation turned to the philosophy of ethics: we'd talked about the ethical responsibilities of social media companies and users, but the central question is this: is Mae acting ethically when she allows observation to dictate her behaviour, or is ethical choice impossible in this context? Her boss explains the new rules to her like this:
‘…my spouse said to me…I should behave as if there were a camera on me. As if she were watching…If I found myself alone in a room with a woman colleague, I would wonder, what would Karen think of this is she were watching…This would gently guide my behaviour, and it would prevent me from even approaching behaviour she wouldn’t like. It kept me honest.’
But did it? If the fear of getting caught is what keeps him honest, is he in fact honest? The utilitarian would say so, especially Bentham, but a Kantian would not: the motivation destroys the ethical nature of the act. The students definitely got the hang of this, and we had a really enjoyable discussion. The irony is of course that in-between reading this novel about the dissolution of the interior self under surveillance conditions (which is really a return to pre-Enlightenment, pre-psychology theories of the self, only with added consumer capitalism), I've been tweeting like mad on all sorts of matters. Now I feel guilty every time I tweet or share something, which is pretty inconvenient given that I do so about 347 times per day.

We finished with this clip of Glenn Mulcaire, News International's chief phone hacker. Going one step further than  Schmidt and McNealy, he has this to say about privacy: start at 1.13 in.

1 comment:

Sam said...

...Did someone say Poe?!