Friday, 28 March 2014

What a long strange week it's been

No huge long post with political and cultural insights today. I'm far too tired for that kind of caper, it having been one of the busiest and most interesting weeks I've had in a while.

On Monday, I ran the last class for the third years on Jilly Cooper's Riders, an awful but simultaneously fascinating book. Here's a brief and representatively excruciating clip from the subsequent TV adaptation:



The author strings words together efficiently enough to get from sentence to sentence, but there's no pleasure involved for us or, it seems, for her. The plot is risible, the characterisation would shame a Punch and Judy man and even the vaunted sex scenes are both embarrassing and less arousing than Cooper's reputation suggests. Nevertheless, it's a key text in the development of libertarian-feminist emancipation. Written in the 70s and published in the 80s, Riders makes strenuous efforts to get its readers to hate feminists (Hilary is a vegetarian, smelly, non-shaving, breastfeeding harridan with a wet husband who even cooks and cleans, but she transforms into a Real Woman once the aristocratic hero hits her, then they have sex: she's cured) while promoting a degree of sexual liberation.

This year, we also discussed readership and the social status of readers of popular fiction, particularly romance. One student was told off by a total stranger for reading such filth, while other said that their mothers were surprised that the things they read in the 80s were now officially sanctioned by a university. We talked about reading romance as a way to escape the demands on its mostly female readers by patriarchal society - so there is a feminist reading of Riders, which would annoy Jilly Cooper considerably.

Tuesday's highlight was our class on Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. It's one of the best books I have ever read. Written in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness, it tells the short and sad story of a young woman growing up in a fractured Irish family, alongside her brain-damaged brother, fundamentalist Catholic mother and various other characters. It draws on Beckett, Yeats, Joyce, Irish mythology, misery memoirs and a host of other influences, while unsettling generic and literary conventions throughout. The unnamed protagonist first has sex with her uncle at thirteen, and continues to do so throughout her life, as well as pursuing a series of increasingly violent sexual encounters with random men. McBride avoids the clichés of the field by never allowing the reader to define the protagonist. At times, she sees the uncle as abusive: at others the girl, then woman, seems in charge, even at 13. Her sexuality is formed by the need to differentiate herself from her brother (whose disabilities exclude him from social structures to his frustration and occasional relief) and from her mother. The central conundrum is that her means of defining and projecting herself are so self-destructive, particularly her sex life. She almost never enjoys sex. Instead, it brings her power (temporarily) and then relief ('I am sedated, she once says).

It's written similarly to Ulysses: completely from the disoriented and disorienting perspective of our damaged protagonist. For McBride, the neat and ordered language of realism can't bear the weight of experience. Here's a prime slice of the novel. If sexual violence is a trigger for you, skip this bit.

Dragging by the gruaig. He is I know. Across the stone my legs to flitters when you pulled me up the stairs. Breath. My eyes I can’t. Full of my own hair. Screaming. Shut up. Is that me I am I. I think. There’s a my body he push back. I’m. Fling rubbish thrown I am am I I. Falt. Where until I crack. Break my. Face. Head. Something. Smash. On a stump. Where on the back of my head on the back of my back my back crack that’s my eyes fucking up with tears. Scare me. Punch me there fright. Stop stop it you are who are I do I don’t want. I want to. Not this I don’t not for me what he will. You. Jesus. Got. Jesus on his knees pull me up pull me. Fuck. Not. Fuck not. Help. Grab me. Fingers of my skin. With his filth hands I hear. All the sounds tonight. Raddle fuck in my head. Tonight I hands up my. Knickers up my. Hurt. Not me Jesus. His nails too sharp are you. Did that. Did I make. Stop. Don’t don’t. I changed my. Jesus he. Not. No. Jesus me. Rips the I think dig them through my leg he. Spread fucking open up you sick fucking stupid bitch want the fuck you just like this I. Kick the kick. My heels dragging blood through the muck. Want to catch to prise to lift me. Save. Off off him fuck off me off me. He’ll. Pulls me up away. Kill. Me. Rake my hands I fingers in the dirt in the stones up my fingernails. Stones powder clawing them to. No. Get off. They’re off fuck knickers off. Fuck. Whore. You. He pulls like mad I I. Hear the sound. That fly. Zipping. Fuck out. Spring it out. Thighs in claws I vice. Rip m open. I make this. I make this. Undone he push my face hye pusk my head. My eyes flat of his hand. In the skull my. In the muck my crown of stones. Don’t break me open face open. Crushing I hear boines on done he up me fuck me. Smeeling he I don’t not do this I a don’t know he’s fuck me. Stucks the fck the thing in. Me. In. Jesus. I nme. Go. Away. Breeting. Skitch. Hear the way he. Sloows. Hurts m. Jesus skreamtheway he. Doos the fuck the fuckink slatch in me. Scream. Kracks. Done fuk me open he dine done on me. Done done Til he hye happy fucky shoves upo comes ui. Kom shitting ut h mith fking kmg I’m fking cmin up you. Retch I. Retch I. Dinneradntea I choke mny. Up my. Thrtoat I. He come hecomehe. More. Slash the fuck the rank the sick up me sick up he and sticks his fingers in my mouth. Piull my mth he pull m mouth with him fingers pull the side of my mouth til I no. Stop that fuck and rip. Scin. Stop heeel. Tear my mouth. Garble lotof. Don’t I come all mouth of blood of choking of he there bitch there bithc there there stranlge me strangle how you like it how you think it is fun grouged breth sacld my lungs til I. Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me air. Soon I’n dead I’m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look. And I breath. And I breath my. I make. You like those feelings do you now. Thanks to your uncle for that like the best fuck I ever had. HoCk SPIT me. Kicks. uPshes me over. With his brown boot foot. WitK the soLe of it on my stomik. Ver. Coughing my. Y hard. He. Into the ditch roll in gully to the side. Roll. I roll. For it. He. Turn on the. I. Hear his zip. Thanks for fuck you thanks for that I. hear his walking crunching. Foot foot. Go. Him Away. 

The novel's shot through with watery references, so it was no surprise to me that the protagonist drowns herself when her brother dies young, though some of the students weren't expecting it. Some of them hadn't finished reading it either (we have another week on it). It's hard to know what to do about 'spoilers' when teaching, but given this novel's modernist/postmodernist qualities, plot is hardly the central concern, so I don't feel too bad. Instead, we talked about its Irishness, about postmodern concepts of the Self (decentred, socially constructed, unstable), about Foucault, Butler and Kristeva. Perhaps a little too much for first-years but we'll reinforce it in future modules. I have visions of them turning up to Critical Theory next year and greeting each new theory with 'Done it!'.

I've rarely seen students so enthusiastic about a novel, particularly a text so difficult to read as this one. I'm going to keep it on the syllabus for a very long time to come.

Wednesday was the final seminar on Paradise Lost. Attendance is gradually declining as essays loom on the horizon, but they're a likeable lot and it's great to see how confident they've become when Milton terrified many of them a few months ago. We always get a few people deciding to write dissertations on his work, so we're obviously getting something right. I went fencing that night too: it was one of those evenings when things just worked, and I beat even the bright young stars despite being none of those things.

Yesterday was utterly gruelling. First off, office hours, followed by a two-hour student-staff meeting during which we went through the modules discussing what was working and what wasn't. Only a few students turned up, which was a shame, but those who did had plenty to say, positive and negative. I can't imagine that I'd have had the courage at their age, so I rather admire them. Then I nipped down to see my colleague who had a stroke. 8 months on and he still can't speak or move, which is utterly depressing. We were able to show him the proofs of his new book on Victorian spin doctoring and he responded enthusiastically. It's an excellent book and I recommend it to you all.

Finally, it was off to the Board of Governors: 3 hours of close scrutiny. There are some exciting things going on, and some less exciting things. I remain resolutely unimpressed by the government's total absence of education policy: vicious and evil as their instincts are, I'd rather they had a plan than a void. There's a lot of stuff I obviously can't tell you about, some of which is brilliant, but I can tell you that you can't trust management when it comes to industrial action (imagine my shock). According to them, between 23 and 16 people took industrial action recently. The technical word for those figures is 'bollocks'. We had more people than that on the picket line, let alone those who stayed at home quietly withdrawing their labour.

Marking today (as every day), but Friday started well when I secured 4 tickets to see Kate Bush in September. I'm presenting a paper on Dr Who and Star Trek on the same day, so I reckon I can construct a costume which won't look out of place at either event. I also got the beautiful new vinyl LP by The Nightingales and the Bullet For Gove t-shirt marking the lead track, which I'll wear with pride.

Because the Gales and Kate Bush would both hate it, here's a song by a band I'd never listened to before, and never will again: Quicksilver Messenger Service. They're largely forgotten, and rightly so: this is so inoffensive I can't remember a note of it 3 minutes after playing it.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

He's in the brewery: what can he organise?

What shall we do, said the Tory adviser. We tried to cosy up to the plebs by marketing tax breaks for gambling and brewing companies as a little tip for them:


and it didn't really work because everyone found it patronising. What we need is to get the Chancellor into a pub, enjoying a decent pint of beer with the proletariat. Like this:


On second thoughts, perhaps not. People don't seem to warm to George. Let's arrange a date in a pro-Tory brewery's tap bar so there aren't any inconvenient members of the public to cause any unpleasantness. Better still, let's hold it in a marginal constituency to give the cannon fodder a boost. 

And lo! It came to pass that we lucky punters were blessed with a painfully awkward photograph of the Worst. Date. Ever. 


There. Doesn't Paul Uppal look beatific. And as for George: well, there's a man who likes nothing better than to settle the whippet at his feet, loosen his cufflinks and sup up a refreshing pint of the working-man's brew. Honestly, he looks like a hawk that's spotted a mouse, or an Action Man having his eyes toggled by some unseen child, or just like a man who can't quite manage to make his face do what the PR man says it should.

What a shame that the symbolism doesn't quite work: usually it's the banks taking the piss out of him,  but now he's managed to extract a pint from Banks's, the beer that tastes of…

Monday, 24 March 2014

Particularly against books, the Home Secretary is…

I see Chris Grayling has added books to the list of things people aren't allowed to send prisoners. The list also includes underwear, magazines, 'small items' and birthday cards made by children.

There's a word for this kind of thing. I just invented it: it's 'Mailbait', which covers the kind of political wheeze that pleases Richard Littlejohn, Paul Dacre and their readers, while actually causing social problems further down the line. Book-banning is one of them. Prisoners often spend 16 hours in their cells. Deprived of books, all they have left to do is masturbate, fashion illicit weaponry or – joking aside – get depressed and angry, which is hardly conducive to rehabilitation. I'd understand if prisoners were being sent The Anarchist's Cookbook, the illustrated The Great Escape and Mad Frankie Fraser's autobiography, but a blanket ban on the things which might turn a recidivist into an engaged member of society is just the kind of petty revenge that the current government specialises in. Seriously: no birthday cards? That's really going to help rehabilitate offenders. I'm almost tempted to mail a random prisoner a copy of The Borribles, the children's book which sees the police as Enemy No. 1.

I wonder how celebrity Tory convicts Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken feel about this? I thought the main purpose of prison was public protection and the attempt to turn criminals away from their former lives. Grayling's actions just dehumanise them.

He's not the first lazy polemicist to reach public office of course. Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies took a pop at the appalling 1920s Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks. Here's our hero at customs in Dover:
Now just you wait while I look up these here books"—how he said it!—"in my list. Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside."

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Torybingogate

The 2014 Budget was predictable enough: savage attacks on environmentalism, treats for corporate Tory donors, pensioners abandoned to the mercies of the market, and bribes for core Tory voters: very much a standard election-year model.

What made it stand out was Tory chairman Grant Shapps' idea of appealing to the electorate in the form of this poster:


Presumably this was the work of some bright young thing in Tory HQ, but a number of senior people must have approved it for release. What's wrong with it? The use of 'they' distances the Conservatives and their government from 'hardworking people' which either seems arrogant or honest depending on whether you think our political leaders are hardworking or not. Then there's the assumption that the electorate are so simple as to be concerned only with 1p off beer tax and the implication that bingo is cheap.

It's almost as if the Conservative leadership still relates to the working classes like this:



So the tone's wrong, the positioning's wrong and on top of that, it's dishonest: the Bingo operators' association says that the tax break won't make a difference to their customers' charges at all. So it's just a gift to the gambling industry to encourage further Tory donations.

But there's another angle. We read all the time about parties' sophisticated electoral strategies, databanks, imported advisors etc. And yet it seems there's nobody with any understanding of the electorate and certainly nobody who has ever used the internet before. Could Grant Shapps – no stranger to online shenanigans – not foresee the mocking Twitterstorm that followed his encouragement to 'Please RT'. First came the horrified scorn. Then came the witty Tory Bingo calls with the hashtag #Torybingo, and finally along came Torybingo.com, which allows the likes of us to adapt the original template. Here are a couple of mine:



I assume that the Tories (and other parties) have heard of the phrase 'going viral' and want a chunk of it. What they haven't understood is that social media users have finely-attuned antennae for corporate propaganda, and a level playing field on which to fight it. This is, of course, why corporate interests are trying (and winning) the fight to turn the internet from an public square into a tightly-controlled pseudo-public space. Try as they might, institutions are too cumbersome and culturally-deaf to compete with the wit of some kid with Photoshop and no paymaster. Politicians and corporate executives get offended when we parody their products because they genuinely believe that the social hierarchies of meatspace are a) natural and b) should be reproduced online. Torybingo is just the latest in a pretty much infinite line of embarrassments.

The only down side is that while ridicule is a key weapon of postmodern resistance, it's not entirely clear whether it actually helps. For all this, the key Tory voter (rich white bitter older people) will vote in droves while the young and hip won't bother. Is this anything more than a passing amusement? I'm not sure.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

'Nothing But Morons'? Confessions of a record collector part 2

My experience of record collecting is not much like this. I go into record shops, ask for Field Mice 10" LPs and endure the scorn of the famed Record Shop Git. 



In fact, much like this:



(Although he is right about those particular bands). I read High Fidelity when it came out and felt that Hornby rather uncomfortably knew me far too well. I went to see the film too, and watched at a 90 degree angle, craning to see what records were on the shelves, which essentially proved Hornby right about us. My sister observed at the end of the film that I was 'just like Rob'. She then thought better of this comparison, having pointedly noted that 'he gets a girlfriend in the end'.

So yesterday, I droned on about record collecting and Walter Benjamin's piece about unpacking his library. Today, I thought I'd point you towards Jean Baudrillard's The System of Objects, and in particular the section 'A Marginal System: Collecting'. Although he doesn't explicitly say so until a long way in to the essay, his concentration on the 'passion' of collecting is derived from Freud's work on fetishisation and sublimation. I'm not a Freud (or Baudrillard, or anything) expert so I won't push this point too far, but the essence is that the object need not be at all interesting or special to raise passion. Baudrillard's very keen to emphasise that while we're all obsessed with 'human' passions, our enormous investment in owning things goes relatively unnoticed.

they become mental precincts over which I hold sway, they become things of which I am the meaning, they become my property and my passion
This isn't use value: I will never again play some of my records, or re-read some of my books. Indeed a few of them will never be read – I wanted them as objects, not as functional carriers of information. Baudrillard differentiates between objects which mediate between the self and the world (refrigerators, spoons) and therefore can't be objects of passion but remain functional tools (although people with Object Sexuality might disagree, particularly the woman who left the Berlin Wall for a fence) and objects which can be wholly possessed, through which the individual constructs their senses of him/herself and a private world. Books and records, for me, fulfil this purpose at the moment though I must admit that my record collecting mania is fading and I'm trying to read more books than I buy. 

Some objects can be both functional and possession, or move from one status to the other (usually functional to possession): for instance a chair which starts off being useful and ends up as an antique with a 'do not touch' sign on it, valued for its rarity, age or beauty. Something like this, for instance:



What is it?



(I took those pictures at Neuadd Gregynog Hall, the stately home owned by the University of Wales). It's an extreme example proving that anything can move from functional to possessive status. It can go the other way too: witness Dublin's mania for demolishing grand Georgian houses in the 1960s and 1970s as an anti-colonialist gesture, now sorely regretted.

Once a thing becomes an object, an extension of its owner's psyche, it is part of a collection, and cannot exist alone, according to Baudrillard.
And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfilment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects. This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.
 I could own one record by The Field Mice, but it wouldn't be a collection and it wouldn't be significant.

Here's some Field Mice:





and my favourite track by their successor band, Trembling Blue Stars:



(They're dedicated to Ben, who thinks my affection for The Field Mice demonstrates everything that's wrong with me, and indie music).

The object becomes important once it is part of a network (Field Mice records, Sarah Records output, Field Mice records I won versus Field Mice records I don't yet own). The last bit is essential but also destructive. Possessing everything is I guess possible, but without the quest, life would be dull indeed. Not possessing everything though: that's awful.

And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfilment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects. This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.
That's what keeps capitalism going: the anxiety caused by not possessing the entire set, the latest phone or the best shoes – desire is always temporarily satisfied and simultaneously de-satisfied. This is the permanent state of the collector. And, says Baudrillard, the same goes for sexual relations. The person you're sleeping with right now is a unique being, s/he/it is one of a series of possession you're currently pretending constitutes the totality of objects you can possess.Your current lover is significant because s/he/it refers to all the other potential, abstract lovers. The same goes for my books.

It's complicated: that's why it's so vital and enthralling:

Our ordinary environment is always ambiguous: functionality is forever collapsing into subjectivity, and possession is continually getting entangled with utility, as part of the ever-disappointed effort to achieve a total integration. Collecting, however, offers a model here: through collecting, the passionate pursuit of possession finds fulfilment and the everyday prose of objects is transformed into poetry, into a triumphant unconscious discourse.
Baudrillard sees collecting as a childish urge, in the purest sense: it gives the child a sense of structure and control in a world which affords the child no power or control. It's illusory, and immensely satisfying. Perhaps it's the same for me: I can fool myself that reading – or just owning – all these books makes me a viable human being, despite knowing that it's a very long time since it was possible to read all the books or know everything (i.e. everything Western European white men thought was worth knowing). There were several candidates: Thomas Young, Athanasius Kirchner, Alexander von Humboldt and a few others (this was of course before Foucault et al. got rid of 'knowledge' and replaced it with 'knowledges', but that's another blog).


But let's take Batman's advice and return to Baudrillard:


The child dominates the world through endlessly rearranging the collections: cars, dolls, worms, whatever. For most of them, puberty puts an end to it, but it re-emerges in forty-something men – known in the music business as £50 Man after his habit of appearing in a record shop and frantically splurging £50 every time. It wasn't like that for me. I read books obsessively but didn't own anything until my mid-teens. Getting to university, I began acquiring books and records on a grand scale. I looked down on £50 Man as a miser and an amateur. As I've detailed elsewhere, Cob Records in Bangor became the equivalent of a drug dealer with me as a desperate, dependent user. 
In short, there is in all cases a manifest connection between collecting and sexuality, and this activity appears to provide a powerful compensation during critical stages of sexual development. This tendency clearly runs counter to active genital sexuality, although it is not simply a substitute for it.
Perhaps the single-sex education retarded my development even more than I suspected, because acquisition has become a depressing mainstay of my existence. I can dignify it by restricting it to goods with high cultural capital, but that's just snobbery. Basically, Baudrillard reckons that collecting is the unsatisfying sublimated expression of unfulfilled sexual desire required by losers (later on he calls it 'a tempered form of sexual perversion'). (My friends can add their observations in the comments box). He uses Freud's terms ('the anal stage') to categorise adult collectors as men (Freudians seem utterly uninterested in women's experiences) who require orderliness and accumulation to make up for what's lacking on the sexual front, with a side-order of defensive snobbery:
It is this passionate involvement which lends a touch of the sublime to the regressive activity of collecting; it is also the basis of the view that anyone who does not collect something is ‘nothing but a moron, a pathetic human wreck’.
I used to tell people about the student many years ago who looked disdainfully at my office shelves and remarked 'You're just like my mum. She reads books and keeps them'. When I said I liked the sound of her mum, the student replied 'No, it's stupid'.  Good god, I would remark: we're admitting students who have no interest in books, knowledge, learning for its own sake'. But according to Baudrillard and Freud, she got it right. She's psychologically healthy because she doesn't need to develop strong attachments to objects, whereas I'm compensating for some lack.

Baudrillard's post-Freudian insight is that the actual object doesn't matter at all. It's the object's existence in a chain or a network of other objects which the collector will attempt to acquire (though objects never possessed are as important as those which are eventually acquired). The collector adores each individual object and simultaneously desires all the others: the objects are the occupants of a harem:
the collector loves his objects on the basis of their membership in a series, whereas the connoisseur loves his on account of their varied and unique charm, is not a decisive one.
Collecting is thus qualitative in its essence and quantitative in its practice…there is something of the harem about collecting, for the whole attraction may be summed up as that of an intimate series (one term of which is at any given time the favourite) combined with a serial intimacy.
This is of course a disturbingly gendered analogy which deserves its own critique at some point, but Baudrillard's point is that the collector maintains a degree of cognitive dissonance: when communing with one object in his collection he thinks he's monogamous, but really he's polygamous and can never stop adding to his collection. In a sense, he points out, being a collector is even easier than negotiating the complexity of human relationships.
Human relationships, home of uniqueness and conflict, never permit any such fusion of absolute singularity with infinite seriality — which is why they are such a continual source of anxiety. By contrast, the sphere of objects, consisting of successive and homologous terms, reassures.
The problem with humans is that they want things. I'm told that they have feelings, and they definitely don't do what they're told. It's very inconvenient. They have, in short, agency. This is what the collector can't deal with. Object are much better: they don't move out when you're not looking, or object to your Marmite-based perversions etc. etc. They lack agency and therefore allow you the illusion of control (an illusion because the collection is never complete). I don't know if this is true, actually. I collect things and manage to maintain cordial relations with fellow human beings. As far as I can tell I'm relatively well-adjusted to the notion that other people have agency which needs to be respected. I haven't hobbled anyone to keep them in the house for weeks.

(don't watch this if you're of a nervous disposition)



For Baudrillard, collecting is a monstrous act of egomania which makes up for the inconvenient truth that humans are hard to bend to one's own will unless you take drastic steps as depicted above.

In the plural, objects are the only entities in existence that can genuinely coexist…they all converge submissively upon me and accumulate with the greatest of ease in my consciousness.
Collecting is the defensive act of the loser:
But we must not allow ourselves to be taken in by this, nor by the vast literature that sentimentalizes inanimate objects. The ‘retreat’ involved here really is a regression, and the passion mobilized is a passion for flight.
And it's hard to disagree when you meet adult Bronies (men who collect and obsess about My Little Pony) or see them stigmatised in the appalling and misunderstood Big Bang Theory, though my feelings about that show can wait for a future entry. Here's a clip from a show which explicitly addresses the tension between functional objects and possessed objects, though its resolution (Sheldon breaks the toy he's persuaded to treat as function, against his instincts, proving him right but still a loser):


In the end, any object in a collection, and the collection as a whole (though that's not strictly possible)  is a mirror, a narcissist's fantasy:
what you really collect is always yourself.

This makes it easier to understand the structure of the system of possession: any collection comprises a succession of items, but the last in the set is the person of the collector.
The series and the collection allow the collector to integrate with his objects in a hermeneutic state of perfection. Even if you reduce your collection to one perfect example, you're still a collector, because, JB says, that object is simply a referent for every other similar object, a realised version of the Platonic ideal.

Most strikingly, Baudrillard asserts that the unobtained object is the most important one in the collection. Its value to you increases because it will (perhaps temporarily) complete your collection. That one missing book in the series, that final Zimbabwean double-A side live recording is valuable not for any intrinsic worth, but simply because you don't have it. And yet you don't really want it. It symbolises death.
One cannot but wonder whether collections are in fact meant to be completed, whether lack does not play an essential part here — a positive one, moreover, as the means whereby the subject reapprehends his own objectivity. If so, the presence of the final object of the collection would basically signify the death of the subject, whereas its absence would be what enables him merely to rehearse his death (and so exorcize it) by having an object represent it.

madness begins once a collection is deemed complete and thus ceases to centre around its absent term. 

If your psyche is completely invested in collecting, what happens when you have to stop because you've got everything? Quite often, collectors switch arbitrarily to other collections, demonstrating that the objects are worthless too them: it's the process that gives the collector meaning and value. John Laroche, the notorious orchid thief, wasn't always an orchid obsessive. First it was turtles, then fossils, lapidary, then tropical fish, collections he took up arbitrarily and dropped arbitrarily. Clearly the fossils, fish and orchids don't matter in the slightest: they're just a way of keeping score.


I don't think I'm that bad. Books are my delight, my leisure and my occupation. Music moves me emotionally. And yet: having these things is a major part of my enjoyment that I can't deny. It's true, though, that these things no longer drive me. When I was young, Cob Records would drip-feed my items I couldn't afford in one go. I happily spent more on books and music than on rent and food, to the extent that my finances were a mess. I'm no longer like that. The completist urge is still there, but paradoxically the easier it is to satisfy those desires, the less I try to. Now I can afford to buy most of what I want, I don't buy them, because the search felt more authentic than the possession. There's no pressure to find the missing Field Mice albums because I can now wave a cheque at a time of my choosing, rather than sacrifice other things to acquire them. Like I say: it's not the object that matters, though if any of you do have any Field Mice 10" and gig-only Stereolab releases, let me know.

Baudrillard knew I'd say that, by the way:
every collector who presented his collection to the viewing audience would mention the very special ‘object’ that he did not have, and invite everyone to find it for him. So, even though objects may on occasion lead into the realm of social discourse, it must be acknowledged that it is usually not an object’s presence but far more often its absence that clears the way for social intercourse.
Ultimately, collecting is a denial of mortality for anxious, ephemeral Man (again, Baudrillard universalises habits he previously noted were a male domain):
What man gets from objects is not a guarantee of life after death but the possibility, from the present moment onwards, of continually experiencing the unfolding of his existence in a controlled, cyclical mode, symbolically transcending a real existence the irreversibility of whose progression he is powerless to affect.

the object is the thing with which we construct our mourning: the object represents our own death, but that death is transcended (symbolically) by virtue of the fact that we possess the object; the fact that by introjecting it into a work of mourning — by integrating it into a series in which its absence and its re-emergence elsewhere ‘work’ at replaying themselves continually, recurrently — we succeed in dispelling the anxiety associated with absence and with the reality of death.
We collect because we cannot stop time, nor death.  Which isn't far from my personal view that on the cosmic scale of things, anything we do is merely whiling away the brief, purposeless time between black nothingnesses. So why not obsess about Smiths records? It's better than committing war crimes or voting Tory. It's not totally grim, says Baudrillard: collecting integrates onrushing death into life, thereby allowing us to live, paradoxically, because collecting expresses and is driven by desire.

While I have my reservations about Baudrillard's argument (and it's early, heavily Freudian work which he superseded), I do recognise many aspects, including this section on book collecting:
Research shows that buyers of books published in series (such as 10/18 or Que sais-je?33), once they are caught up in collecting, will even acquire titles of no interest to them: the distinctiveness of the book relative to the series itself thus suffices to create a purely formal interest which replaces any real one. The motive of purchase is nothing but this contingent association. A comparable kind of behaviour is that of people who cannot read comfortably unless they are surrounded by all their books; in such cases the specificity of what is being read tends to evaporate. Even farther down the same path, the book itself may count less than the moment when it is put back in its proper place on the shelf. Conversely, once a collector’s enthusiasm for a series wanes it is very difficult to revive, and now he may not even buy volumes of genuine interest to him. This is as much evidence as we need to draw a clear distinction between serial motivation and real motivation. The two are mutually exclusive and can coexist only on the basis of compromise, with a notable tendency, founded on inertia, for serial motivation to carry the day over the dialectical motivation of interest.
Put simply: sometimes my desire for completion overcomes my acknowledge lack of interest in a book's intrinsic artistic worth. It's offensive and decadent, especially in a time of deprivation, and yet I still do it.

There's a lot more to Baudrillard's argument, but too much of it is structured by a crude sexual division which makes me uncomfortable, and I strongly suspect I've outstayed my welcome. If you've got this far: thank you. I doff my hat to you. Here's Baudrillard's parting shot for people like me (and you?)
…he collects objects that in some way always prevent him from regressing into the ultimate abstraction of a delusional state, but at the same time the discourse he thus creates can never — for the very same reason — get beyond a certain poverty and infantilism.

So if non- collectors are indeed ‘nothing but morons’, collectors, for their part, invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Confessions of a record collector part 1

As you've probably gathered, I'm fiercely anti-capitalist and have no truck with materialism and consumerism. I rip visible labels from my garments, ignore fashion and look down upon acquisitiveness.

At exactly the same time, I am a snob and slightly obsessive about certain disposable goods. I have a vintage Moulton bicycle and a modern Forme road bike rather than one I could have bought in Halfords. I've used Apple Macintosh computers for 15 years despite knowing the company's as exploitative as any other, I have a Mont Blanc pen and couple of pairs of Church shoes.

But this hypocrisy pales in comparison with my major consumerist habits: collecting books and records. I used to avoid the word 'collecting' because it reminds me of butterfly-collectors, who kill the things they love, turning vital creatures into stiff decoration. But it fits. I buy books and music primarily for use, but it's true too that I also acquire them for other reasons: to complete a set, for instance, or because of their rarity value. There are books and records in my collection which frankly aren't very good, and others which I know I'll never read, read again, or listen to again. But without them, I'd feel like something was missing. At some point the thrill of finding something rare disappeared, to be replaced by the determination to complete a set: it's well known that a lot of obsessive bird watchers don't care about birds per se, they just want to complete the set. Hence too the particularly destructive nature of birds' egg collectors. The more they collect, the more rare the bird, the more important it is to get the egg until there aren't any left.

It's important to me to buy vinyl records too. Yes, they sound better and look better, but I'm pretty certain that I like them partly because I think they're cool and a minority pursuit, just like the Moulton (which looks and operates differently from 'normal' bikes). There's a cultural cachet to vinyl which will only increase as music becomes entirely divorced from physical media, whether or not the actual music is any good or not: I gain a small amount of cultural capital from my collection. Even more pointlessly, I have CD or electronic copies of a lot of it too, so holding on to the vinyl is mostly sentiment.

This makes me a better capitalist than people just buying branded goods on the high street. My books and records are what I use to define myself in a postmodernist in which the self is a performance of decentred fluidity. This means that there can never be an end point to collecting. Whereas the search for a great pair of shoes ends when I find it, there are always more records or books to collect: I'm always looking for music on the Caroline and Fierce Panda labels, for instance, whether they're any good or not: just like a kid collecting football stickers. Limited editions, side-projects, picture discs, overseas releases: all the tricks they can come up with work on me.

The first thing I do on entering someone else's house is go through their music and book collections or note the absence thereof. I assume it's what people do to me. In fact, just such an experience made me think about this. One of my friends came round to the flat for the first time, after we'd been out drinking. He drunkenly staggered round the bookshelves and then explained that as he's in his mid-fifties and therefore closer to death, he'd embarked on a purge of unread and unwanted books. He understood the performative nature of collecting, but he'd moved onto a new stage of collecting, in which mortality looms large. He started to think about whether he'd actually read these things before he died, and if not, whether they simply served as props in a performance of intellectuality. Yes, this is how we talk about things when we're drunk.

Thankfully, however, we're not alone. Plenty of interesting thinkers have considered the nature of ownership and collection. I've always considered obsessive collecting a predominantly male activity: there's not a lot of difference between tracking down the Belgian release of a Field Mice single and bagging that last bird/registration number/elusive 218 Loco serial number. I do know plenty of women who collect records and books, but don't think I've ever seen a female trainspotter or twitcher.

Walter Benjamin's essay 'Unpacking My Library' (1931) is about how he feels while he unboxes his enormous book haul after moving house. Faced with the evidence of his habit, he tries to explain what it feels like to be a collector. To him, his library is a 'fragments, stored against my ruin' as TS Eliot wrote in another context. The books are the past, and they are an attempt to establish some kind of order in a disordered universe. Yet the collection is also chaotic: nobody can acquire every book, or perfectly order those s/he has. It's bound to be partial and incomplete – even the Catalogue must be incomplete, unless it includes itself as a constituent (and that's a philosophical conundrum I'm going to leave well alone) and it's quickly outdated.

Benjamin talks of the 'enchantment' of collecting: finding the right things, putting them into their rightful order and place. But he also talks of the 'thrill of acquisition' and of ownership – it's a way of imposing the Will on the world in a small way, I suppose. Everything that makes up the collected object has a teleology, a destiny, and for that collector, it's becoming owned by that individual: 'the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him, with his collection'. This is true of course for me: my collection is unique because the things I've collected will never exist side-by-side anywhere else, ever. Each collection reinterprets the world through the items collected, or as Benjamin puts it, 'renews' the world in the same way that children renew the world by painstakingly acquiring new skills.

Benjamin has a head start of course: he points out that the best way to acquire books, particularly the ones that should exist but don't, is to write them. For the rest of us, getting hold of others' work will have to do. He also admires the collector who borrows books and never returns them: it's a kind of heroic rejection of legal and social claims of ownership, particularly if he doesn't actually read them. This is because this person gets to the heart of the collecting psyche: use is irrelevant to the collector. What does the train spotter do with his list of numbers? Nothing: it's the wrong question to ask. Possessing them is what's important. Not that it's put that baldly: Benjamin phrases it rather more delicately:
To the book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.

Finally, Benjamin turns to the collector's unwilling purchase of books. If one must actually buy them, then there are special ways to do so. It's the same for me with books and records. I'd hate it if the rare vinyl I wanted was easily acquired, in a shop or online place. The hunting is the key part: wandering away from the high street to some dingy back room; having the patience to go through an unpromising, disorganised box; checking the serial numbers in case it's the wrong one; braving the scorn of the patronising shopkeeper; abrading one's fingers on the protective sleeve; clutching your find tight lest the hunter next to you pounces on the pile that you think signifies choices and he thinks is fair game. Disappointments too are part of the experience, reminding you that chasing acquisitions requires both emotional highs and lows. So is the judicious disbursement of money, and the saving thereof. What could be more boring than seeing what you want and simply having the cash to hand to buy it? It's having to leave things behind that makes what you do buy seem special. I've heard of people cornering the market in things like rare blues records and it sickens me: just because they can afford to, they've grabbed everything that's out there. There should be some kind of spiritual test before they're allowed to own anything (and I would definitely) ban 'investors' and corporations from owning Stradivarius instruments and paintings destined for the vaults. I might not play my C-Pij 7" very often but at least I appreciate it without caring about what it might be worth one day.

Finally, Benjamin turns to the collection-as-time-machine. Every time he picks up a book he remembers where he got it, what he was like then, the places in which he read them. The text is irrelevant by this stage: the book as object is the equivalent of Proust's madeleine. The same is true of my books and records. It would be, in a sense, dishonest to dispose of those I no longer enjoy because they were once enjoyed by that older version of me. I'm stuck with him, or rather don't want to repudiate his dreadful taste in lo-fi, sword-and-sorcery epics or ultra-leftist propaganda papers. I might not be able to face them again, but I don't want to pretend they never played a part in making me me.

Enough. Tomorrow, part 2: collecting, death and Baudrillard.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

George Eliot v Jilly Cooper

I'm currently teaching a module focussing on literary representations of class and class friction, taking in the reader's position too. We've looked at The Way We Live Now, Vile Bodies, The Grapes of Wrath and we're about to tackle Jilly Cooper's Riders. That's how you can tell the kind of institution I'm at: Gelder's Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field points out that popular fiction is only studied at 'ex-polytechnics', on the basis that older universities are all about identifying what Arnold called 'the best that is thought and known' rather than practicing a kind of literary sociology. I'm not convinced that's still true actually: cultural studies has disappeared because it's now everywhere, much to the chagrin of people like David Mikics', whose snobby book I reviewed recently.

This semester I teach Paradise Lost and regularly feature 'the canon' on my courses, so I'm not bothered about criticism by the snobs. I happen to think that if something's popular, it's worth knowing about, and that all forms of art have standards and characteristics which can be identified and evaluated. I know, too, that now-respectable genres and media were once dismissed as frivolous – even novels. English Literature isn't even a century old as a degree subject: before that it was considered beneath the dignity of the Academy.

So I'm quite relaxed about having a sex-and-shopping or bonkbuster novel on the curriculum. The generic appellations are demeaning and unsubtly sexist (like 'chick-lit', which I find plainly offensive). Riders is a fascinating novel, though culturally and politically repulsive and reactionary. I'm also quite happy with that: classrooms are places in which we should examine popular trends and cultural shifts we personally may not like or approve of. I'm not going to go into detail about Riders because I want my students to come up with their own ideas, but I am going to present you with some extracts from George Eliot's Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.

Eliot wrote this essay in 1856, for the Westminster Review soon after adopting her male pseudonym. I don't think this is an accident. The essay is a wickedly funny, patronising and snobby attack on popular fiction in general and women's writing in particular. Like the modern-day critics who invent patronising names for sub-genres, Eliot identifies a trend for 'mind and millinery' novels:
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them — the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these — a composite order of feminine fatuity — that produces the largest class of such novels, which we shall distinguish as the mind-and-millinery species.
The heroines are usually beautiful, pious and posh: Eliot's well aware that poverty doesn't sell to readers of this kind of thing. The ladies are also highly-educated, though only the most insufferable ones feel the need to prove it, at extreme length.  They faint a lot but that only makes them look more beautiful. Some of them have all the advantages except rank and cash, a deficit which will be remedied by the end of the novel. It's hard not to recognise much of Riders here, though Eliot would no doubt blush at the racier aspects (Cooper is particularly obsessed with cunnilingus, while carefully ensuring that lesbians and feminists are humiliated).

Eliot's well aware that readers and authors aren't very interested in the poor, unless there's a Cinderella aspect to the story:
silly novels by lady novelists rarely introduce us into any other than very lofty and fashionable society.
If poor women were writing their way out of poverty, she says, then she could tolerate bad writing as a form of charity like buying unwanted craft items from blind hawkers.

Under these impressions we shrank from criticising a lady’s novel: her English might be faulty, but we said to ourselves her motives are irreproachable; her imagination may be uninventive, but her patience is untiring. Empty writing was excused by an empty stomach, and twaddle was consecrated by tears.
 But no:
The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as “dependents;” they think five hundred a year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and “baronial halls” are their primary truths…they must be entirely indifferent to publishers’ accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains.
The 'lady novelist', it seems, is a comfortably middle-class dilettante with little experience of poverty or riches, but she knows that the readers would rather see the latter than the former, and it doesn't matter to them very much that the author represents her own experience and those of others 'with equal unfaithfulness': the book is clearly an escapist product rather than (in Henry James's words), 'all of life'.

Eliot then spends a few pages happily eviscerating particular 'silly novels' for their terrible dialogue, infuriating heroines, unconvincing characterisation and cheerful resort to cliché:

Writers of the mind-and-millinery school are remarkably unanimous in their choice of diction. In their novels there is usually a lady or gentleman who is more or less of a upas tree; the lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow; events are utilized; friends are consigned to the tomb; infancy is an engaging period; the sun is a luminary that goes to his western couch, or gathers the rain-drops into his refulgent bosom; life is a melancholy boon; Albion and Scotia are conversational epithets.
It's all hugely entertaining, though deeply snobbish. Some novels are racier than others - Eliot highlights Compensation:
very wicked and fascinating women are introduced — even a French lionne; and no expense is spared to get up as exciting a story as you will find in the most immoral novels. In fact, it is a wonderfulpot pourri of Almack’s, Scotch second-sight, Mr. Rogers’s breakfasts, Italian brigands, death-bed conversions, superior authoresses, Italian mistresses, and attempts at poisoning old ladies
I can't help thinking, however, that Eliot's rejection of sexuality as a reasonable subject is itself gendered, despite the sophisticated way she dealt with it later in Middlemarch (yes, there's loads of sex in there, you obviously didn't read it closely enough). Having taken on a male pseudonym presumably to ensure she's taken seriously, Eliot seems to accept the ancient division of the genders between male-intellectual and female-biological, which you can see too in Paradise Lost

She's not keen on the readers of these 'silly novels' either, whom she imagines obtaining great insights from the moral lessons and highfalutin' rhetoric:
There is doubtless a class of readers to whom these remarks appear peculiarly pointed and pungent; for we often find them doubly and trebly scored with the pencil, and delicate hands giving in their determined adhesion to these hardy novelties by a distinct très vrai, emphasized by many notes of exclamation.
But George reserves her scorn for one particular class of lady novelists: those who think they have something to say about the world.
The most pitiable of all silly novels by lady novelists are what we may call the oracular species — novels intended to expound the writer’s religious, philosophical, or moral theories.

their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this: Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.

Which seems rather ungracious from one of the world's most intellectual and intelligent authors of either sex. Perhaps many of these novels were thin stuff, but at least they were trying and their readers were getting something out of the experience. Riders for instance is a vile piece of Tory propaganda, produced in what Cooper saw as the darkest days of the 1970s: characters constantly harp on about 'the Socialists' ruining everything, or the hunt protesters or the feminists. It's a precursor of the 80s, in which the rich and beautiful were finally restored to power and prominence. Women had their place too: as long as they shaved their genitalia and didn't worry about male infidelity, they were allowed to enjoy sex too (at last!).

Riders lacks philosophy and theology: it's a consumerist paradise in which belief in anything other than Nation and Self are unutterably boring and pointless. Characters with principles are objects of scorn and derision, or else hypocrites. It is, therefore, a deeply ideological book which does its best to avoid appearing so, and is therefore more dangerous – a lesson has been learned since the days of Eliot. There are no pious disquisitions on matters of politics, faith or philosophy. Instead, character and plot do all the work. We are meant to identify with the sexy, bold, arrogant men and the women who love them. What they believe is automatically right – and their beliefs happen to be male supremacy, individualism, libertarianism and free-market economics with huge doses of racism and anti-democracy.

And yet Eliot manages to find a kernel of feminism within her unsisterly attack. Preachy, ill-informed novels do nothing for the woman's cause, she says:
the most mischievous form of feminine silliness is the literary form, because it tends to confirm the popular prejudice against the more solid education of women.
But after a few hours’ conversation with an oracular literary woman, or a few hours’ reading of her books, they are likely enough to say, “After all, when a woman gets some knowledge, see what use she makes of it! …She mistakes vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality; she struts on one page, rolls her eyes on another, grimaces in a third, and is hysterical in a fourth… No — the average nature of women is too shallow and feeble a soil to bear much tillage; it is only fit for the very lightest crops.”
These are not, of course, accusations one could ever make of Eliot's own work, but I do worry that it cedes the ground to a critical practice which is founded in unexamined notions both of masculinity and of femininity. The ambiguities of male and female writers and readers are ignored in favour of a hierarchy which she expects women to accept. 'Lady' novelists are the enemy here (there's no essay on 'Silly Novels by Gentleman Writers' though I could easily put together a long list) because they fulfil male expectations of women's inherent stupidity. Eliot's career demonstrates that she can produce the kind of work respected by men so long as she's allowed to publish. She knows there's a problem there, but decides to let it go:
It is true that the men who come to such a decision on such very superficial and imperfect observation may not be among the wisest in the world; but we have not now to contest their opinion — we are only pointing out how it is unconsciously encouraged by many women who have volunteered themselves as representatives of the feminine intellect.
Eliot's sorrow is that women feel the need to write 'silly' novels. People like her abound, and can be recognised by their quiet style on paper and in person:
A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and the less obtrusive for her knowledge…She does not write books to confound philosophers, perhaps because she is able to write books that delight them. In conversation she is the least formidable of women, because she understands you, without wanting to make you aware that you can’t understand her.
This rather bothers me. Jilly Cooper's novel, for all its faults, is unabashed, loud and frivolous. It doesn't have a male judge demanding modesty implied in its pages, whereas Eliot's 'you' seems to be a male gatekeeper. It's not as if Eliot lacks spirit: she decides that almost the very worst of the 'silly' novels aren't the ones populated with fainting virgins aiming for a Duke, but the 'Evangelical' ones (only historical romances are worse), packed with earnest Curates and posh people engaging in theological debate for the enlightenment of the poor girls whose mothers think are in need of Improving Literature. Certainly Jilly Cooper can't be accused of this: Riders goes out of its way to deny that social ills even exist, let alone that people should read about them.

It's not just the women's fault, however. Eliot acidly observes that 'silly' novels attract male praise for what I would see as demonstrating gendered abilities ('brilliance', 'sentiment'), whereas women who approach the male domain are beaten back:
if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell, and Mrs. Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men.
The problem, she reckons, is that women rush into print because they think it makes them look clever, without any sense of the sacred, moral duty assumed by serious male novelists, and therefore make all women writers look stupid.
And so we have again and again the old story of La Fontaine’s ass, who pats his nose to the flute, and, finding that he elicits some sound, exclaims, “Moi, aussie, je joue de la flute”— a fable which we commend, at parting, to the consideration of any feminine reader who is in danger of adding to the number of “silly novels by lady novelists.”
They should, she feels, shut up and go away, lest they ruin things for the genuinely talented. Who could she be thinking of? 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Co-op customer writes…

I had a letter from my bank last week. It wasn't the usual tedious threats, but a 'personal' letter from Niall Booker, Chief Executive of the Co-operative Bank. As he's as likely to read my reply as you are to elope with a leopard seal (especially as there's no return address), I thought I'd cast it adrift on the lonely shores of the internet. So here goes.

Dear Niall,
I can call you Niall, can't I? After all, you say 'I want to write to you personally', which must be some new definition of 'personal' with which I am unfamiliar, given that every other Co-operative Bank customer I know has received an identical letter with a facsimile of your signature. And – in passing – there seems to be something rather self-defeating about printing the sentence 'Please call 08457 212212 if you would like to receive this information in an alternative format such as large print, audio or Braille' at the bottom. I'd guess that people who might need this service probably can't see it.

Anyway, on with the substance. You write of 'difficult times' and 'challenges', words with which I am familiar, working as I do in a large public institution. When these words are used, they tend to mean 'we've screwed up and need to fire lots of the peons'. You write too of 'ethics and values', of 'looking forward', of 'building on this heritage' and doing it 'in partnership'. It's almost as if you got a PR team to write your 'personal' letter, because there are far more adjectives than explanations. You don't mention, for instance, the Co-op's disastrous take-over of Britannia Building Society (are you going to claim back the £7m you paid JP Morgan for its ridiculous advice?). Why on earth did you do it? Nor do you mention the bizarre and hubristic plan to take over hundreds of Lloyds Bank branches. Whose idea was that? There's no mention of the £1.5bn black hole in the accounts, and not a dicky-bird about Rev Flowers, the crack-addled criminal with no background in banking whom you enthusiastically appointed Chairman of the Board. Nor is there any mention amidst all this talk of values and heritage of the sale of 70% of the Co-operative Bank to hedge fund traders. You can talk about values until you're blue in the face but not a single person out here believes that hedge funds are here to make the world a better place. No mention, either, of the Group's fire-sale of entire sections of the business.

Instead, you waffle on about 'great customer service' and improving online and mobile banking. Well Niall, I don't know if you've noticed, but these things are already very good. While other bank systems have disastrously crashed, Co-op's have sailed on magnificently. Where the Co-operative Bank and Group have gone appallingly wrong is in the board room. Quite frankly, you and your colleagues don't know what you're doing, and this deceptive letter indicates that you have little interest in facing up to the truth. I read that Euan Sutherland, CEO of the Co-operative Group has threatened to resign because (he says on Facebook) the group is ungovernable. Coincidentally (I'm sure) the newspapers revealed this weekend that he is paid £3.66m half of which is a 'retention fee', while the rest of the board receive bonuses and 'retention fees' to stop them leaving and departing members of the board still get a retention fee, which offends me on a semantic level, let alone the morality and economics of the matter.

Perhaps this is normal in your world, but I'm trying to imagine what would happen if I informed my boss that unless I receive a 'retention fee', I'd get another job. Especially if I'd made such a mess of things as you have. I strongly suspect that the vice-chancellor would call a taxi and usher me out of the door with unceremonious haste. Every time other banks crash I look at the way the board and executives have blatantly hijacked the shareholders' funds with their claims about hiring the best, retaining talent, incentivisation and the rest of their cant, and thought myself lucky that Co-operative membership insulated me from this short-termist greed. Well, shame on me for being such a fool.

Weirdly, the Co-operative's survey of members last month didn't mention any of these emergency sales, massive payments or fees. Nor did it have a question about whether you, your board and the Group's board should be fired. I would have ticked that box in a heartbeat. If you see Euan, tell him to 'stand not upon the order of his going, but go at once'. I'm pretty certain we'll find someone who doesn't require an annual bribe to stay in the job.

So thanks for your letter: PR-driven drivel from start to finish. Evasive, dishonest and yet more evidence that you and your chums think you are the Co-operative, rather than working for it. I await the next scandal with bated breath.

Yours,
Plashing Vole.

Update: apparently Sutherland hasn't turned up to work and has actually resigned. Most of us wouldn't expect payment for resigning, but apparently he is in line for millions more. What a world…

Monday, 10 March 2014

A Curmudgeon's Weekend

Good morning everyone. What a weekend I had. First I staffed the Open Day, which involved giving a couple of talks about the subject (this time I was Media/Communications/Cultural Studies/Broadcasting and Journalism: I'm English next time) and talking to individual potential students. Some were pretty much sorted, others were just starting the process. Lots had parents with them.

I managed to persuade one mother to join us too – she left her grammar school thoroughly fed up with education and 25 years later is ready to do it on her own terms. It was a good chance to go on about one of my favourite subjects: the decline in mature student numbers. In a period of mass unemployment and economic upheaval, we should be hauling in mature students for retraining and education until we're stuffed to the rafters. Instead, successive governments have pretty much abandoned them at FE and HE level. What a waste of talent and experience. It's not just good for the individual students too: they're good for the classic 18-21 cohort as well. A few weeks ago we studied Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, a tale of a young chap who shoots himself dead because the woman he loves is perfectly happily engaged to stolid sensible Albert. It's pretty much a literary version of any My Chemical Romance song you care to name and the heightened sensibilities appeal to lots of my teenage students. But the mature students brought a colder eye to the discussion. Married, divorced or just a little more experienced, the mature students' take on Young Werther made a difference to the classroom discussion.

Mature students make a difference to the classroom dynamic too. Having given things up to get to university, they have little patience for the texting/Facebooking/short-cutting/chatting indulged in by some of the younger element. They can also be a bit scary for me too. I remember being observed for my PGC in HE. The class was on Sappho's erotic poetry (yes, ex-polytechnics cover the Classics too) and the entire class was female and older than me. Highly amused, they proceeded to discuss the experiences of being female, love and sex while occasionally pointing out that I couldn't yet (or ever) fully understand. Apart from learning a lot, I felt quite smug that my observer saw a confident, engaged class doing all things on the checklist (independent learning, student-centred discussion, lots of talking): other classes in those early days involved too many awkward silences as younger students took a while longer to pluck up the courage to speak in public.

So that was the open day. Lovely people, bright prospects for the future and hopefully not put off by my presentation/sense of humour/cardigans. After that, I caught the last few minutes of Bod's final match at Lansdowne Road and endured the miserable sight of Wales caving in to England. God knows the English rugby team is charmless enough, but the fans. Ugh. Terrible songs. Military uniforms as though that's normal, an anthem singer in a miniskirt like it's 1973. When UKIP take power, everything will be like this.

Thankfully, the evening was spent in the company of friends in convivial Birmingham hostelries catching up on the months of teasing and abuse we missed out on thanks to people moving away, being busy or taking sabbaticals. There was a moment's shock when one pint of indifferent beer turned out to cost £6.40 (avoid Dalston Craft Beer's Black IPA) but chips restored order. We all met up again the next day to see Jonathan Meades talking about Brutalism, Birmingham and architecture. Meades is one of my favourite public intellectuals: he isn't a TV presenter talking about ideas, or an intellectual slumming it on TV. Instead, he's an intellectual who understands, extends and subverts television as an art form, taking it seriously as a medium in a way that TV professionals rarely do.

Here's the start of Meades' 2007 piece on Birmingham, Heart By-Pass.



Meades' current BBC4 series is about Brutalist architecture, which he sees as the bastard child of Victorian monstrosities (which he adores) and Nazi defensive bunkers. He despises 'friendly', unobtrusive buildings, preferring monumental ugly constructions which assert – as he sees it – humanity's victory over indifferent or hostile nature. I guess this makes him a modernist rather than a postmodernist. Modernist music and poetry rejected the neatness and comfort of Romantic styles in favour of forms which echo the misery and fragmentation of life. Meades rejects comfort and ease as essentially dishonest attempts to deny mortality. Where I disagree with him is on environmentalism. He had a long and amusing rant about sustainability ('where does it end? Sustainable bestiality, sustainably masturbation etc. etc.?') and greenness, on the basis that the earth is incapable of gratitude or recognition of what we're doing for it. He also described environmentally-sound building as 'cosmetic'. I suspect he's right on that count: a few paltry solar panels and a water butt will do very little other than tick boxes, but I worry that his rejection of environmentalism per se is simply reactionary posturing. Surely the point of environmental building shouldn't be to expect gratitude from Gaia or please the planners, but to help deal with the catastrophic damage we're causing to the planet, other organisms and ourselves. Ignoring all that in pursuit of ever more aggressive just because we can is the spitefulness of an 8 year old with an ant's nest. Besides, I don't see any contradiction between building the kind of ugly beauties he likes and making them environmentally sound and efficient.

One of the joys of Meades is that he can say the most outrageous or contentious things with huge charm. He has certainly swallowed several dictionaries and encyclopaediae and isn't afraid to show it, which cheers me mightily. He has a shop-worn countenance on which his every feeling is displayed. When inane or immensely lengthy questions are posed from the floor, he cannot hide his weariness and exasperation. Instead he stands there silently, facial muscles rearranging his expression until either a coherent thought or a curt rejection issues forth. I like him because he doesn't patronise his audience with fawning politeness. Just because we've bought tickets doesn't mean we get 'customer service' of the kind we've started to expect in establishments from coffee shops to universities. I'm a big fan of rude baristas by the way. The minimum wage isn't enough to cover service, politeness and a display of matiness. I want to punch people who call me 'buddy' when I've just given them 45 minutes' wages for one cup of coffee, of which they'll see very little. Seriously: neither we nor your employers have earned the right to anything more than surly acquiescence.

Where was I? Oh yes: Meades - stimulating, cantankerous, curmudgeonly, unlikely to appear on Pointless or The One Show any time soon.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Kids, who needs them? Not the BBC.

So farewell, BBC3. You're being turned into a webpage to make room for BBC 1+1, which means that nobody will ever have to missed The One Show, Bargain Hunt or Songs of Praise ever again. Truly, your sacrifice will not be in vain.





What will we miss? Personally, I thought that Some Girls was the freshest sit-com on television for many years although I'm very much not the target audience, and I also adored Nighty Night. Other people will miss Family Guy, American Dad or – for some reason – Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Fuck Off I'm A Hairy Woman and My Life As An Animal.

The point is that being a fat bloke in his late 30s, BBC3 was not for me. It's for da yoof. I pay my licence fee not so that every channel shows stuff I want to watch: when I come to power, all the BBC would show is Jonathan Meades, Star Trek, New Tricks and rolling footage of whatever Mary Beard is doing at any point of the day.



Oh, and live coverage of the corpses of Andrew Neil, Michael Gove, Linda Snell and Melanie Phillips swinging from Tower Bridge having their eyes pecked out.

No, the point of the licence fee is that all citizens' cultural needs are catered for. Just because I'm not keen on Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents and think the 'news' coverage was beyond embarrassing with its celebrity obsession doesn't mean that the people who watch it should be abandoned by the nation's broadcaster. The message from the BBC – now a whipped, beaten cur owned by the Conservative Party – seems to be that the young folk should be outside playing with hoops and the money spent on yet another self-regarding show by that charlatan Alan Yentob. It sure isn't going to be spent on combating anti-poor propaganda or examining political and financial shenanigans.

I thought a lot of BBC3 output was dross, or manipulative tosh. That's the point: there's plenty of BBC programming for me that the kids would jeer at. Now they're being pushed to the margins. The BBC, they're told, is not really for them. They can perch on the edges but they're not considered proper citizens or – dreaded word – stakeholders. What will they feel about the licence fee now? If I were them, I'd be furious. They pay up so that the rest of us can listen to Moneybox Live while they're left with a crappy website and that embarrassing insult to evolution we call Radio One. Support for the fee will disappear (a long-held Conservative fantasy now shockingly accepted by BBC planners) and so will any last dregs of support and affection for the only broadcasting network uninfected by the corruption of consumerism and advertising.

Nice work, BBC. You had one job…

From Pizza to Pedagogy

Yesterday my MP, the elusive millionaire Paul Uppal made a daring foray into social media. He'd spotted the most outrageous waste and corruption in the city council's accounts!
Mr Uppal, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, claimed in a live radio interview that the council spent £70,000 at the Westin Pune Koregaon Park in October last year. The council says this was 70,000 rupees and that the cost at the time came to £723.80.
And it wasn't just hotel costs!

Mr Uppal said the council spent £1,428 in a Pizza Hut in India. The council confirmed this was also in rupees and the bill was around £14. 
This is of course purest opportunism. It really shouldn't take a genius to work out that a £1428 bill for pizzas is unlikely, to put it mildly. No, I don't believe this was an act of good faith on the MP's part. It was a cynical sleight of hand to distract citizens from the truth: that Mr Uppal voted in Parliament to impose massive funding cuts on councils, impacting disproportionately on Northern, poor and Labour-run councils. He voted through the cuts and is now campaigning with breathtaking cynicism against them in the local press. 

However, I agree with Mr Uppal when he says that 


(Actually, it's taught us two things: the other is 'never trust a Tory campaign'). It's also an interesting position to take from a keen supporter of the city's only 'free school', which was given £220,000 of taxpayers' money for 20 pupils, with a promise of £1.6m more while the rest of the city's schools rot away or get spatchcocked into defensive alliances simply to limp on. 

I took Paul at his word, because I've been trying to work out just what the hell the government is up to in regard to Higher Education finance and student funding. Higher Education is (depressingly) in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Its Secretary of State is David Willetts and his Parliamentary Private Secretary is one Mr Paul Uppal. 

So I sent him a letter:
Dear Mr Uppal,
as you’re Mr Willett’s PPS, could you clear something up for me in regard to ongoing HE expenditure?
 As far as I can gather, the Autumn Statement says that funding for lifting the university numbers cap is guaranteed for 2015-16. Section 1.203 makes it clear that the outlay on loans will be covered by proceeds from the sale of the student loan book. However, this outlay is less than the projected expenditure, and neither the Autumn Statement nor Mr Willetts’ discussion with the BIS Select Committee mentioned the years subsequent to 2016, during which the cost of the extra places is calculated in the BIS to reach £720m.
 I can see that selling the loan book will bring in over £2bn in the short term, but results in a net loss when the reduced repayments are calculated. While I understand the theoretical possibility of selling new loans ad infinitum, I gather that Rothschild’s advice to BIS is that there is only limited appetite in the city for student finance.
 Could you further establish why projections stop with 2015-16 rather than – as is usual – taking a view for several more years?
As far as I can see, there's no budget for increased student places other than a vague plan to flog off the student loan debts to the private sector. The problem there is that the debts will be bought for much less than their face value, so the taxpayer will be making a loss and funding the university while the student will still be paying the costs of their education – but the money will be going to some shiny-suited charlatans. Bad for the state, bad for the students. And incredibly short-term…as though they reckon they won't have to worry about anything scheduled for after the 2015 election. 

So that's me, asking Mr Uppal to 'scrutinise public spending and justify every pound'. Along comes his reply:
Unfortunately this is an issue which at the moment I am unable to address fully. However, I am writing to inform you that I have raised your concerns with David Willets MP, and will contact you again when I have received a response, please be aware that this could take up to six weeks.
Which translates, I think, as 'er…no idea mate' though of course I await a detailed explanation with bated breath. Willetts has appeared before Select Committees recently and completely failed to explain where the money is coming from. Or as his opposite number put it:


But that of course might be ascribed simply to political jockeying. So I asked Andrew McGettigan, scrutineer of Higher Education funding and policy and author of the shocking, excellent The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education whether he understood just where the hell the money's coming from:
I understand that this has been deliberately left vague by the Treasury as an incentive to get value from a sale.…The other impediment is the level of financial engineering required to effect a sale of the new loans.
Oh great. So the future of UK HE depends on the Treasury, Willetts and Uppal trying to flog off student loans by pulling the wool over the eyes of City sharks, to mix species and metaphors. What could possibly go wrong? The only certainties are that the taxpayer will lose out, university funding will fall and students will suffer. 

Perhaps Paul should leave the pizzas alone and spend a little more time with a calculator in his own office rather than staging cynical opportunistic stunts like Pizzagate. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Brave New World of Corporate HE

Here's a piece which will no doubt be twisted by the local paper. But no matter.

Who are the new Vice-Chancellors? In the old days, those at the 'old' universities were like to be posh white males with a strong academic background and a history of long service. Conservative but committed to their institutions, they took their rewards as respect, a gong and access to a network of influence. The 'new' universities often had 'Directors' or 'Principals' and were more likely to be local and have an academic background in supposedly more practical subjects. Frequently answerable to local government, they had fewer titles but more commitment to the region and what we'd now call 'widening participation'. They might not get a knighthood afterwards but an OBE was likely.

Neither group featured many businessmen or women, and the discourse of the City was largely absent. 'Human Resources' departments were rare, students weren't described as 'customers', 'stakeholders' or 'business partners'. The staff might have been a royal pain in the collective Vice-Chancellorian bottom, but they tended to be personally known to the senior management and it was generally assumed that both staff and management had the students' and institutions' best interests at heart. Money was always tight, but state funding seemed reliable and uncontentious. Other local institutions weren't rivals in the way industrial competitors see each other. Salaries, even at a senior level, weren't outrageous – a VC might earn 4 times what a lecturer did.

All that's gone now. Universities are largely forced to behave like corporations. We compete for students through a process of bribery, advertising (the scoundrel's art) and marketing. We sit in meetings and talk about our 'offer', rather than the academic quality of what we do. It's a buyer's market, I guess, and the students have a lot of debt to distribute. They're customers and we're 'providers'. Despite being 'non-profit' and usually set up as charities, the neoliberal discourse of business has infected us like a particularly itchy STD. It's hard to tell VCs apart from football managers and the myriad Alan Sugar-groupies infesting the nation's boardrooms.

There are two areas in which this is particularly apparent. The first is in senior management's salaries. Negotiated individually, Vice-Chancellors' salaries have rocketed. The argument is that there's fierce competition for 'talent', which requires higher salaries. This is, of course, nonsense. It's the same argument bankers make while explaining to shareholders that bonuses have to increase even though profits have slumped. There's a new breed of Vice-Chancellor, one which looks to the corporate boardroom as his/her peer-group and demands to be paid on the same level. As this article notes, it ends up with people like Birmingham University's Eastwood getting £400,000 for taking out injunctions against his own students and getting rid of dissenters from key committees. They have a career path laid out and it isn't one of public service: it won't be long before VCs and people from the corporate world pop in and out of these previously separate spheres because universities have become just another business, providing 'educational services'.

Just like the bankers, these salaries have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is the salaries of staff lower down, library stocks, decent buildings, SU funds and all the other things a university needs, despite the disingenuous bleating of management:
A 1% pay increase for all staff is valued at circa £850,000. Every additional 1% added to the University payroll is £850,000 that cannot be spent elsewhere. 
At my own institution senior management are paid on the lower end of the scale (the VC 'only' gets about £210,000) but it's noticeable that lucrative promotions are available to them much more readily than they are to the rest of us. Since 2008 our pay has decreased in real terms: rises of 0.5% and 1% when inflation has reached 3.7% at times. These effective pay cuts are planned for another 4 years, so I and my colleagues will have undertaken an entire decade of getting poorer while the Directors of HR, Estates, Marketing etc – people who haven't had to spend a decade of their lives merely qualifying for a job before starting – head off into the stratosphere, whether they 'perform' or not. Who are their managers? Each other, all keen to maintain differentials. Perhaps the governors: but half of them are hand-picked by senior management and inconvenient people like me are excluded from finance and employment discussions despite being told that once in place, all governors are equal.

I'm sorry to say that staff now are treated as the enemy. Where once we were treated as partners in a joint enterprise, we're now the hired help, a cost centre to be stripped down. Any attempt to improve conditions for us and for students (smaller class sizes, or better library stocks, let alone stable salaries) are treated as outrageous special pleading by the greedy. Remember the argument about paying to attract talent? Well apparently it stops at the Executive level. Here's a charming quote from a letter sent to me and my colleagues when our latest strike was announced:
The Vice Chancellor, in his letter to staff in December 2013, indicated that a 1% salary uplift for staff on nationally agreed pay scales was both fair and consistent with what many other large public and private sector organisations were awarding. In fact, many organisations have not awarded a pay increase for several years and local authorities in our region are having to look at making posts redundant.
Many of our staff realise that the trade unions’ demands for higher pay increases are neither affordable nor sustainable. We believe that our staff, both academic and non-academic receive better pay than many non-HE employees (source: Annual Survey of HE Earnings April 2012, ONS), along with enjoying the benefits of excellent sick pay and pension schemes.
So while we have to offer enormous salaries to attract and retain senior management (not people who ever have to demonstrate their skills to a peer-group through ongoing cutting-edge research and teaching', we should be grateful that a) we get to keep our jobs and b) count ourselves lucky because people in the corporate sector are treated even worse. Essentially, senior management is endorsing a race to the bottom - but only for the rest of us. Clearly we are just disposable drones. And as for the 'excellent…pension schemes' and job security: perhaps the VC and his friends have forgotten that we lost 150 colleagues to plug a gap in government funding caused by management incompetence on reporting student numbers for which not a single person resigned (the previous VC said she took 'full responsibility', which meant precisely nothing). Perhaps they've forgotten too that these apparently 'excellent' pensions have been downgraded and now require much longer periods of service before we qualify, as well as higher contributions – and all on top of a working life which sees many academics achieve permanent employment only when they're in their 30s (I was 34).

I see this as part of the proletarianisation of previously professional jobs. Our responsibilities to education as a public good, to Higher Education as an ideal, to our institutions as drivers of critical thinking are being stripped away. Instead we're here simply to deliver a business-friendly curriculum as cheaply as possible. The atmosphere has changed for the worse round here to the point where goodwill no longer exists: docking us a full day's pay for every two hour strike is just the kind of petty spitefulness you get when a bunch of people decide that they are the bosses and we are the masses. They know they've cut our salaries, reduced our numbers, increased class sizes, cut module and degree choices, that the opportunities to conduct research and to disseminate it have recently been withdrawn even while they demand higher REF performance: I've just come to the conclusion that they just no longer care or at best don't want to think about it. I've lost good faith in senior management's commitment to the ideals of education, which saddens me immensely.

We're no longer considered partners, contributors or colleagues: we're just the workforce and we should do as we're told, shut up and accept whatever a bunch of very well-paid executives can spare from their expense accounts. If they cut pay and the institutions 'costs' (i.e. what's needed to provide a well-rounded education), they've achieved 'efficiency'. Which is all that matters.

Update: of course it doesn't have to be this way. One of the most interesting Vice-Chancellors of recent times is Ferdinand von Pronzynski, formerly of Ireland, now in Scotland:
One of the most galling experiences of any university leader (or at least of this one) is to be told that academics lead an easy life and are under no pressure to work hard. It is a miserably resilient piece of horse shit, that is spread around society like manure, but of the kind that clogs the system rather than nourish it.
Like Kate Bowles, whose cancer diagnosis has sharpened her already-acute sense of the changing nature of academia,  Ferdinand knows what really happens in the ivory tower:
Those who work in universities, on the whole still, enjoy more flexible terms, meaning that they have some discretion as to how to organise their working lives. That just about still exists. But mostly, this discretion is exercised by academics (and also other university staff) in taking on far more than they should. It is a job in which you will find yourself working at any hour of the day or night.
That's certainly true of me: despite supposedly working to rule, I repeatedly find myself locked in, having lost track of time. I'm not special. Many of my colleagues work harder (and definitely more productively) than I do: but we have a sense of duty which outweighs other demands on our time. I know one colleague who tells her partner she's in the pub when actually she's sneaked back into the office to do more work. Another delays emails automatically so it doesn't betray the fact that he's working at 4. a.m.
But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight? How many people in other jobs accept assignments and tasks that they know when they accept them they will only be able to perform at weekends or at night or during their annual leave? And how many professionals elsewhere have to take on the chin ‘witty’ suggestions that they have five months annual holidays when they know that, if they are lucky, they’ll take three weeks?
Check, check and check.

Will UCEA and my institution listen? No - but they will put on the occasional seminar on 'coping with stress'. I don't want to cope with it: I want to end it. But that's too much to ask.