Monday, 22 December 2014

Memo to all staff: Graduation Deportation Protocol

To: all staff.
From: university security and ceremony directorate
Subject: Graduation Ceremony protocol.

Colleagues, like every university, we have a formal procession at graduation. The students take their seats in the Grand Theatre and we staff march there in pairs from the ivory tower in all our finery, escorted by a chap of military bearing carrying a great heavy mace. The traffic stops as the townsfolk pause to admire us and (hopefully) aspire to one day join us.

Next year, thanks to the Home Secretary and her leadership aspirations, some alterations will have to be made to the pomp and circumstance.
Theresa May to 'kick out foreign graduates' in new immigration plans

  • We will still parade through the streets, but we'll be accompanied by a phalanx of G4S security personnel (Mubenga Division), resplendent in their ceremonial body armour and steel toe-caps. The billy-clubs and handcuffs will be merely symbolic detail and the Mace of Office will be adapted to include a spring-loaded net to ensure full attendance. 
  • Outside the Theatre, gleaming black transport will await our honoured overseas graduates, complete with blacked-out windows on each bespoke, individual cell. 
  • Each bright young student will hear their names called and walk on stage to collect their degree certificates from the Vice-Chancellor. Enclosed in the scroll will be a heavy parchment copy of the student's extradition order, personally electronically signed by the Home Secretary wishing the lucky graduate a safe and speedy trip out of the country. 
  • Before they leave the stage, an accountant in gold-trimmed robes will formally offer each student a card reader to settle any tuition fees and deportation costs while an appropriate song plays to cover the sounds of any churlish and undignified protests. 
  • Staff are reminded that weeping is undignified and that higher education funding is now dependent on informing the authorities on any student or colleague suspected of a) being foreign b) holding unauthorised opinions. (Please note: annual appraisal will now take place in the basement. Please ensure that you bring a signed copy of your Extremism Disavowal form CTCH-22 and warm clothes).
  • As the beaming, freshly-minted graduate leaves the stage, the Mubenga Corps will offer them a congratulatory headlock and escort them into the airport-bound black maria. On arrival any survivors will be given celebratory 'bumps' by their guards of honour and waved off to start a new life using their new-found skills somewhere else.

We trust these minor tweaks to the annual ceremonies meet your approval.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

On Proportion.

I guess we shouldn't look to celebrities for a reasoned examination of the facts, but this caught my eye:
Madonna has described the leak of several new songs as “artistic rape” and “a form of terrorism”
So I thought I'd provide Madonna and anybody else upset by the unofficial leak of some pieces of pop music with a handy checklist of what does constitute rape and terrorism.

Madonna: has neither experience terrorism nor rape through music leaks
So here goes.

Things that are rape:
1. Penetrative or non-penetrative sexual contact without the full, conscious and informed consent of all parties.

Things that are terrorism:
1. Acts of violence against civilians in pursuit of political, ideological, religious or territorial aims. Examples might include September 11th, attacks on civilians by Republican, Loyalist and British Army units in the Troubles,  the murder of hundreds of Pakistani children by the Taliban, the Australian hostage outrage, or the US and British military's murder of civilians in Iraq (and lots of other places, Like this:

Things that are neither rape nor terrorism:
1. The unauthorised release of pop music.
2. Leaked emails from a media company.
3. Things which mildly inconvenience famous people.

Perhaps this is overly flippant but words like 'rape' and 'terrorism' have to be used carefully or they'll lose all impact. Madonna's appropriation of the terms isn't witty or justified: it degrades the true horror of these acts.

Phillippe de Champaigne, Vanitas

Kings used to have fools to remind them that the ego can lead us into monstrousness. Some of the Roman emperors had a slave in their trains during triumphal processions whose only job was to walk behind him whispering 'remember that thou art mortal'.  Now we're a sophisticated society, celebrities have dispensed with such things and have entourages to encourage their narcissism. Perhaps we should provide a fool or a memory-slave at public expense to anyone whose ego appears to need swift spiritual kick to the head that alters their reality forever.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Light relief.

No depressing or negative post today. Though if you want to follow the ramifications of Stefan Grimm's demise, I'll point you towards Melonie Fullick's excellent piece, which explores the nature of workplace bullying in an academic environment (and yes it does happen, rather more than you'd think) and the institutional systems that encourage it.

So anyway, happier – though utterly exhausting – stuff. Well, last week was ridiculously busy but also very enjoyable. I had that Niall Griffiths in the back of my class so that we could talk about his novel, A Great Big Shining Star, and then his professorial inaugural. Then I went down to the University of Gloucestershire to deliver a lecture on the place of myth – and retellings of Welsh myth in particular – in our postmodern, media-saturated society. 

I have no idea what the students thought, but I enjoyed it. We started with the Enlightenment and its abjection of the irrational, which was often Othered as female ('old wives' tales') or primitive (peasants' stories, Celtic barbarism etc.), then touched on the alienation of urban capitalism and its discontents (Goblin Market, The Waste Land and other texts), talked about Jung (according to this bullshit quiz I'm the Sage: 'incredibly intelligent but you risk over analyzing until you're incapable of actually making a decision', when I'm actually just a highly-skilled procrastinator) and Freud – particularly the notion of the 'uncanny', about The Owl Service novel and TV series;

about the marginalisation of the weird into genre fiction (Machen, Lovecraft, fantasy novels) or into 'high culture' (such as Yeats and the rest of the Celtic Twilight), about postmodern social structures and practises allowing the non-rational and uncanny to re-emerge, particularly in computer games and decent science fiction like Paul McAuley's Fairyland, and about the decentring of the self making the flat characterisation and absent motivations of mythological protagonists comprehensible again. I seem to remember William Morris's wallpaper and poetry made an appearance, as did prog rock record sleeves. And some other stuff.

All in all, it was hugely enjoyable. They did also grab me for a couple of short video conversation which I find so painful that I can't bring myself to post. I have the voice of a bronchitic duck and the chins of a walrus that's let itself go. Ugh. Though I am going to force my colleagues to undergo the same experience. 

After that, the weekend was gloriously relaxing. Saw two Hollywood films and enjoyed them with a few reservations (Hunger Games and The Hobbit) then it's back into this week. I've just done a lecture on one of my favourite novels, Jackie Kay's Trumpet. To be recommended (the novel, not my lecture). 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Bought and sold?

A while back, I sat in the audience while a friend gave his professorial inaugural address (the closest I'll ever get to one). A business studies scholar, his final assertion was that Business Schools should be 'about', rather than 'for' business. Critical distance is essential: without dispassionate critique, neither businesses, the systems that generate them nor the public good are served. The evidence to the contrary is clear for all to see in the great recession: a global finance system populated by MBA-holding elites, advised by academic consultants from the most prestigious universities, and yet not one of them saw the contradictions inherent in the system. Here's a striking discussion from the documentary Inside Job:

A couple of things reminded me of this today. One was seeing that Warwick University's Business School has a satellite unit in the Shard. No doubt to their management and neoliberal staff this looks like a prestigious address close to those with money to burn consulting them. To me it looks like a public declaration of love and fealty to the money rather than a critical and independent perspective. It also looks like willy-waving competitiveness of the kind only the silliest institutions engage in.

The other conflict of interest that caught my eye today was the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education Journalism Awards. This afternoon, I taught a Media Ethics class about PR: its origins, its methods, its motives and the ethical context of public relations. It boils down to one thing: money. Public Relations operatives are answerable to their employers and the law. Anything not illegal is therefore permitted in pursuit of profit, with the caveat that one should not get caught.

As Nick Davies' Flat Earth News demonstrated several years ago, PR success is measured in news column inches. If you can get your promotional activity reported as news, you've won. It's relatively easy now: journalists are time-poor, resource-poor and under pressure. They are hosed down daily by a shower of easy 'stories' which are actually adverts. One of the jobs of journalism is to filter out the PR guff. And yet: I watched Twitter tonight as reputable journalists from the Times Higher Education Supplement – people whose work I respect – celebrated winning awards from an organisation whose job it is to fool them. The EJA Awards themselves are a PR stunt to make the industry look more reputable, and it's working. They also attempt to close the distance between journalism and PR copy, which is disingenuous to say the very least.

As far as I can see, a journalist waving a CIPR award is a journalist who doesn't mind being tamed: the trophy may as well be a collar with a bell on it, plus a tag with 'If found, please return to CIPR'. They're being used to dignify a dubious organisation and they've lost critical distance in the same way that Warwick has sold out to finance capitalism and that economist sold himself to the corporations. How can we trust an article by a journalist who has accepted such an award? How confident can we be that they'll apply their critical judgement to material that crosses their desks?

In the interests of full disclosure, I'm in the process of writing a commissioned article for the THES. I wonder if this blog post will magically lead to its withdrawal…

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Our own Great Big Shining Star

Cover of Niall's latest novel projected onto a stage curtain

Talking for a moment about happier academic events, last night Niall Griffiths gave his inaugural professorial address: he's our Professor of Creative Writing. If you don't know Niall's work, it's scabrous, demotic voices-from-the-underclass stuff, often featuring the Welsh and Scouse underclass (he mentioned last night that there's a Welsh-language dialect called Scwelsh: Scouse Welsh). Lazy early reviewers talked about him as an Irvine Welsh acolyte, and perhaps early titles such as Sheepshagger and Runt did misdirect a little in that general area. I've taught Niall's work quite successfully over the years: my favourite is his scumbag road trip novel Wreckage, which locates the aforesaid scumbags touring North Wales in a Morris Minor robbing post offices in their cultural context of Welsh-Irish hardscrabble Liverpool. Niall says the novel's a failure but what do novelists know about it eh?

An enthusiastic audience awaits

So anyway, Niall spent a couple of hours with me in class talking about his vicious attack on celebrity culture, A Great Big Shining Star, which some of the students had managed to read before the lecture. For a writer with a reputation as a wild man, he's actually rather moral and old-fashioned. Having dismissed Martin Amis ('smells of falseness') and the postmodernists, he agreed that there's a kind of Victorian condition-of-England flavour about the work, though he maintains that he's rather more optimistic than the characters. That said, he warned us not to expect happy endings any time soon, despite his medication.

Niall takes aim at the Granta set

After a stimulating couple of hours I went off to teach my media class, catching up with Niall for his evening lecture to a distinguished audience in the relaxed atmosphere of the theatre over a glass of sulphurous wine. I couldn't possibly enunciate Niall's lecture here: I need to read it slowly and follow some of the threads of quotation and argument before I understood it fully, but some aspects came over loud and clear. Amongst them: Basil Bunting good, the Granta set (Amis, McEwan, Barnes & Co.) bad. He spoke up for 'dark' writing – citing Alan Warner – and rejected the notion that dark = depressing: the dark writer, he seemed to say, takes up the cross for the rest of us. For all his occasional sweariness, there's a definitely a moralist in there. Niall also spoke up – hence the praise for Briggflats for writing that represents vernacular and accented speech, and makes literary experiments.

He rather sadly and entertainingly took issue with John Banville (from the land of Joyce!) for linking grammatical error with moral failure in a piece aimed at Warner: honestly, what a dumb thing for such a good author to say.

Beyond what Niall said – and I'll come back to it when I get my paws on a script – I thought it was wonderful and important to have someone like him there. He's a shaggy, edgy, lightning-quick intelligence with a rough tongue and a pronounced Liverpool accent. He is, in short, a creative writer. His lecture demonstrated a huge range of reading and thought, but it was delivered in an uncompromisingly personal style. He isn't tame, neat, tidy or polished, and this alienates some people (and may lead to them underestimating his keen mind). As he pointed out and I'm well aware, the academy can be too ready to exclude those whose faces, accents or looks don't fit. It was me who suggested appointing Niall a Professor: because he deserves it, but also because he symbolises some key facts we may have forgotten. The academy doesn't own culture or criticism, we just take part in it. We shouldn't be trying to tame it, own it or make it nice. We need to be in there adding our ideas and making it easy for the excluded to join in the conversation: appointing Niall does exactly that.

Then we went for curry and wine and we'll draw a veil over the rest of the proceedings.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Grimm's Tale

I should be marking. I should be reading a colleague's book. I should be writing next week's lectures. I should be replying to student and colleague e-mails. I should be researching that chapter and doing that review. I should be chasing grant funding, organising guest speakers, reading committee minutes, doing some union casework, attending meetings and organising those conferences, doing that administration and marketing and sales. Not long ago I was asked to judge whether or not a particular student would make a good Royal Marine. As none of his assessments involved killing anyone, I found it hard to say, and rather thought that the Marine recruitment people would be better placed to make that call.

Instead, for a few minutes, I want to contemplate the life and death of Stefan Grimm.

I never met, or even heard of, Professor Grimm until yesterday. He was Professor of Toxicology at Imperial College, one of the world's great science institutions. One of my sisters studied there and a cousin works there. Stefan Grimm was a great man. The things he wrote – 73 papers – will change the world without us ever knowing.

The only reason you and I have ever heard of him is because he he has been found dead, and left a note detailing his recent professional experiences. He or a friend sent out a letter to a wide range of colleagues and peers, explaining that his life and career had been made unbearable by his managers and their version of what research should be. You can read it here.

Stefan was going to be fired. Not because his work was no good: it was, as the publications list shows. No, he was going to be fired because he didn't attract the 'sexy', headline funding. He quietly raised money to pay for his ongoing research as and when he needed it. His failure was the inability to grasp that his university – which isn't so different from lots of others – care far less about the discoveries made than the headlines achieved from lottery-style grants. 'X wins £50m grant' is the dream THES or New Scientist headline, not '£50,000 for Grimm'.
Your current level of funding does not constitute the appropriate level for a professor at Imperial College. Unless you submit and are awarded a Platform grant as PI in the next 12 months we will seek to initiate disciplinary action against you. This email constitutes a warning that your performance is being monitored and that action may be brought if you fail to meet the conditions herein
Grimm was told he had to bring in £200,000 p.a. – not contractually, but let's leave that aside. His letter explains that he did that through a series of small grants, but that wasn't good enough: it had to be the stuff of headlines, or 'impact' as it's officially known in the Research Assessment Framework to which we all have to submit.

This isn't about science - it's about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving. Grimm was informed – in public – that he was to be fired, and left waiting for the axe to fall while the axe-wielder marauded around the campus boasting about it like an even more pathetic Alan Sugar.
I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money, be it professors for their grant income or students who pay 100.- pounds just to extend their write-up status. 
If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. With our apoptosis genes and the concept of Anticancer Genes we have developed something that is probably much more exciting than most other projects, including those that are heavily supported by grants.

This is not, I shouldn't have to say, how academia works. Peter Higgs, of Higgs Boson fame, said that there was 'no Eureka moment' to his work, and he only has 4 papers listed on Google Scholar: but what papers! Science rarely has a Eureka moment: it's rather a series of careful, thoughtful developments of work done by one's forebears and peers. A management which demands a Eureka a day is one which doesn't just not 'get' academia, it's a management which contradicts the academic method and it's one which has forgotten that it's meant to serve the needs of science, the arts, students and researchers, not the insatiable maw of attention seeking 'Leaders' (that's the word they use now) and the PR office. It's also a management that kills.

I am not Stefan Grimm and my university does not have the same reputation for bullying that Imperial has, but I've been a UCU caseworker for long enough to be able to recount (were it not for professional confidentiality) a long list of stories almost as awful as Stefan's. Thankfully none of my colleagues have killed themselves, but I've seen careers ended in bitterness and failure because individuals didn't fit into a corporate vision of efficiency and attention-grabbing Eureka moments. The twin demands of a marketised HE sector and the deforming and frankly dumb priorities of the REF conspire to distort educational and research processes, aided in many cases by management structures which hire those who've forgotten the basic notions of collegiality and progress through community. 'We' are just a workforce to be exploited and 'they' are the equivalent of commodities traders, ramping up the share price and being rewarded for short-termism.

My friend Kate over in Australia, while coping with cancer, has been tracing the cultural and social effects of this turn in HE. She and her colleague Richard Hall call it the 'anxiety machine', in discussing academic labour in Foucauldian terms, while Melonie Fullick (not Fullback as auto-correct keeps insisting) draws attention to the hidden levels of mental health problems in HE produced by the weight of the anxiety machine. Stefan's death would be no surprise to her, nor to any of my UCU caseworker colleagues.
Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.
Compared to many, academics have an easy life. Little manual labour, indoors, largely engaging with the things that inspire us, and passing on those passions to students and colleagues. And yet: like nurses and doctors, the work can't be quantified despite the best efforts of funding agencies and appraisers, and it never stops at 5 o'clock or when you leave the office or classroom (I got back to work last January to find students had phoned my office on Christmas Day). We already want to be good – at teaching, at advising, at researching, at planning, at writing, at supervising – yet we know that most of the people in the room are smarter than us. No wonder 'impostor syndrome' is rife on campuses. Add to that the often unexplained priorities imposed on us by a management far-removed from classroom life or active research if they ever were academics, and it's a recipe for self-imposed burnout.

One of my friends told me about his first job, in a well-known software/outsourcing company. A government tender would appear. His company would throw in an outrageously low and unsupported bid, promising too much, too soon, too cheaply. They'd win it, and only then would management tell the workforce what they had to do and how much it would cost. Inevitably costs would soar, deadlines would be missed and some of those executing the task would be fired. The management? They carried on regardless: winning the contract was all that mattered and they were richly rewarded. It strikes me that this permanent revolution/permanent crisis is now the dominant mode in HE. This is how Richard Hall puts it:
inside the University as it is restructured for value, and as it is recalibrated as a means of production, academics and students are separated and exploited through their abstract labour. Even worse, this separation afflicts and undermines the relationships that emerge between those with tenure (who are transformed into the impacted), and the precariously employed graduate student or post-doc, or the undergraduate who is forced into a precarious existence rooted in unpaid academic labour that is disciplined through a financialised existence.
I know plenty of professors and star researchers who eat, sleep and breathe research, and can't understand why their junior colleagues (try to) insist on playing with their children on a Sunday afternoon or going home at 6. 'You can't do a PhD and have a social life', my predecessor told me. I'm no star (my research record is meagre, to put it kindly), but my students and colleagues know that I'm always here, and I've lost count of the times I've been locked in the building at 10 p.m. Does it make me a better academic? You wouldn't think so if you attended my lectures, or read my papers! It makes me an anxious one. The difference is that I'll cheerfully admit it: I sometimes wonder how many of my colleagues feel the same way.

It's not just what we do, it's also how we do it. Just as Stefan discovered that doing good, unheralded work wasn't acceptable, there's a culture of individualism that goes against everything I though academia valued. What got me publishing again was co-writing. Working with someone else kept me going, partly out of a desire not to disappoint my colleague once a commitment had been made. From that wholly positive experience has come more co-writing opportunities with other people, but also some solo work. I thought that was the point: not the lone gunman but the pack of huskies dragging the academic sled along together (OK, I'll drop the metaphors now). The REF, however, has put a dampener on this: in my field we're being told that co-written work is less valuable and that journal articles are more valuable than books. The message is clear: drop your mates and churn out those papers, rather than work collegially and invest time and effort in long-form thought. It's the numbers that count, not the work itself. Ordinarily, I'd say we should look to our Professors for resistance, but they've gone. Stefan's dead. Others have been turned into cogs serving the bureaucracy. Yet more have internalised the values of the academic market because they're winners. The rest are just keeping their tenured heads down.

As Kate puts it, the culture of frenzied overwork isn't just self-harming: it harms those we acculturate into the same practices, like cycling team leaders encouraging their domestiques to dope. Is there workplace resistance? To an extent. Put a few thousand high-achievers on a campus and they'll talk. Perhaps that's why my campus no longer has a class-room and all-staff Faculty meetings have been abolished ('too negative', apparently). But we're all well aware that there are 30 eager and innocent new PhDs desperate to do each of our jobs, for less money with less security. We're also trapped by our intellectual sophistication. We're like the Byzantines waiting for the Fourth Crusade. We think the approaching hordes are on our side. They look just like us, speak our language and understand what we're for. But as the Byzantines found, the Western Christian forces weren't on their side at all. They didn't come to defend the city against the non-Christian hordes: they came to strip it of all that's valuable while it was still there. While we ponder every side of the argument, they drive people like Stefan to their deaths.

As for me: it's back to work. If I don't do it, somebody else will have to. And so it continues.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Momentary cultural interruptions

OK, I've been pretty slack on the blogging front for some time now, though in my defence I have moved house while doing extra teaching and work-related stuff. This week I'm reading a colleague's manuscript on Hindu-derived new religious movements (it's fascinating ethnography) and trying to read Game of Thrones. Not by choice: I read the first two as a teenager and hated them, even though I had absolutely no standards at all. (Confession time: I was a member of the Tolkien Society for a couple of years – and obviously very very lonely). Re-acquainting myself with these turgid volumes isn't a pleasure at all, but I'm supervising an undergraduate dissertation on them and I'm pretty certain my student will produce something good so that will keep me going.

I'm really breaking the blog silence because amongst all the madness (such as two solid days sterilising my flat in the no doubt vain hope of getting my deposit back from my appalling landlord) I've had a couple of glorious cultural experiences. Last Saturday we went with a bunch of students and colleagues to see John Webster's The White Devil at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. In case you've missed him, Webster gets a cameo in Shakespeare in Love as a rather nasty little boy only interested in the murderous bits. It's not entirely inaccurate: Webster's work is consistently interested in the dark, curdled antics of foreigners, Catholics, women and aristocrats. It's a degraded world in which principles have been replaced by malign motives – all played out on stage. It's not like the decorous world of Greek theatre in which all the gore is off stage: Webster and his fellow authors of revenge tragedies have it out in front. Nobody is pure, or innocent. I have to say that even though I never watch horror or crime films, I do love the poisonous, violent revenge tragedies however dodgy the plotting can be. Shakespeare's way too dainty and thoughtful – sometimes you just need a dose of uncomplicated nastiness! That's what got Jacobean bums on seats.

The moral decay of The White Devil's Italian setting was beautifully captured in the RSC's modern-dress version. Louche aristocrats lounged around in standard-issue oligarch summer clothes (white suits, Ray-Bans) while organising the murder of their brothers, sisters, wives and rivals. Nobody escapes: even the innocent child who is the last one standing kicks the corpse of the assassins and laughs - clearly the next generation has learned nothing.

The only dramatic choice I questioned was re-casting Flaminio the pander as Flaminia: it added a distracting and unconvincing lesbian frisson, though the actor's performance was excellent. Turning a prime corrupter into a woman meant losing some of the sense that females in this world were deeply insecure and left with few options other than to gravitate towards powerful men and to do down rivals in order to survive. Women don't get a good press in this play, but turning Flaminio into Flaminia made them even more the authors of their own degradation.

The production itself was stunning. A live band provided threatening, creepy music (often Massive Attack). The cast was large. A bare stage and electronic projections re-imagined Renaissance Rome as a vaguely contemporary set of social spaces: a women's prison, a nightclub, the oligarch's mansion. Blood was – of course – everywhere. Laughs were raised at least from my colleagues from gags about the Wild Irish playing football with their enemies' heads. I think the students enjoyed it once their ears tuned into the rhyming couplets and language, and I certainly did: I've read the play for undergraduate study but never seen it performed.

The second highlight of the week came yesterday, when Scott McCracken of Keele University came to tell us about his huge project to produce a complete works of Dorothy Richardson of whom Virginia Woolf wrote 'If she is right, then I am wrong'. He says we're no longer allowed to call her 'unjustly neglected', though most of us in the room had read none or only a little of her work. Why not? Well, she produced a 13-novel series called Pilgrimage entirely in what everyone else called 'stream of consciousness', a phrase Richardson hated.

We talked about all sorts of things, from the watery metaphors continually applied to experimental modernists, Richardson's handwriting and use of spacing to convey meaning – or open the text to readers' meanings – her representation of time and how it derived from Bergson, her incredible cultural network, HG Wells's sex life, Ricoeur's concepts of mimesis, the evolution of modernisms, the influence of cinema on literary representation, the problems of choosing a typeface and most interestingly, the question of whether Richardson was an essentialist or a dialectician when it comes to identity formation. Very lazily, I'd assumed that the stream of consciousness was anti-essentialist: that the self is a thing in constant progress. Scott's point, however, is that Richardson's style represents a search for a Romantic inner, stable self. So obviously I need to read her again and more…

Friday, 21 November 2014

Not drowning but waving.

What a week. I am quite literally bruised, but also exhilarated. Some great things have happened. I did my usual load of teaching, and the classes went really well – lots of talkative people. I particularly liked the Chinese student who said the most annoying thing about moving to the UK was discovering that the Chinese President has a Twitter feed and Facebook page, while banning those services in China. She also said that Chinese TV is all cooking and 'talent' shows too, so nobody should feel superior.

On Tuesday I visited Newham College's University Centre, which is accredited by the Open University. I'm the external examiner there - EE's are the method by which universities know their standards are kept high. We all offer different things, but the idea is that we're equally testing. Our own English Lit external told us that the students who get First class degrees would achieve the same at her own Russell Group establishment – any other league tables, reviews, newspaper pieces and marketing claims are meaningless besides EE reports. NUC, I can tell you, is a gem. It's tiny and relatively new, so the students luxuriate in small classes. The modules are innovative, rigorous and fascinating, and the staff are intellectual, uproariously amusing, opinionated, caring and very progressive (so are their children, I discovered). The recent graduates I met are also lovely – sparky, clever and questioning. The first one I met told me all about her dissertation on food culture and Baudrillard: she's a fan of my colleague William's book on the philosopher. If that was a set-up, it was a damn good one. Weirdest of all, I met the management and the staff and they all said very complimentary things about each other. Those people are actually happy! I never knew management and academics could peacefully co-exist. Perhaps it'll catch on!

If I lived down there, I'd happily take a course at NUC. They also don't stint on the cake.

After a happy morning, I wandered off to meet my sister, my latest niece and her toddler brother. I hadn't met the baby yet. True to form, she cried from the moment she was placed in my arms, and stopped as soon as I handed her back. I have the same effect on students come to think of it. My nephew and I bonded over shared addictions to posh cheese and haggis (not in the same course) and the family's cat was even more pleased to see me than anyone else because it gets ignored amongst the chaos of small children.

I did something really touristy on the way back. Instead of taking the tube back into central London, I walked down to the Cutty Sark and took a boat back to London Bridge. Night was falling and the city looked magical from Canary Wharf (which I think of as one big financial crime scene), under Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London into the heart of the city in just half an hour, for £6. I'd love to do the full cruise down the river, and I'm never going to get the underground on that route again. Then it was on to a train home, during which I finished a piece for the Times Higher on politicians' novels ('why do politicians kill?')

The next day was moving day. I spent the morning with my rather underpowered but nice movers carrying 60 massive boxes of books and records down three flights of stairs to the lorry - I'm still covered in cuts and bruises. By the time I left to go to a meeting, I was shattered. We founded an MA course in the afternoon and I took my Media Ethics class later on, while I tried not to think about how they were throwing the vinyl around. Then the evening descended into farce: I expected to let myself into the house and find the flat keys and new house keys there. At this point I discovered that the 'spare' keys weren't anything of the sort. Even with the help of a neighbour who helped me over a couple of locked gates, none of the keys got me in. The movers' phones weren't ringing. I had to call a locksmith, who got the front door open in 5 seconds with a piece of plastic (£85). No keys can be found. More to the point, no furniture either. I start to wonder whether the movers have crashed their lorry when along they came - they'd had to dismantle all 15 bookcases to get them out of the flat, which took ages, and their phone batteries had died. Naturally I felt like an impoverished idiot, but hugely relieved. They took the last lorry load home with them and I went off to sleep in my bare, echoing flat…the sleep of the truly wrecked. My belongings are going to remain packed until the house is painted top to bottom over the next couple of months.

But not for long - the next day I had to meet a decorator who turned out to be a former Cultural Studies lecturer, so we chose paints according to the semiotic method. My missing furniture turned up, then I hared back to the university to record an interview with Jon Gower who came up from Cardiff to talk about Caradoc Evans: it's the 100th anniversary of My People, Evans's scandalous short story collection. The programme is going out on Radio Wales in early January. I'm not sure why Jon asked me, given the eminence of the other contributors, but it was fantastically enjoyable. The panel will talk about Evans's Welsh reputation: My People attacked (in English!) what he saw as the dead hand of nonconformist liberalism and rural Wales's Gothic darkness, so my job was to talk about him in the context of anglophone literature, his reputation outside Wales, and the literary nature of his work. I suggested that he was part of the post-Victorian Angry Young Men movement, alongside Lytton Strachey and Edmund Gosse, similar to Joyce, Brinsley MacNamara and Lawrence, influenced by Hardy and Zola, an influence on Gwyn Thomas and akin to Steinbeck and Faulkner in that all three loved but were compelled to attack the societies which spawned their work. No doubt this will all sound appallingly pretentious in the broadcast, and it doesn't help that my voice sounds like the quacking of a bronchitic duck.

Jon's one of the world's renaissance characters. I made the mistake of asking him what he has on after the radio piece. The answer? 7 fiction and non-fiction books in two languages, a couple of TV documentaries, and he's running a very good publishing firm. He gave me a tip about another (unpublished) politician-thriller writer and a personal introduction, and a list of Welsh-language science fiction titles I'd missed for another thing I have in mind. The man is a whirlwind of activity, but one given solidity by sheer intellect. I'm never going to claim to be busy again.

So that's the end of the week. All I have to do this weekend is attend The White Devil with some students and colleagues, and clean my flat to such levels of perfection that even this landlord – a lying cheating devil of such wickedness that Beelzebub would be compelled to say 'steady on old chap' – can't retain my deposit. What are the chances of that?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

This week…

Review a play and a PhD proposal and a journal article.
Write a piece for the THES
Write a piece for the university magazine.
Departmental meetings.
Fencing regional committee meeting.
Seminar on higher education with visiting Nigerian senior academic managers (this was enormously rewarding but a lot of extra work)
Design an MA
Paint new house
Pack up old house
Clean old flat to ensure that grasping landlord gimp has no excuse to steal my deposit
Move house.

I won't even have time to form opinions about anything, let alone blog. In the meantime, have some Havergal Brian.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

News from Nowhere

Last Saturday, I went to Stoke-on-Trent's Potteries Museum and Art Gallery for the annual Stephen Hagger Lecture (very sadly I was the youngest there by a good twenty years, and too many of them were from the National Trust wing of Morris fans). This year's lecturer was Fiona MacCarthy, design historian and biographer of Edward Burne-Jones, Eric Gill and William Morris, whose life and influence was her subject for the day. What links these three men and those around them is a commitment to art as a way of life: from the production of goods they evolved a philosophy of community, economics and politics – especially Morris. Stoke is the perfect venue for a lecture on William Morris. The industry which sustained the city was pottery: thousands of highly skilled workers producing globally-renowned items of astonishing beauty, and yet the city is a depressing sump of deprivation and unemployment now, and always was ugly: talk about alienation in action.

Morris, by GF Watts

Morris is perhaps best known as a designer of hugely expensive wallpaper and furniture: the current revival of interest in Victorian Gothic has placed him front and centre. However, he was also an accomplished novelist, typographer, poet, songwriter and revolutionary socialist activist. From his aesthetic interest in the medieval period evolved a conviction that industrial society and production led to degradation of the spirit. From Marx, he learned that alienated work beggared us not only economically but spiritually. He learned every skill from the basics, even making his own dyes for wallpapers and tapestries, and when Morris and Co. was founded, ran the company along egalitarian lines.

Morris seems to have been a force of nature - constantly trying new things, full of energy and also enormous fun: his friend Burne-Jones's cartoons of him are affectionate as well as satirical:

Basically, he was a big fat jolly man who couldn't sit still: his death was ascribed to a doctor as due to 'simply being William Morris and having done the work of most ten men'.

I don't know if Morris's aesthetic appeals to you. I find the wallpaper beautiful but too busy, but the late period 'Arts and Crafts' furniture is really to my taste, and I'd love some of the ceramics designed by his associate William de Morgan.

a de Morgan pot

Morris developed a conviction that beautiful things must be useful things - his followers became the kind of sandalled vegetarian liberals that Orwell hated so much. The contradiction for Morris, of course, is that producing hand-made work ethically cost a fortune, so his customers were only what he called the 'swinish rich'. At least – unlike now – Morris's workers were making a decent living from selling expensive goods to these scum: in our day the shareholders profit while goods are made by slaves in sweatshops.

While I can't afford Morris furniture, glass, wallpaper or ceramics (and in the antiques context their cultural meaning is very different from what he intended), I can read his books and poetry, and I have a cheap facsimile of his astonishing version of Chaucer's work. His novel News From Nowhere is perhaps the most accessible.

News from Nowhere

It's a Utopian fantasy set in a Britain which underwent a socialist revolution in 1952. Classes, law, finance, private property and cities have been abandoned and the people live in agrarian, peaceful, small villages (we tend to part company here: I grew up in the countryside and it's more Cold Comfort Farm than communist paradise). The details are less important than Morris's underlying assumption that human nature is essentially altruistic. Our faults, he says, are those of industrial, capitalist urbanism. It produces competition, hatred, violence, oppression and (not incidentally, aesthetic ugliness).
it is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays. And, again, that leads me to my last claim, which is that the material surroundings of my life should be pleasant, generous, and beautiful; that I know is a large claim, but this I will say about it, that if it cannot be satisfied, if every civilised community cannot provide such surroundings for all its members, I do not want the world to go on
Reforming work will lead to beauty both internal and external, open to all. In this common weal, beauty is a condition of justice, and vice versa: the inhabitants, we're told, could not be happy knowing that fellow citizens are in prison, or trapped in loveless relations: mutuality is the key to social harmony (in contrast to the current Justice Secretary, who is scrapping the Human Rights Act and has banned sending books to prisoners). This was also the basis of his Socialist League

Simply the design of the membership card brings me to the real point of this rambling post. Art and labour brought together. The card is simply beautiful. It proclaims the unity of politics, life and art and above all it is optimistic. Like News From Nowhere, it assumes that the socialist future will transform people's lives for the better. When did we stop believing this? It's still there in Atlee's 1951 Festival of Britain (yes, the Tories took power in 1950 but the Festival was planned under the pioneering 1945-50 Labour government that founded the NHS and did so much more). After that? Not so much. Our supposed leaders are ashamed of the word socialist and whatever they do believe in, it isn't founded in optimism. Nor does it believe in a future which unifies love, life, joy, work, art and politics. Neither Labour nor the multiple far-left splinter groups offer anything positive. We spend our time accepting the ideological boundaries of neoliberalism and finding ways to mitigate the damage it does. I can't imagine the Milibands, Clegg, the SWP leadership or any of the others being able to understand the emotional or spiritual aspects of socialism that are integral to Morris's version.

Stunted by 'politics', they've lost us because they no longer have anything positive to offer beyond technocratic fixes. There's no way of life embodied in modern politics. There is in rightwing politics, but it too consists of joylessness: the Tories and UKIP spend their time saying 'no' to things – foreigners, human rights, the poor, community, altruism. That's OK: beyond Major's lazy fantasy of old maids cycling to communion, capitalist politics has always been about material acquisition. But it's not true of us. The left has forgotten that Marx, for all his talk of materialism, was funny, cultured and engaged with more than just economics - that's why his work is shot through with Shakespeare. Economics was part of his philosophy of life, rather than the other way round. Once the economics was sorted, he thought, our social, spiritual and philosophical ones would be too: happiness was the end, not simply material comfort. Morris knew this, and acted on it.

So why have we ended up with a political culture which would rather have us fulminating against 'scroungers', immigrants, Europe and each other, or competing over who can inflict most austerity to win votes rather than a labour movement which has a positive vision of how life could be. Last week the government gleefully announced that it would rather let African migrants drown than address the causes of their desperation. Every dead African is a vote reclaimed from UKIP, or so it hopes.

When did we forget that politics could be a vehicle for aspiration and happiness rather than a game of beggar-thy-neighbour? I believe, like Morris, that my fellow citizens are essentially altruistic and well-meaning, that given reform of our industrial, political and social structures this altruism could be liberated to achieve a better society. This is why I teach, and why I teach in an unfashionable ex-polytechnic in an unfashionable town (that and being essentially unemployable otherwise). The lesson of Morris is that all are capable of blossoming under and deserve justice and beauty – it's a socialism of humanity rather than just of economics: this isn't the 'art will civilise the brutish lumpenproletariat' argument of people like Matthew Arnold. It's the idea that intellectual and emotional freedom means nothing if it's reserved for the powerful or the 'swinish rich'. Hence Jeremy Deller's Venice Biennale painting:

It's called 'We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold' as was inspired by Roman Abramovich mooring his mega-yacht in the middle of Venice, obscuring the views adored by Morris's hero Ruskin, without a thought for others. So here's WM, hurling Eclipse (the world's second largest yacht: two helicopter pads, two swimming pools etc.) out of the way. Morris really does seem to be having a moment.

I'd give up if I wasn't an optimist. I just wish there was a political party I could vote for that feels the same way. Suggestions on a postcard?

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Homeopathic education from 'alternative providers'.

Are you a student at an 'alternative provider'? You could be forgiven if you're not sure - the terminology is deliberately obscure (and pedagogically suspect). 'Alternative providers' are usually private corporations which happen to be in the education business, teaching mostly HNDs awarded by the giant vampire squid that is Pearson Education, though a small number are non-profit set-ups.

Like 'alternative medicine', 'alternative providers' of education (I hate the idea that we 'provide' education like a workhouse overseer ladling out porridge to waifs) appear not to work. Andrew McGettigan's explosive article in the Times Higher Education Supplement points out that a shockingly low number of students at one particular institution submit work or attain the qualification, despite being funded as full-timers for two years and having five years in which to complete the course. Recruitment material strongly promotes the state funding available to students recruited from the EU, while the quality assurance bodies have little or no access to retention and progression statistics.

The USA has long had a system of private provision of higher and further education, and a shorter but notorious history of provision by for-profit organisations. Most notorious of all is Phoenix, which started off as a decent enough degree-completion outfit, but later became the biggest 'university' in the US when it listed on the stock exchange, with half a million students at any one time. The problem was that only 40% of those students left with a degree: the rest stayed, on average, enrolled for four months. Phoenix is only the worst and most prominent example of these vulture colleges.

Why do they exist? Simply as a means to channel taxpayers' money away from the state and established non-profit HE institutions towards corporate America: it's an ideological move. The free-marketeers are convinced that for-profit organisations are efficient and competitive. Perhaps they are, if the bottom line is all you care about, which I don't think should be the case with education. Every penny of shareholder dividend and executive pay (and Phoenix's profit margins, despite massive student drop-out rates, were around 27% while 18% of the budget was spent on teaching) is removed from research budgets, equipment provision, student support and so on. Economies are made be removing the essential bits of the university experience: being taught by highly-qualified educators at the cutting edges of their fields. Instead, you increase class sizes, cut contact hours, teach from a website or textbook, and dump complicated subjects. Business English ahoy! This also means – pleasingly for a government and indeed political establishment across parties that doesn't recognise non-market thought as valid – that critical thinking will be very much off the menu. Forever.

The quieter motive of course is to lance what right-wingers see as the liberal boil: universities (as Mr Gove's assault on university teacher-education demonstrates) are thought to be hotbeds of opposition to the onward march of market progress.

The providers of for-profit education are, however, not free-marketeers. Like Serco, G4S and co., they pose as competitive capitalists, while making all their money from the state. The UK recently followed the US in providing state monies to private education providers. In the US, companies like Phoenix simply sucked on this cash pipe and forgot to even pretend that they existed for educational purposes. The cash didn't follow on attainment, just enrolment, so there was no incentive to ensure only students with potential for completion were enrolled, nor to ensure they stayed on the courses and gained their qualifications.

As one Phoenix student puts it, the organisation is
"kind of like a car dealership. They want to get you in the door," and "want you to have success with the car. They want it to go well for you. But if it doesn't, they've already been paid."

Instead, turnover became key: far more was spent on recruitment and marketing than on academic support. The shareholders aren't interested in attainment or whether their students should be taking on debt to pay for uncompleted or dubious qualifications, just as McDonald's shareholders couldn't care less about their customers' cholesterol levels as long as they keep ordering more.

The same happened in the UK. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private providers sprang up once the Tories and their Lib Dem colleagues authorised state funding. They employed agents across the EU and in the UK to recruit students, many of whom rarely if ever darkened the classroom door or troubled to submit work. The colleges were happy – they've been paid – and so were the students, who acquired a chunk of cash they had little intention of repaying either. So much cash disappeared for so little educational return that even this government had to suspend a swathe of these dodgy organisations, but the push is still very much on, and some very ill-advised universities and FE colleges have even supported this venture for no reason I can see. At least some of us traditional institutions still have a pang of conscience when Admissions recruit students whom we know aren't up to it: for the private providers, such people are the ideal customer. I'd love to see one or two of them invoke the Sale of Goods act and other consumer protection legislation, seeing as they've been turned into consumers.

This is one of the most cynical and scandalous stories of recent times, but it's also invisible (the banks and the DWP tend to dominate the few investigations into financial corruption, but we should be furious about it. For political reasons, a government decided that our money could be handed out to fly-by-night shysters to exploit vulnerable students and reward fake ones. I mention banks because they're a prime equivalent. Blinded by ideology, the government believed that the free market leads to 'best practice'. The banks stole from us, from each other and from the government via mis-selling, manipulation and crime (that's you, HSBC). They couldn't help it: that's what capitalism is. It's not about level playing fields and honour. Companies spot advantages and take them. The private providers of education were offered free money without regulation or responsibility, and they took it. That money was taken from funding for reputable universities and FE colleges with a history and reputation for fairness and student support. Higher Education funding is being reduced, and increasing chunks of it are being reserved for these vampire colleges. Massive debts have been loaded on to taxpayers and good educators have been weakened, all because a government blinded by theory (and their personal shareholdings) abandoned students and embraced rip-off merchants. They aren't educators. They're tax miners who happen to be doing a little educating along the way (to flog the 'alternative' point to death, they're taking our money to provide homeopathic levels of education).

There's an election in May. Just saying.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Why let facts get in the way of a good campaign, Paul?

Over on my local MP's Twitter feed, you can see him boasting about the frankly astonishing uplift in employment in the constituency.

I think we can all agree that roughly 800 people a year either getting jobs or falling off the unemployment register (which is what really matters to politicians) is an amazing result. And I'm sure some of them won't be doing part-time, zero-hours or self-employed work for tiny sums at all. No, it's a stupendous figure. Statues should be erected to Mr Uppal for his sterling work in saving these people's lives.

But what's this? There are naysayers abroad, people who doubt Paul's claims about the economic revival! Just look at them!

What's wrong with these people? Can't they see the economic miracle? The greatest resurrection since the big one? What on earth could have prompted this mean-spirited attack on Mr Uppal's efforts?

Ah. I think I get it. When Paul proclaims the Employment Miracle, it's because he's hoping we thank the Conservative government. When his own local Conservative Party attacks the Unemployment Disaster, it's because there's a Labour council which should get the blame. So let's be clear: there's a Conservative Employment Success Story and a Labour Jobs Fail…using the same statistics. 

Isn't politics wonderful?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Grab yourself a whore and settle in

I'm getting increasingly bored by the glut of super-hero films: the studios are now run by men in their late 40s trying to recreate the witty glee of 1978s Superman and its ilk, unhampered by reflection on the fact that their feelings about such films is coloured by seeing them when they were boys. The nostalgia is accompanied by cold hard commercial concerns: they conceive of the audience as a later generation of teen boys and find it nigh on impossible to make films for adults, women, teenage girls (other than vilely patronising rom-coms).

The latest bit of boy-man rubbish is that some extra, once caught, will be fined $5 million (affect a Dr Evil tone for that bit) for leaking the top-secret hush-hush news that the new Batman movie will have a FEMALE Robin.


I just think it's embarrassing that in this day and age, it's considered a major transgressive, progressive move to make a familiar and relatively unimportant character female. It suggests that the studio chiefs, directors, producers and scriptwriters still think of women as The Other, and assume that their audience does the same. Of course it's possible that the female Robin has been cast so that homophobes behind the camera and in the stalls can't giggle about the homosocial bond between these two men. Far better that Batman has a female junior: 'normal' gender roles return!

She-Robin will become a symbol rather than a character: every time we point out that female superheroes are always sexualised in ways the men aren't, their defenders will whine that they 'let' us have a female Robin (and hope that we don't notice the inevitable marginalisation and gendered nature of said representation). Commissioning 'erotic artist' Milo Minara for Spider-woman is just the latest example of a tawdry, sleazy tradition:

The obvious rejoinder to this is to say that it's better than nothing. As a Doctor Who fan, I was disappointed by the latest selection of yet another white male Doctor, however excellent I think Capaldi is. It's about time such roles were taken by women without any fuss being made about it whatsoever. I'd like the next director to say 'we auditioned x number of people and she was the best fit', rather than – as the Batman people evidently have in mind – using the moment as a big shock.

A friend tells me that Robin's been female in the comics for some time – I wonder whether the same arguments popped up when that happened. Films are different, of course: the history of comic book adaptations is of massively widened audiences consuming watered-down versions of characters held dear by 'real' fans: The Kick-Ass films, for instance, skipped the gang-rape of KA's girlfriend, thankfully.

We seem to be at a particularly low point in gender representation. The whole Gamergate thing reminded me of a particularly good undergraduate dissertation one of my former students wrote. A keen gamer, she simply recorded and analysed the comments, conversations and behaviours of fellow players when she played as a supposed male and as a female. So the vile poison of Gamergate was no surprise: I've read all the rape threats and torture propositions before – my student was a tough cookie but I still worried about the cumulative effect of this stuff. Gamergate, in case you have a life, started off as a nasty personal spat between games developer Zoe Quinn and her ex-partner, who posted some petty and apparently untrue accusations on his blog relating to her professionalism and morality. Before long, certain corners of the internet spawned regiments of male gamers pouring out misogynistic bile and claiming that the real problem is journalists' failure to 'understand' the ethos of online gaming, which they feel should be a space removed from 'real life' politics and social movements. To them, games are goal-oriented quests with pretty basic requirements: killing, and scantily-clad women to provide sexual services or be killed. And perhaps some magic rings thrown in. This, they feel is 'normal'. Anything else is 'political' or (perhaps even worse) 'art'. Ugh. To recap: games which privilege white males slaughtering Vietnamese/Native Americans/Orcs/aliens etc., and reducing women to sidekicks, prostitutes or slaves isn't political, while mentioning this is political, and engaged in by SJWs, or 'social justice warriors'. No wonder Charlie Brooker is driven to despair:
Never, ever choose “woman” on your first playthrough of The Internet, because you’ll face an immediate difficulty spike. Suddenly it’s a stealth game with nowhere to hide, one with hundreds of respawning enemies waiting to attack you the moment you make a noise or stand out in any way whatsoever.
I SAID DIE U FUCKN WHORE says the game, accompanied by an animated gif of your head on a porn star’s body.
You decide to see what you’re carrying, by typing INVENTORY.
You try something else. You type GO NORTH.
The game thinks for a while, then distributes your home address and phone number and threatens to murder you and your entire family.

They particularly hate independent games authors who don't provide said slaughter'n'slags action. Some of them are even WOMEN. Which just proves to them that women aren't gamers and have no sense of humour. Apparently.

Take this well-spoken chap who has recorded a 20 minute walk-through of Dragon Age in which he matter-of-factly goes looking through the brothel, in which he meets a woman who describes her time as a prostitute as 'fun times' (around 3.45).

This is also the game Anita Sarkeesian points out contains the injunction to

Having made that point, Sarkeesian has had to cancel several lectures because she's received death threats, and left her home. Quinn wrote a game about suffering from depression: this is apparently 'too dark' for gaming (despite the multiple games in which you can play an SS officer for instance), and like Sarkeesian these critics have made their points through the medium – again – of death threats. As she explains,
"the Internet spent the last month spreading my personal information around, sending me threats, hacking anyone suspected of being friends with me, calling my dad and telling him I'm a whore, sending nude photos of me to colleagues, and basically giving me the 'burn the witch' treatment"
Amusingly, said threats come from people who say that online content and other media activity have 'no effect on real life'. I don't like this false distinction, and it seems that someone who'll simultaneously say 'it's just a game' while sending assassination threats doesn't really believe it either.

Does it matter, given that these keyboard warriors are a small band of men? It does, because they're vocal, they drown out debate far beyond their numbers. They've hijacked the terms of the discussion and they've moved from issues to identity. To them, it's not enough to disagree with other people's opinions - they issue personal threats or stay silent when others do the same. They've achieved the silencing of women and their male allies, and even ended careers. Depressingly, there's the inevitable hashtag for these anti-political warriors: #NotYourShield, which claims that accusation of misogyny are used as a weapon to evade the 'real' core of the argument: journalistic ethics when writing about games. The bigots even funded a supposedly feminist group to design a fantasy character called Vivian James – the result is an embarrassing tamed girl-woman whom the loons are now depicting as an innocent victim of these ball-breaking commie man-haters:

It reminds me of break time at school, when the girls mooched around the edges of the playground while the boys took up the space to play football, and this was accepted as natural.

BY this point, you're probably as bored and depressed as I am. The difference is, I'm going to have to teach this stuff, in media ethics classes, to male and female gamers. I'll say one thing for cultural studies: there's never any shortage of new material for discussion. I think I'll stop now – I'm pretty certain the #NotYourShield people will have enough death threats lying around to spare one for little ol' me.

PS. I'm such a politically-correct pinko liberal that I stopped playing games when I realised Civilisation II was rigged so that you couldn't win by running a peaceful, socialist economy.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Apocalypse No

Amongst the many literary sub-genres I keep an eye on with a view to one day doing some work is the dystopian novel, particularly the Young Adult variety. There are so many – I've tagged 120 of my works with 'dystopia', 56 with 'dystopian' and 33 with 'apocalypse' on Librarything (though there's some overlaps). The types of dystopia presented move with the cultural and political times: obviously nuclear war figured prominently between the 50s and the late 80s. Various shades of authoritarianism are similarly present in Cold War-era fictions, while environmental collapse starts to appear in the 60s and really gets going in the late 70s. Climate change becomes the most common theme in adolescents' fiction in the 90s. There are also some oddities: I own a copy of the graphic novel Apocalypse Meow, which depicts the Vietnam War as fought by Viet Cong cats and American rabbits. Tim Lebbon's Bar None parodies John Wyndham's post-holocaust tales as a quest narrative between Welsh pubs, while Dick Morland's Albion, Albion draws on 80s fears to present a Britain descending into fascism as a response to football hooliganism.

Thank heavens football has become the expensive preserve of the middle classes with better manners.

The YA dystopian genre might change the nature of its disaster, but the structures don't much change. Children, we're wearingly told, are the future. Adults are compromised, cynical, defeatist or plain evil. They've let terrible things happen or deliberately caused them. The young are the innocent victims and only they have the moral purpose and intellectual clarity to save civilisation (or at least to try).

There's also something interesting going on around the origins of this morality. Heroes from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen are Kantians: only in the most sophisticated versions do they experience philosophical ambiguity or confusion. For the most part, they just know what is the right thing to do (the most horrific of these smug know-it-alls are of course Peter, Susan, Lucy and eventually Edmund  in C. S. Lewis's Narnia tales: that train crash couldn't come soon enough for me), and this is what makes these particular individuals heroes/chosen ones or whatever. Adults, it seems, are Benthamites or consequentialists: those who aren't simply enemies of Justice are rendered passive by their failure to act boldly. The kids, however, are uncompromised by calculation: their morality is pure and instinctive, though we rarely find out where it comes from. My assumption is that this is simply authors pandering to readers just discovering philosophical and ideological principles. Certainly this is how it worked for me: I inhaled this kind of stuff as a teenager, which is how I ended up joining Militant and marching for a multitude of causes. Certain issues seemed (and to some extent still seem) obvious: inequality, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons and so on.

Whether my reading led me to sharp-edged politics or politics led me to this kind of fiction, I couldn't say, but I'm still a member of CND, I'm a union activist and a supporter of various kinds of radical causes. No doubt if I'd been around in the 1640s I'd have been a hardline Royalist, a Roundhead or a Digger, at least until the serious billhook work hoved into view…

But recently, I've become rather suspicious of developments in dystopian fiction. Partly it's me, partly it's them. Me first. Quite simply, exposure to more and more sophisticated theory, plus living a more compromised life, means that the hard edges and simply solutions proposed by dystopian fiction – particularly the YA kind – no longer suffice. It's like the move from Marxism to Gramscian socialism, and thence to Foucault. Marx thought the oppressed masses would grasp the obvious nature of their situation. Gramsci explored the reasons why they didn't (hence the notions of cultural and political hegemony) and Foucault identified the distributed, discursive and internalised aspects of power and oppression as a lived experience. From this perspective, the Kantian purity of the dystopian hero looks evasive.

Which leads me to the second point: it's the books that changed too. Recently I read a very interesting dystopian novel, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, one of the recent flood (sorry) of disease dystopias (very fitting as the papers get hysterical over Ebola). Not long ago I read Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and before that, James Kunstler's World Made By Hand series. They're starting to worry me. Mandel's novel is far more sophisticated than the others: it follows a rag-tag travelling orchestra between tiny settlements of survivors around the former US/Canada border, detailing the protagonists' fractured memories of the past and how it impacts on their current conditions. Heller and Kunstler's novels are about individuals and small communities getting on with life post-technology.

Two things are really starting to bother me about this kind of text. Firstly, they seem to imply a certain satisfaction with the extermination of the vast majority of the population. Having cleared the planet of most of us, resourceful and intelligent individuals can get on with living a simpler life: it's like a mix of Walden, Wagon Train and The Good Life served on a bed of billions of bodies with added self-congratulations. There's little examination of the politics, sociology or technological which led to disaster: instead there's a dramatisation of good/intelligent survivors triumphing (or not) over bad ones. This critique isn't a new idea, of course: Brian Aldiss wrote about the 'cosy catastrophe' in his 1973 history of SF Billion Year Spree. In them, he said, middle-class people had rather a jolly time once the initial horror passes, after which they rebuild a society in their own image - try John Wyndham's work for examples, although I should point out that I'm a fan of Wyndham and think there are tougher moments. The excellent author Jo Walton wrote a very good piece on cosy catastrophes and their readers (link is to her summary: original article has vanished) in which she
argued that the cosy catastrophe was overwhelmingly written by middle-class British people who had lived through the upheavals and new settlement during and after World War II, and who found the radical idea that the working classes were people hard to deal with, and wished they would all just go away.
More contemporary texts have gone for the cosy catastrophe much more enthusiastically. Wyndham's generation had lived through World War Two, fighting, liberating concentration camps, having their cities blitzed, coped with rationing or seen pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: they didn't need much in the way of imaginary leaps to conceptualise the apocalypse, and can perhaps be forgiven for a degree of comfort. No such excuse applies to contemporary texts like The World Ends in Hickory Hollow in which good ol' Texas values carry on regardless, or Heller's The Dog Stars which actively seems to promote the apocalypse as a way of making space for hunting-shooting-fishing types to lead a more 'natural' life unencumbered by the mores of 'civilisation': that the protagonist spends a lot of time in his aeroplane looking down on the world and other people implies a certain contempt for the (slaughtered, unfit) masses which I've seen in a lot of aviation and mountaineering books from the 20s and 30s. People, these books seem to say, are largely scum and deserve what they get if they lack the skills and mental resources to survive. Walton points out too that while 50s readers (many of whom wouldn't be SF readers) wanted the poor to go away if they weren't going to settle for gainful employment as maids and footmen any more, the cosy catastrophe has made a home in Young Adult novels because 'teenagers do want all the grown-ups to go away'.

This isn't just an SF trope of course: pretty much every children's novel starts by removing parents to allow the adventures to start, whether it's adoption, going to stay with relatives for a holiday, orphans or disaster. Aunts and uncles may be good or bad, but they're about as close as you want your relatives – parents just impose authority and spoil all the fun. Famous Five, Swallows

While Station Eleven focuses on culture and World Made By Hand promotes hand crafts and small communities, I can't help feeling that they're little removed from the gun fetishism of The Survivalist and similar texts, despite their very different tones.

However, what struck me about Station Eleven and the other books I've read recently is that they're the products of decadence. Surely only a society that luxuriates in its impregnability and superiority can afford to fantasise about having it all taken away? These books are virtually all by, about and read by Western white people: I really doubt that Syrians and Yemenis are consuming dystopian novels in the midst of their troubles. The power of these texts is in the fantasy of stripped-down, individualist society in which a hero's innate strengths are revealed, having been crushed under the oppression of civil society pre-Disaster (I suspect this is what fuels rightwing politics in our societies too, hence all the opposition to 'political correctness' etc.).

Obviously nobody wants to read novels about protagonists doing good works by getting elected to the parish council or sitting on committees (except for me: I love George Eliot and Trollope), but however elegiac some of these dystopian novels can be, there's an implied rejection of ambiguity, complexity, communitarianism and empathy at their heart. This genre ignores the real struggles of our own lives and denies the tougher ones of the vast majority of the world's population. It normalises abundance and luxury, then lets us test our resilience by fantasising about living just like most of the world's people already do, but in the safety of our warm homes and safe communities. I once thought that the readership was people genuinely worried about oncoming disaster - now I think it's made up of people who either rather smugly look forward to it, or those who think it will never happen to them, because we're on top of the heap. A World Made By Hand is – like many dystopian texts – a way of criticising the way we live now by proving that stripping society down to small-town values, religion and self-reliance by force of necessity demonstrates our own moral and political failures, yet much is ignored: racial and sexual prejudice, the need for dissent and diversity and much else besides. I can live with the decadence frivolity of the Apocalypse, but the sheer conservatism of the genre is what's now turning me away from it.