Thursday, 27 February 2014

Don't read this, read Shakespeare

This review of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age will be appearing on the excellent LSE Review of Books page shortly, but in case you don't read that site (and I'm shocked if that is indeed the case), here it is for your delectation with added links.

David Mikics’ Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is really two books. The first, which comprises the first three chapters (‘The Problem’, ‘The Answer’ and ‘The Rules’) is a somewhat dyspeptic and defensive polemic about the contemporary media landscape. The second book, consisting of ‘Reading…’ Short Stories, Novels, Poetry, Drama and Essays’ is equally familiar but more old-fashioned, being the latest contribution to the didactic tradition of guides to insecure, infrequent readers aiming to improve themselves. On my shelves, for example, are Guy Pocock’s 1942 Brush Up Your Reading

Ruth Padel’s recent 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and a range of other fascinating popular guides to the literary universe. The internet is also full of breezy sites such as Selfmadescholar’s Ten Ways Reading the Great Books Can Improve Your Life. More canonical authors have tackled this genre too: F Scott Fitzgerald put together a reading list for his nurse: he recommended a lot of Proust, some Arnold Bennett, Katherine Mansfield, and Tolstoy amongst others. 

Her response is not recorded.

Of Mikic’s first chapters, the only reasonable response is a sigh and a shake of the head. He is not unaware of the tradition of literary Jeremiahs, invoking the ‘barrelful of polemics’ written by academics  to ‘save reading’ while describing them as ‘tweed-jacketed scolds’ for their terror that television would render us all incapable of reading books. Into this category he consigns Mortimer Adler (author of How To Read a Book (1940)), Charles Van Doren who revised Adler’s work in the 1970s, and Neil Postman, author of the apocalyptic AmusingOurselves To Death. Here's some Postman. 

Mikics dismisses them, yet eats his cake too: where they went wrong, he says, is that their dire predictions weren’t dire enough. They failed to envision ‘the ever-present environment of words that envelops us like the air we breathe…everyone reads constantly, and badly…’:

The internet has put everything in a new light: lightning quick, yet blurry. The casual, makeshift sentence is now prized as more vital than the adept, finished one. Eloquence and careful elaboration seem mere time-wasters belonging to an older, less wired generation. Could Proust, who cherished the rewards and punishments that time affords the soul, have borne the Era of the Tweet?

Perhaps Proust might not be on Twitter, but I suspect Basho would be right at home.

How Mikics differs here from the purveyors of moral panics is hard to discern, despite his scorn for previous generations. His concern is that quality is replaced by speed: ‘engulfed by a never-ending flood of text, we barely have time to stop and reflect’ and he has important news of the ways in which our brains have been rewired: ‘Children and teens have become addicted to the continuous activity of clicking, the herky-jerky rhythm that rules their young lives’, and he reports the views of an ultra-Orthodoz Jewish rally against the internet, ‘growing perceptions’ and a survey as though they are valid research. For a man concerned with the patient examination of words, he is far too eager to appropriate scientific terminology without any justification or self-consciousness, which makes me dubious when it comes to relying on any of his other sweeping statements. Whenever Mikics opens a clause with ‘we’, I found myself writing ‘you’ in the margins. His concentration is shot. He can’t read a chapter without checking Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. He is paralysed by choice and tempted by the quick fulfilment of a websearch but (perhaps encouraged by his publisher because I’d hate to think these are the unmediated thoughts of a Harvard professor), he has to assert the universality of what he reckons. So infected is he, that even in the middle of an interesting discussion of Robert Frost’s ‘Design’, he recommends ‘quick Googling’ to establish the ‘horrible aspect’ the spider in question really has: surely a vote of no confidence in the poet while subverting his own insistence on switching off such distractions.

So the first few chapters of Slow Reading are boiler-plate moaning by a man out of sync with his times. Perhaps the targets are new but the sentiment is little different from those expressed by Ecclesiastes, Socrates, Erasmus and Seneca (‘the abundance of books is a distraction’), or Kevin Barry, who described the difficulty of sitting down to write a novel: ‘already I am in that impatient, flitty, online mode: I bound about like one of those neurotic petrol-sniffer hares you'll see at the Dublin airport car park’. It’s despairing, deeply-felt and yet entirely impressionistic and unconvincing. Most frustratingly, Mikics has no sense of structural context. We read badly, he says, because computers interrupt us all the time. Not because we work longer hours for less pay; nor because schooling has become a matter of satisfying the requirements of badly-designed exams and leaping up the league tables. Instead, it’s because our moral fibre has been weakened by instant gratification.

The rest of the work consists of a slightly highbrow version of Pocock et al. Despite declining the label of ‘self-help’, Mikics’ book is exactly that.
‘I can’t promise you that slow reading will help you become a better person, to make more money, or to find true love. But in a subtle way, you will be transformed, and your life will become more interesting as a result… slow reading changes your mind the way exercise changes your body:  a whole new world will open; you will feel and act differently’.

Mikics’ solution is delightfully old-fashioned. Having run a Great Books programme, he calls for a return to close reading of largely canonical texts, though with an American bias for an imagined readership of motivated, nervous, hurried American readers keen to experience the ‘sophisticated pleasure’ of reading famous works. Mikics is profoundly dissatisfied by higher education’s approach to literature: ‘English departments eagerly submit to current trends…the desire to read books subtly and with love, to get lost in the world an author has created, has increasingly given way to commentary on social fashions and media images…the history of social life has become the true subject in some English departments’. Sadly – and in line with the rest of the book – he fails to name these departments. Instead, he calls for a return to a simpler, hierarchical relationship between an author and the reader achieved by sticking to a number of Rules. These range from switching off electronic devices, reading patiently, thinking of oneself ‘as a detective looking for clues’, comparing beginnings and endings,, looking for Signposts to Using a Dictionary. Authors are unproblematic in his structure: they have a Basic Thought, a dominant Voice amongst the text’s panoply, they have Key Words and a Style. The reader’s job is to winnow the text to arrive at ‘the Nut’: the author’s nugget of wisdom. In Mikics’ literary landscape, the author is alive and kicking: the reader’s job is to recognise her or his genius (‘the more sympathetically we think about a writer’s choices, the closer we come to the writer…a reader can develop a point of view and… “be herself” the more she yields to an author’s vision. Such yielding is not surrender, rather an admiring, respectful struggle with the author’), though he generously allows us to dislike any particular text.

Mikics’ chapters on reading particular genres are helpful to a novice reader to some degree, though their advice is general, inflexible and sweeping, albeit studded with sensitive and interesting readings of specific texts. Most of them could have been written in 1950, and it’s this aspect which troubles me. The reading strategies in Slow Reading advocate reading in a vacuum: the reader’s response is deliberately limited, and there’s no interest in Barthes’s relocation of meaning or in any critical approach other than a simplified version of Leavis. Despite his denials, Mikics’ book is in fact self-help, though who exactly it will help is unclear. The imagined reader seems to be well-meaning, earnest but rather dim. The book’s assertions and purposes seem deeply conservative, as do its cultural horizons, and the opening chapters’ attacks on the contemporary media economy set up straw men to the point of embarrassment. No doubt Mikics would see this criticism as an example of the academy’s estrangement from ‘real life’, but I’m left wondering why he has so little faith in his presumed audience. More people are reading more books than ever, and they’re not all reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Why exactly Mikics thinks they need such basic instruction and rescuing from a social media morass he can’t prove exists is entirely beyond me.

This bit didn't go in my review because it's a more measured piece. But basically, I thought Slow Reading in a Hurried Age was beneath the intellectual range of someone in his position. It has so little interest in the complexities of social media, none at all in the lives of potential readers, and such a conservative understanding of literature and reading that I was simultaneously bored and embarrassed by it. The constant sweeping, unsupported assertions would have earned by students a good deal of red pen, while the 'rules' of reading are so banal as to be obvious. Little better than a Reader's Digest essay. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Down the royal rabbit hole

Presumably you know that the heir to the British throne is prone to writing highly-opinionated letters to government ministers, despite the British having a civil war and various other shenanigans which eventually came to the conclusion that monarchs would be tolerated only so long as they kept their mouths shut on political matters. The deal was: they'd get the palaces, anthems, posh totty, medals, salutes and the illusion that everything would be done in their name, while Parliament got on with deciding what was right for the country and its population. The royals would agree to keep schtum.

Sadly, Prince Charles can't help firing off green-ink missives to ministers and even more sadly, they keep reading them. Unlike the rest of us, he has access and influence, without the other duties of a citizen (i.e. getting a job, paying taxes, suffering the consequences of bad government).

So quite reasonably, I thought, the Guardian asked under FoI legislation for copies of these letters. After all, if an unelected toff is getting privileged access, we should know what he's on about. Some of it might be inconsequential, some foolish (his views on architecture), some excellent (he's quite strong on environmentalism) and some dangerous (like the Secretary of State for Health, shockingly, he believes in homeopathy and various other quack medicines).

The government refused to release the papers, while the Information Tribunal ordered it repeatedly to release them: this has gone on for nine years and has now reached court.

What really shocks me is the government's reasons for not releasing these letters:
"This risk will arise if, through these letters, the Prince of Wales was viewed by others as disagreeing with government policy. Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne he cannot easily recover it when he is king."
This is what makes you subjects rather than citizens. Does the Prince of Wales disagree with government policy? Yes. Is he politically neutral? No, obviously not. I'd say he's a classic Tory radical actually. But the government is explicitly saying that you can't be allowed to see what he thinks because you'd lose faith in his political neutrality even though they know he isn't politically neutral and they know you know he isn't politically neutral (etc. ad infinitum). Their argument isn't that he isn't politically neutral, it's that you can't see the proof because then – in Bagehot's Victorian terms – the spell will stop working:
“We must not let in daylight upon magic…we must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant among many.”
You're children. You might know the truth and they might know the truth but if we say it out loud the whole foundations of British society will collapse!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Awesome! Destruction pornography and the loss of empathy

You might know that one of my hobbies is photography: landscapes, architecture, fencing and occasionally events I'm at. While I've never photographed serious disorder or destruction, I can really feel the pull for the photographer.

Today, I've been writing a lecture on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a novel which alternates between the documentary and the mythic as it attempts to explain the mass misery of the Dustbowl and the suffering of one fictional family within the fleeing mass, the Joads. I'm thinking aloud about the tensions between the novel form and wider society, about didacticism, naturalism, propaganda, proletarian fiction and bourgeois form etc. etc. I'm illustrating the lecture with a series of pictures from the Dustbowl, particularly those of Dorothea Lange, whose most famous image is a kind of Okie Madonna:

Is this photograph exploitative? It looks posed, to evoke the traditional Christian Madonna and Child, building in all sorts of cultural expectations about gendered expectations, motherhood and maternal emotions. It's a didactic picture to some extent: perhaps we're meant to feel outrage at these people's condition even while we admire her fortitude and beauty.

These images make me think too of the very popular trend for what I call destruction porn. You know the kind of thing: evocative pictures of wrecked buildings or even cities. They seemed to start with the destruction of Chernobyl, then Detroit and were popularised by urban explorers breaking into abandoned hospitals, cinemas and factories (I've done a little of this myself) and all share an aesthetic.


The lighting is low and natural. Wrecked machines feature strongly, while an abandoned toy or dusty medical implement lies in the foreground.


That Chernobyl one is pretty much the money shot of the urban destruction photographer: a gas mask for an apocalyptic thrill, a child's shoe for added pathos. (That shot, by the way, is from, which tells you all you need to know about the moral sensibility of its photographer and fans). Damian the unscrupulous war reporter in Drop the Dead Donkey always carried around a broken teddy bear and a 'blood-stained plimsoll' for this very purpose.

These pictures are always urban, perhaps because the photographers and viewers get a little frisson from the sense that Western Industrialism isn't – as we were promised – Progress, inevitable and one-way.

Im starting to think there's something entirely decadent about this kind of thing - the idea of taking the photographer's tour of derelict Detroit fills me with horror. It feels like a tour round Bedlam or a colonial trip to the Reservation. Why not just hang about in a funeral parlour or A+E snapping the dead and wounded for Instagram? It's not even difficult photography. Decent SLR, no flash, tripod, prime lens, long exposure and narrow aperture. As to composition: lazy and clichéd. Gerard Manley Hopkins got it right:

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. 

Which leads me to the latest twist on this vampiric art. I've been following the reports of Kiev's rebellion through the newspapers and social media. I read the Guardian, which has a particularly brilliant picture editor. There's always something to make me gasp or admire the skill of the photographer. Today's images from Ukraine were no different.

It's hard to photograph this kind of scene. Once you've seen one riot, you've seen them all, though the architecture and the rebels' knowing medievalism (a full size ballista!) helps them stand out for the cameras. It's also dangerous, obviously. To take 'good' photographs and not be killed in the protest is astonishing.

But. The Guardian has a photo-gallery up of these and similar images and I'm not convinced that they're offered as evidence of an awful, awful event. They seem to be offered as a spectacle, something technically stupendous (the composition!) and begging for comparison with so many other apocalyptic: in Baudrillardian terms, the spectacle has replaced the event, which can't be so neatly captured.

But the Guardian isn't what most bothers me. On Twitter, these and many other images are being passed round without any reference to what's actually happening in the Maidan. Instead, 'before and after' shots are offered to emphasise the sheer scale of destruction: this isn't empathy or political support. The images which are circulating are those which most resemble video games, particularly the 'Cursed Earth' ones in which heavily-armoured players fight off radioactive mutants or aliens. They also resemble John Martin's massive Victorian canvases:


The Eruption of Vesuvius

Martin's work perhaps had the effect of making his viewers consider their own hubris and folly, but mostly what paintings like this do is aestheticise suffering and play on the viewer's knowledge of what's about to happen, which those in the pictures lack. I find this utterly smug, decadent and pretty repulsive. 

Fallout 4 deliberately mimics a well-known Chernobyl shot here, reducing a massive catastrophe to a violent Bildungsroman with an evocative backdrop:

while Resistance is merely one of many which sets ultimate battles between humans or humans and aliens in a ravaged urban backdrop reminiscent of Homs or Kiev:

Which is all a very longwinded way of saying that the kinds of images circulated today, and the comments people are making, disturb me. They aren't empathetic. They seem informed by the scale of destruction and the aesthetics of the image rather than what's signified: a classic state of Baudrillardian hyper-reality, fuelled by video games, but also by the propaganda of states which encourage 'shock and awe' while simultaneously promoting the idea that war is as clinical and harmless as playing a video game.

As for those in Maidan Square? Great pics, guys! Good luck with whatever it is you're after! See you!

Update: moronically, I'd completely forgotten until reminded by @qui_oui that Susan Sontag has already considered all this in her book about photography, Regarding the Pain of Others in which she attacks the way news photography fuels a consumerist appetite for destruction shorn of compassion or empathy. Every new atrocity is simply food for our jaded appetites. Yes, we need to know about the horrors of the world, but what are we doing with this knowledge other than marvelling at the images? Much as I object to the Guardian's photo-gallery, Sontag objects to the glossy magazine presentation, shorn of intermediating, interpreting words.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The poet and the archbishop

So last week after a series of hilarious disasters which involved my distinguished colleague trying to pee into a bottle rather than drive the car,  I managed to see the final few minutes of a John Cooper Clarke performance. The elder statesman of punk poetry, he ran through a list of his dislikes (undyed hair, Pete Seeger, Ewan McColl, Roger McGough, Poetry Please (it doesn't feature him enough), Radio 4) with the occasional poem thrown in. Such as the famous 'Evidently Chickentown', the famously sweary poem about provincial immuration: here's the version used on The Sopranos: evidently JCC's original language was too tough for even Tony Soprano (from 3.20):

and here's the full-fat version:

And if you're worried about ageing, JCC is clear that 'Things Are Gonna Get Worse'.

So anyway, after seeing the Elder Statesman of Poetry last week (not quite as disastrous as Simon Armitage, whose unreliability inspired me to abuse some poetry myself), this week was the turn of Rowan Williams, the Elder Statesman of Anglicanism, or as I like to think of him, the Religious Pratchett, whom he rather resembles. Despite being a Catholic Atheist myself, and finding the whole believing-in-God element a bit of a struggle, I thought I'd pop along to see what he had to say on the subject of poverty. In any case, Rowan and I go way back, by which I mean that he's an expert on RS Thomas and I've reviewed RST's poems once. I feel that makes us colleagues in spirit.

Sadly the water resolutely remained aqueous

As you'd expect, RW's oratory was pretty magnificent. He has gravitas, yet also a lightness of touch when required. Turning up the day the local council announced that it's sacking a third of its staff and reducing the terms and conditions of the rest, his theme was apt. His analysis was subtle and thoughtful: he delineated the 4 types of poverty: economic, cultural, access and security. He had a few sharp words for government (wryly recalling Cameron's claim that 'money is no object') and expounded on the far-reaching consequences of these types of poverty convincingly.

He still hasn't found what he's looking for…

He took several well-aimed swipes at capitalism and presented his pantheon of thinkers: David Goodhart, Maurice Glasman, Richard Hoggart (he called The Uses of Literacy a 'sacred text') and Karl Marx. Oh, and Jesus too. So you can see that RW's intellectual landscape is pragmatic, male, sort-of leftwing but also rather culturally conservative, which fitted into his attack on the media and entertainment industry for cheapening the human condition. With shows like Fuck Off I'm Fat and Benefits Street, it's hard not to agree with his thesis that the media present us to ourselves as nastier than we really are. I'm not entirely convinced, though his profoundly humane sensibility is genuinely inspiring. He also had a pop at the league-table obsessed school inspection system, for its damaging effect on students and teachers.

Williams called for more society, not just more state, and for more political engagement, perhaps through the churches. He certainly sees religious institutions as leaders of civil society, which does bother me: leaving aside their own internal cultural problems, the UK is a largely secular country and a polity filtered through a very marginal filter would not be representative. Sadly, Dr Williams didn't find room to mention trades unions as an important element of civil society – but at least the university's senior leaders had to listen to him attack corporate wage depression, something they've done to us for the last 5 years and intend to carry on doing.

(Rest of the pictures here)

What was missing from Dr Williams' entertaining, thoughtful, fascinating lecture was any suggestion of a solution. He knows what the social problems are, but he seems to think that niceness and calmly explaining where we've gone wrong is the solution. I asked him how we persuade the likes of Amazon that they're a part of society with responsibilities (to employ people properly, to pay taxes, to pay a living wage) and his answer is to point out to them that over the longer-term, social responsibility is economically viable. I found this a little frustrating: as far as I can see, our current political leaders plus the globalised corporations strongly believe in a low-wage, no-tax economy in which immediate shareholder and executive gratification is the only concern. They aren't going to factor in the future, or niceness, when there's money to be shifted to the Caymans.

Overall, it was a superb night. Rowan Williams doesn't swear as much as John Cooper Clarke nor dye his hair, though they are both poets so don't inhabit entirely separate universes. JC not only shares initials with the Messiah, people often treat him like one, whereas Rowan is only – for some – the Big Guy's local spokesman. But both have an oppositional, moralistic distrust for the state we're in, and I'm glad I caught them both.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Norman bastards and turbulent priests

Hi everyone. For a change, I'm not ranting about the inequities of the world today. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow, probably. No, I'm just going to mention cultural events today.

On Saturday I went down to London to see Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre in Leicester Square with my good friend Adam, who had recently declined a ticket for Richard II for no apparent reason but can be crow-barred out of the house on special occasions. Before he turned up I wandered round the antiquarian bookshops nearby, returning a wiser and poorer Vole. I recommend the experience: every shop is crammed with books priced for rarity and condition rather than quality, and the shopkeepers have their own special brand of patronising disdain. Anyway, the going rate for an RS Thomas volume is now about 3 weeks' rent and signed copies are approaching 5 weeks'. I bought myself a collection of James Laver short stories for considerably less and mooned over the poetry and the Beverley Nichols novels.

After a fine lunch (andouillettes: offally good) we wandered off to the Noel Coward, wondering if the spirit of the play would be affected by the venue. It would certainly make for an amusing production: King Henry could wave a cigarette holder while declaiming 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more' in a louche manner, and leer while he discusses the 'gentlemen now abed'. The theatre itself is an Edwardian monstrosity - gilt and flourishes on every surface, and therefore rather fun. Sadly, it has the most uncomfortable seating I've ever found. Despite being only 5'8" short, I had to rest my legs on the head of the man in front of me, as there isn't any legroom between the seats.

So, the production. Minimalist set, maximalist period costume other than a Boy/Chorus dressed in jeans and a t-shirt as – I presume – a nod to contemporary theatre practice. Jude Law (for it was he) was OK, though his series of funny accents in the Crispian's Day speech was ill-advised.

The rest of the cast were impressive, particularly Jessie Buckley as the French princess, making much of the comic aspects. The coarse sub-plots weren't particularly funny, but the action was excellent, and I particularly liked the French herald and his superiors.

I wasn't sure about Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy: their accents were truly terrible, but I wasn't sure whether this was deliberate or not. In the play, they're comedy Welsh, Irish and Scots, playing up English stereotypes of those nations. Perhaps these performances were meant to wittily send up this theatrical tradition, perhaps not. The leek-eating scene was particularly good though.

It did make me wonder why this play was put on right now. We're only a few months away from a referendum on Scottish independence, and here we are watching Henry discuss with his advisors how untrustworthy the Scots are: they're guaranteed to attack while the English are at war in France. More widely, it's a play about Britishness and territory, staged once more during a period of depressing Euroscepticism: Henry and his colleagues are of course 'bastard Normans, Norman bastards' according to the French, he himself perhaps insincerely claims to be Welsh when talking to Fluellen, and they're fighting over English claims to French territory (Henry won this battle but his son lost it all). The Norman dynasties spoke French and would not have recognised England as much more than a lucrative holiday home (I may exaggerate slightly) cut off from civilised Europe.

It's quite a jingoistic play. The Celts are blustering liars, bores or psychopaths. The French are snooty and arrogant, the English are largely doughty and bold, with the exception of the scumbags at the bottom (thieves and cowards) and a few traitors at the top. What was slightly lost in this otherwise good performance was Henry's trajectory. At the start, the bishops discuss how much he's grown into the role: in Henry IV part II, he's a carousing, dissolute, idle wastrel, yet in this play he's behaving responsibly and even morally to some extent – guilt about his father's usurpation of the throne drives him to consciously adopt kingly postures. Not all the time: he tells the mayor of Harfleur not to 'make' him let the soldiers loose to rape and murder, and he's pretty quick to tell his troops to kill all their prisoners (a line judiciously dropped in Laurence Olivier's wartime film version). But Law's receding hairline and wrinkled face do at least give the impression of a man weighed down by responsibilities.

So - well worth seeing and one I'm tempted to put on a course.

The next excitement is tonight's visit by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Sadly he's not here to talk about Welsh literature (he's an excellent poet and critic), but about poverty…to an audience of rather well-paid members of the great and good (and me).

Friday, 14 February 2014

Dacre's Acres

I read recently that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, multimillionaire, scourge of the European Union, stern moralist and famed swearer
according to the book Flat Earth News his own staff g[ave] the paper’s daily editorial meeting the name ‘The Vagina Monologues’ as a result of Dacre’s habit of calling everyone a c***
has bought a 15,000 estate in Scotland, on which he claims large amounts of EU subsidy money despite hating the EU. One of the excellent reasons for Scottish independence is simply imagining Dacre's face as he has to hand over his passport at Berwick on Tweed simply to visit an estate on which the Edinburgh government will hopefully charge huge taxes. Mind you, the owner of his paper is just as bad: despite his patriotism and living in a massive Wiltshire mansion on another EU-supported estate, he claims to be French for tax purposes and owns the newspaper through a jungle of tax-avoiding offshore shell companies. Rule Britannia!

Coincidentally, I'm teaching The Grapes of Wrath in a couple of weeks, Steinbeck's great novel of the Okie migrants. At one point, the Joad family meet a beaten-down man and his son, who explain that the California Dream is actually a nightmare of theft and exploitation. Good land, they say, is fenced off and left unused:
They's a fella, newspaper fella…got a million acres…Fat, sof' fella with little mean eyes an' a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he's gonna die. Got a million acres an' scairt of dyin'. 
Why does he have a million acres? Why's he afraid?
I dunno… Guess he's crazy. Mus' be crazy. Seen a pitcher of him. He looks crazy. Crazy an' mean. 

Lord Rothermere. He's French you know.

And the conversation about the crabby rich carries on:
"Don't seem like he's havin' no fun".
"Seems like that's the way. Fella havin' fun, he don't give a damn, but a fella mean an' lonely an' old an' disappointed – he's scared of dyin!"
Pa asked, "What's he disappointed about if he got a million acres?"
The preacher smiled, and he looked puzzled… If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it 'cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he's poor in hisself, there ain't no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an' maybe he's disappointed that nothin' he can do'll make him feel rich – not rich like Mis' Wilson was when she give her tent when Grampa died. I ain't tryin' to preach no sermon, but I never seen nobody that's busy as a prairie dog collectin' stuff that wasn't disappointed".
 Do I resent the ability of millionaire tax-cheats to monopolise the land, then expect our taxes to subsidise them playing lord of the manor? Hell yes. Do I agree with Steinbeck that they're unhappy, deep down? Sadly, no. I don't think Rothermere, Dacre (or should that be Dacres?) have the moral or intellectual capacity. They no doubt think that inheriting enough money to pay lawyers to hide their money counts as 'earning' a living.

Here's Henry Fonda's elegiac speech at the end of the Ford/Zanuck film production. He cheated a little: while Steinbeck's novel is liberal-left call to arms which ends in defeat, the film ends on a note of optimism, choosing to focus on family unity rather than Steinbeck's vision of migrant families uniting into a rural proletariat. But the film does manage to convey the dual-focus that makes Steinbeck's novel so great. The chapters alternate between the Joad family's specific experiences and wide-focus declamatory ones putting them into context, both political and Biblical: a bitter version of Exodus is at the root of their trek.

Valentine humbug.

Valentine's Day again… and if you only make the effort to express emotion once a year then you're me you should rethink your relationship.

Or you could side with cynical old Nick Lowe, who wrote 'I Trained Her To Love Me':

Mind you, being alone leaves you with a lot of time to read, as Nick tells us in 'I Read A Lot', which I dedicate to my students. It reminds me that when I started my PhD, a recently-completed doctoral student gave us an orientation talk which included the line 'you can do a PhD or you can have a relationship, not both'. He had his own solution to this conundrum: a few weeks later he was nicked for cottaging in the local park.

Not that I see reading as some kind of inferior occupation for the lonely. The idea of dating a non-reader horrifies me. What would you do with the time? Talk? Extreme sports? Ugh.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Don't follow me, I'm only a teacher

One of my favourite thinkers in the educational world sent me a link to this pungent piece of polemic which I thought you might like to ponder (though most of you will find it indescribably boring). It's called 'Why Liberal Academics and Ivory Tower Radicals Make Poor Revolutionaries', and it's on a site called 'Youngist', which makes me want to stuff my fist into my mouth for a number of reasons. It's entertainingly written, however.
The revolution will not be cited. It will not have a bibliography, or a title page. The revolution will never happen in the seclusion of the ivory tower built by racist, sexist, and classist institutions. Professional academic researchers in the social sciences of many colleges and universities exploit the struggles of oppressed peoples. Oppressed peoples are left stranded with little to no resources after researchers leave their communities high and dry.
My heart sinks whenever I hear the word 'ivory tower'. It usually announces the author's ignorance of the complexity of education. I'm sure there are some institutions which aren't very interested in the outside world (hello, Bob Jones University) and there are certainly some which aren't at all bothered about widening participation, such as quite a few Oxford and Cambridge colleges). Plenty seek little more than to maintain the ideological status quo, notably the non-critical business and management schools. But there are awful lot of institutions, departments in institutions and individuals in departments who are not 'racist, sexist, and classist'. We have our faults and we work within structural constraints which make it harder to avoid these -isms, but we're getting there. There isn't an 'ivory tower', there's a rich ecosystem in which lots of HE organisations are neither secluded nor bigoted.

Do social scientists 'exploit the struggles of the oppressed' and leave them 'high and dry'? Certainly there's an old tradition of Western white men sitting in judgement on supposedly subaltern groups while thinking themselves progressive, but it's no longer a major strand, though of course I can only make observations from within my intellectual and ideological paradigm. I do wonder what it means to leave the oppressed 'high and dry'? In what way does the social scientist damage the struggle by observing and researching? I'm sure they could do more, but I'm not sure that it's the researcher's duty to lead the oppressed. After all, that would surely be racist, classist and exploitative? In my tradition, the oppressed don't need or want the leadership of the bourgeoisie, however sympathetic.

Despite the rather heated language, the argument gets a little more solid:
Researchers steal value from oppressed peoples by making them the subjects of theoretical research without lending them access to information that could better help their communities. Articles, books, and dissertations written about marginalized populations are written for academics, not working people, and as such have little impact on the people whose lives are the subject of this research. Liberal academics and social scientists are more concerned about developing the wealth of academic literature than addressing the immediate material concerns of the communities they research.
Another straw man. Perhaps the author hasn't noticed, but we're moving towards open access, and I make my work freely available to the oppressed masses yearning for the latest updates on what I think 1930s Welsh writers were doing. A lot of us are desperate to share our ideas with whoever will talk to us. Do we write for ourselves about 'working people'? I'd say that a) we are 'working people' and b) it's rather patronising to assume that 'working people' aren't capable of understanding and even joining us. As to this talk of 'impact' and 'immediate material concerns': what exactly is the sociologist, for example, meant to do? They find new ways of explaining what's happening to human communities, present the evidence and hope it informs public opinion and policy. The idea that all research by all 'liberal academics and social scientists' (weird category, by the way) is socially useless is just dumb: the leftwing equivalent of the America Know-Nothing party.

After that, the article gets nasty.
Penelope Herideen is a Sociology researcher in Western Massachusetts (MA) and a professor of Sociology at the local community college from which I recently graduated…Herideen’s research is important, and yet, she was hardly involved in student organizing campaigns against budget cuts that affect low-income students.
Now I don't know about you, but I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that one person should be named as the embodiment of an entire global profession's failings. It smacks of the lynch mob. Herideen gets no voice here, and her perspective goes unrepresented. Instead, the author apparently blames her for preventing 'the revolution'. Perhaps Herideen worked away at boring committees, doing her best. Perhaps Herideen feels that the campaign was strategically inept. Perhaps she thought that student leadership was important and didn't want to appear interfering. Perhaps she doesn't agree with the campaign at all. It's her business, and critiquing her like this is dishonest intellectually and personally cruel. Herideen doesn't have to be a revolutionary and an argument built on the author's personal dislike for her teacher is not progressive.

Then we get this:
Liberal academics and social scientists need to understand their effect on the communities and people they study. Oppressed people who are put under the magnifying glass of academic research have to live with real consequences after the researcher leaves. This is especially true in the field of women’s and ethnic studies — where class, gender, and race consciousness are a part of the research process. Researchers leave behind a stranded community with little to no resources to help them organize movements that will create real change.
I don't see any demonstration of 'effect' here. Leaving aside the difference between social science research and ethnography, in which the researcher participates in daily life, what are the 'real consequences' to that community? Are they left worse off than before the researcher turned up? If so - where's the evidence? Even more striking: why does the author assume that the 'stranded community' is so helpless? Everywhere I look, subaltern groups are developing their own strategies of resistance and fightback, whether it's Stoke's 'Mums on a Mission' or the syndicalist miners who wrote The Miners' Next Step after long shifts underground. This idea that oppressed groups are passive victims of dominant groups and selfish academics is patronising and reactionary.

But the author returns to the ad hominem attacks:
Tim Wise, a well-known anti-racist writer and activist receives thousands of dollars for speaking at various colleges and universities about the impact that white privilege and white supremacy have on communities of color. Wise has yet to give back to these communities in any real or substantial way, such as offering resources and support to the various communities he speaks of in his writings.
Again, one person is single out for his perceived failings, which come down to not 'giving back' in any 'real or substantial way'? Meaning? Money, I guess. The accusation is that rather than doing a serious and important job explaining racial oppression and proposing solutions, Mr Wise should open his wallet. Personally it sounds like he's using his talents very usefully, and I'm rather disturbed that our author presumes to know both what he should and does do with his money. One person's wallet can only go so far: one person's words can go a lot further. There's an assumption here that Wise's anti-racism is just a way of making money, and while I've never heard of him, I do worry that Ms Ouimette lacks good faith.

Sadly, she returns to the straw man argument:
Researchers in the fields of women’s and ethnic studies entering oppressed communities without any desire to change serious inequities are in direct contradiction of their supposedly “progressive” fields.
Who are these people? I haven't personally met every academic in the world, but I know enough to say that their motives and intentions are various; Ms Ouimette again seems to base general distrust on some contentious examples. She also presumes - perhaps because she's an idealist young person writing for The Youngist (as though 'the young' are an equally repressed group) - that all academics should be working for a revolution. I have to say that standing on the picket line last week, several hundred of my colleagues were notably absent. Not all of us are revolutionaries, kids. Lots of us want change without wanting a revolution and some of us don't even see the need for change. Sorry, but that's the way it is. There isn't a handbook that says all lecturers must be Maoists or whatever, so don't get disappointed when lots of us fail to live up to your personal fantasy.

Moving on, we get to the discourse of academia:
Try reading any academic text from your local women’s studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies, or anthropology department. The texts are almost always written so that only academics can understand. Some students and scholars call it “acadamese.” It is writing that needs to be decoded before it can be understood… Academics who use “ordinary language” are able to encourage oppressed groups to consider their own agency in the fight for social, economic and political justice. Their advisors and colleagues constantly berate academics that attempt to write in ordinary language because their writing is “too accessible.”
'Any'? 'Almost always'? Oh dear: that's the kind of comment that attracts my red pen. Sweeping statements are almost always (see what I did there) untrue. There is plenty of difficult – often bad – writing in academia, often produced by people who mistake bewildering discourse for mastery of a subject. Yet it's also true that complicated ideas require subtly and complicated explanation. All imagined communities have their interior modes of discourse (sorry Nicole, 'ways of saying things') which include and exclude. Some academics use this as a way to exclude, some don't. Some only talk in this way, lots of us don't, or don't always: it depends on the context and most of the academics I know desperately want to connect with other sections of society. And again, Nicole assumes here that 'oppressed groups' can't access this discourse – my institution believes that Knowledge is Power and equips our students to talk to power in its own language. We know they can do it and they succeed. If it wasn't such a horrible word, I'd call it 'empowerment'. Ironically, the existence of this article demonstrates our success: Nicole has a strong grasp of academic discourse and uses it fearlessly.  As to the claim that those whore write in ordinary language (whatever that is): to put it kindly, citation needed. Yes there are some abstruse corners, but it really isn't the worst problem facing the oppressed.
Academics use academic language and jargon to centralize knowledge and power in their hands. Academics would lose a certain amount of power if everyone had access to the same knowledge that they do. The division of labor in the ivory tower reinforces capitalist modes of production through individualized research and study that is hardly ever shared with those it most affects. This is how academia operates knowledge in the form of transactions that create restricted, instead of shared knowledge.
Well yes. They do. Or rather some of them do and more of us do without noticing. But I'm not certain what the 'power' referred to actually is. Do we 'hardly ever' share our findings? A contentious claim, at best. To be honest, we don't have a hermetic lore that we jealously guard from the proles. We talk of 'knowledges' actually, but that's a bit too modern for Nicole, who practices a dumb-ass version of Marxism described by Lenin as 'infantile leftism'.

Nicole finishes on a rallying note:
It is time to stop depending on NGOs and academia to create revolutionary praxis for us. They won’t. It’s up to us, the oppressed peoples of the world to demand resources for our communities that are being studied by those whose lives are spent in ivory towers. The revolution starts from below and works its way to the ivory tower. Only then will education be free and accessible for all.
Who is 'us'? Who appointed Nicole Voice of the Oppressed? She accuses academia of arrogating to itself the right to determine 'revolutionary praxis' without any evidence at all, yet she's quite happy to reply 'us' without any self-consciousness at all. I don't speak for anyone, and wouldn't dare. Nor should she. In particular, it's intellectually dishonest to claim that 'we' depend on 'NGOs and academia' for guidance: there are some armchair revolutionaries in common rooms across the world (hello, Alex Callinicos, Zizek and Noam Chomsky), but I don't see the world's proletariat queuing outside the bookshops eagerly awaiting news of the next phase: they're outside doing things already.

There are problems in and of academia. Some of them are connected to Nicole's points, but it's not a plot and it's not uniform. Nobody is 'an academic': we're citizens and workers and family members and parts of various communities. Academics have privileged access to discourse, but we lack agency, just like most people. We're part of the problem, but we're also part of the solution. Treating us like the enemy within really doesn't help.

Academics won't lead the revolution – but I don't see anyone else doing so either, and it's not because people like me are getting in the way. We're not the enemy, Nicole. I wish we had the authority and power you think, but we're marginalised and despised by the men with money and guns and laws, just like those for whom you presume to speak. Your revolution hasn't been spiked by people like me: that's just an excuse for your failure to persuade everyone that one is needed (which I personally feel it is). There will be revolutions, but they won't be yours and they won't happen where and when you or I think they will. If you want to help, 'Get Off Your Computer And Onto The Streets'.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Dear Tristram

I'm sorry to harp on about this. I'd rather post something about the books I'm reading or the music to which I'm listening - but Tristram Hunt's betrayal of his colleagues and political friends is really bugging me. Here's the letter I sent him and Ed Miliband. I encourage you to do the same. Their email addresses are and

Dear Ed and Tristram,
I am a Labour Party member and a university lecturer, after four degrees (BA, MA, PhD and PGCE), ten years of extra debt and many years of hourly-paid casual work. At 38, I have only been employed full-time and with pension rights for 6 years. In that time, my pension has been cut, my pension contributions increased and my retirement date extended far into the future. My salary has not increased in real terms since I secured this job, though my workload, class sizes and management expectations all have.   
I look at my students and see bright, eager people, many of whom would like to become the next generation of intellectual leaders and educators like you once were Tristram. But every year, weighed down by £50,000 of debt, they’re forced to take ‘socially useless’ jobs in for example banking rather than follow their hearts and give back to society. While the senior management of many universities demand corporate levels of pay ‘to attract talent’, academic pay is declining and it’s hard to attract a new generation when conditions are declining.  
This is why I was so utterly disappointed to see a Shadow Minister for Education crossing a picket line to deliver a course - ironically - on Marx. I am not naive enough to expect a Labour politician to support an industrial dispute any more, but I would have thought that Tristram would have had the good manners to simply reschedule the session or use another entrance. Given the caution and sophistication of your political activity, I can only conclude that publicly crossing a picket line of one’s colleagues is a deliberate political act designed to deliver some kind of message to the political right.  
Despite being an expert on Marxist theory, Mr Hunt has clearly failed to learn the Labour virtues of solidarity and empathy. I would like to stress to you how disappointed I am by yesterday’s action. Even though I’m on the Board of Governors of my university, I was on the UCU picket line and worked hard to explain to my students that withdrawing our labour is both deeply unpleasant and our only remaining option in the pay dispute. How can I talk to them about the joys of social democratic unity in an individualistic neoliberal society when my own party’s leaders are so willing to betray their former colleagues and political allies? 
I’m not asking either of you to support our strike (though I wish you could), but I would like you to contemplate whether crossing a picket line is what you got into Labour politics for.
Plashing Vole
PS: Here's the automated email reply from Tristram:
However, as I am sure you will understand, my immediate priorities will be my parliamentary duties as Shadow Secretary of State for Education and to my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent Central.
Yes, it really looked like it as he strolled across a picket line to deliver a class in London.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The name's Hunt. Total Hunt.

People have got many LOLs from Jeremy Hunt's name, particularly when it was (accidentally) transformed on live radio into an insulting and crude term for the female genitalia. It's not a term I use, and anyway, being likened to Jeremy is the most wounding weapon in my arsenal.

But what is it about politicians called Hunt? Jeremy is the Minister for Health who a) wants to sell the whole thing off to his friends in business and b) things homeopathy is a thing. The other prominent Hunt is Tristram, MP for part of Stoke-on-Trent thanks to being Peter Mandelson's friend back in the days when that wasn't code for 'corrupt Machievellian war-monger': parachuted in against the wishes of the constituency members. Tristram is of course the very exemplar of meritocracy: anyone who claims his political rise is in any way connected to the fact that his father is a Labour member of the House of Lords is just a cynical purveyor of the politics of envy. Tristram. No, like all Labour's leaders, Tristram spent a formative period underground as a miner, before embarking on the long hard slog through community activism before the acclaim of his fellow proletarians led him to set out on the long march to London to change the world.

Only joking. Tristram went to the very expensive and elitist University College School, then Cambridge. After a brief period as an academic and TV historian (very much not the same thing as being a non-TV historian), he went – surprise surprise – to a New Labour think tank and then into Parliament.

Unsurprisingly then, our Tristram is indistinguishable from the Old Right. Despite being an academic expert on Marx, Tristram shares Michael Gove's passion for private-school stylings and neo-Victorianist attitudes. He has never said anything that could remotely be described as socialist or left-wing, and is seemingly entirely uninterested in anything other than pragmatic triangulation. This of course is a shame as Michael Gove and David Willetts have turned school and higher education into a quagmire of privatisation, free-market principle, corruption, bullying and prejudice. You'd have thought that anyone with more brain cells than a nematode could manage to carve out a political space allowing him to critique this neoliberal project, but apparently not.

Tristram Hunt's descent into shame was complete today. As I and thousands of other academics and support staff picketed in response to our fifth consecutive real-terms pay cut, Tristram crossed a picket line to deliver a class on – of all things – Marxism. Which at least indicates a vicious sense of humour.

That's right. A Labour Minister for Education ignored his former colleagues and his party's history to become a scab.

Update: thinking about it like a politician, I realised I initially missed the point. Tristram is a former academic and a Shadow Minister for Education. There is no way that he did not know that a) his former colleagues were taking industrial action and that b) there would be a picket line. Knowing that, he then chose to cross that line. He could have stayed at home or done one of the many things he has to do (perhaps take a trip to Stoke-on-Trent, which he supposedly represents). He could even have arrived early and sneaked into the building before the pickets started, like some of my scab colleagues. He didn't do any of these things: he deliberately crossed a picket line to make some kind of point, presumably to curry favour with the Daily Mail. And for that reason, I'm going to write to him and Ed Miliband.

I'm a Labour Party member. That means that I've endured the endless erosion of principle and passion in the party for as long as I've been alive. I've watched my party leadership running scared from the Daily Mail in every industrial dispute going. I've seen them hand over essential public services to their scaly new friends in the City. I've seen them torture and bomb and kidnap, bug and burgle and hack and I've stayed in, hoping that one day a shred of principle might re-emerge in the only non-Tory party that has a chance at government.

My reward? To watch Tristram Hunt stab us in the back without a twinge of guilt. We're so far beneath his concerns that he won't bother explaining himself and the Party will support him. What is the point of him? What is the point of voting Labour if it's led by people entirely bereft of principle? What will Tristram Hunt do that Michael Gove won't? From here, it's pretty hard to tell.

Friday, 7 February 2014

If they've nothing to hide, they've nothing to fear

I have been watching with awe as a lot of powerful men in grey suits explain that the wholesale collection, retention and searching of 'metadata' is a) not the same thing as surveillance and b) perfectly legal. 

For instance, here's a former head of GCHQ on Channel 4 News.

Here's what the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has to say:
Hague continued that any information arriving in the UK from the US is “governed by our laws,”insisting that efforts to thwart terrorism did not endanger civil liberties.

"If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country ... you'll never be aware of all the things those (intelligence) agencies are doing to stop your identity being stolen or to stop a terrorist blowing you up tomorrow," Reuters cites Hague as saying.

"But if you are a would-be terrorist or the centre of a criminal network or a foreign intelligence agency trying to spy on Britain you should be worried because that is what we work on and we are on the whole quite good at it," he continued.

The Foreign Secretary stressed that any intelligence gathering was “authorized, necessary, proportionate and targeted,” adding that he personally signed off on GCHQ intercepts “most days of the week.”

What is metadata? If you make a call, metadata is everything except the content. From it, you know who someone is calling, for how long, from what address to what address. Similar material exists for every form of communication, whether it's downloading Angry Birds, making a call or sending a text message.

As our political and security masters say very strongly that this definitely isn't spying or even intrusion, I propose this. Let's all email our MPs and government ministers and ask them to release their own metadata: everything off their phones, iPads, Blackberries and computers. It's all there in GCHQ's servers (and the NSA's). Let's explain that this doesn't impinge on their privacy because it's analogous to the information on the outside of an envelope, as this article explains
For those that still send them, a letter is sent with the content sealed inside an envelope. No one other than the sender and the recipient should know what is contained within. However, the information on the envelope, the To and From addresses and postal code on the stamp, can be freely seen. This information is critical to ensure the letter’s proper delivery.
I'm sure my MP, who fully supports the government's approach, will be happy to make his metadata available. You can contact your own MP here. If they all cough up the material, I'll be assured that metadata really are innocent and nothing to worry about. If not…well, sauce for the goose and all that.

Having come up with the idea, I did a quick search which revealed that one enterprising citizen put in an FoI request for William Hague's metadata. Interestingly, the request was refused because it was
‘solely designed for the purpose of fishing for information without any idea of what might be revealed’.
So apparently what's sauce for the goose isn't sauce for the gander after all. The government is collecting all the metadata for all communications events in the UK rather than that of specified individuals or events 'without any idea of what might be revealed' but considers the identical tactic used against them to be, in their words, 'vexatious'. Good job I've a highly developed sense of humour.