Monday, 23 November 2015

So you #standwithparis…?

One of the interesting things about social media is that it's so emotionally open. Anyone can turn up, express a depth of emotion – positive, negative, baffled – which will be echoed widely, with no entry or exit costs. It's become a means of easily identifying oneself with a cause or stance without consequences.

For instance, here's the Twitter avatar of a company called Accusoft, whose promoted tweet turned up on my timeline a day or so after the attacks in Paris.

I forget quite which one it was, but here are a couple more. Their avatar remains a tricolour with their corporate logo stamped on top (the symbolism is quite clear to me, but not perhaps to them), but the action of feeding promoted tweets into a timeline shortly after a mass murder, complete with appropriated flag didn't convey solidarity to me: it conveyed the opportunist appropriation of grief to sell products. 

Here's one of their tweets which purports to be a little more reflective, but it's so bland as to be meaningless, and immediately subverted by the stream reverting to promotional stock-photography type:

Does this really mean anything? Is it simply a PR office telling the boss that they need to look caring? Will it encourage these corporations to start paying taxes to improve security (yes, that is a trick question)?

However, this isn't one of my normal anti-corporate rants. These organisations are lazy and cynical, but so are an awful lot of people, many of them friends of mine. Try a search for #IStandWith on Twitter and you'll get tens of thousands of examples, ranging from people 'standing with' rescued dogs to the city of Paris. Many of them are good caring people expressing themselves in public as best they can. Here's a selection (which all appeared together just like this) ranging from the helpful to the banal to the sinister.

Once we've agreed that these sentiments are honestly and deeply felt, we have to ask whether they're any more meaningful than Accusoft's appropriation of grief. In short: are there consequences to 'standing with' anything or anyone? The point of 'standing with' is, as far as I can tell, to associate oneself with the oppressed and sharing their struggle. The image I have in my head is of civil rights activists joining Rosa Parks or the school children being bussed in Alabama, and sharing the beatings and abused meted out by the police. I'm also reminded of the late Simon Hoggart's political maxim that any speech which proclaims the speaker's unwavering devotion to motherhood, apple pie, happy children, clouds or freedom is just so much humbug because it's impossible to imagine anyone seriously opposing such things.

Because social media allows us to publicly endorse popular opinions without consequences, 'standing with' becomes little more than a form of smug self-indulgence. ISIS is unlikely to be keeping a list of people who stand with Paris, whereas Rosa Parks was arrested and her friends harassed and beaten. People: stop metaphorically #standingwith things. All you'll get is the emotional reinforcement of your personally-curated echo chamber, the lowest common denominator of community empathy rather than any meaningful form of political or emotional engagement. The same thing can be said for #jesuiswhatever and the other variations: they are in Baudrillardian terms simulations of unity without meaningful symbolic exchange. It's like going to a rugby match and shouting in pain when a player is tackled. I don't mean that those expressing the sentiment aren't genuinely pained by what's happened to our fellow human beings: I am horrified and moved too. But that's not quite the same as claiming to 'stand with' those who were directly or indirectly affected. It is in fact a denial of the reality of their suffering by inserting one's own distanced feelings into the situation by loudly and publicly associating oneself with an unjustifiable claim to be a participant. If I were a Parisian, or a loved one of the deceased, I'd be revolted by the armchair bravery of those claiming to be standing with me from behind their keyboard.

Yes I know this sounds harsh and unempathetic and dismissive of other peoples' feelings, but I do think that the facility by which these memes circulate promotes the sense that we've done something by expressing the shallowest sentiments. Life is hard and complicated and requires complicated responses, not emotional spasms.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Literary Deathmatch: Jilly Cooper v BS Johnson

I went off to a sixth form college yesterday to run a 'taster session', designed to enthuse some teenagers about a) taking an English degree and b) taking an English degree at The Hegemon. I got the gig mostly because I briefly attended said college and I have a certificate proving I'm not a danger to young people…at least not in the narrowly legalistic sense the law means it. But no doubt the Prevent strategy plus the increasingly conservative discourse surrounding academia these days means that before long I'll be kept in a box.

The conundrum at these events is how to avoid doing a sales pitch, while organising a session which is meaningful and engaging despite the students being complete strangers and without having had the opportunity to send them something to read in advance (I may be dumb, but I'm not naïve). This time I hit upon the hoary old idea of doing the High/Low Culture face-off which might be familiar enough to seasoned HE academics but may be relatively new to A-level students, with some added stuff nicked from Cultural Studies.

So I brought along two books:

The first is of course self-explanatory, though I took along an even trashier edition without the faux-classy typography. The second is BS Johnson's The Unfortunates, a novel-in-a-box. The first and final chapters are fixed in place, but all the other pages are loose and you're meant to read them in any order. The students were quite impressed with this, and we discussed at length whether a reader would or should try to impose order or plot to 'make sense' of it, or whether she should abandon linearity entirely and surrender to the random flow of impressions. This led to the question of whether literary fiction like this is a rebellious philosophical blow against the conservatism of realism and familiar modes of fiction which encourage us to think of art and life as having purpose, meaning and trajectories, or whether it's a clever male intellectual game. We looked at the book as an object, the author's name (why BS and not Bryan Stanley?) and the rest of the metatextual artefacts that declare it Literature rather than just a novel. 

Then we looked at Riders. As with the Johnson, nobody had heard of it, but they all knew what kind of novel it was from the cover alone. So we talked about design again, and where these books were meant to be read (bedroom, sites of transit – hence 'airport novel'), and even the pagination and typography. They discussed whether texts like this were reactionary old tosh designed to maintain the status quo (the novel works very hard to ensure the reader fears and distrusts lesbians and academics, and especially lesbian academics) or whether it's as radical as The Unfortunates…after all, a 900 page novel aimed at a female readership requires that she sets aside the domestic and work duties which might interrupt sustained engagement. Is it a feminist act to run a bath, light some candles, lock the door and plunge into a massive book even if that book is explicitly anti-feminist? 

So that led into a discussion of the supposed masculinity of certain areas of human experience such as philosophy and classical music composition, and what happens to women who produce such work, and the class became a discussion of Life, the Universe and Everything - hugely enjoyable. Whether it will result in any students opting to spend the next three years in my company, I'm not entirely sure. But at least they spent an hour considering the political implications of pubic shaving in Riders. If that doesn't contribute to employability, nothing will. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A weekend of culture in Stoke on Trent.

Needing a few days of proper culture, I spent the weekend in Stoke-on-Trent, where Culture is never hard to find, despite what some of you London/New York/Paris inhabitants might mutter into your flat whites. If you don't believe me, here's visual proof.

On Friday, I went to the New Victoria Theatre for Northern Broadsides' in-the-round production of A Winter's Tale, that trickiest of Shakespeare comedies. It's a hard one to perform because it feels like two plays rammed together. In one story, the jealous king suspects his virtuous wife of infidelity with his best friend, so he orders his new-born daughter to be left outside to die and his friend King Polixenes to be poisoned. His wife dies of horror in prison, and his other son dies too. It's all very Othello - claustrophobic and vicious.

Then in subsequent acts set 16 years later, we have a lot of rustic songs, yokel humour and lusty gags as we watch unpoisoned Polixenes spy on his son, who is wooing a gorgeous peasant girl. It's all good fun until the boy tells his disguised father that he's going to marry the girl whatever Daddy might say. They have to flee…back to jealous Leontes's kingdom. It soon transpires that not only is the buxom wench his supposedly dead daughter, but his wife Hermione is alive and well: she'd only 'swooned' all those years ago. Now Leontes feels bad about killing his family and has suffered enough, he gets them all back, marriages are arranged and they all live happily ever after. So as I say, structurally a bit lumpy, but they made it work magically at the New Vic. Look out for it on tour.

The next day, I took a wander around the British Ceramics Biennial, which displays the very best in art pottery to trendy cosmopolitan types slumming it in The North. It's held in the rotting carcass of the Spode pottery works, soon to be transformed into something or other as part of the endless regeneration efforts to which the city is regularly subjected. Some years the ceramics on view are astonishing, sometimes they're banal or irrelevant. This year they were a very mixed bunch. But I took some photos of the venue and a few of the more interesting elements. Click on these to enlarge or see the whole lot here.

Molten clay churning in a bowl

The crockery vending machine, with a stone in the bottom to make sure your choice is properly smashed. I liked this one a lot.

Afterwards, I wandered over to the Minton Centre, a high Victorian piece of municipal beneficence. Building on the local Athenaeum Club which provided a library and museum, the Centre added a free library, baths and other civic amenities for the public, funded by the local pottery owners and decorated to display the best of the city's skills. Over the years its function changed – the basement became a canteen for Minton's workers at one point – before the council abandoned it, then sold it for £128,000(!) to a private investor who hasn't quite decided what to do with it but is well-disposed to the place. I've always wanted to see inside, and this was the first chance ever. 

It was fascinating. The old canteen was decorated with tiles from various Minton ranges designed to Improve the Mind: Biblical, Shakespearian, Tennyson's Arthurian Idylls of the King and Spirit of the Flowers scenes (as you'll see, the flowers are all topless women: those Victorians) and the Rustic Humours series, most of which are seriously rare (and valuable) now. More of them here. Many of the external reliefs have been wrecked by acid rain, while the internal decoration has suffered too - some of the tiles even have drill holes through them, having been hidden under layers of wallpaper for decades.
The Minton Centre

Free Libraries


The tiles uncovered in the old potters' canteen

A selection of commercial china makers' marks

The state of Stoke's cultural heritage 
Ignorance, from the Rustic Humours series

The slightly disturbing pixies series

The Frog Prince from the fairy stories series

Water Lily. Your interpretations are entirely your own problem

Isolt (Isolde, Yseult etc.) from the Arthurian Idylls of the King series

La Morte d'Arthur

A young Joseph Chamberlain - an early piece of political memorabilia

It turned into an expensive afternoon: I bought six beautiful and interesting books for £1.20, then dropped my camera, breaking my 50mm lens. Argh. Still, it meant I could in all good conscience but the f/1.4 lens to replace the f/1.8…

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Dear Tristram…

“You are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.”
These are the words of Tristram Hunt, the former public school pupil, son of a Lord, Labour Shadow Education Secretary, former hopeful leadership candidate, former historian (well, more a 'man who writes about the past' as Simon Heffer snidely phrases it) and professional picket-line crosser – the man who crossed a legal picket line of his academic colleagues to teach a class about Marxism

Tristram is the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, one of the most deprived constituencies in the country with unemployment running at double the national average, one with a history of far-right politics, and one with officially the lowest voter turn-out in the country. 

And yet Tristram feels no need to address these words to his constituents, or even the hard-working Labour Party members in Stoke-on-Trent Central. They have nothing to say which would interest him. How could they? They are not 'the 1%'. Their lives – unfashionable, provincial, unprivileged, hard-working or unemployed – do not fit them to have an opinion. Instead, Tristram turns to the privileged pups of the rich, those who have won the lottery of life and haven't even begun to spend their winnings. From there, he wants them to go on to lead lives of service to the Labour Party - by becoming Special Advisors, or getting parachuted in to safe seats (like him) without ever having to get their hands dirty. They will, of course, have a lot of theory to guide them…just like David Cameron, George Osborne and the Milibands, all of whom attended Oxford. Just like, lest we forget, all those other politicians, civil servants, bankers, hedge fund traders, pension fund executives (etc etc) who plunged us into the deepest and widest recession since the Victorian era and decided that the solution was to beggar the working poor while resuscitating the financial systems which got us into this in the first place. 

You'd expect this sort of undemocratic, elitist rubbish from a Conservative, because they believe that the rich have earned a voice by making it so far up the greasy pole (and that their children must be similarly blessed) but it's sickening to hear it from a Labour politician. However, it's not exactly unprecedented. There's a movement called the Fabians which still exists as an organisation, and which has many descendants outside the actual Fabian Society. It was largely socialist for most of its existence (with some rather dubious interests in eugenics along the way) but parted company from the mass of the socialist movement in its view of the Great Unwashed. While thereat of us socialists believe that the people are perfectly capable of expressing their needs, wants and solutions and should be listened to, the Fabians took the view that a small cadre of experts with the mental resources to understand the world should take the reins on behalf of the people. Part of this was fuelled by a quasi-Gramscian feeling that the People had been brainwashed by capitalism to the point that they were incapable of enunciating a critique of their condition and doing anything about it. Most of it was simply a Victorian disgust and horror at the Scum, feeding a fear of what they'd do if they weren't placated (they might even have a revolution!). Leave it to the Clever Chaps, said Sydney and Beatrice Webb, entranced by the new Soviet system they saw on a carefully-chaperoned trip to Russia and not particularly interested in the stories about mass murders and gulags. Efficiency is all! What could the bovine Kulaks possibly have to say. (There's also an ultra-left version of Proletarianism called Workerism which assumed that left to their own devices, the People would automatically create a paradise, but when control of public housing was devolved to street level in certain towns in the 1970s, the Workers spent rather too much time ensuring that non-white people weren't allowed to move in). 

So Fabianism became a rather conservative structural model which occasionally produced interesting ideas and people but fails because it's always in a hurry. It's a technocratic vision which sees discussion, persuasion and argument as inefficient, and it prefers to deal with elites rather than masses, even when those elites are the products of inherited privilege rather than, say, ability, as Tristram's unpleasant little outburst demonstrates. 

The glaring problem with Hunt's speech is that it's just very weird to ask 'the 1%' to stop a mass party being 'a sect'? What can a cadre of the 1% be other than a sect? It's a fundamental assault on the optimistic principle underpinning socialism: that we believe in the wisdom of crowds. It's even more galling that it comes from a man whose books are derivative and policies even worse: as shadow Education secretary his job seemed to be to perform for the Daily Mail and say yes to Michael Gove. He loved academies and free schools, for instance, seemingly entranced by the idea that removing schools from democratic and parent-led control and giving them to very rich men's companies would somehow improve education: a belief informing this nasty little speech too. 

I would love Tristram to explain to his own local Party, or to my students (mostly poor, ethnically diverse, mostly female) why they must not lead the Labour Party or contribute to its debates, whereas a mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male group should. But it's unlikely he'd even deign to reply to an invitation from a 99% institution or a person without an MA (Cantab). What would be the point?