Monday, 1 September 2014

They sickens you

Apropos of nothing, here's a 1992 Steve Bell cartoon which I have long loved (click to enlarge).

He drew it for the Guardian two days after the 1992 election in which John Major (John Major!) won a majority with far fewer MPs but the largest popular vote in British electoral history. Gramsci must have been turning in his grave… The cartoon exactly captures the shocked numbness I felt after the result. The poll tax was the worst imposition on the public since the Peasant's Revolt, and caused a widespread insurrection, and yet the bloody Labour Party couldn't scrape a victory against the party that instituted it.

The image references a Russian socialist cartoon from 1900, and an American version from 1911, after which it became a favourite on the left:

I remember the '92 election horribly clearly. I spent the Easter holiday in Rheims, on a desperate attempt to learn enough spoken French to scrape through the A-level. The sojourn consisted of horribly embarrassing exchanges with a family who had little interest in helping a withdrawn and incompetent visitor. It didn't help, either, that the le pĂ©re of the house was a gendarme who would wave his gun about muttering about les negres every time a black person's face appeared on the television which lived on the dining table. Two weeks of this, interspersed with classes in town in which my fellow learners muttered darkly about the prospects of a Labour victory (the apocalypse, apparently). Couldn't talk to the French because the non-racists were too busy laughing – and rightly so – at my shamefully bad French, couldn't talk to the British lot because they were vile Tory scum. 

I thought differently, having been accused of being a 'bloody Guardian reader' by my headmaster. I wasn't, but rapidly became one. I also joined the youth wing of Militant too, mostly for the annoyance factor. Getting the papers delivered to school guaranteed a weekly row which I quietly enjoyed. Not that it made much difference: several sixth-formers drove around the nearest council estate when the election result became clear, waving banknotes out of the window at the poor. Occasionally I Google people with whom I was at school, in the hope that they're dead, or in prison. One appeared on Newsnight recently talking about charity work, which must have required a massive personality transplant. Could be worse: my older colleagues with Oxbridge degrees know pretty much all the current political establishment. Ugh. 

I was just depressed. As a teenage Trot I knew that Kinnochio was a disastrous capitalist running-dog, but it was pretty obvious that we were in for many more years of corruption, poverty, misery and war. And I was right: 1992 was the first year I noticed the emergence of one T. Blair as shadow home secretary, already attacking people like Goebbels for not being tough enough on lawnorder… So it went. Having decided that a population which voted for Major must actually want economic deprivation, nuclear holocaust, the Daily Mail and all the other awful things of that period, the Labour Party decided to double down on the Tory model. Goodbye civil liberties, goodbye the public good, goodbye cohesive communities looking out for each other, goodbye diplomacy, goodbye civic society… Hello lobbying, wars, league tables, personal enrichment, corporate mega-greed, ATOS and pervasive surveillance. 

People occasionally ask me things like 'when did you get so gloomy'?, and the answer is 1992, when I started reading newspapers and paying attention. Anyway, I'm not cynical. Cynics stop caring. I'm depressed about everything that's happening because I do still care. 

There was one good thing about that trip to France. Sneaking into a bar underage (as if they cared) I saw my first music video. It was dark brown and angry and insistent – and a whole new world opened up.

Apologies for being so grumpy today. I've actually had a lovely time, working on my Foucault-Doctor Who-Trek paper with my co-writer, who managed not to tear my work up in disgust. Quite a result!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Phasers on Stunned

I appear to have broken one of my friends, a colleague and a co-writer!

I've been pretty quiet this week because I've been working really hard on a conference paper (and hopefully journal article). The conference is on The Politics and Law of Doctor Who: its energetic progenitor Danny Nicol has even set up a blog well in advance to kick ideas around outside the closed circle of academia, which is the kind of thing that makes me happy.

I've been thinking for ages that I should put my interest in popular culture and science fiction to good (academic) use rather than treating it as a private pleasure. The geeks have seemingly inherited the earth, looking through cinema and TV listings, so it's not as if SF is a guilty pleasure any more (the extended version of this rant is very similar to the defence of Media and Cultural Studies I will deliver at the drop of a hat).

So anyway, this conference seemed like an ideal opportunity. I toddled off to my esteemed colleague who works extensively in pop culture (particularly serial killers, pornography, 'underground' fiction, comics and so on) because I knew he'd love to have a go at this. Cue months of wading through the oceans of material he found: production notes, spin-off novels and comics, scripts, the lot. Eventually, we picked one Who seven-part adventure ('Inferno')* and a single Trek episode, 'Mirror, Mirror'.** They're both about dangerous searches for energy sources, both feature mirror universes and both appeared on TV in Britain at exactly the same time: 'Mirror, Mirror' aired in the same week as the last episode of 'Inferno'. Who could resist?

'Mirror, Mirror' is famous as the origin of the science fiction trope Beard of Evil, because Spock in the Evil universe has a goatee so you can tell them apart:

In actual fact, Beardy Spock isn't evil, he just behaves cruelly because that's the logical thing to do in a cruel universe. It does mean that Evil Kirk gets to utter the immortal line 'Has the Galaxy gone crazy? Where's your beard?'.

By an amazing coincidence, 'Inferno' also uses facial hair and features to differentiate mirrored characters. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (uptight but decent old stick) has a military moustache. His evil counterpart Brigade Leader Lethbridge-Stewart has no moustache but does have a scar and an eyepatch.


So that's the aesthetics sorted out. What we're interested in is how these popular SF TV shows constructed their 'ideal' politics by representing an 'evil' mirror.*** Bearing in mind that they were made in the late 60s and early 70s, it's interesting that they don't choose Communism. Instead, 'Mirror, Mirror' depicts a piratical world of violent oppression by an Empire, while 'Inferno' chooses a fascist regime, albeit one with Orwellian Stalinist overtones mixed in with a general Nazi atmosphere. So what we think is that both shows avoid criticism of the political cultures which generated them by presenting horrific regimes which some viewers may find resemble states against which they actually fought. 

All seems quite simple. And then I decided that Foucault would be useful here, and I went back to Discipline and Punish, adding 'Technologies of the Self' to the mix. That led me to Kant and the Federation's slightly confused invocation of the categorical imperative, and before long I'd generated 100 pages of notes which seemed to suggest that the Empire (which applies an Agoniser to incompetent crew members) and the Republic (which practises summary execution) are far less oppressive than Who's normal Britain and the Federation, because the Empire doesn't give a damn what you think as long as you do what you're told (and makes you carry around an Agoniser that superior officers use on you when you're not performing up to scratch), whereas the Federation has ways (philosophical 'technologies') to make you love it. It doesn't need to torture you because you've internalised its values and spend your time worrying about whether you've lived up to them in your daily life (hence the importance of the Captain's Log): you govern yourself and become a subject by examining yourself for signs of deviation. The conclusion is that the Doctor's preferred England deserves to survive because it has room for sexiness and intellectual flexibility, whereas the fascist Republic gets blown up because the mad scientist and his party friends are too rigid to admit they need help (and sex). Star Trek's Empire will probably fall or be reformed for the same reasons, with a little help from Not Actually Evil Spock once the 'good' Kirk points out the logic of not committing genocide while giving him a device allowing him to murder his way to the top of the Empire. The Federation, I feel, is a little smug in the way that hegemonic American culture tends to be: I like Doctor Who's rather English assumption that bumbling along without having to be absolutely right all the time is probably the best way to go. Foucault disagrees: he thinks that 'tolerant liberal' states are just subtler at turning individuals into tools of state continuation. 

My colleague thinks this is a slightly fascistic argument, but I'm sticking to the line that it's radically poststructuralist. I've just sent him a largely incoherent and obsessive cowpat of this argument and he's got to a) hack a 20 minute presentation out of it and b) cross out all the bits he thinks are bollocks. The good outcome of all this is that he can't do it tomorrow so I have a day off. The down side is that I've just remembered that rather than go for a long bike ride, I'm going to a funeral instead. 

But when anyone asks me what I do, I can quite truthfully say that students' massive debts pay me to work out what French poststructuralist philosophy has to say about 1970s Saturday evening TV. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it. 

* That's a link to the Tardis Data Core because I love the fact that there's a whole Wikipedia just for Doctor Who. No lives have been wasted doing that at all.  
** And that's a link to the Star Trek equivalent of Wikipedia, Memory Alpha. It's a hell of a lot bigger than the Data Core too (and one day will outstrip Wikipedia because frankly a lot of knowledgeable men care a lot more about SF shows than they do about the rest of our achievements as a species. 
***'Inferno' also has some rubbish monsters called Primords but they make absolutely no narrative sense at all, so we've decided to ignore them. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses

The tech industry is the future. It pumps out shiny, sleek machines on which we can do futuristic things. The fact that most of these things are extensions of work into what was previously leisure time and space, or enrich the tech industry, or involve handing over vast amounts of lucrative personal data to tech companies, advertisers and shady security agencies is by the by. 

The tech industry works hard to make its own operations look like the future. They don't have offices, they have 'campuses'. On these campuses, work is made to look like play. White-toothed youngsters zoom past on Segways from 'breakout space' to the company basketball court, pausing only to grab 'free' comestibles. They really love big brother. And why shouldn't they? These men (yes, and they're almost all white too) move (in corporate buses and private jets) from the grubby public realm to the primary colours of private, corporate space, free from litter, loafers, the poor, traffic jams, protest marches and anything else that smacks of inefficiency. It's a Hayekian paradise. Better than that: they earn a fortune too.

So we might all be forgiven for not giving a single solitary damn for the problems of these fresh-faced overlords. And yet while they are the chino-wearing shock troops of a eugenicist master-race, they're also a new proletariat in a game that's as old as the hills, as some recent news disclosed. We all know that the tech industry markets itself as making fortunes from 'innovation', while actually making billions from tax evasion – Apple has $111 billion stashed offshore because it doesn't want to pay its taxes – it has learned a lot of lessons from the nastiest of the 'old' industries: MacDonalds, Standard Oil, the mining companies and their ilk. You might make this behaviour by calling it tax 'avoidance', but Apple and its friends are now lobbying the US government for a tax holiday so they can bring it all onshore without having to contribute to the public realm which makes all its activities possible.

Imagine you're a young tech worker. You have flexible typing fingers, you're good with code and you never spill Pepsi down your polo shirt. You've been a code monkey at Google for a couple of years and you fancy a change. Your friends in finance are always telling you about the cold calls you get from recruitment agencies, yet your phone never rings, and your applications to Apple are never answered. Why the hell not?

Why not indeed? Court proceedings reveal exactly why not. Just as the bankers ganged up on the poor to apportion blame for the crash, all those cuddly, cool companies have organised a little cartel to ensure that you and your greedy friends don't increase wages by flitting between jobs. Free markets are for megacorps, not paupers however good they are at Objective C.

The DOJ alleges that Senior executives at each company negotiated to have their employees added to 'no call' lists maintained by human resources personnel or in company hiring manuals. The alleged agreements were not limited by geography, job function, product group, or time period. The alleged bilateral agreements were between: (1) Apple and Google, (2) Apple and Adobe, (3) Apple and Pixar, (4) Google and Intel, (5) Google and Intuit, and (6) Lucasfilm and Pixar.
The civil class action further alleges that agreements also existed to (1) "provide notification when making an offer to another [company]'s employee (without the knowledge or consent of the employee)" and (2) "agreements that, when offering a position to another company's employee, neither company would counteroffer above the initial offer."
There we have it: once you're in a job, you stay there, be proud of the logo t-shirts and little backpacks, or you leave the industry amidst wailing and gnashing of teeth (yours). Otherwise you might damage the dividends.

But…surely not Apple? They're so cool! They're not like nasty Mr Arkwright down at t'mill? Oh dear. Saint Steve was up to his neck in this plot against his own workers, as revealed by the only hero of Silicon Valley, sad little Palm's Edward Colligan. He wrote to Jobs about this cosy little conspiracy after an unpleasant (i)phone call:
Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other's employees, regardless of the individual's desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal.
 'OK', said Steve. 'You're right. We're way out of line here, and my Buddhist morality won't allow me to carry on this way'.

Only joking.
"Mr. Jobs also suggested that if Palm did not agree to such an arrangement, Palm could face lawsuits alleging infringement of Apple's many patents. This is not satisfactory to Apple," Jobs wrote. "I'm sure you realize the asymmetry in the financial resources of our respective companies when you say: 'We will both just end up paying a lot of lawyers a lot of money.'"
That's right. The guru of everything cool left the equivalent of a horse's head in a rival's bed, threatening to sue it out of existence if it didn't collude in a conspiracy to restrict their employees' earnings and mobility. That's Steve – and all his mates. Behind the optimistic techno-babble of bright new futures lurks the social, ideological and economic attitudes of the 1920s Virginian coal barons.

This isn't the 22nd century, let alone the 21st. It's the 19th. And it's why we need trades unions. (Also: Dave Eggers' The Circle is a very interesting novel on the way the tech industry experiments on notions of the self and individuality, using its own employees).

This is how companies treat their literate, highly-skilled and articulate workers in the world's most developed (sort-of) country: just imagine how they're treating those who toil in the assembly factories away from our prying eyes.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Vole Returns!

You have all signally failed to improve this benighted country in my absence. Though you did get rid of Baroness Warsi and a government minister who insisted that he just couldn't live on his £125,000 salary + expenses. Good work, all! To be fair, I have a little respect for Warsi now: she was elevated as a kind of Judas Goat to persuade ethnic minority voters that Tories aren't racists any more, but she turned out to have opinions too, clearly not what the hierarchy wanted from a Northern Muslim woman. Anyway, having slightly damaged her party, let's hope she carries on doing that but otherwise withdraws from public life.

What did I do on my holidays, I hear you ask? I read a lot of newspapers and books, including Williams's sleeper hit Stoner, about a failed academic. It's a wonderful book but desolatingly sad. Academics reading it are committing a form of self-harm, I couldn't help feeling. I also read a book on Foucault and TJ Bass's The Godwhale, which was rather good. I also took a lot of photographs. See the whole lot via that link or click on these to enlarge them.

Otherwise, I went swimming in the Atlantic near Killorglin in Co. Kerry, Ireland:

where my lithe body attracted a crowd of salivating photographers:

Though they may have been wearing beer goggles rather than swimming ones:

I was stung by jellyfish at Rossbeigh, so moved to another wonderful beach, Dooks for the rest of the holiday. The weather was wonderful: here's the sun setting over Killorglin town

The main event of the year is Puck Fair: a wild goat goes up on a stand to preside over 3 days of carousing, merry-making, horse-trading (literally), music and dancing. I love it, especially wandering around with a camera in-between daytime scoops. I particularly love the dodgems:

and the mini-car ride which I enjoyed very much:

and fairground neon

but after a day or two I was looking slightly haggard, though still dapper:

Though after a stroll through the horse-fair I got back on my horse and felt a new man:

before shopping around for some stupid pocket-size dogs:

I even found the time to get myself some new togs:

and a feed of buns:

before setting off purposefully to the Mr Puck competition

Though the crowd of people chanting 'get 'em off' at me was slightly disconcerting

and not everyone was impressed by my rendition of Voulez-vous

Ingrates. King Puck was a magnificent specimen this year. 

So much so that he even inspired some lookalikes:

And then came the rain. Being County Kerry, I was never without (and sometimes simultaneously using) a waterproof and sunglasses:

And the band (Fanfare Piston, a French engineering students' brass outfit) played on:

and in-between the showers there was dancing:

Although there was a sinister side to the festivities:

One of the lovely things about Puck is that all buskers are invited to play - no permits, auditions or (as you can see) minimum ages or height tests: I made a fortune.

The sweet strains of the melodeon made a pleasant accompaniment to the gentle shower of small change and vomit from the funfair:

While outside the bustling metropolis that is Killorglin, bucolia awaited:

Until it was time for me to fly* sadly home, fatter but not necessarily wiser.

*Metaphorically. I actually got the train and ferry. 

How was your summer?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Escaping to the country

I'm off on my holidays this evening.

I know.

I'm not a natural holidayer. I don't have the relaxed and sunny demeanour of even M. Hulot here:

I'm more of a sunburned, sweaty, itchy grump. However, I'll be off on the west coast of Ireland, swimming like an obese brick in the Atlantic, and reading. Lots and lots of reading. The Guardian, Irish Times and Examiner most days, plus a few books. The only 'work' one I'm taking is Simon During's Foucault and Literature, but I'm also taking last year's surprise (and posthumous) hit, John Williams' Stoner. Also some Anthony Trollope, Jack Womack, another biography of John Lilburne, Stefan Collini's What Are Universities For? and a couple of other things whose names I forget. Plus a load of Doctor Who and Star Trek journal articles for the thing I'm writing with my colleague, but they're on an iPad so I can safely ignore them.

The last things I had to do today were read a nearly-completed PhD dissertation by a Bulgarian visiting scholar and buy a house. The first was an enormous pleasure: his central assertion is that remix culture is a local version of art and literary practice since the post-Romantic period. It's a thrilling and provocative thesis: it needs work, but it was an enormous pleasure to read even if he is shocked to discover that I've basically corrected some prepositions and scrawled MORE HAUNTOLOGY over it.

And yes, I bought a house today. I didn't want to on multiple grounds (ideology, laziness, cash, being trapped in The Dark Place) but I'm a) sick of landlords and b) unemployable elsewhere. As long as I don't succumb, like Thomas Docherty, to Academic Bitchy Resting Face, I should cling on to this job for long enough to pay it off. And at least doing it all in one day means I can go on holiday, switch off every electronic device and panic on deserted beaches and up lonely mountains where nobody can here me.

So, for a couple of weeks, farewell. If you're a regular reader, try to break the habit. It's not good for you. If you're the local newspaper: try to find something else to fill your pages lads. Football's starting soon!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Rah Rah Rah, We're Going To Smash The Oiks!

Last week the delightful Aditya Chakrabortty of The Guardian reviewed the government's plans for funding Higher Education. I won't bore you with the technical details, but essentially they were going to fund expansion (largely through private providers of the kind currently suspended for immigration fraud and low standards) by selling off future student loan payments to banks.

The only problems were that 1) so many students weren't paying back their loans that the whole loans-for-fees system isn't saving the government any money and b) even with a massive discount, banks weren't biting. The whole idea is ridiculous: flogging off a major income stream for a pittance, even on their own terms. I wrote to my MP Paul Uppal, the HE minister's private parliamentary secretary, asking him if he could explain how it would all work. He replied with a very courteous letter essentially saying 'er…no, but I'll write again if we think of anything or if the sale doesn't go ahead.

The sale isn't going ahead. Vince Cable, who as Secretary of State for Business obviously oversees HE funding and policy, has declared that the sale is off, leaving a £12bn hole in the projected budget. My hunch is that they'll close it by ending the expansion of student numbers.

So this is the background to Chakrabortty's declaration that the sector is itself in disarray, with market-friendly managers and senior academics wrecking proud institutions like King's College London.
pushed into a marketplace, the managers of higher education don't really know how to act. So they ape each other, pass off what they are doing to what's left of the staff as the new wisdom – and pay themselves vast sums for wrecking one of the few sectors in which Britain leads the world. The result in all its strategic confusion and grasping anxiety is the university version of The Thick of Itfrom bean to cup, those HE bosses fuck up.
Not that I have a single critical word to say about the enlightened leaders of my own dear Hegemon. I don't want to end up like Thomas Docherty, suspended by the University of Warwick for 'sighing' and  'irony'. Apparently academic bitchy resting face is now a disciplinary issue.

But fear not. The true madness has just descended on us. The deposed minister for HE, David Willetts, has been privately advocating a work of staggering genius. Discovered by Newsnight's Christopher Cook and presumably a government attempt to float the idea, Willetts wants to dump student debt on individual universities.

The idea's simple. You borrow from the government. That debt is then sold to the student's university on graduation. That's the debt that they couldn't sell to the banks, you remember. Then the student owes her debt to her alma mater.

A few problems arise. Firstly, are either the government or university finance offices capable of even managing the process? I can't even get my finance department to pay a visiting speaker £30 in travel expenses, so I have my doubts that it will successfully negotiate the (enforced?) purchase of discounted financial instruments.

Secondly, loading universities with their students debts is guaranteed to lead to fewer courses populated by richer students. Imagine the recruitment department looking at a forty-year old single mother from a minority community applying to study social work or education. Women earn less. They have career breaks, often to have children. School teachers, nurses, social workers and other useful people earn very little compared to the bankers who even steal from the government which bailed them out. The average company CEO, it turns out, is still male, 54 and an Oxbridge graduate (and therefore very likely to be white, too).

Any sane university trapped in the logic of depending on student loan repayments would turn away the poor, the old, the ethnic, the female and the altruistic. It would shut down the courses which lead to socially useful jobs, because they pay less. It would also shut down the expensive courses, like the sciences.

And then we turn to geography. Imagine being a university serving a community of poor, often BME people. The local employers pay the minimum wage or are public sector employees. Unemployment is high. Would you provide courses enabling the poor locals to better themselves? Of course not: because we all know that unemployment and low pay aren't a function of individual fecklessness or bad luck. They're a deliberate strategy designed to provide a pool of desperate workers (keeping wage inflation down) and to increase shareholder and executive pay at the expense of the workforce.

Willetts claims that loading universities with their students' debts will make the institution work harder to make those graduates more employable. This is economic illiteracy or – worse – deliberately deceptive. It implies that employability is solely a matter of personal qualities and education is a private good, when it remains inescapably true that there are (and have been since 2008) more unemployed people than there are jobs, and until the financial recovery becomes an economic recovery, this will continue to be the case. So it doesn't matter if you have 'appropriate' qualifications bursting from every orifice, or your university has showered you with skills, courses and internships, many graduates won't get a job.

Cook points out that six 'top' universities are keen on the whole idea. Of course they are. Getting a degree from the Russell Group, particularly Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and a couple of others, is like winning a Golden Ticket (though Willy Wonka's distribution of tickets is much, much fairer than elite university entrance, which is largely predicated on parental wealth and private education: as an aside, Piketty's Capital points out that the average parental income for Harvard undergraduates is $450,000 p.a. – feel the egalitĂ©). So these 'top' universities, drawing their intake from the global elite, can be pretty sure that most of their students (of course some will dedicate their lives to low-paying, altruistic work) will be earning massive salaries simply because of the name on their degree certification, let alone the social capital acquired along the way. They won't even have to shut down the Medieval Icelandic courses, because institutional prestige will smooth those graduates' paths.

Those VCs are rubbing their hands together with glee, because there's another little bonus coming their way. They can point to their students' economic successes as proof that they have little risk attached to income, and raise their fees massively, thus excluding more of the Great Unwashed. If you're going to become a derivatives broker, £50,000 debt is chicken-feed, a quarter of the price of your latest Lamborghini. So is £100,000. So let's party!

Meanwhile, in the rust-belt, poor old Poly will have progressively shut down sculpture, art, and music, then media and film, then languages (if any still existed), then English. Before long, history, politics and sociology will go. Pretty soon only nursing, law and business will exist outside the sciences. At some point the finance director will point out that sciences are expensive and the students aren't getting well-paying jobs. Then the league tables will point out that legal and business jobs depend on contacts and prestige degrees, while the nurses have stopped paying back their loans. Before long the whole place will quietly shut down with barely a whimper of regret from anyone in authority. A (perhaps the) major source of pride, regeneration, cash and enlightenment in the region will be gone and nothing will bring it back.

This will not be an accident. This is the plan. As I've said over and over again since I started this blog many years ago, successive government long-ago decided that they work for the financial elite. Rather than looking at the industrial situation in 1960 or whenever and work out how 60 million people will earn a living, they decided to concentrate on shareholder profits. This meant crushing wages, reducing labour protection, reducing social security and engineering an economy based on low-paid, low-employment, low-skilled services. This necessarily requires a smaller, meaner state because while most of us can't and wouldn't avoid our taxes, corporations can and do. The grotesque sight of Russian oligarchs paying the Tories £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson illustrates this strategy perfectly. Why pay millions in taxes, governments say to these people, when you can pay the Party a few hundred thousand?

Higher and Further education are key to this strategy. They don't want, or at the very least don't care about widening participation. They don't think the poor deserve or are capable of succeeding at HE, and they define success solely as personal financial gain (except for their own kids, who will be privately funded to study wonderful courses I'd love to take such as Medieval Icelandic, safe in the knowledge that they'll never be exposed to the cold winds of the job centre). My students, and their kids, can sod off to an Amazon warehouse and be grateful.

Other, better analyses of this crackpot scheme are here, here and probably all over the net.

Which takes me to the title of this post, derived from the chant of Footlights College when they meet Scumbag College in University Challenge.

It was funny then. Now it's policy.

Lucky there's an election in 10 months eh readers?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

They can't mean me…

Now and then I get a slightly exhausted senior manager on the phone, asking me in for a little chat about whatever the local rag has stolen from my Twitter feed or blog. So far, they've been very kind and understanding, and always insisted that I would never be asked to remain silent on whatever subject has caught my eye that week. Nonetheless, it's pretty clear that they would rather I occasionally passed up the opportunity to offer my two cents. I do, too: despite some pretty childish attempts by local hacks to rile me, I've let some things drop and not raised others. I'm certainly a lot more circumspect about the things I learn in my role as union rep and university governor too: despite my reputation as a bigmouth, there are plenty of things that have either enthused me or depressed me that I've maintained a discreet silence about. I'm just one person and I'm not always the best qualified individual to judge what should and shouldn't be publicly aired, despite my strong feeling that a university is nothing if it isn't a series of loud, public arguments.

In the sector generally, silence is beginning to fall. Quiet words are being had, prominent individuals are being sidelined, suspended or retired for disagreeing with management in public. In the new university sector, the institution is no longer the ramshackle conglomeration of students, teachers, support staff, managers, local authorities and interested parties. The university is now a small collection of very highly-paid professional administrators at whose beck and call we exist. From cleaners to professors, 'we' are no longer the institution: we service it. (I prefer the original Italian model in which students would hire a room and a lecturer).

One of the many problems with this horrid corporate model is that suddenly we're all meant to obey the Word from on High. Corporate loyalty and obedience become paramount. In the old days, academics were meant to be unruly troublemakers. That's why we were hired: we have a loyalty to the ideals of education, not to the local and contingent structures in which we find ourselves. We challenged old nostrums, whether about the Great Vowel Shift or the catering menu. Now the job consists of two things: Teaching and Shutting Up. One manager recently proudly told me that his job is to ensure that nobody 'disruptive' gets a job here: I thought the point of higher education was to disrupt the status quo.

This hierarchical, top-down corporate structure is beginning to acquire a legal and managerial structure. Take David Browne's public (and hastily removed) musing on Luis Suarez's behaviour and what it means for universities:
‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.
In the probably non-existent Golden Age of higher education, it was accepted that academics would and could be a royal pain in the arse. There are even witty books about playing the academic game, and hundreds of tedious diaries and biographies of Senior Wranglers from Oxbridge colleges who spent their entire careers whispering poison about each other into influential ears. Campus novels teem with single-minded Vice-Chancellors worn down by academics who won't knuckle down and follow orders. Most of them are very boring.

It's different now. Universities, as Mr Browne observes, are brands and businesses which happen to produce education as their product. Some have been like that for years, such as Warwick. Once the end-result of a university education isn't critical thinkers, an oppressive apparatus of control appears (and in specific regard to Business Schools: the global economy collapses because nobody's being critical). Some elements are minor or silly: meaningless slogans, logos, email footers. Others are more heavy-handed. Out goes the legally-protected notion of academic freedom:
academic freedom is specified in the Education Reform Act 1988, Section 202 (2). The clause, setting out the role of a new body of University Commissioners, is quite specific: “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions
and in comes the imposition of mission statements, pronunciamentos and a general air of disappointment and fury every time we who have found ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchical structure we naively thought was egalitarian resist the latest attack on principles we hold dear. Yes, we have a legal right to 'question and test received opinion', but I wouldn't mind betting that an industrial tribunal will see a university argue that this right refers only to scholarly concepts and not to corporate policy. 

If I suddenly go quiet, look for me teaching Business English on the midnight shift at our Siberian satellite campus.

For some, sanctions. For others: ammo

We can all be forgiven for thinking the world's going to hell in a handcart. South Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Ukraine to name just a few places. Thank heavens we live in a nice quiet bit of Northern Europe/North America or Australia. What's wrong with these foreigners that they reach for a gun at the drop of a hat? They're just barbarians. We're civilised.

Of course we're civilised. As long as you miss out Northern Ireland, or make sure you carry out your genocides before international law and media get going. Native Americans? Just enough left to weave some rugs for the tourists. We wouldn't behave like these savages. Or at least, not in public. Yes, there's Guantanamo and Bagram and Diego Garcia and black sites in Poland, Romania, Egypt and various other places, but they're only for terrorists. We're for democracy. At least, when and where it suits us. Sure, Egypt's a military dictatorship and Saudi Arabia is the worst place on earth for Jews, women, atheists, black people, liberals, trades unionists and religious minorities. But they put on a good spread and some of their leaders are very hospitable to our salesmen. Really, Rolls-Royce and BAe haven't a bad word to say about them.

Look at these brutes. Smashing civilian planes out of the sky. We wouldn't do that. Well, OK, we would, using the USS Vincennes which had entered Iranian waters after getting annoyed by Iranian speedboats. But that plane was packed with Iranians, in Iranian airspace. Honestly, they were asking for it. And we said sorry. Well, not exactly sorry, but we did give the 290 victims' $61m between them without admitting legal liability. These things happen.
When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the U.S. government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the 18 bridge crew of the Vincennes called 'scenario fulfillment', which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.
What did President Bush the First say?
"I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy."
In fact it was the Iranians' fault for being at war with Saddam Hussein, he said. And you can't say fairer than that. Which is why Bill Clinton continued to refuse to apologise.

But anyway, apart from that, it's pretty clear that the dividing line between Civilised and Uncivilised is religious and ethnic. Arabs and Muslims are Uncivilised, White People are Civilised. We don't do these things to each other.

Except that we obviously do, and we help out when our Civilised friends want to go about smiting the Uncivilised. After all, we can't leave the Israelis to do all that child-killing unaided. We (rightly) sanction Russia for at least helping shoot down a jet, but we send Israel more ammo. All the stuff a feisty little nation might need to bombard a densely packed city with heavy weaponry.
David Miliband admitted that Israeli equipment used in Gaza in the 2008-9 conflict "almost certainly" contained UK-supplied components. He cited F16 combat aircraft, Apache attack helicopters, Saar-Class corvettes and armoured personnel carriers.
Perhaps it's a tinge of imperial nostalgia. After all, it's almost a century since the British got to bombard a densely-packed city of lightly-armed rebellious natives holding a largely symbolic insurrection next door: Dublin, 1916. (A side-note of pride: my great-uncle Thomas was Commandant of the 1st Dublin Brigade and fought in the GPO that day). I'm really looking forward to the wall-to-wall BBC/Daily Mail coverage of that proud moment in a couple of years time. I mean: these Palestinian children and bakers and mothers and street-cleaners and lawyers are just asking for it. And that's not just me, that's the Wall Street Journal:

So what am I rambling on about really? Well, it comes down to realpolitik: the understanding that any principles evinced by democratically-elected leaders are contingent. Democracy is something with which to taunt your enemies, not press on your friends. Palestinian children just are expendable. The planes your enemies shoot down are evidence of barbarism. The planes you shoot down are regrettable instances of unfavourable conditions. You kidnap: we have secure rendition facilities. We were provoked: you're inherently evil. We must defend ourselves: you're warmongers. We have security concerns: you're terrorists. We have values that must be defended: you're fanatics.

Right now, I've got a 'plague on all your houses' feeling, which is wrong. All these conflicts are more complicated than they seem. Every side is committing offences against humanity that we should be getting outraged over, case by case. But watching the news and social media, hearing the same tired old lies and evasions trotted out by our political leaders, it's hard to do anything other than accept the disempowerment and watch events unfold as though we're at the cinema. When you hear John Kerry tell the news that Israel is conducting 'pinpoint' operations then being caught on camera using the phrase sarcastically, you have to admit that – as Baudrillard pointed out – we're not in a real war at all. There's what happens, which Kerry can only mutter to his aides about, and there's the simulation, which is far more important. Kerry clearly doesn't like Israel killing children and civilians on a personal level, but his job is to deny it's happening for the purpose of maintaining the USA's uncritical support for whatever Israel wants to do. (As an aside, the Fox presenter challenged Kerry for expressing regret for the dead children: criticising Israel is just not on). Social media's no better: one Christian activist polluting my timeline on Twitter is spending his time explaining why exactly it is that God needs lots of Palestinian kids dead in a hurry. I'm no wiser, to be honest. It's just thousands of people posting decontextualised photos or propaganda points in pursuit of what, exactly, I don't know. Still, they're all better than Caitlin Moran's all-purpose outrage:

Well done Caitlin. We can all stop worrying about it now because all those FGM-advocates will be bowled over by a columnist writing WTF on her hand. Staying seated on a bus? Passing a law? Throwing yourself under a racehorse? Boring. Or BORING!!!!! as Caitlin would say. She's written an opinion on her hand and posted it on Twitter. End Of!

Time to stop. Even by my standards this is rambling nonsense rather than an argument. It's hot and everybody's gone mad. Including me.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Come into the garden Maud

Life in the new Faculty is less than halcyon. It feels more like this.

And yet somehow you just know that management thinks everything in the rose garden is lovely. Apart from their philistine, arrogant and ignorant attacks on everything they do, they compound the insults by not even bothering to spell our names or get our sexes right on the insulting material they send us.

I know there's a critical management studies field of 'workplace resistance'. They'd get a career's worth of material from this place. Me? I refer you to the sublime Office Space:

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Cutting Edge Thinking from British Fencing

OK, well over 99% of you won't give a damn about this one, but I need a mini-Rant.

I've just read the latest edition of The Sword, British Fencing's quarterly publication. It carries fencing news, results, and sometimes my photos if I've been to a competition recently. The other regular feature is 'Why oh why is fencing in crisis?' (which it usually is).

This time, Ronald Velden, one of the prominent commentators in British Fencing has hit upon a clever wheeze to develop the sport:
improving participation in the independent schools
That's right. When you have no Olympic medals in living memory, and the public perception of your sport is that it's a toff activity, what we really need to do is funnel more cash and attention (including taxpayers' money) to a small percentage of the mega-rich 7% of the school-age population who attend fee-paying institutions. Obviously there must be huge social barriers to their participation which need overcoming. I'm really bothered by the idea that we should recruit from a pool of privileged kids who are largely white and male. That's what led the Amateur Fencing Association's leadership to put on fund-raising events for England epeeist and British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley: a blinkered, smug and exclusive elitist mind-set.

It may surprise Ronald and his chums in the British Fencing hierarchy, but out here in the sticks we actually do recruit widely and reduce barriers to participation. There are clubs such as Newham, West Fife and Camden which recruit from the local population (very weirdly, Ronald is chair of Camden Fencing Club!). Some of them are even black, which is – sadly – a new experience in the fencing world. Their kids are competitive and hugely successful. Other clubs, like my own, offer free coaching and ultra-low fees (£2.50 for 2.5 hours fencing) but we don't do enough recruitment, relying instead on people finding us.

Other sports, particularly British Cycling, worked out a long time ago that success comes from recruiting from as deep a pool as possible, rather than relying on a traditional circle of insiders. The UK is notably unsuccessful at fencing and I think that's partly because it still recruits from the traditional class-based sources: private schools and the armed forces. In Italy, Germany, France and all of Eastern Europe, fencing is a normal sport open to everyone. It's certainly true that their social elites have a strong historical link to the sport, but participation is open to and affordable by all.

Apart from the argument about medal success, I detest the inward-looking, cosy smugness of the fencing hierarchy. Surely if you believe your sport is wonderful, as I presume we all do, we want to persuade everyone to try it. Fencing requires a set of athletic, mental and social disciplines which are good for individuals and transferable: we should be going in to primary schools and community centres, demonstrating what we do and taking in anyone who wants a go, whether they'll go on to be Olympians or just fat blokes like me.

I was going to say 'imagine going to the Government and saying "give us more money and we'll spend it on private sports"' when it struck me that the current crew would probably open the coffers enthusiastically.

OK, back to the real world shortly.

Friday, 11 July 2014

You shouldn't be allowed to see what it is yet!

So this was in the local rag recently:

The 'anger', it turns out, is entirely felt by one man who feels so strongly about it that he wishes to remain anonymous, presumably worried that the region's roving bands of violent paedophile cartoonists will visit vengeance upon him.

He feels very deeply that the complete works of Rolf Harris should be withdrawn from the public domain:
I can understand books being written about people who committed horrific crimes, but this is something he has written himself…I think it’s disgusting this sort of offensive material is on show for anyone to see.
So, to sum up: he's quite happy for anyone to see and read books about 'horrific crimes' but thinks that  books like A Pet For You: Animal Hospital with Rolf Harris, Can You Tell What It Is Yet? and Rolf On Art: My Approach from First Steps to Finished Paintings are 'offensive'. They also found an 'outraged' user who did give his name and felt that The Best of Rolf CD should be banned too. The council isn't withdrawing the books for adults or the CD, but is taking away a book for children by Harris, as though there's something inherently paedophilic and contagious in the book, which completely baffles me. It's way beyond logic and rationality.

Why am I bothered? Because I came into the office at 7 a.m. this morning to do a live radio interview on the BBC's WM station with this chap and the presenter, and I spent yesterday thinking about how I feel. Sadly, our defender of public morality either didn't wake up or thought better of making a public stand: he didn't answer, and then switched off, his phone. We were going to talk about censorship, the nature of offence, the history of book-banning and whether art and artists can and should be treated distinctly.

Rather than let good material go to waste, you can have my take on the Filthy Books Furore. I guess that you won't be surprised that I'm against censoring books by bad people. I tend to believe that reading Rolf's book on art won't make you a bad person, it'll make you a bad artist. His books aren't offensive: he is. There's a difference. If you don't want Rolf to make 6p in royalties, don't take out his book.

I'd probably yank biographies of Savile and Harris from the shelves on the grounds that they're out of date, but keep the autobiographies. I strongly believe that a society that wants to understand itself shouldn't sweep material under the carpet but examine it. Savile's autobiography was astonishingly candid: perhaps closer reading would have caught him while he yet lived.

I just don't think that art should be judged by the standards of the artist's morality. Rolf's art was always bad art, whatever we did or didn't know about him. Caravaggio was a murderer: should we take his paintings down? The case I know most about is one I was going to mention on air because it's directly relevant to the BBC. Eric Gill was a talent sculptor, typographer and artist - one of the most fascinating characters of the twentieth-century. You've seen his work millions of times, because he designed Gill Sans, a beautiful typeface:

As well as typography, he carved the astonishing Prospero and Ariel figures on the BBC's Broadcasting House, and the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral:

Eric Gill: Ariel Between Wisdom and Gaiety
I tell my Media Ethics students about Eric Gill. I show them the artwork. Then I tell them about his sex life. He had affairs with his sisters (usually no reaction). He had sex with his daughters (some disquiet). He had sex with his dog (utter horror: I usually tease them for their moral hierarchies by observing that it's probably less cruel to have sex with an animal than to kill it, and ask what they had for lunch).

Does this catalogue of horrors mean that Gill's artwork is tainted? I don't think it does. Gill painted and sculpted eroticised images of his daughters and sister Gladys. Knowing this adds a degree of horror, but if I'd never know who the models were, or what their relationship was, I don't think anything intrinsic in the artwork would have communicated abuse or taboo. In many ways, knowing the background to some of the art makes it more complex and intense. I wouldn't hide them away because I don't think there's a magical connection between an artist's morality and his or her work. There are exceptions: I do think Graham Ovenden's art was explicitly paedophilic and don't believe his exquisite technique entitles him to a free pass.

Jimmy Savile recorded a series of road safety adverts, like this one:

Should this be banned? I think not. The message is unaffected by what we now know about Savile. In its time and context, it was perfectly reasonable, and retrospective horror about what Savile was up to in other situations doesn't taint the purpose and content of this text.

Books and pictures don't commit crimes. Writers, artists and photographers do. I agree with the ban on paedophilic photography and film because it requires the abuse of real people in its production. I agree with the ban on the circulation of such material because it stimulates the further abuse of real people. I disagree with the ban on fictional representations of illegal acts however. I don't think the imagination can be legislated against, however vile the products of that imagination are. I don't think fiction creates real victims. I think we should ban the execution of actual crimes, not potential ones.

Secondly, a blanket ban on the discussion or representation of illegal acts prevents understanding them. Book Ban Man explicitly says he's happy for people to read about 'horrific crimes'. He clearly doesn't think that reading about murder or sexual violence leads to more murder or sexual violence - so why does he think that a criminal's thoughts on felt-tip line drawing is 'offensive'? Though if he feels that no books by criminals should be allowed on the shelves, I'm tempted to agree: let's rid public libraries of the complete works of Jeffrey Archer!

Let's talk about Nabokov. Lolita is one of the vilest books I've ever read. As you probably know, it's an exploration of a much older man's sexual obsession with a very young girl. I do actually think that it's paedophilic, and that fascination with young girls pervades much of Nabokov's work. I still wouldn't ban Lolita nor do I think even great literature, let alone Rolf Harris's books should be totemised as magical objects with the power to turn ordinary people into slavering perverted beasts. Texts are framed and contextualised in particular ways: while I find Lolita creepy and unpleasant, I don't think it's an advert for an act society has deemed beyond the Pale. Additionally, texts don't exist in a vacuum. They aren't magic: readers create texts by reading from their own unique perspectives. I'm sure a determined paedophile could manage to turn Lolita into simplistic one-handed entertainment, and perhaps even Rolf on Art, but the problem is with the reader: s/he's the paedophile, not the book. S/he still would be even if the book had never been read. There's only a social and legal problem if the reader commissions or commits a paedophilic act.

Away from the sphere of illegal acts, I'm generally against censorship of other material. Too many texts have been banned because some politician or campaigner sees temporary, local advantage in it. I'm sure Evelyn Waugh had Ulysses in mind when he lampooned the government in the first chapter of Vile Bodies, in which poor Adam has his autobiographical manuscript confiscated by customs.

Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, Joyce, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter…all have been subject to bans for offending someone (well-meaning liberals don't like To Kill… being used in classrooms because it uses authentic but now-offensive racial epithets, while evangelists in the US condemn Rowling for promoting witchcraft). Social mores are complex and fluid: banning texts often seems very silly in a short space of time. It really bothers me that those with the loudest voices or cultural capital get to decide what gets banned. This isn't mature, democratic debate. It's the morality of the lynch mob.

It's impossible to ban books or anything else anyway. The Spycatcher case established that national boundaries had become meaningless: the book was banned in the UK but published overseas, and a judge ruled that as overseas publication had put any sensitive material in the public domain, British publication may as well go ahead. And this is before the internet, of course. Despite the spirited efforts of every government, material can't be buried for long. If all the libraries removed Rolf Harris's books from the shelves, anyone determined to learn how to draw anthropomorphic kangaroos could locate a copy on the web in seconds.

No, physical interdiction and legal intervention aren't any good when we're talking about ideas. I'm perfectly happy to ban the circulation of material depicting illegal acts, but it's far more important to discuss why we have taboos, and educate people so that they either don't feel or don't act on desires we collectively and calmly decide are damaging.

So anyway, that's what I'd have said in my 2 and a half minutes on local radio. And then the local paper would have led a violent mob to my front door.

Oh, and a final word of advice to libraries and readers. Don't buy books because they're (ghost)-written by celebrities. Buy books on the basis of quality.