Tuesday, 23 February 2016

4AD Forever Ago

One of my friends is off to visit 4AD's headquarters today. Back when I didn't have responsibilities, I would happily spend all my non-book funds on anything produced by certain record labels: Fierce Panda, Ankst, Sain, Sarah and its successor Shinkansen, Duophonic, Secretly Canadian, Sub Pop, Darla, Bella Union, Postcard, Placid Casual, Chemikal Underground, Cooking Vinyl, Creation before it went rubbish, Rock Action, Rocket Girl, Damaged Goods, Domino, ElefantDeceptive, Factory (obviously), Fortuna Pop, Too Pure, Heavenly and a whole host of others. Topping this list was 4AD, particularly the early years that I missed through still being a mewling puking babe. If you know these labels, you'll know my taste in music (except for all the classical and folk which they don't do. You'll also know my age.

4AD though: the home of highbrow ethereal semi-goth. Pretentious, hypnotic, self-regarding and brilliant. I mostly learned about them from living with goth stoner maths'n'computing PhD students when I was but a callow undergraduate. So, for Matt, here are my favourite 4AD tracks

This will never fail to fill my mental dance floor:

Tindersticks have been an obsession since I bought my first records ('Sweet Kathleen' and Gorky's Zygotic Mynic's Patio, both on 10") so their album on 4AD was a dream:

No Pixies? Depends what mood I'm in.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Yes, but no, but yes but no but…

I hope everyone else is as confused by Britain's 'negotiations' with Europe as I am. Cameron seems to exacted a series of pledges from the rest of the EU that are either meaningless or minuscule. The effect seems to be calculated solely to appease the headbangers on his own backbenchers whom he personally riled-up during the days of the coalition by promising them a referendum solely for tactical advantage. Having promised it, he then had to generate some heat to justify it, and so along comes this list of supposedly earth-shaking agreements that actually look a bit embarrassing. Some fiddling with child benefit that doesn't cost much and doesn't apply to many; an exemption from one of the vaguest clauses ever to be committed to parchment 'ever-closer union'; a temporary brake on in-work benefits in unspecified circumstances to solve a non-existent problem and – perhaps the sole thing Cameron actually cares about – some perks for his donors in the financial sector (who show their gratitude by, er, not paying any taxes). Then of course we have the utterly grotesque sight of a backbench MP and Mayor of London being invited to Downing Street for 'talks' as though he were a visiting head of state rather than a rival in the Conservative Party's power struggle. Call that democracy?

If I was a European leader I would be seriously pissed off about being recruited to play a part in a political stunt that's of no interest to most British citizens and of no international merit. Europe is falling apart under the contradictory pressures of the Syrian crisis, the environment is degrading in front of our eyes, Russia is annexing chunks of our neighbours' countries, corporations are poisoning our children, selling our data and evading their taxes and yet the British have hijacked the political agenda to ensure that sugary tea and gristly sausages get protected AOC status (while, I would like to point out, lobbying to weaken car emissions laws in the wake of the VW scandal).

The British have never been anything other than wreckers within the EU as de Gaulle knew. What baffles me most of all about the whole thing is why the rest of Europe puts up with it.

Somehow the UK wants to be America's lapdog and Europe's top dog with very little justification for why it deserves it. Wielding rented nukes is no excuse. Yes, the UK has a very large economy – apparently not large enough to fund public libraries – but an awful lot of it is either shady money or dependent on access to EU markets.

Like most people, I'm fairly conflicted by the EU debates. For the British hard left, of which I am often aligned, the EU is a capitalist plot designed to weaken the working conditions of the masses and ensure the continued hegemony of unaccountable financial elites, though the continental socialist movement doesn't feel the same way. However, I have long felt that while it is a capitalist plot, the alternative is a much nastier capitalist plot with added viciousness. Even the rightwing Western European governments are herbivorous compared with the vicious asset-stripping the UK labours under. What little workers' rights British citizens have are guaranteed by the EU and the various (but not related) European courts. The same applies to human rights (don't forget that the Conservative Party wants to abolish them), reproductive and sexual minority rights, environmental protections, consumer protections and so much more. Leaving the EU would result in a hostage situation. Between the wing of the Conservative Party that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the finance sector (look up tax-avoiding Treasury minister Andrea Leadsom's funding for example) and the wing that sees the poor, sick, Welsh, Scots, young and professional classes as the enemy and you'll soon discover that the EU's mild capitalism is a damn sight more welcoming than British government which will sell us to the lowest bidder just so long as they can carry on fox-hunting.

I look at the Tories and UKIP and see several strands of contradictory thought. They believe in the free movement of capital above all else, but detest the free movement of people. They hate regulation of banks, emissions and everything else, yet they hark back to some imaginary golden age. They hate superstates which are unelected and distant, yet adore the British parliamentary system which features 900 unelected Lords and 650 elected MPs (about to be reduced to 600). They love the British Empire at the same time as hating the EU superstate. They say that the Eurozone is undemocratic and economically unwieldy, applying the same fiscal rules to diverse conditions, while condemning the Welsh and Scottish nationalists for criticising Westminster's identical behaviour. I have a dystopic vision of a non-EU largely derived from Julian Barnes's England, England, in which the Isle of Wight becomes a theme park based on a fantasy bucolic past, while an independent England becomes a backwater ruled by narrow-minded authoritarians. Coincidentally enough, I found the Grassroots Out campaign's decision to design club ties before doing any actual campaigning hugely rich in sociological data.

It's redolent of the kind of golf-club fascism that lurks under the surface of these reactionaries, scared of women, immigrants, ethnic minorities, northerners, the Celtic nations, the poor etc. etc. And just think how many more of them there will be when Spain sends back those hundreds of thousands of Daily Mail readers who just wanted a sunnier, whiter Britain and moved to the Costas without ever learning a word of Spanish or gaining any wider perspective. I wonder if the UK political classes' blinkers mean that they assume everyone wants to come here and no True Brit will lose out by not being able to go Over There. After all as we well know, Abroad is Ghastly and They All Think In English Really, They're Just Being Difficult.

In the end, I'm sorry to say, I would take a Brussels government over any British government of whichever party. I remember all too clearly Labour's Tony Blair going round boasting that the UK had the harshest trades union laws in Europe. I don't like or understand Britain's sense of exceptionalism. Yes, its Empire was one of the largest but there's nothing it did that anyone should be proud of, nor does it justify special treatment. If part of the EU's purpose was to bind nations like Germany so closely to its neighbours that it will never misbehave again, Britain certainly deserves the same treatment. Rather than kow-towing to these braying toffs and small-minded UKIP bigots, our friends should keep Britain bound and gagged in a back room until it's ready to behave like a global citizen and good neighbour rather than the local bully.

In an ideal world, I'd vote for a EUSSR in a heartbeat: a radically democratic and socialist continental nation which afforded responsible government to a hugely diverse population with due regard for the rights of minorities everywhere, while combining to provide justice, peace, security and environmental protection in all those cases where collective action alone can make the difference. In the real world, too, membership even of this decaying structure is a positive benefit: just look at South Yorkshire, or the Welsh valleys, or the ex-industrial belt in Scotland. All these and more places have been thrown lifelines not by an indifferent and even hostile British government. I genuinely believe that Britain out of the EU will be a meaner, crueller and poorer place. But at least it might occasion the break-up of the UK and render it harmless for the ages.

So in the end, my answer to the EU referendum is vote Yes, but not with any joy. The negotiations were a political charade and it feels awful to reward this kind of cynical shenanigans with a positive outcome but the alternative is just so much worse. Imagine Farage, Grayling and Johnson's faces grinning at you from every TV screen as they joyfully announce the closure of the last women's refuge or adolescent sexual health scheme, as they sell the last old folks' home to Goldman Sachs (unelected distantly-run and unaccountable corporations are totally different from 'Brussels') and finally as they oversee the loading of the last cattle trucks to Dover bearing the last foreign care workers, while Jeremy Clarkson revs his engine ready to take them off to the the unveiling of a statue to Margaret Thatcher at Rhodes (formerly Oxford) University (chancellor: Michael Gove).

As I said, my feelings are confused and emotional, a bundle of crude political assessment, atavistic fears and ideological prejudices. But I do tend to think that in an uncertain world, building bridges with largely good neighbours is a damn sight more constructive than arrogant one-upmanship.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Welsh language music day / dydd miwsig cymraeg

There's an awful lot of stuff going on at the moment but I'm way too busy to get into it all, while other bits aren't for public consumption right now, so you're spared one of my classic VoleRants for today.

Instead, I'll mark Welsh Language Music Day. I had the extreme good fortune to pitch up at Bangor University in 1993, just as the wave of young Welsh bands later clumped together as Cŵl Cymru were getting started, so I got to see them all the time: Gorky's, Catatonia, Super Furries, David Wrench, Topper, Melys and many more. There was also a great record shop in Bangor called Cob, staffed entirely by drone-rock experimentalists determined to fill my shelves with their unsuccessful albums. Despite the cheerful contempt with which they greeted my own choices, I bought everything they shovelled at me, so I discovered the joys of Ectogram, Datblygu, Llwybr Llaethog, Tystion, Y Cyrff, Anrhefn and so much more.

Here are some representative samples (though possibly slight outdated as I'm quite old now). I'd love to put something from David Wrench's first album Blow Winds Blow on but it's all been removed from Youtube, as has Super Furries' Mwng album.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Stand up, but refuse to be counted

It's been quite a week. First teaching week of the year so I've covered the entire origins of the Renaissance in one class and the emergence of individualism in another ('deep', according to one hopefully thrilled student).

Highlight of the week was a visiting lecture by Prof Thomas Docherty of Warwick University. He's written multiple essential books on literature and literary theory, but he's also developed a line of inquiry into the nature of modern higher education and what he sees as the contemporary academic's complicity with unethical educational structures and even illegal modes of accounting. He also has a personal interest: having become a thorn in the side of Warwick University's management (that place has been at the forefront of grasping neoliberalism since its foundation) he found himself suspended for a year on trumped up charges of subversion, including 'inappropriate sighing' and 'ironic' body language before winning the case at a cost of an enormous amount of money and damage to his health.

Thomas's presentation examined the gap which has developed between the educator's ethical responsibility to humanity and students/colleagues in particular, and the newish discourse of accountability which he feels has replaced the former. Starting with a discussion of the Accountant of Auschwitz's disavowal of moral responsibility and drawing on Arendt and the work of John McMurray, Docherty called for a visceral, spontaneous engagement with the world rather than the cold and distancing practice of accounting (which includes 'outcomes', NSS satisfaction rates and the whole panoply of data which he sees as replacing true responsiveness). Action, he says, is replaced by linguistic evasiveness. HE, he feels, has become a part of the neoliberal machine which atomises society into competing individuals by encouraging them to behave as profit-seeking units. Academics aren't 'desk murderers' as Arendt put it, but the neoliberal university puts us in a similar structural position to the Accountant: able to repudiate our moral or ethical responsibility to our fellows and exhorted to focus on the same qualities which assisted the death camps: the prioritisation of efficiency, management and output. As Thomas was a pains to stress, he's not likening academia to the death camps, but he is saying that our infinitely more mundane settings promote the same forms of complicity in dehumanising relations. At this institution the Personnel department became Human Resources, a sinister move that horrifies me still but maybe I've read too many semiotics books. Wait until they rename it OfSoylent.

Essentially Thomas's argument is that HEI's have become self-perpetuating bureaucracies (not the good sense of bureaucracy in which systems provide equality of access rather than corruption and privilege) in which the removal of inconvenient individuals is seen as a necessity. See, for example, the American university head who ordered his staff to get rid of students by putting a (metaphorical) 'Glock to their heads' (he also described them as 'bunnies' who should be 'drowned') to preserve the institution's funding stream.

It's become a matter of distancing by discourse. The language of management which has infected education insulates the individual from the effects of their decisions. I know of a secondary school which has a photograph wall of every student next to their predicted GCSE grades, which are for some of them 5 years away: the practice encourages the reduction of a complex human to an achievable outcome. The same school, by the way, used to give hungry pupils breakfast. Now breakfast is restricted to those deemed to be on track to achieving their predictions. Docherty's point is that whether it's a university, hospital, school or social services department, accounting has replaced the much messier, complex, difficult and more important priority of being ethically responsible (to the individual student/patient/client but also to wider society). The dominance of economic accountability, he says, is a form of corruption in the technical and moral senses – one of his examples was the TRAC scheme for determining the unit value of academics' time, which explicitly and deliberately discounts any work done above the notional contracted hours, thus undercounting our labour by as much as 60%. Tough on us, you might say, but it's a wider problem: at a time when lawyers are scandalously over-billing for work on an hourly rate, we're allowing governments to claim that education is cheap and should be cheaper (though not for the children of the rich and powerful: Oxford and Cambridge get extra money for their special methods).

The big question about all this is what your average academic can do. Thomas was singled out because he's fearless, and because punishing prominent people encourages everyone else to shut up. However, many institutions, particularly the famous ones, are rapidly casualising their workforce. Young people are on temporary contracts and expected to be 'shovel-ready' in the terrible jargon of industry: a book out before they start their first jobs, no holiday pay or pension contributions, no space in which to become good teachers and researchers. Thomas says we should start saying 'no' (shades of Bartleby the scrivener), but the wider context of neoliberal capitalism means that an ethical stance is a vote for unemployment. The student loan company, your children and the mortgage company are apparently reluctant to take principled refusals to collaborate with injustice in lieu of payment or breakfast.

One audience member offered a strong challenge to Docherty's discourse. The refusal to engage in the kind of metrics swamping academics is as nothing compared to the daily lives of millions of fellow citizens, or of academics being locked up or murdered across the world. Closer to home, refusing to address employability, for instance, is a betrayal of students from widening participation institutions such as mine, who lack the capital – and social capital – taken for granted by elite institutions' intakes. In our case, providing students with this kind of thing is an act of social justice and counselling refusal is, he said, 'bourgeois seminar anarchism…good philosophy but bad socialism'. Docherty took this well: the rhetoric of widening participation is, he said, an accounting form of what should be an ethics of responsibility, because it perpetuates the fiction that individual failings in the student can be remedied by individual training in how to conform to the demands of the market. He also described the 'student experience' (a common phrase round here) as a concept designed to prevent students having experiences. I can understand this: there's remarkably little room for spontaneity and friction on campus these days. Under the guise of customer management we've managed to convey the impression that decent coffee and meeting deadlines are far better than demonstrating against or challenging authority – the transformation of Students' Unions into de facto arms of the marketing department is a sinister disgrace. This is the challenge: within institutions which have developed a panoply of policies, mission statements and procedures to look ethical, how is the average citizen meant to develop a truly ethical – and therefore uncomfortable – position, as another member of the audience asked. We have a simulation of ethics which suits everybody on a daily basis, but should scare the hell out of us.

Lots to address there, and I haven't thought it all through myself fully, but I do regard the demands of 'employers' with some suspicion. They're always demanding 'skills' but don't really seem to know what they mean (and experience Docherty had when he challenged an employer-body spokesperson). I suspect that what they often mean is obedience and conformity of thought, whereas what I want from a graduating student is critical independence and new ways of thinking: a challenge to orthodoxy rather than resignation. At the same time, my students are through no fault of their own struggling against a culture that views them en masse as too provincial, common, brown and primitive to deserve consideration on their considerable merits and every time one of them gets a well-paid job I see it as a victory however much I'd rather they storm the barricades and create a new Eden. I'm a middle-class child of privilege, so it's very easy, some might say, to ask them to deny themselves my privileges and act on my principles.

So ended one of the most stimulating public lectures we've had in a while - challenging material and robust challenges from the floor. Plenty more coming up: watch @plashingvole for more details.