Sunday, 22 February 2015

In the company of wolves and lions

In a scene in Zizu Corder’s novel Lionboy (2003), which is currently bedtime reading for my daughter Isobel, young Charlie Ashanti, who can speak to all felines, releases a pride of lions from captivity in a circus. He has made a bargain with them: in order to find his kidnapped parents, he arranges their escape and they accompany him on a journey (via the Orient Express) to Venice, where his parents have been taken, and thence to the lions’ ultimate freedom in Morocco. Riding on the back of the Young Lion in a night-time Paris, Charlie realises that he is in the company of lions, not cats. They are tractable, but he is not in control. He cannot order them, as the liontamer in the circus had done. He suddenly becomes aware of his own vulnerability in the presence of their power, their capacity for violence, their otherness. This moment is occasioned by the seeming fate of his enemy and pursuer, one Rafi (a London street-kid who has connived in the kidnapping of Charlie’s parents), who is ambushed by three lionesses and dumped into a Parisian canal. Charlie is aghast at their straightforward capacity for violent action. In one sense a relatively crude means by which to lever open the ethical ambiguities of Charlie’s situation, this moment is also illuminating in its revelation of his terrifying proximity to unbiddable power. Riding with the lions is a dangerous (if not fatal) game.

I don’t watch much television, but I’ve been captivated by the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantels’ Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In episode 5, Archbishop Cranmer (Will Keen) asks Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) how he manages to deal with the capricious will of King Henry VIII. You must anticipate his desires, says Cromwell. The problem is when he changes his mind, and that can leave you ‘out there’ and vulnerable. Speaking to the Ambassador Chapuys (Mathieu Amalric), Cromwell declares that ‘Princes do not think like other men’: King Henry is volatile, capricious, even unstable. Predicting or managing such a being is the means by which Cromwell ascends the ladder to become Henry’s ‘right hand’, but is also a fatal game. He, like Charlie Ashanti, is also dealing with lions, riding them but with the certain knowledge of a fall to come. When Henry is pitched off his horse at a jousting tournament in episode 5, and is feared dead, Cromwell must calculate whether to rally to the king’s side or to make plans to flee ‘before they close the ports’, upon which he would be a dead man and his family placed in the hands of the lions. He goes to the king and is central in reviving him, knowing the alternative is certain death (and the prospect of civil war between English Catholic and Protestant factions). But as the series nears its end, the shadows of Cromwell’s eventual fate grower longer and darker. In ascending the ladder of power, and becoming Henry’s instrument, he has made powerful enemies. Though he plots the fall of others, sooner or later he will fall subject to similar machinations, and will go to the block.

I’ve been interested in how proto-class issues are flagged up. One of Cromwell’s enemies, Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss) consistently refers to Cromwell’s lowly birth and upbringing in Putney. Just as Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Price) suffered insults as to his own birth (a ‘butcher’s boy’), Cromwell is a blacksmith’s son, and his rise is resented by the aristocracy, most notably in the form of the Earl of Norfolk, who is played with relish by Bernard Hill as a brutal, thuggish man, who works with Cromwell but makes little attempt to hide his contempt for him. One of the markers of class is language: sharing a ferry across the Thames, Gardiner is affronted when Cromwell enquires whether the Bishop ‘has women’: this is ‘Putney talk’, Gardiner says contemptuously, while Cromwell smiles at his enemy’s priggish disdain. At other times in the series, however, it is revealed that Cromwell uses bawdy or obscenity strategically, for deliberate effect. Where, in Norfolk’s case, obscene language is a marker of violent brutality – he says that Cromwell should go to the Lady (formerly Princess) Mary and ‘beat her fucking head against the wall until it’s a soft as a baked apple’ – for Cromwell, it’s an indicator that he is able to use a range of resources, including linguistic, to effect his desired ends. In episode 5, he talks to Chapuys about the dissolution of the monasteries. While, for Henry, this is simply a means of boosting the Exchequer, Cromwell has a personally-urgent ethical animus against the institutions. Inveighing against their corruption and in particular the (sexual) exploitation of novices by older monks, he tells Chapuys that monks ‘feeling each other’s bollocks’ undermines the Ambassador’s arguments about protecting the monasteries and their religious role in the fabric of England.

Everything Cromwell does, it seems, is deliberate, even swearing. Everything is calculated, one of a series of manoeuvres that either furthers his (or the King’s) intentions, or serves to protect them (or him). His dress is also finely calibrated and its changes over the episodes reveal his self-presentation as a man of power. Always dressed in black, Cromwell at first looks like the lawyer he is, sober and solid; in a scene with Lady Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield) she notices that he has begun to wear grey velvet as a sign not only of prosperity, but of enhanced status in the hierarchy at court. In the latter episodes, as Henry’s right hand, Cromwell’s cloak is faced with luxuriant fur, the neck of his tunic even adorned with it. Cromwell appears more magnificently attired, as befits the holder of high office, but he also seems encased within it, the heavy garments weighing on him like an armour, an armour that will ultimately afford him no protection. Henry’s own dress displays his peacock masculinity and the power of Kingship to unmistakeable effect, magnifying Damian Lewis’s physicality (Rylance is, by contrast, a rather small, if wiry man).

Mystery surrounds elements of Cromwell’s own past – had he killed a man before he went to Europe as a youth? – but in Wolf Hall he’s not only a master strategist and politician, he’s also a master actor, knowing which lines to use to effect, knowing how to modulate his performance to suit court conventions, a performer as well as Henry’s ‘serpent’. Cromwell’s containment suggests a remarkable self-possession, but while he can disregard or return the threats of aristocratic players in the power games (such as the Boleyn family: ‘you’ve made a mistake to threaten me’ he tells one of them), when he is dressed down in public by Henry in episode 5, we next see him sitting alone, drinking wine from a goblet to steady himself, his hands shaking uncontrollably. The performance threatens to evaporate in the full beam of Henry’s anger, his volatility. In part this is the strategist wrong-footed, Cromwell finding himself ‘out there’; but as his aristocratic enemies exult in during a Privy Council meeting soon after, it is a ‘check’ for the commoner, the man of ambition. It is a moment when the performance will not serve, a moment when he crosses his arms before him (psychologically motivated by a flashback to a pain-filled childhood scene, but also a symbolic warding off of the predator), a moment when Cromwell the man is revealed. For Cromwell is not only a master politician and performer: we see him, in the first episode, as a loving father; as someone admired and revered by sons and retainers; and as a sexually attractive man, whose reticence marks his difference from the lustful monks or wanton Henry. We rarely see Cromwell unbuttoned: even in bed, covers and furs are piled high. But the series suggests that there is someone vulnerable, all-too-human, beneath the performance as ‘Cromwell’.

For someone like myself, who comes from a working-class background and whose life has been a matter of assimilating into the codes and behaviours of a social and cultural structure that I remain always part-outside of, Cromwell is a tantalising figure. While in academia I’ve encountered few with King Henry’s capriciousness (and thankfully none with his power), enacting or inhabiting a social or institutional performance is always haunted by a sense of doom, that a fatal mis-step lies close ahead. I know many academics struggle with a sense of inadequacy (that they will be exposed as a fraud or charlatan); I’m hardly alone here. But the question that is implied by Cromwell’s ascendancy (and materialised in the moment of near-panic when Henry is presumed to have died) is: if you’re riding the lion, how do you get off? When have you achieved what you wanted to, and retire from the ring? I’ve yet to work this particular thing out.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Open Minds, Open Hearts: Paddington's London

from www.telegraph.co.uk
The last time I wrote a blog was the last time I saw a film at the cinema. That was Interstellar, which I saw with my step-daughter Sophie; this week I went to see Paddington with my other daughter, Isobel. There’s something about cinema-going that piques my interest in a different way to watching a dvd, though most of what I see at the cinema are children’s films. Perhaps it’s the ‘event’ mode of spectatorship, or the physical space of the cinema itself, or perhaps it’s because I don’t watch enough films at home; or perhaps because I see the films with members of my family. The cinema makes me think and respond in a different kind of way.

Of course, watching films at the cinema for me becomes re-inscribed into patterns of conceptual and intellectual work, the thinking about cultural production that makes up this blog and, ultimately, articles and books published in more traditional forms. In parallel fashion, Jonathan Beller’s brilliant book, The Cinematic Mode of Production (2006) analyses how spectatorship itself becomes subject to regimes of capitalist exploitation and domination, another means by which capital can extract value and labour from what has previously been experienced as ‘free’ time. Not that I lament my inability to ‘enjoy’ films without ‘thinking’ about them: I’m not sure I can do that about anything any more, and the gains make up for any ‘innocence’ lost. And I do enjoy them, have fun; I enjoyed Paddington, at the same time as it made me think.

I’ve never read a Paddington book, though for someone of my generation, the paper-like animation of the FilmFair series that began its run in 1975 is the definitive bear. (I remember Isobel, very small, wrinkling up her nose in imitation of the stop-motion Paddington eating a marmalade sandwich.) With Michael Hordern’s voice-over, there’s something comfortingly domestic about the 1970s animated Paddington. The exteriors (of Paddington station, of the Underground) seem less roomy than the inside of no.32, where the Browns live. It’s also very definitely English, inhabiting a cosy post-war world of ticket inspectors, irascible neighbours and grand department stores, where Paddington’s winning bear-ness allows him to escape unscathed from the chaos that he inevitably and accidentally causes. In some ways, it’s a stuffy, white, bourgeois world, inhabited by a very bourgeois Brown family, whose live-in housekeeper, Mrs Bird, provides a bit of lower-class bottom. (‘She knows everything,’ says daughter Judy Brown to Paddington in the second episode of the animated series.)

The film of Paddington is located in a very different kind of London. Sure, there are nods to indexical landmarks (the London Eye, the Natural History Museum), journeys encompassing black cabs and the new open-back Routemaster buses, but this is a London identified most overtly with Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, and in particular with a multi-racial, multi-cultural sensibility most clearly presented in the calypso band that Paddington wanders past (in a running joke about diegetic and extra-diegetic sound) several times in the film, whose songs celebrate that all kinds of people, from all over the world, can call themselves Londoners. Paddington is then a London film, but of a particular kind: a utopia of accepted difference, a family where a bear from Darkest Peru can find himself at home, a post-imperial world-city in which the legacies of colonialism are negotiated, both positively and negatively.

Offsetting the calypso band, and Paddington’s trajectory from newly-arrived migrant, ignored by the bustling commuter crowds at Paddington, to Londoner, is the role played by Nicole Kidman. As Millicent, the amoral taxidermist working for the Natural History Museum, Kidman does a nice turn as a Cruella-style villain, blonde-bobbed and buttoned-up. Her pursuit of Paddington is motivated by a backstory in which her father, the geographer Montgomery Clyde, ‘discovered’ Paddington’s Uncle and Aunt living in Peru, and in effect taught them English (as well as a love of marmalade); upon returning to London, the Guild of Geographers refuses to accept Clyde’s evidence of talking bears with a ‘specimen’ (i.e. a dead bear). When Clyde refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the bears, he is expelled from the Guild and spends the rest of his life running a petting zoo. Millicent mis-reads this gesture as a failure to complete the ‘mission’, and her desire to kill and mount Paddington is a perverse desire to redeem her father in some way; what Millicent cannot see is the ethical weight of her father’s choice. In effect, through Millicent, the film of Paddington offers a critique of the implication of British science, and in particular scientific institutions such as the Natural History Museum, with Imperialism.  

Museums have long fascinated me. Back when I wrote about Literature and Science in a book, I read Pyenson and Sheets-Pyenson’s Servants of Nature about the development of scientific institutions in the 19th century, and how they acted as centripetal machines of knowledge-gathering, whereby the Imperial ‘margins’ (possessions) were the sites of ‘exploration’ and observation but where the collation, systematisation and organisation of that knowledge could only take place at the Imperial centre, London. Tony Bennett, in a brilliant article called ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, also discussed (in Foucauldian terms) how the very spaces of museums themselves, in developing from ‘cabinets of curiosity’ (spectacular displays of exotic objects and fauna) to large halls ordered by means of taxonomy or chronology, also served as a disciplinary mechanism for the regulation of crowd behaviour. Crowds, Bennett argued, came to see the objects on display but also to watch the crowd itself, a kind of auto-spectatorship. By turning the crowd’s gaze back upon itself, the museum manages and regulates behaviour to move in orderly fashion: through signage, maps, queues. Museums are not neutral spaces.

Museums are time machines, of course, allowing us to ‘see’ time from the Paleolithic to the present in ordered displays. (It is no coincidence that H.G. Wells, in The Time Machine, has the Traveller visit the Palace of Green Porcelain in the far future, situated in South Kensington.) More recently, museums have a curious connection to masculinity and fatherhood. As I’ve just suggested, in Paddington, Millicent’s own damaged relationship with her father is the motive cause behind her pursuit of the young bear. In the Night at the Museum films (a third is now on release), Ben Stiller plays a divorced father whose relationship with his young son is made difficult by his own economic failure (particularly in comparison with his ex-wife’s new partner, a bond trader). The magical events in the American Museum of Natural History enable father and son to re-establish a close bond.

The same happens in Paddington. Mr Brown, seen by his son and daughter as ‘boring and annoying’, is the last to accept Paddington, and actively seeks to avoid having to deal with the bear (or, by implication, the failures in his relationships with his wife and children). Mr Brown works in risk management, an index of his own limitation as father and as ‘Londoner’: but rather than this being a version of the neglectful go-getting Father familiar from Peter Banning in Hook to Lord Business in The Lego Movie, Paddington rather nicely reveals that it is Mr Brown’s own fear for his family’s well-being that emotionally constrains him. It is not that Mr Brown is a bad father, having lost touch with his ‘inner child’; rather, it is the very condition of fatherhood itself which produces his deficiencies, the felt need to enact a version of masculinity which is safe, boring and at the same time both over-solicitous and emotionally neglectful. If the Brown family ‘need’ Paddington, then Mr Brown needs him most of all, in opening out the family to accident, to chaos, to life, once more. It is in the Natural History Museum, where the Browns go en famille to rescue the young bear from Millicent, that Mr Brown recovers a form of ‘heroic’ fatherhood, desirable to his wife and admirable to his children.

In such benighted times when Nigel Farage can be declared ‘The Times Briton of the Year’, Paddington offers a kind of utopian message in its timeless dream of a London open to all. (The time-frames of the Clyde expedition seem very odd. Paddington is clearly set in the present day, and Millicent is a woman in her 40s. Her father’s expedition to Peru seems to take place in the 1940s or 1950s, with caricature Guildsmen sporting Victorian-era whiskers; Millicent stands and watches her father’s debarring from the Guild at age 7 or 8. If at a push, this was 40 years ago (considering Kidman’s age and looks), then this makes Montgomery Clyde’s return to London the mid-1970s, rather than the 1940s. Either some decades have got lost, or Millicent looks very good at age 75 or so. Time machines indeed.) Paddington’s message is one of acceptance of the other, a celebration of multiplicity and a refusal that white, bourgeois Englishness is all there is to a city like London. Paddington is first and foremost a migrant, and Paddington a celebration of the positive effects of migration. (In a very small aside, the film suggests that Mr Gruber, the antiques-shop owner, arrived in London via the kindertransport trains.) Closed minds and closed hearts, locked doors and risk-averse souls, the film asserts, are no proper form of family or communal life. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Christopher Nolan and the locked-room mystery: Interstellar

from pinster.ru
On Friday I managed to go to see Interstellar, at the cinema, a rarity for me these days. And it was a mighty long experience, so much so that I misjudged the starting time of the film and the amount of parking I needed and was haunted during the film by the promise of a ticket upon the return to the car. (I was lucky.) Quite appropriately, while I was watching the film I was also still in the past (why did I think the film started earlier?) and rehearsing the future (this film is going to cost me £50. But it might not…). This didn’t impair my enjoyment of the movie, though. Although I understand and agree with many of the criticisms of the film – though I have to say its liberties with science don’t bother me – I liked its scale, Matthew McConaughey (Coop) and Anne Hathaway (Brand) in the central roles, the use of the robots, and in particular the ‘realistic’ look of the spaceship interiors. Some of the effects sequences were quite exciting, such as the re-docking with the spinning Endurance or the ‘escape’ from the black hole (though not as exciting as Gravity).

The narrative does have major weaknesses. The visits to the two exo-planets seemed mechanically differentiated: we’ll kill a crew member on this one! Oh, here’s a villain on this one! (I was particularly irritated by Matt Damon’s character, who was obviously going to turn out to be wrong ‘un, and the plot didn’t disappoint.) The ending, where Coop flies off to ‘save’ Brand on the third exo-planet, using a local ship that surely would not have the fuel to get there, waved off by his 120-year-old daughter, was silly. But the core of the film is time, not outer space, and the really crucial space of the film is not the through-the-wormhole other galaxy to be explored, but Murph’s (Coop’s daughter’s) bedroom.

In some ways, Interstellar reminded me strongly of Inception (a far better sf film, I would say). Both films are emotionally located in the Father’s loss, of both wife and children, and a desire to restore or heal that trauma; both films return to an interior space which holds the key to the film’s enigma; both films attempt to subvert or complicate Hollywood continuity narrative through time-dilation motifs (caused by the subconscious ‘levels’ in Inception, and by proximity to the black hole and relativistic effects in Interstellar); and both feature Michael Caine as a benign old mage who effects the male protagonist’s re-entry into narrative time. In Inception, this is Cobb’s (Leonardo di Caprio) trajectory towards re-establishing a future with his children through completing the Fischer mission; in Interstellar, this is Coop’s escape from the entropic Earth suffering from slow-motion ecological catastrophe, and the stasis of being a farmer, looking down at the dirt instead of up to the stars.

Both films are locked-room mysteries, by which I mean that the solution to the narrative enigma – what is Fischer’s secret, held in the subconscious ‘safe’, in Inception; what is the solution to Professor Brand’s gravity equations in Interstellar – is contained within the finite set of interior narrative elements rather than coming from outside. For Fischer (Cillian Murphy) and his father (Pete Postlethwaite), for Cobb and his children, and for Coop and Murph (Mackenzie Foy/ Jessica Chastain) this is to do with the healing of emotional estrangement, a resolution of the parent/child relationship. The time-paradox ‘solution’ in Interstellar isn’t so much about the transmission of the binary code that will unlock Brand’s equation, but the fact that it is Coop who is able to do so. The ‘infinite’ rooms that Coop is translated into after entering the black hole are a figure for his emotional imprisonment, his need to return to that space and time to try to undo, or repair what has been done. Murph feels the same need to return to that room, and it is her realisation that it is her father who is the ‘ghost’ transmitting information from somewhere else that impels her towards the mathematical solution. In a sense, in Interstellar the physical trajectory of the narrative (Coop’s journey outward to the stars) is countermanded or superseded by the emotional trajectory of the return to the room. It is the latter that provides the key to the former. Although, as Ian Sales in his blog on Interstellarnotes, Brand’s rationale for going to the third exo-planet (where her lover has landed) – ‘love is the only thing which transcends time and space’ is ‘cringeworthy’ vapouring of the highest order – it does express the underlying emotional plot, and the impetus behind both Inception and Interstellar.

This is banal enough, I agree. But I am reminded of the moment in Vonnegut’s Timequake in which Kilgore Trout stands upon a beach with Vonnegut and others towards the end of the novel, and asks Vonnegut to pick out two stars from the sky. ‘Now then’, he says, ‘whatever heavenly bodies those two gints represent, it is certain that the Universe has become so rarefied that for light to go from one to the other would take thousands or millions of years. Ting-a-ling? But now I ask you to look precisely at one, and then precisely at the other.’ When Vonnegut confirms he has done so, Trout continues: ‘Even if you’d taken an hour [to look at them], something would have passed between where those two heavenly bodies used to be, at, conservatively speaking, a million times the speed of light.’ ‘What was it?’ Vonnegut asks. ‘Your awareness,’ replies Trout. ‘That new quality in the Universe, which exists only because there are human beings. Physicists must from now on, when pondering the Cosmos, factor in not only energy and matter and time, but something new and beautiful, which is human awareness.’ He then concludes: ‘I have thought of a better word than awareness. … Let us call it soul.’

Unashamedly humanist, Timequake inserts the cosmological into the realm of human consciousness and human emotion. True, by calling it ‘soul’, Vonnegut explicitly nods to metaphysics, to the spiritual, even. This is a gesture found throughout cosmological sf, of course, from Olaf Stapledon through 2001 to Interstellar. Where the human narrative of the film of 2001 ‘ends’ with another locked room, the strange out-of-time apartment where Bowman finds himself and where he is translated into the Star Child, there seems to be no ‘God’ in Interstellar: the time-loop structure places the human as the Other, the means by which human beings can, by their bootstraps, life themselves off the Earth and into the stars.

Interstellar and Inception ultimately return to find the solution to their narrative conundrums in the most tricky of locked spaces to open, the ‘heart’. Nolan, in these two films, reveals the humanism (if not outright sentimentality) at the core of his sf work. Rather than the solution to Interstellar’s locked room being an orang-utan and a chimney, it is instead a message from (human) parent to (abandoned/ neglected) child: I love you.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Over-Investment Ethical Trap

It would be difficult to overstate just how angry and heart-sick I am as I write. I've long been guilty of over-investing in work, not just in critical activity and writing but in the satisfactions of teaching, of feeling that you're helping students to understand and investigate the world and our culture, and of doing your best for and by them; when I was Examinations Officer, for instance, or in advising PhD students, or simply chatting to students about things. This over-investment has had serious personal side-effects, but has acted as a kind of alibi for the time I've spent dealing with the river of thoughts that flows through my head, believing that by turning them outwards that they might mean something, not just to me. This blog is an example of that, I suppose.

It's not uncommon, I would think, among academics. The lines between home and work life, between everyday activity and critical activity, become blurred; to the extent that it is difficult to switch off, or to avoid feelings of guilt when you don't use that spare hour to read or write or be productive somehow. Work colonises your 'own' time, and it's fine to begin with because you want to do it, you want to explore, you want to know things, figure stuff out. And tell people about what you think or have learned.

But of course this gets turned against you. I've internalised the work imperative to an extent that I've over-invested, ethically, in what I do. That extends to my place of work too. I expect the university to behave in certain ways. I'm an idealist, I suppose. I've left institutions in the past because I could no longer put up with the way they were run, the decisions that were being made. I've been lucky to find other jobs. This is now catching up with me.

The union I belong to, the UCU, recently balloted its members on strike action over proposed changes (i.e. diminishment) of pension provision in the USS scheme, which covers most of the older universities. (The post-1992 universities, whose staff are on the Teachers Pension Scheme, as I once was, already pushed through these changes. Strike action by the UCU was not effective.) With a large turn-out, the members voted with a large mandate for strike action, which in this instance has taken the form of a boycott of assessment (marking coursework, but also things like PhD panels). This comes into force this week. As a response, my own university has considered 'partial performance' to constitute a total withdrawal of labour, and so have threatened to dock 100% of pay for those deemed to be on strike. The logical response for union members, faced with such a threat, I would say, is to withdraw their labour entirely. This is, I have just read in an email from the UCU, now the union's stated position, if such a threat is carried through.

This won't happen. There are mortgages to pay, families to keep. The UCU isn't the NUM in 1984. The union have found themselves caught in another trap: previous one-day strikes on pay have been ineffective, so they have gone straight to the most effective action short of a strike, a marking boycott; but this has provoked a response that will, in my opinion, cause the collapse of the action in short order. In the run-up to Christmas, even well-paid academics cannot afford to have their salaries stopped entirely for months.

My university, Lancaster, is one of several who have taken this particularly hard line. Others include 1964 universities such as UEA, York and Sussex. Lancaster, with a relatively new Vice Chancellor, has presumed to elevate itself to 'world class' status, wishing its staff to produce higher-quality research, to bid for ever-larger grant incomes (from shrinking pots). Yet it acts in a way far from the 'world class' research and teaching centre it presumes to be, in a brutal crushing of dissent, in a contemptuous disregard for its staff, in threatening behaviour that reflects the worst excesses of neo-liberal capitalism. This 'university', and others like it, have forfeited their ethical right to use that term.

In a couple of weeks, an afternoon event on 1964 is taking place on the Lancaster campus, which I've organised. 1964 was the year of the foundation of the institution, and the event was designed not only to reflect the cultural and political events of that year, but also the (utopian) impulses towards a more open access to education that informed the formation of the then 'new' universities. This week's events show that, for all the 50th 'Jubilee' celebrations, there has been a radical break between the informing principles of 1964 and the neo-liberal, austerity-state grimness of 2014. I'm also prey to over-investment in the 1960s, and have struggled to forge a means to revisit that decade's optimistic and progressive energies without falling into nostalgia. But in 1964, on American campuses, particularly Berkeley and its Free Speech movement, what the university was, how it operated, was already being contested. I have posted this before and make no apologies for doing so again:


Do I think that UCU members will have the political will to place their bodies on the levers and prevent the operation of the machine? No. But what this week exposes is that the ethical over-investment in the 'university', my place of work, is a delusion. The institution is a firm, and the staff are a bunch of employees, albeit ones who thought that they were, and their relation to work was, somehow different. It's time the motes fell from our eyes.


Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fata Morgana, or auto-criticism

I've always been a bit confused about writing, to be honest. I wanted to be a writer as a teenager and remember that one of the reasons I gave, when going to study English at university, was wanting to write myself. (That mightn't have been the best idea.) But I didn't really keep up the creative end of things, and writing became critical writing. All these years later, having gone through the process of finishing a couple of books at the beginning and end of this summer, I feel myself written out, and although I'm on study leave from teaching this term, I'm struggling to get it together. (Last one I had I wrote a lot.) I'm involved in a collaborative creative project that is going very well, and I wish I could devote more mental space to it. And yet here I am, writing, partly because I haven't posted up much recently, and partly because writing has become both a burden and a necessity. I feel my mind clotted with unwritten projects and ideas, and I always feel much better when I've written them; yet, because of the amount I've written in the last 12 months, I find it difficult to sit down and begin another article. I will, of course; deadlines encroach. (Or, rather, are missed with ongoing guilt, another ingredient in the writing recipe.)

Sometimes I wonder if it's simply a matter of input: I need to read more, watch more. Then I would have more to say. But we have a house full of books, and I don't have much time for tv. To try to write about something, last week I watched a couple of Werner Herzog documentaries. I've long been a fan of Werner, falling in love with the Kinski movies at the end of the 1990s when I was teaching European cinema (Aguirre: Wrath of God), but remember watching Fitzcarraldo lat at night on Channel 4 back in the 1980s. I love My Best Fiend (and the documentary that it draws from liberally for Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams) and recently read Werner's published diary of the making of the film, which he wrote in microscopic text in a diary then couldn't return to for 30 years.

The films I watched were Fata Morgana, made in 1970, a documentary filmed in Africa that Herzog first conceptualised as a kind of science fiction film, and a kind of companion filmed after Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s, with apocalyptic images of oil-well fires and ruined landscapes, called Lessons of Darkness, which is more overtly framed as a voyage to an 'alien planet' which is clearly Earth. (I was reminded of Godard's Alphaville (1964), shot in Paris, or the passage of transition between worlds in Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), filmed on a Japanese expressway.) These, then, are films that gesture towards sf as a genre of estrangement, but where Fata Morgana is mythic, with the German film critics Lotte Eisner reading from the Popul Vuh creation myth on voice-over, Lessons of Darkness is political, a stark representation of the ruination of Iraq caused by war.

Fata Morgana begins with shots of jet airliners, trailing plumes of black exhaust gases, coming in to land at an airport. Shot after shot presents planes landing, a deliberately alienating opening which emphasises the principles of repetition that will determine much of the editing. There are slight variations: crows wander the landing aprons and fields, and occasionally the tweeting of birds can be heard above the roar of the jet engines. Here, though, the intrusion of human-made technology into natural environments, a recurrent Herzog motif, is foregrounded. The planes, through shooting with long lenses straight down the runway, almost seem to descend vertically, falling to Earth but not seeming to approach, like alien craft. These are, of course, he planes that Herzog and his small crew would have used to travel to Africa: as ever, Herzog's own film, his own camera, is implicated in the horror of intrusion. Then music begins, there is a cut to desert and heat haze, and Eisner begins to narrate the Popul Vuh creation myth.

Fata Morgana, like Lessons of Darkness, is chapterised, again foregrounding its own textuality. The film begins with 'Creation', continues with 'Paradise', and concludes with 'The Golden Age'. There are strong similarities between the parts, but tonal differences largely produced though variation in soundtrack: Eisner's narration only takes place in part 1, while Herzog himself narrates in part 2 and there are interviews with a a German scientist (about lizards) and, untranslated on screen, with an African man wearing a military jacket, accompanied by a woman with a large radio carried around the neck. On the soundtrack, there is a shift to country-rock and, bizarrely, tracks by Leonard Cohen. Part 3 features a cabaret duo on a rudimentary stage, a younger man playing drums and singing (his voice amplified so badly that it is impossible to make out the words, and barely the tune) and an older woman at an upright piano. The structure of the film moves from the natural to the human in scale and focus; long tracking shots of the desert, with abandoned automobiles and tractor plant, a crashed plane. chain-links fences and desert shanty towns, desiccated carcasses of cows, give way to the human inhabitants, to children in groups watching the camera, to a boy with a large-eared cat (or dog?) held by the neck for an uncomfortably long time. 

This is, it seems, human life at the bare edge of existence, African people living among the abandoned detritus of Western technology, a technology also signified by the camera equipment trained at the landscape and people. The crew of the production also become visible later in the film, another way in which Herzog stitches his own operations into a history of colonialism; but the images bespeak abandonment and the failure of colonial dreams. As in the jungles of Aguirre or Fitzcorraldo, this is something irrecuperable about this 'landscape without deeper meaning', a space of such scale and endurance that human endeavour, particularly Western colonial endeavour, seems puny and temporary. A repeated shot of a Land Rover circling aimlessly in long shot, swimming out of the heat haze, signifies the impotence of human activity in relation to geological time and the space of the desert.

By the time of Lessons of Darkness, however, the desert is itself ruined by the disrupted extraction of material resources (i.e. oil) from under it. What appear to be lakes, reflecting the blue of the sky, are in fact pools of oil, 'treacherous' in appearance and ruinous to the ecology of the desert. The film has 13 parts, with titles in German though with a voice-over (by Herzog himself) in English, and begins with long, slow aerial shots over a desert city at dawn or dusk (perhaps Kuwait City). Part II, 'Der Krieg', shows night-vision footage of an air-raid: Herzog intones 'The war lasted only a few hours. Afterwards, everything was different.' Lessons of Darkness uses helicopter shots rather than tracking shots taken from a car or truck, and the smooth motion, steadicam-like, is alienating and eerie, emphasising the science-fictional scenario of the report from a 'planet in our solar system...' These shots are dominated by the pillars of fire that erupt from broken oil wells, sending vast plumes of black smoke into an apocalyptic sky. 

Signs of war, such as the concrete hangars penetrated by 'bunker-busting' ordinance, destroyed radio dishes and arrays, and most affectingly interior shots of a room which, as the scene develops, is revealed to be a torture chamber (a metal chair is wired up to a wall socket), turn the film away from an estranged 'report' into one of witness. The film shows interviews with two women, one in part IV, one in part VI; the first, who saw her sones taken and abused and then executed, is so traumatized that, though she wishes to communicate her experience, can only speak in rudimentary sounds which attest to the total disruption of language; and another, holding her young son on her hip, tells us that after soldiers dragged him from his bed and stood on his head, told her 'Mama, I don't ever want to learn how to talk', and refused to speak thereafter. Language, the accession into adulthood, is inextricably linked to trauma and horror.

Iraq becomes a hell. Sections VIII to XI concentrate on American firefighters and oilmen putting out fires, and then fixing the broken and gushing well-heads so that the oil no longer sprays across the the land and themselves (and thereby, of course, returning it to economic use). In section XII, after putting the fire out with explosive, the film shows footage of a worker tossing a Molotov cocktail into the black geyser, re-igniting it presumably to burn it away rather than despoil the land further); Herzog's voice-over calls this a form of madness, where the oilmen bring about the nightmarish conditions of oil-fires that they then have to put out in a cycle of terrifying work and conflagration. As the film ends, night falls, towers of flame barring the sky.

Lessons of Darkness does not offer the hope for endurance, either of nature or of the humans who exist in harsh desert environments, that underpins Fata Morgana. Its science fiction scenarios are apocalyptic, about endings rather than beginnings, the devastation wrought by human war irremovably traced across the landscape and the human psyche alike. The burnt-corked firemen, seemingly the agents of change or renewal, re-start the very blazes they put out. Herzog's diagnosis is bleak indeed: here the cycle is not natural (although the film approximates a diurnal cycle) but but produced by the machinery of war, the infernal technologies of the West, of which the cinema camera (and the night-vision scope) is a part.

Herzog, like Godard, does not spare himself or cinema itself in his own projects; he acknowledges that cinema is part of a technological apparatus of vision that is bound up with war and despoilation and horror (the kind of of argument that Paul Virilio makes in War and Cinema, or that Godard suggests in his Histoires du Cinema). And here I find that I am led back to the matter of the article I need to write, on cinema and spectacle and work, for which this blog stands in lieu, but the writing of which may help me to recover the practical means by which to produce it. Like Herzog, I'm caught in a cycle, the means of critique also being the means of oppression. Circles of thought and work, then, which may not be escaped, but which, through writing, may be turned to something else, hopefully of use.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

First of the Tenth: a manifesto for a new academic practice

I will get back to science fiction soon, but I had to get this down, in the light of recent experiences.

A Manifesto: a utopian (re)vision of academic practice

First, ALIENATION now commands academia: alienation of teachers from researchers, faculty from management, academics from the products of their labour, and increasingly, students (as consumers) from education. The first principle of A NEW ACADEMIC PRACTICE must be to challenge alienation through new working practices, through non-hierarchical teaching environments, and through a revision of the investigation, writing and dissemination of research.

Second, the role of the academic in contemporary society, and in particular the relation of the individual to the institution, requires systematic re-evaluation and analysis. This analysis must encompass the conditions of labour under which academics now work, and the relation between that work and the research and teaching they produce. Academics now work to produce research outputs which enter into a system of evaluation and monetization (Research Excellence Framework, REF), where a competitive judgement between institutions and between individuals loosens collective bonds. Far from being an oasis of unalienated labour, academic research is now thoroughly commodified, yet the researcher receives nothing of the surplus value of her work: little payment is received for academic publishing, which may include years of work; editing duties (particularly for academic journals) is performed pro bono and the paywall-protected access to that work is monetized to enrich publishing houses; and the system of external grant application, a disciplinary system in which the chances of success are less than 20% but of which participation (and perhaps success) will increasingly be tied to promotion, often results in no remuneration for individuals and little for their departments.

Third, the academic must strive for OPEN DISSEMINATION and discussion of all ideas. This cannot be instrumentalized and monetized as ‘Impact’ or other forms of measurable and thereby auditable activity, but must actively promote the common good. The systems of ‘open access’ currently implemented (involving internal competition for funding to pay for the placing of articles in ‘gold access’ journals) again displace the financial imperatives and profits onto an atomized and competitive research marketplace. Instead of open access, we must demand OPEN DISSEMINATION, which will necessitate the destruction of ‘ranking’ systems of evaluation for REF that explicitly hierarchize journals in terms of status. New modes of publication and dissemination, digital and print, must be explored as a matter of urgency.

Fourth, the academic must actively and collaboratively resist the shift of the expected role of the academic from researcher and teacher to external income generator. The academic must also resist the economic exploitation of the postgraduate community, in terms of teaching and research, which currently underpins conditions of postgraduate study.

Fifth, higher education must be considered in terms of the COMMON GOOD, not in terms of individual training for business or careers, but in terms of social benefit in the widest sense. Therefore, it should be free to ALL students who wish to attend university and who demonstrate the ability and determination to do so. The academic community must forge bonds of SOLIDARITY with the broader social fabric. Differential access, in terms of class, ethnicity, age, disability, or other criteria must be directly challenged.

Sixth, the current funding model for universities, which has encouraged both rapid privatisation and marketisation of teaching, research and support services, the transfer of the cost of education from society to the individual, and the imposition of a disciplinary managerialism, must be dismantled.

Seventh, the academic must strive for INTELLECTUAL ACTIVISM, for engagement with the material conditions of everyday life. This can take many forms. The role of the ‘public intellectual’, derided and evacuated in contemporary public discourse, must be re-discovered. The current professoriat, far from blameless in the acquiescence of marketization, must recover a role in this re-orientation. The PUBLIC role and operation of universities must be re-asserted as the academic recovers the PUBLIC role of open dissemination of ideas and challenge to received and official narratives of the economic, social and cultural fabric of contemporary life.

Eighth, academics must consider their work in the light of OPEN DISSEMINATION. In this regard, they must consider published works (articles, books, digital works) as acts of communication between PRODUCERS OF IDEAS and the PUBLIC. They must consider themselves to be WRITERS, to be self-conscious and to develop A PRACTICE OF CRITICAL WRITING that encourages engagement and enjoyment in the reader. While technical language is a necessity to any advanced discipline, a disavowal of the pleasures of reading and writing leads to poor communication and inhibits dissemination. Rather than this being a plea for ‘plain language’, academics should develop their skills of writing to encompass strategies and techniques from fiction and ‘creative non-fiction’.

Ninth, the purpose of academia, and its relation to teaching, is to encourage and instil critical thought and intellectual activism. Students should share in the practices of critical thought, writing and communication. Collaboration and the breaking of hierarchical boundaries through innovative and participatory teaching methods are crucial.

Tenth, in a society in which dissent is discouraged and the Fourth Estate (the press) has largely abandoned its critical and political role, the university and the academic must seize the opportunity to challenge, rather than actively participate in, the economic and social policies which will result in the destruction of the values and ethics that should underpin these institutions. We must ask ‘what is a university for?’, as well as ‘what is an academic?’ The debate must become explicit.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Method and anti-method

I've been thinking a lot about what I do, why I do it and how I go about it. I'm middle-aged now, I suppose (more than half-way through my life, I would guess; 'middle age' is really the third quarter of your life-span, past what Dante calls 'the middle of the journey of our life' when he finds himself 'within a dark wood where the straight way was lost' in Canto I of the Inferno, though I deeply sympathise with that feeling), a time when the unthought elements of life and purpose come to the surface and ask for explanation. These are troubled times for the life of the institutions I've existed within for the majority of my adult life, as I indicated in yesterday's blog post, and for someone of my sensibilities, they are personally troubling too, for I am not in sympathy with the current marketisation of higher education, and feel that its purpose (and thereby my own) has become eroded. Of course, I do what I can, particularly as a teacher and administrator, to give as good and fulfilling an experience to my students as possible while they study at my university, in my department, but the tide runs against me, against us.

Reading Raymond Williams' Border Country has drawn me back to his critical work, and the connection between the community he grew up in in South Wales, and its emphasis on learning and its valuing of literature and culture, and his Socialism, the need for collectivity. We have most of his books in the house. (Although books can be a fearful clutter, it's actually lovely to root on the shelves and find The Country and the City waiting for you, or as I just did, pluck down the John D. Sinclair translation of the Inferno to get the quotation right. Sometimes I wonder just why we have all these books, and it seems a burden; but right now, I'm really glad to see them there, to feel that we have a small library), a resource of thought, or in Williams' words, a resource of hope.

As in Scotland, there is still a residuum of the respect for education and literature that was crucial not just to traditional forms of Welsh cultural and social life (the eisteddfod and so on) but also to the Trade Unionism and Socialism in Welsh communities that were vitally important to the growth of the Labour Party and, it must be said, to socially progressive developments in British society in the 20th century, things which neo-liberalism is successfully rolling back. (Aneurin Bevan, son of Tredegar and Ebbw Vale MP, was of course the Minister of Health who successfully introduced the NHS.) I’ve lived in North Wales for 14 years now, in a beautiful valley that feels like home, in some ways, and though I’m not Welsh, my daughter was born in the country and speaks a bit of Cymraeg at school, and I feel deeply attracted to the history and traditions and literature of Wales. (The wonderful (and wonderfully grumpy) R.S. Thomas, my favourite poet, was a curate in a parish in Chirk for 4 years, just a couple of miles away.) But I am English; in fact, London and Essex blood runs in my veins, back some 200 years. And that is a difficult freight to bear, because I dislike what Englishness has come to stand for, I despise Toryism, and I hate know-nothing individualistic consumerism that would cast the social collective and ‘culture’ into the dustbin.

Not that I’m some Thomas Carlyle type, or Arnoldian nostalgic, wishing that all could partake of ‘the best which has been thought and said’ (though this should be available to all), something that would seal social bonds; no, like the Socialists of the coalfields, I believe in books, in learning, as a means by which to combat ideology, to see more clearly, and that is partly what I hope to do when I teach. It’s not about getting students to know things; it’s about equipping them with a method with which to read, to read and counter the ideological frameworks we all live within.

But my own method, you see, is not particularly methodical. I’m not someone who likes to pore through archives. I have trained myself to keep notes, to be systematic, just as I have trained myself to put my wallet and keys and watch and phone in the same place every night, because I know I would forget them the next morning otherwise. That kind of structure is helpful to me (and I get exasperated with family members when we have to hunt out stuff, partly because I see myself in that very behaviour and know that very little separates me from it). When it comes to work, to writing, to my ‘career’, I stand condemned by Captain Willard’s judgment of Kurtz: ‘I don’t see any method, at all, sir’. Academic careers are made by ploughing the same furrow, producing books and articles on the same field or subject, knowing the people in your field and getting on with them, reviewing and being reviewed, citing and being cited. Until the last one, all of my books have been on different subjects: literature and science, masculinity, Iain Sinclair, literature and film, science fiction. (The next one returns to sf.) Articles and chapters tend to follow these clusters. I’m spread out, I follow my interests, I jump from thing to thing, article to article, project to project.

My method, or rather my anti-method, is to yoke disparate things together, using this jumping around to see patterns, correspondences. A colleague and friend, Liz Oakley-Brown, has characterised some of my blog posts here, such as the one about Jason Bourne and Bilbo Baggins, as ‘nifty’ (thanks, Liz!) in this diverse comparison, this unusual combinatory move. Of course it’s entirely contingent, depending what I’ve watched or read in coincidental proximity. Some of my critical-creative work relies precisely on that approach. Sometimes I’ve tried to theorise it as ‘remix’; sometimes as ‘collage’; but really, it’s accident, or ‘inspiration’, or something-or-other.

Why do I work this way? Why jump from thing to thing, project to project? Probably it’s because I have a bit of a magpie mind; perhaps it’s because I get bored; but also, I think, it’s because I’m not the product of a methodical form of training or schooling. I went to an ordinary comprehensive schooling Essex in the early 1980s, where progressive ideals were beginning to be eroded, and where my immersion in football (every lunch and breaktime) offset the awkward fact that I was a ‘boffin’. My family have been firmly working-class: drivers, factory workers, labourers, oyster dredgers. I’m still the only member of my family to go to university (though my niece might well go in a few years). But my grandfather, Stanley Staples, was a kind of autodidact, loved finding things out, was fascinated by the longest train station name in Britain, Llanfair­pwllgwyn­gyllgo­gery­chwyrn­drobwll­llanty­silio­gogo­goch, or Llanfair PG as we know it now when we drive past it on the way to the beach on Angelsey, and struggled mightily to say it out loud.

And so I wonder whether that’s my anti-method, the magpie yo-yoing of the autodidact, the collector of curious correspondences. I’ve never been schooled in method, never inherited one, so like my Granddad, I made one up. Sometimes this leads me into difficulties, particularly when I come against people who have been trained more methodically, and have all that at their fingers, who would not need to pull down the Inferno from off the shelf because they already have the quotation memorised. And, I guess, it might leave my work feeling as though it makes surprising and illuminating connections, but it doesn’t really follow this through, or doesn’t want to: it would like to shoot off in another direction, make another leap, another correspondence. It probably makes me a good, entertaining and effective teacher: the seminar room becomes a laboratory where we can put A and X together and, boom!

Can anti-method become method (of sorts)? Can you teach others to see those connections? In some ways you can, and my wonderful experience of teaching classes on American literature, on film, on screen adaptations, on science fiction, has been filled with moments where boom! the students put A and X together and there we have something surprising, stimulating, exciting happening, and this demonstrates to me that it can. In the current marketization of higher education, this kind of anti-method is difficult to incorporate into learning outcomes, into ‘skills’, into vocationality, into the hearts and minds of ‘consumers’ who worry (quite rightly) how they will pay off the 27 grand’s worth of debt. I’ve recently tried to do so in a new first-year course (taught by others) that comes onstream in a few weeks, and I dearly hope it works. Is this poetics? Is this critical/creative practice? I don’t know. But I’m glad to have tried.