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.
  

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Feels like down to me

I don't know whether you've read Marina Warner's London Review of Books blog on why she quit the University of Essex (happily, she's now at Birkbeck, so no need for tea and sympathy), but in it she contrasts the aspirations and hopes of the expansion of higher education in the mid-60s, embodied in the Brutalist architecture of the Wivenhoe campus, with the neo-liberal managerialism of the current regime. My own university, Lancaster, is one of the same generation of UK universities, founded in 1964. It is therefore 50 years since the institution opened its doors, and 'Jubilee' celebrations have been held throughout the year. Not much of the old fabric of the Lancaster campus remains, as in the 8 years I have been there, several new buildings have gone up and a fair few torn down. The picture is from old accommodation stock, now mothballed, that my friend and colleague Lindsey explored a few months ago. There are still some old areas of departments that retain the dusty flavour of the old university: the Physics department, for instance. But most other places are 'renewed', hygienic, corporate, soulless. Working there is no different from working at one of Ballard's science parks.

This means, of course, that we are subject to the same kinds of 'renewal', the same kinds of corporatisation, that afflicts the space of the campus. Imogen Tyler, who wrote Revolting Subjects, tweeted today from a conference in Brighton, in which a presenter described academics as the ideal neo-liberal subjects, 'practicing freedom to manage "selves"'. This idea has haunted me for quite a while. It came to mind when I read Simon Reynolds' Retromania, and his blogs on Ghost Box and 'nostalgia for the future'; and with Chris Witter (a former PhD student of mine, now friend and co-conspirator) have planned a '1964 day' in November this year, on the Lancaster campus, to try to revisit that spirit informing the new universities of the 1960s, one that embraced dissent and openness of thought rather than 'entrepreneurialism' (i.e. drawing down large research grants) or audit-friendly research 'outcomes'. In the Lancaster University student paper, SCAN, Toby Atkinson pondered a similar question recently: 'Whatever happened to Higher Education?'

I'd like to recapture the spirit of Mario Savio, whose speech at Berkeley on 2 December 1964 is a constant inspiration to me. This may be a forlorn task. Savio's right: if the management of the university are now a board of directors, then the faculty (the teaching staff) are employees, making products for the marketplace. Higher education is now a marketplace itself, of course, and our students are now, in the words of the University, 'consumers'. The situation we find ourselves in now is even more eroded than the one in Berkeley in '64.

This week I read Raymond Williams' Border Country, about a Welsh university lecturer, working in London, who returns to the village where he grew up when his father falls ill, a village that he has long felt alienated from and has, in some senses, disavowed. As someone whose own life anagrammatises this story, I too feel the alienation, loss, the not-at-homeness that is the prevalent contemporary condition, acutely. The novel was published in the early 1960s, and inhabits, in some ways, a longing for community, for the collective bonds that may constrict but which also support and give meaning. The communities Williams writes of, particularly the mining communities of South Wales, were subject to the same marketisation and erosion as now overtakes the university sector, but some thirty years ago. (This is, of course, the year of the 30th anniversary of the miner's strike.) Williams' nostalgia is a complex one, of course; there is no real return, though there may be renewal. And that is what my own 'nostalgia for the future' is, in my mid-40s, a longing for a different kind of world.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

I've Got a Feeling

It’s a strange thing to admit, but literature rarely moves me to tears. For me, reading is, and I think always has been, a pleasure of the head: imaginative or intellectual stimulation rather than emotional. (This is perhaps why I have ended up an academic in an English literature department who writes and teaches on science fiction.) That’s not to say that I don’t react emotionally to culture, but I am most moved by other things; namely, movies and music. I regularly cry in the cinema, at the most emotionally manipulative things, in spite of myself; rarely does a children’s animated film go by without me piping my eye, and I’m not even talking about the genius at work in the opening sequence of Up. In the cinema, I’m a softy.

Certain songs almost always trigger tears. ‘Spare Parts’ and ‘Cautious Man’ from Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, for instance (the hair stands up at the back of my neck too). And recently, although I don’t cry, some of the late work of The Beatles works emotionally in a powerful way for me. In particular, it’s the songs of Paul McCartney that do this.

In a sense, it’s one of those wild goose chases that occasionally engulf me that has been at work, in part precipitated by Ian Macdonald’s brilliant Revolution in the Head, which I have read compulsively, over and over again, since Christmas. I’ve always been a Revolver man; I remember buying the album at the Woolworth’s in Southend in the company of my good friend Simon when I was about 16 or 17. The first album I ever owned (a present) was A Collection of Beatles Oldies…But Goldies, which still has my childish scrawl upon the back cover declaring me its (new) owner. (Curiously, listening to tracks from that album always brings to mind images from Ryan’s Daughter, which must have been playing on the tv once while I sat listening to the album on headphones in the sitting room.) But Revolution in the Head sent me to those later albums I’d never had much contact with; the White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be (which I bought in the …Naked version), along with Sgt Pepper, which I’d borrowed from the local library as a teenager and liked, but couldn’t remember in detail.

I’m still getting my head around the White album. It’s sprawling, of course, if not incoherent; from Macdonald’s book, it seems as though that was the point at which the group worked most separately, and you can tell. What really strikes me, though, is the incredible range of styles, a lot of which is flat out pastiche (‘Back in the USSR’, ‘Rocky Racoon’), and some is a clear attempt to turn to a late-60s heavy electric blues-rock ('YerBlues’). Lennon is particularly keen on this latter style; McCartney the former. But then there’s ‘Helter Skelter’. How do you place this next to ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’, which apparently drove McCartney’s band-mates mad when he drilled them over and over to the perfect the song?

I have to admit that Lennon, after Sgt Pepper, wearies me a bit. For all his sarcasm, I see him as a sentimentalist of the ego in his Yoko-buttressed insistence that all art must be personal (and thereby dismissing McCartney songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as ‘boring songs about boring people’). Lennon is both cynic and idealist (two sides of the same coin), but while keenly attuned to the bullshit of others, found it difficult to diagnose his own. Macdonald has it right when he says that Lennon was particularly dismissive of intellectuals because their pretensions mirrored his. It’s a bit of a glib binary, but where Lennon is a cynical idealist, I see McCartney as a Romantic. I don’t just mean a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, which I think is central to his songs, but also in a powerful emotional (rather than political) sympathy with the lives of other people. It’s McCartney, after all, who writes ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’.

Although you only have to do a bit of reading to know that it was McCartney, not Lennon, who was involved in the London avant-garde scene in the mid- to late-60s (Lennon was tripping in uneasy domesticity with wife Cynthia in Weybridge); and it was McCartney who was really enthusiastic about musique concrete and tape loops and William Burroughs and so on; but McCartney, for all his intellectual curiosity, isn’t an artist of the head, which is why he was so enthusiastic about marijuana. For McCartney, it’s all about feel. (It’s no surprise that McCartney hightailed it off to Scotland to live on a farm, for all one might be suspicious of Macca as l’homme naturel.) It seems to me that McCartney’s work is fundamentally unthought, though his genius is not that of Shafer’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, taking ‘dictation’ from God. The direction of McCartney’s work is always towards feeling.

By unthought, I mean that it doesn’t involve agonising, about meaning or shape or genre; though he liked the product of tape loops and cut-ups, his aesthetic is all about flow. Lennon, by contrast, was well known for his practice of writing bits of songs and sticking them together. That’s how you get the effect of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, which is literally two different parts put together in rotation, or ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, a mini-suite of elements composed of different time signatures, different forms and styles. (Curiously enough, Abbey Road’s Long Melody, an idea usually credited to McCartney, is a macrocosmic analogue of Lennon’s method.) I suspect that for most of McCartney’s songs, the melody just appears in his head. This is certainly true of ‘Hey Jude’, which McCartney ‘wrote’ while driving to see Lennon in Weybridge.

This is why matters of taste, and in particular failures of taste, the accusation always levelled at McCartney, are besides the point when looking at his work. I suspect that McCartney just thinks his songs up and does them, whether it’s ‘Helter Skelter’ or ‘Ob-la-di’ or ‘The Frog Chorus’ (or ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and the skirl of bagpipes). It is simply a matter of what he thinks the song should sound like, be it cod-ska (‘Ob-la-di’), Chuck Berry/ The Beach Boys (‘Back in the USSR’) or 50s doo-wop (‘Oh! Darling’). McCartney was steeped in show-tunes as well as r&b and rock’n’roll, and you can tell: his work fuses Tin Pan Alley, pop and rock, but these threads can be more dominant than others in certain songs. ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ is brilliant, blaring r&b; ‘When I’m 64’ like a show-tune standard; ‘Paperback Writer’ is classic ’66 freakbeat, fuzz guitar and all.

For all Lennon’s declamatory rhetoric about love, I don’t find much in his songs. There’s yearning and loss in ‘Julia’ and a kind of spindly otherworldliness in ‘Across the Universe’; there’s desire, even obsession in ‘I Want You’; there’s cynicism and anger (and misogyny) everywhere. But it’s in McCartney’s songs that I find depth of emotion, and in particular some songs which, I feel, are about Lennon, and the break-up of the band, which work in terms of their melodies and words to manifest a powerful sense of regret, and pain, and love (in part, for his ‘mate’).

In ‘Two of Us’, from Let It Be, McCartney sings to a friend, celebrating their time together, but it’s filled with wistfulness (accentuated by the arrangement, with strummed 12-string guitars and a simple beat); it’s sometimes thought to be a song to Linda, but the lines ‘You and I have memories/ Longer than the road that stretches out ahead’ suggest a much longer-standing relationship. The song is filled with images of travel – ‘Sunday driving’, ‘the road’ – but the sense is that the friends are ‘getting nowhere’, making no progress, ‘chasing paper’. (This is a line that has produced some comment to do with McCartney’s legal dispute with Apple and the rest of the Beatles. ‘Paper’ could also mean money, as in Lennon’s line in ‘Mean Mr Mustard’: ‘shaves in the dark trying to save paper’, which would connect very interestingly with ‘You Never Give Me YourMoney’, of more anon. ‘Chasing paper’ would then mean chasing money, losing sight of friendship through the pursuit of the material and worldly.) The chorus declares ‘We’re on our way home’, but it’s a home they can no longer find. There’s a longing for this sense of arrival, to restore what has been lost, but it’s lost for good.

The same images recur in ‘The Long and Winding Road’, which Ian Macdonald reads as McCartney’s farewell not only to the Beatles, but to the dreams of the 60s in their entirety. Here, the road leads ‘to your door’, but the door isn’t opened. ‘Don’t leave me standing here’, McCartney sings; ‘you’ll never now the many ways I’ve tried’. The stories of George and Ringo’s anger with McCartney’s seemingly patronising attitude towards them are legion, and Lennon’s exasperation with his writing partner is evident; but ‘The Long and Winding Road’ seems like a mea culpa (‘I’ve tried’) and also a plea: please open the door.

The third of the songs in this thread is from the Long Melody of Abbey Road, in my mind a masterpiece of sequencing; but also, in the last three songs, excluding ‘Her Majesty’ (all McCartney), there is a moving leave-taking. In ‘Golden Slumbers’, McCartney begins: ‘Once there was a way to get back homewards/ Once there was a way to get back home’, echoing ‘Two of Us’; homecoming, returning to the excitement and happiness of the early 60s, isn’t possible. The road has been too long, the alienation too profound. Then McCartney ‘sings a lullaby’: ‘Golden Slumbers fill your eyes’. I can’t help but read this against two Lennon songs, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ (from Revolver) and ‘I’m So Tired’ (from the White album). It’s a call for peace, for calm, even for release from the striving of life: to let it go, to let be.

Golden Slumbers’ segues into ‘Carry that Weight’, a song I find myself humming all the time. Again, I think Macdonald’s right: McCartney might well have sung ‘boys, you’ve got to carry that weight’, about all of them, and what they would have to put up with as (former) Beatles. In a brilliant touch, ‘Carry That Weight’ turns to a reprise of ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’, where McCartney sings ‘I break down’, almost a confession and a self-indictment. There’s no finger-pointing here, just a sense that things are at an end. And then they do end, with the coruscating soloing of ‘The End’, and the lines ‘And in the end, the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make’, which is hippyish stuff but also, again, a kind of plea: please let there be an end to bitterness, to rancour. Let love and peace reign, in hearts as well as heads.

You Never Give Me your Money’ is an astonishing song in itself. Like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, it’s a mini-suite, built of extraordinary parts: the opening piano chords, Harrison’s guitar, McCartney’s expressive singing; the bouncing bar-room ensemble section (‘out of college, money spent’); the arpeggiated breakdown (‘oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go’) which becomes a lovely chiming Harrison break; then a return to a rock dynamic (‘soon we’ll be away from here, step on the gas’); and then a final arpeggiated guitar riff and fade (‘all good children go to heaven’). It’s virtuoso stuff all round, from the shifts in dynamic, tone and melody, to the fabulous playing and production, to the sequencing of the different sections of the song. ‘Money’ here is a metaphor, no matter what McCartney says about the song being about Allen Klein; it’s about not giving of your best, your truest and deepest emotion, to a friend or lover. (In terms of the Beatles as song-writers, by the time of Abbey Road it’s most likely that both Lennon and Harrison were keeping back their best songs for pending solo efforts, though the last Beatles album has two of Harrison’s best-loved songs.) The singer isn’t spared; both are passing ‘funny paper’, counterfeit coin.

All the songs I’ve mentioned move me. They don’t bring me to tears, but they do produce a kind of wistfulness, a deep sympathy, a feeling. These are songs of pain and loss and sadness, but also of a coming to terms. They’re brave, in a way, in exposing the rawness of emotion of that period, not just in what is being sung, but in how the music is able to transmit that feeling.

Abbey Road is a brilliant album (despite ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, a sure-fire example of McCartney’s facility with music leading to produce something that is pretty tasteless.) I return to the ‘Long Melody’ obsessively, and love the Lennon songs too (especially ‘Polythene Pam’, which has a humour and energy many Lennon songs of the period lack, to my ears). But the most resonant album of the period is Let It Be …Naked, strangely, in all its bodged glory. To me, it sounds like the most Stones-like of all the Beatles albums, not least because of the presence of Billy Preston on keys. It’s not just that; the music is rootsy, vibey. In a sense, this isn’t surprising, because the ‘Get Back’ sessions (which were turned into Let It Be) approximated the Stones’ way of working: endless rehearsing, on and on and on until they selected a take through some means or other (boredom or exhaustion or ‘feel’).

I love the Stones’ music, more perhaps than the Beatles’. Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney. Sometimes I try to think about who matches up with who, and on first take, you’d say Lennon and Richards, the hell-raising bad boys, against Jagger and McCartney, lighter-weight, more showbiz-aware operators. But actually I think it’s the other way round. Jagger and Lennon are the faux-intellectuals, the seekers. McCartney and Richards are all about flow, and about the music itself. I take Keith’s use of heroin as to do with work rather than decadence: he could go on for 30 hours before crashing. When you watch Sympathy for the Devil/ One Plus One, Godard’s film, you can see Keith keeping the band going when Charlie fluffs a drum part, waving his arm to say ‘keep on’; it’s key to the Stones’ working methods. And this was McCartney’s method to keep the Beatles together, to keep working, to do the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, to try the back-to-basics no-overdubs ‘Get Back’ sessions, to push and push and push. Without him, in the stead of Brian Epstein (who became peripheral once they stopped touring in ’66), the band might well have split after Sgt Pepper; in the end, his solution, to keep the boys working, ended up compounding the tension and assuring the split.

This is typical McCartney; he doesn’t step back and think about it, he pushes on with what feels right, even though it ends up backfiring. And I admire this, in the end. He pushes on. He keeps working. He thinks of what he does as entertainment, as pop, not art. He writes ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and ‘The Frog Chorus’ (but also, recently, the Fireman albums, experimental looping psyche-electronica). He sells millions of records with Wings. In the end, McCartney’s endless facility and imaginative fertility is his downfall, his worst enemy, because he just gets on and does it. But that’s all right. And he does it because it’s important; and he cared, even though sometimes he cared too much.