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.