Inside the Pod

A couple of years ago now, myself and (now former) PhD student Chris organised a small symposium at our university which focused on 1964. Our paper was on 'The Future of the University', in which we referred to a famous speech by Mario Savio at the time of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in that year of 1964 (I also blogged about it). In that speech Savio's wonderful rhetoric runs:

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"

Savio is able to make a distinction between the machine and the human, the gears and levers and the workers whose bodies can make the machine stop. In a sense, this is the rhetoric of dystopia, which maintains that difference (although we are subservient to the machine, we are different from it). But I suspect we are now in a cultural and political space very different to that occupied and envisaged by Savio or dystopian writers of the immediate post-WW2 world. In a sense, we are the machine's levers. 

In our paper, I introduced our thinking by referring to the work of Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher, on the 'nostalgia for the future' I mentioned in a previous post. I quoted Fisher from a K-Punk post from 2006, where he suggests:

the period since 1979 in Britain has seen the gradual but remorseless destruction of the very concept of the public. Public space has been consumed and replaced b[y] something like the 'third place' exemplified by franchise coffee bars. Here, you are transported into the queasily inviting quasi-domesticated interior of one of SF Capital's space-ships: deterritorialization (you could be anywhere) and reterritorialization (you are in surroundings whose every nuance is shinily familar). These spaces are uncanny only in their power to replicate sameness (their voracious dominance of the high street is as visually striking a sign as you could wish for of the lie that capitalism engenders competition and diversity), and the monotony of the Starbucks environment is both reassuring and oddly disorientating; inside the pod, it's possible to literally forget what city you are in. What I have called nomadalgia is the sense of unease that these anonymous environments […] provoke; the travel sickness produced by moving through spaces that could be anywhere.  […] In Ghost Box and Mordant Music, the lost concept of the public has a very palpable presence-in-absence, via samples of public service announcements. (K-Punk, ‘Nostalgic Modernism’, 26 October 2006)

I continued: 'As we walked, identifying not only the (disappearing) fabric of the old university and the ways in which people are managed, in terms of pedestrian flows and the organization of buildings along the ‘Spine’ (in relation to the exterior ring of green spaces), Chris and I discussed the relation of the university of 2013/14 with that founded in 1964. The privatization that Fisher identifies, in terms of both public space and the discourse of ‘the public’, we found writ very large across the ‘renewed’ surfaces of the Lancaster campus.'

Last year, my friend and colleague Bruce Bennett and I made a short film about the contemporary form of the institution in which we work, using the work of JG Ballard as a launching pad for a re-imagiantion and investigation of corporate space and subjectivity. For me, the film was very much in a continuum with my work with Chris in that 1964 symposium. It was called 'University: A New Way of Life', and was hosted by the journal The Sociological Review. You can also watch it below.

In my previous post I wrote about 'machine music', and the score for the film (that I wrote and recorded) was meant to allude to the kind of electronic music that Simon Reynolds investigated under the rubric of 'nostalgia for the future', in particular the Ghost Box label (and my favourite of those artists, Pye Corner Audio). Our current project is a film shot on Super 8 film, rather than digital, as was 'University: A New Way of Life'; the new film will feature machines, transmissions and so on, but its form and connections will be quite different. The Super 8 cameras we use, especially the Braun Nizo, is itself a very seductive machine, from its brushed-steel case to the click and whir of its operation. As a piece of retro-technology, the Super 8 camera feels like a different kind of modernity, like analogue synthesisers, like tape recorders. Its recordings, like other analogue equipment, somehow has 'warmth', to do with the grain of the film, light on emulsion, and the contingencies of shooting. (You don't know what you've got until it comes back from the developers.) The very properties of Super 8 encode that 'nostalgia for the future'.

Two years on from our 1964 event, the fabric of the university keeps changing. The old stock is being slowly removed, and shiny new glass buildings and atria and walkways will emerge (slowly, from the building site) in their wake. In a sense, the university is erasing its own history in this process, the very physical properties of the campus exhibiting the shift from one political vision of the future - democratic, civic, education for all - to something much more corporate. The university is now what Fisher described in 2006: as our film suggests, we are inside the pod.


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