Friday, 28 October 2016

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.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

I want to be a machine

Six years ago now, I wrote a post called 'Android Rock', which was about synthesisers and Gary Numan and the future. In the interim my musical tastes have shifted much more to this kind of music:  not only post-punk and synth-pop from 1978 to 1982, but crucial antecedents like Krautrock or kosmische 1970s German bands (from Tangerine Dream to Kraftwerk to Manuel Göttsching, but mainly Michael Rother in Neu! or Harmonia or solo), space rock, electronic experimentation, psychedelia. And of course Bowie, always Bowie.

In 2010 Bowie was retired, 6 years hence; but in 2014 we got The Next Day, and then in January 2016 we had Blackstar, and then... I couldn't listen to Blackstar for months after Bowie died. And I put on 'I Can't Give Everything Away' as I write this, and it's a goodbye, with that harmonica, and a return to the sound of his wedding album Black Tie White Noise, and then some Fripp-guitar at the end, and I think - I miss having DB around. The title of that last track, set against a career of personas and performances, Ziggy and Aladdin and the Thin White Duke and the Man Who Fell to Earth and Nathan Adler and so on, even 'David Bowie'; and set against rock's insistent authenticity, of feeling and connection and emotion; and his ten years away from the spotlight from 2004-2014; and I realise how much I'm drawn to music (these days) which plays along that edge of giving everything and nothing away, of distance and intimacy.

The centre of my musical sensibilities has moved from the Sixties to the end of the 1970s, from a time I don't remember to one I remember very well. When I read Simon Reynolds' excellent Rip It Up, it was a kind of return, to bands and songs and albums. Even though I was a teenage Mod, I always liked (in a slightly guilty way) electro-pop too, which is why I've still got the Blue Monday 12", OMD's Architecture and Morality lp, Shriekback's Care and Jam Science. And throughout the 1980s (and ever since), I've loved the combination of drum machines and guitars, from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Big Black to The The to Sisters of Mercy.

Andy Warhol once said, famously, 'The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do'. Warhol was referring to silk-screen printing, and the suppression of human 'making' in the artistic process. Of course, these were often of film stars like Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and whatever erasures of authorship or Benjaminian 'aura' are delivered by a machinic process are re-instated in the art market which sells the prints as 'Warhols'.

But perhaps this is another dance along the edge of giving nothing and everything away. (Bowie of course wrote a song called 'Andy Warhol' on Hunky Dory and played Warhol in the film Basquiat.)

In one of my favourite films, from 1979, the same year as Numan's The Pleasure Principle and Bowie's Lodger, is Chris Petit's Radio On. A black-and-white road film from London to Bristol and thence the sea, Radio On is soundtracked by the kind of music I'm now drawn to recurrently. It begins with a wonderful use of Bowie's 'Heroes' with a long hand-held track through a Bristol flat, and uses Kraftwerk's Radioactivity album over images of the protagonist driving down what now seem like eerily empty motorways. In the opening tracking shot, the camera comes to rest on a handwritten note pinned to a board. It says: 'We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the '20s and '80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration via tape recorders, synthesisers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality'. In that flat, the brother of the protagonist has committed suicide. A Roberts Radio plays 'Heroes' (and the German language version, 'Helden'). Death in an electronic reality: distance and intimacy.

I'm hoping to pursue that connection, that collaboration, between synthesisers and recording devices and communications technologies over the next months. In 'Android Rock' I suggested that late '70s/ early 80s' synth-pop still sounded like the future

because the sounds of analogue synthesizers bear little relation to the tonal qualities of 'real world' sounds ... these sounds are still machine sounds, and I think we hear them differently (even now) than we do organic, 'natural' waveforms. 

In pursuit of machine music, I'm fully prepared to admit to what Simon Reynolds diagnosed as 'nostalgia for the future', that the music I'm drawn to represents a kind of modernity and future that will never come into being. But in that nostalgia, a longing for a different world, at least there's hope in the sentiment 'je est une machine'.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

On the road to Barrow: cultural criticism and creative writing

Image from:
I've just changed the subtitle of this blog to 'science fiction in the cultural field', to reflect my methods and also the rather wandering nature of this blog over the last few years. A broader sense of cultural production has always been where I've come from critical, rather than a 'literature' enthusiast, student,  scholar, critic. My first degree, at the University of Warwick, was on English and American literature but contained courses on Culture and Society, Film Studies and US society and culture 1955-65. (I followed up the latter by moving to take an MA in American Studies at UEA a couple of years later.) My PhD, on American dystopias of the 50s and 60s, was resolutely culturalist. My first full-time teaching job was as a lecturer in film and media; then I moved to teach literature and film; and in my current job I teach and lecture on a wide range of courses.

One of the lovely things about teaching at my current university is that we're a department of literature and creative writing. Though there are sometimes tensions between the two disciplines, I have great working relationships and friendships with my colleagues and this developed, a couple of years ago, into a collaboration with the novelist Jenn Ashworth, whose novel Fell has recently been published to great acclaim. Jenn has taught a course on Writing and New Media and, because of my interests in this area, we discussed this, and I've subsequently developed a new course along those lines (with more of a bent towards experimental writing) at Master's level.

A few years ago now I developed a particular interest in twitter fiction, and wrote about it. I also wrote my own sf twitter narrative called 'Shiva', which can be found archived here and which I also wrote a post about. 'Shiva' is narrated from the point of view of an AI, which is something I'll pick up in another post in the next couple of days. Because of some of these things (and some critical/creative writing on Ballard that Jenn liked) she asked me to participate in an online narrative project called 'The Barrow Rapture', about a character returning to that town to find it abandoned after a rapture event. I was really privileged to work with Jenn, Tom Fletcher and Beth Ward on this project, an interactive narrative written by Jenn, Tom and myself with Beth's lovely artwork. You can find it, and choose your paths through it, here.

One of the really illuminating things about The Barrow Rapture was finding out about the processes of writing and collaboration, particularly to do with creative practice. It was also terrific to be accepted as a peer and collaborator by very talented people. Following on from this, I've begun a different collaborative project, making films with another colleague (in Film Studies), Bruce Bennett, whose name has been taken, not in vain, in these posts occasionally. I'll write something about this very soon.

Literature academics aren't always easy collaborators, no matter that their metier is (or should be) sharing and communicating their research materials in a variety of forms - lectures, teaching, articles, books, blogs etc. It was always a gap in my own practice, but I was very pleased recently when another colleague called me a 'natural collaborator' (in the positive sense - I think). Like many things to do with my relation to academia, it's learned rather than natural, but pushing myself to do these things has been stimulating and rewarding in dark cultural and political times.

And so we circle back to cultural criticism, to cultural politics and practice. My interest and engagement in creative work is an extension of my inquisitiveness, my desire to find out about things and how they work, to try different approaches, but also my interest in the processes and politics of cultural production and of communication. I'm interested in 'zine and cassette culture, in Super 8 film-making, in punk and post-punk, in artists and makers doing it themselves, seizing the means of production. This blog is a minor form of that, but over time it became more work, and I stopped doing it.

Looking back over the blog posts, certain ideas or threads connect up and recur, and this has always been part of how I go about things (retrospection is no good for planning ahead, of course): I move intuitively and later I see how seemingly disparate things were really connected. The next couple of posts will explore those connections a bit further.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

What happens next

Let's be honest, I've let this blog slip a bit over the last year or so. In previous years I've posted about once every three or 4 weeks, but I didn't post much in 2015 and nothing until September this year. Partly it's because of time, and partly it's because, as a writing project, the blog has been very successful, though not in the ways I anticipated. I started it up to support my science fiction classes I teach at university, and to help in trying out some thoughts on a book I was writing (the Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism in Science Fiction, which came out in 2014, but took me an age to complete for a variety of reasons.) It only marginally helped with both, but became a kind of try-out zone, with several of the posts eventually being written up in longer, more academic pieces for journal and book publication and for talks and conference papers. So, a post on Interstellar became a talk I age at the University of Edinburgh and a conference paper; one on Malick's The Tree of Life became a book chapter which will be out by the end of this year; one on Modernist Morecambe became a conference paper and then a chapter on Quadrophenia; and a series of posts on Alien and Prometheus informed a chapter in my latest book on masculinities.

Because I've done all this academic writing, I haven't the time or the energy to blog. But it has struck me that there are several pieces of work that I haven't referred to here that are worth rounding up, which I will do over the next week or so. I'm hoping this will kick-start me into a new round of activity.

I noted that I'd had 10,000 page views back in 2013, and now this blog has over 50,000. Small beer, maybe, but I thank everyone who has checked out my posts and thoughts over the years. Due to my inactivity I must have lost a fair few readers, so I'm hoping to make up a bit of time.

Here, then, is an article on Michael Bay's The Island, based on a blog post from August 2013, and used to draw up an academic article which was published in Senses of Cinema last year. It's a bit long, and much denser than the kind of thing I post here, but I quite like it (more than some). It's called 'The Cinema Within'. And it looks lovely.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Speaking Out and Up: me, the university and the community

Ok, this is hard to put into words. Ever since Brexit, xenophobia and racism have become mainstream discourses. This we know. Theresa May’s government is set on a ‘hard’ exit from the EU which will be economically damaging and culturally toxic, turning England into an inward-looking, nostalgic, isolated backwater. Friends and colleagues have been horrified by these events, especially those who are resident here but not UK nationals. I don't feel at home in the UK myself, so I can only guess at their feelings. Last night, a Polish woman was apparently booed on BBC Question Time for expressing these feelings, an audience who don't want to know about the pain their xenophobia is causing. I live in Wales and would dearly love for Wales to become independent (even though I was born, raised and educated in England and still work there) from an England and Englishness whose public sphere has been systematically undermined and poisoned over decades, so now The Sun – proven liars over Hillsborough and many other things – has liberty to attack Gary Lineker for ‘spreading lies’ about (i.e. showing compassion towards) refugees. It feels as though we’re one step from the Children of Men film.

I’ve seen on Twitter many calls for the 48%, or for those even who voted Leave, to stand up against this increasingly visible racism and xenophobia. Academia should be one of the biggest voices: universities are international institutions, wanting and needing to attract staff and students from across the globe, whose communities must be inclusive and progressive. This week’s news stories about international students being counted as ‘migrants’ is an urgent symptom of the universities’ failure to do so. But this isn't just to do with the economic viability, or even the social or economic life of the university (as a community rather than an institution). It’s do with what the university thinks it is for.

I work in a department of English (literature) and Creative Writing in a 1960s university that appears in the top 10 or so in all the league tables. You might think we would be strong enough, robust enough, to be able to add our voice to the resistance to racism, to xenophobia. Our department has fantastic international contacts and some of my colleagues do great work in Africa and the Middle East and elsewhere and I admire and respect that enormously. But what about here, in the UK? What’s our role? Shouldn’t we be vigorously defending the ideas and ideals on which the very concept of the university is founded?

This past week we had a departmental meeting. We discussed the Stern report, the changes in what will be the next Research Excellence Framework (the audit of our published work which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about student recruitment (which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about how we might change or improve our programme to make it more attractive. But when a colleague raised the point about the ethical implications of changes to research funding in the UK, and the folding of International Development monies into the university research budget, the question wasn’t really understood.

And thinking about it afterwards, I wish I’d been sharp enough to say something then. It was at the end of a long, 3-hour meeting in a stuffy room and my mind wasn’t as focused as it should have been. Because the ethics of what we are doing is precisely what we should be talking about. Not just ‘how to attract students’ but ‘how does the department work in relation to its community/ locality/ region’. Not ‘how can we internationalize our work’ but ‘what is the role of the department and the university, in international contexts, in an increasingly xenophobic and racist political discourse in the UK’.

And it’s easy to see why we don’t discuss this. We’re really busy, and the pressures of REF and the coming Teaching Excellence Framework are felt by us, as individuals, and as a department every day. But this instrumentalisation (in an increasingly corporate environment, the university’s own response to the shifting political and economic environment) is corrosive. We don't think of the bigger picture, because we’re too focused on the day-to-day, in implementing new university initiatives which are largely to do with maintaining its position in those league tables I mentioned, let alone the things that are great about the job: teaching and supervising students, and sometimes doing your own research and writing. We don't talk about it because in departmental meetings we are discussing all this instrumental and administrative stuff, and we don't have time to meet as a group outside of those times.

But it’s wrong.

So what do I/ we do about it? The first thing is, of course to talk about it. Something we signally failed to do this week. To make it visible, to speak up. To make sure we do discuss it, that it informs what we do, so we aren’t always speaking instrumentally, simply reflecting the discursive frameworks of the government or the institution. 

If I wonder what kind of country the UK has become – the answer to that is increasingly unpleasant – I also wonder what kind of place the university has become. It mustn’t just blow in the wind of government policy or hide from political discourses we find uncomfortable or plain horrifying. Even when I teach science fiction - as we did this week with The War of the Worlds - we talk about these issues. So I’m starting to speak out and up.