Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Anywhere in 'Anywhere': An Unconventional Look at Cecile Oak's New Book

"Please feel free to read Anywhere in any way you want and take away from Anywhere whatever you wish; read it as a novel, as a failed conference report, as travel writing, as a meandering guidebook, as a textbook written by a drunken geographer. Or all of these. I hope that everyone, whether on the ground or in their imaginations, will use this book as a guide to making their own journeys in their own 'South Devon'"

This is how Cecile Oak prepares us with her author's note at the beginning of Anywhere: A mythogeography of South Devon and how to walk it (Triarchy Press 2017). So, rather than present a formal review of her new book, I will be taking her literally and choosing some extracts from 'anywhere' in the book as a way of offering an introduction to the text. I would however like to begin with an introduction to the characters in the book and make a comparison with this particular approach to writing with the film Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov 2002).

This mythogeography of South Devon is explicated through the discussion between Cecile Oak (known as the stranger) and her companion A. J. Salmon (known as the guide). While we are all familiar with Oak's academic lineage and her doctoral thesis, Salmon may not be so familiar to readers. Seemingly, he is both a thief of poetry books and a provider of poetry education - one of these leading him to jail and the other providing him with a distraction while incarcerated in 2009. These characters are comparable to the Narrator and the European in Russian Ark (which also uses this dual narrative technique). In Russian Ark the narrator tells the story, but also has a guide (the European), who acts as a sounding board but also introduces the narrator to Russian works of art, and historical facts and characters, of interest in the film.

Below are some of the urban characters that caught my interest in the book - some living, some inanimate - with images sourced elsewhere. The text is Oak’s...

St Luke’s Church by Derek Harper

“There are a lot of hypnotic objects to be dealt with in Buckfastleigh before we can get out. The brutalist church with a chain running out of a gutter and down the back of the building and through the grilled of a large drain. We decide it isn’t mechanical, but there simply to guide the stream of water into the drain, A thin drizzle is starting to fall, we watch how the water flows from link to link…” (page 300)

Guide Psychogeographique de Paris by Guy Debord

“Frustratingly – or maybe this is why it serves everyone so well! – there is very little documentation on these situationist wanders. And [Andrea] Gibbons has the reason. It’s directly attributable to the failure of the Situationists to defend their Algerian comrade Abdhelhafid Khatib after his psychogeographic survey of Les Halles was cut short by arrest (in the context of the Algerian War this constituted an existential threat to Khatib); instead the Situationists seem to have closed down the whole project.” (page 199)

Snails Overlapping by Tina Richardson

“There are two kinds of patterns in the water. The reflection that transports a here to a there, reproduces itself, but also replaces somewhere else with itself. When that kind of reflection is the main metaphor for comparing and connecting things, it reinforces analogy, homogeneity and conformity…[The] second pattern: diffraction is a kind of dynamism in the matter of the world. It is what the theorist Donna Haraway calls a 'metaphor for the effort to make a difference in the world'. This works all the way down, so at a certain level, incredibly small things overlap, interfere, and make a difference all on their own.” (page 79)

Rosy Cross of the Golden Dawn

“On the bricked floor of the parking space are symbols set around a Kabbalah ‘tree of life’…When I put the images up on Facebook later a ‘friend’ comments that the combination of symbols is characteristic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Hmm… Someone else posts that these are symbols of a spirituality of light generated from an “electrical pivotal point”, not the sun, not the centre. Could we be talking about diffraction here? My correspondent guides me to a Plymouth University astronomer called Percy Seymour. When I look him up he seems to have been a fairly conventional academic, studying magnetic fields around planetary objects, until he suddenly ‘flipped’ and began to interpret everything, including human personality, as subject to the magnetic and gravitational fields of the sun and the planets.” (page 160).

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Assembling the Assemblage: Developing Schizocartography in Support of an Urban Semiology

You can access this Humanities Journal open access article here. Below is the abstract:

This article looks at the formulation of a methodology that incorporates a walking-based practice and borrows from a variety of theories in order to create a flexible tool that is able to critique and express the multiplicities of experiences produced by moving about the built environment. Inherent in postmodernism is the availability of a multitude of objects (or texts) available for reuse, reinterpretation, and appropriation under the umbrella of bricolage. The author discusses her development of schizocartography (the conflation of a phrase belonging to Félix Guattari) and how she has incorporated elements from Situationist psychogeography, Marxist geography, and poststructural theory and placed them alongside theories that examine subjectivity. This toolbox enables multiple possibilities for interpretation which reflect the actual heterogeneity of place and also mirror the complexities that are integral in challenging the totalizing perspective of space that capitalism encourages.

This article is part of a special edition edited by Les Roberts: Spatial Bricolage: Methodological Eclecticism and the Poetics of 'Making Do' and focuses on the concept of bricolage:

This is a proposal for a Special Issue of the journal Humanities, on the theme of ‘Spatial Bricolage’: the art and poetics of ‘making do’ (de Certeau 1984: xv) in spatial humanities research. Expanding on themes explored in an earlier Humanities Special Issue on ‘Deep Mapping’ (Roberts 2015/16), this follow-up collection places firmer emphasis on questions of method: the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ that variously informs the doing of deep mapping and spatial anthropology. Provisionally organized around the twin concepts of cultural bricolage and the researcher/practitioner as bricoleur, this Special Issue aims to collate and provoke critical discussion trained on spatial bricolage as an interdisciplinary (or ‘undisciplined’) nexus of practices and pick-and-mix methods. Claude Lévi-Strauss described bricolage as ‘[the making] do with “whatever is at hand”… [; to address oneself] to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours’ (2004: 17, 19). If eclecticism informs a deep mapping practice increasingly oriented around the embodied and embedded researcher, then it is one that correspondingly finds its creative expression in the art and poetics of ‘making do’. As a ‘maker of quilts’, or, as in filmmaking, ‘a person who assembles images into montages’ (Denzin and Lincoln 2011: 4), the researcher-as-bricoleur makes do insofar as what it is she or he is ‘mapping’ is recast as a representational and affective assemblage. In the same way that calls for a ‘more artful and crafty’ sociology are underwritten by a push towards more ‘open methods’ in the social sciences (Back and Puwar 2012: 9), approaches in the interdisciplinary field of spatial and geo-humanities strive to embrace a methodological eclecticism adaptable to the qualitative dynamics of experiential, performative or ‘non-representational’ (Vannini 2015) geographies of place. Engaging with deep mapping ‘in all its messy, inclusive glory’ (Scherf 2015: 343), contributions for this Spatial Bricolage Special Issue are therefore sought from a wide range of fields that address questions that speak to issues of methodological eclecticism in spatial/geo-humanities research. Papers are especially welcome that examine the role of autoethnographic methods and practices, performance and gonzo ethnography, digital methods, or which address some of the ethical questions and constraints thrown up in relation to urban cultural bricolage as a mode of critical spatial research within the academy.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 3

By Fenella Brandenburg

Continued from Part 2

(this is the final part of this series of posts)

Since the Enlightenment the university’s relationship with industry has grown out of a direct response to an economic need. This meant the university reacted to the demands for a certain type of knowledge requirement. In postmodernity the university has acquired the mantle of a business-oriented philosophy in its own right, meaning that attempting to demarcate commerce and HE as separate entities is far more complex. In order to compete in a globalised market the contemporary university is expected to think and operate as if it were a business: it has to take up the procedures and practices of commerce. As far back as 1990 academics were writing about the application of a commercial formula to every aspect of education. Cynthia Hardy says:
The tough choices advocated in business literature are likely to escalate the political conflict that surrounds declining resources, not resolve it. Draconian measures – terminations and program closures – can send shock waves through the university community. The more marketable individuals will leave to find less hostile surroundings; potential recruits will resort to political infighting, as they try to protect their departments. (1990: 317)
Hardy’s comments imply a potential move by many academics into other professions with those remaining having to become defensive in order to protect themselves and their future within the institution.

These illustrations are provided so as to emphasise that the current period of austerity is situated within the greater issue of how organisations operate under neoliberalism in general and their response to politico-economic events. While cuts to funding in HE are going to have an impact on those studying and working at the university, the effects of capitalist oriented processes on those at the university can be both subtle and furtive.

Mark Fisher makes direct reference to university bureaucracy, including providing an extensive list of documents a module leader is required to complete for each module they oversee (2009: 41). He says that the constant checking, monitoring and production of figures does not provide “a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output” (2009: 42). Mary Evans puts it succinctly: “Since God no longer exists, we have invented assessment” (2004: 34). Evans says of both the Jarratt Report (1985) and the Dearing Report (1997) that they imposed “upon universities a quasi-democratic ethos of collusion with the values of a market economy” (2004: 23). Consensus is all that is needed to enable bureaucracy’s seamless transition: “The ‘right’ process is established, the rules of the game set, and what is then required are cooperative and consenting players” (2004: 62).

Dissent becomes difficult in a system that sees the student as consumer, service and product of the system (Fisher 2009: 42), because the ability of students or staff to direct any grievance to a recognisable figurehead is difficult. Any challenge of/to the system simply points to another set of figures, attached to which are a set of further criteria. Or, instead, the result of the query may just appear as a re-framing and re-presentation of that data back to the enquirer: “the best performativity [...] comes rather from arranging the data in a new way” (Lyotard 2004: 51). Bureaucracy, as an instrument for measuring excellence in the corporatised university, as Fisher describes, “floats freely, independent of any external authority” (2009: 50). It produces a style of surveillance culture for academics that is rather like an invisible postmodern semblance of the time and motion study that constantly hovers over them in the form of a bureaucratic superego.

This constant checking is part of the everyday administration of the contemporary university which attempts to measure production in the same way that a factory would through the use of the nebulous term ‘excellence’. The use of the term ‘excellence’ has changed over time. For example, in the transcription of a lecture given in 1991 at The Centre for the Study of Theology at the University of Essex, David Jenkins (the Bishop of Durham), uses it quite differently. This lecture is entitled ‘Price, Cost, Excellence and Worth – Can the Idea of the University Survive the Force of the Market?’ While it offers a critique of the corporatised university, Jenkins uses the term ‘excellence’ in a similar way to how the term ‘mastery’ might be used: “everything is concerned with ‘price and cost’ and not with ‘excellence and worth’” (Jenkins 1991: 31). It is likely that the term ‘excellence’ has become appropriated by corporations (and the university) because of its convenient vagueness. The pervasive audit culture enables a form of micro-management without the manager appearing in bodily form. Richard Hill says that technology has enabled this ideology to proliferate, since administrators are often no longer needed to carry out many tasks on the behalf of academics, now measuring forms are often online and accessible by all through their desktop computer (2012: 172).

Hill highlights the common use of the word ‘excellence’ in taglines and slogans used by universities, providing examples from Australian HE institutions: “‘Integrity, Respect, Rational Enquiry, Personal Excellence’ (Edith Cowan University): ‘In the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research’ (Griffith University): and ‘Excellence, Innovation, Diversity’ (University of Wollongong)” (2012: 60). He describes this as “corporate-speak” and while he uses a flippant writing style to explain how these taglines operate on the unconscious, he nevertheless hits upon a significant point in regard to how language is linked to how we view the world: these “phrases [...] send certain images racing through the collective psyche of prospective students in the hope of instilling some sort of lasting semiotic effect” (ibid.). And this is apparent when Readings states: “the question of the University is only the question of relative value-for-money, the question posed to a student who is situated entirely as a consumer” (Readings 1999: 27).

Evans, Mary. 2004. Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities (London and New York: Continuum).
Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books).
Hardy, Cynthia, ‘‘Hard’ Decisions and ‘Tough’ Choices: The Business Approach to University Decline’, HE, 20, 3 (1990), 301-321.
Hill, Richard. 2012. Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University (Sydney: New South Publishing).
Jenkins, David. 1991. Price, Cost, Excellence and Worth – Can the idea of the University survive the force of the Market? (Colchester: The University of Essex).
Lyotard, Jean-François. 2004. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 2

Image: Baird Point at the State University of New York
(referred to by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins)

By Fenella Brandenburg

Continued from Part 1

The idea of the student-consumer has become more significant since the public-funding cuts that followed the global recession beginning in 2008. The 2013 National Student Survey (NSS) asking students for feedback on whether their degree courses were ‘value for money’ resulted in 29% of them stating it was not (Public Finance 2013). This study coincided with the first group of British students (excluding Scotland) being subjected to the rise in course fees from approximately £3,000/year to up to £9,000/year. The study was criticised for asking the wrong question because it was placing the student solely as a consumer of a product that might be expected to be directly commensurate to some kind of financial gain (for instance, a graduate job), rather than providing a question based on knowledge gain. Hence, the question posed tends to encourage an answer in the negative. Nevertheless, one could argue that for the other 71% it was ‘value for money’, perhaps a higher result than might have been expected with such a significant course fee rise. However, the question itself reflects the trend to express the acquisition of knowledge through exchange-value rather than use-value.

Like academics, students are also subjected to university bureaucracy in the form of surveys that measure their teaching and service satisfaction at the micro and macro level. Mary Beard describes the lack of a response to the questionnaires by students as “survey-fatigue”, and in an article in the BBC news magazine looking at the pros and cons of student surveys, states that the problem with the student survey was that it was seen as an absolute measure of course quality, when actually students can mark courses down for a host of different reasons, such as extensive reading lists (Beard 2013).

However, the latest tuition fee rise and the other cuts in HE funding by the British government, appear under the popular media-generated term of ‘austerity measures’. In 1989 in an article entitled ‘The Management of Austerity in Higher Education: An International Comparison’ Manuel Crespo stated:
The management of higher education in a period of uncertainty, budgetary constraints and real or apprehended decline in enrolments has become a major issue in Western developed countries. Since the late seventies different HE systems have devised strategies to adapt themselves to shrinking resources. (1989: 373)
As the new British Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair hoped that 50% of young people would go to university. He stated that: “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for HE” and “will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them” (Blair 2005). Nevertheless, later he was accused of reneging on this promise with many later media interviews hinging on the semantics of the above statements, especially the “no plans” reference (ibid.). It appeared that the structures and money were not in place in order to support Blair’s wishes. Neither were they at the point of the later 2010 coalition government in Britain, when the current, and greatest, course fee rise occurred. This response to public sector cutbacks in periods of austerity, while not a new money-saving strategy, nevertheless, in the contemporary university – which operates on the guidelines set out in the Jarratt (1985) and Dearing Reports (1997), where HE institutions are expected to operate like corporations – means that today they are evaluated primarily in economic terms.

Concluded in part 3 (upcoming).

Beard, Mary, ‘A Point of View: When Students Answer Back’, BBC News Magazine, (2013), [accessed 6 June 2013]
Blair, Tony, ‘Did Labour mislead over tuition fees?’, Channel 4, (2005), [accessed 7 June 2013]
Crespo, Manuel, ‘The Management of Austerity in Higher Education: An International Comparison’, Higher Education, 18, 4 (1989), 373-395.
Public Finance, ‘Degree Courses ‘Not Value For Money’ Say Third of Students’, Public Finance, (2013), [accessed 6 June 2013]

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 1

By Fenella Brandenburg

In The University in Ruins (1996) Bill Readings says that it is ‘excellence’ in its manifest bureaucratic forms which is the driving force behind harnessing the university’s function of the past and in postmodernity placing it under the forces of the market (1999: 38): “Like the stock exchange, the University is a point of capital’s self-knowledge, of capital’s ability not just to manage risk or diversity but to extract a surplus value from the management” (1999: 40). The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are perfect manifestations of Reading’s critique in action.

Readings dedicates a whole chapter to the notion of ‘excellence’, which he considers to be the watchword of the contemporary corporatised university. Its effectiveness within the institutional apparatus cannot be underestimated and in order to deconstruct the university discourse it is important to understand the way excellence operates. For Readings, ‘excellence’ is a hollow term that has no absolute definition (1999: 24). He states: “An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane” (1999: 24). A 2013 article in Times Higher Education mentioned “teaching jargon” and states: “despite repeated claims of ‘teaching excellence’ on institutions websites, there was little elaboration of what this meant in practice” (Matthews 2013: 8).

Readings also makes reference to how the consumer-orientation of the university ties in with technology, a large focus of Jean-François Lyotard’s critique. Readings says: “All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information” (1999: 39). Capitalism uses technology in order to circulate information and enable a pooling of resources into a “generalized market” (Readings 1999: 32). In the university it is the term ‘excellence’ that helps promote the propagation of this data and mobilise its message. Readings says ‘excellence’ becomes translatable and usable by anyone who wishes to describe it within any phenomenon, in whatever way they choose, by any criteria (1999: 24).

One of the functions of excellence is how it helps promote the processes of circulation essential to capital’s operation in regard to power. Previously, the nation-state sat in the centre of civic life and produced streams of power emanating outwards (the institution being one of the representatives of the nation-state). Readings says that today, however:

Capital no longer flows outward from the centre, rather it circulates around the circumference, behind the backs of those who keep their eyes firmly fixed on the center. Around the circumference, the global transfer of capital takes place in the hands of multi- or transnational corporations. (1999: 111)

What this means for the university is that in its corporate incarnation it is essential that it becomes part of this process and adopts the modes of operating that capitalism endorses.

Upon repeated use the language of the university of excellence becomes normalised, but it has ideological origins which are needed for it to function within the capitalist system, both within and outside the university. The language that excellence adopts, while serving the purposes of the corporatised university, also has the function of creating a type of abstraction, which removes the output of the system – the data that is promulgated – from not only the material practices that are required to deliver it, but also from the staff who work in the university and produce this data (or are party to producing the data). Thus, the term is often used without compunction, without question and without an understanding of the material effects of the process that underpins it.

Continued in Part 2

Matthews, David, ‘Global faculty made up of bachelor’s boys and girls’, Times HE, 19/26 December 2013, p. 8.

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Saturday, 3 June 2017

'Anywhere', a new book by Phil Smith

Anywhere is the product of much wandering and writing and researching (about 20 years give or take a few months). For this, Phil Smith has drawn on walks and performances with groups like Wrights & Sites and GeoQuest and a longstanding fascination with the layers of terrain in South Devon, UK (which reach out far beyond its boundaries). In 2010 Triarchy Press published his Mythogeography in which he proposed an approach to exploring and performing the multiple layers of place; now, in Anywhere, for the first time, those principles are applied to make a sustained and intensive account of the mythogeography of a specific area. In order to get at its elusive layers and narratives, Phil has approached it through different authorial voices, pseudo-autobiography, fiction and personal immersion and mythologisation; there have been many journeys, sometimes lone, sometimes convivial.

If ‘mythogeography’ means anything – as a method that anyone can use anywhere – then it stands or falls by this book.
It can be ordered here through Triarchy Press.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Music, Affect and Old Fogeyness (Part 2)

Click here for part 1.

I have always been interested in aesthetics and taste in regard to music, and have noticed my own attraction to the style of music that tends to remind me of the that I liked when young. One example would be my love of Britpop and Indie in the 90s - a lot of it being influenced by psychedelia, for instance the more obvious music of Kula Shaker, but also early Blur’s There’s No Other Way (1991). Actually, this is one of the theories that I had assumed applied to our decline in regards to interest in contemporary popular music: that we were always pretty much going to like what influenced us most in our formative years. So the next two examples I am going to provide (both very current) relate to my (un-worked-through) theory above – we like the music that influenced us most when we were growing up – and the theory presented by Wallace in part 1 of the blog, what I have called the nothing-new-under-the-sun phenomenon.

After a sleepless early morning about a week ago, I turned on Radio 2 to the Phil Gayle 3.00-5.00am slot and heard the opening bars of a song that, in my half sleep, sounded familiar. Yet I was aware I didn’t actually know the song. I remember thinking: “This sounds like it might come from the early 1970s, but if it does how do I recognise it and yet not know it?”. Then I thought: “It sounds like Fleetwood Mac”. It turns out that it’s a new song by Lindsay Buckingham and Christine McVie: In My World (2017). Now, I’m not a big Fleetwood Mac fan, although I do own Rumours on vinyl (who doesn’t – right?) and love the ending of The Chain. I’m also not a big fan of female singers. So, I am making an assumption that there is something nostalgic about it that I am attracted to. Well, it now seems to be on the Radio 2 playlist, but I have also downloaded it. I really like it. I only download about 1 new single a year – so that’s testament to how much I like it, I guess.

My other example is a bit more unconventional, and also reflects Wallace’s discussion on newness. I was watching BBC2’s Later With Jools Holland last night (2nd May). The second song was by a band I had never heard of before: Future Islands, with the song Cave (I’ve included this link here to their official video, but try and watch the performance, which is key to my experience of it, on the Jools Holland link above if it is still available – the song starts at about 4.20). When their set appeared, I thought it looked reminiscent of The Pet Shop Boys, and certainly the opening synthpop bars were. But then the song starts and the lead singer, Samuel T. Herring, starts moving about the stage in a very peculiar way, singing in a voice that sounds like it might have been adopted by an actor playing a pirate in a 1930s black and white film! He growls, he punches his chest, he hits himself on the side of his head and he cries – this is really a passionate performance and is absolutely entrancing! It definitely fits Wallace’s description of the experiences of newness that are much more commonplace in our youth, as I have never seen anything like this before. So, maybe I’m not quite the old fogey I thought I was…
“All those unapologetic old fogeys willing to take a stand and denounce the music of today have a lot more in common with the youth than someone like me. At least the fogeys are willing to trust their instincts, finding their kicks where they find them, and never minding the places they don’t.” (Lary Wallace)