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.

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)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Music, Affect and Old Fogeyness (Part 1)

There was an interesting article in Aeon in April about how our music tastes change as we age: ‘Now That Was Music’ by Lary Wallace. He says: “One grim day (when youth is over) you find that new music gets on your nerves. But why do our musical tastes freeze over?” It is something I’ve often thought of and, actually, I think I did quite well to last till I was 42. I remember it was then because it coincided with the time I left London, although I think geography was only a tangential connection. The author also lasted till he was 40 years old, which is interesting and may reflect the fact he is a music writer and, therefore, engaged in music (like the musicians he mentions who he says seem to be “immune”). Wallace actually thinks the decline of interest tends to begin in one’s thirties.

In this two-part post I will be providing two past musical experiences in order to work through my own affective responses in this regard, and two contemporary examples.

One of the key points the above article makes is that “our inability to appreciate new music” is connected to our ability to “experience surprise” and therefore a “sense of wonder”. As we age, we encounter less new experiences. I would describe it as the nothing-new-under-the-sun phenomenon. So, firstly I’d like to provide a couple of examples of the sense of wonder in regards to music from my youth. The fact I can remember them still today – and they both go back to the 1970s – means they must have had a major musical impact. Both involve me seeing these musicians on Top of the Pops for the first time.

The first was the Electric Light Orchestra’s 10538 Orchestra (1972). ELO looked, and sounded, like a rather strange and magical orchestra. I had never seen anything like this on Top of the Pops before. Although, it probably wasn’t a surprise that I would like the music, being a The Move fan previously. It wasn’t just how they looked that captivated me in that moment (although I do remember that well), but how they sounded – like an orchestra (hence the band and song title name). One of the comments under the video on Youtube echoes my own experience: “This is the track (1971 I think) off the original Electric Light Orchestra album that totally hooked me on ELO all those years ago....and I'm still playing that original old worn out vinyl...and here we are in 2015, and I'm in my sixties and still hooked...oh god that's good music....” (cogidubnus1953).

The other example is seeing Ian Dury and the Blockheads perform Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (1978) for the first time. It wasn’t just Dury in his tight white T-shirt, stretched over his thin chest, with his impractical sunglasses – although that all added to the mystique. Nor was it just his unusual way of singing-speaking, with his strong undisguised Essex accent. It was also that brilliant intro with the discordant piano riff. I really hadn’t seen anything like that before.

Also, I particularly liked the way Dury moved, which was strange and yet compelling (remember Ian Curtis from Joy Division and his strange dancing). Dury was particularly un-self-conscious. It seemed to me that he was totally absorbed in the music and, if it was a performance, it came across as something much more natural than that. He seemed blasé about his appearance and unconventional movements. He also made guttural noises that couldn’t be described as singing at all (I’ll return to this in part 2). This was probably the strangest and most captivating performance I had seen on Top of the Pops, ever!

Part 2 will look at some contemporary affective musical responses.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Down the Rabbit Hole or Reflections on Post-Truth Reality (Part 2)

Part 2: How Can We Challenge ‘Truth’ Today?

By Fenella Brandenburg

For Part 1 of the blog, please click here: Are We Really in a Post-Truth World?

Do we need to give up on the idea of truth, or revealing it, since the ‘rules’ appear to have so drastically changed? I would like to attempt to answer this question under the rubric of poststructural theory. I believe we have to constantly rethink our strategies in order to challenge those in power, because complex environments require well thought out approaches. I’m not convinced that those undertaken in the 60s and 70s will work today, whether they are activist in nature, or operate on analysing the textual instead, such as discourse analysis or deconstruction. I don’t mean that they have no value, I mean that if all bets are off in terms of the value attached to what truth is (and we are not just talking about what truth is or not here, but also the recognition that truth has less purchase and to some is completely irrelevant), then maybe we should not look at what is being said, but look at something much more fundamental to that, who we are and what our place is in the world. I propose to do this by using Gilles Deleuze’s theory of The Fold (1993).

Deleuze uses Leibniz’s theory on the Baroque (the folded subject) to help explain the position of the individual: the subject is perspectival, it is its point of view and represents a particular moment. Deleuze explains how the Baroque differentiates two forms of folding: material and soul that exist on the two levels of Baroque architecture - matter on the lower, and soul on the upper - where each floor is labyrinthine, extending to infinity (2006: 3). However, these two floors are connected, and Deleuze suggests this connection is formed by another fold (2006: 4), thus there exists a means of communication. On the surface of a fold there is the means whereby a point can develop producing a singularity (when discussing Leibniz, Deleuze uses ‘singularity’ to describe the perception of movement). This is a point of inflection (the place on the curve where the tangent crosses it), what Deleuze describes as an “elastic point” (2006:15). These inflections are potentially innumerable and become available perspectival positions. This folding, created by inflection, creates an “envelope of inherence” and Deleuze explains that this inclusiveness simultaneously creates the fold at the moment the fold forms this inherence (2006: 24).

Thus, we have the process of aggregation in the folding: the folding creating the force of inclusion, but at the same time this incorporation is forming a fold around that which has been gathered up. Deleuze explains what this means for the soul described by Leibniz (what occurs on the upper floor): this windowless floor, covered with drapery, is inclusive to the point where the process of enveloping is so encompassing that a soul is formed (ibid.). This is not a place, exactly, nor entirely a point of view, but “what occupies point of view, …a soul, a subject” (ibid.). In this process of inclusion, which concurrently forms the fold, it becomes apparent how an inside can be formed from an outside: the windowless floor, defining the soul for Leibniz, creates an intact subject, a soul attached to a body (matter).

So what does this model provide us with in terms of explicating the problem of post-truth?

We can now begin to see how our sense of self-hood, which appears to be inside us, actually comes from the outside and is formed in a little pocket we conveniently call our ‘self’. The normally polarised inside and outside become connected in the model of the fold, therefore contradictory terms become reconcilable: truth/lie, us/them, and so on. The outside, therefore, is found on the inside, the other is in myself, and the answer to the unthinkable paradox of what truth is, is in thought itself.

This has multiple benefits in regard to our problem at hand. The fold, whilst forming an envelope which situates the subject at that point of view, in its act of folding over also enables that subject to see itself. The subject can be self-reflective (and reflexive), can see its place in the world and has agency in terms of moving their perspective (by simply moving along the fold). Also, it means that what may present itself as impossibility (for example, a paradox such as how can the truth be a lie), is not separate from the understandable, but actually contained in it, and formed as a fold of it….

Please note: I have been invited to give a joint talk at the Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography in September 2017 with David Bollinger. While Dr Bollinger and I have had some academic differences in the past, and some not-so-academic differences, we are attempting to get past these in order to present a lecture at this year’s congress.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2006. The Fold. Trans. by Tom Conley (London and New York: Continuum).

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Genii Loci: Discovering the Spirits of Place

By John Reppion

I was lucky enough to grow up on the borderland of the modern world; the South-West tip of Liverpool where a haunted Tudor mansion house and the grave of a giant were as easily reached as the abandoned synthetic resins factory and boarded up secondary school I spent so many of pre and early teenage days hanging round. All of these places already had their stories but all of us added our own layers of narrative and meaning just by being there. I became fascinated with the idea of being able to physically enter a story at a young age, although I never thought of it quite in that way. I just knew I wanted to be near the enormous grave of The Childe of Hale surrounded by crumbling skull-and-crossboned tombstones, to stand in awe before the mammoth, and to my young mind wholly terrifying, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. These places were gateways to the trans-mundane; ‘thin places’ where the barrier between the natural and the supernatural, between the now and the past, seemed permeable. In these places I was able to walk on and in and through history, through stories, and to commune with the characters from those narratives.

Since I began my writing career in 2003 this idea of narrative embedded in locations has been a big part of my work whether it be my fiction, or my essay and article writing. To some extent all this culminated in April 2016 when I put on a one day event here in Liverpool entitled Spirits of Place. Myself and eight guest speakers met at Calderstones Mansion house, in the heart of Liverpool’s Calderstones Park, and gave a series of talks on topics ranging from archaeology, to literature, to history, to magick. Every talk took its cue from the location – many delving back as far as the neolithic tomb whose remains lend their name to the park itself. The event was a success and I was asked by Daily Grail Publishing if I’d be interested in turning Spirits of Place into a book. I was, of course, excited by the idea but soon realised that the book would need to be a completely different beast to the event.

I took the core concept and broadened the scope. Instead of pinning down one specific location, I decided it would be more interesting to open the book up completely, allowing contributors to write about anywhere in the world (indeed, in the case of futurist Mark Pesce, about the virtual world). I admit that I am a white, middle-aged Englishman, but even so I felt that it would also be nice to hear from people other than that group which is perhaps somewhat over represented in this particular field. Likewise, I felt that London was a city whose psychogeography has already been tackled amply elsewhere. With these few guidelines in place I drew up a list of writers who I thought could offer some interesting and unique perspectives on the intersection between landscape and narrative.

One of those writers was Kristine Ong Muslim: an author, poet and translator who still lives in the same rural town in Maguindanao, southern Philippines, where she grew up. Her piece in the book is entitled “Agonies and Enchantments” and deals with the spirits – metaphorical and otherwise –
of her childhood as much as anything. Recently I emailed to ask her about her choice of subject matter and the way she handled it. 

“In a remote small town such as the one I’ve been living in for most of my life, the family unit accurately represents the condensed version of an interlocking, often times dysfunctional, aggregated whole. It helps that when Western colonial influence infiltrated an area such as ours, the infiltration was minimal, thus some indigenous practices survived to this day. There was also relatively less bastardization and demonization of certain pagan beliefs. In this little town, almost everyone knows each other. Almost everyone knows whose husband is screwing another person’s wife, who you can turn to if you need ‘magic water’ to make someone stop falling in love, and so on and so forth. So when I wrote about my family and childhood, I am effectively writing about the entire small community in this part of the world.”

Spirits of Place also features essays from: Alan Moore, Maria J. Pérez Cuervo, Warren Ellis, Gazelle Amber Valentine, Iain Sinclair, Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, Vajra Chandrasekera, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Dr. Joanne Parker, and Damien Williams. It is available to order now from spiritsofplace.com

John Reppion has written articles for the likes of Fortean Times, and dailygrail.com. His day job is scripting comics with his wife and writing partner Leah Moore. John’s prose fiction has been published by the likes of PS Publishing, Ghostwoods Books, and Swan River Press. His website is moorereppion.com and he can be found on Twitter @johnreppion

Friday, 24 February 2017

Terminalia 2017: A Geographer's Account

Terminus - The God of Boundary Markers
by Andy Turner

1. Introduction

1.1. Metadata

1.2. Contents

2. Background

3. 2017-02-23

3.1. Do all things have a beginning and an end? An exploration into linking things together

  • So another year passes and I pick up to some extent where I left off near South Gate by The Adelphi just South of the river.
  • Before that I had a happy dérive over water under train with an old map of the bounds and some chance meetings by waterhouse place not far from old haunts and new.


4. References

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Down the Postmodern Rabbit Hole or Reflections on Post-Truth Reality (Part 1)

Part 1: Are We Really in a Post-Truth World?

By Fenella Brandenburg

I was discussing the possibility of the idea of post-situationism last week when visiting a colleague at Huddersfield University and later reiterated the conversation to Tina Richardson. She asked me how this might fit into to the current concept of post-truth and invited me to write a guest post for her blog. This post is in two parts that I have set up in question form:

Part 1: Are we really in a post-truth world?
Part 2: How can we challenge ‘truth’ today?

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that post-truth was the word of the year in 2016, not least because of its new dictionary inclusion. But, these kinds of phrases are always problematic when taken up into media discourses, because eventually they begin to self-deconstruct, although one could say that is a positive side-effect. In the West at least, we can all recognise the major socio-political shift that took place in 2016, nevertheless post-truth is not really new and doesn’t herald a new cultural epoch, despite the seismic shift we all feel has befallen us. Post-truth sits perfectly well into the concepts that, as theorists, we situate within postmodernity. One only needs to pick up a text by Jean Baudrillard to understand that the grounds for post-truth have been being built on for many decades. We don’t even need to look at his 21st Century texts to find the seeds of post-truth, because he set it out neatly for us in his formulation for the simulacra (levels two, three and four) in 1981:

Level 1: “it is the reflection of a profound reality”
Level 2: “it masks and denatures a profound reality”
Level 3: “it masks the absence of a profound reality”
Level 4: “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum” (2006: 6)

Feel free to choose any of the above to apply to a specific situation you are attempting to analyse under the rubric of post-truth!

We can also look at the significant work that Michel Foucault has carried out in regards to truth, power, knowledge and discourse to understand that truth has no bearing on something that can be considered absolute, or real, in any sense at all. In regards to the semantics of a specific instance, ‘truth’ is not a function of the words and sentences themselves, but the whole network of factors which form that specific utterance in the propagation of a specific statement (for example a media announcement - as it would have been for Donald Trump on Thursday 16 February 2017). These statements exists through a form of appropriation and are legitimised through the utilisation of the forces that exist in an event-like state around them. For Foucault “a true discourse engenders or ‘manufactures’ something that does not yet exist, that is, ‘fictions’ it” (1980: 193). There we have it! We are not in a post-truth period at all, it is simply that the very concepts that underpin postmodernity have just reached critical mass and have finally been recognised on a quotidian level.

But…..whether you believe that post-truth is a new or even ‘real’ thing doesn’t change the fact that we sense that something has shifted to a very significant degree. So, what does this also say about how we can question the current climate of alt-facts? I will be covering this in the next part of the post in regards to deconstruction and post-structural theory

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 2006.
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. by Colin Gordon. Translated by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham and Kate Soper. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Press, 1980.