Monthly Archives: March 2015

Marina Warner on HE: a postscript to the previous post

The day after I wrote the previous post I picked up the latest edition of the London Review of Books (19th March 2015) to see that Marina Warner had written a lengthy article with the headline: Learning My Lesson Marina Warner on the disfiguring of Higher Education. 

It is a damning indictment of a Byzantine system of ‘audit as weapon’ that is driven by a callous executive class who know little and care less about anything that the average ‘chalk-face’ lecturer with a vocation would call education. A system run by an executive elite that have abjectly embraced what Warner calls “the new managerialist philistinism” and whose average salary is in excess of £250,000 a year. As she notes “the major parties have had almost nothing to say” – unsurprisingly since the Coalition began with the Liberal Democrats shameful betrayal of their pre-election promise on fees – and it is only the Greens who “have the right ideas”. But at the end of the day her most significant insight is that the current politics with regard to education is not just a by-product of economic policy. It is ideological, and its aim is to wreak “the ideal of emancipation through learning” through a process of exclusion. Which takes me back to my original concerns.     

I would strongly recommend anyone interested in both Higher Education and its relationship to a genuine democracy to read what Marina Warner has to say, not least because it helps chart the means by which the basis of that system is being undermined by an increasingly totalitarian version of capitalism.

Disciplinarity and the political culture of exclusory thinking

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Recently I attended an advisory meeting at the Royal West of England Academy. One item on the agenda in particular reminded me forcibly just how different my own ‘hybrid’ perspective is to that of the other RWAs who were gathered in that room. They are what we might call, for want of a better phrase, people who ‘profess’ to be artists in a sense I have not for many years – people whose identity is bound up closely with the notion of ‘being an artist’ and who are embedded in a world where a certain kind of networking is intrinsic; where sales, patronage, useful gallery connections, the power to influence opinion about other artists’ work, is the common currency. In such company I am something of a pauper, marginal; really an academic, no matter that I am also an RWA or that I too make and exhibit work. Put bluntly, we occupy different lifeworlds. I should add that this observation is in no sense a complaint or criticism. It evokes the simple fact of my multiplicity, something that I am happy to acknowledge.

Equally when I find myself at an event dominated by orthodox academics – particularly those in the Humanities – I experience something of the same sense of mild estrangement, of being on the outer margins of a particular and other professional world. One consequence of this is that when I write about the negative aspects of disciplinarity I often wonder whether I am overstating the case. Am I simply conflating the pedagogic emphasis on discipline-based education – on which our society’s concept of professionalism depends – with a very real and often deeply vicious realpolitik that thrives on disciplinary exclusivity because it suits me personally to do so? Or are there real and deep-seated structural connections between these two? And if the second is the case, what are those connections?

I think I have already answered this last question in an earlier post –Troubling ‘epistemological/methodological’ waters? (part two) – but I’ll paraphrase it again here. (The texts quoted are referenced there).

It has been persuasively argued that orthodox evaluations of research in the Arts and Humanities bear “no relation to how innovation and creativity occur” (Leach & Watson 2010: 7). Leach and Watson argue that the real value of such research is that it is: “carried by and in persons” as “expertise, as confidence, as understanding and orientation to issues, problems, concerns and opportunities, as tools and abilities” that reside in a “notion of responsiveness” (ibid: 7) and support and authorize those qualities in others. This understanding calls for a privileging of responsive listening over authoritative speaking so that this process is best understood as the conversational “aspect of citizenship”, one that privileges those “spaces and opportunities for discussion, argument, critique, reflection’ in which “collaboration” becomes a basis “for evaluation” (ibid: 3).

The importance of responsive listening is increasingly being argued by certain artists and ecologists (see, for example, Perdita Phillips: ‘Sounding and Thinking Like an Ecosystem’ in Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture , Vol. 27, 2013, p. 114-128), and has been argued philosophically by Gemma Corradi Fiumara in her The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening (1990). In the context of the link between disciplinary education and the realpolitik of exclusory thinking I would stress her insights into the academic habits embedded in: “the mechanism of ‘saying without listening’”, seen as having finally constituted itself as “a generalized form of domination and control” (1990:2). She addresses this situation in terms borrowed from Lakoff and Johnson, highlighting the nature of the metaphorical power embedded in language – in, for example, our concern to ‘win’ arguments as if they were wars (ibid: 108). I have taken this to square with Owain Jones’ insistence that we need to replace “established adversarial styles of academic argument with ‘a model of dialogical encounter’”, one based on the assumption that “the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding” (Jones 2008: 1607). Here ‘the other’ is anything from someone who does not share our professional or disciplinary ‘world’ to an animal or ecosystem. This seems to me to shift the emphasis away from disciplinary-based authority that is predicated on exclusive knowledge towards what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls ‘critical solicitude’. It is of course just this ‘critical solicitude’ that is lacking in many so-called ‘inter-disciplinary’ projects, where the parameters within which any exchange can take place have been pre-set by a dense weave of institutional presuppositions, all of which now ultimately relate to an economics designed to reinforce existing hierarchies and values. Research as ‘more of the same’, more or less. And all too often played out as just another example of careerism thinly disguised as ‘knowledge production’. It might seem that this is a matter of merely academic interest, until you see how it can play out in individual lives.

The real impact of the exclusory thinking disciplinarity breeds in a culture dominated by possessive individualism becomes apparent when you are privy to the horrors of medical and psychiatric abuse of vulnerable individuals by ‘health professionals’ and the manipulative realpolitik of associated researchers – all of them blind to the need for common human empathy by a professional arrogance and greed for power (and its financial rewards) underwritten by the authority derived from disciplinary exclusivity. (For those interested in the reality that lies behind this observation, see http://voicesfromtheshadowsfilm.co.uk).

 

The power politics that lie behind this blindness become visible in the extraordinary distortions and manipulations perpetuated by an organisation called the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London. In 2003 George Monbiot published an article on the group behind this entitled: Invasion of the Entryists, revealing the personal connections of a group that has “permeated a scientific establishment, always politically naïve”, and in consequence has “unwittingly…permitted its interests to be represented to the public by the members of a bizarre and cultish political network” (see http://www.monbiot.com/2003/12/09/invasion-of-the-entryists/). More recently Mićo Tatalović has reported on the same group (see http://www.scidev.net/global/journalism/feature/uk-s-science-media-centre-lambasted-for-pushing-corporate-science.html) and the supposedly impartial organisation it runs, pointing out that it has an agenda dominated by topics close to corporate, rather than public, interest and is heavily reliant on lobbyists, to the point where Connie St Louis, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and a senior lecturer at City University, London, states that she would close it down. Professor David Miller, a sociologist at the University of Bath, UK, makes it clear why St Louise would wish to do so. 

 

Miller’s analysis of the workings of the Centre showed that: “some 20 of the 100 most quoted experts were not scientists, as defined by having a PhD and working at a research institution or a top learned society. Instead they were lobbyists for and CEOs of industry groups”, in particular those who favour the positions of the bioindustry and particular corporate sectors, and that it’s coverage reflects “the priorities of their funders”. This has direct political implications. Tatalović also references a paper in Journalism Studies by Andy Williams of Cardiff University on media representation of animal-human hybrid embryos in the United Kingdom between 2006 and 2008. This shows that a proposal that such research be banned “was opposed by what he called ‘a powerful coalition of scientific organisations’ coordinated by the SMC” and that a lobbying coalition was allowed to use the SMC’s media briefings to dominate media reports and so get the proposed ban dropped.

It is in instances like this that we see the price paid for a disciplinary exclusivity predicated on the authority to speak on behalf of others without any sense of obligation to listen responsively, an authority underwritten by a discipline-based education system with its “established adversarial styles of academic argument”, rather than on a multi-disciplinary exchange based on ‘a model of dialogical encounter’”(Jones 2008: 1607). Of course disciplinarily in itself does not exclude that encounter, but the academic and media realpolitik currently in place ensures that all the cards are stacked against this happening.

A Hedge School Summit ?

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As my last post indicates, Hedge Schools are on my mind.

I saw my friend Mel Shearsmith yesterday. Mel used to be the hinge on which much of the everyday business of PLaCE as a research centre at UWE, Bristol, turned. Then she started a PhD at another university, was poorly supervised and became disillusioned with the whole academic business. She is now busy starting a new life as a craftswoman.

We spoke about PLaCE and she reminded me of this idea that never goes quite away (as I’ve indicated, it surfaced at the Thin Place event in Wales recently). What is needed now is a genuinely interdisciplinary alternative to the disciplinary university system, a monopoly system so deeply bound into the status quo as to be a serious hindrance to the development of the alternative thinking we now so badly need. (I am not speaking of individual academics, many of who are doing all that they can to continue to provide a genuine and relevant education, but rather to the managerial culture of audit and intimidation, and of course to the politics that allow this to be promoted as ‘necessary’).

I was reminded of this again this morning, speaking with someone who told me how impressed he had been reading the Green Party’s policy manifesto; how it had struck as being genuinely radical. But where are the radical educational initiatives that will help argue for that kind of thinking, support the academics and students who want to change the system of higher education so that it is something other than ultimately just another arm of a vicious and archaic status quo?

In this context my thinking has constantly turned to the old Irish practice of Hedge Schools, the clandestine rural schools set up for poor Catholic children when punitive laws forbad Catholics from setting up schools or from sending their children abroad to school. It seems to me that we need to reconsider this idea – indeed many of the workshops and seminars run by PLaCE and the other networks associated with it have had something of the Hedge School spirit about them.

As I explained to Mel, I can do nothing to push this notion forward until my current family concerns are resolved but, when that is the case, I hope to pick this notion up again as a way of mediating between those academics with a genuine alternative vision and all those hungry for a genuine inter-disciplinary site for exchange and learning based on thematic relevance, rather that the ‘colonialist’ realpolitik of ‘inter-disciplinarity’ in a deeply entrenched disciplinary system strung out on (or more charitably by) a politically-driven audit culture, a punitive student loan system, and a politics predicated on every-shrinking budgets designed to ensure that only a wealthy elite can thrive.

At some point in the not-too-distant future I hope to help convene what might be called a ‘hedge school summit’ with a view to moving this notion into the realm of the practical.

‘Thin Places’ – spirituality, politics, and the return of the ‘hedge school’?

I’ve just returned from Wales, where I was attending the ‘Thin Places’ Symposium organised by the Irish curator Ciara Healy in conjunction with Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Carmarthen. This event, attended by about sixty people, marked the closing of an exhibition of the same name. (The term ‘thin place’ derives from archaeology, where it refers to an anomaly in a landscape that served as an entrance to the otherworld or where two or more worlds bleed into each other. The exhibition included artists from Wales and Ireland whose work Ciara felt evoked some aspect of this). What was particularly interesting to me was that people were happy to come not only from from London, but from Scotland, Ireland, and Cumbria, to attend this event.

The day was opened by a presentation by the archaeologist Dr George Nash, who reminded us that even in the Neolithic Thin Places, as marked by megalithic mausoleums, were subject to complex rules and strategies designed to enhance the rights and privileges of those in power. These included restricted visual access, legitimate rights and rites, playing with location and orientation in the landscape, the use of specific materials – particularly stone – and of the local  geography, the use of distinct secular and distinct ritualised zones. Yet at the same time a certain unity was created by bringing the wider landscapes into the sacred space of the tomb which, in turn, clearly created a certain intimacy between people and the elements that made up the surrounding landscape. In short, there was a politics to Neolithic spirituality, and a spirituality to Neolithic politics. For anyone interested, this and all the other talks were recorded and appear on the gallery web site at  http://orielmyrddingallery.co.uk/2015/03/thin-place-symposium-audio/

The day was not without its conflicting elements – one of the six speaker had the woman next to me literally squirming in her seat with indignation. Nor was it without its humorous moments. I was particularly taken by an image shown as part of the context for the delightfully tricksterish work of the artist Serena Korda. This was of owners of black cats quietly waiting outside a Hollywood studio with their pets in order to attend an audition for a part in a Vincent Price film! (A photograph of my own contender is included at the end of this post). The two talks by artists in the exhibition – Jonathan Sammon and Serena Korda – demonstrated just how well and carefully Ciara had picked the work she wanted to show.

Reflecting on this and the rest of the event takes me back to a chapter by Geraldine Finn called “The politics of spirituality, the spirituality of politics”, published in a book called Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernity and Religion (1992).  Although I would like to quote at length from Geraldine Finn’s extraordinary chapter, copyright law prevents me from doing so. However, I will risk one sentence to indicate why I make this connection. “This space between representation and reality, text and context, expression and experience, language and being is the necessary and indispensable space of judgement and critique, creativity and value, resistance and change”. (page 113) It is, she goes on to write, the space that allows us “to call the political status quo into question” and to confront the given configuration of the world and its institutions into the categories that allow the status quo to organise that world according to its own ideological categories and logic. A logic that, in the same week that the British Government set a cap of the welfare support available to any single family, led them to double the financial subsidy given to the owners of grouse moors. (As I revise this post, the papers are reporting that a group of churches have described the same government’s benefits sanctions regime as “punitive, inhumane and unchristian”). Perhaps this is why Geraldine Finn refers to this ‘space between’ as “the ethical space – the space of the specifically ethical relation with others”.

This is the space evoked by the best of the works in the exhibition, and the best of the talks given yesterday. It is a space dependent on our accepting that we are irreducible to what can be categorically known; that we are at all times both “more and less than” those category that are used to “name and divide us”. It is, as I understand it, the potential for a sense of our place present in everyday life and the place from which the politics of spirituality and the spirituality of politics flows. But it is also an essential part of what makes our ‘sense of place’, our placed-ness as human animals defined by our capability to suffer and to create and maintain communitas – in this particular place, here and now – the very possibility denied by a mode of government that, behind the mask of democracy, is animated by a politics of naked greed. Government for and by the rich where children cannot learn because they lack a proper diet, while landowners wealthy enough to own grouse moors have their subsidy doubled.

Among the other resonances I picked up, one at the symposium reminded me how increasingly difficult it is for those working in education to keep that necessary ‘space between’ open. How is that to be done when primary school children, brought to the gallery to take part in discussion and a writing competition, can’t concentrate because they are too hungry to pay proper attention? (One third of the UK’s child now live below the poverty line). Yet it’s only too easy to see the benefits of such educational work (see http://newsroom.carmarthenshire.gov.uk/news-archive/2015/02/gallery-recognises-young-talent/#.VPNOrinma5Y). How is that to be done when university lecturers struggle to cope with larger and larger numbers of students and have less and less time to think or make because of an administered system of punitive audit, let alone time to help induct their students into an appropriate sense of communitas. The brutal logic behind this disempowerment is that Higher Education must now be made to serve an economy designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, although the reasons given are that it is on the brink of financial melt-down (despite that fact that Vice-chancellor’s salaries continue to rise).

In speaking briefly as the ‘respondent’ at the end of the day, I drew attention to some of these points, suggesting that a democratic education that aims to bring about any sense of communitas that acknowledges the impulse that Thin Places evoke must now work on the margins of the formal education system – through school visits, external symposia, support networks set up on the basis of friendship rather than according to the dictates of institutional hierarchies. In short, we are moving into a situation that is starting to resemble that which, historically, led to the creation of ‘hedge schools’ in colonial Ireland. If education is now increasingly colonised by, and subject to, an ideology that serves to maintain a corrupt, inhumane, deeply reductive and destructive status quo, then those of us who would resist that need to find ways to act accordingly.

I hope we can find the will and resources to create our own ‘hedge schools’, however temporary, and that if we can they will have some of the same qualities as the one that, thanks to Ciara Healy and the Oriel Myrddin Gallery, met for a day in Carmarthen Library. That event, and the work of friends in PLaCE such as Mary Modeen and Ruth Jones (who runs Holy Hiatus), both of whom spoke at the symposium, still gives me hope that this will be possible.

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