Monthly Archives: May 2024

Afterthoughts from a conversation with Lindsey Colbourne.

[This was first posted just hours before I heard the news that the Conservative Party has vowed to shut down ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, by which they mean courses ‘that don’t deliver outcomes people deserve’. Or, to be more exact, they would like to shut down courses they don’t like because they teach values other than those of the economic bottom line and possessive individualism].

Last night I spent an hour or so sharing thoughts and concerns with Lindsey Colbourne (Heledd Wen). Lindsey is a good and valued friend in Wales who works as an artist and also as so much more. It seemed we’d been mulling over many of the same kinds of worries.

She began by confirming that a mutual friend, a highly valued contributor to Utopias Bach, now seems almost certain to lose her university teaching job, which in all likelihood will mean her leaving Wales. This is a woman who is not only deeply committed to teaching her students but who has also made a vital contribution to the community-focused work of Utopias Bach. In short, her situation is just another aspect of the way in which, as Lindsey and I discussed, far too much money is getting spent on all the wrong things. (For example, the average remuneration of a UK university vice-chancellor is £325,000, as opposed to that of a lecturer, which is £37, 514). Meanwhile grass-roots, bottom-up community learning activities are starved of effective financial support and so all-too-often marginalised or forced shut down. We were both, inevitably, distressed by this situation but are trying to remain positive. Which inevitably raises the age-old questions: “what are we doing and is it enough”?

My response to the first question is to accept that “making art”, however much concerned with current issues, is simply not enough. My response to the second, when I think of my involvement in Utopias Bach and the various other groups and individuals I work with, has to be both “yes” and “no”. In trying to live with this paradoxical position I fall back on the same two events that have helped sustain me for a long time now. The first is a short conversation with Joseph Beuys that so overawed me that I instantly forgot almost everything he had said to me. Except, that is, his final words. “Always remember, education is more important than art”. The second event was hearing a story from my childhood. It was told by an unorthodox and peripatetic nun called Sister Anna who had been working in Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles.

“A young monk was working in the kitchen garden when he had a sudden and terrifying vision of the end of the world, an event that he was given to believe would occur that very evening. As soon as he could recover his senses enough to do so, he rushed inside to look for the Father Abbot. After some time he found the Abbot on his knees, methodically washing the refectory floor. The young man, still greatly agitated, poured out his vision and ended by begged the Father to tell him what they should all do. The Father Abbot knelt up and looked at the young man for a moment before replying. ‘Well, my son’, he said, ‘I have to finish washing this floor”.

Lindsey once said to me that there are no such things as coincidences. So I should not have been surprised to read a piece in today’s The Conversation in which Anthony Montgomery, a Professor of Occupational & Organisational Psychology at Northumbria University, discusses the causes of recent organisational scandals.

One of which he identifies as “what happens when efficiency is championed over personal experiences”. In the case of the Horizon Post Office scandal the experience of the unfortunate sub-postmasters. He also points out that similar cover-ups will continue until we have “a legally enforceable ‘duty of candour’ for police and public authorities in investigations”, along with legal funding for bereaved or otherwise harmed individuals and families at inquiries and inquests. To which I would want to add a legally-enforced requirement for senior managers to accept that they have a duty of care both to employees and to the public. Had this been the case it might have deterred members of the current Government and their friends from handed out millions of pounds for useless PPE to their friends who owned or had a stake in firms that were quite incapable of delivering the real thing. In Anthony Montgomery’s words the total ‘absence of convictions or meaningful repercussions’ regarding those responsible for almost all such scandals ‘is abysmal’. 

We need to recognise that organisations, whether universities, businesses or political parties, will do anything to protect their public image and the economic and other benefits that flows to them from it. I’ve seen at first hand how senior academic managers condone bullying by their peers, despite repeated complaints. Their reasoning is not hard to guess; after all they appointed the bullies in the first place and, in each case, against the better judgement of the more junior staff involved in the appointment process. Staff concerns were simply brushed aside. Anthony Montgomery makes a similar point when he writes: “Imagine how different the Horizon scandal might have been if the Post Office invited sub-postmasters to collaborate in monitoring the new system for potential flaws when it was introduced”.

A related aspect of all this, also raised in my conversation with Lindsey, is a sense of powerlessness in the face of all the problems that need addressing. We can, of course, raise questions with those who hope to represent us after the forthcoming election. But it’s hard to believe that any individual MP who is a member of a mainstream party will not simply toe the line set down by his or her party whips. Not that this should stop us trying.

All this said, we will each of us still have our own particular tasks in front of us in life, tasks that need getting on with, our equivalent to a floor to finish washing. That does not excuse us from doing all we can to address the bigger problems, but it should also give each of us a focus, the work of maintaining our immediate world to attend to to the best of our ability. Unless we do that, nothing else will be possible.     

For the full text of Anthony Montgomery’s article, please go to:

A need not met?

In a recent post I referred to the fact that Gregory Bateson insisted that tertiary education should involve: “imparting the ability to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame or to dispose of it completely”. Three things have prompted me to return to that claim.

The first is that I’m currently reading Caroline Lucas’ wonderful book Another England: How to Reclaim Our National Story, in many respects itself an education offered at the intersection of first-hand political experience, historical knowledge, and a love and knowledge of a wide range of English literature. It seems to me exemplary in relation to what Bateson refers to.

The second is that I recently took part in a conversation with a small group of people brought together by the Welsh artist Gaia Redgrave to support her Rewilding the Artist project. As its web site says, this project sets out to: ‘imagine a process of discovery for artists, organisations, and collectives that facilitates real change, equity, and authenticity’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the current defects of British university education when it comes to facilitating an understanding of the necessity of real change, equity, and authenticity, our conversation turned to the need for alternatives to a system that is clearly failing both its teaching staff and its students.

Finally I came across a good, and highly topical, example of the type of thinking that I believe Bateson’s notion of a properly conducted education points towards. In this case it was articulated by Jeremy Lent and set out in his essay Honouring Multiple Truths: An Integrative Pathway to Peace in Israel/Palestine).

Telling other stories: ‘Heimatkunde: Explorations of Place and Belonging’

The second part of the title of this post is that of a book described as a ‘Feast-Script’, put together in honour of Prof. Ullrich (Ulli) Kockel, and edited by Mairéad Nic Craith, Katerina Strani and Alastair Mackie. It’s now been published by LIt Verlag Dr. W. Hopf Berlin (2024). Yesterday some thirty-five people – from old friends across Europe to a couple of his current doctoral students – gathered on Zoom to celebrate both the launch of that book and Ulli Kockel’s lifework. It’s an event and a book I’m very proud to have been able to contribute to.

That, however, is not the reason I’m writing about it here. Reading my way through its many essays I have been forcibly reminded that, despite everything that is wrong with the Higher Education system in the UK (and it’s a long list), there are still dedicated people – Ulli and his wife Mairéad being outstanding examples – who are quietly resisting that institutional system’s dominant realpolitik. People who maintain a strong sense of the real value of education as a calling and an act of service. People whose work resolutely points us away from the cult of possessive individualism geared to empowering and enriching small elites. People who resist the State control of research through a reductive audit system that tacitly maintains the myopia that blocks access to the ecosophical understandings needed if we are to face our deepening socio-environmental situation. People with the ability to work within an academic system preoccupied with status and money while still managing to promote values that run counter to its priorities. An ability that reminds me of certain intellectuals working in the USSR just prior to glasnost, people able to navigate the official world dominated by the State and, at the same time, contribute to an unofficial, underground culture with quite other concerns and values.

Ulli Kockel is what I would call a “post-disciplinary” thinker. Someone whose concerns, while grounded in a particular engagement with European Ethnology, extend to interests that range from the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys to indigenous literatures, from philosophy to human ecology.

Something of the consequence of that range of interests and of the curiosity that fuels it is suggested by the title of an essay he wrote for a book I organised and edited back in 2009. His essay is called Old Europe, Debatable Land, or: Why do I feel “at home” in places I’ve never been to? As Katerina Strani perceptively writes in Heimatkunde, Ulli is not an expert in ‘a tiny part’ of a single discipline within an increasingly corporately-determined academic system. Rather he is someone who is ‘resisting, remaining, thinking, enriching academic thought and practice in a creative, stoic, and humble way that is so strikingly different from the contemporary academic norm of pompousness and self-aggrandisement’. (Nic Craith, Strani and Mackie 2024, 39).

On a personal note, yesterday’s meeting was important to me for another reason. Some twenty years ago Ulli organised a seminar for interested staff at the university where we were both teaching to discuss an artist’s book I had just produced called Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig. During the discussion he pondered the possibility that what I had made might be a creative form of left-field ethnology. As I’ve explained in my contribution to Heimatkunde, that observation was very important to me and to the way I came to see the possibilities of deep mapping. What I learned yesterday is that his pondering my work in that seminar also played a part in his developing the concept of creative ethnology. A concept central to the 9th SIEF Congress, held at the University of Ulster, Derry, in June 2008, where Ulli, as the incoming President, made the liberation of the ethnological imagination central to the congress programme.

To learn that our exchanges in that distant seminar had been mutually beneficial to our thinking and teaching is for me an important reminder that, even in this difficult time when so much of what we do can seem pointless in the face of a culture of gross simplification and outright untruth, the value of sharing original speculative thinking can still feed into living by other, more honest and hopeful, stories.

Where to stand?

I heard some unexpected news from a friend in Ireland recently. She told me that Jem Bendell, formally Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria and co-author of Deep Adaption, has now decamped to Bali. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bendell is the man who promoted the notion that “our” society, the one founded on colonialism and the “growth” economy of extractive capitalism was in real danger of immanent collapse. It’s a claim that struck me as a bit myopic. For a great many people (as Bendell himself would later admit), not least the chronically poor, the long-term sick, etc. here in the UK, the notion that such a “collapse” was a future event made no sense. It was something they have been living through for much, if not all, their lives. It’s the same “social collapse”, after all, that the political elite under Margaret Thatcher and her kind worked so hard to accelerate as they started to dismantle the societal values that led to the creation of Britain’s Welfare State.

If what my friend tells me is true, I have to wonder what Bendell intends to do in his new home. Will he adopt a subsistence life-style and grow rice? Or will he collect his UK pension and write blog posts and more books? Whatever the case, if what my friend says is true, I find it hard to know what to make of his departure.

What first came to mind when I hear this news was a story told by Sister Anna, a roving nun with one wall eye, who was the daughter of an old neighbour of my parents when I was a child. It went something like this.

One morning a young novice is working in the monastery garden when he has a terrifying and overwhelming vision of the immanent end of the world, something that he understands will happen that very night. Distort, he runs and starts to look for the Father Abbot. Eventually, and rather to his surprise, he finds the Father down on his knees washing the refectory floor. The young man pours out all the details of his vision. He then crys out in the upmost distress: “Father, father, what must we do now that the end of all things is at hand”? To which the old Abbot replies: “Well, my son, I need to finish washing this floor”.

I suspect that, for most of us, going off to Bali is something we can’t do – either because it’s economically impossible or, far more significantly, because of our commitments to the individuals and communities into which our own lives are inextricably woven. For those of us who feel that way moving to Bali or to New Zealand (apparently the location of choice for the likes of Silicon Valley billionaires who don’t have the wealth to try to escape the Earth’s ruination in our very own space vehicle) would not only be practically impossible but, in every sense, soul-destroying. Instead we will have to accept our individual equivalent of “finishing washing the floor”, regardless of the consequences to getting on with those aspects of our psychosocial and environmental engagements that come to hand. That being the case, we can very properly hope to make the best possible job of these while we can, regardless of the eventual outcome.     

Gaza and third level education.

Over the last two years I’ve made three images – part collage, part painting – that probably had their starting-point in my reading poems by the American Palestinian writer Naomi Shihab Nye. Inevitably, given events, these came to relate to the attack by Hamas on Isreal and the subsequent genocide in Gaza. I recently found myself writing, in connection to one of these works, that I make images and write so as to conjoin otherwise isolated fragments of feeling and thought. What follows here is one such attempt.

Seeing evidence of the systematic destruction of Gaza and its population night after night on the evening news, I have become haunted by the terrible circularity implicit in W. H. Auden’s lines:  

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return…

Zygmunt Bauman, writing on education, reminds us of Gregory Bateson’s insistence that the tertiary level of education involves “imparting the ability to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame or to dispose of it completely”. Isn’t this pretty much what American university students protesting their Government’s and Universities’ involvement in supporting Israel are attempting to do? Little wonder then, that they’ve been subjected to institutionally sanctioned violence. 

Robert P. Jackson points, in an article in The Conversation on the 3rd May, to aspects of the Gaza protests on US campuses that have been conspicuously missing from most news reports. Some of what he names appears both to correspond to Bateson’s third level of education and to align with aspects of Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of the political imagination needed to create “changes of attitude in the ethos of individuals, groups and peoples”. Of the elements in Jackson’s list “religious celebration”, “diversity”, and “protest against gentrification” particularly struck me. The fact that the “overwhelming majority of students protesting have been modelling the peaceful coexistence of religious expression” corresponds, I suggest, to a dismantling of those mental frameworks that create what Ricoeur refers to as “incommunicability through a protective withdrawal”, in this case one ultimately based on a political exploitation of feelings grounded in fundamentalist theological dogma. Jackson’s outlining of the reasons for students calling for diversity and protest against gentrification seem to me to relate to Ricoeur’s insistence on the need to re-work and re-tell dominant narratives so as to include those habitually excluded from them.

That is not simply challenging a university’s attempt to silence Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace but also, by implication, all those engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement, in protests against the repeal of abortion rights, or in Me Too actions. In short, attempts to intimidate or silence anyone who challenges the dehumanisation being advanced on various fronts by those reactionary forces, in American society as elsewhere, preoccupied with returning to a factional set of past “values” and indifferent to human needs in the present.

Unlike those embedded in the culture of big business, which now includes those running universities, student activists understand that there are very real parallels between the drive to “remove” Palestinians from Gaza so that it can be occupied by Israeli settlers and so much gentrification in the USA and elsewhere. In this instance the conflict between those running Columbia University and “neighbouring (predominantly Black and Latinx) communities in Harlem”.

It seems clear to me that the Israeli Government is making every possible effort to ensure that the world is informed that it is always and exclusively the Jewish people that suffer evil in the conflict with their neighbours and, consequently, that their disproportionate response is therefor legitimate. What the Israeli Government seems determined to avoid at all costs, no matter how many innocent women and children are murdered in Gaza, is any notion that the suffering and death of Israelis might be, at least in part, a consequence of evils – the illegal expropriate of Palestinian land on the West Bank, the murder and humiliation of innumerable Palestinians – conducted in the name of, or simply condoned by, the Israeli State.

I can only agree with those who argue that any attempt to justify Israeli genocide in Gaza by linking Hamas’ actions to the Shoah, implicitly or explicitly, is indefensible. Two recent articles in the London Review of Books make the case for this abundantly clear. Furthermore they show how profoundly damaging such attempts are, not only to the credibility of the State of Israel and its allies, but to our collective sense of basic humanity. As Pankaj Mishra writes in the March 21st edition, our understanding of Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazis is: “the foundation on which most descriptions of extreme ideology and atrocity have been built” However that reference point is ‘in danger of disappearing as the Israeli military massacres and starves Palestinians, while denouncing as antisemitic or champions of Hamas all those who plead with it to desist”.

What Mishra names as Israel’s use of the Shoah as the basis of a “manipulative new mythology” has a substantive history and is supports by extensive reference to such diverse Jewish thinkers as Jean Amery, Zygmunt Bauman, Abba Eban, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Primo Levi and Boaz Evron many of whom, as he also points out, would now be open to charges of anti-Semitism by authorities falling over themselves to avoid seeing how the Shoah is now been weaponised by the current Israeli Government. My understanding of the damage inherent in that weaponisation has been deepened by reading the second article, Azadeh Moaveni’s What They Did to Our Women (May 9th).

This is a careful and measured response to the deeply disturbing Israeli reaction to the Pramila Patten report to the UN concerning claims of sexual violence perpetrated against Israeli women by Hamas. A report misrepresented by Israel so as to try to present sexual violence as something systematic and, as such, carried out exclusively by Hamas and/or its allies. (Sexual violence for which no legally acceptable evidence has as yet been found). The misrepresentation of this report by Israel appears to be yet another attempt to distract attention, not only from the genocide in Gaza, but from the history of Israeli sexual violence against Palestinian women. A history that dates back at least to April 1948 when, as Moaveni notes: ‘Zionist militias attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, killing more than a hundred civilians’, an attack that also gave rise to extensive ‘accounts of sexual abuse and rape’. 

If the cycle of evil endlessly perpetuated that Auden’s verse identifies is to be broken, we will need to first acknowledge and then set aside what he, “the public” and “all schoolchildren” believe to inevitably be the case. Having done so, we will need to develop the ability to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame that has allowed genocide in Gaza to be possible and, worse, to continue unchecked. Better still, to dispose of that cognitive frame completely. If we fail to do so it seems to me very likely that, given that it is ultimately inseparable from the causes of a deepening global socio-environmental crisis, that same cognitive frame will prove terminal, not simply in the world’s current war zones, but across the globe.