Friday 17 June 2016

Voting For, Against, and Despite on 23 June 2016

When I vote to remain part of the European Union on 23 June 2016 it will not be out of a fear of change, nor for any imagined short-term benefit.

I'm a human being on a planet with over seven billion others, facing a host of challenges. I believe that those of us with the freedom to do so need to embrace and develop the most generous, imaginative political ideas.

I'll vote Remain hoping that the European project is informed by ideas other than self-interest, nationalism and neo-liberalism, even if its economics have been flawed.

If internationalist European structures are preserved, then they are open to improvement in the future, and MEPs we vote for can be involved in that process. If the structures collapse, it's much easier for opportunist power-grabbers to do what they want with everything from health and social care to energy and the environment. I want checks on such opportunism (and successive British governments have been ambiguous, at best, about those).

My vote will not be influenced by current economic arguments. It's ridiculous to suppose that economic circumstances should "naturally" serve someone well, just because they are a citizen of a particular country. Even if that were true, by what mechanisms, precisely, are poor Brits going to become much better off after Britain leaves European Union? The distribution of economic benefit depends on the will of those in power to steer things this way or that, and who among the Brexiters seems committed, specifically, to the wholesale redistribution of wealth among all citizens?

My vote will not be influenced by the pedlars of so-called sovereignty. National sovereignty (like economic growth) has never served everyone in Britain equally. What use a green and pleasant land in the Great-War mud; a new Jerusalem against lung-fulls of twentieth-century coal dust? British sovereignty today is a patronising trick, dressed up by all available means: from the culture of remembrance to Royal-Family tittle-tattle, and relentless nostalgia.

The qualities of Britishness that I value are those that make me sceptical of anyone whose desire for power seems stronger than their ideas. That would include most prominent Brexiters, and all those Remainers too guarded about their own political careers to say that Europe is a bigger idea than Britain.

We face critical, global circumstances: the systemic, diminishing availability of work; a planetary ecosystem under increasing strain; and the multiple crises of culture, democracy and basic resources that are prompting migration on a massive scale. All demand imagination, compassion and greater selflessness in our politics. Narrow-minded retreat would be shameful.

If we recognise that a secure future will require the emergence of some truly radical political thinking, we might ask what kind of culture will encourage it: one inspired by self-interest and nationalism, or a supra-national one? I think the latter.

I'll cast my vote in the direction the most promising, future-oriented cultural space I can discern, amid the campaign rhetoric and posturing.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

In a Dream, I am Really Famous

Ido not walk in teeming Africa. I don't pass through the bus stations of East Asia or South America. I don't shop in the marketplaces of China. I don't queue in the supermarkets of commuter-belt suburbia, in middle America, provincial Britain, or anywhere else. 

You will not find me in any of those places, even although I thrive on the attention of the people there. 

Mass migration and death upset me, so I try not to linger on them. I don't think much about the dereliction of the post-industrial age, the crumbling Arctic ice, the tar sands, or the rafts of plastic drifting in the Pacific. I fly, high, over all that. It's not that I don't care about it, but thinking about it serves no useful purpose, and it's important for me to stay positive. 

Social media enable me to keep in touch with so many different kinds of people and share my concern for the world to a degree that I'm comfortable with and can accomodate within my schedule. 

Here's a photo of me in metallic swimwear. 

I live in beautiful properties in different locations around the world, each maintained by the best housekeepers and landscape gardeners available. Everything is very tasteful. I don't tolerate naffness.

The daily views, Facebook likes, click-throughs and retweets of my followers, wherever they live: all sustain me. I make sure that I acknowledge the personal realities of my followers in the posts and comments made by my assistant, on my behalf. These gestures are my way of showing that I am no different to my viewers and listeners, likers and retweeters. That's why they relate to me so much. 

My relationship status is somewhere between "single" and "it's complicated". My followers love to share about that, and it's no accident that they have enough information to be able to do so. 

My thoughts are not "joined up", except in the sense that they come one after the other. I read that somewhere. 

Although I am really famous, hardly anyone knows of my private delights. Hardly anyone knows about the special services arranged for me when I'm in London, or the unique establishment in Singapore. Hardly anyone knows about the thing in the safe in my New York apartment (every visit, I go straight to it). 

Telling more about those things would serve no useful purpose. Not in the way that my comments on the thrills and disappointments of MY ART serve a purpose; or my thoughts about other famous people, or about the tragedy of poor, sick children...

 ...and just as the narrative threatens to become an amalgam of every cynical social commentary I ever heard or saw, the dream is over, and I wake up. Soon I'm slurping real orange juice from somewhere or other and getting online, posting a beautiful photograph of some soup I had yesterday. I hope you Liked it.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

The STEM-ification of Art (What Happened to Art Schools (2))

In 2013 Jose Ferreira, founder of Knewton, 'the world's leading adaptive learning company', posted a piece entitled 'Don't defund the humanities: they're crucial to the economy too'. The post draws on analysis of funding trends in U.S. education which, at that time, favoured STEM subjects (science technology, engineering, mathematics).[1]

Ferreira urges caution in relation to the STEM-ification of humanities subjects, arguing that the humanities should not be devalued just because they produce individuals with relatively hard to measure skills, such as 'communications skills, critical thinking skills, and multicultural proficiency'.

Ferreira at least attempts to explain what makes the humanities operationally valuable in society, but he also writes from a position in which certain power relations between corporations and citizens are taken as given. His post draws comment suggesting some enthusiasm for a status quo in which the majority of citizens are constrained by the self-serving machinations of powerful commercial and financial players; a status quo in which an ambitious student would necessarily expect their education to help them to a share in such power.

In his analysis, Ferreira cites a U.S. factoid: 'over 65% of [U.S.] elementary school students will end up in jobs that don't yet exist'. To extrapolate, conversely: student choices everywhere, at many levels, must be influenced by jobs markets that are bound to fluctuate between enrolment day and graduation day. Such fundamental uncertainty is problematic for any highly instrumental education policy.

Real-world uncertainty can also be convenient for advocates of humanities disciplines not focused on specfic vocational outcomes, but on endowing students with quailites deemed generally advantageous. It's often easier to show that humanities graduates can be broadly sucessful 'in many walks of life' than to show what their success has to do, specifically, with the discipline they studied at university: what is it about 'Shakespeare' that makes a 'good' civil servant? How does a Fine Art degree make a good lecturer?

Humanities graduates might succeed as much by learning to navigate the selectivist social fields around their disciplines as by the mastery of a specialist disciplinary knowledge ("knowledge" for the humanities being more varied in form and function than the scientific or technical knowledges associated with STEM subjects). Some advocates of the humanities are happy enough with this kind of settlement, especially, perhaps, if they achieved success themselves via a fuzzily-defined socio-disciplinary route.

But what if, today, societies are at a juncture where a greater number of STEM-trained people really are required to administer essential functions? Should we still defend the generalist humanities against encroaching STEM-ification?

I remain attached to the ideal of education for education's sake; or for the sake of increasing the number of educated people in society, whatever their socio-economic roles. Whatever the predictions for future social needs, changes in art education disturb me. This is partly for personal reasons, including a nostalgia for a time when art schools epitomised what today might be seen as a luxurious liberalism. I've commented on this personal/political overlap elsewhere in this blog.[2]

Notwithstanding the limitations of my own perspective, let's imagine that U.K. art education is altered in order to incentivise course applications in the present STEM-friendly culture, perhaps by universities marketing educational packages that appeal to current student choices (however these may be informed). In a decade or two, we could have a U.K. art education no longer loosely aligned with multiple purposes - as it has been for decades - but targetted at students seeking predefined roles in various artistically-inflected industries (music, film, television, games design, advertising) many of which, in their own ways, encourage the STEM-ification of art.

I note that this is a possible outcome; I speculate about whether or not it's to be desired.

In 2014, the U.K. government launched an initiative to encourage enrolment in STEM subjects in UK universities. Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan described the kinds of education required for Britain 'to succeed in the global economy' and for 'the British workforce of tomorrow [...] to have the skills and knowledge to compete [in the future]'. In her speech, Morgan presented the interests of the country as concurrent with those of the generation entering higher education in 2014 and beyond, arguing that STEM subjects would maximise their chances of finding rewarding roles in future society.[3][4][5]

Some of the comment following Morgan's speech exposed a tendency for advocates of the humanities to squeal in non-specific anguish at any hint of an instrumentalist education policy. However, the ability to counter such instrumentalism with a strong argument for the humanities seems almost as out of reach for some, today, as it was for literary critic F.R. Leavis in 1963.

Leavis was famously outraged by C.P. Snow's 1958 lecture The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, in which Snow states (amongst other things) that the lives of the poor might be more radically improved by science and engineering than by modernist literature.[6] Leavis was condemned and mocked by the ascendant liberal left for his over-personalised response to Snow: Two Cultures: the Significance of C.P. Snow.[7] Having studied that text in detail, I find Leavis's attacks on Snow, with their incidental account of an emerging 'publicity created culture' around the arts, more coherent than his advocacy of literature.

I believe there remains today a tendency for advocates of the humanities to band together according to fellow-feeling, rather than strong argument, and thus to perpetuate the impression that those who find a social role in relation to artistic practices are a tribe apart, bound on terms that they cannot readily explain to the outsider or the sceptic.[8]

Often it seems that the science/humanities debate takes place in terms that are either so narrow as to be of little interest in wider society, or so obvious as to not matter very much. In the case of Nicky Morgan's arguments, it is obvious that many selectively-trained, computer-literate people will be required in order to carry out many of the tasks that future societies will depend upon: around energy supply, medical services, various aspects of infrastructure, and so on.

There remains, however, the important political question of the context in which such highly specialised work will be done. For instance, will future engineers and scientists serve in a realm which is largely privatised, or state-regulated? Will they be able to apprehend the common good and exercise judgement in its interests, or will they have to serve the interests of corporate masters whose ethics are vaguely yet unquestioningly bound up with the supposed natural morality of markets?

While ever debates around contemporary art are pursued within narrowly defined social fields, art will have difficulty in credibly claiming that its virtues, values and gains are aligned with the common good. Here art begins from an especially weak position. The outcome of artistic debates is less important, in an immediate material sense, than is the playing out of specialist knowledges in, say, a genetics laboratory, a large hospital, or a nuclear power plant. And society at large might justifiably have little interest in the intellectual culture around art if it is primarily dedicated to authenticating and legitimating art practices that few pursue and even fewer can make a living from.

I drafted this post in 2013, in response to a flurry of debate about independent (and perhaps temporary) art schools not affiliated with universities.[9] Here, it was suggested that the massive hike in U.K. student tuition fees in 2010 had focused minds on what art education, especially, is for. Fees of £9K and above do seem particularly onerous in return for any kind of course that a student might want to take up for its own sake, rather than for a job in an established (supposedly creative) industry.

STEM-ification may serve as a survival strategy for fine art in U.K. universities, especially those at a greater geographical and social distance from the metropolitan art world. STEM-ification is also about fitting in with a state-supported system which government has recently sought to change, in order to 'create a level playing field that will enable private providers to compete on equal terms with public universities'. (One government-sanctioned alternative to public universities in the U.K. is the mega university run by private equity firms[10]). In this context, enrolling on a short, unaccredited course in a private or temporary art school, to engage for a short time with artists and academics who are unconstrained by institutional dictat, might seem like a good idea to a free-thinker.

Whatever the arguments for the STEM-ification of art, it seems possible that fine art in universities has become stranded between some long-established disciplinary territories. Personally, I fear that the unique interplay of the aesthetic and the intellectual in art is too easy to downplay in the name of skimming fine art for aesthetic strategies, tactics and skills for use in other disciplines.

Meanwhile, aesthetic tactics are routinely used in the affirmative culture around neoliberal capitalism. This returns us to art's weak political position in the wider world, for the art market is part of the neoliberal game in which capital flows are bound to be privileged over the sharing of artistic culture. The art market has for decades imposed an anti-progressive orthodoxy on artistic practice, artists being encouraged to repeat themselves (to downplay their intelligence) for however long a signature artistic gesture holds its market value. Public institutions, including academies, are drawn in, protocols of evaluation becoming skewed as repetitious artists are actively authenticated for the canon: a quasi-intellectual process which, under scrutiny, seems antithetical to the idea of progressive knowledge gain definitive of an academic discipline.

In terms of upholding ideals, no-one but the broker comes out of such arrangements looking good.

It has long been routine, then, for artistic work to be resituated in contexts very different to those experienced by the young artist engaging with their discipline at art school. STEM-ification threatens resituating effects within the art school, but is, nevertheless, one aspect only of a longstanding political problematic that can be encapsulated in the following questions: Who says what art is for? How are artistic work and its outcomes to be capitalised, and by whom? And: Which ideals should guide us in addressing such questions?

I acknowledge that the social fields around many artistic practices are problematically exclusive. But I also hope that art education can introduce people to practices that constitute a thinking space for individuals in society; a space that is not sustained merely via its favourable relations with the most powerful economic and institutional forces. I believe that living among citizens who are able to think critically about such forces is almost as important to my quality of life as living among skilled clinicians, data processors, or engineers.

[1] Jose Fereira, 'Don’t Defund Humanities: They’re Crucial to the Economy, Too'
[2] What Happened to Art Schools? An Accidental Manifesto. This blog:

[3] 'Nicky Morgan speaks at launch of Your Life campaign'
[4] 'Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tells teenagers: Want to keep your options open? Then do science'
[5] 'Last week's poll: STEM vs humanities, and what education's for', The Engineer, 11 November 2014
[6] C. P. Snow, Stefan Collini, The Two Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). (first publ. main text first given as the 1959 Rede Lecture, Cambridge 1959)
[7] F. R. Leavis, 'Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow: Being the Richmond Lecture, 1962 By F. R. Leavis', in Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.), pp. 27-50.
[8] Paul Smith - Move over, Stem: why the world needs humanities graduates
[9] David Batty, 'Alternative art schools: a threat to universities?'
[10] Stefan Collini, 'Sold Out'. Review of: Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education, by Roger Brown, with Helen Carasso and The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, by Andrew McGettigan. London Review of Books 35.20 (2013): 3-12. 24 Oct. 2013

Saturday 9 May 2015

The Domain That Dare Not Speak Its Name (Progressive Coalition)

On 8 May 2015, the day after the 2015 UK general election, I registered a domain name:                     

I searched for it first, as one must, and I was shocked to find that it was not already registered. Despite the fact that "progressive coalition" seems to be an obvious idea around which to oppose the political right in Britain, and despite the fact that several parties in the UK had recently been trying to do just that, no-one had wanted the name.

I wasn't too badly shocked, of course: for the previous three weeks, at least, I had witnessed the playing out of a political narrative whose outcome was made more certain by the lack of cooperation among the parties of opposition, none of whom could hope for total power.

Opposition to the right is fragmented, in the sense that it can no longer be focused through twentieth-century leftist aspirations, especially if carrying them into action relies on class tribalism that is no longer widespread or binding in society. Although that seems obvious, some on the left still speak as if it were not. 

The British left has identified nothing as coherent as Marxism on which to found its twenty-first-century political project, although the list of issues requiring action is dauntingly impressive: the iniquitous effects of neoliberalism; global warming; the short-termism of almost all energy policy; global social instability exacerbated by zealotry, militarism and the arms trade; big pharma calling the shots in health care; self-interested commerce calling the shots almost everywhere; etc.

In Britain in 2015 the left has missed an opportunity to do anything about any of that by failing to engage imaginatively with the possibilities of progressive coalition.

It's been hard to reconcile a Labour Party willing to take brickbats when defending the intellectual integrity of its maligned leader, with one willing to talk only about the most orthodox political strategies during its election campaign. Although this was no doubt deemed the safe option, sticking to narrow party messages in 2015 played like a reactive retreat from the very intelligence supposed to be the leader's hallmark; supposedly his saving grace in the ridiculous popularity stakes.

Similarly, when the same leader refused to discuss coalition with democratically-mandated Scottish Nationalist (and other) MPs it looked as if he was in denial about the state of opposition to the right in Britain. It looked as if he was in the grip of a very old-fashioned desire for the kind of absolute power that many voters believed to be out of his reach, and beyond his competence.

In formulating the campaign tactics that produced these effects, someone probably thought they knew best. For them, I have some questions:

What if, from around 2011, the Labour Party had campaigned vigorously for a pooling of national resources dedicated to the creation of a new politics: a politics for a consumerist society bedevilled by short-termism, facing uncertainty on many fronts (social, environmental, economic, strategic, etc)? What if it had done this not primarily as a means of reinventing itself but as the co-ordinating agent of a progressive coalition? Would the outcome have been worse, for those who oppose the right, than the outcome of the 2015 election?

It's hard to say. But it's relatively easy to see that clinging mindlessly to the ideal of absolute power weakens the hand of any political agent who lacks the means to acquire it. More to the point, absolute power is a shibboleth in today's perversely connected world. Those with financial heft have moved on, reshaping their hold on power via trickle-up economies, where an interconnectedness amounting to the surveillance of every socially-visible citizen constrains each to his or her primary role as a revenue stream for the aggregators of wealth.

Thus are the 'casual right' changing society, without straining to acquire absolute power, without elaborating an ideology.

In this new world, a "Labour Party" may no longer be the point. I don't mean that the people in the UK Labour Party have no purpose, but that agonising about how to remain true to an identity formulated solely for twentieth-century realities might be a waste of energy.

So, as the UK Labour Party embarks on its second phase of self-analysis in a decade, I hope it does so with a more radical eye to the future than the last time around (2010). I hope it actively entertains the idea of playing a lead role in a progressive coalition. There are many potential partners, with interest and expertise in different areas of concern. They want only for a place in such a coalition to make their contribution to a progressive politics for a post-neoliberal Britain.

Ask not how all progressive politics can be "Labour", but how Labour can be of most use to progressive politics.

I'm open to suggestions about what to do with the domain name. Coincidentally (given the UK's Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011) I registered it for five years.

Friday 27 March 2015

Dyspeptic in Dystopia: concerning the Blade Runner sequel

Afriend quipped online that he was excited to hear that the Blade Runner sequel would involve both the director of the original and one of its stars. I said I wasn't. He asked me why. My reply became too long for the comments box...

Legend has it that Blade Runner (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) is a work of individual obsession.[1] Director Scott insisted on shooting both in real places and on complicated sets, production was riven with disagreements, executives imposed changes that Scott resisted and later redressed in the Director's Cut (1992), and again the Final Cut (2007). Etcetera. Scott's insistence on doing things a certain way is what guaranteed Blade Runner its special aesthetic, which in turn is the reason many today call it classic.

One complaint about Blade Runner is that the movie is thin in terms of story and conceptual content. This is entirely consistent with the director striving to make the most of what he was good at: aesthetics; especially aesthetics with real-world groundings in the post-industrial city.

Scott's career began (and continues) with moving-image advertising. In advertising, the director can be almost completely concerned with aesthetics, since the object of any narrative (the product) is provided by the client, and additional content consists of cultural signs chosen primarily to enhance the impact of the product. Grand claims are made for Blade Runner as a radical reworking of the noir and science-fiction genres, but perhaps its historical significance is as an exemplar of a kind of film making in which bravura aesthetics stand in for the totality of a movie.

But I do like it. Mostly.

Today, Scott is the executive; the producer overseeing the sequel to his masterpiece. Fans are excited, but the rainy smog of a dystopian metropolis must conceal pitfalls.

Will the sequel be tailored to the demographic who are loyal to the original Blade Runner, or the demographic for sci-fi today (16-30 years old; mainly male?)? "Sci-fi" today tends to mean "sci-fi-action", for a generation reared in the matrix, tube-fed computer games and celebrity culture.[2] The Blade Runner sequel must therefore negotiate the twin threats of celebrity "buzz", and mind-numbing CGI.[3] To dodge either hazard, the new director will have to have reasons as powerful as Scott's were to go against the grain, and a contrariness and bloody-mindedness to match.

Perhaps the new director will take the sequel in the direction of complex, multi-dimensional characters, and stripped-down sets. Or explore the existential themes in a more Beckett-ian fashion. It would be interesting to know where Scott himself, as executive producer, figures in those judgements.

For me, Blade Runner is spoiled by misogynistic violence, although it's hardly unique in this, and any critique along these lines is usually drowned out by critics who are also fans. As far as the sequel goes, taking licence from an uncritical view of the sexualised female could mean that the misogynistic aspects become more pronounced, especially in our era of porn-norms.

The issue here is not (for me) more explicit sex or kinkiness, but the perverse strictures of American moviedom. These dictate that unless you want to be seen to be making an erotic film (and have your audience age-restricted accordingly) sex has to be combined with violence. For the widest possible demographic to be allowed to watch it, sex must be punished, especially if it's enjoyed by women.

(It doesn't matter if the females are replicants "in the story". Actual women are performing, and that's what the audience is watching.)

It's been announced that in the sequel Harrison Ford will reprise his role from the original Blade Runner. I speculate that in 1982 Ford may still have been swallowing down hard on the excess of cheese ingested for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars (Dir. George Lucas, 1977). Luckily, the dyspeptic "witheld" quality of his Blade Runner performance could also be interpreted as being "Eastwood-esque". Should he today become obsessed with a beautiful replicant (or whatever) it will be like John Nettles playing a man with a crush on a sex doll. This is neither dramatically nor erotically appealing. 

To me. 

...but that's just, like, er, my opinion, man (is more or less what I actually said).

[1] Ordinary legend has it, not "that" Legend (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1985)
[2] I'm joking, youngsters. I know the matrix is really a front for the Occupy movement.
[3] Why and how is CGI 'mind-numbing'? Another time; I want to keep this post snappy.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Seeking Life in the Mediated World: an accidental TV and newspaper review.

O ne weekend, I watch Freeview TV and read a broadsheet...

Is TV today actually targetted at connoisseurs of formats, ads and idents? More radically, is it an exercise in contentless form; a way to keep tele-forms alive, in their shimmering, ersatz state, until the arrival of the saviour entities who will reinvest them with purpose?

Even in Britain, where TV "isn't as bad as in America", the conceptual integrity of any TV programme is more and more limited to fitting in with a given format. Viewers are faced with a palette of variations in which producers push and pull, mildly, at the limits of whatever format they've banked on to get some sort of project past gatekeeper executives. I presume.

To the average programme maker, I am a demographically awkward, unrewarding viewer: a fifty-something, financially non-viable middle-class male, living in The North. I'm not interested in buying, selling or altering my home; building a dream-home; elaborate meals; or anything that requires middle-class amounts of money. But because I have a smattering of middle-class education I'm not interested in the top-feeder approach to ideas, either. I'm a snob, with no spending power, and, to make matters worse, an artist.

To me, TV reflects a popular culture that has become even more exclusionary than it already was, even more fiercely limited to orthodoxies, especially around corporatised entertainment, and a self-serving media/celebrity culture: the stock in trade of all the formats in which TV and entertainment people talk among themselves. Released from the sofas, the same actors and personalities fan out in squads across TV-land, emoting for talent shows; scowling, weeping and wailing for overwrought soaps and crime tales, huffing and puffing through nostalgic costume dramas: many of these being formats with interchangeable narratives and roles.

I might be interested in not seeing the invisible reality programme 'I'm a Celebrity: Please Ignore Me from Now On' (copyright © me, 2015). For this, a very large number of celebrities are taken to a rudimentary camp in, say, the Gobi Desert, under false pretences. They're left there without any camera crews, satellite or Internet connections, never to be seen or heard from again (especially if they make it back home: this to be a clause in the contract that the celebs cannot be allowed to see, in order to ensure their participation). 

The Freeview experience is maddening. On the one hand, programme makers seem terrified that the viewer might not be able to follow a train of thought for more than two minutes. On the other, the viewer's interest is constantly frustrated by repetitious advertising and padding. Inside, I'm screaming: I can remember what happened in this oversimplified narrative, and what the consequences were, because, you know, the programme itself explained those very things not ten minutes ago.

The experience is made worse by the tendency of non-commercial programming to imitate the breathless flow of commercial channels. The noisiness of commercial broadcasting makes sense as a sensory fog intended to induce a dream-like state in which viewers might spend more money. In the non-commercial realm the viewer is constantly nudged and prodded for no other reason than the channel declaring its own presence, its qualities, etc., ever more explicitly, even though the viewer, by definition, has already elected to watch the channel.

Of course, it's possible to find thoughtful programmes about politics and economics, arts and sciences (albeit with a strong metropolitan bias), and even one or two films that don't involve Steven Seagal. That is, as long as the BBC manages to maintain its autonomy as a nest of lefty-liberals, or right-wing reactionaries, depending on your analysis of the BBC. [1] And as long as Channel 4 isn't totally consumed by brain-eating controversialitis.

As guest editor-curator of  BBC's Artsnight, Maxine Peake affects to arrive in Salford in a White Van, all bleached-out like a white knight, or the saviour who will reinvest the arts magazine format with new purpose. I enjoy the sections on women in television and on Shelagh Delaney. And I think I know what Peake means when, in another item, she says that the post-punk post-hip-hop duo Sleaford Mods have come to 'save us' (from conventionalised pop music). But I don't like the Mods that much, musically, and I don't know what Peake means by 'the working class'. [2]

The White Van is no doubt returned to Media City, Salford; and Peake to London.

I do appreciate Adam Curtis's film Bitter Lake (BBC iPlayer only). It's about Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism, and the playing out of Saudi and British interests throughout the Middle East, as far as Afghanistan. The film is much too complex to synopsise here, which is a reflection of the fact that it does not oversimplify its subject matter. There is some ambiguity about the "voice" behind the film, and the purpose of certain sequences in it, but I prefer coping with that to fighting the sense that I'm wasting my time, and being patronised for it. [3]

I also like The Great European Disaster Movie, by Annalisa Piras (apart from the acted bits featuring Angus Deayton as a future "archaeologist" of old Europe, on board a repeatedly re-routed airliner). I find a German woman talking about her forbears particularly moving. Whenever I see German people engaging critically with their past I despair of the idiocies of self-satisfied Britishness. The film features few exemplars of that quality, too. [4]

I find a programme about owls. I like to think that this and my enjoyment of it are exemplary of an altogether different kind of Britishness. [5]

After a struggle with TV, I need to reconnect with my roots in free-thinking, radical contemporary art.

It's International Women's Day, and the editors of the Observer newspaper have put contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist on the cover of their arts section, under the heading 'Is this Britain's Most Original Thinker?' [6]

Predictably, the bait question on the cover is not addressed in the article. Coincidentally, though, Obrist is shown in a position analogous to that of Deayton's character in the Piras film. We're told in detail of his long-standing obsession with travelling the world, engaging with artists (a back-story that will be familiar to anyone who knows a little bit about Obrist, or looks him up online). As far as the curator's thinking goes, it seems to be that of the classic aggregator; here gleaning ideas piecemeal from the artists he meets, formalising them, post hoc, into something which acquires quasi-philosophical, academic or historical merit.

Neither Obrist nor his interlocutor, Rachel Cooke, choose to discuss how much this perceived merit has to do with the dedication, energy and original thought of the curator, and how much to do with his acquired power in a relatively exclusive art world. Nor do they connect non-artworld issues with what art could or should be doing today. In terms of addressing the vitality of contemporary art, these are significant omissions, made more noticeable when Obrist's global reach is invoked as if it were a professional qualification. Lacking much interrogative drive, the article reinforces the familiar impression that important art and its curators are defined primarily by their ineffable metropolitan-ness: a quality of being, rather than a quality of thought.

...overall, the weekend is educative, informative, slightly entertaining, and a little depressing.

T'wit, t'woo.

[1] "One of the most bizarre myths about the corporation, recycled ceaselessly in the conservative press, is that the BBC has a left wing bias [but] the opposite is the case. From the coverage of wars to economics, it has a pro-government, elite and corporate anchor. The BBC is full of Conservatives and former New Labour apparatchiks with almost identical views about politics, business and the world. Executives have stuffed their pockets with public money. And far from programme outsourcing increasing independent creativity, it has simply turned some former employees into wealthy “entrepreneurs”, while enforcing a safety-first editorial regime."
Seamus Milne: 'Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987 by Jean Seaton review'

[2] Artsnight., BBC Two:

[3] Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake (2015)

[4] The Great European Disaster Movie (2015, Dir. Annalisa Piras)

[5]  Natural Word: Super Powered Owls.

[6] Rachel Cooke, 'Hans Ulrich Obrist: "Everything I do is somehow connected to velocity"'

Thursday 12 February 2015

Time-Vampirism at the Free University of Kafkashire: a Cry for Help

I f you read this, please send help to the Free University of Kafkashire. Help save FUK from a devils' compact: between Higher Education executives with a mania for top-down control, and I.T. wonks offering ways to exercise it.

The University is becoming sclerotic with process, its once noble purpose overwhelmed by the myriad ways of accounting for every institutional activity in minute detail, without addressing the deeper quality of its human outcomes. The Information Technology revolution has accelerated this life-threatening condition. The creation of imperfect systems to manage almost all University business now outstrips critical discussion and possible rejection of those systems.

This communiqué aims to show the kind of thing that is happening via the example of timetabling at FUK.

The timetabling software used at the Free University of Kafkashire is provided by EduFarm. Here is an extract from their self-appraising online statement: [1]

University timetabling software and resource allocation solutions from EduFarm enable universities to optimize service provision, reduce operating costs, and improve staff and student motivation [...]
With close to 500 users in 25 countries and across 5 continents, EduFarm is a world leader in the provision of software solutions for complex resource scheduling problems. The innovative and dependable scheduling solutions assist in securing vast improvements to student and staff retention, resource optimization, and timetabling challenges.

All staff and students at the Free University of Kafkashire are expected to check their FUK/EduFarm timetables every week. The system allows – and the rule insists – that personal timetables be retrieved regularly, at the cost of unrevealed user-hours. [2]

Rage impotently at why it is necessary for thousands to check their timetables every week.

Once, course activities were more or less known at the beginning of a semester and could be written down in a diary, and subsequent changes would be agreed among colleagues with open diaries. Today, all must regularly consult the innovative and dependable scheduling solution, adopted wholesale by the University in place of direct human interaction. They must do so, especially, because the scheduling solution cannot alert its users – by email or any other means – of any changes that might affect them.

Everyone must bend to the process, and to the imperfections of the process.

Notwithstanding the existence of any rule, many will not check their online timetables every week as long as the following conditions pertain.

In a standard diary or calendar, hours, days and weeks are laid out sequentially in a grid. This form is so familiar now that little or no effort is required to understand its principles of organisation. It is widely understood that scanning such a grid is analogous to scanning a period of time, and when clearly laid out it leads the eye and the mind directly to its contents, rendered in abbreviated everyday language.

With a FUK/EduFarm timetable, time itself is rendered in a such mind-bendingly unintuitive way that the whole point of consulting such a document is confounded.

The FUK/EduFarm system offers a choice between two layouts: 'list' and 'grid'. 'List' shows information in fields: Activity, Module, Type (of activity) Start, End and Duration (of teaching sessions),  Room (in which an activity takes place), and Week (in which an activity occurs). This sounds comprehensive.

Unfortunately, the date on which any scheduled activity is to take place is not shown. Dates are only alluded to in terms of the 'weeks' in which they fall. These are Academic Calendar Weeks, which are numbered independently from real-world ones (although this is not the fault of FUK or EduFarm). The activities shown in 'list' format are not always in chronological order.

This is not really a timetable, because time is not the clear organising principle.

In 'grid' format, much of the information you would expect from a timetable is written in various codes, in tiny print inside plain graphical boxes. The boxes represent blocks of time allocated to teaching sessions in particular rooms. These sessions seem to be correlated with the hours of a (non-specific) day, in a (non-specific) week... until you factor in the tiny-print Academic Calendar Weeks inside each graphical box.

A single box might refer to a single session, or to any number of sessions in the same room: you have to read the tiny-print numbers to work that out. Again, these are the numbers of Academic Weeks, not real-world dates that a person could transcribe at a stroke into a normal diary. However, they are the key representation of how the activities shown in the grid are distributed over a period of time.

The visual order of things in the FUK/EduFarm 'grid' is not governed by the order in which they are scheduled to occur in the semester. If a user requests information for a particular course over, say, an eight week period, the grid will likely show all the information requested within one graphically aggregated "week". This is obviously not like the real world, where weeks occur one after the other, not simultaneously or on top of each other.

This is not a timetable either, again because time is not the clear organising principle. It is an aggregation of information packed within a graphical object connected to the idea of a working week.

It is always possible to work out the date on which any FUK activity is scheduled to take place. The (separate) FUK Academic Calendar shows Academic Weeks correlated with real-world "week-beginning" dates. So, if an activity occurs on Thursday in Week 32, one only has locate Week 32 on the Academic Calendar and count four days from its real-world week-beginning date in order to work out the date on which it should take place.

Such calculations, involving two or three documents, each carrying slightly different information codified in a slightly different way, would be unnecessary were the University to use a standard calendar form, and real-world dates for its affairs.

Today, an already complicated, but manageable, reality has been re-imagined by EduFarm. Returning to their corporate statement: the system described here may or may not reduce operating costs, as its creators claim; but it is difficult to see how it could improve staff and student motivation, unless it is the motivation to express despair. It's a shame that the innovative and dependendable scheduling solution cannot inform its users of changes that might affect them; although it's obviously true that a person forced to carry out several tedious calculations in order to discern every instance of course activity relevant to them is, in a sense, being very definitely 'retained'.

Also, in a manner of speaking, 'scheduling solution' is a well-chosen term for EduFarm's concatenations of form and information that are really not timetables. But 'TimeVampire' would also be a good term. I dream that I hack the EduFarm email servers, where I discover a jokey in-house version of what will become their earnest mission statement:

With an EduFarm TimeVampire, retrieving a daily schedule exercises your mind in new and innovative ways. Every bit of information you might want has been delightfully transformed. The essentials of your world are reborn as Byzantine arcana, with many fascinatingly complex numerological and graphical diversions to keep your mind bright and alive in the workplace. (CEO comment: are these products inspired by the games enjoyed by our programmers, which they wish they were designing, rather than deadly-dull time management sytems for cost-conscious Higher Education farms? Only joking. Strike this part in brackets before publication).

At the Free University of Kafkashire the frustrations of self-organisation can only be increased by the calendars found in the personal sections of the separate online 'FUK-space' sub-system. These remain empty unless individuals manually enter content. But timetable content (for instance) is not then automatically updated when changes affecting it are instigated. The calendars are therefore useless as a way of checking for new things that might affect a personal schedule.

In a similar vein, lecturers may obtain personal Work Plans from their line managers. But these are not 'plans' in any normal sense of the term. They are lists of separate teaching commitments that do not show when or where any of the activities are scheduled to take place. To work this out the alphanumerical codes for every course or module listed on a Work Plan would have to be reconciled with alphanumerical codes on a so-called timetable; which, as I've shown, is itself a kind of Rosetta Stone which has to be translated in multiple dimensions in order to make sense as a timetable.

To summarise, the following invidious systemic factors impinge on all staff and students at the Free University of Kafkashire, at the basic level of organising their time:

- Timetables are designed according to principles which differ from any standard diary or calendar used in the wider world;
- Any person's timetable can change, without their prior knowledge and without their being informed. It is deemed the responsibility of every individual to check every week just in case something has changed on their timetable;
- Timetable checking requires the user to enter the conceptual universe of a timetable designer, read information encoded in a variety of ways, and translate it into a form usable in the real world;
- Individuals are provided with online tools for organising their time, yet these are not integrated with the sources of information most vital to that process of organisation;
- There is a strong suggestion that if anyone fails to grasp the intricacies of any part of these proprietary systems, they are to blame, not the designers of the systems, or their advocates.

The fact that these processes take so long to describe is an indication of just how complicated they have become. Perhaps this is a consequence of different managers needing to represent their own interests, in their own terms, within the University as a whole; tribes and fiefdoms demonstrating their heft within the corporate body, and hence within the scheduling solution.

I speculate that the Free University of Kafkashire is also the victim of an emergent species of computer programmer. I envisage a certain kind of young man, diffused globally, self-dramatised by his sense that multitudes are being made to conform to his own perverse rationalism, regardless of any specific tasks being carried out, or the particular abilities that might make a "scheduled person" valuable (say, to a University).

Whatever the explanation, the result is like a managerial equivalent of the worst post-modern theory: guaranteed to make all who encounter it feel either stupid and inadequate for failing to understand its intricacies, or enraged at having their time wasted on inane and flawed reinventions of the bloody obvious.

Finally, to extrapolate, to imagine:

Entire I.T. sub-systems exist within the Free University of Kafkashire for many purposes besides timetabling (equipment booking; payroll, pension and tax information; library business; etc.). Many FUK employees have to deal daily with several of these sub-systems, each in its own idiosyncratic terms, before they engage with any student or teach anything.

Everyone bending to all those processes, and all those imperfections.

It raises questions about institutional priorities.

The turn to micro-management-by-I.T. suggests that the executive mistrusts its staff. Coincidentally, the instigation of onerous rules for everyone, which are bound to be broken by many, opens a way for the executive to evade censure when the systems it introduces in the name of controlling everything prove inoperable or inefficient.

Can't we call this what it is: control mania and managerial I.T. bloat, inimicable to academic discourse; inimicable, in fact, to a civilised life?

The portals of Hell are agape. Please send help to the Free University of Kafkashire.

[1] This P.R. statement is real (in 2014), but the name of the company has been changed to something  that more transparently represents its theatre of operations.

[2] Quite possibly, EduFarm's sheduling solution logs all the minutes and hours of online engagement, regardless of their usefulness. No doubt this proves that staff and students are "present" – in the same way that EduFarm's two thousand Twitter followers "show" that their products are valued in the wider world.