Rebecca Day

Thoughts on things that make me think: Postgraduate music student at Royal Holloway University of London

#Corbynmania #LabourPurge: What exactly are Generation Y supposed to make of British politics now?

Yesterday was a strange day. Having woken up, like many others, to find that the New-Labour-Ninjas had struck in the dead of night and left me with an email claiming that my ‘values’ do not match those of the Labour Party and that I had thus been ‘rejected’, I took to social media to air my frustrations. Facebook friends expressed as much outrage as I felt, and Twitter, well, Twitter did what it does best and created a storm.

First this:

labour tweet 1

And then, this, which has since sparked a reasonable amount of support from The Independent, here and here.

labour tweet 2

Reactions to this second tweet surprised me most, even though I should really have expected a lot of the responses. Most people, just as shocked as I, continued to draw Orwellian, and in some cases Neo-Nazi associations. Some, more worryingly, claimed to have used this ‘service’, could not see the problem, and felt that the whole issue was quite plainly black and white– if you were not a ‘true’ member of the Labour Party you should not get a say in the Leadership election– this isn’t a general election, after all. The problem, of course, (Orwellianism aside) is that a lot of the people that have been ‘purged’ seem overwhelmingly to be supporters of Corbyn, and are mostly confused as to what they could have done wrong. There’s a lot of journalism from the past two days detailing case studies of those purged, and offering potential explanations and critiques (you only need to search #LabourPurge on twitter to get the best of it, or alternatively, simply google ‘Corbyn’) and so I don’t really need to go into that here.

What I am most concerned about, though, is the generational gap that seems largely to have been missed in all of this; there appears to be huge disparity between the New-Labour ‘faceless suits’ desperately trying to hang onto what they think their party best represents, and those ‘Corbynites’ who it has been suggested, are overwhelmingly of the Generation Y; 1/3 of Labour supporters who have recently joined are reportedly under 30. How many of those were purged, I wonder?

This gap– arguably also an ideological debate of values that seems to have interesting correlation with generation– is largely underlined by an article published in the Guardian today, that suggests that Labour should have seen this coming, and puts forward the argument that those only supporting Corbyn, and not the Labour party more generally, should rightly be prevented from voting.

“The old-timers feel that allegiances should be more tribal, and possibly involve suffering under a leader or two who you hate because you feel a greater commitment to the cause. The idea of the party, in this argument, is bigger than any single leader.”

This, really, is the heart of the shambles that has plagued this leadership campaign from the start. There’s a distinct division between those desperately holding on to the aims and values of New Labour, and those led by Corbyn who hope to take the party in a new direction. What makes this gap generational? Social media.

Where in this Twenty-First Century cyber-culture do people have a tribal loyalty in anything? We’re all encouraged to flippantly click, swipe, like, favourite, and share, but not to engage with anything for more than 30 seconds at a time. The fact that thousands of people have signed up to do anything that requires their attention for the span of an entire campaign is, quite frankly, remarkable, and Labour should welcome this support and renewed interest in their party rather than sinisterly assume sabotage. After this #LabourPurge what are Generation Y supposed to hold onto in British politics? After all, we’ve not exactly experienced much to inspire confidence in the current system.

I grew up in the centre of the New Labour governance, where my first memories of politics all come attached with an image of Tony Blair’s face. I was largely confused about politics as a kid, but I still carried with me a general sense that things weren’t right despite not being able to quite work out why. I knew that the Tories were unsupportive of people like me (coming from a ‘free school meals low-income family’ as I was increasingly taught to define myself) but I could also sense we weren’t getting much help from Labour either. The concept of New Labour was at this point alien to me, and I was unaware that the Labour Party’s origins were initially more socialist. I obviously didn’t know what socialism was, either. I distinctly remember, however, standing in the centre of the playground at the age of 11 on the day that the Iraq war was announced, wondering what was going to become of our country, having heard the news on the radio on the way to school. I was angry with Blair because I knew that these so called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were a false excuse and I was frustrated because no one seemed to be doing anything about it. (I also frequently wondered that if an 11 year old could work this out, what the politicians of our country were actually doing..?!)

So I’m sorry if Labour haven’t inspired much confidence in me, and that as a result I haven’t voted for them in the past.

As soon as I was old enough and capable of following and voting in an election campaign (2010 was my first), I knew that I’d had enough of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and that the Tories were still not an option, and so was looking for anyone that promised a change. Enter Nick Clegg. He arguably provoked a similar reaction in his Liberal Democrat election campaign to that of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, albeit on a much smaller scale. (Let us not forget that social media has advanced and taken greater hold in the 5 years since this campaign, which might explain the foundations for #Corbynmania, allowing him to gain the ‘cult’ following that the Blairites seem to be so afraid of).
In the run up to the 2010 election, The Liberal Democrats support increased significantly, most likely as a result of his comparatively approachable personality (something lacking in past leaders) and views on tuitions fees–I know that’s why I voted for him. And then what happened? A Coalition government, and Clegg’s cowardly acceptance to triple tuition fees despite the promise to abolish them at the centre of his entire campaign. I don’t want to speak for an entire generation when I say that I was pissed off, and fed up with more of the same in politics, but I suspect that’s how most felt (take the student protests in November 2010 as an example). Many of us lost complete faith in the system, which at this point was largely directed at the Liberal Democrats, and so come the 2015 General Election, we were a lot more careful (if not infinitely depressed at the likelihood of change under the current voting system). Gradually, though, young people are becoming more and more involved in politics again (whether under trivial hashtags or otherwise).

And now what? Many that have gained a similar sense of hope in Corbyn have had their support for the Labour party rejected, and their votes denied. This doesn’t quite strike me as the best way to foster the next generation of voters, to nurture renewed interest in a Labour Party that suffered defeat and waning membership following the recent General Election. How are Generation Y voters supposed to have faith in the democratic process knowing that at any point, a vote that they were invited to sign up for may not be counted on the grounds that their views didn’t quite match those of the dying embers of the party? The difference between this and the disappointment engendered by Clegg, again, is the social media reaction, where people’s voices are heard far more widely. If a single tweet can foster a series of newspaper articles, imagine how much impact thousands can have on an election campaign.

If they’re not careful, not only will confidence and trust in the Labour Party be irreparably damaged, but the future of British Politics might be, too.

Media is the opiate of the masses: Just another bitter Left-winger’s critique of the 2015 General Election

Glotzkiste (German colloquial noun)- Television.
Derived from the verb glotzen- to stare or gawp, and the noun Kiste- box. Gawp-box. Goggle-box.

I discovered this wonderful word a few days ago in a discussion about colloquial language usage in the Ruhrgebiet, a region of West Germany. Other amusing alternatives: ‘Flimmerkiste’ from the verb flimmern- to shimmer; or simply ‘Glotze’- ‘gawp’. Each of these are apparently in regular use in every-day conversation. ‘What’s on the gawp, mum?’ ‘Dad, have you seen the shimmer-box remote?’.

‘Where are you going with this?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why did this amuse you so much?’ Well. I’m now going to draw a dangerously tentative link between the political affiliations of the Ruhrgebiet and the semiotic implications of their chosen words for ‘television’ using my very limited knowledge of German culture and politics, before telling you everything I hated about the 2015 General Election. I’ll throw some Marx in there too. I don’t see why I shouldn’t. Britain made some very questionable decisions yesterday about the country’s problems of the last five years and the best ways to resolve them, so, hey, why not throw all logic and sanity out of the window too.

Ruhrgebiet is situated in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and is happily left-wing*. It is governed by the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or the Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the Greens. The party aims to spread socialist principles, and represents the interests of the working class and the trade unions. It was one of the first Marxist-influenced parties in the world. I’ll spare you the tantalising pain of further description.
Glotzkiste: Goggle-box; Flimmerkiste: shimmer-box. Whichever way you look at it, goggle, gawp, or shimmer, each of these imply awareness of the falsity of the blanket ideology that surrounds the pacifying role of television for the working classes. The Shimmer-box: all images are shining, glittery, false reflections to hide the true horror that exists away from the screen. The Gawp: ‘I know this box wants me to stare blankly at it and so I openly refer to it as ‘gawp’ in order to illustrate my awareness that there’s nothing behind it.’

What do we do in the UK? We watch a damn show *called* ‘Gogglebox’ so that we can gawp at other people gawping at the nothingness behind the screen, for goodness sake! And then we tweet about it, make memes about it, gawp, giggle, and avoid reality across multi-media platforms. We have no colloquially sarcastic words to describe our televisions beyond ‘telly’, ‘tv’ and, if you look hard enough, ‘idiot box’. What’s the difference between the Ruhrgebiet and the UK? We have a right-wing government. This is reasoning at its best, people.

Now some Marx.

[Televisual] distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. [Television] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of [media] as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’

I’ve helpfully replaced all reference to religion here with the most appropriate twenty-first century alternative of media and television. Media is the opium of the people. It’s everywhere. You couldn’t possibly form an opinion without its influence in some sense. The newspapers on trains. Advertising. Brands. Capital. And it is everything that is currently wrong with British politics.** This year’s election campaign was an absolute disaster. From the ‘political journalism’ that considered it erudite to discuss the history of Nigel Farage’s coat, to a terrible boy-band parody party broadcast video from the Greens, to incessant discussion of that dreaded Hopkins’ brand, to the ‘Ed Millibae’ fandom, to the multiple and equally ridiculous celebrity endorsements of various parties, to those bloody tv-game-show-style debates (Clegg, Farage: ‘You are the weakest link goodbye’), politics has become about image, pleasing viewers, and click-bait. And then there’s Russell Brand. Oh, and don’t get me started on opinion polls.
Watching Charlie Brooker’s Election Wipe’, (yet another thing intended to pacify, but this one wasn’t as bad because it was partially clever and funny, and had sarcastic undertones. I like sarcastic undertones) I was horrified by scenes of the ignorance of the ‘general public’. When people on the streets of Cardiff were shown images of Leanne Wood and asked if they could identify her, the overwhelming response was [insert Welsh accent here] ‘Oh I dunno, is that an actress?’ Those asked whose manifesto they preferred mostly responded with: ‘to be honest, I haven’t got a clue what a manifesto is’. ‘And who are you going to vote for?’ ‘Oh I don’t vote really’. *FACEPALM FACEPALM FACEPALM

‘Oh but who’s this?’ ‘Oh that’s the northern one on Gogglebox. I like her, she’s hilarious’.

Cynical comments on twitter yesterday evening registering shock that their circle of ‘tweeps’ didn’t represent the vast majority of the electorate drew a snigger from me, but are sadly true. Scores of Facebook friends and twitter followers are currently expressing outrage that they were lead to believe that so many people seemed to want to vote the Tories out, yet the map is looking overwhelmingly blue. I blame the media.
I really, really want to believe that there aren’t 11,292,180 people who think that Cameron has done a really great job over the last five years and we just need to give him space to finish that off, but sadly, that’s the result. I imagine, mostly, that various newspapers have been successful at scaremongering, and that advertising, branding, and all media that surrounds Capital has succeeded in the dissemination of its message that if we don’t have a conservative government we’ll each lose all of our precious stuff, and the ability to keep buying more of it. Because after all, media is the opiate of the masses, and it seems people are scared of change, or more likely, they don’t even really know what that is because their Glotzkiste hasn’t shown that episode yet.

I now plan to start up some sort of television series to somehow disseminate Marx’s message without people realising that’s what I’m doing. Because of course we all know that it’s all about impact, and what else is television for? So, watch this space. Come the 2020 election, British television will have made a significant contribution towards the rise of the left-wing, without anyone even registering the change. The shimmer-box will work its gawpy magic and all will be a shiny utopia.

I’ll leave you with this message from Marx, because I like tv shows about vampires.

Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

*Disclaimer: This is a hugely bitter and biased assumption. I don’t actually know what the German people of Ruhrgebiet think of their governance. I’ve not asked them. But I wish ours was like that.

**Apart from, of course, the fact that Tory policies are evil and backwards, and that we desperately need electoral reform.

Tales of Postgraduate Torture: the summer that never was

As the days get longer, brighter, warmer, the birds sing earlier, the nights get stickier, the lawnmowers come out of hibernation, and ice cream is stocked by the gallon…the library hours just get shorter. Hoards of undergraduates celebrate their end of days, drinking from sunrise to sunset, from sunset to sunrise, no concept of time, reality, surroundings…and the library hours, well, they just get shorter. Here are my tales of postgraduate torture, of the summer spent working in every sense of the word, on research and on paying bills, whilst outside the weather is telling me I should be having ‘fun’, or something.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for all those celebrating the end of three years of hard(?) work; I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of well-earned merrymaking when I remember exactly how it felt but one year ago. Heartfelt congratulations and everything. Just, please, take the time to remember those you have left behind, those still forced to take advantage of every spare second that could be spent at a desk with a book, rather than at the pub with a pint. Raise a glass to those typing away under the warm light of a library desk lamp. And then keep it down.

Here I lament the mild annoyances I am bound to experience throughout my summer of (frustratingly limited) library time, interspersed with my experiences of living amongst and catering for 465 eight to sixteen year old international children here primarily to annoy me, secondarily to learn English. I dedicate my woes to all comrades also working on dissertations right through to September, and hope that you all get some Schadenfreude, or at best mild amusement, from my ramblings.

June 12th 2014

7.30am: I wake up, disoriented having only gotten to sleep at 3.30am. Annoying-Fresher-Below* made the decision to entertain with one of his last remaining nights in Kingswood. He does not do so quietly.

9.00am: Library. It only opens at this time. No earlier. Madness. Still, always the first to arrive, to claim a whole block of seats for the day. Undergraduates no longer require library services. The sun shines outside not quite reaching the room for the high windows. I take this photo to procrastinate and remind myself the sun is still out there:

library

12.30pm: lunch, or time to stretch the legs, go out into the light. Conversations with three separate people all occur like this:

Person: “Hey! how come you’re on campus?”
Me: “Library”.
Person: “Oh poor you”.
Me: “Yes, thank you”.

3.40pm: toilet break… on the other side of campus, only for the opportunity to walk outside.

4.00pm: Much achieved. I’ll just do a little bit more. Until someone in the quad outside finds a piano and many have a sing-song. Much jollification occurs, many sounds are tinkered with–keyboard, honky-tonk, organ. People laugh, shout, sing, shout some more. I sigh. The library is closing soon anyway. I pack up my things and lap up a small amount of sunshine on my walk home.

More to follow, I’m sure. For now, don’t have too much fun without me. 

*the affectionate term given to, well, the annoying fresher who lives below me. Scroll through my twitter feed and it won’t take you long to find my complaining of his karaoke, drum playing, irritating voice etc.

“The university is a market place and the students are your customers”: On higher education as commodity, the fetishisation of results, and the marking boycott

This article, although written over five years ago with the American education system in mind, tells me exactly why I shouldn’t do a PhD in the humanities. It lists my mistaken motivations and points out the only (unobtainable) preconditions that would ensure my success. Its second part really drives home the hopeless ‘love for my subject’ that might trick me for a while but won’t get me through, and ultimately promises that it only does so for my own good, so that I don’t waste my time and money and so that I can take my skills to any other industry that might pay my bills. And you know what, I believe them.
Nothing much has changed since these were written; if anything conditions in higher education are drearier, with further articles published on an almost weekly basis that detail the overburdening of those in the profession. What do I honestly have to look forward to after I’ve completed my doctorate, other than a jump from the top of the steep climb of one student ladder to the very bottom of another steeper professional one? And at base of all of this, on the mat of depressing snakes and ladders, higher education is becoming increasingly commercialised.

“The university is a market place and the students are your customers” – a refrain I often parrot on this blog, stated not so long ago by the head of catering services at my university. Since the introduction of £9k fees, he elaborated, students not only expect an education, but they demand a service. They assume the role of customer beyond the dining halls and campus shops, increasingly also in the lecture halls and tutor’s offices. They require constant gratification, regular feedback, and longer contact hours. And of course, it must all be quantifiable in order to be recognised. (I’ve written elsewhere about the effect of statistical ‘impact’ on the attitudes of students in higher education). As a result of this, undergraduate students feel that unless they receive those all important percentages and transcripts, they’re simply not getting what they’ve paid for, or indeed what they assume they’ve personally paid their lecturers to deliver.
Enter the marking boycott. Minimal student attention has been given to lecturers’ strikes for fair pay in higher education until this point, yet there is a now mistaken outrage that lecturers are greedy, care little for their students’ progress, and are not doing what they are paid to. Lecturers have faced a 13% pay cut in real terms, a cut that has not surfaced as an immediate result of the £9k fees, but that is result of a failure to increase wages over a period beyond that of this post’s first cited article and the recent strikes. If student fees had not been trebled however, would there be such a focus on student results, on receiving a deceivingly tangible end-product worth over £27k, and would a marking boycott then have such an effect?

A recent guardian article that sparked my thoughts on the fetishisation of results as an end-product of higher education, questions whether grades are irrelevant at postgraduate level. The general consensus seems to be that the final result of your Masters degree does not matter, regardless of whether you enter the job world or continue in academia. Simply having a Masters puts you at an advantage over undergraduates in the job market, and an assumed high standard across relevant content rather than specific classifications seems more useful for admission to PhD study. Indeed teaching, or at this level supervision, is less fact based and more focussed towards the critical development of interpretation (in the humanities at any rate). So why should they matter so much for undergraduates, a level of study that at best prepares for graduate education where they seem to become unimportant, and at worst form another tick box on a CV for future employment, forgotten as soon as varying levels of experience are gained.
They matter precisely because the commodification of education say it be so, because for such a high cost something must be produced and it is not enough for that something to simply be some form of ‘personal development’. Yet undergraduate study is exactly that. It is a time of self-discovery and academic maturation. The student customer is conditioned against this and demands that they instead receive concrete evidence of what they pay for.

I fully support the marking boycott. I welcome any move away from the fetishisation of statistical results and towards the appreciation of the writing process itself, and I of course support the demand for fair pay in higher education. I hope that ‘customers’ reacting with such hostility towards the proposed boycott direct their anger instead towards vice chancellors and those in control of lecturers’ pay, where it will be heard and will make a difference, rather than to the lecturers themselves. I wholly appreciate the work carried out by all in higher education both inside and (unfortunately) outside of contracted hours, and I am grateful to those who have contributed to my personal development and continuing academic maturation. My love of the humanities will still somewhat naively take me through the remainder of my education, and I hope that when I do get round to making that leap of faith from one ladder to the next, there will remain students who feel that they have achieved something that cannot be recorded on a piece of letter-headed paper. I ultimately hope that such a boycott will not only succeed in securing fair pay within higher education, but will also contribute towards awareness that the university is not a market place, transcribed results are not the only end product of education, and students certainly are not customers.

“Working [08.00-00.00], what a way to [not] make a living”: the condition of a taught Masters student

Let me set the scene. It’s a Tuesday evening, about 6.30pm. It’s cold, dark, and rainy. I’m on my way home from a seminar, having left my flat at 8am that morning, tired, hungry and facing the prospect of a 5 hour shift at work to finish off my day. I stop, let out a sigh between my walking thoughts and head off again, but lo! Dolly Parton is blocking my mental path. “Workin’ 9-5, what a way to make a living”, she taunts.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about my little ‘encounter’ with Dolly, about the many things I, and a large number of postgraduate students in my position have to do just to get by, and about the nature of funding in higher education. Working 9-5 seems a far off dream, an impossible utopia. The ‘work’ we do is unending, unmeasurable, and unpaid. Like Dolly, I “pour myself a cup of ambition” in the morning, but I don’t have the security of a 5pm switch-off, of an evening or weekend to rest, or of a supporting wage at the end of each month. I have to find the time to fit all of that in as extra-curricular.
A few days ago, I went on a corporate training course, compulsory for the part time job that actually pays my bills (or some of them anyway), that only really succeeded in pissing me off. “The university is an open market place, and the students are your customers,” was the opening line of this 9-5 day full of activities designed to breed positivity in the workplace, to ensure we can “live and breathe the values of our customer service”. At the end of the day, I had a passive-aggressive run-in with the trainer who I can now only picture as Harry Potter’s Professor Umbridge. We had to pick pre-formed goals from a sheet to share with the group to show that we had learnt something from the day, and that we were making changes towards the desired constant state of positive customer service. I picked “bring the best me to work” and mentioned that as I was a student, I often find my thoughts occupied with essay plans and funding forms even whilst at work, but that I would make an effort to focus solely on those drinks I pour, and that food I serve. Her response? “Mmhmm, can I suggest something that will help with that? Remember that we’re all busy. I mean, I have big presentations sometimes and I’m a mum.” I wanted to slow clap. I wanted to scream, strangle her with her metaphorical ribbon of life, or drown her in her metaphorical pebble tasks. But I just smiled, nodded, and waited for her to move on to everyone else’s ‘goals’. Those big presentations that she has to give at work? Well, they’re part of her work day, prepared at work, given at work, in the 9-5 window of positivity and smiles. She gets paid to give those presentations, and can stop thinking about those presentations if she suddenly finds it’s Saturday and she’s off being a mum. Students don’t seem to have that luxury. At the end of that 9-5 day, I went back home to my essays and funding forms and worked for another 6 hours before I could stop thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, I love everything I do. I’ve worked hard to be in this position, a position I have chosen for myself, and I suppose I don’t *really* want to be “on the job, from 9-5”, but a little recognition beyond “well, we’re all busy” would perhaps be nice. When I look at the image projected onto the student lifestyle by the perpetuators of the ‘open market place’, I can’t help but wish they actually lived through a week in the life of one of their ‘customers’. I get up at the same time, if not earlier, than many of my friends who do now work 9-5, and I always finish later. I have to structure my own day, motivating myself throughout, always with the reminder that the pay packet that gets my friends through their working week is non-existent at the end of mine. When I run out of daytime working hours to research, I then have to go to work so that I can pay my rent and buy my food. I fill my sleeping hours with extra duties as a warden for the 500 or so undergraduates I live amongst, potentially being called out at any point throughout the night to deal with any form of issue any one of them might be having so that I can earn the roof over my head. I have to go to extra training courses and meetings, and I have to fill out reams of paperwork after report after audit for every role I perform. I squeeze in various orchestra rehearsals and practice sessions somewhere in there, and after it all, I should always really go back to the library to do a bit more reading, or think about the next essay that needs writing. I can never fully switch off, but I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

What does she want, a pat on the bloody back?” I hear you think. Not quite. I want the view of postgraduate (and indeed undergraduate) education to move away from the financial figures and investment thinking mentioned here, away from the view that a Masters is prerequisite to a lifetime income increase of c.£200,000, and towards the contribution of research within academia, towards feeling a part of something that communicates with so many people, and offers the potential for change. I don’t slog through everything I’ve mentioned here so I can earn £5k a year more than my friends who left education after their undergraduate degrees. I don’t even really do it to better my CV, or to improve my career chances. I do it simply because I enjoy it, and because I feel like it might give me the platform to say, or publish something that might one day inspire someone else to do the same. I want recognition beyond my personal anecdotes, recognition for all those postgraduate students for which there is no funding, students that might actually just love to research, but that may be put off by the prospect of ‘working 08.00-00.00 not making a living’. I want someone who can make a difference to the support of higher education to see exactly what it takes to draw together all the elements required to study without funding; to see that it is possible, but that it shouldn’t have to be this difficult for those not fortunate enough to be able to afford it. Ultimately, I want to sleep uninterrupted for a little bit, but I’ve just finished work, I’m on duty tonight, and I have more reading to do tomorrow.

‘Scientia Sexualis’, subjective truth, and the Kinsey Type Profile

“We demand that sex speak the truth […] and we demand that it tell us our truth, or rather, the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves wich we think we possess in our immediate consciousness.”

Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 An Introduction

Sexual fluidity is a fact of life for women according to Stephanie Theobald in her recent article on Lesbianism. The implication here, of course, is that it was already a fact of life for men, and that we can now join in with all the fluid fun. Except we’re finding it difficult. Lesbophobia in the media is forcing a reluctancy for women to identify as lesbian, flexi-sexual, bisexual or otherwise which apparently means that ‘straight’ women are “ticking all the safety boxes (get married, get financially secure, have babies)”, before they are then “ready to play”. Perhaps the difficulty is deeper than lesbophobia, deeper than media portrayal and lack of lesbian role models, lodged instead within the depths of this supposedly simple ‘fact of life’. Whether we view it as flexible or not, sexuality is increasingly likened to gravity, as this concrete thing that we not only experience, but that we possess and must define ourselves by.

Foucault’s scientia sexualis emerged from a nineteenth century study of sexuality within Western societies, seeking a ‘true’ discourse on sex. At the centre was the concept of confession; to identify oneself alongside newly constructed sexual classifications was seen as liberating, as the key to gaining ‘knowledge of the subject’. The object of investigation moved beyond mere objective knowledge, however. Through a series of normalising processes, sex became the assumed concealed secret of our being – our truth.  Discourses of sexuality have continued to develop in this way since, assuming sexuality to be not only quantifiable, but also inherent in whatever form.
And so it is no real surprise that sexually self-defining articles such as Theobald’s appear more frequently than on a weekly basis. (Nor is it necessarily deserving of complete chastisement, for reasons I will consider shortly).

It is to one easily-missed detail from the above article that I would first like to draw your attention to, however. In all her talk of sexual fluidity, Theobald briefly mentions that rather than move through descriptions of straight to bisexual to lesbian, she now identifies as “Kinsey 4”. Curious, I clicked through to the link provided only to be met with a personality test that promised to place me along the Kinsey scale- a prime example of scientia sexualis that attempts to categorise an individual’s sexual experience using numbers 1 through 6 as an indication for how quantitatively hetero- or homosexual they may be. An additional option, ‘X’, supposedly indicates asexuality. The test can be found here.

As expected with such a personality test, it involves blindingly inadequate questions, but also offers a table of results that forces normalisation of the acknowledgement of a sexuality prima facie. The image below gives these results with my own highlighted as ‘X’.

Kinsey Profile results

I appreciate that this particular survey is by no means fully representative of Kinsey’s original research, but its reformulation on this website offers a worrying insight into the tendency to categorise ourselves. Outside even from ‘X’, we are given option ‘F’, which states: ‘The test failed to match you to a Kinsey Type profile. Either you answered some questions wrong, or you are a very unusual person.‘ Normalising value judgements are not even disguised here, with the aim presumably to generate an anxiety that to receive an ‘X’, or in extreme cases an ‘F’, means you are somehow a lesser person, not as autonomous as those who receive their numbers. I strongly object.
To identify as ‘X’ (or the additional ‘F’) on the Kinsey scale does not mean the absence of sexual desire for whatever sex, it does not mean ‘asexuality’, or sexual inactivity. It signifies the inadequacies of sexual labels. It signifies the anxiety of identification in being forced to use these homogenous categories blindly disguised as heterogeneity. But the anxiety does not belong to the individual subject. It belongs to the regime, the institutions, the Other, whose fear of not being able to quantify your fluidity in relation to their labels actually signifies a breakdown of control over your sense of self.

This move towards such extreme scientica sexualis may not be as negative as I am hyperbolising however. Foucault’s theories on truth and power move emphasis away from repression towards the more positive production of knowledge. As Eagleton observes, ‘Foucault is not naive enough to think that we can emancipate hegemony from truth, or truth from power’ (or more specifically in this case, that we can remove labels of sexuality from the impulses of desire), but that actually, imagining an apocalyptic moment where things could be different has an emancipatory quality in itself, a quality creating further possibilities for self-identification.
It is not that any one label of sexuality is any better than the other or that any should be questioned individually, it is rather the process of labelling itself that is objectionable.

The purpose of this post, then, is not to condemn those who identify at any point along the Kinsey Scale or by any other means of sexual classification, nor is it to condemn sexual activity of either the same or opposite sexes. Rather, it is to reprimand the process of labelling sexuality as a means of normalised identification, as a demand for this subjective truth.
The focus on sexuality as identification has become so dominant that employers have even begun requesting that sexual orientation be marked both within application forms and on employee records. I am not only female and in my early twenties, I am also either concretely identified as heterosexual, or homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. Except I’m not. I’m Kinsey Profile type ‘X’, or I’m ‘sexually fluid’, or maybe I’m even ‘F’. Mostly, I’m just confused as to why we must always introduce ourselves in accordance with institutionalised descriptors of the impulses of desire.

Elitism in music criticism and the analyst’s ‘responsibility’

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, “The Queen’s official composer”, has in a recent article in the Telegraph, suggested “youngsters are ignorant of classical music because of ‘elitist’ attitudes”. This after Nicola Benedetti, “the acclaimed violinist”, calls for more attention to be paid in schools to the formal details of the ‘great works’, listed as the symphonies of Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius and Dvorak. A lack of knowledge about Dickens and Shakespeare is also symptomatic of a dysfunctional educational system, and something needs to be done to counteract the view that music is an ‘elitist fringe activity’. Great. On the surface.
If you look ever-so-slightly deeper, however, the article indicates everything that is wrong with the conception of elitism in music criticism, and to an extent “high” culture more generally.
In the first place, talking about elitism through the views of “The Queen’s Official Composer” may not be the best place to start, though let’s put this aside as a superficial criticism. The problem with this article, then, is not in the already troubling idea that classical music (or “high culture” more generally invoked through the reference to Dickens and Shakespeare) is inaccessible, it is that it perpetuates elitist value judgements in itself. Elevating the ‘great’ classical works as (the only?) things that allow us to “understand humanity” (whether we believe they do or not) against ‘popular’ works, quite explicitly associated with the “disgrace” of music teaching in British schools, as “inane and vacuous”, doesn’t seem in-keeping with “the ethos of widening music across all social classes”. But, says Sir Peter, with so much media focus on “pop” singers, “we are in grave danger of losing – through not learning or experiencing – centuries of a wealth of wisdom and works.” It is, of course, elitist attitudes keeping youngsters from learning about classical music, though, isn’t it? Naturally.
Anyone who knows me at all will see I’m merely playing devils advocate here; I’m not Miley Cyrus’s biggest fan, heaven knows I can’t stand Lorde, and a recurring joke that ‘if it’s much past the nineteenth century, I’m not interested’ seems to come up in conversation at least twice a day, however the contradictions in this article cannot go unnoticed. Read between the lines (or even just read the lines) and you have an elitist article blaming elitism for the crisis in musical education.

These attitudes towards elitism stretch further than primary or secondary musical education, into musical research on a professional academic level.
In an analysis seminar this morning, we were talking about postmodern critiques of music theory in response to the somewhat provocative question: ‘What is wrong with formalist modes of analysis?’ We moved through issues of context versus content, of the positivist object versus abstract subject, and of intra- and extra-musical value and meaning, before we eventually fell onto the topic of the purpose of musical analysis.
Interestingly, discussion oscillated around the concepts of ‘responsibility’, ‘communication’, and ‘enjoyment’. “It is an analyst’s responsibility to…” was a constant refrain, often followed with some reference to improving communication of a works ‘meaning’ in order to enhance ‘enjoyment’ of another’s listening experience. This is all very well and good; for me, analysis enhances understanding of a musical work in ways that make it so much more exciting to listen to on repeat, and it does make me feel as if I’m unlocking some sort of secret I can then share with someone, somewhere, at some point. But, introduce the notion of ‘purpose’ (or as it is known in bureaucratic circles, ‘impact’), and you have a whole different ball game.

Should an attempt be made to ‘enlighten’ others, to ‘enrich’ musical experience via cultural and/or musical critique, or to fit analysis to a predefined mould of any or all of these things? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, as it is often assumed to be, then who should analysis communicate to? Who should it enlighten? In the current climate of ‘academic open-access outreach’, the apparent answer is everyone, anyone. This is problematic at best. Does it matter if something is lost through the restrictive models of analytic inclusivity? I guess you’re currently rolling your eyes, thinking “look who’s being horribly elitist now”, or assuming I’m trying to enter the wrong ‘business’ in not wishing to accept an institutionalised purpose for my work. But hear me out.

I don’t really like the word ‘responsibility’ used alongside ‘analyst’ in the context of ‘purpose’. I don’t like the idea that theory should be forced to say anything at all for the benefit of statistical output. I don’t like the fact that aspects of research may be stifled for fear of seeming inaccessible. I like to believe that an analyst could use Schenkerian models, or Fortean PC Set Theory, or Rétian motivic analysis to say what they wish, if they wish, and I like to believe that what they say could influence anyone’s understanding on some level. The problem is not the complexity of the research, how formalist the analysis is, or how challenging it may be to read that renders it inaccessible, the problem is the attitude surrounding the research, equating this difficulty with elitism in the first place, an attitude that is perpetuated by governmental pressures to make academic work more ‘accessible’. Is it not already accessible in many ways? Would I have been able to come through the state education system condemned by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies et al. with a deep interest in Sonata Theory if it weren’t accessible in at least some way?

I suppose what I am trying to say, then, is if music (analysis) is to become more accessible, it is not the music (analysis) that has to change. Attitudes projected onto musicology and school musical education from governmental schemes of inclusivity are responsible for perpetuating the idea of elitism, a quality that is not inherent to the discipline itself as assumption dictates. The last thing I want to suggest, of course, is that there is no crisis in school musical education, and that we should make no effort to widen music across social circles, but forcing school children to appreciate ‘great’ works through detailed formal analysis, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, forcing academics to simplify critique for the sake of accessibility surely isn’t the answer? The first thing that needs to change is the incessant perpetuation of this negative conception of elitism.

So what is a musicologist’s ‘responsibility’?
Simply to contribute to research (preferably in ways unhampered by notions of ‘impact’ or ‘accessibility’) in order to continue to inspire those for whom musicology is, or could become, a means of unlocking a secret that can be shared with someone, somewhere, at some point, a secret that, most importantly, is already accessible to anyone, and that promises a way out of this elitist claptrap.

And now for something completely different: Baudrillard, Disneyland, and Capitalist Ideology

In response to TheLitCritGuy’s twitterary focus on Jean Baudrillard this week, I started thinking about Disneyland, the construction of reality, and the function of dangerous ideologies within both of these things. I’ve been to Disneyland (*ahem* twice*), for reasons I honestly cannot justify other than that I seem to have been repeatedly caught up in the attractive lure of a “total” and “perfect” reality, the “happiest place on earth, where dreams come true”.

A semiotic approach to reality offered by Baudrillard, and nicely relayed 140 characters at a time by TheLitCritGuy, suggests that ‘in a world saturated by the exchange of signs, we tend to become blind to symbolic actions’, where we instead attempt to ‘comprehend life totally’, and subsequently become ‘seduced by the object, drawn towards a simulated version of reality, “hyper-reality”. Enter Mr. Disney.

“Whence the possibility of an ideological analysis of Disneyland (L. Marin did it very well in Utopiques, jeux d’espace [Utopias, play of space]): digest of the American way of life, panegyric of American values, idealized transposition of a contradictory reality. Certainly. But this masks something else and this “ideological” blanket functions as a cover for a simulation of the third order: Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”
― Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Disneyland is so ‘total’, so ‘perfect’, then that America as a reality cannot exist outside of it. Disneyland masks America’s inconsistencies to the extent that they cease to exist, they become a part of the simulated reality we  prefer to associate with the obviously constructed world of cartoon characters. All that remains, then, is a trap of silently screaming ideologies.

Example: We are repeatedly made aware of the evils behind the Disney corporation; of the misogynistic, patriarchal and xenophobic values filtered through the Disney classics; of the over-working and under-paying of Disney workers, both in the construction of merchandise, and the running of the parks; of the parallels with the slave trade and the treatment of park workers forced to move around underground so as not to ruin the “illusion”. Yet, we still buy into this. We still watch the films and relish in childhood memories of reminiscence, we still purchase merchandise in our adulthood under the pretence that it means we somehow don’t have to grow up, we still go to Disneyland. This is capitalist ideology functioning at its purest.

Anecdote: When in Florida over the summer of 2012, my friends and I did some research into the best method of transport from International Drive to the Disney parks that were situated a little way outside of the tourist hub. We found a bus service that would cost us little more than $1 each way, compared to the $17 the tourist companies were kindly offering. This bus service was public to the locals of Orlando, scantly advertised in an attempt to keep the tourists away. (A driver one morning, upon recognising our obvious Britishness, even told us that Disney had attempted to get the particular service shut down as it was taking away business from the established tourist coach companies, although I am unsure how accurate a claim this was).
Every morning, we took the bus to the parks, and every morning, this bus journey shattered the “illusion” of Disney’s perfect reality, as we sat opposite Disney workers on a journey that, for them, represented nothing more the daily grind. This was not a trip to “the happiest place on earth” (their general demeanour suggested as much) yet the minute everyone stepped off that bus, it was forced smiles and exaggerated waves all round. Perhaps the worst part of this story, however, is that once inside the park, the pieces of Disney’s perfect reality we left on the bus were somehow restored, and I took part in all of the things Disney expected, and manipulated me to do. I bought Mickey Mouse merchandise, I watched fireworks with awe, I ate candy floss, and enjoyed the rides as if nothing outside mattered. Because, as Baudrillard suggests, the outside had become a simulation.

Turning this around slightly, the silent functioning of ideologies becomes all the more terrifying when it can be so obviously identified through the exaggerated simulation of corporate worlds such as those created by Disney. That we know Disney is evil, yet still play along while inside his world, serves as proof of the power of ideology, more specifically capitalist ideology, and that we cannot seem to escape its thrall either inside or outside of simulated realities proves very worrying.

When talking about this with my sister earlier, she asked “What would happen if we tore down Disneyland?” Would we be able to see the ideology that remains? Or would it continue to function, if anything, stronger than before? Unfortunately I suspect it would most likely be the latter. Our systems of reality ensure that ideology cannot simply be exposed for what it really is. Our perception changes along with ideology’s function; the misogyny and racism of Disney classics is no longer acceptable in new productions, where political correctness has taken over as the latest mask, giving the illusion that Disney have ‘cleaned up their act’ in some way. You and I both know it’s no better. Worse if anything, more intricately disguised to match our current awareness of ideology.

And so, Disney will continue to thrive as one of the World’s largest corporations, ideology will continue to reign powerful, and who knows, I may at some point even end up returning to Disneyland to immerse myself in the infrangible reality of exaggerated waves, big smiles, and capitalist cartel once more. Perception of “Hyper-reality” suggests it cannot be otherwise.

Research ‘impact’ and the university as market place: The perspective of a postgraduate taught student

With all this talk on research ‘impact’ – an elusive concept of worth supposedly measurable with statistics, percentages, and economic figures – will anyone stop to consider the impact this not-so-subtle shift toward the market place actually has on academia, and more importantly on the attitudes of students?

Simon Jenkins, in his guardian article published this morning, does just that albeit from a very worrying angle. His conclusion:

“If I were an academic I would stop pretending I was “investing in the nation’s future”. I would stop using such language. I would try to give students what they want for their money, usually a well-rounded education and a mild sense of obligation to society, and tuck my research into my spare time. That would be my “rate of return”. As long as universities play the investment game, they will find students and taxpayers alike asking to scrutinise their accounts.”

Jenkins argues, then, that employability should be any university’s main concern, and the way to achieve that, apparently, is value for money through increased taught contact hours. The rise of tuition fees to £7000-9000 per year is central to this debate, with students supposedly feeling that too much time to twiddle their thumbs doesn’t justify the amount they pay for a degree course. Universities occupy a position of accountability to provide students with “an education that stimulates them for three years and gets them a job.” Too much focus on research and scholarship apparently fails to fulfil these criteria. As Jenkins informs us, the universities minister, David Willetts, is calling for a “cultural change” that would reverse the trend of “too much time going on scholarship and not enough on teaching.” A cultural change? A change that wants to destroy the culture of academia more like.

Any student naive enough to think that employability comes from extended hours of school-child spoon feeding should quite simply not be at university, and for institutions and government reports to fuel this mindset through notions of ‘impact’ and ‘value for money’ is frankly sickening. The ability to think for oneself, to manage one’s own time, to explore one’s own research interests and form one’s own opinions on current affairs whether through scholarship or otherwise, is crucial, in my mind, to any notion of employability, and is one of the principle reasons I found university so rewarding, and actually wish to continue on into academia. In my view, the ‘impact’ of research should be untangled from the web of finances and investment talk. It should instead be revalued alongside the ability to change one’s circumstances, to free one’s mind.

If university were an investment, where was the return?” The return is unmeasurable, so stop trying to calculate it. The return is right here, in posts such as these, in enthusiasm for research and scholarship passed down from equally enthusiastic tutors. The return is the enjoyment I get every day from being able to read engaging texts that make me go ‘huh, I hadn’t thought of it like that before,’ and then being able to justify my thoughts in prose that means something to others. The return is in the evidence that, no thanks to the current government, academia continues to thrive as a discipline.

Undergraduate study should not be marketed as the next stage on your employability checklist. Academia, or my current experience of it, gives people a voice that is recognised outside of statistical ‘impact’, it gives people the opportunity to develop their own interests, and to spend everyday studying something they love. That should be the focus in undergraduate brochures and prospectuses. But of course, that can’t be measured and so is often overlooked.
I used to tell my parents, when they frequently questioned my decision as they saw it to ‘get into huge amounts of debt despite the inevitable lack of “better” jobs when I finish’, that I wasn’t paying for the degree or for the chance of a higher income later, I was paying for the experience. Boy, was I right. I wish more people saw it that way. Yes, it might be quite an idealistic position. Yes, it might be quite naive. But I enjoyed myself. I gained skills I would not have gained otherwise, and more importantly, I opened my mind to possibilities I didn’t have the capacity to even dream of at home.

I don’t know what my future hold’s post postgraduate study, but I do know that in not looking for a material return on my intellectual investment, I’ll be a hell of a lot more satisfied than most.

The Passive Revolution: Why Syria needs us to do nothing

Revolution is primarily located in thought, not protest, arbitrary action or violence. Before we can achieve change, we first need a viable conception of it.

Cameron was right about one thing: Britain does need to offer a ‘robust response’ to Syria. The parliamentary vote against military action was exactly that.

Let me explain myself in the hope that these deliberately striking statements will become clear. And what better way to do that than to open with a wonderfully confusing passage from Žižek’s Less Than Nothing:

‘The basic “postmodern” reproach to Hegel- that his dialectic admits antagonisms only to resolve them magically in a higher synthesis- strangely contrasts with the good old Marxist reproach (already formulated by Schelling) according to which Hegel resolves antagonisms only in “thought”, through conceptual mediation, while in reality they remain unresolved. One is tempted to accept this second reproach at face value and use it against the first one: what if this is the proper answer to the accusation that Hegelian dialectics magically resolves antagonisms? What if, for Hegel, the point is precisely *not* to “resolve” antagonisms “in reality”, but just to enact a parallax shift by means of which antagonisms are recognized “as such” and thereby perceived in their “positive” role?’

The idea, then, that resolving things in “thought” through some dialectical method (thesis, antithesis, sublation, higher synthesis) achieves nothing in the “real world”,  is challenged here precisely through the act of questioning the status of the “real world”. Creating a ‘parallax shift’ highlights the symbolic role of the antagonisms, thus enabling them to be resolved in their conceptual forms, which in turn opens up the space for ‘true’ resolution. This parallax shift, itself a conceptual notion, is located in “thought”.

I fear I’m still not making much sense, so let us move to a current example of this revolutionary space in action: Syria.

The Parliamentary vote against military action still comes up against much resistance from those who fear Britain are now somehow choosing to ignore the conflict in the Middle East, abandoning civilians in need, but I believe it was simultaneously the most sensible and radical decision made by the Coalition since their election in 2010. Aside from financial, moral, and fundamentally logical reasons not to launch attacks against Syria, I argue it is precisely this military ‘in-action’ that opens the space for revolutionary ‘re-action’ found within passivity. Any subsequent U.S. (or other) strike to ‘punish’ the Assad regime can only have the opposite effect, and undermine Britain’s unintentionally robust response. Put in the most vulgar way, if those responsible for the chemical attacks on the Syrian people feel no remorse following the wide-spread destruction of their own citizens, more missiles will most definitely achieve nothing. Yet Britain, following the decision not to militarily intervene, still feel the Syrian people need ‘humanitarian aid’, and that to ignore them would be to ‘fail’ them. (Why the focus is on the Syrian people of this particular conflict when no real attention has been paid to the Egyptian people caught in a similar coup under the Mubarak regime, or, if the focus is to be the prevention of chemical weapons, evenvictims of other chemical attacks, is the subject of a different, yet important, debate.)

The negative response towards Britain’s passivity, and the U.S. desire to react, to ‘punish’, is, if anything, a sign of frantic psuedo-action: action in order to *avoid* change.

More Žižek:

“This brings us to the notion of false activity: people not only act in order to change something, they can also act in order to prevent something from happening, so that nothing will change. Therein resides the typical strategy of the obsessional neurotic: he is frantically active in order to prevent the real thing from happening. Say, in a group situation in which some tension threatens to explode, the obsessional talks all the time in order to prevent the awkward moment of silence which would compel the participants to openly confront the underlying tension.”

This may seem irrelevant to the immediate dangers of conflict, the prevention of chemical weapons far more ‘important’ than that of some awkward moment of silence, however it follows that a military withdrawal to passivity, though it would inevitably encounter severe resistance as we have begun to see, could be far more effective as a result.

“Even in much of today’s progressive politics, the danger is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to be active and to participate. People intervene all the time, attempting to “do something;” the truly difficult thing is to step back and to withdraw from it. Against such an interpassive mode in which we are active all the time to make sure that nothing will really change, the first truly critical step is to withdraw into passivity and to refuse to participate. This first step clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of the constellation.”

The U.S compulsion to strike offers such an interpassive response to the Syrian conflict, cleverly disguised as moral obligation to help, to wreak justice. Obama has recently made very clear at the G20 summit that failing to respond to the Assad regime sends the ‘wrong signal’. Beneath this veil of words however, lies empty action, an ineffective ‘solution’.

What we need then, is a passive revolution, the confidence to withdraw from arbitrary action towards the symbolic position of ‘thought’, in order to open up the space for true reaction, to create a realistic conception of change.

Of course, the argument comes back around full circle. ‘This achieves nothing in Syria!’, I hear the opposition cry. ‘People are still dying, and “doing nothing” won’t stop that!’, they continue. And to that, I refer back to the first Žižek quote, and by extension, my initial statements. Passive thought may not instantly achieve physical change, but it could certainly open up the space for a much more effective response.

Let us see what happens when we are assertively passive, when we “do nothing”.

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