Sunday, 3 December 2017

Foucault Does Las Meninas


This week I was teaching spectatorship (and looking, seeing, viewing, the gaze and scopophilia - from a cultural perspective) to the MA students. As well as looking at the usual suspects, like Laura Mulvey and John Berger, I also included Michel Foucault, since we had briefly looked at him the week before when discussing discourse analysis.

I decided to use Foucault's analysis of Las Meninas (Velasquez 1656) in The Order of Things since it famously appears in an advert by the Spanish department store El Cortes Inglés (see below), and these are Fashion Enterprise and Society students after all. Foucault's Las Meninas lends itself well to a critique of lines of sight from both an art history and contemporary fashion advertisement perspective (although I was surprised, following a quick bit of research into published articles, that this model of Foucault's had not been used in advertising - maybe more research would reveal that not to be the case, though).


I spent a while reading through Foucault's essay - it's quite challenging and interesting to mark the lines of sight down on a printed copy of the painting. I had done it before, a good few years ago, now, when, as an undergraduate I was studying Foucault (I actually found my old printout of Las Meninas in the book itself). I started again, however, and worked through the first few sets of lines of sight, and colour coordinated them. I also marked in the text itself where they are explicitly defined by Foucault, and numbered them in order (although it is a little bit more complicated than that).

Anyway, I have included the slides below (which in the original Powerpoint, are animated), in case anyone would like to see them (sadly my narrative that accompanies them is missing). The first image shows the first few lines of sight that Foucault mentioned, including the triangle (see yellow). I've also highlighted some of the 'frames' he signifies as being important, and the lines of sight connected to them.


The slide below includes the three significant 'positions' in the image, and what Foucault describes as the "three 'observing' functions [that] come together in a point exterior to the picture". I won't include 'the spoiler', but have a go at reading through the text and creating the lines yourself. It's a great read. You can also try and work on the spiralling lines that he mentions: "This spiral shell presents us with the entire circle of representation". I didn't include that as I was concerned about overwhelming the students. However, this was a breakthrough week for them and they definitely got it, as when I presented them with a Gucci advert to analyse in the workshop after the lecture, they did really well.


If anyone would like the slides, or would like me to do a lecture on it for their students, let me know. It's very interactive and its easy for the audience to place themselves in the position of observer (within the regular dynamics of a lecture theatre), and it is as if they are really looking at the painting itself - as if they are Velasquez or, indeed, Foucault...

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Review of You Are Here by Matthew Watkins


Review of You Are Here: An accelerating history of Canterbury from the Big Bang to noon August 15th 2014 by Matthew Watkins 

Matthew Watkins book You Are Here is, to his own acknowledgement, about many things: it starts with the physical and biological beginnings of the cosmos, but it’s really about the social and historical evolution of a Kentish city, Canterbury. How can these two be connected, you ask? Well, quite well so it seems, and Watkins has done this quite cleverly and stylishly by using lovely illustrations* to take us from the big bang (13,798,000,000 to 11,000,000,000 years ago - and Watkins should know since he is a mathematician and physicist) to his first mention of Canterbury (in 800 to 230 BCE), or at least the place it was eventually to become known as.


However, the book is also not just a history of Canterbury, it’s also a psychogeography of Canterbury. We can see this transition - from the accounts of social history, to Watkins own personal explorations of the city - when he starts to focus his discussion on its more urban aspect, 2004-2006. By the time we get to 2014, Watkins’ book has turned full-blown psychogeographical in his journal-type entries, which are oriented around his discoveries, made through walking the actual city itself. So, since this is a psychogeography blog after all, I will include a couple of the extracts that I particularly enjoyed below, one of which appears to come from a single dérive that lasted well over 24 hours - Guy Debord would be proud!


9:22 on 12th August to 00:31 on 13th August 2014

On my way back home from Rough Common I decided to walk the labyrinth below Eliot College. Its Portland stone was a bit more worn in now, I noticed, with some lichens and mosses having taken up residence. As I sat in the middle reading Jung’s analysis of physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s dreams and drinking a bottle of ale, two middle-aged women wound their way in and joined me. We talked about the soullessness of the University and ley lines. They described themselves as “semi-local”, out for an evening walk, one of them explaining that she was trying to mentally process actor Robin Williams’ recent suicide.

11:53:48 to 11:55:03 on August 15th 2014

Passing the City Arms pub, its A-frame blackboard on the pavement featuring the city’s coat-of-arms: three choughs (Becket’s family heraldry) and a golden leopard in a posture known to heraldry enthusiasts as passant gardant. Two men and a woman were sitting outside enjoying late morning drinks. I turned to look at the admission price for the Roman Museum across the street: £8 for adults. I wondered if my local Resident’s card would get me in for free. A few steps further, Club Burrito. The idea of a burrito suddenly appealed. I’d been walking for hours. But as well as being on a mission, I reminded myself that I wasn’t too well-off financially at the moment. This involuntarily triggered the execrable band Simply Red’s 1985 single “Money’s Too Tight (to Mention)” in my mind, which in turn produced a memory of a party in Whitstable in autumn 1988, the highlight of which was a drunken working class man who’d torn this record off the stereo while a couple of middle-class drama students were dancing to it shouting “You’re all living a lie!” at the stunned revellers.


Watkins journal entries end, in a way, like the book begins, with the physical laws of the universe exerting their influence on space and time - since they are what makes the universe what it is - and Canterbury, too. We count down - in the tiniest cosmic clock level increments - to his last entry, which is hand-written: “the barrier between worlds loses resolution, fragments, and all perspectives collide and fuse together”...

Sketch of Stewy’s ‘Robert Wyatt’ Graffiti

*Illustrations by Matt Tweed, Carol J. Watkins and Juliet Suzmeyan

Friday, 3 November 2017

Slutchers Lane


by Trent Dunlop

The haulage lorries have left, the security has gone, the building is empty and the demolition has begun...

I have noticed the comings and goings of the Spectra warehouse on walks around Slutchers Lane. Slutchers Lane is an interesting place to visit, located within easy walking distance of Warrington town centre. It is a long straight road, about a mile in length, leading to a dead end. It cuts through the middle of the edgelands and margins, surrounded by the River Mersey.

In 2016 the deputy leader of the borough council called for the name to be changed after telling the executive board that in an online urban dictionary Slutcher meant ‘filth, dirtbag , and whore’. He was ridiculed on social media and it was commented that he was a ‘Muppet’. The name stayed the same.

A road to my right leads to Bank Quay Trading Estate. Colourful signs point to scrap yards, back street garages, a martial arts club, an animal welfare centre, and a go-karting warehouse. The road leads past Arpley Meadows railway sidings, under a railway bridge, ending at a path leading to an industrial landscape of chemical plants and the hidden transporter bridge.


I walk past the station overflow car park and the futuristic 1980s small business units. To my left is a restricted road leading to Centre Park, a bland generic business park with equally bland hotels and landscaped pond. The autumn leaves from the trees are covered in warm shades of rusty orange and yellow along the road. Coming to the gates outside the Spectra warehouse, two yellow Cat demolition diggers are parked inside the gates (covered in various warning signs), with a barbed wire fence on either side. All is quiet, with no signs of life this Sunday morning. The road fizzles out at a barrier and another set of locked metal gates, beyond which is an empty overgrown field surrounded by a bend in the river. To my right is a narrow path which leads between the field and the railway line, leading to a footbridge over a viaduct. I walk down this path and turn left onto the overgrown field and start walking across it to the far end. Two mounds of rubble on an oblong concrete patch are the only traces left of what was a golf driving range, along with a few half buried golf balls in the field.


A dip takes me down to the back of the warehouse, Am I trespassing? I have not had to climb over any fences or walls. The demolition is going quickly and the warehouse is vanishing fast A massive patch of concrete is covered in fresh rainwater, the surface reflecting the sky, and looking as if a new lake has formed overnight, giving a strange effect of walking across deep water.

I enter through a hole in a wall underneath a semi-destroyed roof and start exploring. To my left, as I enter, is line of machines looking like a robotic involuntary Picasso sculpture. I alter the settings on my camera as I enter the darkness, trying to get a few sharp photographs. There is not much left inside and this would be called a ‘Derp’ in Urbex language: an empty space with not much of interest. But it is not just about photographs, and thoughts start to percolate, random images, plus memories and the history of the area.


In the 1970s Warrington was an industrial town and this was part of Thames Board paper mills, employing at its height over 2000 people. I remember it had a large wharf on the bank of the river. The river was biologically dead and the most polluted in Europe, with warm water, factory effluent, chemicals and poisons killing the wildlife. The water was foul smelling, a dark claret colour, with a white foam on top which would blow around the street and Bridge Foot on a windy day. A time when workers were looked after by the company with a living wage, holidays and a Christmas bonus, with parties for the children, and a ‘do’ out to a club, like the Golden Garter in Wythenshawe, for a meal and to watch Bernard Manning. The clang of steel in the night, smoke stack chimneys, shops shut and a day of rest on a Sunday. A town of many industries, before closure in the early 1980s, followed by the days of sitting at computer screens in call centres and offices and 24/7 culture.

I walk through massive empty workshops, up gloomy staircases, bare offices, and smashed toilets. Twisted metal is everywhere, the silence is eerie and I lose track of time. Clusters of fire extinguishers have been put to one side ready for removal, and an architect’s framed sketch is next to the exit ready to be salvaged. Glass and tiles crunch underfoot, sounding loud and exaggerated, before a siren of a police car or ambulance travelling down Chester Road, signals that it is time to leave.


Today the River Mersey is a success story: with seals, otters and salmon recorded in the water, and itself the star of a television programme presented by Jeremy Paxman. But time keeps moving and wildlife is again under threat as Warrington plans to become a city, with loss of green belt and part of a nature reserve, and residents fighting against the council for the future of the area.

I head home with a camera full of instant history and another part of my A to Z map out of date...

Saturday, 28 October 2017

An Open Letter to Chris Heaton-Harris MP


Dear Mr Heaton-Harris,

Here are the details of my lecture for my Brexit-related undergraduate module:

CULTZ8912 Cultural Theory and Brexit

Week 1: Brexit Schmexit: A Barthesian Semiology
Week 2: Michel Foucault: Madness, Civilization and Brexit
Week 3: Deconstructing (Br)exit and Brie(main)
Week 4: Althusser: Interpellating the Brexit Subject
Week 5: Butler and Brexit: Ender Trouble
Week 6: Brexit, Deleuze and Guattari: A Thousand Platitudes
Week 7: The Latent and Manifest in Brexit
Week 8: Subculture and the Meaning of a Stylish Brexit
Week 9: Fredric Jameson: Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of a Late Brexit
Week 10: Jean-Paul Sartre: Being and Brexitness
Week 11: Žižek: Brexit Without Organs
Week 12: Guest Speaker

We are looking for a speaker for week 12 and wondered if you’d be happy to come along and talk to our students, please. Perhaps the Vice-Chancellor could call you to arrange that.

Thank you in anticipation.

Your humble servant, Dr Tina Richardson

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Precession of the Demolition: A Baudrillardian Thought Experiment


By Fenella Brandenburg

I was talking to Tina Richardson this week, my new colleague, about the office that we share and the building we are housed in at the University of Leeds. It’s now known as '28 University Road' and is temporarily being used by our school, The School of Design. There is a notice on it that says 'Formerly Geography East'. Tina says she knows it as a geography building as she taught there a few years ago and some of her geography friends had their offices there, too. Apparently the building is due for demolition, and even though it looks like a dodgy little white stucco temporary building, it has an interesting history, being at one time a maltings.


As you can see from the above image, there is a big old map in the background, just outside our office. There is also another old map in the corridor. The building is very warm, although I have not worked out where all the heat is coming from (maybe an underwater spring reminiscent of Journey to the Centre of the Earth), and the corridor has a strong whiff of some kind of sweet-smelling mould, which I actually really like. It is quite scruffy and you could say it is 'falling apart', but it definitely has a charm and we both really like it there. In fact we don’t want to move, which brings me to the purpose of this guest post, which, in a way, I am writing on behalf of both of us: if we staged a pretend sit-in on the day the demolition begins - the day when university officials appear in hi viz jackets with their clipboards, and men with hydraulic excavators and loaders enter the building – what would happen?

Bear in mind this is not a real sit-in. It is just a pretend (fake), one!

Well, as has been written before by Tina Richardson in a post about staging a pretend faint in a public place (A Hysterical Simulacra), all the apparatus that would be employed in a real situation would also be employed in a false one, since, from the outside, both look the same. This is Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra. You will not be able to stage a fake sit-in, because, as Baudrillard says: “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements”. He goes on to explain that it is required that “everything is reduced to the real…to the established order itself” and the system operates in order to “devour any attempt at simulation”. In other words, the structure, as it appears in organisational form (what Louis Althusser describes as the ideological state apparatus), is unable to see beyond its own ideological appearance and incapable of seeing anything above its own order of simulation.

However, Baudrillard also goes on to say, and I think this is actually key in these types of thought experiments, it actually occurs even before “institutions and justice come into play”. Which is interesting as initially this sounds a bit like a contradiction. Nevertheless, what he says following this is: the simulation can never be punished as such, because it can only either be punished as a less serious offence (because of a lack of consequences), or as a crime against the judiciary when various state officials become involved (e.g. the police). He goes onto say that either way it is never punished for what it is, a simulation, “since it is precisely as such than no equivalence with the real is possible, and hence no repression either. The challenge of simulation is never admitted by power”.


So, what about staging a sit-in?

Picture this: myself, plus Dr Richardson, and the odd member of staff, a group of recruited students (maybe from The School of Performance and Cultural Industries) 'stage' our sit-in in the student common room, right near the entrance to 28 University Road. We all know that this is a performance. We are not there to make a protest or get in the way of the bulldozers. This is a simulation. The contractors open the door to see a whole load of protesters sitting in the common room, with their placards saying 'Save 28 University Road', 'Keep this wonderful heritage site!' and 'Don't demolish the famous maltings'. They go back to the site office to get the boss. He takes one look at the resistant academics and students and heads to the university administration building, returning with the man-from-estates who promptly calls the police for fear of any potential litigation somewhere down the line...

At what point did this simulation become real?

Sunday, 8 October 2017

A Psychogeography of Where I Grew Up


A psychogeography of where I grew up
(how forms and shapes have formed and shaped me)

By Ursula Troche

This is an account in (inter/cultural) translation and transposition. I’ve been inspired to write this because I realised that, just like the personal is political, the personal is geographical too! So there’s a nice kind of methodology in there, which is why psychogeography is so relevant!

Self- disclosure: Loehne – this is the place where I grew up, a place in the contradictory location of being both in the east and in the west. Not near the border with East Germany (or vice versa), but East-West-phalia. This is what it’s actually called: ‘Ostwestfalen’. It’s abbreviated as ‘OWL’ – and so it acquires a translated position as the land of the Owl!

Loehne, within it, is a town, not big, a town only just. Its main feature is once again an east-west connection, and this time of the bigger kind: it is situated on the east-west train-line that ran from Paris, or London via ferry, all the way to Moscow. Or vice versa I should say, because the train carriages that were used were original Soviet trains! Uniquely and exceptionally despite the Cold War and the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, this train ran – everyday! Who could have been on it though? I was, sadly, too young to know. Besides this kind of wondrous line, little and absolutely unassuming Loehne lies on one of the main north-south links as well, so it’s been a big junction, with a massive train-depot that went with it. In hindsight, it looks like I grew up on a kind of magic crossing, like the meeting of ley-lines or so.

Small town big trains! There are lots of other towns in the area, but all of them small. So it’s an urban-rural mix, and this is reflected in terms of labour history as well: it’s got traditionally, in quite equal parts, workers and farmers.

Here the terms show their inadequacy too: as if farmers don’t do work! But if we think of workers as factory workers, i.e. those in a contracted situation rather than working for themselves, then Loehne is one of those places where workers and farmers meet. It’s not a farming community and not an entirely industrial community, it is both! There have only been some mines in the area too, though many more mines are to be found a bit further down from here. Basically the next big town to Loehne is Herford, the next city next to that is Bielefeld, and behind Bielefeld you have a rural area in the north, and the ‘mine field’ in the south: Dortmund, Bochum, Essen, and all the very big mining towns are to be found here: all the mine-biggies! I remember very well, whilst being at school, hearing when mine after mine was shut down just next door to me, and I was really surprised about why this was happening. There was no miner’s strike here big enough to make headlines, but there was obviously frustration and activism here too: the zeitgeist was the same, and the danger of an edge of an age reached. This topic is so big, and has such strong echo with northern England, that I’ve set aside a project for this – to come!


Mother, Father, Child – in the landscape

The geography of the area is: it’s a big and wobbly hilly valley tucked inside two strings of bigger hills, which are the last before the land becomes flatland, from where it eventually meets the sea. The hill-string in the south has a romanicised (-romanticised!) name (Teutoburg hills), the one in the north has a germanic name (Wiehen hills). The roman hill-string would be my dad: he, the one from far, mixed, cosmopolitan, once sephardic , and my mum the germanic hill-string: the parochial, local one – though in reality she was not quite local to the area. I was situated between my parental hills, so I was in the valley. My older brother would have been on top of the valley, I at the bottom. I was closest to the river then, I liked fluidity, I wanted to flow - but on the other hand the river could flood me over, so my position was unsafe too!

There was once a battle at the roman hills, between the Romans and the Germans, a battle which may have been reverberated symbolically in the sort of anti-marriage of my parents, who never got on. In transposed Freudian terms one might say that my mother and father were battling between being ‘ego’ and ‘superego’ whilst I was the little ‘id’.

I, the id from the valley, trying to rise and grow, either by acquiring ‘ego’ or superego’ aspects for myself, or by become an id-entity, by acquiring an identity! My personal landscape (‘psycho-geography?’) then, needs its own hills too.


Hometown?!

I’ve avoided calling it a hometown, because it hasn’t been for a long time, though it is assumed to be this on many occasions. The term ‘hometown’ sounds too static for me, as if the concept of ‘home’ cannot move! I have not lived there as an adult, and so the attachment to place has not undergone the ‘independent movement’ that adulthood offers. Independent movement is key to grow into a town, and even if you have grown up somewhere, you might not necessarily grow into it (whilst growing up!), in this sense. I wonder what has impacted me most about Loehne: maybe the combination of railways and mines: my way to school led via a path which was a long-disused train-line that once carried workers to and from a mine up the road (or up the train, into the hills), where iron-ore was once mined.

I have become a miner perhaps in the psychological sense: I am mining my subconscious, there is so much ‘raw’ material inside, which can be used for the production of thought!

Related posts...
The Muso-Psychogegraphical Wanderings of a Retrospective Sojourn

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography – Walk-Out by Fenella Brandenburg


As many of you know, Fenella Brandenburg is a regular contributor to this blog, so naturally I was hoping for a report from her of The Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography held at Huddersfield University in September 2017, not least because she and David Bollinger gave the keynote speech. However, her curt reply to my request was: “Are you kidding! There is no way I want to be associated with that load of bimbling idiots”. Which, it transpired, echoed her walk-out when she stormed off stage shouting: “This conference is a shambles!”. Prior to that remark she had slammed down her conference paper, turned to Bollinger and said: “If you think I am staying at yours tonight, you have another thing coming. I am off to check into the Holiday Inn. Now!”. With that she grabbed her suitcase and left the conference...

Anyway, in the absence of a post from Brandenburg, Tim Waters has kindly allowed me to reproduce part of his post here, and link to his full report of the conference.

Tim Water’s Report on the Conference

Extract of the keynote by Bollinger and Brandenburg:
To open the congress, we were treated with a very special talk. David and Fenella appeared from a cupboard where they had been waiting for 30 minutes before I introduced them. There were some audio problems and some people complained about not being able to hear it properly from the back. But they steamed ahead. There were several laughs and I think when people got the format they enjoyed it. The format was in the way of a read sequence of email exchanges between these two academics. David did say that one of his chapters of a forthcoming book was available to be viewed, and here it is: ‘Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can! Psychogeographically walking with John Nada, Beryl Curt and David Bollinger’.

You can read Tim’s full report here.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Visit to Leeds Zine Fair 2017


Early this month I went to the Leeds Zine Fair for the first time. I believe this is an annual event, but this was my first visit as a zine-maker (or rather, zine-editor). I was preparing myself for a potential lecture on the subject, which I may be doing in the next academic year. So, the selection above I bought for £10 - a bargain, I would say - which was my limited budget.

I was as interested in the zine-makers as the zines themselves. This chap had been making zines for years.


So, I bought one of his oldest ones that he told me was from the early 90s: Headcheese and Chainsaws/Sludgefest. It's, sort of, two zines in one (you can reverse it, turn it upside down and you have another zine at the back). It also came with a couple of the original free inserts!


A recent zine that he was selling, Practical Visual Nihilism, was very new and has a completely different aesthetic, as you can see: slick, shiny, professional-looking printed material:


It also became apparent that there is a large choice in terms of format and also a vast subject-area in terms of content. No more time to post anything more about my trip, but it was a great morning and I would highly recommend a visit to your local, annual zine fair. The zines, and the people, were fascinating and there are zines on everything imaginable: from 'sexual freedom' to 'necromancy'!

zine
/ziːn/
noun informal
a magazine, especially a fanzine.

Links:
Punk Fanzines
Tom Vague
Zine History and Research at OCAD University
Zines Collection at Michigan State University

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Fundamentals of the Psychogeographical Method - Conference Paper


The Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography is happening again this year on the 8th to 10th of September at the University of Huddersfield. I thought you might like to see details from the paper that Fenella Brandenburg (occasional guest blogger here at particulations), is giving with David Bollinger (guest blogger at notanotherpsychogeographyblog).

Abstract
Bollinger and Brandenberg are world leading psychogeographers and in this key-note talk they will take you on a grand tour of what psychogeography is all about and will explain how to go about creating your own psychogeographical adventures. They will also be promoting their new book, The Fundamentals of the Psychogeographical Method, which will be published by Dodo Press in 2018. Their soon to be published book has received outstanding positive reviews from well-known psychogeographers such as Luther Blissett, who said: "this book will change your life!". Victor Salamanca described the book as "a journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are, lit by Bollinger and Brandenburg’s vivid prose. I’m sure that it will be read in a thousand years from now" and also Rudolf Rudenski commented that "Psychogeography is in crisis. Anyone that calls themselves a psychogeographer is actually a pseudo-psychogeographer. Bollinger and Brandenburg show us how to carve a path through the crap of psychogeography and they boldly point the way to a new way of doing psychogeography foregrounding an agenda for social change and action".

Friday, 18 August 2017

Warrington Means Business



By Paul Hazlehurst

Walking inside out, explore, photograph, make notes
Warrington becoming a Schizocartian vision of rhizomes
Rhizomes of institutions accelerate the process
A man in a suit, bottled water on desk: ‘Moving Forward’
Council Masterplans, C.G.I

Utopia mediated through billboards, display banners, public consultations, questionnaires, local press...
...and Facebook groups
Psychic rhizomes: tangling, weaving, knotting...
...from one mind to another
Emotional Ley lines, multi coloured connections, the mask of the spectacle slipping
‘Keep the spin and gloss positive’

A town being bullied into a city: city of culture, garden city
‘24,000 new homes by the year 2037’
Bypasses, arterial link roads, riverside apartments, loss of green belt
Japanese Knotweed cracking the pavement
Bat surveys and money for ecologists

I walk along feeling slightly uneasy, a dark cloud forming on the horizon, a liminal time zone between demolition an regeneration, walking past empty shops and windows

Photographic images: a bricolage of the objective, subjective landscape
Urban decay, street photography, hidden places, art, historical documentation...
...ready to download and assemble at home


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Walking Inside Out - Introduction



Introduction:A Wander through the Scene of British Urban Walking

by Tina Richardson


WHAT IS PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY?

Get a map of your local area and spread it out on the floor. Study the map, imagine the terrain, find your preferred route – perhaps a bridleway or a towpath – and trace it on the map. Grab your coat off the hook in the hallway and put on your sturdy shoes. Leave the house and dump the map in the wheelie bin. Forget the map. Go to the nearest bus stop and get on the first bus that comes along. Get off when you feel you are far enough away from home that the area is unfamiliar. Begin your walk here.

Psychogeography does not have to be complicated. Anyone can do it. You do not need a map, Gor-Tex, a rucksack or a companion. All you need is a curious nature and a comfortable pair of shoes. There are no rules to doing psychogeography - this is its beauty. However, it is this that makes it hard to pin down in any formalised way. It is also this ‘unruly’ character (disruptive, unsystematic, random) that makes for much discussion about its meaning and purpose - today more than at any other time.

This volume does not pretend to have a definitive answer to what psychogeography is, but it does propose to open up the space that can be defined as psychogeography, providing examples and encouraging debate. In his introduction to Psychogeography (2006) Merlin Coverley asks: “Are we talking about a predominantly literary movement or a political strategy, a series of new age ideas or a set of avant-garde practices?” and goes on to say that it is all the above (2006, 9-10). In just a couple of sentences we have opened up a can of nebulous worms on the ambulatory behemoth that psychogeography (or urban walking) is. What this selected volume of essays does is present the state of play as it is for psychogeography in the UK in the 21st century...

Click here to read a viewable online copy of the full introduction, or here to download a pdf.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Assembling the Assemblage: Developing Schizocartography in Support of an Urban Semiology


You can read this free/open access article, published in Humanities Journal  special edition, Spatial Bricolage: Methodological Eclecticism and the Poetics of 'Making Do', edited by Les Roberts. Here is the abstract, and below part of the introduction and a link to the rest of the article:

Abstract

This article looks at the formulation of a methodology that incorporates a walking-based practice and borrows from a variety of theories in order to create a flexible tool that is able to critique and express the multiplicities of experiences produced by moving about the built environment. Inherent in postmodernism is the availability of a multitude of objects (or texts) available for reuse, reinterpretation, and appropriation under the umbrella of bricolage. The author discusses her development of schizocartography (the conflation of a phrase belonging to Félix Guattari) and how she has incorporated elements from Situationist psychogeography, Marxist geography, and poststructural theory and placed them alongside theories that examine subjectivity. This toolbox enables multiple possibilities for interpretation which reflect the actual heterogeneity of place and also mirror the complexities that are integral in challenging the totalizing perspective of space that capitalism encourages.

Introduction

The ways that we develop methods to help us understand, critique, and express our responses to urban space are as dynamic and ever-changing as the geographical space is that we are presented with as our object of study. The built environment can often operate on our psyches in a subliminal fashion, such that its changes—even when this involves substantial developments—become incorporated into our spatial awareness quickly and subtly. This has the effect of creating a type of cultural forgetting whereby it becomes difficult to remember what was in that place prior to these transformations taking over. What these transformations may hide requires a form of revealing to take place that will not only expose the layers of history, but will also encourage discussion, engender creative responses, and give voice to what is under the veneer of our everyday urban spaces.

This article offers a discussion on the forming of a method of urban critique—schizocartography—which allows for a flexibility in regard to interpretation, and also borrows from differing theories and practices in order to create a flexible set of instruments. This toolbox can be applied to all stages of the process of analysis, from the physical field work, to the critique and research, through to the forms in which the outcomes may be presented. Schizocartography brings together psychogeographical practice and urbanism with theories that examine subjectivity, heterogeneity, and power in order to present an adaptable set of tools that assesses many of the components involved in being present in our towns and cities. Schizocartography “reveal[s] the aesthetic and ideological contradictions that appear in urban space while simultaneously reclaiming the subjectivity of individuals by enabling new modes of creative expression. [It] challenges the ossified symbols of hierarchical structures through the act of crossing the barriers (concrete or abstract) of a particular terrain.” (Richardson 2015, p. 182). It acknowledges the need for a subjective mapping of place, one that can respond to the fluidity of physical space as much as it does to the flexibility of us as individuals. Cont...

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Paul's Walk, London Drift 1/7/17 – Part 2


By Paul Hazlehurst

Continued from Part 1

We passed Lords Cricket Ground, with its futuristic pavilion hovering above the brick wall, and came to Abbey Road zebra crossing. A small crowd was on either side of the pavement. As soon as there was a gap in the traffic, they would walk across whilst others took photos. It looked like a never ending loop. I wondered, would this be going on in fifty years’ time, how many were pilgrims performing a kind of religious ritual and how many tourists? I could not name a track from the Beatles Abbey road album myself. It is hard not to become a tourist in London, the city seems designed for tourism. Cross the zebra, peer through the railings at the recording studio, sign the wall, then visit the shop. Abbey Road had become a brand: "the most famous recording studio in the world". I took a photo of John and Brian as they crossed the zebra. They were enjoying themselves again after the hustle and bustle of Camden.

We were back on the tube again heading for Westminster, the pace picking up again. I was starting to miss drifting: travelling on the tube was like being blindfolded, there was no in - between, no sense of distance covered. It felt a bit restricting, but was a fast way to move through the city. Westminster station is a futuristic concrete bunker with beams everywhere, a marvel. I tried to get a photo, but was too slow. Outside an austerity demonstration was ending as tourists posed for selfies with the London Eye as a backdrop. Blair's footprint with a ‘fast track’ option. Crossing over the river the smell of cooking food and the voices of street entertainers filled the air. My jaw dropped as we came to the South Bank Centre.


It is described in Barnabas Calder's book Raw Concrete as one of the most gloriously irresponsibly, expressive pieces of architecture ever designed: a shouting spitting punk - architecture for those who do not fear architecture. For me it is also an amazing building, a psychogeographical puzzle box waiting to be solved. It challenges you to explore it and find a way in.

John and Brian started talking about carbuncles and car parks: they liked the shiny new steel and glass structures. We moved on to the National Theatre, described in Raw Concrete as Denys Lasdun's masterpiece of abstract architecture. They looked puzzled as I got my camera out and started to photograph the theatre, as walked towards an outside staircase.


They were now so used to a world of security cameras and guards that they were genuinely amazed by the fact that you could just walk around the building. I was bemused as I walked around the terraces, photographing from every angle, before finding some seats for a break. John wandered into the BFI shop, coming out smiling, with a keyring. Christopher Lee as Dracula, fangs bared with blood smeared around his lips, it tied in perfectly with our earlier visit to Highgate Cemetery. The theatre had a utopian feel: the future seemed hopeful.

It was late afternoon/early evening, the bars and restaurants were filling with fresh-faced people getting ready for the night ahead. We crossed the Thames and began our journey home. The day had been an interesting blend of psychogeography and tourism...

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Paul's Walk, London Drift 1/7/17 – Part 1


By Paul Hazlehurst

As the train passed the goods yards and graffiti covered walls approaching Euston Station, I again felt the joyous excitement that a visit to a city brings to me. The beginning of a new adventure, wandering around with no set plan, seeing what will happen and where I would end up.

I was travelling with my twin brother John and his friend Brian. They were not psychogeographers, but both enjoy walking and were looking forward to visiting London. We picked up our rucksacks and exited the train. Standing in the station foyer, Brian started to tap his mobile phone, conjuring maps and data from his fingertips, whilst I checked my camera settings. We decided to get the tube to Archway and explore Highgate.

We picked up tube navigation easily enough, but on leaving the station at Archway soon got lost. Brian's phone map started to mess up and he lost direction at a crossroads, walking about with his phone in front of him like a Geiger counter. I was about to suggest that we just wandered, but after five minutes John asked a passer-by for directions.

Climbing up Highgate Hill, a flyer on the pavement advertised the Freud Museum, ahead was the Whittington Stone, a monument marking the point where Dick Whittington heard the Bow bells chime: "Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London". Cutting through Waterlow Park, the area was leafy and luxurious - oozing wealth. Toned bodies in Lycra were all around. More pulled up on racer bikes outside a gated community which was the size of a small village. A man pushed a pram down Parliament Hill, as a woman lifted weights on top. The voices of personal trainers filled Hampstead Heath. The city looked far away again, a spiky graph line.


We decided to go on the cemetery tour, which gave a history of the city and how it buried the dead. The tour was enjoyable, with a mix of Hammer Horror, dark catacombs, poisoned Russian spies, the Highgate Vampire, and celebrities from Karl Marx to Jeremy Beadle. Funnelling out of Camden Town tube station like grains of sand in an hour glass, the relaxing pace was broken. John looked panic stricken: "stay together, don't get lost", he said as the barriers were opened and the crowd of passengers swarmed onto Camden High Street.


The street was a riot of noise and colour - people flowing in every direction - it was impossible to take it all in at once. John ducked into a souvenir shop looking for a key ring - he needed something solid to hold onto to calm his nerves, after years of weekly shopping at the local supermarket this was a shock for him. Brian was looking for an escape route but the sun was shining on his phone screen rendering it useless. The market looked too crowded, so we headed along the Regents Canal towpath, passing a floating Chinese restaurant and an art deco narrow-boat. Street art and tags adorned the walls. The crowds of people started to thin, passing the London Zoo. Brian examined his phone under the shade of an iron bridge, picking Abbey Road as our next place to head for.

Click here for Part 2

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Anywhere in 'Anywhere': An Unconventional Look at Cecile Oak's New Book


"Please feel free to read Anywhere in any way you want and take away from Anywhere whatever you wish; read it as a novel, as a failed conference report, as travel writing, as a meandering guidebook, as a textbook written by a drunken geographer. Or all of these. I hope that everyone, whether on the ground or in their imaginations, will use this book as a guide to making their own journeys in their own 'South Devon'"

This is how Cecile Oak prepares us with her author's note at the beginning of Anywhere: A mythogeography of South Devon and how to walk it (Triarchy Press 2017). So, rather than present a formal review of her new book, I will be taking her literally and choosing some extracts from 'anywhere' in the book as a way of offering an introduction to the text. I would however like to begin with an introduction to the characters in the book and make a comparison with this particular approach to writing with the film Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov 2002).

This mythogeography of South Devon is explicated through the discussion between Cecile Oak (known as the stranger) and her companion A. J. Salmon (known as the guide). While we are all familiar with Oak's academic lineage and her doctoral thesis, Salmon may not be so familiar to readers. Seemingly, he is both a thief of poetry books and a provider of poetry education - one of these leading him to jail and the other providing him with a distraction while incarcerated in 2009. These characters are comparable to the Narrator and the European in Russian Ark (which also uses this dual narrative technique). In Russian Ark the narrator tells the story, but also has a guide (the European), who acts as a sounding board but also introduces the narrator to Russian works of art, and historical facts and characters, of interest in the film.

Below are some of the urban characters that caught my interest in the book - some living, some inanimate - with images sourced elsewhere. The text is Oak’s...

St Luke’s Church by Derek Harper

“There are a lot of hypnotic objects to be dealt with in Buckfastleigh before we can get out. The brutalist church with a chain running out of a gutter and down the back of the building and through the grilled of a large drain. We decide it isn’t mechanical, but there simply to guide the stream of water into the drain, A thin drizzle is starting to fall, we watch how the water flows from link to link…” (page 300)

Guide Psychogeographique de Paris by Guy Debord

“Frustratingly – or maybe this is why it serves everyone so well! – there is very little documentation on these situationist wanders. And [Andrea] Gibbons has the reason. It’s directly attributable to the failure of the Situationists to defend their Algerian comrade Abdhelhafid Khatib after his psychogeographic survey of Les Halles was cut short by arrest (in the context of the Algerian War this constituted an existential threat to Khatib); instead the Situationists seem to have closed down the whole project.” (page 199)

Snails Overlapping by Tina Richardson

“There are two kinds of patterns in the water. The reflection that transports a here to a there, reproduces itself, but also replaces somewhere else with itself. When that kind of reflection is the main metaphor for comparing and connecting things, it reinforces analogy, homogeneity and conformity…[The] second pattern: diffraction is a kind of dynamism in the matter of the world. It is what the theorist Donna Haraway calls a 'metaphor for the effort to make a difference in the world'. This works all the way down, so at a certain level, incredibly small things overlap, interfere, and make a difference all on their own.” (page 79)

Rosy Cross of the Golden Dawn

“On the bricked floor of the parking space are symbols set around a Kabbalah ‘tree of life’…When I put the images up on Facebook later a ‘friend’ comments that the combination of symbols is characteristic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Hmm… Someone else posts that these are symbols of a spirituality of light generated from an “electrical pivotal point”, not the sun, not the centre. Could we be talking about diffraction here? My correspondent guides me to a Plymouth University astronomer called Percy Seymour. When I look him up he seems to have been a fairly conventional academic, studying magnetic fields around planetary objects, until he suddenly ‘flipped’ and began to interpret everything, including human personality, as subject to the magnetic and gravitational fields of the sun and the planets.” (page 160).

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Assembling the Assemblage: Developing Schizocartography in Support of an Urban Semiology


You can access this Humanities Journal open access article here. Below is the abstract:

This article looks at the formulation of a methodology that incorporates a walking-based practice and borrows from a variety of theories in order to create a flexible tool that is able to critique and express the multiplicities of experiences produced by moving about the built environment. Inherent in postmodernism is the availability of a multitude of objects (or texts) available for reuse, reinterpretation, and appropriation under the umbrella of bricolage. The author discusses her development of schizocartography (the conflation of a phrase belonging to Félix Guattari) and how she has incorporated elements from Situationist psychogeography, Marxist geography, and poststructural theory and placed them alongside theories that examine subjectivity. This toolbox enables multiple possibilities for interpretation which reflect the actual heterogeneity of place and also mirror the complexities that are integral in challenging the totalizing perspective of space that capitalism encourages.

This article is part of a special edition edited by Les Roberts: Spatial Bricolage: Methodological Eclecticism and the Poetics of 'Making Do' and focuses on the concept of bricolage:

This is a proposal for a Special Issue of the journal Humanities, on the theme of ‘Spatial Bricolage’: the art and poetics of ‘making do’ (de Certeau 1984: xv) in spatial humanities research. Expanding on themes explored in an earlier Humanities Special Issue on ‘Deep Mapping’ (Roberts 2015/16), this follow-up collection places firmer emphasis on questions of method: the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ that variously informs the doing of deep mapping and spatial anthropology. Provisionally organized around the twin concepts of cultural bricolage and the researcher/practitioner as bricoleur, this Special Issue aims to collate and provoke critical discussion trained on spatial bricolage as an interdisciplinary (or ‘undisciplined’) nexus of practices and pick-and-mix methods. Claude Lévi-Strauss described bricolage as ‘[the making] do with “whatever is at hand”… [; to address oneself] to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours’ (2004: 17, 19). If eclecticism informs a deep mapping practice increasingly oriented around the embodied and embedded researcher, then it is one that correspondingly finds its creative expression in the art and poetics of ‘making do’. As a ‘maker of quilts’, or, as in filmmaking, ‘a person who assembles images into montages’ (Denzin and Lincoln 2011: 4), the researcher-as-bricoleur makes do insofar as what it is she or he is ‘mapping’ is recast as a representational and affective assemblage. In the same way that calls for a ‘more artful and crafty’ sociology are underwritten by a push towards more ‘open methods’ in the social sciences (Back and Puwar 2012: 9), approaches in the interdisciplinary field of spatial and geo-humanities strive to embrace a methodological eclecticism adaptable to the qualitative dynamics of experiential, performative or ‘non-representational’ (Vannini 2015) geographies of place. Engaging with deep mapping ‘in all its messy, inclusive glory’ (Scherf 2015: 343), contributions for this Spatial Bricolage Special Issue are therefore sought from a wide range of fields that address questions that speak to issues of methodological eclecticism in spatial/geo-humanities research. Papers are especially welcome that examine the role of autoethnographic methods and practices, performance and gonzo ethnography, digital methods, or which address some of the ethical questions and constraints thrown up in relation to urban cultural bricolage as a mode of critical spatial research within the academy.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 3


By Fenella Brandenburg

Continued from Part 2

(this is the final part of this series of posts)

Since the Enlightenment the university’s relationship with industry has grown out of a direct response to an economic need. This meant the university reacted to the demands for a certain type of knowledge requirement. In postmodernity the university has acquired the mantle of a business-oriented philosophy in its own right, meaning that attempting to demarcate commerce and HE as separate entities is far more complex. In order to compete in a globalised market the contemporary university is expected to think and operate as if it were a business: it has to take up the procedures and practices of commerce. As far back as 1990 academics were writing about the application of a commercial formula to every aspect of education. Cynthia Hardy says:
The tough choices advocated in business literature are likely to escalate the political conflict that surrounds declining resources, not resolve it. Draconian measures – terminations and program closures – can send shock waves through the university community. The more marketable individuals will leave to find less hostile surroundings; potential recruits will resort to political infighting, as they try to protect their departments. (1990: 317)
Hardy’s comments imply a potential move by many academics into other professions with those remaining having to become defensive in order to protect themselves and their future within the institution.

These illustrations are provided so as to emphasise that the current period of austerity is situated within the greater issue of how organisations operate under neoliberalism in general and their response to politico-economic events. While cuts to funding in HE are going to have an impact on those studying and working at the university, the effects of capitalist oriented processes on those at the university can be both subtle and furtive.

Mark Fisher makes direct reference to university bureaucracy, including providing an extensive list of documents a module leader is required to complete for each module they oversee (2009: 41). He says that the constant checking, monitoring and production of figures does not provide “a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output” (2009: 42). Mary Evans puts it succinctly: “Since God no longer exists, we have invented assessment” (2004: 34). Evans says of both the Jarratt Report (1985) and the Dearing Report (1997) that they imposed “upon universities a quasi-democratic ethos of collusion with the values of a market economy” (2004: 23). Consensus is all that is needed to enable bureaucracy’s seamless transition: “The ‘right’ process is established, the rules of the game set, and what is then required are cooperative and consenting players” (2004: 62).

Dissent becomes difficult in a system that sees the student as consumer, service and product of the system (Fisher 2009: 42), because the ability of students or staff to direct any grievance to a recognisable figurehead is difficult. Any challenge of/to the system simply points to another set of figures, attached to which are a set of further criteria. Or, instead, the result of the query may just appear as a re-framing and re-presentation of that data back to the enquirer: “the best performativity [...] comes rather from arranging the data in a new way” (Lyotard 2004: 51). Bureaucracy, as an instrument for measuring excellence in the corporatised university, as Fisher describes, “floats freely, independent of any external authority” (2009: 50). It produces a style of surveillance culture for academics that is rather like an invisible postmodern semblance of the time and motion study that constantly hovers over them in the form of a bureaucratic superego.

This constant checking is part of the everyday administration of the contemporary university which attempts to measure production in the same way that a factory would through the use of the nebulous term ‘excellence’. The use of the term ‘excellence’ has changed over time. For example, in the transcription of a lecture given in 1991 at The Centre for the Study of Theology at the University of Essex, David Jenkins (the Bishop of Durham), uses it quite differently. This lecture is entitled ‘Price, Cost, Excellence and Worth – Can the Idea of the University Survive the Force of the Market?’ While it offers a critique of the corporatised university, Jenkins uses the term ‘excellence’ in a similar way to how the term ‘mastery’ might be used: “everything is concerned with ‘price and cost’ and not with ‘excellence and worth’” (Jenkins 1991: 31). It is likely that the term ‘excellence’ has become appropriated by corporations (and the university) because of its convenient vagueness. The pervasive audit culture enables a form of micro-management without the manager appearing in bodily form. Richard Hill says that technology has enabled this ideology to proliferate, since administrators are often no longer needed to carry out many tasks on the behalf of academics, now measuring forms are often online and accessible by all through their desktop computer (2012: 172).

Hill highlights the common use of the word ‘excellence’ in taglines and slogans used by universities, providing examples from Australian HE institutions: “‘Integrity, Respect, Rational Enquiry, Personal Excellence’ (Edith Cowan University): ‘In the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research’ (Griffith University): and ‘Excellence, Innovation, Diversity’ (University of Wollongong)” (2012: 60). He describes this as “corporate-speak” and while he uses a flippant writing style to explain how these taglines operate on the unconscious, he nevertheless hits upon a significant point in regard to how language is linked to how we view the world: these “phrases [...] send certain images racing through the collective psyche of prospective students in the hope of instilling some sort of lasting semiotic effect” (ibid.). And this is apparent when Readings states: “the question of the University is only the question of relative value-for-money, the question posed to a student who is situated entirely as a consumer” (Readings 1999: 27).

Bibliography:
Evans, Mary. 2004. Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities (London and New York: Continuum).
Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books).
Hardy, Cynthia, ‘‘Hard’ Decisions and ‘Tough’ Choices: The Business Approach to University Decline’, HE, 20, 3 (1990), 301-321.
Hill, Richard. 2012. Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University (Sydney: New South Publishing).
Jenkins, David. 1991. Price, Cost, Excellence and Worth – Can the idea of the University survive the force of the Market? (Colchester: The University of Essex).
Lyotard, Jean-François. 2004. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 2


Image: Baird Point at the State University of New York
(referred to by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins)

By Fenella Brandenburg

Continued from Part 1

The idea of the student-consumer has become more significant since the public-funding cuts that followed the global recession beginning in 2008. The 2013 National Student Survey (NSS) asking students for feedback on whether their degree courses were ‘value for money’ resulted in 29% of them stating it was not (Public Finance 2013). This study coincided with the first group of British students (excluding Scotland) being subjected to the rise in course fees from approximately £3,000/year to up to £9,000/year. The study was criticised for asking the wrong question because it was placing the student solely as a consumer of a product that might be expected to be directly commensurate to some kind of financial gain (for instance, a graduate job), rather than providing a question based on knowledge gain. Hence, the question posed tends to encourage an answer in the negative. Nevertheless, one could argue that for the other 71% it was ‘value for money’, perhaps a higher result than might have been expected with such a significant course fee rise. However, the question itself reflects the trend to express the acquisition of knowledge through exchange-value rather than use-value.

Like academics, students are also subjected to university bureaucracy in the form of surveys that measure their teaching and service satisfaction at the micro and macro level. Mary Beard describes the lack of a response to the questionnaires by students as “survey-fatigue”, and in an article in the BBC news magazine looking at the pros and cons of student surveys, states that the problem with the student survey was that it was seen as an absolute measure of course quality, when actually students can mark courses down for a host of different reasons, such as extensive reading lists (Beard 2013).

However, the latest tuition fee rise and the other cuts in HE funding by the British government, appear under the popular media-generated term of ‘austerity measures’. In 1989 in an article entitled ‘The Management of Austerity in Higher Education: An International Comparison’ Manuel Crespo stated:
The management of higher education in a period of uncertainty, budgetary constraints and real or apprehended decline in enrolments has become a major issue in Western developed countries. Since the late seventies different HE systems have devised strategies to adapt themselves to shrinking resources. (1989: 373)
As the new British Prime Minister in 1997, Tony Blair hoped that 50% of young people would go to university. He stated that: “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for HE” and “will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them” (Blair 2005). Nevertheless, later he was accused of reneging on this promise with many later media interviews hinging on the semantics of the above statements, especially the “no plans” reference (ibid.). It appeared that the structures and money were not in place in order to support Blair’s wishes. Neither were they at the point of the later 2010 coalition government in Britain, when the current, and greatest, course fee rise occurred. This response to public sector cutbacks in periods of austerity, while not a new money-saving strategy, nevertheless, in the contemporary university – which operates on the guidelines set out in the Jarratt (1985) and Dearing Reports (1997), where HE institutions are expected to operate like corporations – means that today they are evaluated primarily in economic terms.

Concluded in part 3 (upcoming).

Bibliography
Beard, Mary, ‘A Point of View: When Students Answer Back’, BBC News Magazine, (2013), [accessed 6 June 2013]
Blair, Tony, ‘Did Labour mislead over tuition fees?’, Channel 4, (2005), [accessed 7 June 2013]
Crespo, Manuel, ‘The Management of Austerity in Higher Education: An International Comparison’, Higher Education, 18, 4 (1989), 373-395.
Public Finance, ‘Degree Courses ‘Not Value For Money’ Say Third of Students’, Public Finance, (2013), [accessed 6 June 2013]

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Ruined Institution: The Production of ‘Excellence’ in Higher Education – Part 1


By Fenella Brandenburg

In The University in Ruins (1996) Bill Readings says that it is ‘excellence’ in its manifest bureaucratic forms which is the driving force behind harnessing the university’s function of the past and in postmodernity placing it under the forces of the market (1999: 38): “Like the stock exchange, the University is a point of capital’s self-knowledge, of capital’s ability not just to manage risk or diversity but to extract a surplus value from the management” (1999: 40). The Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) are perfect manifestations of Reading’s critique in action.

Readings dedicates a whole chapter to the notion of ‘excellence’, which he considers to be the watchword of the contemporary corporatised university. Its effectiveness within the institutional apparatus cannot be underestimated and in order to deconstruct the university discourse it is important to understand the way excellence operates. For Readings, ‘excellence’ is a hollow term that has no absolute definition (1999: 24). He states: “An excellent boat is not excellent by the same criteria as an excellent plane” (1999: 24). A 2013 article in Times Higher Education mentioned “teaching jargon” and states: “despite repeated claims of ‘teaching excellence’ on institutions websites, there was little elaboration of what this meant in practice” (Matthews 2013: 8).

Readings also makes reference to how the consumer-orientation of the university ties in with technology, a large focus of Jean-François Lyotard’s critique. Readings says: “All that the system requires is for activity to take place, and the empty notion of excellence refers to nothing other than the optimal input/output ratio in matters of information” (1999: 39). Capitalism uses technology in order to circulate information and enable a pooling of resources into a “generalized market” (Readings 1999: 32). In the university it is the term ‘excellence’ that helps promote the propagation of this data and mobilise its message. Readings says ‘excellence’ becomes translatable and usable by anyone who wishes to describe it within any phenomenon, in whatever way they choose, by any criteria (1999: 24).

One of the functions of excellence is how it helps promote the processes of circulation essential to capital’s operation in regard to power. Previously, the nation-state sat in the centre of civic life and produced streams of power emanating outwards (the institution being one of the representatives of the nation-state). Readings says that today, however:

Capital no longer flows outward from the centre, rather it circulates around the circumference, behind the backs of those who keep their eyes firmly fixed on the center. Around the circumference, the global transfer of capital takes place in the hands of multi- or transnational corporations. (1999: 111)

What this means for the university is that in its corporate incarnation it is essential that it becomes part of this process and adopts the modes of operating that capitalism endorses.

Upon repeated use the language of the university of excellence becomes normalised, but it has ideological origins which are needed for it to function within the capitalist system, both within and outside the university. The language that excellence adopts, while serving the purposes of the corporatised university, also has the function of creating a type of abstraction, which removes the output of the system – the data that is promulgated – from not only the material practices that are required to deliver it, but also from the staff who work in the university and produce this data (or are party to producing the data). Thus, the term is often used without compunction, without question and without an understanding of the material effects of the process that underpins it.

Continued in Part 2

Bibliography
Matthews, David, ‘Global faculty made up of bachelor’s boys and girls’, Times HE, 19/26 December 2013, p. 8.

Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).