Sam Cooke tackles the tensions of the academic world.
This spring, my university proposed the closure of my department. It’s a recession, I am prepared to accept that some departments may be financial dead weights and should be cast off. That, however, was not the issue the University took with my department, but instead was one which is systemic to the academic institution in Russell Group universities – of which York is not one, but I can’t imagine the counterpart 1994 Group stands in any better stead. The problem is a stifling demand for research from the administration, and demand for research for the sake of research. However, this is not to be a polemic against the institution, but a detail of my personal experiences.
I am an undergraduate in Philosophy at Liverpool University, and I am also president of the Philosophical Society for students. This sounds more prestigious than it is: the position is nothing more than a liaison between student body and department, and the title is ‘something for the CV’ as one of the part-time lecturers put it. It does mean that you spend a lot of time with your Doctors and Professors, however, and a lot of time listening to them complain about the situation they’re in. One tweed-clad Buddha scholar, a lovely (if inhumanly pedantic) man who eventually fled to the Orkney islands, told me of his gripes throughout my first year; he wanted to write books, but this would take longer than the University was willing to fund him for, as they required a steady stream of papers to be published from all staff.
I remember a meeting in an office in which every table and desk was packed with paperwork from administration, as being a member of the full-time staff obligates you in a tripartite workload of admin, teaching and research. I’ve never met someone who’s achieved a PhD in Philosophy without having at least one obvious oddity, and there appears to be no upper limit to the level of insanity achieved by the faculty while remaining un-sectioned. These are people who have run over their own briefcases, who spend their evenings building ramps for their elderly cats, and who only speak in languages that are either dead or formal1. These people are not suited to administration.
However, I digress. In the spring of this year, the minutes for an upcoming university senate were released to selected members of the campus-wide faculty: this selection was of heads of department and professors. Within these minutes was a “proposal for a consultation” of closure of the Philosophy and Politics Departments, the reason given being that the university needed to “continue investing in excellence”. Hiding behind the words, closure was proposed because both Philosophy and Politics failed to meet the expectations the university had put forward for the 2008 RAE, or ‘Research Assessment Exercise’, a now defunct government assessment of the quality of research.
The news broke (though it shouldn’t have; the minutes for the senate are confidential) when a professor from the History Department made a gesture of sympathy to one of the Politics staff, the Friday before the Wednesday senate meeting. The lecturer was unsurprisingly shocked, and swiftly informed the students he taught, who swiftly formed a group of opposition, led by the Philosophical Society and its Politics counterpart. By the Wednesday, there were hundreds of students and staff outside the senate building protesting the closures, and media coverage had gone national the day before. The Vice Chancellor Howard Newby, who issued the closures, referred to us as “the noise outside”.
Maybe a word is required on Sir Howard, a man who is preceded by a reputation acquired at the University of the West of England, at a job he left after sixteen months. He proposed a restructure of UWE in ignorance of the previous one four years before, and it was at UWE was where his buzzword rhetoric really started to show: transforming higher-education facilities into “centres of knowledge exchange” with “blue sky thinking exercises”. His “realignment” of UWE made use of a company named ‘Spirit of Creation’ set up by Shelia Watt (the maiden name of Shelia Newby), who was also appointed to Assistant Vice Chancellor of UWE. Controversies ensued, and were met by a further string of seemingly senseless buzzwords from Sir Howard when asked about Shelia’s duties: she was working on a project involving “employer engagement”.
So, at his next (and current job) at Liverpool University, he was met with suspicion by staff, and rightly so. The attempt to close the Philosophy and Politics departments was eventually brought to a halt by widespread opposition throughout nearly every department in the University. An official statement criticising Newby’s decision to shut a philosophy department was released, with the signatures of the heads of every philosophy department in the Russell group, and the pressure from the UCU (the University and Colleges Union) provided enough external opposition for the closures to be thrown out. This is not to say that damage had not been done – a number of premature retirements (or voluntary redundancies) and changes of leadership within Liverpool’s Philosophy Department have followed since the official closures were rejected in summer.
I’ve been trying to think about what the moral of this story is, but I don’t think there is one to find. Newby isn’t the antagonist because he runs universities like businesses, nor because he tried to close my department – in the long run he’s doing what he thinks will provide the best future for the university, and maybe he’s mistaken in his method. What I gained from this whole unsavoury affair, apart from a distaste for academia and the ‘something for the CV’ mentality, is a notion that as students, we are at the bottom of the pyramid in a university: we’re both the foundation and the furthest from the top. We have no power within the system because we bring nothing to the table apart from our tuition fees, something which I suspect makes the upper echelons consider us like raw materials or cattle, something to be brought in and shunted through. Because of this, it is difficult to use the system to our advantage. Even now, the relationship between the Philosophical Society and the Department has reverted back to the way it was – they do not answer to us within the system, so unless we can offer some motivating force, they’re our opposition. The only reason that we had any success in our endeavours with the closures is because we went outside the system – the media attention, the petitions to people with power, and the physical presence with demonstrations. There is no moral, but there is a reassuring example that the system that constrains us can be circumvented.
1 – all true stories.
Huw Halstead casts his eye over European corruption scandals.
Imagine. The Church of England, using its overbearing influence on the political system, has scandalously swapped vast tracts of worthless land it owns in the Yorkshire moors for prime real estate in the heart of London, in a deal with the government that will lose the taxpayer over eighty million pounds. The Church, having immediately sold some of this land on to developers at a huge profit, is also refusing to back down on its tax-exempt status, and says it will not pay if proposed government reforms revoking this status are put through. Meanwhile, a series of vicious forest fires have swept across North West England, killing more than sixty people and making thousands homeless. The government has been accused of corruption and incompetence for replacing the forestry fire service’s senior officers, who had been sent abroad for specialist training, with political appointees lacking any relevant experience. The electorate has no grounds for complaint, however, because the governing party announced before the election that it would look after “its true-blue boys”.
The government has attempted to deflect criticism by accusing a rather unusual alliance of unscrupulous land developers and left-wing terrorists of committing arson in order to free up land for building. After initially threatening prosecution, the government gave the go-ahead for large-scale construction of hotels and luxury villas in the fire ravaged and environmentally important Lake District area.
Two London-based directors of German company Siemens have been arrested in connection with an alleged bribery scandal. The two men, who were arrested in Germany after going on the run, stand accused of using over 67 million pounds of Siemens’ money to bribe British MPs, to assure that Siemens won lucrative contracts for the country’s upcoming Olympic games. The government has responded by blocking an official enquiry, and locking up the wife and daughter of Siemens’ Financial Director on the grounds that they share a bank account with the under-suspicion director. Another suspect has suffered a stroke whilst giving evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who himself is apparently involved in trying to secure impunity for the recently apprehended Siemens’ director. This has been followed by allegations that MPs have also been taking kickbacks from a government fund to subsidise ferry services to the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has been dogged by repeated accusations that he has connections to organised crime, has been criticised for his extensive control of the media, and has recently been through a divorce following allegations from his wife that he had been ‘fraternising’ with under-age young women.
In central London, the unelected Culture Secretary has exited his fourth floor flat through the window in an apparent suicide attempt, allegedly to avoid blackmail by his mistress, who apparently possessed a video of over one hundred hours of the couple’s adulterous sex. The mistress was immediately arrested and imprisoned without charge or access to lawyers and, since her release, seems to have lost the ability to speak. In the Westminster village, however, the blackmail story has been greeted with incredulity. “They have been openly flaunting their relationship for years”, said one source who preferred not to be named, “so the video would have been news to no one”. So, rumours abound as to why the Culture Secretary jumped (or was he pushed?). Some whisper that he had an affair with the Prime Minister’s wife, others that he received a large and very secret payment for forcing through the deal, allowing a well known fast food chain to open an outlet in Stonehenge.
Of course, this is not Britain. Far from it. Rather, it is a pastiche of political scandals and corruption over recent months in Greece and her Mediterranean neighbour Italy. The reality of British political scandal is – as far as we know – very different. Take the MPs expenses scandal for instance. Examples of the very worst of the accusations were Derek Conway paying his full-time student son £13,000 for research, Douglas Hogg allegedly claiming for a moat to be cleaned, and various MPs claiming for mortgages on expensive properties. At the other end of the scale, some of the alleged indiscretions produced huge overreactions. Take, for instance, the outcry at Jacqui Smith’s husband watching a couple of porn videos at the taxpayer’s expense. Embarrassing, yes. Scandalous, hell no. These are all examples of, at best, incompetence and negligence and, at worst, greed, not devious corruption or terrible theft; exploiting the system to one’s personal advantage, not entirely going outside of the system and undermining the political process. Indeed, many of the illegitimate expense claims seem to have been the result of poor paperwork, which should reassure the public that MPs are spending their time on more important issues, and even those which may have been deliberately pale in comparison to foreign examples. Yet, in instances such as this, we behave hysterically, as though we are reading accounts of corruption like the Mediterranean examples recounted above.
This contrast between British scandal, on the one hand, and Greek and Italian scandal, on the other, is more than just amusing: it also has serious implications for British politics. Firstly, by creating a culture of scandal in politics, the media runs the risk of convincing the public that the political system is irrevocably corrupt, and that there is therefore no point being involved in the political process. In Greece, this has already begun to happen. An elderly lady in a Greek village saw no point in going to vote, because all of her sons had good jobs and were doing well. The only reason she would have gone to vote would have been if she felt her sons needed a favour from the candidate. Secondly, creating a culture where the slightest mistake is leapt upon and dissected by the media, and in which perceived personality flaws are as serious a reason for resignation as political failings, will ensure that anyone even remotely human will avoid a political career. This is not to suggest that incidents such as the expenses scandal should be ignored, but simply that we require a more measured and appropriate response to these incidents. This point is best supported by a final reference to Greek politics: George Papandreou, whose PASOK party recently came to power, has embarked upon a campaign to stamp out political corruption in Greece. However, he is struggling with popularity, especially among the young, because he lacks the public charisma of some of his more colourful but rather frightening opponents. The scary possibility here is that even if a politician is intelligent, honest, principled, and courageous, voters may no longer think that is relevant.
Lizzie Beardsley sniffs out scandal in the European Union.
‘A unique economic and political partnership between 27 democratic European countries’. Unique is one way to describe it. Perhaps the uniqueness of how easy it is for MEPs to exploit money from the system. Or most importantly unique because it has been able to hide its scandal from most people in the UK, through the lack of political interest that a decade of Euroscepticism has fostered.
Brian Wheeler, a journalist for the BBC, in January this year visited the European Union for a week and unearthed some worryingly and deeply disturbing issues around the EU. These issues included an exorbitant maintenance allowance of almost 300 Euros per day for the 3 days that MEPs are in Strasbourg. Which evidently explains why, on the week Brian Wheeler visited the EU, MEPs were travelling in the luxury and comfort of a first class train to Strasbourg. The ironic thing about this maintenance allowance for MEPs, is that many of them see Strasbourg as unnecessary, believing that the real work is done in Brussels. So if the MEPS view Strasbourg as unnecessary why are we funding this?
Like the UK, the European Union has faced its own set of expenses issues, both fraudulent ones and controversial ‘legal’ ones. Firstly to the so called legal side of the expenses. In the EU, expenses rules are a lot less stringent than in the UK. This means that MEPs can exploit EU laws, for instance MEPs can give £180,000 in staff cost allowance’s, which up until recently could include family members. However move over to the darker side of the illegal expenses and a worse situation prevails. In Britain, in the MPs expenses scandal we saw examples including the cleaning of a moat and the financing of a duck house, but compared to the value of the European claims, the UK examples are minute. A clear cut example is the expenses claims of Den Dover (Ed: unfortunately no relation to Ben Dover) a conservative MEP who recently was removed by David Cameron for funding a number of businesses including donating 785,000 Euros to a company owned by his wife and daughter. However the investigation only resulted in 500,000 Euros being returned.
MEPs, who are supposedly maintaining our economic and political relations, appear very hostile to the idea of any change in the expenses scheme, unlike UK MPs who to varying degrees agree that change was inevitable and necessary. In June this year MEPs had to start producing receipts. However, as the MEP Jim Nicholson describes, many MEPs protested about this reform. One labour MEP for instance, believed it was unnecessary to bring about ‘greater accountability’. So what does this hostility mean? Well overall it means that any expenses changes brought about in the European Union are likely to be very gradual, meaning for the time being we have to continue funding MEP’S extravagant lifestyles.
So the question arises as to why MEP’S are able to exploit the European Union to greater levels than the UK parliament. Is it the fact there is a lack of organised oversight of MEPs? Or to the more socialist minded, is it the fact that the EU has its origins in a trade agreement, naturally leading to zealous capitalist politicians favouring a lack of regulation. My honest opinion is that there has been no public pressure due to the overall Euroscepticism that exists in this country. If we took more interest in the European Union, we would realise the immense issues regarding MEPs expenses that exist.
The larger and more influential European union that is emerging must deal with this issue, and our MEPs must bring about change to create a Union that has MEPs who are passionate about being politicians, rather than individuals exploiting a system for their own means.
Asa Roast peers into our obsession with self-image.
Everyone is aware of the Western stereotype of the Japanese tourist. Not entirely unfairly, Japanese tourists in the West are generally stereotyped as obsessive photographers, viewing their holidays through a lens which they use to capture and preserve their experiences. This is probably the most visible manifestation of the phenomenon that I’m calling ‘East Asian photography culture’ for the purposes of this article.
In my opinion, this phenomenon is a Western construct, but one which is nonetheless based on certain truths as well as stereotypes, and is useful in examining broader questions about the function of photography. It’s very difficult to describe these vague ‘foreign’ cultural trends like East Asian photography culture without sounding incredibly Western-centric and patronising, especially when most of my examples are anecdotal, so I’ll apologise in advance. Hopefully if you keep reading until the end you’ll see what I’m getting at.
This is a phenomenon that most clearly presents itself in the young middle classes of East Asia, who’ve grown up with access to cheap and plentiful digital cameras and embedded their use into East Asian youth culture. Compared to Western photography culture, it seems to ‘fetishise’ the idea of the photo, granting it an importance and status that is far less common in the West. At its simplest it could appear to be narcissism – at its most extreme an obsession – but the logic and cultural dynamics that underpin it are revelatory.
If this vague stream of conceptual terms hasn’t served to explain what I’m actually talking about, perhaps it’s best illustrated by my own experiences with this culture in China. Urban malls were commonly full of cheap photography booths where young shoppers could commemorate their outing with a set of posed photographs. Next door, professional photographers had stalls where high school and university students queued to make appointments. Almost every young couple had several sets of posed photographs of them together, often made into little ornaments which they could dangle off their phones. It was surprisingly common for young women to have a full portfolio of professional and amateur photographs taken of themselves, and everyone who’d spent any time in China told stories of spending long evenings being shown through their hosts’ photography albums – which generally consisted of page after page of identically posed photos of the subject against an interchangeable series of backgrounds.
This phenomenon has become part of the general western stereotype of East Asia – the pouting East Asian youth giving a peace-sign. But the fact that this trend has become a stereotype makes it no less real. The Chinese version of Facebook (renren.com) seems to be almost entirely populated by cutesy, myspace-style, heavily airbrushed photos of Chinese youths. I once witnessed a Chinese teenager at a tourist location spend a good quarter of an hour taking pictures of herself pouting, camera held at arm’s length, with the tourist site itself in the background. After each attempt she checked the result, decided it was unsatisfactory, and repeated the process.
One of the most important distinguishing elements of East Asian photography culture is that the apparent objectivity of the photo is devalued, and the subjectivity of the medium embraced instead. The value of photography in such a culture is not its ability to recreate reality, but to create its own reality. This is done through a variety of techniques of ‘counterfeiting’ reality through the medium. I’ve chosen to divide these techniques of altering photographic reality into two categories, and I’m calling them: physical counterfeiting and emotional counterfeiting.
Physical counterfeiting consists of using simple digital photography tricks to alter the reality presented in the photo. This could be the common use of airbrushing on East Asian portraits, or just the use of false backgrounds. On one occasion in Shanghai I witnessed hundreds of families queue up to have their pictures taken in front of full-scale screens depicting famous international tourist sights, ignoring the real physical presence of the tourist sights in their midst.
The most important thing to note here in relation to East Asian photography culture, is that there is no element of deception or subterfuge in this physical counterfeiting – amateur photographers will openly admit to airbrushing their personal portraits or using false backgrounds, but would not expect for this to detract from the pleasure of viewing the photograph.
Emotional counterfeiting is much harder to pin down – but appears to be a practice that is embraced just as openly within East Asian photography culture. The image that prompted me to write this article was a friend describing a group of East Asian students walking glumly around a Northern English urban park, but still pausing to throw themselves down in every flower-bed they passed to take a picture of the group posed in a wildly ecstatic and happy manner.
The reality, in my opinion, is that these practices of counterfeiting the physical and emotional contexts of photos extend well beyond the sphere of East Asian photography culture. The only real distinguishing trait of East Asian photography culture is the attitude towards such practices of counterfeiting. Whereas in the West, most people would place value in the objectivity of photographs as a way of representing reality, and look down upon any photoshopping or emotional ‘falseness’ of photos as diminishing the medium, East Asian photography culture embraces these acts of counterfeiting, and the ability of the medium to create a subjective reality of it’s own.
The practices of emotional counterfeiting are just as common in amateur photography in the West, and not just on the sub-conscious level of smiling when someone takes a picture of you. Every ‘hilariously’ posed photo of a student night out, cringe-inducing photo of a couple kissing, and self-consciously cool photo of a guy in a plaid shirt holding a guitar that’s uploaded onto Facebook is an act of emotional counterfeiting – it’s a destruction of the objectivity of photography and a use of it’s subjectivity to project a desired image.
This raises the question of the purpose of amateur photography. In an age when the internet allows us to access thousands of professional photos of every tourist site or band we could ever see, we still take crappy, fuzzy, shakey photos of these things and upload them to share with the world. These photographs don’t serve any purpose as reportage. They are about creating a physical, visible product out of a temporary, fleeting experience – the production of memory.
Memory, like photography, is not a objective representation of reality. So we are able to use the medium of photography to produce our own memories, and the practice of emotional counterfeiting is central to this. We want to produce happy memories, based on a happy reality, so we use these techniques to produce happy photographs which create their own happy reality.
The overwhelming sense I get whenever I see a group of students (East Asian or not) posing for a drunken photograph of themselves is that this is not an act of leisure that they are engaged in – they are at work, producing their own subjective memories based on the subjective reality they are capturing through a lens.
J.M. argues that, unlike the proverbial omelette, combating the BNP should not involve breaking any eggs
This month, the British National Party beat their own electoral record by winning seats in two European parliamentary constituencies. So, naturally, everyone’s making a big fuss. It goes without saying that holocaust denial is unpalatable, that repatriation of third-generation British Asians is unthinkable and that Nick Griffin is a porky, beetle-eyed racist. All the same, the BNP are a legitimate political party. They have won two seats in a free election (no less free because 66% of those eligible did not bother to cast a vote), on top of several council positions they already hold. With almost a million votes at the most recent ballot, it is futile to pretend that their success does not reflect the political tendencies of a significant proportion of the British electorate.
Under the present system, there is little chance of the BNP winning a seat in the House of Commons at the next election. But in the meantime, there probably ought to be an enlightened debate about why the party has any support at all. Such a debate would, for example, examine whether or not there is any truth in the suggestion that most BNP voters are more interested in mass immigration, social housing and an increasingly straitened job market than wearing jackboots and attending Nazi rallies. Does the BNP owe its success to the pro-white working class stance they have adopted on these issues – issues which have been pullulating in the supermarkets of Britain for the last twenty-five years?
Every pathologist knows that disease is an opportunity to understand the body. In this case, it is the body-politic that needs to be examined. But this debate is not taking place. Why? Because the agenda has been set by Unite Against Fascism, a lunatic band of unreconstructed, knee-jerk Marxists whose campaign to exclude the BNP from politics is considerably more fascist than anything in the BNP manifesto. Now pay close attention, British liberals, progressive or classical, because these people are your advocates in the court of public opinion.
The explicit aim of UAF is to deny the BNP the basic platforms afforded to all the other elected parties in the UK. According to UAF, a party’s right to compete in the political arena is subject to its policies being acceptable to…UAF. Of course! What starry-eyed romantics we were to think that democracy is total and unconditional. Recently, a delegation of yobs from UAF pelted Griffin with eggs at a BNP press conference in Westminster. UAF were also responsible for the riots outside the Oxford Union in 2007. The protestors disrupted a forum at which Nick Griffin and David Irving, the controversial historian, had been invited to speak, even after the students had voted in favour of the event. The subject of the forum was free speech.
UAF are a public relations catastrophe, a raggedy assortment of hippies, druids, trainspotters, rent-a-gobs, po-faced trade unionists and common or garden violent thugs. So it has been no surprise to learn that UAF’s chairman is ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone, the man who upset a Jewish journalist by comparing him to a concentration camp guard shortly before telling two Iraqi-Jewish-Indian businessmen to ‘go back to Iran and try their luck with the Ayatollahs’. Yes, I concede, the journalist was, most likely, a weedy, snivelling nipple of a man, and the two businessmen should probably have been a bit more thick-skinned as well. But the fact remains: Red Ken is too clumsy an opponent for Cambridge-educated master-orator Griffin and his silky, well-spoken sidekick, Andrew Brons MEP.
Which leads on to another problem: language. Semantics are serious, vocabulary vital. As early as 1946, George Orwell observed that ‘The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.’ So is Unite Against Fascism really an appropriate slogan? Fascism seeks to curtail democracy and expand national borders, and generally aligns itself with some or other theory of racial superiority. By contrast, the BNP’s methods are eminently democratic and their defence policy is expressly one of ‘armed neutrality’. Moreover, though the BNP gives shelter to a concentrated supply of retired anti-Semites and parochial racists, their manifesto is more concerned with the perceived practical benefits of racial segregation than the philosophy of white supremacy. Why not Unite Against Racism, which would be more accurate and no less forceful?
But apart from the fact that they are chaired by a discredited political cadaver, that their proposals are undemocratic and that the title of their affiliate is practically meaningless, what’s not to like about UAF? I’ve no doubt they mean well, but if their strategy continues to be as violent, stupid and crude as it has hitherto been, we should give them no quarter. Nick Griffin is an inveterate distorter of facts, and is rarely right about anything. Yet he is certainly right to advise David Cameron and the other political leaders who have expressed support for UAF to withdraw it immediately. This organisation truly is a menace to democracy – and I don’t mean the BNP.