Reflexively Indefensible

It comes on you slowly. The rage is all heat sweats. It has no immediate, single identifiable source. Uncomfortable family conversations. A devious implementation at work, one that is inarguable but also clearly unjust. A bad traffic encounter.

The heat sweats build, droplet by droplet. Condensation misting up the windows, until it gets so bad that you have to stop driving and wipe it away.

The clear view outside offers no respite. Grey in all directions and rapidly misting up again. You move on.

In 2014 it wasn’t immediately clear that publishing a book with the rage left in was the right thing to do. In 2017 it seems obvious. What I did with my book Small Towns, Austere Times, was try to show you how it feels when your class interests are being attacked and the attackers are being protected: This is how I have felt all my life.

Except this time, in my first book, Small Towns, Austere Times, the working class interests are being protected and the middle class ones are being attacked.

Now we see how the stifled rage of this situation was felt all over, not just by a researcher returning to his ‘home town’, whatever that means, and messily trying to make sense of it, but by everyone.

I ‘toured’ the book, for want of a better word, it sounds ridiculous. I received uncomfortable reactions. Then in Durham, at the Anthropology of Britain conference, I was told that a community group and some supportive Anthropologists were ‘furious’ with the book.

Welcome then, all of you, to rage. I sometimes wonder whether I should have done a nice little neat number and got a nice little neat academic position.

But I also sometimes wonder whether I should have opened the book with the following sentence: ‘This is a full declaration of class war’.

But I can’t inhabit that. It sounds ridiculous. It feels ridiculous. We all live among the smashed fragments, the broken middle.

However, in this book I still inhabit the symptoms of the class I emerged from. Maybe I should seek psychoanalysis and gain full pathological accreditation for my journey to The Other Side.

I definitely dumped a bunch of writhing psychological eels on all of your desks, with all their complex aromas, for very particular tastes. Lacan made a comment that children were, at a certain stage of development, ‘eggy’. Neither cultured nor uncultured by language. Neither raw nor cooked. This book is served neither raw nor cooked. It was semi-intentionally half-prepared in a university kitchen, before being delivered, undigestable for some, a delicacy for others.

The book is an intentional blistering sore. One of my respondents recently said of the book:

‘I admire the result and your ability to explain it, but there is something I am not convinced by, about how you have distinguished the target and measured out the anger and grief. I’m not clear in reading the book that you justify the public and half suppressed rage you direct at those involved. It feels like the rage is bigger than the identified target and therefore something else isn’t being identified – that perhaps stands behind the target – in this sense the question for me is not about whether angry ethnography and writing is justifiable, but about how accurate the investigation and diagnosis are, of the emotional responses of anger, rage and joy.’

I agree with much of that. I wasn’t fully aware of this dimension of the book, even when it came out.

The book is a living and livid sign of what happens if you consciously expose the psychological bare wires of research, but in trying to do that, you also semi-consciously expose your own attempt to cover some of that exposing, processes that will be at play in all research, at some level.

Or rather, processes that are usually more successfully concealed. I actually now think that if I have made a contribution to knowledge with this book, that is it.

The same respondent I just quoted called me an ‘impolite ethnographer’. I think ‘bloody rude’ fits better. In this book, I protect my own class interests and attack others. I am from the town I research, I went to its terrible secondary school and I watched my parents get by on twelve hour shifts before the minimum wage existed, in a house without much in it, that we were only in because the council decided to revoke a condemnation and sell it off for very little. They grew up surrounded by real rural poverty, in Warland, up the road, in houses you could only honestly call ‘hovels’, with stone floors. They are now desirable places to live.

But my work is not authoritative because of this either. I am very clear that ‘being from’ does not give me that. It is nervous, shaking, troubled. That is what ‘being from’ gives me. However, I think this is precisely what gives my book its legitimacy.

One universal about small town research is the base level ‘mood’ – in Heidegger’s sense of that word – that people do not like other accounts of ‘their town’. Todmorden is not ‘my town’, it never was, despite a traceable ancestry to the start of record-keeping. It isn’t now and it never will be.

This book is not necessarily mine now either, even though I take full authorial responsibility for it.

But that word in my respondent’s account: ‘justifiable’; justifiable to whom? The middle classes? Dear middle classes, this book is what happens when an ‘indigenous’ – I don’t like the word, in fact I hate it – tries to make work on your terms, in your project, and fails, but then offers that failure as the work.

Michael Keith has described how ‘angry writing’ is routinely excluded from academia, emotion is not just discouraged, but taboo. He also argues that in many ways the ethnographer is always already unethical. I agree with all of that.

Michael has addressed ‘the manner in which academic protocols fraudulently prohibit certain textual strategies whilst celebrating others’, that ‘in focusing on aesthetics, reflexive anthropologists evade rather than resolve questions both of ethics and of epistemology’ and that this ‘can be understood in terms of the responsibility of the author or scriptor with reference to the presence of anger in academic prose’.

Michael then outlines his urge to question ‘the manner in which anger routinely disqualifies writing from academic status.’

He says ‘what angers me about ethnographic work generally is that a sustained vogue for reflexivity so commonly casts a crisis of representation’ over everything and that the ‘smugness of the academy sits comfortably beside ostentatious angst over the academic method.’

‘Reflexivity’ he says, ‘decays into narcissism.’

‘What angers me specifically’ he says, is ‘that in the identity crises of everyday rites of credentialism’ academics ‘cast themselves as an “Other”, pursuing an elusive vogue in social theory, sociology, or, perhaps this week, anthropology.’

But for Michael none of this is ‘a passport to a ringside view of the exotic nor a form of methodological avant gardeism.’

He goes on to explain a moment where he recorded a number of racist dialogues from the back of a police car without intervening. He calls this ‘indefensible’, but adds, with bitterness and irony, that it was ‘reflexively so.’ If his work was reflexively indefensible for not intervening and naming, I wonder if my work is reflexively indefensible for doing so, or is that its rather sharp point?

What is clear is that many of the mainstream respondents think that the anger in my book disqualifies it from academic status.

It is not that they don’t have the ears to hear, it is much worse than that: They don’t have it mapped into the fibres and sinews of their bodies, it isn’t pulsing through their nervous systems like a disease.

Asking one to not live in one’s symptoms was in many ways what bourgeois modernity was all about. I inhabit my own symptoms and that is viewed as a disgrace.

But extreme caution must be exercised here: When the classed and gendered subject returns and offers their own pathologies as something that is indistinguishable from a kind of exclusive belonging, as a kind of entitled ethnocentrism, alarms bells should ring.

A former colleague is now researching me as a kind of exploded classed subject. I’m in her research, which is as interesting for me as for her.

The targets of my book do cover a bigger, more un-touchable, much more painful blister. A bigger set of targets. A couple appear in my book. They place willow woven garden tools against the walls of a ruined former health centre that is about to be turned into a supermarket, which actually never arrives. Another blistering sore, from anyone’s perspective.

This couple were militating in their own symbolic way against unseen powers, global powers, and they were militating in the local. Those powers were bigger than themselves and bigger than the ruined health centre.

That was probably around 2011, and now, in 2016, the Referendum on EU membership and the US election. It was a misrecognition becoming culture, the placing of those willow tools.

But I misrecognised my own rage too. I was them and they were me, at the same time as they seemed like my opposite. The neo-Nazi in my book was the same. The presentation of semi-concealed fury in the book, directed at certain targets, but not others, was offered as political honesty, but I must add to my conscious attempt to simultaneously conceal and reveal, a semi-conscious attempt to reveal and then belatedly conceal my own class anger and bitterness: An even bigger rage, a vaster grief and a longer mourning for a perceived lost stability that never existed; now everyone is doing it.

It’s the ‘new thing‘ although Hegel might call it a kind of negative geist, or Spinoza ‘the sad passions’.

The book had to come out in the form it did, for those processes to come to the surface. They were only retrospectively diagnosed.

If it had lain unpublished it would have lain undiagnosed, by myself or anyone else. It had to ‘come out’ in all senses. We have just seen an outing on a national scale. An exorcism.

Then we looked to America and saw it there too. Now it is all over the west. I think even if you are a highly ‘ethical’ researcher coming into my book, ethical in that you’ve done all the right things, as our institutions tell us to right now – not my version of ethics – then you won’t be spared in there. You won’t walk through unscathed, and that’s the point. That is the journey I want everyone to take. We are all in the broken middle, not just our ‘subjects’. It is supposed to be both troubled and troubling, it can be no other.

There are ramifications for departmental ethics here. The ethical confessional is at the wrong end of the church. It is by the door where you enter: It should be at the back as you leave; I am going in neither end.

In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah there’s a scene in a barber’s shop, where the respondent can’t go on, but Lanzmann makes him. The story must be heard, for the future. Asking if this was or wasn’t ethical in some binary way is mad.

Ethical decisions are messy and bloody, they are not the imposition of some a priori agreed behaviours.

In Todmorden, during research, I sat and listened to a disgraceful speech about how the working classes cause all the damage in town, followed by a claim that a bunch of hippies who run a limited company provided ‘earth care from cradle to grave’, as the real ‘care’ was being badly done by a besieged and privatised NHS.

I think including that scene was both reflexive and ethical. Most universities wouldn’t agree. But many universities can no longer be called universities.

But then recently, I remembered how my aunt died. She choked to death in front of her husband, because of a misdiagnosis by a useless doctor who still practices, in Todmorden. And when that memory was retrieved, in fact just as it was forming, before it fully arrived, I felt the exact same swell of rage I felt at that talk, during research.

There is one misrecognition that has seemed to be difficult to shake, and I am hoping it will get easier now: What I have been trying to tell you all along is not whether green growing is a good thing or a bad thing; what I have been trying to tell you is what happens to the social under deracinated forms of localism.

Back then, there was casual everyday racism and horrible comments about migrants, now, to invoke Beck’s methodological nationalism, we have just uprooted ourselves again by one entire scale. We have retrenched to ‘the island’. Back then, there was a neo-Nazi, who I showed a picture of posing with guns, in front of swastikas and reproductions of romantic landscapes in oil, from his public blog, to a room in Sunderland with only fifteen academics in it, and got a pompous bollocking for it, and now there’s a savage spike in racist abuse and the MP Jo Cox is dead.**

If you really don’t get it by now and you are still angry with me then there is nothing more to do.

Britain is now the place for an anthropologist: I don’t count myself as one; but it is the place for an anthropologist because it is a land of sheer contradiction. Britain is a series of hubs in a global network of trade and finance, some of them offshore, oil rigs and so far Gibraltar and other strategic nodes. Yet the inhabitants just narrowly voted to impossibly make the border of the island contiguous with the border of the nation state.

This will be impossible. It was partly a vote for safety out of psychological fear when the results will only bring its opposite. Like Setha Low’s book on gated communities, fear of the other is only increased by distance and enclosure. I am convinced that a large part of this mess can be attributed to the fact that not everybody is educated to understand that the coastline and the nation state are not quite the same thing.

In the media, some maps of the Referendum voting results were presented in blue and yellow. 48% voted to remain, around 52% voted to leave. But what if we mapped the island’s voting in 48% and 52% grey? We would get a visual ash cloud, covering everything. 48% and 52% grey are almost impossible to tell apart.

But don’t get them confused, because that would be to invite trouble, and at exactly the same time, 48% and 52% grey are as opposite as black and white.

This is no riddle. There is no contradiction here. This grey is now the political hue of the entire island. It is a more accurate map than the blue and yellow ones: This is my particular dialectical take on things.*

The Leavers voted for the binary dream of an island cut off from the EU and in doing so they potentially brought the EU much closer. By triggering a second Scottish Referendum, they may have already placed a new un-moated EU nation right at their borders. How easy do Leave voters think that border will be to police? Without boat patrols and radar? Myriad individuals fleeing across the wilds, tunneling. After making a much easier trip to Scotland on an EU ticket, entry to England should be a cinch. That Leave-voting Cumbria will get these escapees first gives me some pleasure.

But these internal divisions could be seen immediately after the general election in 2015. Manchester wanted to secede to Scotland and if you believe Paul Mason’s new map of the island the day after the general election results, Scotland to Norway.

What is happening is very complex, but the big point to hold to here is that the attempt to block out the nightmare of otherness, to put walls between ourselves and the other, only ever brings the other closer.

Here we can add to the skill and craft of the anthropologist that of the psychoanalyst. I strongly suspected the result would go for Leave. The work I did on the Future of Cities project for the Government Office For Science mapped testimonies to ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’: The picture we have just seen, erroneously recorded as ‘rural versus urban’ in the media recently, was already under that data, which was processed by Sundas Ali, not myself.

In the small town I wrote about, a large part of the working class subjects are post-industrial. ‘Rural’ is a confused and abused paradigm that is often applied to Todmorden.

A very large number of people turned out to vote on European Union membership who wouldn’t usually. This might give me pleasure, but this was a political bonfire of old rotting wood, of bitterness and resentment. 72-3% heat, with a 48-52% grey ash cloud. Choking, spluttering.*

There is now a politicised mass as well as a political mess, but what was clear about that vote is that the nation is split. Its psyche is divided into two warring halves.

One thing is certain. The new working class politics, if we can even call it that, is not going to be ideologically internationalist. Global powers rule them, they cannot see those powers, but they rightly loathe the effects of those powers in terms of how they play out in their lives.

This just happened at an island level, then we saw how the rage of it had been stifled all over the globe. I only showed it happening at the level of a small town, in myself as well as in those I encountered.

There isn’t necessarily a positive here, but where is it written that there needs to be one? Surely the bourgeois demands such things of the subjugated in order to continue that subjugation?

Opening it out, dissecting the sick social body and pinning the folds back to see what is at stake, what is eating at the organs, and negating, cutting so that we might return a more lively body than the one that went under, perhaps that is really all we can do.

It probably isn’t utopia as most academics think of it, but perhaps it is the only place the toxic masculine classed subject can go to.


Hanson, S. (2014) Small, Towns, Austere Times, the dialectics of deracinated localism. London: Zero.

Keith, M. (1992) ‘Angry Writing’, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol 10, Issue 5. London: Sage.

* I made these points more fully in a small post-referendum book called Clocking Off, published by Fold Press.

** It is possible to argue that fifteen academics in a room is a big audience: The book hasn’t sold a hundred copies yet, and the month after appearing live on Radio 4 to discuss it, it sold ten copies worldwide, before returning to 0, +1 or minus figures each month (Zero charge me for review copies).

BSA Cities Manchester Walk

Here are some things that might be of interest to follow on from the walk: A paper Mark and I wrote for Cultural Studies, on the Urbis building as a looking glass; and two issues of the Urbis Research Forum Review, 1.1 on the Mancunian Way, and an issue on landscapes, 1.3, including a piece I wrote on atom-splitter John Cockroft. Here also is the Manchester Left Writers series on ‘the northern powerhouse’ for Open Democracy:

Why Don’t You Come On Back To The War?

My friend goes to a leaving party in a bar in a trendy part of the city. It is for an academic he knows at a big university. Many of her colleagues are there, including a woman who works in admin, in the department of the academic who is leaving. She is there with her boyfriend. They are dressed in hipster retro-rocker style fashion, with tattoos and 1950s rock’n’roll clothes.

The boyfriend, who works for a major international company, begins to explain how he hates diversity workplace policies and that ‘a lot of people are getting really angry about it’. He says he has a ‘yellow boss’. My friend walks away. The evening continues. An hour passes and more booze is consumed.

The admin staff member and her boyfriend then corner my friend and start asking him about his politics. They ask him why, if he is so into LGBT politics, he doesn’t like President Trump who has enshrined LGBT rights in law. They keep pushing. They ask for my friend’s views about the ‘oppression of women in the Middle East’. They bring up the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandals. They carry on pushing.

The entire conversation is a string of extreme right-wing talking points and English Defence League tropes. Exasperated with my friend’s unwillingness to engage, the hipster retro-rocker boyfriend finally asks my friend to define his politics. My friend answers, ‘I’m a communist’. The boyfriend becomes enraged and starts to jab his finger at him, saying, ‘You’re fucking shit you are! You deserve to get battered!’ and ‘I should batter you right now…’ He storms out of the bar, and his girlfriend says to my friend ‘he is right, you are scum…’

Stunned, my friend stands there before leaving the bar, loudly calling out ‘He’s a fascist! This guy is a fascist!’

OK, it was a boozy university party, not a scientific study. But the divide between back room and academic staff has always been pronounced in universities and many middle class academics seem blind to the full extent of the populist rightwing turn.

The social world inside these liberal pockets is hypersensitive to anything that might be interpreted as a slur against difference, at the same time as it is almost completely desensitised to class. Not only this, but the quality of discourse that many working class people find perfectly acceptable, with all of its frankness and factory floor language, is not just frowned upon, but policed in the middle class liberal atmosphere of the university. There are serious consequences for those detected, and ultimately ejection from the rarefied atmosphere, unless behaviour is modified.

Habermas’s ‘communicative competence’, the idea that ‘communicative situations’ can be created where all have an equal say in a public sphere, has become grimly relevant again.

Habermas explained how the Public Sphere emerged through the late 17th and 18th century and then on into the cultural explosions of the 19th century, where it was finally eaten away by capital and privatisation. But Habermas’s communicative competence, if it ever worked as a theory, has historically buckled. Communicative competence always arrived on the odourless breeze of neo-Kantianism. Habermas’s work in many ways tallies with the whole Euro-project that is now collapsing, its idealistic desire and its terrible failings.

The idea that ‘communicative situations’ can be created where all have equal say, equal access to cultural capital and vocabulary, is what universities strive to put in place. But wishing it into being is a naive hope.

However, there is much to say on the current ‘communicative situations’ to be found all around us in universities. I’m getting a strong sense that the more right wing opinions are becoming emboldened and getting out there, in the public sphere.

In the spirit of a more materialist philosophy, and against the neo-Kantianism of Habermas, I want to begin again with those actually existing historical examples. Here then, are some more recent scenes from university life.

I go to an event in a trendy part of the city. I see someone I know and she greets me with a kiss on both cheeks, saying, ‘I have to greet people Euro-style now’. ‘Virtue-signalling’, saying or signifying something ‘right on’, became a handy term for the right to hit liberals with recently. After Brexit, virtue-signalling is taking on new forms, and here is one of them.

Later, I’m in a discussion group at an evening class. The topic is immigration and one of the attendees says ‘why would you let the enemy in? The muslims?’ Later on, an academic colleague describes how in Mein Kampf, Hitler makes comments on the Austro-Hungarian state he grew up in, claiming that it was intolerably diverse. The connection between this and the comment made in the discussion group arrives as a physical, adrenal spike. I shiver.

For some reason, at this point I remember how I took one of my research informants to an academic event, a working class guy. He was wearing a hoodie and jeans. Some people stared. My informant started to feel out of his depth. He seemed to be visually shrinking in front of me. He couldn’t concentrate on our conversation and started drinking faster. Eventually, he said, ‘this isn’t my kind of place’ and left.

Days roll on with unremarkable banality, in the fog of my own interior monologue. Then suddenly I’m talking with academic colleagues and one starts to rail against ‘toxic masculinity’. This discussion then turns into a narrative of disgust over how males are reacting to their disempowerment.

The negative afterimage to virtue-signalling can be found in this kind of dialogue: Although the university will swarm around particular kinds of behaviour and condemn it as offensive, that same behaviour can be found in this kind of ‘back room’ situation, which the sociologist Erving Goffman described; ties loosened, speaking freely to friends in the university café.

Only this ‘speaking freely’ is directed precisely at those the university would clamp down on for speaking freely like this, were they doing so audibly in the university space. The grubby, classed subject with their potentially racist opinions, Reddit account and coarse manners.

The hypocrisy here is deep. They may never directly say that those people are inferior, but the dialogues themselves say it clearly enough. ‘New men’ who ‘get feminism’ being withering about those who don’t still sounds toxic to me whether you call it masculine or not. At the same time universities preen and posture over their supposed openness and tolerance, completely blind to the presence of fascist staff members.

To be clear, I engaged in this conversation as actively as everyone else. I am not free from contradiction, only for me, the contradiction is precisely where philosophy begins, not where it ends.

But we have to pause and consider what else is at play here. The post-industrial classes, astray, in post-industrial zones, are the collateral victims of the movements of capital. So when somebody asks them to ‘get with the programme’, what is also being asked of them?

Can I please be present when the people asking them to get with the new social programme find themselves redundant and behind the curve, precisely at a time in their life when they least need that?

Because that’s what we are dealing with here: There is an implicit but omnipresent assumption that people bring themselves ‘up to scratch’ in terms of their cultural capital and behaviour in order to sell their labour by the hour in a marketplace. If it isn’t up to scratch they don’t go to market and are sneered at by those who do. Or rather, ‘they’ get a very particular set of marketplaces for their caste. Universities, with their increasing focus on ’employability’, are training people to leave their caste. The unspoken corollary is that this redundant caste must wither and die as all that is solid evaporates and god help it if it tries to enter the university on its own terms.

‘Professionalism’ is a big problem here. It is not a neutral category, a stable place of correct discourse. It is a petty bourgeois mode of communication. Respect and respectfulness are not neutral universal categories either. They are produced by the middle classes, as is professionalism. To ask one to not live in one’s symptoms was what modernity was all about, and that is still with us: Those who differed from the produced norm were not just sidelined by the Nazi or Stalinist regime.

Of course, that is a very extreme parallel to make. Universities have a deep phobia of morality, preferring a discourse around ‘ethics’. But in ethical departmental meetings this is boiled down to a tick sheet list of oaths that look like morals. The way the liberal mode of communication operates within university spaces is a de facto morality.

I encountered this in relation to my first ethnographic work, Small Towns, Austere Times, when lecturing to Anthropologists who talk the good talk about multiple voices and modes of ethnography, but then clamp down on the classed subject siding with his own tribe as unethical. When their ethics and my ethics clash, and they point the finger at my ethics, they make a moral, not an ethical judgement. Mark Fisher described this ‘grim’ situation:

‘…where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent – and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate…’

Ethos, ethnography, ethics: Ethos is the spirit of culture or geist; ethnography is a writing (graph) of that spirit of culture; but ethics is still defined as a morality, pretty much everywhere except in university culture. The way ‘ethics’ is written into university culture is as something that is neither moral nor amoral. It is portrayed as flexible, open and inclusive, and yet still acts as a stable floor to meaning.

I thought universities were supposed to be really open and tolerant places, but actually, some of them must be counted among the most draconian places I have ever worked. I thought universities had an atmosphere where all felt able to speak. But here, staff are scared that people might have opinions about their opinions, therefore they don’t give their opinions. Nobody needs to discipline precarious temporary staff: The outspoken ones are simply not re-hired. It is a system that empowers the mediocre and creates an atmosphere of paranoia and unfreedom.

The way to begin to fight it is to write articles like this one: But the way to properly deal with it is to say all this inside these so-called public institutions; but to do so is to head for the door marked ‘Exit’.

It might be tempting to think that this rhetoric of ‘ethics not morals’ and talk of ‘flexible subjectivities’ floats over the awful scenes I have described without touching them, that it is just ineffective fluff. But it is worse than that, the ethical rhetoric and post-hippy culture creates the spaces for the situations I describe.

I have seen how a philosophy of ‘we’re all a bit loose here, everything is a bit radical and non-conformist’ has bred real abuse. But I have also seen how some of the greatest testifiers to that philosophy have been the most prohibitive, bullying and abusive. I have seen this both as a member of staff and as a paid worker for a trade union.

One last scene in the university: I send a polite message to a line manager about pay and copy colleagues and union officials in. I am then reprimanded by the union branch and a colleague for it; it isn’t just that the contradictions are unspeakable in universities, some basic forms of speaking at all are deemed completely outré.

At another institution, I watched how the union branch aided a ‘restructure’ by a group of bullies. When asked if they were complicit with the process, they stated that they ‘had no evidence’ that this was going on, despite informal conversations to the contrary.

‘What are they going to do?’ I asked the branch secretary, ‘write it down for you?’ ‘That they are taking over a fragile department and culling whoever they can to then replace them with their friends?’ He didn’t reply.

It was a voluntary, unpaid hand-holding exercise by union reps, in a feral department takeover situation, later claimed as a triumph, because there were ‘no compulsory redundancies’ (just horrible, passive-aggressive coercion into ‘voluntary severance’).

At this point I can only conclude that I am totally convinced by Henri Lefebvre’s statement in his work on The State that the aims of the modern trade union and state capitalism are exactly the same. Union ‘process’ cannot touch the seething underbelly of social life and so is itself structured by the default neoliberal processes of the contemporary university: It is gagged and shackled precisely by its mode of communication; it thinks it has chosen this mode, but it never paused to make a decision in the first place.

The problem isn’t that the union is too radical, but that it isn’t radical at all: It is a structural, voluntary adjunct of the university; not an opponent of its current state of being.

‘Ah, but how come the “university” wants to get rid of the union then?’ you may reply. Well, they want to get rid of you too, at the same time as you are a structural part of the university, along with all the other staff and features of working life that stand in the way of increased profit, for instance pay over the summer months. There is no contradiction here.

To return to Habermas, in order to unseat him, we now have a bipolar communicative sphere: On one unlit side we have seething, faceless agonism; on the other, stifled, silenced ‘professionalism’ with a human face, hiding its pain in the bright glare. But these things are not neatly separable. Our situation is that of maggots in the communal rice store: The good and bad are not easy to separate and we are all affected. You only have to sniff round the edges, where talk is looser, or booze is flowing, to see the contradictions and hypocrisies.

There is little point clinging to Habermas’s hopes for the public sphere. But that public sphere needs to be radically refigured and this is precisely where it gets difficult.

There’s a lot of heated discussion around safe spaces for students in universities at the moment. Safe speaking spaces are all very well, but they are pointless if they simply remain pockets of discourse where the converted are preached to. They need to spread out into the places where they are most unwelcome. To do that, hard words are required. But hard words, at the moment, are abolished in official spaces, only to flood back pathologically through faceless internet forums.

One can see it in the university admin employee with far right opinions who has to deal with all kinds of diversity policy on a day-to-day basis: Clearly her daily activities and her political opinions do not match; recourse to internet forums is inevitable.

There is a detectable opening up of racist discourse, and that is horrifying, but as soon as we enter into the touchy, liberal discursive space of the university on its own terms we have lost. Not only do we collude with the prevailing direction, we enable it. This is exactly Habermas’s space of communicative equality. Habermas hoped for the European project to expand, and to America, which is bleakly, drainingly ironic: Now we have ‘post-truth’, the maggots and rice are one.

Last week I walked into the building I was due to teach in to find The Army, having set up their stall, collegially talking to students with the aim of recruiting them. Safe spaces? I felt like reporting this as part of my responsibility to The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, or my ‘Prevent Duty’.

Discussions around safe spaces of discourse for students, in terms of whether or not to bring in controversial speakers, seem to be projected from a completely different world to the one I inhabit. It might be tempting to say that the distance between the safe and unsafe space of discourse is the distance between the academic office and the pub, or the student seminar and the halls of residence.

But it isn’t, as the speakable and unspeakable are still going on in inside the university, both in terms of stifled opinions and as evidenced by recent horrible scandals. It isn’t that the policing is too weak, it’s that the attempt is even made. Something completely different needs to happen, even though direct intervention from Mars tomorrow morning is more likely.

The excessive hand wringing over communication in the university is not only functionally dishonest, probably at a completely unconscious level, it is ineffective on its own terms. But what it really is, underneath what it professes to be, is a structural scene of communicational competence which ensures that everyone speaks in their mode. The middle class mode of professionalism and respectfulness that functionally outlaws the real ‘criticality’ that now needs to take place.

Asking for a miraculous return to pragmatics and ‘intelligent populism’ when the ground lies like this is naive. Asking for utopia is never going to work. It is mere dreaming. One begins in the shattered present and then negates and negates: This is not the best strategy; it is the only strategy ever possible. Agonism, sadly, is the only way forward.

And we must negate, and we must firmly grip the fascism that is re-emerging, emboldened and out there, and deal with it: I am not claiming that being ostentatiously free to say whatever you please equates with either progress or freedom; but the liberal left are simply not learning from what has just happened. The institutions, universities particularly, are often slow to catch up. But if they do not change things will only get worse. You cannot handle what is happening by being nice, friendly, or more liberal. You cannot deal with it actively by continuing to live in your comfortable amnesiac bubbles.

There is a fence. On one side we find the ‘mwah mwah’ of the newly imposed habit of a Europhile greeting, signifying disappointment at the decision to leave the EU. On the other side we have commie bashing thuggery: Plus ça change and all change, at the same time. New borders are drawn up through public virtue-signalling, as fascists become publicly emboldened. At the same time, the two ‘sides’ intermingle but rarely encounter each other.

The rise of everyday fascism must be countered wherever it is found. But the liberals have to accept that the storm and stress they are struggling to understand on the other side of this new fence was partly produced by the sealed world they live in.

The rightwing need to accept that their ways come out of a patriarchal, brutal culture of imperial domination, and I count myself among those who emerge from it. I still inhabit some of the symptoms of that emergence: Rebirthing slime that attracts disgust and sometimes anger; I have not taken psychoanalysis to make the full accredited journey to the ‘other side’ of middle class life, thankfully.

I inhabit my own symptoms. But heaven forbid I bring those symptoms into the university on their own terms, with their classed, oppositional spirits.

But the idea that I or ‘they’ simply ‘get with the programme’ is disgusting: Firstly because middle class liberals assume that it is their programme in the first place, and that the othered must come into that space, and it is a space, as Henri Lefebvre figured it. Secondly, they assume that the tools of remaking the classed subject are simply to hand to be used, but are being ignored, they are not. You don’t know about what you don’t know. You don’t miss what isn’t there to see, precisely because it’s absent. Thirdly, there is the naturalised demand that ‘they’, the othered, shift to match the culture of those making the implicit demands.

There is a developmental totalitarianism to all of this, and it matches the vertical class model: That the middle classes are more civilised, that you move up the ladder, or you take routes out. To suggest that they need to come down the ladder and take a journey inward is to be faced with the sheer incomprehension of those who unconsciously inhabit their elevated cultural caste as a naturalised state of being.

That incomprehension and your state of being are one, just as it is in the working classes. Yet the working classes are being asked to continually emerge from their incomprehension into the light of the middle classes.

After the crash of 2008 there was no revolution. After 2015 and 2016 there was no rush to recalibrate the disciplines inside the academy in relation to what happened outside its walls. This is telling. The assumption here is that all is well inside the academy and outside there are toxic subjectivities to be found. These are possibly to be researched, as ‘subjects’, to be travelled to and returned from, as one might travel to New Guinea before coming back with intellectual capital.

‘It’ is not neatly outside the university. Communication in our various public spheres is not about competence, it never was. At the first most basic level it is about who is in those public sphere institutions and who is outside (and if you have a smart mouth you will be out, not in).

At the second level it is about who has been pre-loaded with all the signifiers of upper middle class life and political rhetoric. It is about whose communication is deemed stylistically unspeakable, and whose is to be applauded. Orwell explained that the middle classes communicate like bats, via high-pitched shrieks at a frequency nobody else can pick up.

This lack of a level playing field is precisely why we should unsentimentally say goodbye to Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, but oddly, in order to go through some sort of horrible agonistic processes in order to try to bring it about at a future time. If that can be pulled off, the process is going to be messy. I doubt it can be achieved. But the sheer hypocrisy of the university needs to be faced. We have to fully wake up to the lack of permeability many of our institutions suffer from, not just universities, which has led to this situation in the first place.

I would love to believe in Mark Fisher’s brilliant essay Exiting the Vampire Castle, but I don’t. The diagnosis is precise and correct, but there is no way to clear the bourgeois subjectivity out of the way without insulting it. It shapes the discourse. It is the discourse of right and the supposedly oppositional unions inhabit it too. At the same time, the far right are going public. They are largely doing so outside the space of the university, even if it is detectable on the campus fringes.

Exiting the Vampire Castle suggests that we can walk out of the evil lair of the evil one. The way ‘ethics’ is written into university culture, as something neither moral nor amoral, flexible, open and inclusive, and yet still a form of control, means that Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magical Mirrors is a better metaphor for what we are in.

We, all of us, are not cleanly separated from the bad object. Our lives are not like a computer game where the hero flees Dracula. We are enmeshed in the mirror, our identities morphing into those of Merlin. Look into the Merlin myths (for there are many) he was not a Gandalf-like figure, he was closer to Loki, the trickster-hero rooted in Icelandic mythology.

This is Merlin’s Misty Cave of Magical Mirrors, and the middle class liberals are absolutely tripping in it. I want to ask all the liberal middle classes who are already beginning to disagree with the points I am making here, do you have ‘clean’ and non-violent dreams?

Like prohibition, this unconscious gagging of the stigmatically classed subject just creates even worse ghettoes, where the bile flows all the more thickly. Internal bleeding that will lead to a deeper social malaise. As we can see the bile is only handled in a slightly different way by the middle classes.

Welcome then, to anger. It has been burning underground for decades, precisely because of you, now what are you going to do about it? You cannot get around it, sneak under or over it, this is a return to Agonism, ‘let’s all get nervous’.

You can see the nervous incomprehension all around. ‘How did we not see 2016 coming?’ Well, some of us did. After the smelling salts have been taken, the middle classes then offer themselves as the solution to the problem, blind to their role in the problem itself. This might take the form of making some gallery work or creating a research strand about ‘it’, the problem, ‘out there’.

Can some of you at least wake up to the fact that you can no longer, like neoliberalism, offer the cause of a problem as the solution to that problem?

Working Papers

My working papers are initial forays that are looking for a home in a journal or book in a more developed form. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think a working paper might fit your journal or collection once it is expanded. My working papers are also resources for others that are citable, but of course as ‘working papers’. Please see the guide at the bottom of the first page on each paper. I feel it is important that the preparatory nature of the work here is included if it is cited in a publication.

So, here is No.1, which gives statistics and commentaries on the final death of Postmodernism in the university. It also speculates on the dark and unknown space opening up afterwards.

Clocking Off

Fold Press have just put out a little booklet called ‘Clocking Off’, containing my extended experimental essay on the moment of Brexit. It is about how a Referendum on the organisation of space seems perfectly normal, but a Referendum on time seems impossible, at this point in history, which is a sign of our primitivism. You can get the bookette from them, when it’s on their site. Fold Press are here:

A new Social Science Centre in Manchester

In May 2016 I went to the AGM of the Co-operative Higher Education provider Social Science Centre, in Lincoln, to pitch a new branch in Manchester. They approved my request.

The Social Science Centre began in Lincoln after the Browne Report of 2009 increased fees for students dramatically and began to turn Higher Education over to the market. Our vision is for democratically owned and run higher education free at the point of access.

SSC Lincoln have been up and running since 2011. We are starting only the second branch in the country. The unique selling point for the Manchester branch is the large multi-cultural demographic in the city – sheer scale and access, basically – and the site we have picked in the Quaker Meeting House, perhaps the most politicised Meeting House in the country, next to the newly refurbished Central Library, between all the major city railway stations. This is a winning location, right in the middle of Manchester’s radical history, Peter Street, etc.

We will open on September 5th and we will be able to boast of that, but also that we are providing free HE on a goldmine postcode, next to a fantastic library, with access – hopefully – to the latest Sociology journals online.

So, what steps do we need to take in Manchester to work towards this vision? Immediate costs are for space, travel for member educational trips and guest speakers, print costs, coops uk membership, other events such as an ‘open day’ and joining the British Sociological Association as an institution to gain access to current Sociology journals electronically. Our room size is already looking small in terms of the members we have gathered so far. We may be looking to expand our courses soon, from one to many, and this means room hire. Of course, this may mean an expansion of full members too, but it may not, our education is free at the point of access.

We need financial assistance, both in terms of money and business advice. We are crowd funding an initial amount – the response has been humbling – but it will just get us started.

The current education White Paper gives all of this its context, its current political relevance, as HE continues to turn 180 degrees to face the market. There is a surplus of academic labour in the social sciences and students who cannot afford fees for degrees and MAs for a variety of reasons.

The discourses in the media about the excluded on both sides of the staff-student divide are not hard to find. Our crowd funding campaign has triggered real evidence of an appetite for change. These problems are not going to go away, in or out of the EU, until 2020 at the very least.

It is time for us to spread the SSC nationwide. Those disenfranchised by current neoliberal frameworks are hungry for this. We should be ambitious. Let’s start to brush history against the grain, not just in terms of the way we think – which was Walter Benjamin’s use of that imaginative phrase – but in terms of transforming the landscape where we all live, which we all own, collectively.

Just having two SSCs rather than one is a big step, as it means that this is a movement and not an institution, a phenomena and not an anomaly. I would love nothing more than to set this branch up and go off to start another. However, for now, SSCM is here:

Quote in Lance Parkin’s book on Alan Moore

I have only just realised that a quote from an interview I did with Christian Martius has appeared in Lance Parkin’s book on Alan Moore. It was a strange day. Alan is a lovely bloke, but… it was always going to be a strange day. Here is the cover and the reference. The interview took place in The Black Horse, Northampton, and I published it in my ‘zine Eclectic Electric, all in 1996.

MLW and Castlefield Launch Pad, A Thin Vale

Here is the catalogue that accompanied the Manchester Left Writers show at Castlefield Gallery, called Powerhouse Liberation Movement. Interventions by all the MLWs are sandwiched between essays, one by Gavin MacDonald, called ‘Mapping infrastructure for the Northern Charnelhouse’ and one by me, called ‘From Perversity to Polity, please’. This essay was the planned conclusion to the MLW Open Democracy series.

MLW and Castlefield Launch Pad, the films

Manchester Left Writers won the last round of bids for Castlefield Gallery’s Launch Pad series, administered in association with the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

Part of the pitch was for us to make some experimental films. Here are my films so far. The films are being pitched as ‘Notebook Films’, lo-fi, ideas-driven, quick. Here are some brief explanations and glimpses of each of them:

Notebook Film No.1 begins with the Millbank Riot as an augur of the austerity to come and its responses, 2011 included. It comes into the city of Manchester past shipping containers, and meditates on the ‘parliamentary stop’ of Ardwick Station, which has featured in other MLW pieces. It then travels out of the city with all of the riotous noise of recent protest marches. It begins to demonstrate the methodology of making ‘notebook films’ with iPhones etc, and foraging for scraps to make work with. It challenges the relevance of ‘magnetic north’ and brings in Manchester’s science history. This film sets the scene.

For continuation, Notebook Film No.2 begins again at the Ardwick parliamentary stop. It passes the council clad high-rises named after suffragettes, to ponder class and housing, gentrification, gender and plein air sleeping, via a piece of tent graffiti. It then arrives in the city again at Victoria Station, past relatively new high rise housing stock, to consider Blake’s ‘Ratio’ and what Adorno and Horkheimer called ‘instrumental rationality’. The soundtrack comes courtesy of Onion Widow via Chelsea from Essex.

Notebook Film No.3 explores Ancoats, Engels and myth. It examines contemporary spaces where poverty and the rag trade adhere. It then attempts to collapse the recent filming of Captain America in the Northern Quarter with earlier myths, in order to try to break up and loosen how ideology operates, so that we might think about that in relation to the Northern Powerhouse. The soundtrack by Chelsea from Essex provides a kind of folk elegy for the present, as the ghosts of Cheshire huntsmen – Engels himself rode with the hunt – appear on the streets, providing further augurs. Found scraps begin to re-map the island:

Notebook Film No.4 is by Natalie Bradbury, with some input from me. It explores the relationship between town and country, urban and rural, between Manchester and London, between fixity and mobility. It also begins to explore the idea of the ‘poor relation city’, to the north and south of Manchester, in this case the first in a series of meditations on Stockport, that will later be followed by explorations of Rochdale. This film also finds spaces of hope, in passers-by, in tiny nooks, in small public sculptures like eccentric shrines, in tiny urban interventions, in windows, in walls:

Notebook Film No.5 is a short glimpse of a much longer film, just under half an hour, which takes a trip from Angel Meadow – the place of the extinguishing of Co-operation in the failure of the Co-op bank – to the birth of Co-operation in Rochdale, under harsh social conditions in the 19th Century. The film is subtitle ‘Top Deck As Method’, which is fairly self-explanatory:

Notebook Film No.7 uses the language of Stockport regeneration policy to make a critical but open short piece on the place. At one point, we are literally watching the traffic lights change, close up, trying to find meaning:

Notebook Film No.9 is about the worth of collage, and what Benjamin called ‘Botanising the Asphalt’, for urban exploration. It references Schwitters’ non-representational ‘stuff’ of ‘Merz’, and the ‘gesamtkustwerk’, or ‘total-work’ as smashed fragments. It uses Modern and Post-Modern references to Beethoven’s 9th to further embed the idea of the grand final masterpiece as ultimately shards, after Adorno, and Minima Moralia. This is a gutter version of Shelley’s Ozymandias, for the humanities in the early 21st century. Here it is:

All of the work here is mine, apart from some sound – credited on the Vimeo site where due – and Notebook Film No.4, which is by Natalie Bradbury, with my input. I will upload and preview more work as I make it. Notebook Films 6, 8 and 10 are currently being assembled by David Wilkinson. I am also working on the found scraps you can see in Notebook Film No.9, to present in the gallery space.

Here are the End Credits: