Smoke for the hive mind

I invigilated exams at University of Manchester in summer 2019. I noticed a student wearing a pair of trainers with what looked like a bee on them. I searched for them on my phone in a break. They were £400 Gucci trainers. But the bee was not intentionally related to Manchester’s symbol. I think to myself that if someone hasn’t made Manchester trainers yet they probably will.

Just over a year later I spot a tweet in which Lord Mayor of Manchester, Councillor Tommy Judge, holds up a pair of Nike Air Force 1 trainers with a Manchester Bee on them. Judge calls this a ‘fantastic initiative’, which ‘unites Manchester’s iconic Worker Bee’ with ‘a world-class product.’

It is, he said ‘our greatest brand collaboration so far.’ I go to Google and search for a pair of trainers again, for the first time since looking up the Guccis last year.

‘The Nike Air Force 1 Manchester Bee’ is ‘dedicated to the British city of Manchester’ I find, with the ‘bee motif that honours the city’s hard-working ethic and hive of activity.’ £90.

For me the Manchester Bee pushes the idea of a hard working class that is little different to punitive Victorian laissez-faire ideology, get out and graft to buy a new shirt, to graft some more or die in poverty under a bridge. But the Bee has since become conflated with memories of the hideous Arena bombing of May 2017.

I go straight into Marxist mode. I tweet a few local lefties asking if any of them know where the trainers are made. If they are made in a Chinese sweatshop, the worker bee resignifies. The bee becomes those workers.

But if they were made locally it would be just as interesting. Because as an exception they would point at overseas 21st century sweatshops all the more, as well as those in Manchester’s 19th century past. Apparently, Air Force 1s are usually made in China or Vietnam.

I read further. The We Heart Manchester charity is tied up with the whole thing. They get 10% of the sales. Then I feel a twinge of guilt. Maybe I should just shut my mouth. The I Heart Manchester slogan, like the Manchester Bee, was once only to be found on tourist t-shirts. It too has become conflated with city togetherness after the Arena bomb.

The silence of those who don’t want to criticise because of charity involvement could be read as kindness perhaps, or sentimentality. But it could also be read as a kind of moral gagging by stealth.

I think on. Let’s push aside the hawkish American connotations of ‘Airforce 1’. Our culture is badly Americanised, but the name of the shoe is only a tenuous connection. It has connotations, yes, but I don’t think that’s the real story here.

The charitable aspect is only one part of this too. Luke of the Unabombers and rising hip hop and soul star KSR advertise the product. So they have stakes in this too, and the ‘brand’ of The City of Manchester has stakes in this as well. Status stakes. They are all suddenly draped, in my head, in the robes of Roman rhetoricians.

But musicians have all been hit with a year’s pandemic layoff. They have to keep putting themselves out there and making it where they can. Again, I feel a twinge of guilt.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is the tangle of it. Exploitation, hard labour and swindling cannot be separated from ordinary sentimentalism or good deeds. It is all thrown together in the mix. This is of course an Orwellian way to look at it, but it’s also the start of a dialectic.

Can a charity be separated from the processes that make it necessary in the first place? Maybe not. We are all complicit by degrees – only some are much guiltier than others.

But in all honesty, the account of internal turmoil I am giving you here is amplified for the purposes of writing: Theodor W. Adorno usually wins any internal struggle I go through. ‘World Class’ I mutter, then I do some swearing.

I feel like I want to brush my teeth. There’s a corpse in the mouth of Manchester as the eternal city-of-culture. At the same time, I feel my enthusiasm for what KSR and Unabombers do. The excitement hits the stomach area, just below the chest area which registered the guilt a few minutes ago. I love KSR’s music.

But the idea that there is a quality called ‘world classness’, that this concept of world has an essence that can also be a scale against which the quality of shoes can be measured. Really?

I bristle at academics who over-use what I call the itty words. The itty words tend to suggest that things which do not have an essence do. Globality, intentionality, territoriality. But ‘World Class’ is a linguistic swindle on a bigger scale, because it’s a much more everyday phrase than academic language.

Barthes wrote of how there was no essence to Paris and so a road sign with Paris on it will stand in fine. Trouble is, a picture of the road sign then becomes a new, spiritually thin essence.

And of course this whole stew of Nike, Manchester, and the eh up our kid heart-tugging charity in bad times, is becoming a road sign too. A thin haze of concocted essence. And it is only ever becoming, it never finally solidifies, although it does reify.

Will Davies wrote something recently about all that is solid melting having its otherside in evaporated substances coming together again as new solids. But there isn’t much that is novel about the new forms.

Here, pride in city and region is pulled into a texture, a fabric. Or does that fabric now produce the pride in city and region? I can’t answer that. Maybe the process is an endless loop.

The ordinary is sexed up, infantilised. We’re simple but hardworking and honest, maybe a bit edgy, although we love our mams. This has become a trope black hole in Manchester, sucking in all the light, via which we might see differently.

A black hole made of Corrie, Shameless and the ubiquitous Maxine Peake. This infinitely dense material pulls in all the light, but the same stuff is being pumped back out the other side as a befuddling gas, reforming the cultural atmosphere all over again.

Manchester is a collapsed star.

Put more simply, Manchester has been running on empty for decades, but the cultural myths seem to be so strong, so mesmerising, that nobody has noticed.

And yet there it is. An actual charity for people in the city, based in an actual bit of the city, so that people like me will be rendered subjectively intoxicated, to the extent that they won’t be able to write articles like this one. Not stupified, but sentimentified.

You can’t criticise I Heart MCR tee shirts because The Bomber and The Bomb, 2017 and 1996. You can’t criticise The Bee because it’s the same as dissing dead kiddies. But the You Can’t Criticise Embargo – policed by some hardnut locals – is part of a bigger cultural lobotomy which produces a Citybrain with only a short-term memory.

We saw it on the BBC miniseries Manctopia. Simplistic salt of the earth types seeing the what of regeneration while ignoring the how and for whom were pushed to the fore. The editing, in places, was scandalous.

Communities are being eroded by global money here as real estate is bought up and built, pushing workers out. And then this promotion for charity Nikes arrives, fleet of foot, and seems to be saying ‘now here is globalism to save the ailing local’. We don’t need a strong, very different sort of state to replace all of this mess, it says, when capital creates froth to skim.

I write it all up. I read it through a couple of times. Then I spot the line about ‘localism being eroded by globalism’. It maps onto the xenophobic and outright fascist swell of 2016-19. And then I wonder if I should leave it out of the article.

Then the fact that liberalism is a dead truth regime leers out at me from that insight. I have caught myself trying to operate inside a linguistic and philosophical ruin.

Because just as you start to worry that claiming localism being eroded by globalism might be bad, that it might throw you in with the dusty folk by the cenotaph – and not on poppy day – you realise… that actually their sense of things is yours too. Even though you don’t speak each other’s language. Both camps are standing looking at the same ruined object, but from opposite sides.

And we’re all tripping. Nobody has got the scale of it, or the full mess of it. We are all turned inwards, unable to face what is on the way. As unable to face it as we are unable to see it fully.

Here, a fog hangs over the place where ‘remembering’ the fight against fascism after 1939 merges with a misjudged pride in WW1. Deeper into this fog, excitement over sexed-up accounts of allied actions in WW2 blend into apologies for fascist ideology. The left hammer those people, at the same time as some among them toss bad Soviet memes into the social media flood.

Out in the street – in the linguistic and philosophical ruin – the people who look at the same object from opposite sides walk through each other like ghosts.

Some try to remain centrist, claiming that to be patriotic and remember wars isn’t ever a gammony act, as though the social world operates via logic. It does not. These people prove the old cliché that if you remain in the middle of it, you end up roadkill.

Of course you can remember wars in good ways, many do, but only a fool would see the current resurgence of patriotic nationalism as innocent or neutral.

Look to the extremes, don’t invent a comfortable centre: Isn’t the whole anti-vaxxer, anti-Europe thing like Southcottianism? E.P. Thompson claimed that irrational religious Christian sects like the cult of Joanna Southcott absorbed energies in the early nineteenth century that might have targeted the real problem. He was right. And here are the new forms of it.

There are a couple of local old-timey trolls who will have your hide for saying that on social media. To them even the delusions of the working classes are to be championed, and only middle class champagne socialists would say otherwise. I’m working class, as were my ancestors, as far down the census as I can get. I feel comfortable with criticising because I am one. So do your worst.

On the one side here is me, irritated, with a raised voice saying that the charity becomes, in this process, a massive alibi for pecisely the things which make the charity necessary: mass consumerism, aspiration to branded goods and a ‘Manc culture’ that symbolically clears the ground for investment by Deloitte and others, and worse.

The trainer itself becomes a sick artwork. In fact it is a better piece of critical art than anything produced in Manchester since Victor Burgin’s retrospective at Cornerhouse around the turn of the millenium. The Manchester bee trainer is meant to signify hard work, innovation and cool, but it simultaneously signifies its opposite: the deliberate, strategic running down and offshoring of industry in the mid to late 20th century; the resulting lack of lucrative or meaningful work for many; the last New Labour neoliberal council, handing it all to the Players forever.

The trainer is meant to say ‘The Future’, but exactly that message carries its opposite, ‘NO FUTURE’, along with it at all times.

The presence of the Lord Mayor of Manchester signifies the players of Manchester City Council, for whom he fronts. They represent the deliberate breaking apart of older communities in the interests of global capital. The phrase ‘World Class’ is bent over and the fact of global capital buying up real estate that no ordinary citizen will ever live in is rammed painfully into its anus.

The trainer hype comes just after Andy Burnham’s speech on the Central Library steps and outside Bridgewater Hall and I suspect this is not a coincidence. It’s an attempt to make the media attention go further, but spreading it out makes a thin gruel.

Burnham is the ‘real’ Mayor of Manchester, the one with the full powers. Burnham spiked in the media in mid-October for refusing the amount of pandemic recovery money offered by central government. A Vogue article has since been run under the title of ‘Suddenly, Inexplicably, We All Fancy Andy Burnham’.

But Burnham is often viewed through the lenses of celebrity, and Britpop. ‘Everyone knows that Manc frontmen like to rock a waterproof whatever the weather’ pouts Helen Pidd, in a ghastly piece of Guardian hagiography. All over Twitter, people commented that he looked like a member of New Order.

Why view a Manchester politician through a pop music scene thirty years dead? This is a phenomena which never goes away. Who views politicians in Birmingham through the lenses of Napalm Death? Or in Canterbury through The Soft Machine? No-one. It is peculiar to this city, in which plain idiocy is covered over with a sugar crust of preening narcissism and then served to paying punters.

If the fact that someone wears a cagoule in Manchester can be become cultural capital, then thin air can be sold here and it often is. In Pidd’s article the fact that Burnham happens to be standing not too far away from the Peterloo memorial suddenly seems to make his press conference on pandemic money a reading of Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy.

I’d like to see a journalist notice that the place where Burnham stood for his first speech used to hold the Peace Garden – where the world’s first Occupy began – and where a Nuclear Free City sign stood. All of that has been scrapped and the bee symbols have been pushed to the fore.

Pidd’s article ends with the empty phrase ‘the north remembers’. It is delivered with an inflated flourish as romantic as Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. But isn’t the problem with Manchester that for most of the time everyone manages to very successfully forget? In this state they continue to hand it all over to carpet baggers. Culture and cool – which here often means celebrating long defunct things – are the main components of our state of amnesia.

In 2006 Hackney council successfully litigated against Nike for using their logo without permission on a range of sportswear.* In much of my writing on Manchester I argue that if this is a radical city then it is a radicalism of the right, as described in Stuart Hall’s essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. That a London council went at Nike, yet Manchester deliberately courts them, says everything about the situation.

Yet if you read the papers it’s clear that the rest of the country is humping this dead leg of a city all over again like a dog on heat, while muttering ‘radical’. If a city mayor – and Carcetti at that – complaining over bailout money creates such waves, that’s an indication of how weak the left is, not how strong it is. It is broken and spent.

There is one rule to remember in Manchester, to truly know the city: invert everything you hear, turn it upside-down. The more you hear the city is radical and cool, the more emptied out behind those words it has just become.

Notes and References

* Thanks to Alex Rhys-Taylor for tipping me off about the Hackney case.

Davies, W. (2020) This is Not Normal. Verso.

Hall, S. (1979) The Great Moving Right Show. Marxism Today.

Mahler (1904) Kindertotenlieder.

Pidd, H. (2020) Andy Burnham: ‘The real me comes out when I’m angry’ in the Guardian, Nov 14.

Tran, M. (2006) ‘Hackney wins logo case against Nike’ in the Guardian, Sep 11.

Slaloms of city and self

This is going in a Manchester publication called Shock City. The theme we were asked to write to was ‘fauxthenticity’. Here is an easier to consume PDF. 

1.

I go to an event. One speaker starts to really stick the politics in.

He uses ‘the pigs’ as a two-word cipher for the police, as though it were 1968. He reads a poem about a contemporary institution as a ‘pig farm’.

I turn this stuff over in my mind, like I’m handling a broken clock someone is trying to sell me. The linguistic halitosis keeps coming.

I lose the thread. I think.

If ‘the pig’ is in the constituency surgery deciding which mask to put on – as his poem suggests – then the new Piccadilly Ward Labour councillors in Manchester – the first Corbynistas ‘in’ – are ‘fucking pigs’ too. They backed up Sir Richard Leese, ten seconds after they got in, by trying to claim housing in Manchester is affordable, against very solid research that proved the exact opposite.

In fact it could be said that they’re worse than Tory ‘pigs’, because at least Tory Pigs are honest about believing in laissez faire and capital as the answer. These fucking pigs are trying to claim they’re radical, then they back up the biggest pig in the local pen.

Perhaps they are the ones who put a mask on for the constituency surgery. But they actually believe they are good people.

He’s not from Manchester, this guy, London I think. He’s still at it. All I hear now is the word ‘pig’, studding a black blanket of naive anarchist mumming.

I am grouchy today. I catch myself. I am recovering from a bike smash. My ribs are cracked, my knee swollen, my head aches and I am surrounded by disingenuous posturing people spouting nonsense to other people with bits of their brains missing.

Then I look at this guy with his bomber jacket and Dexy’s bobhat and DM shoes and ragged trousers. It’s all so very just-so. I have no obligation whatsoever to pretend I like this.

I’d say there are around 100 of him in the city. I listen to his nice voice and I don’t believe in him at all. He runs a discussion on antifa and poetry and cites dub, punk and hip hop as ‘popular forms’ of working class resistance.

Leftwing fetish as dream of revolution. I want to ask a question.

Working class popular forms? Strictly. Strictly can shut a city down like a plague. Why aren’t you claiming Strictly?

Because it isn’t cool, because it isn’t bracketed off from the mainstream and yet is safely recuperated just enough to put you right where the cross hairs of future middle class taste are coming together.

I don’t ask the question.

In any case, who says that hip hop is leftist? Hip Hop often displays a distorted mirror image of aggressive young male entrepreneurialism. Says liberal right to me.

Of course, the history of the music is full of exceptions to this statement too, but the rule is far from disproven.

I shift in my chair. I’ve been sat here too long.

The narcissistic introjection offends me. It reminds me of Dan Hancox comparing his (very good) work on grime to his thoughts on Spanish leftism. Now where did I read that?

And if you just push the comparison a little further, he was saying, the London east end boroughs are like Spain before the civil war.

There’s a very thin line between good research and sheer idealism. As the mind drifts into a romance, it feels good. So you push on, not thinking.

And the left’s exemplars practice the pareidolie too. Agamben, finding the seeds of revolution in the unlikeliest places. Monasticism, for instance, under which we find…

Karl Marx, always Karl Marx.

But the Karl Marx they all find, really, is the Marx of the inevitability of class struggle turning existing structures inside-out.

And that particular Marx was really seeing Jesus in turnips. Jesus. Vaneigem called him the ‘poor schlemiel of Nazareth’. And Jesus probably saw Isaiah in dried figs.

I leave. I get on my bicycle. I am nearly killed by an NHS van blindly turning left and straight into me. Cycled after him and caught him up at the lights. He refused to even look to his right as I tapped on the window. Screeched off when the lights changed. Massive arsehole. If he had hit me I expect the van was full of rubber gloves, knowing my luck, rather than, you know, morphine and bandages.

I become, for a brief moment, that guy screaming obscenities in the middle of the road. There is probably a fixed quantity of that person at any one time in the city too.

I go for a coffee. I encounter the third person this week reeking of patchouli oil. Someone’s obviously taking advantage of a blind spot in cultural memory to flog a massive batch.

If there is a smell I associate with having a terrible time in the 1980s, it is patchouli oil. It reminds me of 1985 and schoolfriends living on nothing but cider. Some of whom will later become heroin addicts. And their sisters die.

And they listen to that one middling Cure record over and over.

I take a sip of coffee. Then suddenly, I’m somewhere else.

2.

I’m in the 1990s. I remember a shirt I had with blue flowers on it. I loved that shirt.

I went from being a sort of Acid Jazzer to a consumer of jungle and drum and bass records. I had a jacket with big fake fur collars. But I got rid of that and bought a Diesel puffa. My look got more and more ‘street’ the more into jungle I got.

The lineage of my ‘authentic’ selves parade before me. That lineage is also a map of the microtrends that were to be found in white consumers of black dance music, at a particular time, in a certain region.

I remember one day. I arrived by train for work in Halifax. I was singled out by the ticket inspector – chased through the crowd would be a more accurate description – because I had a number one shave haircut and this massive Diesel puffa on.

She thought I was a schemie trying to get away without a ticket. She caught up with me. I showed her my ticket, ‘I buy one every day’ I said. She stared hate into me.

But within a week I had ditched that look entirely. And suddenly, I am inside the guy with the bomber jacket, Dexy’s bobhat, DM shoes and ragged trousers. I am inhabiting his clothes – in fact his whole self – like I have just pulled on overalls.

‘But I never talked shit like that’ I catch myself thinking, from inside his body, before realising that my exceptionalism is his exceptionalism too.

I look at my phone, Twitter. The fallout from some local leftist barney.

Another local bigshot leftist was getting an emotional high on Twitter last night – and on an even higher horse – about an Iraq tweet.

Yet the same guy is always perfectly happy with communist tropes and imagery that the oppressed Soviets would find disgusting – were they still alive to be disgusted.

His shamelessness is completely immune from shame. Because he has no shame.

But really, because he’s the exception, just because it’s him. Because he inhabits his own body. And of course, I do that too. In fact I have just caught myself doing it. Why did I ever imagine that I didn’t?

‘But at least I know I do that’ I think, yet again seeking refuge in the exception of nothing more than being myself.

Except now I’m not, I’m in this other guy who an hour ago I hated, and therefore inside all of us shape-shifting early 21st century humans.

In 1998, I’d say there were also around 100 of me in the city, when I actually went to the city. And now that guy who was me is someone else. Him. I listen to his nice voice from inside this other guy – who I just heard reading poems an hour ago – and suddenly I don’t believe in me at all. Or him, or the other guy.

He talked all the same talk and he still believes in Karl Marx. But only Karl Marx this way, not Karl Marx your way.

The exception, always, the minor difference as a chasm.

What we do is put down territorial scent, undetectable to many, but a massive deterrent. In the final reckoning, it is just a territorial scent, but it isn’t only a territorial scent.

Why was I symbolically inhabiting a suit of clothes, back in 1998, which fetishised black and underclass resistance? And an urban one at that, living in a place which incomers were then trying to redesignate as ‘rural’ – and still are – decades after its semi-urban state as an industrial intensity had waned.

Why? Well your answer is right there.

Territorial scent. I was bracketing myself off from what and where I no longer wanted to be. But underneath my inauthenticity – and perhaps only under it – there was a hard core of truth. There always is. It is just that this truth was a truth about my fundamental inauthenticity. About how I was bracketing myself off from what and where I no longer wanted to be.

Bobhat and bomber jacket is doing the same now, ‘in the pub, after the talk.’ I used to do that as well. Go to the pub, after the talk.

That guy was both me and not-me at the same time. And don’t get me wrong here, I’m not arguing for a positive philosophy of identities-in-flux and liberal fluidness or any of that confused doxa.

I’m arguing that we are constantly, historically reconstructed. And nobody is more historically reconstructed than those who claim to have stepped into endless ‘free’ fluidity. The perversity of their particular prison is that the place they claim to have arrived at, the end point, is a stage on a route that is disguised as a terminal.

In this, it is perhaps unique. In this, it is authentic, only an authenticity of the sheerest facade. Sheer means thin, as well as ‘totally’. The solid core of truth is that history constructs us.

When capital is fast people ‘can’t keep up with themselves’. Ooh young people, they can’t keep up with themselves. I remember people saying that, back in the 1980s.

That guy, in 1998, who was both me and not-me at the same time – and with no contradiction, in this new world, in which the usual logic is suspended, because it was always far too crude – that guy symbolically inhabited black and underclass resistance right up to the point at which he was targeted as one of them.

Right up to the point at which – as Baudrillard once explained – the faked bank heist and the real bank heist began to come dangerously close together, as they always will.

And it wasn’t even real heat, just a prejudiced ticket inspector.

That guy. He thought he had bracketed himself off from the mainstream, but he was really placing himself where the crosshairs of future middle class taste were coming together. But when he got too close to the real bandits he bounced right off their surface.

He bounced back faster than a pinball after the tiniest of flips. Bounced back into historical position. The place he had been allotted.

And his narcissistic introjection offends me now.

As the mind drifts into this romance, it feels good.

But what is this? This ‘realisation’, is it not just another opportunity to do some more exceptionalism?

I look at my coffee. I drink some more. I finish it. I leave the café. I get on my bicycle.

3.

Cycling on the edges of Rusholme. By Victorian parks. The light is going. The red lights of the cranes over the centre of the city. Like a Star Wars Imperial Cruiser is being built, just over there.

The chat can be heard waiting for shawarma wraps, about the Egyptian guys, the Syrian guys. Who-knows-who and the kids on the street hustling like the Young Lords in mid-1970s New York.

Their English is a new language and their brand new language is also a fresh identity.

Their clothes are just one part of that. Fur collars and fly trainers and scars. With a mean propinquity. Staring as you blade yourself sideways to slip through them, and yet indicate that you are not to be fed on.

Then out into the street and look back towards the city. The red lights glow in the night now, anticipating the dronewelt to come. Constellations of the future not to be found in the developer rationale. In the digital illustrations. All future tense, in which cafés that still serve are already wiped out, longstanding pubs obliterated by glittering pixels. A fourth stage simulational liquidation, Jean.

The city changes in a way that is very similar to the processes of subject formation.

The tension between the future perfect and the real tightens over short weeks. It always snaps soundlessly and flies one way or the other. But the outcome of this snapping’s either-wayness is not fully random.

Whiplash grease from backhanders. The fires are real enough. To wipe out the real with the infantile goop of the aesthetic, or relegate the vision to dead hard drives for years. Future fodder for postgraduate kudos quests. The new grail knights are all over the city.

In some ways we are no different. Me, that guy who irritated me this evening. That guy on Twitter last night. I stash my takeaway in my panniers and get back on my bike.

In many ways we are different. Many different ways.

But there are also many identical ways in which we are different. They are called pounds in this country. Range Rovers glide toward their gateds like Vader helmets, older money now tucked away. They move in a sideways, American mode, crablike. They’ve also got a ‘get me, at the MOBOs’ vibe to them. Symbolic tokens to the slaves from the Romans.

The new environments that are coming will wipe the relevance of my words away, but not the hard core they are fixed to. It is a hard core about how the hard core is unstable.

But the truth is there too. When bobhat talked about inequality, that inequality is solid as concrete. It’s just that we can’t help picking the subject up like peacocks and strutting it about. Then all that colour and feather becomes part of it and people say hey! Who the hell do you think you are?

Everything is being redone always. Paint cans and decorator junk, an entire abandoned bath under a bridge. The surrealism is as permanent as the blasé, a constant physics of the city.

All of this all of this… is how it is to be me… to be in my head. You wouldn’t want it.

The Real is the Rational. The inauthentic and truth are one.

How to inhabit that constantly, now there’s the real trick.

Thoughts on the Social Science Centres

I started the Manchester branch of Social Science Centre (SSC) in 2016.

The Social Science Centre offered opportunities to engage in a co-operative experience of higher education. Run as a not-for-profit co-operative, the SSC was organised on the basis of democratic principles, with all members having equal involvement in the life and work of the SSC. We studied themes that drew on the core subjects in social science: sociology, politics and philosophy.

In 2016, SSC gained members and scholars alongside funds to get off the ground. Run as a co-operative that was owned by its members, the hope was that SSC Manchester would eventually be self-sustaining.

The Manchester branch of SSC was not the first: The first Social Science Centre, in Lincoln, had successfully offered free, co-operative higher education since 2011.

This original Lincoln branch granted its approval for the new Manchester branch at its AGM in May, 2016. SSC Manchester began with exactly the same model and constitution as SSC Lincoln. Everything else was put into place after that inaugural AGM.

A key aspect of both SSC branches was that the ‘teaching’ sessions were co-produced: we built knowledge through the discussion of texts rather than having an academic coming in to tell you things; although there were academics who know a lot of things at SSC, and everyone involved had access to them.

The hard student-teacher dichotomy was made fuzzy. There were members and scholars, members ran things to whatever extent they wished to, and scholars came in and engaged with what we did for free, but there wasn’t much of a barrier between the two.

Crucially, the teaching was politicised: We ran two courses beyond our core Sociological Imagination programme; one on Donald Trump and another on Brexit. People from the political left and right attended both those courses in Manchester.

SSC Manchester temporarily wound down its activities in late 2017 and did not re-start. Since SSC Manchester halted, SSC Lincoln has also closed.

But my conversations with the SSC Lincoln academics back in 2016 often turned to a speculative future in which universities had to shed big numbers of staff and even went into administration. With such a large amount of talent jettisoned by a broken economic model – we hypothesised – the SSCs might gain an autonomous groundswell. New ones might begin.

In 2016, that had not happened. In 2020, with Hard Brexit on the way, after the coronavirus crisis, with a government in power which actively wants to shut down humanities teaching – in favour of instrumentalised business universities – the circumstances we discussed have now arrived.

Universities are shedding contract staff fast. Their existence in expanded form is today completely questionable. Their ethics even before the crisis were often in doubt.

I started a second branch of SSC, rather than an idiosyncratic personal version of it, because I wanted to take the SSC from an anomaly to a phenomena. Put more plainly, I wanted there to be two of them, not just one. It was a simple but important aspect of the project.

Unfortunately, the gravity and inertia of things brought both down. But I always maintained that whatever happened in the future, the two branches would be an existing example and model for possibilities that others could take up.

I am now asking that others consider those possibilities: The Manchester SSC branch could easily be restarted. It was never formally closed.

Notes

The SSC Manchester WordPress: https://sscmanchester.wordpress.com/

SSC Lincoln: https://socialsciencecentre.org.uk/

A critical essay I wrote for JCEPS on the future of alternative HE under ordinary funded models: http://www.jceps.com/archives/3630

 

Recent-ish work

Here’s a list of things I have put out recently.

Over the last couple of years I have switched very consciously away from academic and political writing to ‘literary’ forms, poetry, fiction and experimental writing.

I have put out two volumes of poetry, SING volumes one and two:

Volume 1 is here:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sing-1-Dr-Steve-Hanson/dp/1793137560/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=sing+steve+hanson&qid=1585910462&s=books&sr=1-1

Volume 2 is here:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sing-2-Dr-Steve-Hanson/dp/1712400320/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=sing+steve+hanson&qid=1585910468&s=books&sr=1-2

These books collect the material from a year-long project in which I read in public, on the streets of Manchester.

I have also put out four chapbooks of work in progress for SING. A booklet of additional materials was typeset but never made it to print for lack of funds. That is here in PDF form.

I have since pitched a single-volume new work to the excellent Knives, Forks and Spoons press. Scott Thurston is involved and I am hoping he will write the preface for that.

I have published two books with poet Richard Barrett:

The Acts (published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe) https://www.dostoyevskywannabe.com/experiments/the_acts

The Wake (published by Nowt Press) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wake-Steve-Hanson/dp/1676174486

I have been working up until very recently on a book called Last Days of Pompeii. This began as an experimental campus novel. It was meant to take in how it felt to pass through the long interregnum of Brexit Britain and ended in the first waves of the coronavirus crisis.

Available via Amazon for a while have been Vols. 1, 2 and 3 as separate editions.

But now here is the collected book with all three volumes in it, Vols. 1, 2 and 3 collected:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B086PRKV7Y

I had a London agent interested in that work, but who knows where I am with it now.

What started as A Book of the Broken Middle – already published by Fold Press (ISBN 978-0-9932600-4-9) – is due to come out with Boiler House Press as A Shaken Bible. This will be part of the Beyond Criticism series, BC Editions. The first run of books includes a republished Macbeth, Macbeth by Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey:

https://www.boilerhouse.press/beyond-criticism-editions

Related to that work is an article on Andrew Shanks’ translations of Nelly Sachs’ work for Blackbox Manifold at the University of Sheffield:

http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/issue23/So%20Many%20Scattered%20Seedings.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1Z3uoA578E0jvpmwP39PwFfUQedl29cRV4JtZKKxIwjayCQsjyFNgOKsg

Although my main output has been more literary recently, I put out my essay E is for Enlightenment (2019) as a book-form piece. You can order that here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Enlightenment-oil-water-Steve-Hanson/dp/1676445625/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=e+is+for+enlightenment+steve+hanson&qid=1585910294&s=books&sr=1-1

This book really follows up my paper on postmodernism for JCEPS: http://www.jceps.com/archives/6458

A chapter on the Concrete Abstract (with Dr Mark Rainey) came out in The Routledge Handbook of Henri Lefebvre, The City and Urban Society, Edited by Michael E. Leary-Owhin, John P. McCarthy. ISBN 978- 1138290051.

Dystopia, Chile, also put out a chapter online, with visual work, that I did for them, City of Blades – for a projected print book that never got off the ground: http://dystopiadigital.com/2020/02/26/manchester-2019-city-of-blades/

I also set up Manchester Review of Books with Joe Darlington and Some Roast Poet with Adrian Slatcher.

https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/

Some Roast Poet has put out three poetry journals under the name of ‘Some Roast Poet’ (1, 2 and 3) and has published monographs by Steven Waling and John G. Hall:

https://someroastpoetry.wordpress.com/

Previous books include Small Towns, Austere Times (Zero). For my previous academic work see the entries below on this blog and a full-ish CV, here

Of course this flurry of record-keeping is prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. With this in mind, here is my collected poetry as a PDF, A4, printable. My older blog is also now open and is here: https://steveaitch.wordpress.com/

The entries below also tell you where a lot of my other work is. My other blog before it kept a good record of everything that came out during that time, too. Use them as guides.

The Thommys

My partner Natalie Bradbury has been contributing to an end of year culture roundup for some time. It’s called ‘The Thommys’ (not the Oscars, and Thommy started it, see?) This is my first. It’s probably the most banal thing I have ever written. There’s an end of year roundup, 2019 and as I joined at the end of a decade there’s also a (patchy) ten year review, 2010-2020.

New paper on the end of postmodernism

I have a new paper out on the end of postmodernism for JCEPS. It’s really just a flag planted in some big territory in order to start some more work on the subject.

It just dropped with the new issue of JCEPS this week, but they forgot to include the page of graphs and left in some peer review feedback, which makes the end of the paper seem garbled.

I’m hoping that will be solved soon but with a shrewd bit of Photoshop and Acrobat faff I have solved its issues and you can read it here here.

Report on urban identity, belonging and citizenship

This report for the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths has just come out.

It emerged from work undertaken for the Foresight Future of Cities programme, as a member of a team put together by COMPAS at the University of Oxford. The brief of that research project, to risk being reductive, was to examine the last fifty years of urban patterns of identity, belonging and citizenship, before trying to project those patterns forward across the next fifty years.

The Foresight Future of Cities programme focused on urban renewal, but specifically on the risk factors these processes may face, from flooding to riots.

However, after the project was completed, it struck the authors that their work on identity, belonging and citizenship – undertaken before the general election of 2015, before the referendum on UK European Union membership went to ‘leave’ and the whole subject became a white hot cipher in ‘Brexit’, and before the general election of June, 2017 – had a much wider use on a changing British landscape.

It strikes us that precisely because of what came after the Foresight Future of Cities programme, identity, belonging and citizenship is going to be one of the key intellectual sites for British researchers of all kinds in the next five to ten years. The work on Englishness now seems almost prophetic.

We have therefore taken steps to have this work updated and then to have it published in the hope that it might inaugurate necessary ongoing debates about identity, belonging and citizenship in Britain, as the island morphs into new subjective shapes.

There is no better place for this work to emerge at the start of 2018 than the Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR) at Goldsmiths. To connect this work to their roots, emerging somewhere between the Chicago and Frankfurt School, via crucial figures such as Paul Gilroy and Michael Keith, is to give the research a much needed politics.

Many thanks are due to Les Back, Director of the CUCR, for considering the report and providing a home for it.

Scrub Transmissions No.2

The Scrub Transmissions series is an occasional installation project run by Julie Campbell aka LoneLady, in which she ‘cements an MP3 device into the fabric of a structure, somewhere in the city or its outskirts.’ It is a ‘rumination on the built environment’, a ‘discreet intervention.’

The first of these was sited under the Mancunian Way. This time it is Miles Platting, a ‘clump of unassuming inner city factory districts’ where LoneLady walked ‘to burn out anxiety patterns and seek consolation’, as it ‘seemed to offer a habitat, a place to belong.’ She wanted to listen to ‘the voices of the landscape’ here, ‘before they are scrubbed out’.

The word ‘scrub’ is used in a double-edged sense, as in scrub land, waste, but as a verb, to clean up, and in urban terms, to gentrify. LoneLady’s greatest edge on the rest of the pop world has always been her imaginative capabilities.

But there is something powerfully simple going on here too: One thing that pop music does is move people out of their private spaces and into public ones. Ever since the music hall and beyond, this has meant an audience, a stage and performers, a night out.

By siting an MP3 player in the urban landscape that you can go and plug into, LoneLady moves private bodies into public spaces again, but this time not into a venue. She wants you to see and hear what she sees and hears when she takes those recharging walks into Miles Platting, walks that may not be possible forever, or at least not in this form.

The history of sound and field recording has always had an ecological dimension to it. The Vancouver Soundscape Project captured the noise of shipping, horn blasts and steam whistles which became like an Edgard Varese piece, musique concrete, but with a critical side high modernism didn’t possess, or if it did, a la the vorticists, it had destrustructive tendencies. The Vancouver Soundscape Project mapped industrialising processes through sound.

So I set off to find the second Scrub Transmissions intervention, with writer Natalie Bradbury, and I made a field recording of our journey there.

The map provided to locate Scrub Transmissions No.2 – posted on the LoneLady website – doesn’t give you a didactic route in, it tells you where the site is in relation to Piccadilly Station and Piccadilly Gardens. But in this case all roads lead away from Rome, as you move through the whacky, thumbs aloft, grinning facades of peak Northern Quarter shop window displays, over the intermittent dereliction of the A665 ring road – only a digit away from the number of the beast in ‘666’ – to the now gentrified streets of Ancoats.

Alex Rhys-Taylor, a Sociologist, asks us to expand the way we take in landscapes, to add to the dominant visual sense of them sound, smell, taste and feeling. Rhys-Taylor wrote about the now-cliched Bow Bells in London’s east end, being within earshot of which supposedly gave you bona fide cockney status. Taylor went there in the early 00s and heard no bells. He heard jacked up hip hop beats, industrial drills and car drones.

More recently, the last bell foundry closed in the east. What this tells Rhys-Taylor is that the social world in which one could hear the chiming bells of the churches, landmarks via which people genuinely oriented themselves in this version of the city, has gone. But crucially, he does not insert a bucolic vision here, where the past could be redeemed and the bells could be heard again, people are just navigating by other means, cars, GPS, public transport, all of which can still be heard.

It might be tempting to assume that all of that applies to that very loaded area, the mythical east end, but not here. But this is not the case: The back streets of the Northern Quarter and Ancoats are currently undergoing transformations that will render them not back streets at all. They aren’t just being ‘cleaned up’, the total transformation of their surfaces will change the spaces completely; they are being turned inside-out, like a sock. Or rather, they are being turned outside-in, as all the stitching – the wires and rusting pipes – vanishes under the appealing patterns of the commercial city.

One could still see the same thing in Soho maybe forty years ago, there were back streets and front streets, but now, mostly, as the demand for space intensifies, there are only front streets. This is the opposite of what Engels observed in the 1840s, where front streets served to conceal the poverty out back.

The Manchester streets have been changing from places where private bodies traditionally made themselves public, the Free Trade Hall conversion to a Radisson hotel for instance, to spaces where public bodies make themselves expensively private.

The sound of angle grinders and road rollers drone out of the whole area, as though the buildings themselves are painfully growing out of the cavities they are in. It is the foggy sound of an anaesthetised migraine toothache, decorated with the occasional machine screech of molar growing pains. But this mixes with the smell of food, the nouveau bakeries and delicatessens. Again, Rhys-Taylor makes these observations in relation to London.

We move slowly away from the ring road and up past Will Alsop’s chips building, the crassest height of post-Olympic bid, post-IRA bomb regeneration postmodernism. It already seems to be slightly grubby, beginning to confirm Owen Hatherley’s predictions about the slums of the future. Manchester Modernist co-founder Maureen Ward explains that this has been a strong part of Manchester’s narrative over the last twenty years or so, the urge ‘to entirely restructure its landscape and public spaces into a series of distinct marketable quarters or villages, effectively commercialising all aspects of the “city experience”‘.

She explains that this ‘is part of a wider trend globally to repackage our cities’ and as ‘Debord would argue, our personal lives’ which are placed ‘into commodified packages for consumption rather than “living” in any tangible sense.’

This nod to the Situationist Guy Debord is utterly appropriate: Some people refer to this building as the ‘chip butty’, the ultimate working class food, carbohydrates delivered inside more carbohydrates, coming out of a culture of draining manual labour. But this iconic working class food has been forced into irony, like much else on the cultural landscape in Manchester and elsewhere, its working class origins are only tolerable if they are placed in scare quotes followed by ‘LOLZ’. This is New Islington after all. Blair’s sick grin hovers over the whole zone.

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Dale Lately recently wrote in the Guardian about the Manchester ‘pawn shop bar’ Dusk Til Pawn and similar trendy haunts. But up above the chips building the landscape changes and the irony gets far bleaker, as we pass the abandoned Bank of England pub, on Carruthers street, a name conjuring a butler, or perhaps an upper middle class civil servant.

The Bank of England is shuttered in black steel, a single CCTV camera scans the side, or  more likely, it doesn’t: The dead eye of zombie capitalism; it is ten years now since the crash of 2008. Credit and mortgage lending has been severely tightened by banks who caused the crash in the first place with risky lending.

The landscape changes again, yards full of lorries rear up, and shuttered industrial units, fragments of old industry. Here the dominant sense of the city is the grey noise of wind and traffic that seems so bleak and ubiquitously anonymous. It is a little like the area around Strangeways, it feels by turns abandoned, legitimate and shady.

What we hear in Miles Platting is the sound of post-industrial slump, uneven development as dark ambient music; again it might be tempting to think this is just grey noise, but no, the ‘scrub’ is transmitting perfectly clearly, its message is as obvious as that in the East End. Here is one of the last pieces of city-as-carcass. A last bit of dead flesh yet to be removed by the cosmetic surgeon.

P1070407

After a wrong turn into some artist studios we find what looks like a factory reception after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. We walk through into the open air. Graffiti proclaims ‘FUCKING HATRED TO CREATE MORE’. It is utterly chilling here. But it is honest, it is the place where those on the edge go, the necessary victims of capitalism. Here is the underbelly of the great pornographic spectacle of Manchester.

The MP3 player embedded in a breezeblock, the goal, is only the dramatic centrepoint of the piece. The journey to and away from it provide the fluctuating prelude and finale. They fluctuate because each journey will be slightly different, although the sound here, at the centre, does not alter. We plug Natalie’s headphones into the MP3 socket. LoneLady begins with a spoken meditation and the track starts.

I am reminded of a Janet Cardiff piece in London from 2003. The ‘audience’ picked up a portable CD player with headphones from Whitechapel library. They put the headphones on, pressed play on the CD, then followed the instructions, out into the street and right, then right again, then left. At points the narrative would talk about specific things, ‘see that man over there?’ In London, the chances of their not being a ‘man over there’ in the daytime are slim. The art, then, played with the line between myth and reality, fiction and fact, sound and walking, story and seeing.

But here, although each person who journeys to find the MP3 player will have a slightly different experience, the landscape itself is both narrative and narrator. The MP3 player is a kind of omphalos. There is a sense of an adventure game, to find a jewel – perhaps the pop fandom provides the urge – but once launched, we are into a wholly different space.

For a person growing up on Blake’s Seven and Tom Baker-era Dr Who, it is possible to feel like you are finding some sort of matter transmitter, or like some Michael Moorcock character, an anti-chaos device. In short, a broadcaster of meaning in all of the draining, primary-coloured meaninglessness.

This, in the end, is the wider purpose of the work and it is rooted back in the concerns of high modernism, particularly Beckett: The world is chaos, it verges on the pointless, it is up to us to find and make value in it.

Today we are privileged, we only have to find, as LoneLady is an exemplary maker of meaning.

Notes

Here is some selected photographic documentation on an A3 PDF.

Here is LoneLady’s page explaining the work: http://lonelady.co.uk/blog/scrub-transmissions-miles-platting/

It’s not what you know

I recently wrote an article on casualised academia for the IWW. This can be found here:

https://iww.org.uk/news/the-university-caste-system-an-iww-dual-carders-view/

In it I argue that this level of labour can be viewed as a caste not a class. But there is another aspect to living in my caste that happens outside the university, and that is my daily attempts to get out of my caste.

Occasionally those statistics appear in the media that seem invented only to serve journalism:

‘137.3 million working days were lost due to sickness or injury in the UK in 2016. … Minor illnesses (such as coughs and colds) were the most common…’

These statistics are often allied to an editorial that blasts the ‘workshy’ for taking ‘sickies’.

Here’s another kind of statistic you sometimes see, but only when the state wants to announce a new day of prosperity, like notices about increases in tractor production in the former Soviet Union:

Job Vacancies in the United Kingdom ‘increased to 818 Thousand in April from 806 Thousand in March of 2018’.

I’m interested in these statistics partly because what information they provide always covers the information that they don’t give. I have been monitoring the stupefying amount of time I put into job applications recently.

First, let’s look at some job vacancy figures in Britain. Let’s take a low estimate of 800,000 job vacancies per month in Britain and multiply it by the twelve months in the year. This comes to 9600000 job vacancies.

Many jobs shortlist between four and six people, so let’s take a median of five per vacancy and assuming that one of those applicants gets the job, we can also assume that the time of four people is wasted with each interview.

So, if we then multiply the vacancies by four – which is to discount the unwasted time of the successful applicant – we get 38400000. If we multiply that by the three hours on average it is estimated people take on job applications, we get 115,200,000 wasted hours.

One hundred and fifteen million, two hundred thousand, wasted hours per year. But this is a huge underestimation, and it is a picture of the jobs market as a whole and not just in my sector.

I spend at least a day on academic job applications. I research the university I am applying to. I try to sense the departmental structure from outside. I try to get a sense of its prejudice and bend myself to fit into their positive image: I do exactly what the union unconsciously does when it politely negotiates with HR.

Ivor Southwood writes about the emotional labour that goes into the application and interview and my rough calculations don’t even figure that in. There is the time taken out to attend an interview, the best part of a day is always knocked out, sometimes much more, sometimes it involves an overnight stay.

The real figure will be utterly mind-warping, but I am erring on the conservative. Someone I know went for a job recently. They had taken the decision to interview over two days and to interview eleven people each day. If twenty-two people spent an average of three hours on each application for one job, that means sixty-six hours of application work. Eight and a quarter working days, plus the two days of interview, is ten and a quarter wasted working days, just for one job.

It’s pointless recalculating up to scale using that example, as it is an extreme one, but it serves to show that my estimations of hours wasted are on the low side.

It might be tempting at this point to suggest that perhaps capitalism doesn’t work because all this competition is a huge waste of time: All of that labour going into pointless activities. But actually, it’s the opposite. Capitalism works precisely through this system of symbolic human sacrifice.

All of that labour is going into preparing irrational humans for the labour market, preparing themselves in their own time. Kneading their brains into compliance through an exemplification of the scarcity of opportunities to sell one’s labour.

It polices them, by disappointing them regularly, it makes them hungry for labour. I say develop the opposite mental attitude, that of ‘Ne Travillez Jamais’.

Another thing to consider here is the thing that everyone knows, but which never makes the media pop-statistical drop in. The dirty secret that jobs often go to people’s friends and relatives, and to people already ‘well in’, who ‘have their feet under the table’ and whatever other folk wisdom terms you care to use.

This includes jobs which are advertised and interviewed for as per guidance, but which will inevitably go to someone who has already provided a considerable amount of free labour to that job.

The key point to make here is that these vast amounts of wasted hours are often not going into a well-ordered competition, in which a neutral meritocracy is being exercised.

All those little rules about having to advertise jobs and put out to tender. The little disclaimers to be found within application forms, online or otherwise, ‘do you have relatives working here?’

I went for a fixed-term Senior Lecturer role at one of the big northern universities. I was tipped off by a friend, and the management were given the wink by her. It was in a subject I knew little about. I was told to ‘go for it anyway’. At interview, I diligently pointed out again, that this was not my subject. I got the job.

When I turned up for work on my first day, my line manager said ‘ah, you came to us through Jane didn’t you?’

More recently I went through a completely fake round of interviews for a temporary post. Everyone knew I was the only candidate. I had been given the nod as a ‘good person’, by the outgoing lecturer.

This is the weird curveball physics within the permafrost of the caste system.

But even this doesn’t work: I am outspoken and critical and write articles like this one; someone giving someone else ‘the nod’ is about as useful a recruitment technique as palmistry.

There will be serious discomfort for many university seniors who have read this far, discomfort when I say that their daughters, sons, relatives and friends are being handed work and whole positions around the back of any meritocratic system shakily in place.

In my more extreme moments, I wish none of those systems applied. I wish that companies could hire through whatever prejudices or social networks they have.

Because they often do anyway, not always, but often enough that I can give you personal examples, both in terms of how I have benefited and lost out from this fraudulent system.

Just imagine if there were a recruitment free-for-all. Suddenly everyone would be disabused of the fake notion that the game is being played straight. Then there would be trouble. Real trouble. But then there might be real change.

However, as it stands the whole system is a sick but functioning punishment-reward relationship with sadist capitalism: This is the real ‘sickie’ that everyone is taking.

Now I am eyeing the tunnel at the end of the light that is Brexit. I am wondering how my situation vis a vis my employment status may change in the future.

But this article centres on my personal problems far too much. The real tragedy here is that humans organise themselves in such a wasteful way at a point in history when that is completely hazardous.

The Corrie Deep Blues

Walking through Piccadilly Station the other day, after going to see the memorial to the dead of the M.E.N Arena atrocity, a trumpet blared out, weary and bitter. Suddenly it focused into the Coronation Street theme tune. I looked up and a couple of guys were sat drinking in the upstairs bar. One of them had opened his instrument case, taken out his trumpet and blasted out this tune. I scrambled for my iPhone and managed to record him just before he stopped, mid-flow. They looked hammered. People cheered. A couple of clippings exist, from Bradford Telegraph & Argus in the late 1960s, which cover the arrival of the American jazz player Roland Kirk, for a gig at the university. The matter-of-factness of these clippings cannot contain the lively sense of culture-clash, which begins right at the moment the completely blind Kirk emerges from a van in a boiler suit, asking cars to go around him. He then dines with the Telegraph & Argus correspondent, who feels it important to note that the waiter is thrown off-balance by his order of red meat, fish and vegetables, on the same plate: ‘Surf and Turf’ had not yet arrived in Bradford. Kirk then expressed his admiration for the Coronation Street theme tune, which he considered to be a ‘deep blues number’. It is, of course, but for the white working classes Coronation Street represented, it signified other things too, grittiness, a sense of stoicism and ‘northerness’, albeit reduced to a grainy surface. None of these aspects are incommensurate with ‘the blues’, but it is interesting to note how cultural documents can slip, and we can take a new sense of what the theme tune means. I wrote about this for the Ways of Looking festival in Bradford: Surf and Turf on Thornton Road. In Piccadilly Station it is taking on a whole slew of other meanings, as are all kinds of objects on the Manchester landscape at the moment.