Wednesday, 31 August 2016

In The Psychiatrist's Chair

I've been seeing a lot of memos about 'resilience' recently, the latest buzzword in corporate personnel management. Firstly organisations were meant to be 'resilient', and now employees have to be too. There's even a piece about it in the Guardian today, countering the argument that staff and students should become 'resilient', which seems to be a politer version of that awful phrase 'man up'. We've all become pathetic weak flowers unable to cope with reality, it appears to imply. We demand 'safe spaces' and can't take a bit of banter (an example: the first time I spoke to the Dean of my school back in 2004, his opening gambit was 'oh, that's who you are: I've just sacked you'. He had, too: he'd cancelled all the hourly-paid lecturer contracts).

Where does all this come from? Well sadly, I can say that I was at the forefront of resilience training, involuntarily and unpleasantly. A few years ago the successor to the Sacking Dean was a quite nervy individual who preferred not to engage in direct conversation. She wrote respectable sociology books and went on to greater things at another institution. One day I received an email from her secretary, announcing that I had been selected to take part in a training course, which consisted of a series of meetings with an 'educational consultant', designed to enhance my career prospects.

Having never had a conversation with the Dean, I was pretty suspicious: she knew nothing of me, my past or my future desires, and long experience had taught me that managers taking an interest rarely if ever led to the sunlit uplands of peace and contentment. But being eager to please as always, I agreed and presented myself at the appointed place and time. After a few minutes' conversation with the 'educational consultant', it turned out that my Dean had been rather economical with the facts. She was no educational consultant: she was a psychiatrist specialising in workplace development, and she was rather shocked to discover that management hadn't made this clear to her clients (patients? victims?). I rather liked her, and she told me about impostor syndrome, which is when genuinely successful academics experience being me. Asking around the school, I tracked down the other beneficiaries of this scheme: we all turned out to be those whom management felt were underperforming, according to the kinds of metrics they like (the reductive ones, obviously). The purpose of these sessions, which occurred every two weeks for several months, and the exercises and questionnaires which filled my waking hours between consultations, were to establish why I was such a useless, resentful layabout, and to encourage a better and more productive mindset that would culminate in that elusive Fields Medal or Nobel Prize (you think I'm joking, but a friend's university has a checkbox for Nobel Prize on the promotion application form).

Now it should be acknowledged that I'm a lazy, damaged wastrel with very little to show for all these qualifications, but even back then as a naïve and innocent youngster I knew something was wrong here. I'd heard of the Russian habit of sending political dissidents to psychiatric hospitals, and this seemed to be a related tactic. On a  more fundamental level, I knew that sending me to see a psychiatrist – under false pretences too – was not just highly unethical, but evidence of a radical shift in management thinking. Having looked at my paper existence, they decided that the slow start to my research career must be evidence of psychological weakness: a lack of resilience, if you will. This meant that the responsibility was entirely mine. I had failed to act like a good Protestant by engaging in a process of self-surveillance and striving: I had let my inherited Catholicism lead me in to the error of thinking that our collective efforts and support lead us into the path of righteousness. It let the organisation off the hook: they had no responsibility for my situation, despite me teaching across six departments on a part-time contract, receiving no research support or time. In short, there were no structural problems which placed me and my colleagues in this situation: it was all a matter of individual shortcomings.

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and thereare families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.
The failure is mine. I understood a university to be a community of scholars engaged in a common, higher purpose. They now see it as a workplace in which employees are to be sweated for a product: those who fail to meet arbitrary targets are simply fired or demoted, as has happened to a number of professors in this institution. The psychiatrists, thankfully, disappeared with the departure of that particular Dean, and I don't think anything quite so crass will reappear, but the individualisation of collective conditions is very much the order of the day. Only now, they call it resilience. It's a trap and serves only their interests.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

PV's Culture News

Happy Tuesday to you all. I'm officially on holiday so obviously I'm in the office, avoiding unpacking crates. It's been rather lovely actually: met colleagues to get help launching a literature festival, met an Associate Dean for lunch and talked about books and ideas (he's giving me Ian Jack's collection of essays, I've persuaded him to read Thoreau's Walden, which I can honestly say changed my life). It's been good to see my colleagues as we all gradually move into this shared office, and I've already held a really enjoyable (for me anyway) undergrad dissertation tutorial on the literary history of pirates. I'm really going to enjoy supervising this student, though whether she'll forgive me for making her sit through The Pirates of Penzance remains to be seen.

The other thing I'm doing is going through all the dog-eared bits of newspaper I've torn out over the summer, trying to work out why I kept them and why I wanted to buy those books and that record. At least being away from the web for a few week means that this kind of filtering process is going on, rather than me buying things on a whim immediately. So far this morning I've bought contemporary music: Henri Dutilleux's Cello Concerto, Charlotte Bray's At The Speed of Stillness, Emily Howard's Magnetite and Cloud Chamber, and Upheld By Stillness, a collection of Byrd's choral music with contemporary settings on the same disc. This is what happens when you listen to Radio 3 for too long.

Obviously I've been reading too, and not just Edwina Currie novels, though I have three of them on the go at the moment and I'll be discussing those in more depth at some later date (you have been warned). I've whipped through Dan Vyleta's alternative-victoriana novel Smoke fairly quickly: it's compellingly written and has some intriguing ideas but is rather confused by the end.The idea is that for a couple of hundred years people in a deeply authoritarian Britain have literally smoked whenever they sin, broadly defined, and that the ruling classes are those who either develop the self-discipline to minimise their errors, suppress the symptoms, or cheat. Several subversive groups interact, all after different things, until in the end our adolescent heroes decide to allow some terrorists to complete their plan of overdosing the entire country with Smoke to purge the nation through a temporary orgy of violent sin, rather than allow continued moral and political repression. Lots of ideas, large chunks of Victorian literary pastiche, but something felt oddly lacking.

The other book I'm reading at the moment is Christopher Hill's God's Englishman, his 1970 sort-of biography of Oliver Cromwell. It's only a sort-of biography because Hill, as a Marxist, is (rightly) suspicious of the Great Man theory of history and so works hard to contextualise Cromwell as a symptom of prevailing economic and social forces as well as a key figure whose personal characteristics and decisions shaped great events. Hill's very clear on Cromwell's hatred of and brutality towards the Irish, and his increasingly conservative authoritarianism, while admiring his many good instincts and impulses. I don't think it matters too much that it's 46 years old: no doubt new facts about Cromwell and the period have emerged, and obviously there are new theoretical approaches available, but Hill's book is a classic of its time and context.

I've another day in the office, then I'm off to Loughborough for my annual Week in Polyester, working at the School Games. This time I'm on the staff for the Northern Ireland fencing team. Normally I know most of the fencers but I haven't done much refereeing and managing this year so I don't know any of the NI kids. Drawing from a much smaller pool than the other nations means that they usually get a kicking but we'll see what we can do. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Super summer round-up

Hello everyone. I'm back from my holiday and settling in to my new life in a 14-person call-centre style shared office in which we'll be able to work collaboratively without disturbing anyone, do cutting-edge research, see students and have confidential conversations. At least that's what management says from the comfort of their individual offices, though another section of the same institution has a very different view. A veal-fattening crate (as Douglas Coupland called it) is our reward for last year's 100% NSS satisfaction stats (yes, I know they don't stand up to a moment's scrutiny). Still, I've gained an insight into my colleagues' lives:

I've been in Ireland for a couple of weeks, enjoying the world-famous (in Kerry) Puck Fair and watching a lot of Olympics. I shifted off the sofa for a couple of swims in the Atlantic but not very often. The RTE  coverage of the Games was rather good: nowhere near as nationalistic as the BBC, wildly excited about the few medals and near-misses and hosted by a thoughtful and expert team, including Jerry Kiernan as The Grinch, a role you don't get on the Beeb:

It helped that the head of the Irish Olympic Committee, Pat Hickey, was arrested halfway through in a version of the FIFA hotel-raids with elements of French farce: nakedness and ridiculous lies from his wife. It added both gaiety and a degree of hard journalism to the coverage, and everyone I talked to enjoyed it enormously as this global equivalent of the gombeen man finally got what was coming to him.

You probably don't want to see my holiday snaps, but they're all here. Some of my favourites (click to enlarge):


I'm ready for my close-up…

The cattle fair was cruelly re-branded.

R2D2 in the Fancy Dress competition

A fortune-teller

I took a big pile of books with me to supplement my three-newspapers-a-day habit (Guardian, Irish Times, Irish Examiner): two Edwina Currie novels for research which I didn't get round to reading, and some others which I did. The first one was Sean Latham's Am I A Snob? Modernism and the Novel. I've had it on my shelves for a few years now and regret not reading it the moment I bought it. IT traces the changing definitions of snobbery from its early days (popularised by Thackeray in his Punch column 'Mr Snob', then analyses the tensions between aesthetic difficulty and democracy in the lives of three modernist novelists and their works: Virginia Woolf (particularly To the Lighthouse), James Joyce and Dorothy L. Sayers. Woolf in particular felt torn between fear and disdain for the lower orders and her cerebral socialism, hated being popular but liked the income. Latham traces the change in Sayers' Lord Peter from deliberate posh stereotype to subtle portrait of a damaged, complex character within a low-brow genre, and examines Ulysses in particular as a case-study of what's produced in the fusion of demotic and difficult. All three chapters are revelatory readings of these texts and suggest that the snob is an ideal character for examinations of the characteristics of modernism. I'm not sure Latham entirely grasped the erudition routinely expressed by ordinary Dubliners in conversation then and now, but it's a minor cavil. It's a wonderful book.

After that I read Christina Henry's Alice, an interesting horror-fantasy retelling of Carroll's novel. I don't habitually read horror or fantasy (though I read hundreds of the latter as a teen) but I'm interested in retellings in general, so I thought I'd give it a go. I liked it: it was disturbing but not gratuitous, and highly imaginative. On the down side, the plotting became a bit too intrusive and detracted from interesting character-driven explorations of madness and how women are written off: it was clear from fairly early on that a sequel and perhaps a series was being lined up. It would make an excellent film or even computer game, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm not sure I'll get Red Queen.

I then read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: I've read a lot of other Faulkner but never this one for some reason. It's the story of the decline of a formerly upper-class slave-owning white family in the American South and their black servants and neighbours, told in the first person by three family members and their principal servant. Astonishing: formally experimental, moving, sickening and compelling. Also brutally frank for 1929. Having read Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing and seen it as a response to Irish modernism, I'm wondering if it's also influenced by this novel.

Finally, I read William Gibson's Spook Country. I've been reading his work for a long time now but I'm getting less and less out of the experience. By this point I could pretty much write my own. All you have to do is name an awful lot of expensive-but-obscure brands then imply that they're worn/driven/fired by mysterious intellectual terrorists/spies/capitalists/illuminati with damned good taste and large budgets. For instance, the Cuban-Chinese Communist-santeria devotee all-purpose criminal facilitator wears an APC jacket, while Hubertus Bigend the Belgian taste-maker/corruption hunter doesn't just drive the plutocrat's vehicle of choice – a Maybach – but a version customised to be even more exclusive: a Brabus-Maybach. Somewhere amongst the thicket of signifiers I found myself wondering if Gibson any longer has anything meaningful to say. Unless his point is that there's no longer anything meaningful to say about the state of the world other than to urge us to dress well while we're promoting or fighting international conspiracies.  I was quite hooked by one thing though: one character spends his downtime reading an unnamed book about medieval European millenarians. It's clearly Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, which I read recently and found fascinating. Gibson's obvious parallel is that there's a global Elect in the post-Iraq settlement which is impervious to ordinary rules, laws and morality. It's certainly stylish and there's a political anger there, but it doesn't quite work on a literary level.

And now it's back to reading politicians' novels. Come on Edwina, show me what you've got…