What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities':

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out'; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

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The Urbanization of Responsibility: Live

CBSUKUI have finally made it on to You Tube! Here is a video of a live performance from back in February when I was in Cape Town, when I gave a rather more impromptu talk than I had expected at the launch event of a new programme on the theme of The Future of the City, linking the Universities of Stellenbosch and Leuven.

The sound is quite poor, and I’m not much to look at, but apart from that, this is me trying to explain to an audience of non-specialists what I mean by ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘.

 

 

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Songs from South Africa

DSCF4685I have just returned home from a couple of weeks in Cape Town, not a holiday, but a research-trip related to the Leverhulme project on The Urbanization of Responsibility. An exercise in ‘learning from another region’, that’s how I would characterise it. Anyway, one of the things that happens when I am in South Africa is that I find myself needing to buy something, anything, to listen to, while working and/or driving. As a result, over the years, I have collected an odd assortment of CDs, which have become indelibly connected to South Africa by virtue of being the only thing I had to listened to for weeks or even months on end. So here is my Top 10 “Random songs that I have collected on trips to South Africa”, in no particular order, and with nothing else in common at all:

1). H.W.C. - Liz Phair.

2). Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA.

3). Rudy – Supertramp.

4). Get on the Good Foot – James Brown.

5). Big Jet Plane – Primal Scream.

6). Nkalakatha – Mandoza.

7). Mr. Soul – Buffulo Springfield.

8). Sindiza Ngecadilacs – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks.

9). No More Lonely Nights – The Heads.

10). Ndlovu Iyangena – Tokolo.

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Doing Theory Slowly: more on media, practices and urban politics

9484-aldabra-giant-tortoise-1920x1200-animal-wallpaperFollowing up on the link to the Society and Space page with the podcast of a discussion between myself, Scott Rodgers, Allan Cochrane and Tim Markham, I thought it would be useful to recall the ‘arc’ of the conversations that Scott, Allan and I have been having since 2007. The podcast mentions the idea of ‘slow theory’ (an idea we might have stolen from a former OU colleague, Mike Saward), which is one way of capturing the process of collaborative thinking that we have been involved in that time.

– This all started when Scott was an ESRC-funded post-doc at the OU, from 2007-8, and then in turn working at CCIG at the OU.

-As part of the initial project, we held a workshop on the theme of Mediapolis, in June 2008.

– That generated the first published output of the collaboration, an edited section of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research in 2009, containing papers on the connections between urban thinking and media thinking by Gary Bridge, Kurt Ivesen, Kevin Ward, and ourselves (here and here).

– Then, in 2009, we organised a set of sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, on the theme of ‘Where is urban politics?’.

– This was the basis of the Symposium of the same title in IJURR, published at the end of last year.

– The Society and Space paper on Mediated practices and urban politics is something we have been working on across these other activities, and has gone through various iterations. This paper is our attempt, I guess, to draw together the animating concerns that the three of us have bought to the collaboration.

– The podcast is a record of us talking through some of the background hang-ups that shape the paper.

Overall, I think that’s a decent return on the initial ‘investment’ – not so much in terms of quantity of outputs, but certainly, for me, in terms of the quality of the ongoing discussions we have engaged in while organising, convening, editing and writing together.

 

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Media Practices and Urban Politics: A Conversation about Slow Theory

Clive:

Details below of a podcast, focussing on a recent Society and Space paper on media practices and urban politics. The paper itself is available on open access for the next month.

Originally posted on Society and space:

The open site is pleased to offer a conversation moderated by Tim Markham of Birkbeck with the three authors of the current issue’s “Media practices and urban politics: conceptualizing the powers of the media-urban nexus.”  The paper is now open access for one month. The paper’s authors are Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett, and Allan Cochrane.

Left to right: Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett, Tim Markham, and Allan Cochrane. Photo by a fast-footed Scott Rodgers on self-timer. Left to right: Scott Rodgers, Clive Barnett, Tim Markham, and Allan Cochrane discuss their paper’s arguments and backstory, and the merits of slow scholarship. Photo by a fast-footed Scott Rodgers on self-timer. The conversation was recorded at Birkbeck’s Media Services facility; many thanks to Mansour Shabbak for help facilitating this recording. Recording edited by Scott Rodgers.

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Approaches to Human Geography: new edition published

91rdYH74XwLOh the excitement – a new year, and a new book in the pigeon hole at work. The new, second edition of Approaches to Human Geography, edited by Stuart Aitken and Gill Valentine, has been published. I have found this text, and various others in the ‘family’ of associated texts published by Sage on ‘Key Concepts’, ‘Key Texts’, ‘Key Thinkers’ really useful in my own transition back into not-so-distanced higher education teaching in the last year or so.

I happen to have a chapter in the Approaches volume, titled Postcolonialism: Powers of Representation. I don’t know about other chapters, but I think mine is a significant revision from the previous one, in tone if nothing else.

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2014 Top Ten: Music

wyverncpI’m not sure what this list says about how well I seem to belong to a predictable going-backwards-Dad demographic. This is what has formed the backbone of the soundtrack to my life this year:

1). Jenny Lewis’s Voyager. I seem to discover new things to listen these days mainly by listening to David Byrne’s monthly playlist, which is where I first discovered this – I need to find better ways of keeping up.

2). Talking Heads, Real Live Wires. This is one of a number of live radio recordings from the late ’70s that are now available on CD; coming across this was a little bit like discovering previously unpublished lectures by Foucault.

3). Spoon, They Want My Soul. Lovely.

4). Bobby Darin’s Commitment.

5). Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green,  thanks to Robert Forster’s book.

6). Kristen Hersh, Murder, Misery, and Then Goodnight, because both of my daughters like it.

7). James Brown, Gold. I spent a week in Cape Town with this as the only thing to listen to in the car, so now I feel a lot more funky than I did before.

8). Court Yard Hounds, Amelita.

9). Taylor Swift, 1989. We have 2 tickets to see her in Hyde Park next summer, and I still haven’t given up hope of being the grown-up who gets to go.

10). Frozen, The Soundtrack. Obviously.

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2014 Top Ten: Fun Books

IMG_2978Sometimes, in addition to the books I read for work, I also read things for less instrumental reasons, almost for pleasure, although the boundary is a bit fuzzy (in both directions). This is a list not so much of ‘best books’ of the year, more a list of the books associated with my favourite book-buying/book-reading experiences of the year.

1). Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacationbecause this is the kind of holiday I would like to take.

2). Let’s Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson, which is the best, and probably only, book about Celine Dion I am ever going to read.

3). Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavicmy favourite writer-whose-books-you-can-only-seem-to-buy-in-South-Africa.

4). The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings 2005-09, by Robert Forster. I bought this for a couple of quid in Bristol, not knowing that he wrote music criticism, and discovered some new things to listen to as a result; I almost cried when reading his appreciation of co-Go Between, Grant McLennan.

5). James Salter’s Last Nightshort stories, no sentence of which can be read quickly, really good for reading in the bath.

6). Michael Tomasky’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, my first e-book, I read this in one sitting on a flight to New York city. There were not screaming crowds awaiting my arrival.

7). Gideon Haigh’s Ashes to Ashes. I have come to dislike most things about cricket, leaving one or two pleasures at the edges, like Mike Selvey in The Guardian, and Vic Marks on the radio, and Gideon Haigh; this is really only a collection of his daily newspaper columns of the 10 Ashes Tests of 2013-2014.

8). The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, by Robert Caro. This is a cheat, since I haven’t actually read all three of these this year, but I have been dipping in and out of each one, having read the fourth volume a couple of Christmas’s ago, and then seeing Bryan Cranston play LBJ in All the Way in March. The Bluecoat second-hand bookshop in Liverpool has had these three volumes sitting around for years, so I finally succumbed and got the lot for £20, a bargain).

9). The Portlandia Cook Book. I’ll give this a try, but nothing with pickles.

10). Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre. I read this in two sittings, to and from Disneyland Paris on Eurostar, which seems appropriate in all sorts of ways.

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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2014 Top Ten: Theory Books

shoes’tis the season to make best-of-the-year lists, it seems. I read books for a living (which means not necessarily from start to finish, and generally by writing in them as I go along). These are my favourites from this year, ones which made me think the most, or confirmed my prejudices, or surprised me a little bit, and all of which also bought at least a little bit of pleasure.

1). Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice – Michel Foucault (like discovering a lost record by Talking Heads from somewhere between 1978 and 1982).

2). Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon – edited by Barbara Cassin.

3). Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism – Barbara Cassin.

4). Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problem of Modernity – Colin Koopman.

5). Keys to the City: How Economics, Institutions, Social Interaction, and Politics Shape Development – Michael Storper.

6). Democracy and Illusion: An Examination of Certain Aspects of Modern Democratic Theory – John Plamenatz (and oldie, bought by accident).

7). Making Human Geography – Kevin Cox (my favourite book by someone I know).

8). Africa’s Urban Revolution – edited by Sue Parnell and Edgar Pieterse (makes you think about cities and urbanization in new ways).

9). Justification and Critique: Towards a Critical Theory of Politics – Rainer Forst.

10). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity – Charles Taylor (another oldie, and I’m not sure why I found myself reading this, but I did, and then I wondered why I hadn’t done so before).

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