Month: June 2015

Geography blogs – a list, and a discussion of ‘why blog?’

I posted quite a while ago about academic blogging on this blog. Stuart Elden has just offered the following useful remarks (updating earlier remarks) on his blog with some links to other recent interesting posts about academic blogging.

Progressive Geographies

Sam Kinsley has compiled a list of Geographers that blog, and followed this with a post questioning their focus, an excerpt of which was:

It was a surprise to me how quite a few of those blogs, with some honourable exceptions, are tightly focussed conduits for personal research and are not participating in wider online/offline conversations. One of the big claims made for blogging in the noughties was, of course, that ‘social’ media precisely enable broader conversations. While the majority of those active geography bloggers I found use for their blogs they do not seem to use the ‘social’  functions such as ‘reblog’ and other conversation tools on the platform.

Jeremy Crampton and Clive Barnett have engaged with this question on their own blogs. Jeremy talks more about the sharing question, including that of platforms; while Clive offers some very interesting reflections about why his blog, Pop Theory, began…

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Foucault: the specific intellectual and universities

The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterpoised to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the state or capital — technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual’s specific activity begun to serve as the basis for politicization, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark off the intellectual, has disappeared. And it has become possible to develop lateral connections across different forms of knowledge and from one focus of politicization to another. Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicization of intellectuals. This process explains how, even as the writer tends to disappear as a figurehead, the university and the academic emerge, if not as principal elements, at least as ‘exchangers,’ privileged points of intersection. If the universities and education have become politically ultra-sensitive areas, this is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power effects as centers in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”
Michel Foucault. (1984) [1977]. , ‘Truth and Power’. In Paul Rabinow (ed) The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 68

Random thoughts in response

This very interesting reflection by Foucault resonates strongly today. Perhaps one could argue that the remnants of the old – perhaps romantic – figure of the intellectual as writer are now being thoroughly expunged from the system in favour of the new ‘politicised’ figure of the academic – but that ‘politicisation’ has perhaps changed in emphasis since the late 1970s when Foucault made this remark. If perhaps he was referring to political radicalism, this ‘politicisation’ is now skewed in the sense of being a functionary of governmental systems. Certainly this passage by Foucault is one that could bear more thought on its applications within a contemporary context.

Restoring the Balance

O’Farrell, Clare (1996). ‘Restoring the Scholarly Balance’ Campus Review, Comment, Jan 18-24, p.8.

The text below was published in Campus Review in 1996. I think 20 years on, it may be too late to save the kind of university I am referring to in this piece – that is, a university which was essentially a semi-autonomous college of experts and scholars operating from its own power base within the social body. But this piece serves perhaps as a reflection of a moment in time, a tipping point. Also to be noted, this text was written for the Australian institutional and political context of the time.

For a more contemporary report, Terry Eagleton’s piece on The Slow Death of the University, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in April 2015 is well worth a look.

Restoring the Scholarly Balance

In 1229, the University of Paris went on strike. The strike was about what the University regarded as unwarranted government interference in its affairs. Sound familiar? The strike was to last for two years. Eventually, the French government caved in under pressure from a business community which relied on the custom of students and staff for the health of its bank balances. But it was not only businesses that were suffering, the government itself needed the university to train its own officials and advisors. Thus solemnly promised autonomy from the government in 1231, staff and students who had been continuing their teaching and research happily in Orleans moved back to the city. This was merely one incident in a long and prestigious history of revolt and non compliance which still inspires French students today. That other famous episode, the student uprising of May 1968, helped bring down a government and students continue to make their presence felt in no uncertain terms in 1996.

Such a scenario would be unimaginable in Australia today. What would happen to those EFTSUS, so much the life blood of administrators? Those DEET grants so anxiously sought after by researchers and ‘management’ alike? Those pseudo corporate ‘managerial’ salaries and privileges? Or that incestuous minority of career structures which provide a comfortable platform for the publication of endlessly turgid and unread ‘research reports’? There is no doubt that the Australian university is currently involved in a fundamental contradiction: at the surface level, in order to maintain its prestigious image as a centre of social dissent, it deploys an impressive rhetoric of protest at government interference, yet the fact is that it welcomes or, at the very least, passively accepts government involvement at every opportunity. Indeed, to a large extent its very rationale depends substantially on the existence of government style thinking as well as on government money. In addition to this, in so far as universities are also now setting themselves up as self supporting businesses, they have abandoned the traditional university world and its values in favour of the corporate and managerial ethos of the business world.

Of course all of this has been said before: one need only consult at random any issue of what federal education minister Dawkins in his heyday termed the ‘academic wailing wall’ the Higher Education Supplement to The Australian. And, as has also been remarked by the members of those same wailing classes, reactions to the current state of tertiary education are roughly divided into two camps. On the one hand, there are the upholders of the liberal view. This camp asserts the value of the ‘things of the mind’ and draws attention to a tradition which sets much store on notions such as academic freedom, truth and intellectual attainment for its own sake. They can only lament what they see as a sorry abandonment of this tradition. Adherents to the other camp, now strongly in the ascendant in terms of real power, extol the virtues of economic rationalism, ‘realism’ and pragmatism. The liberal tradition is all very well, they argue, but to be quite cynical if you can’t beat the government or corporate world, it might be more sensible to join them. Their message to the university is to get real and join the modern world: survival depends on it!

Was it inevitable that these should now be the only alternatives facing the Australian university? Must it simply be the ivory tower versus the hard reality of economic rationalism and increasing bureaucratic control? Could the existing polarisation have been foreseen particularly by those who were, in theory, best placed and best equipped to see it, that is academics and universities? But the academics of the 1970s and 1980s were so involved in their own elitist pursuits or alternatively in rushing to swell the ranks of political parties and causes that they neglected taking any responsibility for that base of their own identity and power – the university. They abrogated the area of their primary concern and thus ultimately abandoned control over their own lives. In trying to save the rest of the world, they forgot to save themselves. In pursuing political power, academics and universities paradoxically threw away such power as they did have, that is the power derived from critical detachment, the use of reason to analyse critically causes, systems of thought or ideologies, the power implicit in the operation of an intellect not under an obligation to be continually bound by pragmatic considerations of policy or budgetary bottom lines. The pursuit of particular political ideologies and agendas that became the mode in Australian universities during the seventies and eighties became a substitute for academics actually doing their job. They failed to exercise the real responsibilities inherent in the function of the intellect and drifted off into partisan political pragmatism and hence the university became fundamentally inimical to intellectual endeavour.

It can hardly be denied that universities were badly in need of reform as educational institutions when in 1988 the government in the form of federal education minister Dawkins stepped in to fill what had become a virtual vacuum. If academics and universities had sought to put their own house in order earlier, they might have been sufficiently sensitive and alert to have been in a position to negotiate with industry and government. They would have been a discreet and well defined force to be reckoned with on their own ground. Instead, what occurred was more than an abdication, it was a wholesale lapse in consciousness. Academics did not even know what the questions facing them were and in particular their perception of the basic elements of economic life appeared faulty. Governments had to balance budgets and academics seemed not to recognise this, or when they did, they did so in the terms of politicians themselves. The university could only have survived if academics had earlier banded together to form again what they had once been, a corporation with its own rules, its own values, its own ‘organisational culture’ and rationale and the will to assert the importance of those things. This assertion needed to be made not only against State, industry and commerce but ultimately in the best interests of those very sectors. In other words, a successful university system needs to both challenge and serve the interests of State and industry at one and the same time. Finding the right balance is the problem. At present that balance has tipped too far in favour of State and industry. No better illustration of this dilemma can be found than in the operation of some departments in university Education faculties. The academic staff of these departments have increasingly found themselves in the peculiar position of experiencing a greater and greater divorce between their research interests and the content of their teaching. Government education departments demand they provide a certain curriculum for teacher trainees based on educational theories and ideas years out of date. It is the job of academics to keep up to date with and to offer new approaches to education in a way that cannot possibly be reproduced by the State whose primary job it is to govern. Thus an ever widening gap is produced between cutting edge research and the curriculum offered to hapless students. In such a case neither the university nor the government can possibly perform their proper functions with any degree of efficacy and the whole delicately balanced system breaks breaks down further still amidst ongoing mutual recriminations.

It has often been objected that academics are too diverse a group, too broken up by solitary and esoteric research to make the powerful and successful declaration of corporate identity required to prove to the rest of the community that they are capable of governing their own affairs. But if we go back to the University of Paris in 1229, we find an extraordinary mix of scholars from all over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, who did not appear to have had any overwhelming problem in imposing its corporate will. Further, the University of Paris was an organisation squarely anchored in the ‘real world’, providing education and training for practitioners in all the major professions – medical, legal and clerical – as well as for government officials and advisors. Not only this, but it was also responsible for educating children and adolescents. So what has changed? Is nearly 600 years of human history such an unbridgeable and utterly alienating gap? Yet close examination reveals that at the most general level, the functions of the various social institutions have changed little: governments continue to govern and extract taxes from their subjects, businesses continue to produce, trade and make money and universities continue to teach, train the professions and undertake advanced research.

So what can be done to restore the balance and reassert and reintegrate the identity of the university – particularly at a time when the politics of identity for a myriad of so many other groups is so high on the agenda? The balance can only be restored if the disintegration is recognised as being such. One cannot solve a problem one does not even know exists. A first step towards reintegration is for academics to admit that they have failed in the past to recognise their own shortcomings and to accept that the function, however much changed, of the university remains the same. If there is no agreement on such basic principles then all indeed is lost; but let us assume, optimistically perhaps, that such agreement is possible. The next step is then to open discussion about the balance which must be struck between the pragmatic realities – the need both to educate and train the professions and to balance the economy; and the need both to advance knowledge and for society to have a mechanism to criticise and evaluate itself. But above all, one salient fact leaps out of the present tensions between university and the State. The State has become educationally out of date. The State no longer knows what it’s doing at the educational level. There was a time under Dawkins, eight years ago, when it did know, but as its primary function is to govern, it must necessarily fall behind those institutions whose job it is to keep abreast with and create new developments in specialised fields. The universities now have a second chance to recapture the initiative from a State increasingly demonstrating its incompetence and lack of leadership in the field of education. Academics and universities are once again in a position to resume their time honoured role and the medieval University of Paris need no longer represent some impossibly archaic piece of ancient history.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

This sounds like a rather interesting book, although I have only read a brief extract and a review. I like Crawford’s point, at least as described in the review below, that we need to pay focused attention to the constraints of physical reality, rather than losing ourselves in an abstract screen world of virtual possibilities. This is a point being made by a number of philosophers at present.

I’m not so keen on the concept of ‘mastery’ referred to below however, as this all smacks a bit too much of domination for my tastes. I would prefer to think of ‘working with’, rather than submitting things to our will. And because I can never resist throwing in a reference to Foucault: this focus on our interaction with the physical and the material, a materiality which is both human and non-human, and the necessity of patiently working with it at a whole range of levels, is arguably one of the primary focuses of Foucault’s work as well, and what makes his work so easily applicable to so many domains.

Reviewed by Nick Romeo at The Daily Beast, 5 March 2015.

Extract from review:

Crawford’s solution [to the distractions of the modern world] is not that we retreat into soothing sensory deprivation tanks; he advocates engaging with the “the brute alien otherness of the real” as apprentices and eventually masters. His ideals of focused attention are activities in which we exercise freedom not by purchasing products to express our will, but by submitting to the intrinsic demands of the external world in some restricted domain and accommodating its realities in skillful and intelligent ways. This sounds far more obscure than it actually is: playing ice hockey, practicing glassblowing, learning Russian, working as a short-order cook, building pipe organs, and playing an instrument are some of the examples he gives.

Nietzsche once said that joy is the feeling of one’s power increasing. Crawford appropriates the remark to argue that getting good at skilled actions fulfills a fundamental human need that our culture often neglects by offering instant technological solutions. In one fascinating section, he compares Mickey Mouse cartoons from the early and middle 20th century to children’s television today. The older shows present the physical world as a source of menace and humor: one thing that the constant collisions, crashes, explosions, and general slapstick show is that characters are subject to immutable laws of physics. Nature does not pander to its denizens; it follows that it’s a good idea to pay attention to the world and try to understand how it works rather than how you would like it to work.

In the contemporary Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, by contrast, a Handy Dandy machine solves problems by presenting pre-approved options on a screen menu. Technology has conquered risk and peril, and material reality meekly obeys the wills of characters, provided they have the appropriate gadgets.

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General bibliography on open-plan office design (2015)

Still from Jacques Tati's film Playtime (1967)
Still from Jacques Tati’s film Playtime (1967)
I have put together a general – but still very select – bibliography of material on open-plan office design, which you can download as a PDF. All items have links for easy consultation.

The bibliography includes the following subheadings:

  • Academic articles on open-plan: General
  • Academic articles on open-plan: Universities
  • Online newspaper and magazine articles/Websites: General
  • Online newspaper and magazine articles/Websites: Universities
  • The history of open-plan office design
  • Articles/Websites on the ‘combi-office’
  • Sick building syndrome
  • Audio-visual
  • Books

See also another select bibliography by Peter Lugosi

Foucault on disciplinary acts of cunning

This is such a wonderful description of how institutions work from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The disciplinary society is only too alive and well – with a whole new technology at its disposal.

‘There can be no question here of writing the history of the different disciplinary institutions, with all their individual differences. I simply intend to map on a series of examples some of the essential techniques that most easily spread from one to another. These were always meticulous, often minute, techniques, but they had their importance: because they defined a certain mode of detailed political investment of the body, a ‘new micro-physics’ of power; and because, since the seventeenth century, they had constantly reached out to ever broader domains, as if they tended to cover the entire social body.

Small acts of cunning endowed with a great power of diffusion, subtle arrangements, apparently innocent, but profoundly suspicious, mechanisms that obeyed economies too shameful to be acknowledged, or pursued petty forms of coercion – it was nevertheless they that brought about the mutation of the punitive system, at the threshold of the contemporary period.[…] They are the acts of cunning, not so much of the greater reason that works even in its sleep and gives meaning to the insignificant, as of the attentive ‘malevolence’ that turns everything to account. Discipline is a political anatomy of detail.’

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, (A. Sheridan, Trans.), New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1975), p. 139.