In memory of a tree

“As in a dream, he shows her a point beyond the tree, hears himself say, ‘This is where I come from’, and falls back, exhausted.” 1

I live a minute walk from the east side of Lincoln South Common but had never visited, nor even heard of, Cross O’Cliff Orchard until recently. The orchard is across the road (‘Cross O’Cliff Hill’) from the west side of the Common, so I took a half hour walk this afternoon to the orchard for the first time.

Click on the image to read the text and learn about Lincoln South Common.

On my way there, I was reminded of the recent disappearance of a favourite landmark. It was a large tree that sat on the highest south ridge of the Common and was bent into a distinctive shape, so much so that it was distinguishable from across the city. I have remarked on this tree to people for many years and noticed recently while walking home that it was suddenly absent from the landscape. Previously, to observe it was a sign that I was orientated towards home and now my ‘compass’ feels broken.

[Click the photos to see the full size image. The original images can be seen on Flickr. Thanks to the various people who have taken them.]

It seems that my landmark was cut down to make way for another anticipated landmark: Lincolnshire Bomber Command Memorial.

The Bomber Command planning notice.

IMG_20140427_162355 IMG_20140427_145212 I am, in principle, in support of large public pieces of art, and it would be wonderful to have one located so close to where I live, but I cannot find any enthusiasm for another war memorial, not least one called ‘Bomber Command’.

Angry and depressed by the loss of this tree, my tree, our tree on common land, my spirits were lifted as I entered the orchard.

“One of England’s few surviving traditional old orchards… at least 125 years old.”

The sun was warm and the trees were in full blossom. I felt like I had entered a secret world.

IMG_20140427_154306 IMG_20140427_153940 IMG_20140427_154333

Under the canopy of some old trees.
Lots of young trees have been planted.
There were ‘Forget-me-not’ flowers everywhere.

I can’t wait to return with family and friends to enjoy food and drink together. We shall pass the old tree stump and remember its absence from our horizon towards home.

Co-operative university discussion at #DPR14

I led a discussion at the Discourse, Power and Resistance conference last week, which rested on the question of whether a ‘co-operative university’ is an appropriate and adequate response to the crisis of higher education. The discussion was rich and engaging and consequently my notes are sparse and banal, but I will try to collect a few thoughts here now.

The conference was comprised of academics, educators and activists who share a mutual sense of despair, anger, irritation, and fear for the future of higher education in the UK and elsewhere (the conference was 50% non-UK delegates). The opening keynote for the conference from Prof. Richard Pring set the tone by detailing and lamenting the various neoliberal reforms that have occurred across the education sector in the last two decades. While taking questions, one delegate asked the obvious question: “So, what is to be done?” Pring had no real answer, except to propose that a professional ‘council’ be established to protect the interests of the profession. Understandably dissatisfied with that response, someone else said that it required educators to engage in acts of subversion and that many of us are already doing so. We should recognise that the classroom still remains a space of relative autonomy. I wasn’t convinced by that. It may be the case, but those days are numbered. Finally, someone else appealed to us all to organise and strike.

In that context, our discussion the next morning about co-operative higher education had something to kick against. Might the idea of a co-operative university, or more generally, co-operative higher education in a variety of forms, be another, more adequate response to the question: “So, what is to be done?”? As I’ve noted before, I think it could be and the general tone among the 15-20 participants during our hour-long discussion was one of curiosity and interest.

I first introduced the idea with a handful of slides:

As you can see, I proposed that there are three ways to think about and plan for a co-operative university:

  • Conversion: Constitute universities on co-operative values and principles. Read Dan Cook’s report: ‘Realising the co-operative university‘.
  • Dissolution: Radicalise the university from the inside, starting with the relationship between academics and students. Read about Student as Producer.
  • Creation: Build experiments in higher education outside the financialised sector. Read about the Social Science Centre.

Throughout the discussion, I kept the slide containing the co-operative movement’s values and principles on the screen so as to establish some of the constitutional features of a co-operative university.

Participants spoke about their own efforts at establishing those values and principles in their current work, ranging from individual efforts in the classroom, the design of degree programmes and the establishing of formal centres within their institutions. Broadly, these came under the ‘Dissolution’ route and in my case I spoke about Student as Producer as such an example.

Given the news headlines over the last few weeks about the financial problems of the Co-operative Group UK, it was inevitable that this was brought up and participants rightly questioned whether the co-operative movement remained an oppositional, if not radical, response to capitalism. My own view is that despite the current crisis in the UK’s co-operative group, the co-operative movement as a whole, including its rich history and internationalism, has much to offer and inspire radical educators. I am under no illusion that it is the ‘answer’ to the crisis of capital, but the values and principles; the movements’ relationship with socialism and its members’ deep sense of politics; its commitment to education; and its variety of constitutional forms, do seem to offer a useful framework for pursuing democratic control over the future of higher education and its institutions. Yes, co-operatives necessarily operate within the logic of capital, but they exist in contestation with it. Since the movement’s origins, their very existence is a critique of capitalism in practice.  One participant in the discussion remarked that it’s “impossible” to exist outside capitalism. Another responded: “The fact that it’s ‘impossible’ means that we should keep trying!”

Other points of discussion touched on the role of students, who are “increasingly self-commodifying” – how can we work with them to realise an alternative form of higher education? Where are the students at DPR? Does their opinion matter at this stage or is this more about academics determining their own future first and foremost? We should be “bold and resolute” with students. What is the university for? Knowledge? The re-production of labour power? What does work look like in the future? Some participants had “given up on the university” and saw the future as one, not in dialogue with the institution but with students. We were reminded that “there will be dangers” as we move forward.

Final call for contributions to a book on “Mass Intellectuality: The democratisation of higher education”

This is a final call for contributions to a book on “Mass Intellectuality: The democratisation of higher education” that Richard Hall and I are pulling together. More details are available here.

The book aims to provide international critiques and accounts of the crisis in higher education, with a focus on the creation of alternative forms. Its premise is that globally, higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is resolutely instrumental. What and who have led us to this crisis? What are the alternatives? To whom do we look for leadership in revealing those alternatives?

The book’s starting point is that mass higher education is at the point where it no longer reflects the needs, capacities and long-term interests of society. An alternative role and purpose is required, based upon ‘mass intellectuality’ or the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge.

We welcome anyone who is involved with and/or working on alternative higher education projects such as free universities, transnational collectives, occupied spaces, and co-operatives for higher education to contribute to the book. We also welcome those who are working inside the University to provide critical analyses of recent and existing efforts to develop alternatives to mainstream higher education.

If you would like to contribute to the book, please email me as soon as possible. We will then be in-touch about submitting an abstract connected to intellectual leadership in higher education by 10 May.

NOTE: whilst Richard and I both work in UK higher education, we would welcome a range of voices in the development of the book. International, critical engagements with intellectual leadership are central to this project.

Small gauge

Sometimes I find myself returning to film, wishing I still had my Bolex, Beaulieu or Nizo. Wonderful, mechanical, precision engineering you can hold in your hands.

Bolex SBM 16mm camera
Beaulieu 4008 ZM4 Super 8mm camera
Nizo 801 Super 8mm camera

The cost of film stock, processing and transfer to print or digital video is relatively expensive compared to digital video (approx. £70/3mins). However, artist films needn’t be long. Why not make films that are just a minute or two long?

Recently, while day-dreaming of Bolex Rex-5 cameras, I came across, a critical film-maker’s haven, for laboratory facilities, telecine, and educational programmes. A wonderful looking past project brought Jonas Mekas to London to talk with young adults about “working with the diary film form as a cinema of free and poetic self-expression.”

It reminded me of a similar workshop I took part in at Image Forum, Tokyo, over two weeks in 1999. Each of us made a short film on 100 feet (2:45mins) of 16mm film. Mine was an exercise in film form, and a couple of years later the film ended up slotted into a longer film as shown below at 9:01 mins.

My workshop film is very simple. The camera remained static on a tripod and six different people took it in turns to stand in front of the camera. I started off by filming one frame of each of the six people as they rotated in front of the camera, and then two frames of each of them, and then three frames, and so on, up to 24 frames. The last time you see each person is for exactly one second or 24 frames. Or rather, it would be if you were watching the original projected film; the transfer to video changes the form temporally as well as materially. What should be exactly 75 seconds (1800 frames) becomes 72 seconds because PAL video runs at 25fps not 24fps.  Given its entire purpose was to explore the exacting, mechanical and temporal attributes of film, its temporal form is technically destroyed when transferred to video.

It’s been over a decade since I worked with film, but I retain a strong attachment to small gauge (8, Super-8, 9.5 and 16mm) film and its social history. It can be the most beautiful and poetic of personal, artistic mediums. You may disagree, but have you seen films by Stan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Nathaniel Dorsky or Jonas Mekas?

Take, for instance, Brakhage’s hand-painted films, or his more visceral ‘The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes‘, or ‘Window Water Baby Moving‘, or this extract below from Mekas’ ‘Walden/Diaries, Notes and Sketches’.

To show you these films as video, streamed on the web, is to offer you the content disembodied from the form. It is a lie. We know what the film is about but we don’t know what it is to see. This is no more obvious with Peter Hutton’s ‘At Sea’, which may be watched below, but not seen.


Financialising the university: What is to be done?

Andrew McGettigan concludes his article on financialisation and higher education with:

“I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.”

This is a similar conclusion to that of Brenna Bhandar writing on the LRB blog:

“If there is anything alluring about property as a form, it lies in its mutability, its capacity to be something other than private and exclusive. It is in all our interests to support students, academic and support staff, outsourced cleaners and others in their struggles to reconfigure the ownership of the university, and seize democratic forms of governance the better to create and distribute the social goods that we produce collectively, in spite of current government policies and management strategies.”

There are three responses to this that I can suggest:

  • Conversion: Constitute universities on co-operative values and principles. Read Dan Cook’s report: ‘Realising the co-operative university‘.
  • Dissolution: Radicalise the university from the inside, starting with the relationship between academics and students. Read about Student as Producer.
  • Creation: Build experiments in higher education outside the financialised sector. Read about the Social Science Centre.

Conference: Co-operation and Higher Education, April 26th, Lincoln

Just a final reminder that the Social Science Centre is hosting a free conference on the theme of ‘Co-operation and Higher Education’, April 26th, 10.30-4.30pm, at The Collection, Lincoln’s museum and art gallery.

I would love to see you there!

More details and registration here…

Peter Hudis – Alternatives to Capitalism

I have recently finished Peter Hudis’ book, ‘Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism‘. It is one of the most interesting and useful books that I’ve read in some time. Below, he discusses the topic of the book with reference to Occupy, worker co-ops and other contemporary responses to capital.

The audio significantly improves from one minute into the talk and his talk ends at 55 minutes when he takes questions.

Of particular interest to me is the outline his gives (around 36 mins in) of  what Marx deemed necessary to eliminate the conditions of alienating value production i.e. freely associated, non-alienated labour.

  1. Extend democracy into the economic sphere, into the workplace.
  2. Workers’ co-operatives. Direct ownership stake and control of the workplace.
  3. Eliminate the social division of labour between ownership and non-ownership. Workers have a direct stake in the outcome of labour.
  4. In control of the workplace, workers would make work less alienating, less harmful.
  5. Co-ordination between co-operatives is needed, nationally and internationally. Democratically elected planning authority, subject to recall.

Update 29th April 2014: Here’s another talk by Hudis:

Update 16th June 2014: Another good talk to the Workers and Punks University (discusses coops and councils from around 40min onwards)