Open Letter to Nancy Rothwell

Dear Nancy Rothwell,

As an alumnus of the University of Manchester, I would like to congratulate you on the appointment of George Gideon Osborne as the new Honorary Professor of Economics at the university. I did my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in English Literature at the university and have many friends currently undertaking doctoral research and teaching in a variety of subjects and fields there. I believe this is a watershed moment for many of your students, both past and present, because what we have seen develop over the past 7 years has finally become general public knowledge: this university cares more about private interests, profit and image than it does about students and an excellent standard of academia.

A university that once boasted some of the most brilliant minds amongst its staff, that was a world-leading centre for ground breaking research, sharp critical thinking and progressive, socially responsible teaching has opted for a shallow neoliberal poster boy for austerity as an educator, with a poor economic record in government and generally despised by those who have suffered and borne witness to the suffering that his policies have brought about in this city and beyond. That is before we even mention the fact that this man is responsible for the rise in tuition fees that have made higher education a luxury both in Manchester and around the country, instead of a public right and service. Whilst many other decisions made by you and your management regarding the funding and structure of the university have been crassly cynical, including the many cost-cutting mergers of schools and faculties across campus, this is the most overtly cynical and offensive yet. Finally, the University of Manchester is showing its true colours and its true contempt for so many of the people currently working and studying there. You and your management care only for the superficial. This mockery of the university is completely unacceptable but it is finally coming to national attention.

The first and most obvious issue to be taken with this appointment is the terrible correlation of the hiring of our new Honorary Professor and the proposed cutting of 171 academic jobs within the university, leaving up to a 1000 members of staff uncertain of their future.[1] These cuts are supposedly being implemented to benefit early years’ academics, giving them sought-for opportunities and teaching experience; yet, the actuality is that this is an overt cost-cutting exercise whereby young academics will be systematically ripped off and overworked with unfair contracts.

This is already an on-going battle at the university, where, for example, many Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures, have had to fight hard for their right to be paid not only for the contact teaching they do, but also for the hours of preparation and assessing they do for their students. Unfair temporary contracts for young academics provide no stability and security, bogging them down with arbitrary administration. This prevents many from having the valuable time to research and publish the work required to secure a fixed-term position. It is shocking that within this context of unfair contracts and low pay, which has already been simmering under the surface at the university for a long time and which is going to have a catastrophic effect on the university soon when the job losses and inevitable staff shortages come into force, that George Osborne is being offered an Honorary Professorship. This man has overseen the greatest attack on public services in modern times, and his outdated, ineffectual but utterly devastating economic ideology is something progressive institutions should be resisting, not applauding. By offering him an ‘Honorary’ position, the university is condoning his government’s and party’s express desire to privatise and profit from public institutions, bringing services to their knees through a constant undermining of staff, their pay and their working conditions. The University of Manchester is condoning, adopting and perpetuating this very ideology with its own staff and it is outrageous. Ultimately, the unjustified cutting of jobs at the university will see satisfaction deteriorate whilst the quality and the quantity of world-leading research that is produced by those left behind will be seriously impacted.

Across the country, the arts and humanities have been suffering for a very long time in higher education, thanks in part to the cuts inflicted upon universities by our Honorary Professor’s government. The University of Manchester is no stranger to this: the Archaeology department is fighting for its very existence; I easily recall students competing for tiny amounts of money within the School of Arts Languages and Cultures to attend conferences; and Visual Anthropology students were struggling to showcase their final projects due to the lack of a couple of hundred pounds to do so. This is whilst our science, business and engineering peers were showered with seemingly endless funding and equipment, travelling as far away as Hawaii for all expenses paid conferences and receiving free iPads and e-readers along the way. Indeed, science and engineering are the main beneficiaries of the new so-called ‘Campus Masterplan’, with ‘iconic’ new buildings creating a ‘Northern engineering powerhouse’, a direct reference to the lacklustre and patronising pet project of our new Honorary Professor whilst he was still in government. The Arts buildings, on the other hand, have settled for some re-arranging and re-modelling. The arts and humanities are not taken as seriously at this university as the allegedly ‘useful’ scientific disciplines because they are not guaranteed money-makers propped up by industry. I think this is hardly surprising: in the humanities, we are taught to identify, critique and analyse social systems, structures and ideologies, challenging the powerful and rigorously giving attention to the disenfranchised. It’s little wonder that funding is stripped from these areas of research, so uncomfortable for those in power, when they are so very threatening to the hegemonic orthodoxies perpetuated by those like the university management and our new Honorary Professor of Economics.

Having spent time with doctoral students within the schools of Chemistry and Biology, I have found that there too the treatment of students is as disturbing as the institutional negligence of the arts and humanities. Whilst I am still angry that science students are given preferential treatment over those studying the arts and humanities, I find the interference of industry and private business in the funding of science research and equipment sinister and, ultimately, a threat to the integrity of the research conducted and produced by the university. This is seen explicitly in one of the areas of science that you and George are so proud of: your beloved National Graphene Institute. Whilst it features in all the press releases and marketing information about the university, the National Graphene Institute remains an enigma to many students. There are few opportunities for students to work in and use the facilities that the National Graphene Institute houses because it is so heavily funded and owned by private companies and industry. Whilst students from the School of Chemistry, for example, can easily collaborate and make use of the facilities owned by the School of Biological Sciences, to use the National Graphene Institute requires patronage from industry, successive meetings with supervisors and limited accessibility. Companies like Dyson, Seimens, Samsung, Rolls Royce and Tetrapak are gearing research towards their own profitable ends and, in the process, are alienating doctoral students and academics who should have access to the facilities available. It is not a collegial or collaborative enterprise except for the private businesses who are hoping to make money from graphene, and it is not fair for all the money being spent on graphene to not be seen or used by the vast majority of students.

This brings me back to the inherent artifice and superficiality that the University of Manchester is constantly constructing for itself. On the outside, graphene has been a big financial success story for the university yet students are not seeing the benefits of this investment and instead watch their lecturers and teachers become at risk of losing their jobs. Similarly, the university has invested in a new 326 room hotel on campus in conjunction with the Alliance Business School.[2] It seems that the university management has forgotten that the university is a place of public learning and progressive research, not a leisure park for Honorary Professors and business people in suits to jet in for a masterclass or two. I do not see how a hotel and a shiny graphene institute, bankrolled and annexed by private businesses, are supposed to contribute to the vacuous ‘student experience’ that the university is so keen to market. George Osborne’s appointment as Honorary Professor of Economics is part of this same desperate grab for superficial international attention from a university that privileges profit over the people working and studying there: it has overseen a huge rise in tuition fees for home and international students; senior management have received significant pay rises whilst blue collar workers have been shafted on zero hours contracts; and it continues to slap Alan Turing’s name and face all over campus as a marketing ploy when it remained silent  in the 1950s when he was forced to chemically castrate himself for being gay.

The University of Manchester is not a corporate business, and yet it is being run in such a manner. Flashy appointments and flashy new hotels and research centres on campus make a stark contrast to cuts to staff and an authoritarian contempt for students. The appointment of George Osborne has brought this fact into daylight. His position on campus will, I hope, be met with resistance from students and alumni alike for the length of its duration. I am sure you are both currently basking in the attention that this announcement has received but I believe it is ill-advised, tone deaf and damages the brilliant reputation that the University of Manchester once had, ‘furthering the frontiers of knowledge through research and teaching, but also contributing to the well-being of its region and society more widely’.[3]  In its quest to hungrily make money and to become arbitrarily aspirational, for example ranking as a ‘world-leading university’ by 2020, the University of Manchester is diving into the depths of ideological infamy and history will not look kindly on this new frontier. [4]

[1] ‘Over 900 jobs at risk at University of Manchester as university announces major cuts’, https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/8775/Over-900-jobs-at-risk-at-University-of-Manchester-as-university-announces-major-cuts

[2] ‘University strikes hotel deal as part of £1 billion campus master plan’, http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=12495.

[3] University of Manchester: Vision https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/vision/.

[4] ‘KPI 1: To be recognised as one of the 25 leading universities in the world, with 20% of subject areas in the top 20, as measured by our position in international league tables’, http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=25548.

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Skull Money

Skull MoneyI remember standing in a queue at a cafe

Or getting ready to get onto a bus

Faffing with coins

And I told Annie

‘I don’t want to use this one:

It’s new and shiny’.

What. Why.

‘It’s pretty. I like it! I’m keeping it’.

She promptly told me off

For fetishizing money.

It’s true:

It’s all a fabulous golden fiction.

Who cares if it’s old or new, pretty or worn.

It’s all alloy and rotten

And irrational.

By accident I was given two skull coins

By two faceless strangers

And that felt more appropriate

To fetishize.

True, they are trying to

Commemorate William THE BARD Shakespeare

and some kind of pre-historic pre-coinage

Neanderthal person who lived in British Gibraltar;

But it feels quite alright

To keep two shining nothings of death and capital

Together and bright

Jingling about in my pocket or purse

Waiting, like my life, to be spent.

 

Photo: @E_S_Harper Instagram

 

Remembering Alexander McQueen: Allegory

This article was first written in September 2015

The multi-faceted and heterogeneous nature of Alexander McQueen’s collections, as discussed in my essay on McQueen and the ‘abyss’, leaves it next to impossible to not say more about the Savage Beauty retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. McQueen’s clothes in both their physical and metaphysical composition, I argued, see them occupy an abyssal limit. As a result, what we are able to say about McQueen’s collections cannot simply end there. There are so many more things that can be argued and posited about his clothes, intertwined with what they present, represent and how they exist in a world created for them and by them. For the purpose of this essay, I want to suggest that McQueen’s work is greatly involved with death, history and, ultimately, allegory.

One aspect of McQueen’s work that I find particularly intriguing is the visceral historicity of his clothes. He used images of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to form the background of dresses in his last collection; he used silhouettes and tailoring from the Victorian period; and, perhaps most famously, used fiery red tartan in Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden, his 1995 and 2006 shows inspired by the eradication and cultural smudging of Gaelic and Celtic life in Scotland. These latter two collections were very personal elegies to a culture that has almost entirely diminished as a result of English colonialism, and incorporated fragments of tweed, tulle and antique lace with the tartan to help convey this semblance of trampled upon Scottish identity. Seeing these clothes on show at the V&A, clothes which project and embody history almost as a physical presence, helps to throw a fascinating light on the idea of the retrospective itself. We remember Alexander McQueen by looking at his clothes, which in turn are fragments and objects that remember and bear witness to the past.  As previously mentioned, Scottish history was a key concern in his collections, but so was McQueen’s multiple collection tributes to Isabella Blow. Blow was a renowned fashion editor who was Phillip Treacey’s muse and is credited with having ‘discovered’ Alexander McQueen, who took her own life just three years before McQueen’s own suicide.  Many of his most famous collections, including Dante and The Widows of Culloden were personally dedicated to her and remembered her very personal influence on his life and art. As a result, we can see that the retrospective creates a chain of history and layers of remembrance which the clothes are an active part of, if not absolutely integral to.

Widows-of-Culloden

This undoes the idea that clothes are merely passive symbols that reflect culture like a mirror, or simply transcend the drudgery of everyday life in a fluffy artistic cloud. Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel argue that fashion has ‘a silent language communicated through the use of visual or nonverbal symbols’.[1] Whilst their case is very convincing, that clothes and fashion form an arbitrary system of signs and signifiers, I would argue that clothes have a much more complex social relationship with people than by simply manifesting as symbols. Clothes certainly do help to ‘fashion’ the world we live in through their colours, silhouettes and materials, and because the only way in which we discuss clothing is through language. They are, however, also borne from language, history and experience which the concept of ‘symbolism’ simplifies and renders impotent.

Walter Benjamin sees the sentimental application of and the Romantic idea behind symbolism as tyrannical and ‘illegitimate […] destructive extravagance’ partly because it ‘fails to do justice to content in formal analysis and to form in the aesthetics of content’.[2] He argues that whilst insisting upon the unity of form and content, symbolism does not allow for a dialectical analytic approach and, therefore, neither form nor content are rigorously interrogated. Imposing the idea of ‘clothes-as-symbols’ onto fashion collections, and for my own purposes, upon Alexander McQueen’s collections, embodies the tyranny that Benjamin rejects. This is because by privileging the idea that the clothes we read and interpret are purely symbolic, we overlook the power structures in place that facilitated the clothes’ production and the way in which we receive them. Instead, I would approach McQueen’s collections as allegory because, as Benjamin argues:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.[3]

He suggests that symbolism idealises destruction, which can be seen in the way in which history is silenced and becomes a void when the idea of symbolism is arbitrarily imposed on language and literature, essentially saying that one thing is actually another and not conveying its own story or history. There is no potential for digression or for the multiplicity of ideas when such a dead weight is imposed on literature and, for my purpose, clothing. Allegory, on the other hand, gives us an insight into history’s fragmented state wrought with failure and sadness, and the individual’s existence within it and in relation to it, ultimately bringing us into contact with our own sense of mortality.

Through McQueen’s collections Highland Rape and The Widows of Culloden with the ruined, hybrid compositions of tartan, lace and tulle, we are confronted with the death and destruction that were met by the historical peoples of Scotland. [4] More specifically, McQueen focuses on the experience of women, with his explicit reference to sexual violence and with the term ‘widows’ used to convey the heavy burden associated with womanhood, battle-loss and mourning. Importantly, this confrontation with violence and destruction presented in the clothing perhaps speaks for the continued death and destruction we experience in our own times. We are given a much more comprehensive and disturbing study in historical failure through fragmented form which expresses a fractured, mournful past instead of privileging an empty aesthetic idea. To emphasise this, McQueen, in Widows of Culloden, had his models wearing antlers, feathers and other animalistic paraphernalia in their hair and on their heads in addition to lace, tulle and tartan. These simultaneously detract from the historical argument being presented but also open up history to other perspectives, corporealities and existences. Allegory, although heavily involved with death and destruction ironically helps to expand our understanding of historical experience that cannot just be limited to human suffering, but giving light to the suffering of animals and the natural world.

History cannot be pinned down. It is fluid, interchangeable and slippery, which is what makes remembrance such a difficult and perhaps even a futile task. Thinking of art as allegory, however, opens up our awareness of history and means we never fall into the trap that we live in a world that is fixed, stable and where we can impose absolute meaning on anything, from literature and art to fashion. Allegory helps to dispel fallacy whilst creating fallacy, and McQueen’s clothing is all the more interesting, important and extraordinary as a result of the allegorical fragments and components that structured what we saw when they were first unveiled to us and to what we see now.

 

[1] Marilyn J. Horn and Lois M. Gurel, The Second Skin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), p.150.

[2] Walter Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2009), p.160.

[3] Benjamin The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.166.

[4] 1,500-2000 member of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite army were killed at the Battle of Culloden (near Inverness) in 1745. They were attempting to overthrow the Hanoverian army who had secured the English throne and who lost only 54 men in comparison. After the battle, the government weakened the power of the Scottish clans and attempted to stamp out Gaelic culture to remove the threat of a future uprising. They succeeded: this was the last pitched battle on English soil and there was no subsequent rebellion.