Personal thoughts (scroll to the good bit if it makes you feel icky)
Lockdown is hard. Shielding is hard, and if I didn’t have such an amazing community of support around me, it would be so much harder. And I am shielding in the most privileged of circumstances. It is safe where I am. As many others have noted, the medical conditions that put me in the ‘extremely vulnerable’ camp, have also given me a load of tools, and lowered expectations, to get through the day. One of the things that has really got to me, however, is not something that I saw coming. Feeling vulnerable rather than valuable, and reliant rather than productive has shone a light on my value structure; for good and for ill. We know that the productivity drive in lockdown is unhealthy, but when a team of people that I have always enjoyed working with got in touch and floated an idea I was grateful, and excited.
I am excited to announce that from Monday 11th May 2020 I will be curating Vivienne Westwood’s Intellectuals Unite book club online on my Instagram @ProfLRobinson
I started meeting, talking and thinking with Vivienne and her IOU: Intellectuals Unite in 2016. What struck me straight away was that this is not some retro punk celebration, especially at the time of the 40th anniversary of punk celebrations. Intellectuals Unite and Climate Revolution are not a nostalgic rerun of the prank anarchism of 1977. They are a group of people, who have conversations that were very much rooted in the now and focused on the future. Although much of my work has focused on subcultures, sex, drugs and rock n roll, my involvement with Intellectuals Unite was based on my background as an activist and my historical research on structures of protest and political organisation.
The group, who meet, share tactics, and discussions across local and national issues was inspired by a variety of moments, by new community models, the legacies of the 2011 urban protest, the junior doctors strike, student campaigns for greener economically and environmentally sustainable campuses, for example. One of the practical strands has been Vivienne’s support of alternative electricity and utility providers as a way to undermine the power of the fossil fuel’s political lobby.
The politics of Vivienne’s vision however extends beyond the academy. Her starting point is that we are all intellectuals. If you think about the world; if you participate in it critically and culturally – then you are an intellectual too. The context in which we find ourselves forces us to do just that. The circuits of exchange between resistance or protest and intellectual analysis is often only imagined in one direction, where the work of great thinkers influences the public, or perhaps more commonly, intellectuals pick up on the concerns and approaches of the public, and then frame them as their own intellectual interventions.
“Any kid off the street who wants to go on a demonstration to find out what’s happening – come and join us, you are an intellectual. We have to unite. It’s the only thing that can really challenge the government’s lies.”
“The literary ethos of the 19th Century sometime after the reign of Napoleon around 1830 up to WW1. Going back, the evolution of the novel began before printing at a time when Kings and Queens and rich people lived in castles and palaces, and books were expensive. What started as ‘[h]eroic stories of romance and chivalry’, became the literary form where every strata of society could find themselves represented – if not necessarily in terms that they would choose.”
But more than that. This is the literature that I grew up loving, grew in confidence studying, and, I hope, could help us to feel connected to both each other and to the past, in these extraordinary times. The 19th century novel demands that we find ourselves in the bigger picture. The expansiveness of the novel’s totality takes us outside of our own carefully measured safe distances from each other.
Books’ characters are our comrades.
In Vivienne’s Manifesto Get a Life, Alice and Pinocchio are fellow travelers who accompany us in Active Resistance.
My hopes are that by sharing these books, we can join collectively with these fellow travelers. Reading (in all its forms) as a pastime might help us in this time. Reading as a process might connect us through a shared experience, and reading as an analysis might help us think about what lessons for today we learn from the literature of the past.
How will it work?
Vivienne will share her book recommendation every two weeks. We will share an introduction to the book, thinking about things to look for, contextual background and ideas to think about. We will hold a virtual book club, with questions and discussions. I’m going to rope in colleagues and friends that I miss talking to as well. Pam Thurschwell has agreed to come and hang out with us.
She shared her thoughts with me about the power of the novel in the current moment:
“Novels matter in the time of coronavirus because art makes connections between people, even in the absence of hugs and handshakes; novels help build our shared understandings of our worlds. The 19th century European novel was centrally focused on what binds us together into that thing that Margaret Thatcher insisted did not exist, ‘society’. But novels have also always charted what breaks us apart, the sense of ourselves as isolated individuals. George Eliot describes the ties that connect her many characters to each other and to the provincial town of Middlemarch as a “web”; this image of intricate spidery connectedness might seem both comforting and entrapping. We need our webs and we fight against them. By contrast one of the works we like to call the first novel in English was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe from 1719, the story of the hardy shipwrecked colonialist Crusoe, building his domain with a single subject, the black slave Friday. The realist novel gives us stories of love death, and domination, sex, work, scandal and money (always money), but also tells us how we fit into the webs that surround us.”
We want to want to find a space to think about virtual and literary communities. Can Instagram be this moment’s literary salon? Vivienne is always clear how much she values the book as a physical object and like a lot of academics, my bookcases are a form of autobiography (another privilege). But reading comes in many forms. This might be audiobooks, or a screen reader, eBooks, or a variety of different adaptions available form BBC sounds or iPlayer for example.
We want to find as many ways to get people involved and providing content as possible.
Send videos of your reactions to the books to be collated for the live event. Email me your thoughts and reviews, as text or as videos. Particularly if you have thoughts about how reading as a past-time, process, or analysis is helping you to make sense of a society in lockdown.
Our first Book Club will be Monday 25th May, time tbc
Last week I had the honour of acting as discussant at a panel on Modern Britain On Drugs at this year’s MBS conference at Birmingham University. (It was a really great conference, but more on that another time.)
Peder Clark, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: ‘“Do You Love What You Feel?”: Ecstasy, Rave, and Ways of Knowing, 1988-1995’.
Ben Mechen, Royal Holloway ‘Rubber Gloves and Liquid Gold: Poppers and the Policing of London’s Queer Nightlife’.
Yewande Okuleye, University of Leicester ‘You Call It Marijuana and I Call It “The Herb”: Cannabis as a Boundary Object’.
I just gave an inaugeral. The most terrifying and life affirming thing I’ve ever done at work. It was a room full of amazing people – I was blessed to have four generations of my family there and loved the opportunity to make my 89 year old mum and my 7 year old grandson all swear in unison.
There’s a recording coming at some point, but there are some things that I really want to share, in a written form, for those who might not be interested in the main body of the talk itself, but might be facing similar questions in their negotiation with the academic structures around us.
How the fuck are we going to get through this shitstorm, intact, together, and without throwing each other under the bus? Who has got our back? and what can we learn from those who have negotiated the faultlines of the shitstorm before us?
I want to think about the possibility of working, together, kindly with respect. When your own institution lists ‘kindness’ as one of its key strategies there are interesting possibilities in the feelings at work, at work.
We will seek to be known as a ‘kind’ institution. We will care for each other and for the world around us, in responsible and sustainable ways. We will value collegiality and mutual support across all of our actions and activities. Sussex2020 Strategic Framework
So this blog is a way to explore how to protect the parts of ourselves that we give away when our personal is political. As Sara Ahmed says ‘to live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work’. But that means my institution gets a whole load of stuff out of me that was never in my job description. It means that when I’m evaluated, fedback upon, quantified, its not just my outputs, but my whole personal and political self that’s being measured. Furthermore, feminism is a beautiful, stretchy, broad old chorus, and its never simple when ‘being a feminist at work’ is by necessity informed by your own personal as political.
The UCU strike for USS has been a roller coaster and I don’t really know what it means yet, being a historian and all. But the strike over pensions and the marketization of universities has changed how I understand our structures and possibilities and how I feel about work, and how I feel about feeling things about work. (But I will leave the truly brilliant Claire Langhamer to take that one on) Its also changed the way academics in different institutions relate to each other, and filled our lives with Twitter.
I’ve never had an overly easy relationship with Universities, or really with education, but over the last few weeks I’ve never felt so completely at home in academia, or wanted to leave academia so much.
I really don’t want to sound ungrateful, and I do not take student support for strike action for granted. So why do I find it so uncomfortable when students demonstrate their support for me through their individual consumer rights? Why doesn’t their consumer pressure for compensation for hours lost in the current strike in defence of our pensions make me feel defended?
This post was originally commissioned by the CIRCY blog. Many thanks to Janet Boddy for all her support. I’m working to develop this into a broader project so thought I’d revisit it for a bit.
The Indie Rock-a Nore Festival was held on 21st October 2017 at the Hastings and St Leonards Angling Association. It was “[a] one-day indie-pop festival (midday to midnight), bringing together current indie bands and those of yesteryear. Raising money for Brighton based suicide prevention charity, GrassRoots, who provide support across East Sussex (Charity Number: 1149873)”. Alongside the bands there was a raffle, a pool tournament and a buffet. CIRCY made a small contribution to hosting costs, ensuring that all money taken on the door could go straight to the charity. Over £2500 was raised on the day.
The single is dead, so why is the charity single still going? There are so many other ways of soliciting donations to charity; by text, by paypal, by cash point. It seems anachronistic to return to the charity single model, where musicians donate their labour in exchange for a financial donation from consumers . Yet time and again it is the default response that marks the significance of an event.
Each time a new charity single comes out it makes me think about what is at stake – what problems are being responded to? what solutions are being offered? Who is helping whom and why?
The history of queer representation in film is sometimes the history of not being easily seen. It can be the history of having to work really hard to find yourself represented. It can be the history of having to work really hard with what you are given, when you are represented as the freak, the pervert, the duplicitous spy, the blackmailer.
Queerama for me, was the story of how people have negotiated the identities that have been imposed on them. As a history Queerama shows us a series of outside definitions of queer identities that have had to be negotiated; homosexuality, for example, has been seen as a sin, an illness, to an act of dissidence. Sexualities and their identities have been legislated and defined from above, diagnosed by sexologists, feared for contagion, dissected like a guinea pig, but they have also been squeezed through the cracks.