Archive | October 2011

Vivat Academia!

Although I’m still many mountains away from the terrifying moment that must be the Viva Voce, it was really worthwhile going along to yesterday’s discussion about what exactly is involved on the day. Some of MMU’s InfoComms PhD candidates have Vivas a few weeks from now, with others having only just “defended” successfully – meaning there were plenty of questions and stories (some of the horror variety) to share. What do the examiners expect of you? How should you prepare? What are the negative and positive sides of presenting your thesis? As someone pointed out, the Viva is a chance to discuss your work with people who have actually read it – in detail. They have probably even made notes in the margins! So overall, as well as inevitable terror, you should be pleased that at least two senior academics can reference your paragraph numbers and summarise whole chapters. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that PhD candidates in Manchester don’t have to wear colour-coded carnations and a subfusc as they do in certain UK Universities.

I was fascinated to learn from Emma-Reeta, a recently successful Finnish InfoComms candidate, that in her country (as well as in Sweden and probably elsewhere), the Viva Voce is a very public event and actually, a celebration. You might even end up with the whole thing appearing on You Tube!

Scholars in pub(lic)

I can’t imagine that happening in the UK, can you? It got me thinking (well, okay, got me thinking after our trip to the pub) about a question very important to my own infant thesis – what do we now define as the “Public Sphere” and how does it relate to the world of the University? The concept of the Public Sphere is most closely associated with Jürgen Habermas (and was popularised after the English translation of his Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit in 1989). In it he critiques the notion of a public/private divide with a focus on the “bourgeois” coffee houses of the 18th century – though, as he makes extremely clear, its roots go back much further, to the Enlightenment in fact.  Naturally back then it was structured very differently, reflecting a different set of influences and priorities: most probably more democratic ones, more concerned as political thinkers of the day were with reason rather than commerce. Still, in essence, whatever period we consider, Public and Private have always been abstract, flexible and porous.

Maybe the pub is a poorly lit coffee house...

Many questions are being asked right now about the future of the Public Sphere which bring these ideas back into focus – from its increasing commodificiation and role in entertaining rather than informing private citizens, to the possibility of different systems of socio-cultural and political participation. This is most obvious if we think about mass media (including social media) as the pre-dominant forum for public dialogue today. Zizi Papacharissi borrows from theories of architecture to write convincingly of “the spatial effects of convergent technology on place.” Importantly, she states that “unless these spaces bear distinct connections to the systemic core of democratic institutions, their ability to effect institutional change is compromised.” However, as well as looking at what these spaces mean for

  • Overtly political groups such as environmental activists, party- affiliated or single-issue campaigners
  • Minority or “disenfranchised” communities, and inevitably,
  • Consumer demographics or “market segments”

I think it is very much worth addressing what the changes and tensions between and within the Public and Private Spheres mean for the Scholar, not least to avoid a kind of artificial divide whereby academics are only visible or valued in so far as they contribute to the generation of money for business, or are on-hand to offer “expert comment” to the press.

To me, the idea of having to defend my thesis in public would be pretty scary. But if I imagine presenting and discussing my work in front of friends, family, loved ones, and anyone else interested in the topic – as well as having a big party afterwards – it seems like a valuable and special way of being recognised and welcomed into the public realm of academia. Beyond personal concerns, it is surely a great chance for Universities to make “visible” the effort involved in getting a PhD to people who may not ever want to do one themselves, and (important right now) who maybe aren’t always sure if Higher Education is something worth funding.

The Sky Lights Up Early

The pumpkins haven’t even been carved yet and Christmas lights are going up around the city centre. Still, even walking back through October rain their sparkle and glitter makes me smile. I suppose it must take time to sort out all that wiring.

Somehow our usual sense of space, place and time changes, when it gets toward November. Even people with no umbrellas seemed fairly relaxed amidst the downpour.

Media City’s Aeolian Cadences

A lovely day for late October and a lovely day to meet with an old friend from Glasgow (well, Northern Ireland actually, but let’s not split hairs). We first met during our long-ago Undergrad days at Glasgow Uni – which suddenly didn’t seem so very long ago after all. Naturally my being new to the city meant a good excuse to go exploring, so we headed away from the city centre into Salford, and down to the Quay to look around the undeniably beautiful Media City UK complex where the BBC, ITV, Salford University, and various start-up media companies (“Media Village”) will make, or are in the midst of making, new homes. Right now, the BBC make a very 21st-century impression while the ITV “quarter” is still a literal building site – meaning that Simon Cowell and Tracy Barlow grin unconvincingly out from their posters as if to distract us from the fact it’s JCBs behind them rather than sweeping, angular glass and metal.

A little bit like Glasgow’s Pacific Quay (where BBC Scotland and the Armadillo sit) in its aspirations to state-of-the-art waterside glamour and a combination of business, creative industry, and apartments, it’s far grander, much more spacious, and infinitely more interesting to photograph. No matter which direction you look in, you are guaranteed to find a good shot.1 Media City may have “installed enough fibre to stretch from Salford to Sydney” to cater to the “bandwidth-hungry requirements of the media industry”, but it really does feel like a public space; especially with the Lowry Arts Centre and the Imperial War Museum North also on its banks. Everyone can wander around and enjoy the landscaped park, the piazza, and the bridges that cross the river. Near the BBC building, a temporary sound sculpture (or, if you like, “an acoustic wind pavilion”) called “Aeolus”  made delicate and almost harmonic sounds in accordance with the movement of gentle winds. The installation captures the music of Salford’s breezes via a combination of strings and amplifying tubes. You can hear it here, at the website of Luke Jarram, the artist who designed it in collaboration with acoustic scientists at Salford University and Southampton University.

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Still, the Media City UK complex has not been without controversies. It has brought about a certain (probably inevitable) amount of “upheaval” and some political wrangling both within the BBC, and with the institution’s favourite sparring partner, Westminster. Some question the justification for moving operations all the way up North from London. There has also been criticism about the pretty exorbitant cost to Salford University of moving its media students there. I guess that over time, we will find out if the “vision” can become part of a successful reality. As one overheard passerby, on his way back from Manchester City’s resounding victory over Man U at Old Trafford, commented to a friend: “Just so long as they [the BBC] keep charging us the same license fee”. Sadly, it’s doubtful that Salford University will be able to charge its students the same tuition fees as previously when they undertake studies on the site.

I can’t find anything to criticise about my experience today of the place in terms of its design and use of space. I had a great time looking around. Hopefully it will remain accessible to everyone and not become upmarket to the point of ultra-exclusivity as business gets properly underway.

Well, I hope you’ll agree! p.s. can’t promise any prizes but let me know in the comments if you appreciate the Beatles reference. 😉

Preoccupations and Reoccupations

A weekend spent in Glasgow is always guaranteed to provide a story or two and this one was no different. I was up visiting for my boyfriend’s birthday and managed to combine partying, pizza, and politics, all in less than 3 days! That’s what the city is about, I think: combining different types of experience in new and stimulating ways. A sort of real life “mash up”. 🙂

Taking inspiration from the Occupy Together movement (currently represented by 20 UK protests and 1300+ globally) a group of – what would you call them? Activists? Protestors? Politically minded citizens? – decided to make their points of view peacefully heard outside the Glasgow City Council offices on George Square. It definitely seemed worth going to hear what they had to say and to see how they were organising the event. In broad terms, their point of view is this: that they are deeply unhappy with the policies/attitudes of Scottish and British politicians and with the way the banking and financial systems are structured, administered, and treated as elites, worldwide. In the face of rising unemployment and public sector cuts it seems to a lot of people that the banks and the government special advisors are deemed ever-so-slightly more worthy of consideration than the electorate. So nevermind that libraries and hospitals and other public services will suffer. They don’t make enough money anyway and their values are out-of-date. That’s what the protesters in Glasgow seemed keen to express objections to. They want a brighter future and more say in it.

In Political Science and Economics, these problems can be seen to stem from corrupt forms of Corporatism, or even as aspects of a Corporatist/Neocorporatist Democracy: i.e. “a political relationship between the state and specialized associations involving the defense of their interests in return for moderating demands and controlling their membership”.  This results in inegalitarianism and has historically been associated with Fascism. So it’s interesting to read that once upon a time Corporatist was less of a dirty word because it could also include the recognition “that problems such as working conditions and health and safety could be dealt with by specially established organizations or boards” without undue interference from the State. Still, as the Oxford Dictionary of Politics notes:

Many, although not all, of the writers on corporatism were either openly or covertly sympathetic to its use as a means of providing a ‘middle way’ that would satisfy the legitimate aspirations of organized labour whilst maintaining a capitalist mode of production.

Corporatist political systems may be one type of representative democracy, not least when they have been sanctioned, legitimised and instrumentalised. After all, they represent someone, right? But it’s not exactly what the “average Joe” imagines if he hears the word democracy, and it’s certainly not very participative.

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In 2011, a social network and some online promotional tools are of course as vital to the hoped-for formation of a critical mass of protestors as are hand-drawn or painted placards, loudspeakers, and banners. So: the 50-100 people who turned out on Sunday are variously blogging, blogged about, shown in and filming YouTube videos, and keeping track of Twitter feeds and Facebook walls. Most of this was being orchestrated from a “mobile communications hub” (that’s what I’m calling it) inside a marquee in the middle of George Square. At the front the usual brochures, pamphlets and petitions draw in the curious minded. I noticed a brochure published by the Carnegie Foundation, themselves a corporation, and of course, a part of the legacy of Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

New media far from replaces old media for those in Glasgow and elsewhere. There have been suggestions (which I think emanated from the Occupy Wall Street protest) that supporters say hello and register their feelings by sending postcards to the occupiers who camp out overnight in tents. These postcards would be visible in the public space of the non-virtual world which is vitally important: signs and symbols of participation and collaboration even from those who aren’t there. Online tools are used largely for the purpose of logistics, administration, and what we might call “PR” (or, to be more Marxist about it, “consciousness raising”). Social Networking sites and services (SNSs) allow the word to be spread quicker; co-ordination with other groups and within one group to be achieved more simply; ideas about which tactics seem to work and which don’t can be shared on a global scale; and of course, they allow better (and possibly safer) communication channels with both the press and the public.

There are a lot of similarities to how corporations, companies, and institutions, make use of New Media in this regard. What is different is that the end result is about getting people to think as well as to act, to formulate their political views more clearly, and to begin making them heard – rather than to buy a product or help a brand spread viral seeds. The Occupy Glasgow website reminds people there is no manifesto but that if they join “the cause” they must do so nicely. You can also take part in an “Online Assembly” which aims to generate ideas on strategies and “how to help out”.

Before directing you to their “Intro to Direct Democracy and Facilitation Training“, Occupy Together make their central point in terms of community and solidarity:

We hope to provide people with information about events that are organizing, ongoing, and building across the U.S. as we, the 99%, take action against the greed and corruption of the 1%.

We will only grow stronger in our solidarity and we will be heard, not just in New York, but in echoes across the world.

Whether or not the “Occupiers” are right that this is all part of a “paradigm shift”, it’s clear that is what they are hoping for, inspired by The Arab Spring and cultural memories of more local historic resistance. To bring again to the surface the very sort of political debate that stirred the philosophers and writers of previous centuries; the generations of protestors and demonstrators who have always (for example) made Glasgow’s reputation a “Red” one; and the millions who came together in the 1960s to try to identify a common cause against the perceived injustices of governments seemingly intent on distancing themselves further and further from the concerns of those allowing them to be elected. What will be the legacy of this “movement” and what if anything will it achieve? We all have a stake in the outcome, whatever our own political perspective.

Let Them Eat Cake…

It’s great fun – but also quite challenging – figuring out how to combine being a bookworm with getting to know Manchester and enjoying a surprisingly active social life. The weekend was divided between reading up on German and French philosophers, trying to understand their politics and the implications of their theories in terms of democracy, critique, and subjectivity – and meeting new friends.

I haven’t explored outside the city centre much so far but got a chance to see a little more of the place on my way to meet Clare (who is doing her M.A. at MMU on Spanish cinema, feminism, and in particular depictions on-screen of Juana la Loca) and her husband John (an EFL teacher) in order to celebrate the Christening of their beautiful daughter Thea. This meant taking the bus out to a town in Greater Manchester called Urmston. I had to pay my bus fare for a change, but enjoyed looking out through the grey rain as the city gave way to the suburbs, lines of trees, and a sense of seclusion. Clare and John (plus extended family) were the perfect hosts and I left not only well fed but also clutching a box of delicious handmade cupcakes.1

Well, I’m sure that even the greatest minds took some time out to enjoy cake now and then. As Nietzsche wrote:

I have seen this with my own eyes: gifted natures with a generous and free disposition, “read to ruin” in their thirties – merely matches that one has to strike to make them emit sparks – “thoughts”. Early in the morning, when day breaks, when all is fresh, in the dawn of one’s strength – to read a book at such a time is simply depraved! – Ecce Homo, 1881/1908

A cupcake at the moment before eating.


up1 Please note that I did take some gifts for Clare and Thea as well as eating half the buffet.

Room for Research

Another morning meeting with my Supervisors provided me (yet again) with plenty to contemplate. In fact, I think we were all slightly surprised at the number of ideas flying around. I wonder if we are going to expand the topic to breaking point before we manage to narrow it down and find precisely the right focus? This is a normal part of the process; but right now my project seems to be elastic: there is so much to (potentially) take in that it’s hard to know exactly what not to include. However, I have started to work out a structure that makes – or appears for now to make – logical sense; and which will hopefully incorporate a little of everything necessary to contextualise, justify, and clarify my thesis for the official committee due to assess it now that I’m properly enrolled. Skeleton sections that I am working with are (at the moment of writing):

1.    The Role of the Scholar, the Scientist, the Intellectual: Philosophical Roots
2.    Participatory Democratic Theory
2.1.    The many flavours of participation
2.2.    Philosophical engagement and challenges
3.    The Nature of Scholarship and New Technologies
4.    New Media, Shifting Contexts, and Multiple Modes of Analysis
4.1.    Recent Studies
4.1.1     Academia
4.1.2      Studies of Participation and New Technologies outside Academia    Private sector    Public sector and NGOs
5.    Potential Framework for this Research

Simple, right? 😉

When thinking about all of this, it’s vital to have the right space to work in. Something they keep warning us about is the risk of becoming “isolated” when undertaking a PhD; so it’s great to get talking to other researchers about their work. As well as being interesting in and of itself, this can at times shine a light on my own work or make me see things from a new perspective. To quote Karl Popper: “everybody with whom we communicate [is] a potential source of argument and of reasonable information”. Much of that takes place (it seems) in Room 118 of the Geoffrey Manton building. Already, a piece that a fellow PhD student showed me, where she locates her work in relation to a critique of Antonio Gramsci’s “hegemony” has given me inspiration.

A space for ideas

118118 joke here

And it turns out that I didn’t have to go all the way back to the Museum of Science and Industry to photograph some retro telephones! Wonderfully, Room 118 still has an old beige model that casually displays the name (“Manchester Polytechnic“) under which what is now MMU operated until 1992, when it was granted University status under the Further and Higher Education Act. Some people, I guess, like to be reminded of the history of their institutions – and of the older forms of communication which contributed to the point we find ourselves at today.

Feels like Summer

Suddenly it feels like summer – and not a UK one – here this weekend. Temperatures are up to 26°C and beyond although it’s not, as the Huffington Post are keen to point out, an “Indian Summer”. It certainly seemed like one this afternoon. Gorgeous sunshine and everybody wearing the light colourful clothes they thought would be getting packed away for another year. So why am I now suffering from a cold? The girl behind the counter at Waterstone’s told me everyone is down with one at the moment. Including her flatmate who (believe it or not) is a was last year’s student rep for MMU PhD Students. Hmm. Who says cities are anonymous? Everyone is so friendly around here. It does feel a little like a “University village” at times.

While in Waterstone’s I finally bought a copy of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” which I started to tear through straight away as I ate homemade tomato soup in the lovely bookshop café. I have read quite a few rave reviews of the book but they do seem to be justified rather than being just hype. I couldn’t resist taking a sneaky look ahead at what may be the deepest (and conversely, the most amusing) use of PowerPoint slides that I have come across. Believe me, I have seen (and put together) a fair few PowerPoint shows over the last four years! So it’s wonderful to see some of the familiar “SmartArt Graphics” being used by Egan to convey intricate relationships, family connections, and heartaches. Interesting too to realise that PowerPoint’s designers have influenced this particular artistic usage by providing graphics that, after all, were always intended to aid compact and illustrative data representations. Yet while Iggy Pop and (Edinburgh-born) Ricky Gardiner are credited for the use of lyrics in the book’s front pages, I can’t see any mention of Microsoft. Well, maybe they thought it was worth it!

Thursday was the last day of MMU induction activities and, after too much free wine, I found myself talking (briefly) to an installation artist associated with the Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design about New Media. MIRIAD research students were also involved in the week’s induction activities although they are far more concerned with practise and “studio time” than us “library time” HLSS folks. Although he uses digital objects, sounds, and YouTube videos within his work – as well as making use of Open Source technologies – this guy said quite matter-of-factly (and almost as though he has heard too much hyperbole on the topic): “New Media. The way I see it, it’s just another medium, isn’t it?” He may incorporate or make use of it if it seems appropriate, or if it lends something to what he wishes to represent. However, New Media are primarily like any other possible means by which to convey: tools that join the “old media” kit of paints, clay, analogue recordings, and so on. I suppose it makes sense that an artist would have a particularly interesting slant on NM (and indeed, participation).

The modest little CD by Rory Charles. I'm not sure if it has a title...

Speaking of which. The reason I am blogging (well, apart from the fact I am hiding away with my Lemsips in a bid to protect my flatmates from this bug) is that I want to tell you about a wonderful busker I heard performing at St. Anne’s Square. A guy called Rory Charles, who stopped me – and a crowd of others – in our tracks this afternoon. Impressive vocals and a delicate but strong guitar style. I won’t attempt a review except to say that if you like Neil Young or Damien Rice you will probably like him. Here are some of the “sounds” he has made available on the SoundCloud site. Also: a picture of the album that I bought from his assistant. Sorry if it looks a little like an eBay listing photo. I sadly didn’t have my camera with me earlier on. Hope you will appreciate the link!