Archive | January 2012

Long Live City Culture

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many films in such a short space of time as I have since arriving in Manchester – and that probably includes four years spent as an Undergrad at the University of Glasgow! Actually, my whole time here so far has marked something of a “cultural revival”. Just this weekend I went to see Steve McQueen’s “Shame” – a complex and difficult film which manages to be aesthetically cold and narratively detached at the same time as arousing deep sympathies for its two troubled lead characters; and then to a small exhibition of photographs by Kevin Cummins, in a little Northern Quarter gallery not far from me. The works on display were mostly of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, another troubled soul who died (by his own hand) at just 23 years old. There were also pictures of Curtis’s personal notebooks, his Vox Phantom – and a few of desolate 1980s Manchester roadways and streets. This was a striking reminder of how much regeneration work has gone on in UK cities in the decades since Joy Division were hanging around. Revealing in a different way was the fact that although each Cummins print was identically and expensively priced (£995 if you’re curious), the photographer has insisted that the dense, glossy hardcover book accompanying the exhibition be sold at only £25 a copy. Maybe that still seems a lot but this is a volume that would usually retail at say, £50, with a gorgeous design by a very hip Swedish studio. So at least fans and admirers are able to go home with something reasonable!

My first poster!



Back in the world of cinema, and I can report with great excitement that all the posters for this Term’s TRAUMA screenings are now “in the press”. My first ever season is all about Scottish cinema, but I must say that the last season – Impaired Cinema, presented by Tony Boffey – is going to be a tough act to follow! Still, I’ll try my best – and a little Whisky in advance of introducing the films to the audience seems only fitting, right? 😉 One of my new jobs is putting the Trauma posters up on various walls around the University and (of course) in our favourite post-screening pub, the Sandbar. Would you believe that the MMU Vice Chancellor has apparently taken an intense dislike to the putting up of “unofficial” and “untidy” posters? This makes finding places to position the very beautiful A3 sheets (designed by resident Graphics Guru, Ben Wissett) tricky. I wonder if in future the sense of a vibrant, colourful, culture-dominated University and city centre so prevalent in Manchester will be replaced by a sterile and polished pseudo-corporate environment where only adverts for “student experience surveys” and private sector recruitment fairs are granted visibility on campus?

At the moment, you often find yourself walking past multiple hoardings around the perimeters of city centre building sites. These are covered in quotes from famous Mancunians and are all about the city and what it means to them. Much of this council-approved street art comes from musicians, including Noel Gallagher and Ian Brown. But right now, I think this quote from a former Manchester University lecturer and one of the 20th century’s most “brilliant historians” is pretty appropriate:

Manchester has everything but good looks…, the only place in England which escapes our characteristic vice of snobbery.” – AJP Taylor.

Join Our Censorship Protest!

If you’ve not heard about the US House of Congress’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA), then you might be wondering what the black ribbon on the top right of my blog is all about.

Well, follow the link here to read all about how the United States might soon be gaining new powers allowing them to take down web content and interfere with services from one moment to the next, across international borders…and here to read some of the less well-reported technical and cultural implications of such legislation being enacted (this is written by a group of concerned experts). Obviously copyright law is rather complex; not least in relation to the modern, innovative modes of communication which most of us enjoy as a result of the internet. I won’t pretend that I can offer a cutting analysis but the basic message is that governments and corporations should NOT begin to gain tight and potentially damaging controls over the infrastructure and content of the web in the name of protecting outmoded business models. If you want to read the case FOR by the way, this letter from the Motion Picture Association of America and other big entertainment industry groups is interesting reading.

WPs detractors finally get the world they dreamed of...for 24 hours.

Naturally enough, WordPress is encouraging its users to register their alarm and concern at the negative implications of SOPA and PIPA, which is why I’ve opted for the banner. I doubt that a full blackout of this blog would particularly concern anyone! If you want a real sense of what tight control and regulation of content, links, and payment systems online might mean, take a look at Wikipedia over the next 24 hours. After thousands of their users actively participated in discussions on how the site should react to these proposed legislations, they decided to join the protest whole-heartedly: it’s a bit like the website has encountered its very own Clarence to remind us all why this debate matters. But before anybody says that Wikipedia are all about “open information” and the real power players will approve of the legislation, check out the homepage:

Nope. Google aren't supporting the Bills either.

Okay, I admit to changing the background but the dissent is all their own.

Look Both Ways

It’s sad in a way, that the more you get used to a place, the less inclined you are to look around yourself. The walk home from MMU has now become so familiar that I’m sure someone’s been switching me on to autopilot. I barely realise I’m moving until – suddenly – half-way there! Navigating my way through most local supermarket aisles without missing a beat is similarly easy. Chocolate: Aisle 2 on the left. Red Wine: right at the back, pushing itself forward. The solution to this stultifying effect of habituation is to vary my route from time to time. After all, now that I’m a student again, what’s the big rush? 😉

Don't step out without looking...

The key is not being afraid to take the odd wrong turn. Getting ever-so-slightly lost now and then is as vital to staying connected with the world as becoming an expert at something is. Perhaps even more so.

New Media and Academia: Altered Attributes

Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂

To state that there is no such thing as New Media is not the avoidance of an answer: rather, it is a rejoinder which meets the question of definition head-on. It is to suggest (with the hint of a challenge) that if we are to address the subject of “New Media” in significant depth we may first have to place aside our assumptions about what is actual and what is perceived; as well as the place of metaphor. These are the very assumptions around which much of “New Media” revolves, and with which it and its practitioners play. Contrarily, the very fluidity and liminality of these types of digital media, which may be referred to as “new”, “social”, “interactive”, “mobile” or “virtual”, suggests that there are particular thresholds or boundaries within which they exist, hence typical characteristics which might be identified. Nevertheless, it is important to make clear that seizing upon or fixing some particular conception or definition of New Media would in many ways run contrary to the purpose of my thesis. What it is necessary and rather simple to accept is the relative, historically situated, and (in terms of reception and acceptance) contingent character of anything labelled “new” – which partly explains why New Media defies easy classification. Another reason why an in-transition sketch is often the best that can be offered is that “New Media” can be seen differently depending on where, how, why, and by whom, it is being considered. It refers to something constantly being updated and refreshed; continually shifting; and which frequently but unpredictably accommodates ideas, features, and perspectives not previously included. Yet it also builds on tradition and what was prior. For the academic subject or “discourse communities“, whose attitudes towards New Media are the focus of this research, this is also the case – as well as, increasingly, for the disciplines and institutions to which they belong. There, as Nowotny et al observe, “near absolute demarcation criteria have failed”.

“The notion of ‘boundary work’ implies not only that boundaries are not fixed and permanent but that they need to be actively maintained. Moreover, their definition, mapping, and maintenance, often serve a social function. Social contingency and professional expediency influence the choice of ‘stories’ about Science [including Social Sciences]. Defining the sciences, mapping their territory in public space, making and reshaping them in the image tailored for the specific time and the occasion are all part of ‘boundary work’. And scientists, as ‘boundary workers’, are actively engaged in such activities as an integral part of their scientific endeavours” [page 57]. We must first understand the “socio-epistemological meaning of context” before we are able to address and understand the political and institutional characteristics of Science. Both types of context affect knowledge structures within academic disciplines. The current shifts occurring in the “conceptualisation and enactment of Science” are part of a move toward a “Mode II” society where contextualised knowledge moves “into the context of implication” [page 201] – i.e. wider society beyond the University proper, a “social space of transformation” or, what the authors, in a re-imagining of ancient Greece’s public sphere, call “the agora”. This space is typified by, among other things, “socially distributed expertise”, and “changing rules of engagement” whereby social relationships become vertical rather than horizontal and where institutional structures and traditional modes of interaction are “aided” and altered by “the pervasive role of information and communication technologies” [page 105]. Just as time and space have been reconceptualised into the “more capacious category of space-time, so science and society “co-evolve” as an aspect of coalescence [page 49]; the distinction between academics and those who would previously have been deemed “incompetent outsiders” is no longer as meaningful an analytical tool.

Some critics point out that this was always the case; not just for Science, but also for the Arts & Humanities, and that such a perspective or vision of scholarship might be seen to date as far back as Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. A utopian novel published in 1697, New Atlantis greatly influenced Enlightenment concepts of Scientific rationalism, even depicting participation in the academy by certain select members of the public (although in Bacon’s narrative, this is tightly-controlled, hierarchical, and revolves around the acceptance of particular customs). Others propose that it was Universities and institutions which parted Science from its original multi-varied and accommodating form. In either case, we may assume that the modern University can be broadly characterised in these terms, in particular the dominance of ICTs. Altered power structures and novel “visibility” regimes are also created by and reflected in new forms of media and communications technology. Divisions between producer/consumer, author/reader, expert/layperson are challenged and blurred; politicised discourses often position it in terms of access to knowledge, power, and a re-structured public sphere. Traditions and novelty converge and collide. Clearly then, there are strong thematic links and properties which typify both “New Media” and Academia in the 21st century. These require much further exploration.

1 I have removed some inline references in support of various arguments to make this entry more blog friendly. For the most part, hyperlinks are provided instead.

A Lovely Couple

They do say that Edinburgh can bring out your romantic side. At last night’s Trauma screening (many tears were shed by the audience for David Lynch’s Elephant Man) we were cheered up to discover that, during their Christmas break, Helen and Chris got engaged to be married. Heartfelt congratulations to them both…it’s clear they are very happy. 🙂

Love is in the air...

As an aside: maybe next season’s Trauma could include some appropriately themed films to mark the occasion? There have certainly been a lot of movie brides over the years; with films, heroines  – and dresses – covering almost every genre, emotion, and style. Whether scarydeadly, fantastical, philosophical, comical, politically symbolic, or both ambitious and romantic, cinematic brides usually don’t have an easy time of it. But there’s no doubt that Helen and Chris will have a perfect day out in the real world.

Back in my New Home City

Where city travel is free...and a little bit greener

Back in Manchester at last after a long and relaxing Winter break. Call me crazy – or just a nerd – but I am actually looking forward to getting stuck into my work again! I feel (slightly) bad for neglecting it this long; although naturally enough some renewed energy is often just what a project needs. 🙂

It’s a lot brighter and calmer down here than in Scotland, which was unfortunately hit by some of the worst weather in recent memory. On a happier note, the incredible gale force winds blowing around this week do offer some good news: to the country’s wind turbine fans – among which, by the way, I number. Yes! I would happily have one of these elegant, loud, and beautifully engineered functional sculptures in my backyard. Wouldn’t you?

In other news: over the holiday, I was excited to get a glimpse of the beautiful Onswipe and WordPress theme (designed to be “app-like” and touch-screen specific) that is now applied to WordPress blogs by default when they’re viewed on an iPad. Thanks for pointing that out, Jemster!