Saturday, 9 January 2010

Twitter and Triviality

In the latest issue of Times Higher Education there is an opinion piece that, in a way, is almost too silly to respond to. I'm going to do so in any case because it raises a general complaint concerning the trivialisation of public discourse in a way that strikes me as instructively wrong-headed. 

The piece is by Professor Kevin Sharpe of Queen Mary, University of London, someone who clearly knows a lot about the Renaissance but whose grip on the problems of contemporary public discourse is somewhat less sure. Professor Sharpe opens his opinion piece by noting that it is "widely accepted" that our public discourse has declined in quantity and quality. This opening observation doesn't refer to who accepts this comment or the grounds they accept it on. The relationship between "quality and quantity" would also bear some comment. Evidence concerning the opening assertion is subsequently provided in the second sentence. Now we are told that our documentaries (presumably the best form of presentation of evidence) are "sensationalised", a statement that itself is somewhat sensational. This point is followed by references to the fact that weekly news covers the winner of what must, we are told, be an ironically titled show, no other than Britain's Got Talent. On top of this clearly decisive piece of evidence we have next the point that water-cooler discussions revolve around I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here and that "review pages" (of what?) are dominated by the life story of Jordan.

This opening paragraph apparently bemoaning a "fall in standards" is itself excellent evidence of one since all it does is juxtapose dislike of entertainment television with a knowing reference to the way tabloid newspapers flaunt stories of women who are apparently well-endowed with attributes presumed to appeal to heterosexual males. Such phenomena are themselves hardly new, nor is the disapproval of the middle aged for enthusiasms of "popular culture". However, our good Professor tells us that there was a time when self-education and improvement defined the activities of, who, no less than "the working class" in their friendly societies, unions, adult education and workers' reading groups. Such places had well-informed discussions apparently.

The prejudices displayed here are instructive in referring back to a period of at least 30 years ago and possibly longer, again with purely anecdotal evidence that can itself be replied to. What was it that went on in Working Men's Clubs after all, most of the time? Wasn't it playing billiards, snooker and pool whilst discussing Coronation Street and agreeing in solemn voices that all politicians were in it in order to "line their own pockets"? However, the real meat of the article's argument has yet to come when the good Professor turns his attention away from the working class and on to the "educated classes" around whom he feels, unlike the "working" classes, he has to put quote marks. Such classes apparently only inhabit the universities and it is to them that our man now turns.

The problem he poses is whether the universities have any real relation to the ideal of a place for "open-minded debate". This is a good question but again posed in nostalgic fashion with references back to the good old days back when Professor Sharpe first started teaching at which there were long coffees and lunches at which people discussed such esoteric and apparently now unheard of topics as "novels, exhibitions, travel and other cultures, news". Since it appears people still talk about all these things one wonders what is coming. Well, first of all the managerialised culture, the research assessment exercise, quality assurance and so on are melded together to form an image of a corporate undertaking being formed in universities. This part of Professor Sharpe's account is at least partially true and certainly these phenomena all pose risks and there are good reasons to tackle them. Apparently however they are all so bad, at least at Queen Mary, that it is only out of work time that one has any opportunity to talk about anything that doesn't fit this model. Perhaps there are no research seminars at Queen Mary? If so, perhaps Professor Sharpe could set one up!

Having begun on the university the real area of complaint finally emerges which is not with Professor Sharpe's colleagues but with his students. Students, like colleagues (at least at Queen Mary), don't want to talk and don't have the excuse of having to deal with the culture of public accountability. Again, back in the old days, students were radical but, of course, never participated in anything as large as the demonstrations against the war in Iraq, which, whatever one might have thought about them, did embrace a wider spectrum of political agitation amongst students than ever happened in Professor Sharpe's day. But this isn't the way the Professor sees it. Instead, there was then broad and lively debate and now there is instead only trivia.

What is the real basis of this trivialisation of the students? Apparently it is the way in which Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, I'm glad to see, blogs, fill many hours of the average student's week! This must, naturally, be the basis of the problem! What else, after all, could possibly have moved students away from the active involvement in the past that made them think about ideas? Of course, Professor Sharpe makes no reference to the enormous number of things that have changed since the heady days of the late sixties and early seventies when ideas were, apparently, the meat of every respectable student. 

Let's look at some of those things: a huge increase in the student base (undertaken since 1990); a corresponding shift in the nature of that base; the removal of state support for students forcing a large number to take paid employment that can take up a rather larger proportion of their week than they devote to any of the terrible pleasures that Professor Sharpe lists. In addition to these changes in the composition of the student body and its circumstances let's also look at the other changes that have occurred that might well shape student's lives and their means of responding to the university and society generally. 

Professor Sharpe's model of past student activism does belong to the same world as his idealised references to a working class concerned with apparently "informed" debate. It is the world, now completely past, of post-war social democracy, a world that met its savage Waterloo in 1979 and has never returned. It was a world that was destroyed by the political defeat of its model, a model that led to Britain being labelled "the sick man of Europe" as it lost more days in strikes than anywhere else, the "winter of discontent" in which bodies went unburied and the "social contract" in which government imposed wage constraint was universally rejected by the thinking leaders of the trade union movement. Somewhat amazingly, this phenomena is also related to large world changes, the ones we generally term "globalization", a process that has ensured that single nation solutions are long gone, something that the activists of the old student movement were in some way heralds of. It is also true as Professor Sharpe suggests that there have been profound changes in information technology, changes carefully analyzed long before Twitter was launched by Lyotard in The Post Modern Condition.

None of this is referenced in Professor Sharpe's article which instead returns to the conversations he has overheard on buses and in cafes at which he finds no reference to politics but instead to Jedward and parties. Amazingly, back in the old days, no one referred to the Rolling Stones and parties, they just talked all the time about politics and did this particularly, back then, when on buses and sitting together having casual chats in cafes. Not only is the topic today bad but the language itself is hardly coherent as the youth of today (unlike that of Professor Sharpe) has, apparently, its own argot that make it difficult for him to see how anything serious can be said. How different it must have seemed to Professor Sharpe's parents generation who were, by contrast, constantly impressed by the articulate and mannered conversation of his generation and found them surprisingly well-informed, or, as we say today, NOT. 

With this reference to language Professor Sharpe reaches his key point which is that there is a vicious circle since the young, God help us, won't be so for long and will soon run serious political weeklies, TV current affairs programmes and the media generally. Clearly some are already doing so, producing documentaries that are so sensational that, on occasion, they even appeal to evidence that is not anecdotal, doesn't depend on referencing "conversations" as a serious claim and perhaps even says something serious using such tools as Twitter and blogs. Could this be?

No surely not and the reason why is that our educated elite is hostile to "intellectualism", a statement again not referenced by any evidence. The really fascinating thing about this jeremiad that Professor Sharpe has written is how uncontaminated it is by any appeal to anything other than general observations that can be sagely nodded to by those who already agree. In this respect his performance is well below those I remember in my youth and is itself a perfect model of what used to be the case in Working Men's Clubs back in the days before people could be informed should they so wish by 24 hour news, Twitter and Facebook.

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