Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission

Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068lst2

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.

On a rugby conference

September 13, 2015
Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Frankly, conferences can be something of a bore. But they’re necessary to the academic. I’ve often thought I might write a blog about how they could be improved but still being in post-conference mode I don’t want to to rake over the negatives of the weekend just yet. And the conference at the University of Brighton on rugby union was of unusually good quality in the world of sports history. So it would be unfair to subject conferences as a whole to a thrashing this particular week.

Going to a conference, while it can sometimes induce dread, is actually nearly always a positive experience. It’s where you get to try out your ideas in front of your peers, and where you get to meet people informally whose writing you admire; you can chat through your ideas and talk about how you’ve been influenced by their work.* It’s always worth suffering a few longeurs in the pursuit of fresh ways of thinking. And as you can see from the picture of the Falmer Campus the Sussex Downs isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, even if you spend much of that time indoors discussing the history of sport.

Oh well, the peril of being called Levett is the variety of ways it can be misspelled.

My own talk was a canter through the 1905 tour by the All Blacks to Europe and America, a paper based on parts of my PhD thesis that I hadn’t intended to develop much further. Now, thanks to talking to Tony Collins among others, I find that I have a few more ideas that may enable me to write an article based on my research that might even be original!**

As is the way with conferences though the most interesting ideas occurred to me while attending something that wasn’t of immediate relevance to my own work. On Friday evening we had a showing of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film about the triumph of the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. I had no real desire to see the film (I had a massive headache from being stuck indoors all day!) but was interested in the panel discussion beforehand which featured historians of South Africa (Philani Nongogo, Albert Grundlingh, John Nauright and Derek Catsam) and three time World Cup winner Farah Palmer.

Much of the discussion centred on the distance between the Hollywood version of the tournament and the real events. For reasons of concision, political convenience or the demands of narrative cinema the film necessarily tells a skewed version that leaves out a lot of things and foregrounds certain individuals at the expense of significant others.

One of the players the panel felt was neglected in the film (and I won’t try to sum up why as I’m not familiar with the story enough myself to retell it) was James Small, a South African of English heritage who one panellist described as being an ‘insider-outsider’ within the team in that he was South African yet not felt to be as South African in a rugby union context as as an Afrikaner.

The way in which Afrikaners captured rugby as a symbol of Afrikanerdom in the years after their first tour to Europe in 1906 is a fascinating historical process.*** Small’s perceived position as insider-outsider has resonances with my own recent work on another South African sporting figure, Percy Sherwell, who captained the cricket team that came to England in 1907.**** Following the work of John Lambert (among others) I’ve analysed him as a forgotten man of South African sport, forgotten because he was a British South African, whose ability to be either English in England or South African in South Africa was ambiguous. He is condemned to live in the shadow of the über-South African Paul Roos, the Afrikaner captain of the 1906 Springboks.

And then I noticed that the liminality of the British South African identity, which I think continues to exist to the present day, was laid out there in the panel in front of me. Two South Africans (one Afrikaner, one Xhosa), two Americans and one Kiwi – where was the British South African?

It really encouraged to think that I might be on to something with my line on Sherwell …

* On this occasion I was fortunate to meet Greg Ryan, who challenges myths about the history of New Zealand rugby eloquently and perceptively.

** Tony’s book, The Oval World is published shortly. If you want to hear more about the book direct from the man himself he’ll be speaking at the IHR seminar at Senate House on October 5th.

The Oval World

The Oval World

*** I hope that some of the popular coverage of the game during the 2015 World Cup will at least give some attention to the political-historical aspects of rugby.

**** Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t I?

On Blockbuster vs Bijou Exhibitions

April 20, 2015

On Friday I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to the National’s latest blockbuster, Less of an Exhibition, More of a Thesis (or Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets). I won’t expand too much on the drawback of such exhibitions to the average punter – too crowded, bed blockers parking themselves with their audio guides in front of the good stuff, the sharp elbows of the English Middle Classes, the inexplicable amount of babies and toddlers, the all-too-BIGNESS of the show. We all have our personal grievances on emerging from these things.

Across the road is another show, a teeny tiny one, of work by Jeff Wall, put on by White Cube in the Canada House Gallery. I’d been to visit it a few weeks ago in altogether different circumstances to those in the NG. Apart from having to go through an airport-style security check (it is part of the embassy after all and you can forgive them for being rigorous after the events in Ottawa last year) I didn’t see another person in the place. I had the room to myself to contemplate a handful of pictures, among which was at least one masterpiece, in absolute peace.

So, to an extent this is a piece about the value of seeking out the free treasures that are to be found in London’s art world. The various charitable spaces, private art dealers, cultural centres and auction houses that bespeckle the London map are full of things that the big institutions, even the free ones like the National, would make you pay to view as part of their monster spectacles.

From memory over the last few months I’ve seen a Breughel exhibition at Bonham’s as high quality as any you’d find in Brussels or Vienna (also with a lot of modern toss larded between), a collection of masterpieces at Christie’s that ranged from Chinese art to Rembrandt and Monet, and a little exhibition of Martin Parr photographs at some private dealer off Bond Street. As far as I remember I’d only gone to them because I’d passed them in strolling around and thought to pop in or go back when I had the spare time. Each time I had the Exhibition largely to myself.

What luxury. What pleasure for the cost of slithering under the gaze of the laser-eyed harpies that often act as the gardiennes of these places. So yes, do visit these things.

But do more than that. Think too. For what is the curse of the blockbuster exhibition? It is the audio guide. The mental crutch of the intellectually crippled. Fully formed opinion at the cost of a fiver and a surrender of self-respect.

And here the experience of gallery-going ties in with academia. By all means seek opinion, an academic lecture is after all just opinion (if you’re lucky, expert opinion) that should inform your own writing or lecturing but not dictate it. Students should be encouraged to question the view of their teacher but all too often they listen (well, it depends what time of day it is) and repeat without a digesting process in between. Which is what the audio guide does, it gives you opinion (of excellent quality no doubt) at second hand. It interrupts thinking. Put it away and think.

In an exhibition of the most tremendous quality (I urge you if you can to get to the NG before it shuts) one picture, for me, stood out in particular. Manet’s The Battle of ‘Kearsarge’ and the ‘Alabama’ (1864, Philadelphia Museum of Art). This is an extraordinary painting of an incident I knew nothing about. Now I know a little more. During the American Civil War the Confederacy operated a guerilla war at sea against the navy of the Union. The Kearsarge was a Union warship keeping watch off the French coast for three Confederate Navy commerce raiders: Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. The Alabama was lying off the coast near Cherbourg, waiting for a response from the French authorities to a request to land civilians captured in the course of capturing and burning two United States merchant ships, the Rockingham and Tycoon. After some to-ing and fro-ing, during which the anticipated battle between the two ships had attracted the attention of the world’s media and brought a number of visitors to Brittany to witness the event for themselves. The battle finally took place on 19th June 1864 and the Alabama was sunk in short order. Such is what I have learned this morning but intend to find out more, especially what Manet was up to.*

But that was afterwards. I don’t know what the commentary said about the painting, although judging by the catalogue it almost certainly told of when Durand-Ruel bought it and how much he sold it for. My immediate thoughts on looking at it were of what an extraordinary thing it is – big, contemporary, striking. A colossal study in grey-blue. With echoes of the Raft of the Medusa and parallels in Manet’s own work (so much more politically engaged, it seems to me, than a lot of the other impressionists and hence why he’s of more interest to historians) The Execution of Emperor Maximilian and its concern with the modern world.

Apparently contemporary critics decried the amount of space that Manet gave to the sea, seeing it as overwhelming the more important matter of the battle. Yet to me this is what thrilled because the sea he makes a turbulent danger. The sea is the subject in any maritime painting for anyone concerned about the individual. This occurred to me as I watched coverage of the ongoing losses of life in the Mediterranean as people try to escape conflict in Africa to make a better life in Europe, at enormous risk. A fisherman turned coastguard showed the humanity that Manet shares in his canvas when he pointed out that fishermen-coastguards and the refugees they pluck from the water both share an awareness of the brutality of the sea. Its indifference to what is tossed into it and what is pulled out.

Such a sentiment was also in my mind at the Jeff Wall exhibition. At the two previous shows of his that I’ve seen, at Whitechapel years ago (when I worked in the City and snuck off for intellectual nourishment (being a Guardian reader on the IPE I naturally earned the nickname Trotsky (when the traders were in a benevolent mood – usually I was called far worse))) and Tate Modern more recently, I perceived in Wall’s work this theme of the indifference of nature. I saw it in his A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) and also in his faintly menacing landscapes.

At Canada House there’s a picture I realised I’d seen before but probably through gallery fatigue hadn’t really looked at, Boy Falling From A Tree. It could be comic, most boys have fallen from trees haven’t they? It viscerally reminded me of the sensation of falling off a thing, or not so much the falling off as the landing – landing on the ground after falling off a shed when playing at a friend’s house and laughing at my dizziness after banging my head, or landing on a big bush after falling out of a window at university and impaling my leg on a branch.

Then there is the metaphorical implications of falling from the Icarus story to Lucifer, which put me in mind of Breughel (another favourite artist). But these stories involve human agency and what I get from the dispassionate view of Wall, and to an extent Manet, is that it’s not the person but the thing that is the agent. The sea swallows errant sailors. The earth crushes those who fall onto it. They are moral tales that warn us to be cautious, to be respectful of natural phenomena for our own good. And in this election time, after listening to the leader of the Green Party go on about what we are doing to the earth through our misguided actions I was struck by how wrong-headed this approach is. Nature is indifferent to us, both globally and individually. If we should persuade people to respect nature the more we should thus appeal to self-interest. Nature is capable of a far more brutal retribution on us for the wrongs we heap upon it. Manet and Wall show us that.

* My source is J. Wilson-Bareau & D. C. Degener, Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S. Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama (Yale University Press, 2003)

A paean to Birkbeck College

April 12, 2015

This week saw a celebratory lunch with two friends who I first met on my MA course at Birkbeck some ten years ago. Out of a dozen or so people on that course (London Studies, sadly now defunct) three of us came away with doctorates. I wouldn’t know the hit rate for people turning MA dissertation subjects into successful theses (and I’m not going to spend Sunday morning finding out) but I suspect it’s fairly low.*

So what does this mean? Obviously we were

1) Good at that shit

2) Worked hard, and

3) Had the fortune to find

i)  subjects we cared about

ii) supervisors who helped us to see the process through to the end.**

This has been done before but unoriginality never stopped me banging about something in the past (sorry Denize), so here are some thoughts on what to consider when you’re considering embarking on a PhD if you’re an old dudette or dude, like me.*** I may come back to thinking about what to consider while you’re doing The Thing ( as I referred to it until I’d finished) when I feel the urge to pontificate.

The Subject

Think very carefully about how interested you are in your subject. You have to live with this thing in your head not just for the duration of your PhD (2 years minimum, mine was 6 years) but most likely for a year or two afterwards as you try and turn it into a published piece of work. That could be 8 years of thinking about, researching and writing about the same thing ALL OF THE TIME. So if you have any doubt about whether you want to write on your subject don’t even begin.

You will also have to talk about your thesis to people who are only asking you about it out of politeness A LOT. This person may be a friend, family, your partner, your kids, colleagues or complete strangers (yeah, sorry to that woman on the plane to South Africa). If you can’t explain what the idea of your thesis is in a couple of sentences you have no coherent thesis and you have no right to bore someone else at a party talking about it. A thesis is around 70k words but it is, more importantly, an idea. Or a series of ideas (if you’re really brainy).

If you have no idea, or argument, that can be simply explained to the average civilian don’t start your PhD until you’ve found one.****

The Supervisor


I didn’t exactly choose my supervisor. I was writing about South African cricket and Hilary was the southern Africanist in our department at Birkbeck. I was lucky that we got on. This doesn’t always happen but I think it was crucial to my completing the thesis. Having a distant, unsympathetic or (and it happens) hostile supervisor will ruin your writing, and potentially ruin your life for a while.

Your supervisor may be someone you don’t meet that often but for a while they will be parent, boss and friend (or none of these if your relationship is disfunctional). They cannot make you complete – only you can do that – but they can certainly prevent you from completing.

Think hard and choose wisely. The illustration below is of a busted horsehair sofa. You will feel like that A LOT during the course of you PhD.

So I should round off as I began by praising Birkbeck again. While I may think that I’m great (though I suspect that I’m not) I know for certain that Birkbeck College is one of the most remarkable institutions in London.

If you’re thinking of studying there do that thing.


* Actually, I did try and find out but could find no definitive answer. Slate reckons around 49% of humanities PhD students complete their thesis; assuming (generously) that around 25% of MA students begin trying to turn their dissertation into a thesis that would produce a 12.5% hit rate.

** thank you Hilary, you are a saint.

*** I started my MA when I was 30 and finished my PhD when I was 40. My children were 6 & 8 when I started, they’re now both nearly grown up. I worked in two jobs throughout the process and co-managed a football team for two of those years.

**** Preferably original.

A busted horsehair sofa

A busted horsehair sofa


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