report haiku

the report is done

but it is only a draft:

now it is undone.

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The technocratic perils of having a niche

While i was doing my PhD I managed to bash out a few moderately interesting publications. Nothing too groundbreaking, but good enough to publish. Since early 2009, I have had a pretty dry spell, with a grand total of one paper submitted and accepted for publication. Wilderness months of unemployment and casual waiting work put paid to any real zest for writing for quite some time during the early months of this year.

Now, settled into a half-decent job, I find myself inundated with requests for articles. One introduction to a special issue of Antipode. One full article for Antipode. One progress report for Geography Compass. At least one or two papers from my current research.

The world of academia is a very small, rather in-bred one where, despite efforts to the contrary, you become pigeon-holed and assigned a certain (largely static and bland) niche identity. For me, i’m “that guy who writes about geography and anarchism”, meaning that if anyone wants a token anarchist geographer to write something, they almost inevitably find me, even though there are many, many others (Gavin Brown, Paul Chatterton, Simon Springer, Nathan Clough, etc etc) who are just as – if not more – able to write interestingly and coherently on the subject.

I sometimes wonder if it’s to do with the title of a chapter i wrote that was published a year ago entitled Whither Anarchist Geography? and whether part of it is inflienced by online search engine rankings. So i did a little experiment by typing in “anarchism geography” into Google, and discovered that my chapter is third in the list, beating big names like Colin Ward, Jane Wills and Gavin Brown.

So Google’s imperium seems to look kindly those with short, snappy titles that are easily identifiable. This quirk might, then, actually structure the real-life relations between people, certainly in academia, connecting disparate nodes acording to a programming language developed by some guy in a computer lab. So this unknown stranger who i’m unlikely to ever meet is partially to blame for my (otherwise inexplicable) rise to popularity among journal editors. Perhaps an article entitled Whither Google Geography? should be the next project…? No, wait, i have, like, four others to get done first. Damn. Maybe this popularity lark isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Fear and Loathing (and Doubt) in London and Glasgow

Yes, I know it’s been quite a while since I last posted to this blog. I promise I’ll try harder. In case you don’t know, here’s a rough overview of what’s been going on:

  • May: Got offered a job as a cycle courier.
  • May: Never started said courier job because I got a job at UCL Students Union doing impact assessment on voluntary projects the following day.
  • June: Decided with partner to postpone our wedding.
  • June: Left job at UCL after 5 weeks to pursue an as-yet-nonexistent academic career in a post at Glasgow University doing a ‘policy relevant’ research project on relationships between globalisation and community.
  • July: Submitted final PhD thesis and formally became a doctor.
  • August: Finalised new wedding date with girlfriend.
  • September: Started applying for overseas research funding for 2011-2012.

Um… that’s about it. So there’s the update. Generally quite dull (apart from the wedding thing which, of course, is awesome).

But what I want to write about is that last night I had an attack of academic doubt. It happens to us all, is never ever spoken about, and is utterly horrible. It started for me when i wandered onto Gumtree and spotted a job advert as a cycle courier for the same company that offered me a job back in May. Most people i know were very relieved to hear that i had turned down the opportunity to become a courier in favour of a ‘proper desk job’; i wasn’t fussed either way at the time, but seeing this advert hit me pretty hard.

What the hell am i doing?

Why do i spend my life observing life rather than participating in it?

Why do i spend what little spare time i have writing crap that no-one cares about, rather than a) enjoying what little time i have on this planet and/or b) trying to make it a little better?

Doesn’t my research just grease the cogs of academic capitalism, no matter how ‘radical’ or ‘subversive’ it is?

What real-life impact is my research having, if any?

How can i ever look myself in the mirror and say that what i do is anything more than regurgitating obscure and trite academic rhetoric and vacuous trendy theory?

It was a pretty self-indulgent moment, really. We academics have it pretty good, even people like me at the very beginning of our academic life: good pay, good benefits, good ‘social standing’ (whatever that means), good job security if you’re lucky. Most people out there would probably sell their granny to do what I do.

At the same time, there is a powerful and largely unspoken sense of ‘inauthenticity’ (for want of a better word). It’s a bit of an elephant in the academic room, and few of us like to confront our position, our subjectivity, our human condition. That is, except in the safe and comfortable confines of ‘reflexive’ academic journals.

I often have fantasies of running away to sea. No kidding. I also wanted to be a welder when i scraped through my GCSEs but teachers, parents, other ‘elders’ and social expectations forced me into sixth form, then university then to where i am now. I am now happiest on my bike, and often wonder “what if i did take that courier job?”.

Well, frankly, if I did take that courier job, i don’t know what i would be doing right now. A couple of wonderfully insightful blogging courier women – 24tee and thatmessengerchick – have both given powerful insights into both the tough life of a courier and the joys of blogging. They are both so eloquent in their writing style and sharp in their critical engagement with their own proffession, it should make us academics frightfully embarrassed. And this is another driving force in this current wave of self-indulgent middle class doubt passing through me right now, and the drive to start making real use of this blog.

Paul Stott on Punk Islam

I just came across yet another interesting entry on Paul Stott‘s blog.

In it, he discusses Taqwacore, a novel, film and small but growing movement that unites Islam with punk values and aesthetics. It seems to be an interesting V-flipping manoeuvre by disenchanted Muslim youth, rejecting the authority of both Islamic leaders and Western governments and forging an irreverent and life-affirming form of religious and cultural identity in this third space. Mr Stott deals with the subject – the film in particular – with his typical style and panache, so I will leave you to peruse the original entry…

Anti-/election resources & projects – out of the shadows at last?

Anarchists have often had a pretty poor record of doing much remotely useful aroudn the time of elections. Electoral politics is, as any anarchist worth hir salt knows, vacuuous, lacking in substance, largely useless and ultimately the ultimate example of authoritarian forms of so-called democracy. However, as always, the anarchists have tended to sell themselves short, with mumbling and passive critiques or inarticulate sloganeering.

This year, however, there have been a few interesting things coming from the anarchist milieu that I feel are relatively positive. Firstly is this beautiful and well written poster from the guys at Last Hours zine. Rightly, Last Hours argues that a key element of electoral politics is the specialisation of political action. Related to this is the spatialisation of specialised politics. The poster seems to intimate that electoral politics sucks politics (or at least people’s perceptions thereof) out of everyday life, where it originates, and into Whitechapel, Downing Street and other halls of power. It is a disempowering force that removes real decision making power from our hands and into the hands of a tiny minority of elites and professional bureaucrats.

I don’t know about distribution of this poster, and it would be a shame to see it go unused and undistributed. They are selling the posters for £1.00 for 10, which aint bad, so in the absence of more co-ordinated plans, order a few and stick them up around your area.

Another worthwhile project is The Other Campaign, spearheaded by Liverpool Solidarity Federation. Rather than regurgitate passive critiques of electoral politics which, arguably, Last Hours is doing (admittedly in a very good way), LSF are embarking on a project to build a broad left-libertarian network of groups and individuals to systematically promote key principles in their communities: direct action, working class anti-fascism, mutual aid, solidarity, and non-hierarchical community and workplace activism.

This sounds like a great plan, and hopefully it will blossom. There is, however, a danger of these sorts of networked proejcts being too loose, too decentred and either disinitegrating or simply doing nothing. This is not a criticism of the proposal; rather, it is a concern with the organisational form that they propose to use. I’d be interested to hear how Liverpool SF hope to use this network as it develops, and how they plan to ensure a decent level of longevity. Perhaps i’m being too negative, though. Very rarely do anarchists come up with constructive, practical responses to electoral politics and this must be applauded loud and clear.

In the coming weeks, there will no doubt be a tidal wave of spin, baby-kissing, photoshoots and bland debates. The majority of people will either vote for the least bad option, or not vote at all. However, this isn’t a crisis of this current era, or a swipe at the brave women and men who fought and died for the vote. As Last Hours remind us, it is about the system itself that, even if it worked perfectly and 100% of voting-age citizens went to the polls, would still strip us of the vitality of the streets; the everyday knowledge and experience that institutionalised politics belittles; and the passion for something more than just putting an X in a box once every four years.

Thoughts on catering work and gender roles

Well who wouldn't be this happy on £6 per hour?!

It’s been a while since I’ve had a ‘proper’ job. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had one, if a ‘proper’ job is a permanent, full-time, career-focussed job. It’s always been service sector work, like waiting tables, washing dishes and looking after kids.

PhDs are usually funded for three years, and i was lucky enough to get funding. It’s not much, but still enough to live on. However in September last year my three years was up and i needed to get some other income. What i found was a job as a waiter for a catering company. This company specialise in corporate events, usually bankers, insurance brokers, lawyers, and so on. They are subcontractors to events companies who are subcontracted out by companies to organise flashy parties, events and ceremonies for them; part of a huge pyramid that makes up the events industry for the nouveau riche.

From very early on, i was struck by the gendered division of labour within the company. The women (or ‘girls’ as they are usually called) serve and clear food and canapes. This is hard work, physically difficult, non-stop and utterly mindless. There is very little skill, inventiveness or joy in this role. For the men (or ‘boys’ as we are known) serve wine or work the bar. This involves pretending to be authoritative and knowledgeable about wine and making polite and slightly flirty conversation with guests.

This gender division of labour is itself a practice that is fundamentally based on old-fashioned gender stereotypes of the (knowledgeable and outgoing) man and the (drone-like, domesticated and homely) woman. Management routinely emphasise the importance of being the role; of living it, even in the kitchen and on the rare occasion when we get a break.

This is what you would expect from the nouveau riche so-called ‘high’ society, desperately clinging to antiquated norms dredged from the stagnant canal of middle class pretensions to unobtainable grandeur. The absurd idea that practising (nay, insisting that your servants practice) outmoded, reactionary normative codes somehow elevates you to the level of those who instituted them (i.e. aristocracy, gentry, etc.) is not really a major problem; after all, this isn’t exactly something specific to the catering industry. There is also another level to this, and i want to discuss it briefly.

One particularly notable dynamic within the workers is that this gendered division of labour creates gendered dynamics among the workers. There is of course a spatial division – chiefly between the food prep area and the drinks store – but also an insatiable tendency to exaggerate one’s masculinity/femininity, as you might expect. If you’re being told that you must inhabit the body of a confident, masculine, knowledgeable wine waiter, then – so the logic goes – you submit to authority and the conditions and practices of your working life, and perform that role as best you can.

However, this exaggeration of gender does not take place in a way one might expect. Relations are awkward, like a school disco, and the women are definitely in control for the most part. The matriarchs are chiefly young, look after the other women, and spend a great deal of time and effort belittling the professional capabilities of the Alpha males (very successfully, i might add!). Men, in turn, spend a lot of time and effort affirming their masculinity to each other through telling dirty jokes, attempting to carry fifteen chairs at once, and so on. They seem genuinely lost and child-like at times, far from the authoritative wine connoisseurs that they are supposed to be.

So these gendered categories take on characteristics that go beyond the simple male-authoritative/female-homely roles that are given to them. It’s one of those ways in which the dynamics of (in this case, patriarchal) structures in everyday life simply don’t work in the way one might expect. Although the situation remains, of course, horribly patriarchal at its root, the way these roles don’t conform to what is expected makes me feel a little more optimistic about the power of authority to structure our relations. Clearly it doesn’t always work.

I wish i could say something more profound, but it’s getting late, i’ve already rambled on for long enough, and i’m not the most articulate or experienced blogger yet. Onwards and upwards…

Hello there…

Welcome to my as-yet-sparsely-populated blog. I’m a geographer currently residing in sunny Bethnal Green, East London. I recently completed my PhD entitled Organising Anarchy: Spatial Strategy, Prefiguration and the Politics of Everyday Life at Queen Mary, University of London. Please don’t expect me to explain it, as I wouldn’t want to disappoint you so early on.

Elsewhere in life I am a keen fixed-gear cyclist, rock climber, hill walker, bonsai killer grower and a hopelessly devoted partner to H., my long-suffering girlfriend. Without a doubt, all of these will feature from time to time.

I don’t yet know what will become of this little project, but i have a few things in mind:

  • Illuminating and discussing the role played by geography, space and place in the way this funny old world works.
  • Pondering the joys and pains in the everyday experiences of being a young, inexperienced and often un(der)employed academic in these times of turbulence.
  • Writing a little about my pet topic – anarchism – and the ways in which I feel it has big things to say about the aforementioned funny old world, how it works, and occasionally how I feel it should work. Related to this, I would like to talk specifically about how anarchist approaches to political thought, action and critique can enrich our everyday lives and the way we (geographers, bloggers, humans, fauna…) relate to and live alongside one another.
  • Sharing a few tidbits from my academic research, which focuses chiefly on – you guessed it – anarchist thought and action, but also a whole load of other juicy stuff.
  • Hopefully also peppering this rather dry political stuff with some little rays of humour and intrigue along the way. Over the years, those of us with a leftward inclination have gained an awful (albeit not entirely undeserved) reputation for being dull, humourless and a bit whiney. I’ll do my best to convince you otherwise.

Just like the rich tapestry of life, I suspect that this blog will meander, stopping here and there, bifurcating at points and converging at others; becoming a rather labyrinthine mish-mash of intrigue, stupidity and utopia. Failing that, I hope that it will at least be modestly entertaining in parts…