Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cultural Amnesia & the PBRF

[Clive James: Cultural Amnesia (2007)

James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from Culture and the Arts. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

I picked up some pretty impressive-looking tomes at the Auckland Public Library sale this year, and one of them was the above.

I did think twice about it, since the respect I once had for Clive James as a cultural commentator and "metropolitan critic" had long been eroded by his foolish performances on TV as a kind of pompous self-parodying Kolonial Klown, not to mention his execrable fiction and worse poetry (Brilliant Creatures would actually be up there as one of my candidates for worst novel ever published - along with David Lodge's How Far Can You Go? and Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood).

Those early essays - and even some of that TV criticism - was pretty good, though, so I thought it was worth betting five dollars or so that he might have regained some of his earlier fire.

About fifty pages in, Bronwyn issued an ultimatum forbidding me from reading another word of it (in her presence, at any rate). The amount of snorting and cursing coming from my direction was affecting her digestion, she said.

I mean, the premise seemed sound enough. James had been meditating this "big" book for over forty years (he said). All through those international jaunts and photo-shoots, every time he found a congenial cafe he was taking notes for the great Summa Journalistica which was to justify his life and peripatetic ways.

Earnest debates with himself over a possible form for this huge gallimaufry of honed opinion and rapier wit resulted, eventually, in a kind of biographical dictionary of the forgotten: all the significant figures who'd been wiped from our cultural history by the instant amnesia of the brainwashed pop generation ...

So far so good. I certainly hadn't heard of quite a few of those obscure Viennese intellectuals and litterateurs whom James seemed determined to unearth and restore to centre stage. How can you quarrel with so inherently worthy an objective?

[Walter Benjamin: Work Card (1940)

I guess the first big alarm bell rang when I started reading James on Walter Benjamin. What a turkey! All these years I'd been thinking that Benjamin was something special, when actually all he was was wilfully obscure ("eloquent opacity" [p.48]; "With Benjamin, 'strain' was the operative word" [p.48]; "What was unique about Benjamin was not his readiness to take a side track, but the lengths he would go to when he took one" [p.49], etc. etc.) No wonder he was just too dumb to smuggle himself over the Pyrenees in advance of those Nazi hordes! Good riddance, actually ...

Hmmm. Well, that did seem a little harsh as a final judgment on the man (not to mention a bit on the - how shall I put it? - stupid side), but judging an alphabetical book by its treatment of the early "B's" might be seen as a trifle unreasonable, so I soldiered on.

Then, however, I reached Jorge Luis Borges. Now I'm the first to admit that Borges is not for everyone. You either like him or you don't. I happen to be an admirer of his poetry as well as his prose, but that again is a minority opinion (I've even had to take out "The Garden of Forking Paths", my favourite short story of all time, from the Stage One Creative Writing course I teach, since so few of the students seemed able to work out what the "fork" was going on - or to care that much, once they had worked it out). So, yeah, there's nothing intrinsically criminal - or intellectually indefensible - in disprizing Borges.

But how did James go about attacking him? By calling him a mediocre linguist:

His dialogues and essays can be recommended as an easy way into Spanish, a language which every student of literature should hold in prospect, to the extent of an elementary reading knowledge at least (Borges's own, and much vaunted, knowledge of English was really not much better than that.) [p.63]

Thank you, Professor James. There's a certain toplofty tone here which sounds like typical autodidact's schadenfreude ("I may not be a card-carrying Academic, but I can sound just as dry-as-dust as one of you over-paid, underworked bastards ...") But was Borges's "much-vaunted" command of English "really" as "elementary" as all that?

[Saka Freeman: Jorge Luis Borges has a posse (2009)

Another one of my recent purchases - from this time - was a CD of recordings of Borges giving a series of lectures on poetry: This Craft of Verse: Borges, In His Own Voice. The Complete Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard University. Set of 4 CDs. 1967 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000) - if you want to check it out.

I've played this through a couple of times now in the car, which (as I mentioned in a previous post) is my venue of choice for listening to books and epic poems. Borges was almost completely blind at the time he gave these lectures, in 1967, so they had to be delivered entirely from memory, which, since they consist mostly of analyses of particular poems and lines of poems in English, is no mean feat. Or, rather, would be no mean feat even in one's own native tongue.

All I can say is, if, with a "not much better than elementary" reading knowledge of English, this blind man was capable of giving six hour-long lectures in a foreign tongue, at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, then I'd really like to meet someone with a "good" command of the language. Who might such a person resemble? Shakespeare? Milton (another blind poet with a lot of linguistic chutzpah, presumably)?

Would that person look like Clive James, by any chance? Well, no, unfortunately. There are a number of apologetic asides on the subject in the early pages of his massive tome, where he explains that, while "English is this new world's lingua franca ... Born to speak it, we can view the whole world as a dubbed movie, and not even have to bother with subtitles", he too has deigned to wrestle with the odd foreign language (or, as he puts it, "savour the tang of alien tongues" [p.xxi]:

There was a time when I could fairly fluently read Russian, and get through a simple article in Japanese about my special subject, the war in the Pacific ... I hope they return as easily as they went, but I remember how long they took to arrive in the first place. [p.xxv]

It's not that great a tragedy, though, because "a complete picture of reality is not to be had. If we realize that, we can begin to be realistic. .... Stalin and Hitler both thought that they could see the whole picture, and look what happened."

In other words, if James had been better at languages, it might have turned him into a Stalin or a Hitler, and "look what happened" to them! (Apologies if I've misinterpreted this passage, since it did seem at first sight to be entirely meaningless, but that's what I've finally deduced from it ...)

The question remains, though, could Clive James give a series of lectures in one of those easier languages he claims an "elementary reading knowledge" of - in French, say, entirely without notes, at (say) the Sorbonne? I kind of doubt it, though I may be wrong. If he could, though (I certainly couldn't), then I would have no hesitation in calling his command of the language "excellent", rather than elementary.

You can see why Bronwyn forbade me to read on. The issue was not that James was ignorant (though he was, egregiously and unrepentantly so), it was the hasty snap-judgements peppered through every page, generally based on little information except a kind of knowing contrariness - a desire to contradict received ideas with cunning paradoxes, to deflate allegedly "overblown" reputations - which were the problem.

The thing was, he was just too fucking lazy and egotistic to carry it off. He clearly hadn't done any serious research for these little four to five-page essays on forgotten figures (Borges? Benjamin? Forgotten!) His great big tome, I was forced to conclude, was just a great big waste of time. "Books like these," as the Classical scholar (and occasional poet) A. E. Housman once remarked, "are mere interruptions to our studies."

[Clive James (2008)

So what's all this got to do with the PBRF, you ask? What is PBRF when it's at home?

If you already know what it is, it's probably because you have some kind of association with NZ Academia (other nations have their own - loathsome - parallel systems). PBRF stands for "Performance Based Research Funding" and it's the way the New Zealand government awards money to tertiary educational institutions based on the (alleged) "quality" of their research.

It's a way of quantifying quality, in effect, by bean-counting "expert assessments" of research across all the innumerable fields included in contemporary Academic institutions, according to pre-set criteria, with crude comparative tables for those on the outer fringes whose work is expressed in "performances," "exhibitions" or (for all I know) "be-ins" and "happenings." (Musicians, dramatists and creative artists generally, in other words).

Fair enough. It's a dirty job but it has to be done (allegedly, at any rate). How else could you possibly know who's been naughty and who's been nice? Who does deserve a big bucket of cash, and who's just been sitting around spinning out bullshit to no good effect?

I guess a dispassionate observer might point out that University Departments, Schools and Colleges already scrutinise their colleagues' research with a good deal of expertise and zeal - but it's true that they may lack the necessary international and discipline-wide perspective to know who's "excellent" and who's simply "average" in the work they're doing. A giant bean-count is therefore required (or so the government informs us) to make sure that nobody gets away with cushioning themselves a nice safe little featherbed with the help of their cowed, compliant colleagues ...

As a result, every "research-active" academic in New Zealand will be handing in a portfolio of research to the central PBRF authority on April 1st next year (how appropriate, I hear you say ...)

Before that magic date, though, each of us will be preparing "draft" and "mini" portfolios to make sure that we're telling the "story" of our research in the best possible way, that we're hitting the right key-words, that we're putting our best foot forward. And squads of glorified spin-doctors and other research "experts" have been hired to make sure that everyone succeeds in doing precisely that.

It doesn't sound all that complex, on the surface: a bit onerous to collect all the data, to blow one's own trumpet in precisely the right key, but - hey - anyone who's ever written any kind funding application (or a CV, for that matter), knows that one has to bow down in the House of Rimmon at least some of the time. Just for the sake of peace and all getting along.

There are, however, some uncomfortable facts that keep on obtruding on this colossal enterprise ("a golden opportunity to assess yourself and your own career as a researcher," as Massey's own Head of Research kept assuring us at the series of rallies she held to tell us where we were with the process this week). It's a little like the problems with Clive James's great career-crowning book.

In that case, the real difficulty is that you can't trust a word James says because he's too ignorant, cocksure and self-serving to be a reliable witness or an acceptable judge of the prowess of great artists and scholars whose boots he isn't worthy to lick (I stopped reading before he got to that poor, sad, noble soul Paul Celan, as I was afraid that I would want to tear out the pages one by one and shove them down his throat ...)

In the case of PBRF, the problems are, unfortunately, just as obvious. Of course it's a fine idea, much thought and care has gone into balancing out the competing demands of all those different disciplines, etc. etc. BUT ...
  1. Who's going to read all those thousands and thousands of pages of portfolios? Subject panels of "top academics", of course. But just how much time do they have to devote to the task? How long is each panel going to meet for? A thousand years? In practice, each portfolio will be given (at most) about two minutes of the panel's attention. It'll be a bit like one of those old School Certificate marking committee meetings: "C" - "Next!" - "B+" - "Next!" - "Next - next - next." I'm sure they'll all do their best, but how seriously is one expected to take this snap judgement of a few senior colleagues on the value of your life's work? Not very, I'm afraid. It's still just glorified bean-counting, I'm afraid.

  2. Who will win? How will the various universities stack up against each other? Well, believe it or not, Massey University's grand plan is to stay in precisely the same place. We don't want to sink back past AUT, and we don't - given the almost inconceivably vast array of academic and vocational subjects taught here, internally and extramurally - have the slightest chance of "beating" more traditionally focussed establishments. Why should we? We do what we do very well already. What's the point of trying to become another Auckland or Otago in order to win more PBRF funding? Students can already choose to study at those places if that's what they want. What Massey offers is something different - a whole range of subjects and approaches that nobody else can match.

  3. What's the point, then? Why are we running so hard in order to stand still? Well, because everyone else has upped their game just as much as we're hoping to. Therefore we have to perform better to make up for the fact that they're all going to perform better, too. It's a kind of Academic version of the Arms Race: We need an H-bomb because if we don't make it then the Russians are bound to.

  4. Who will it benefit in the long run? That's a complicated question. The threat brandished over our heads to make us comply with instructions is (as always) "redundancies." Any university that gets significantly less PBRF funding will have to fire a whole lot of people to make up for it. Who? Well, I guess the bureaucrats whose job it is to regulate all the bean-counting. I don't see any great point in firing me since most of my work is in teaching anyway. I'm not a full-time academic (point 7 of a fulltime load, in fact), so a good deal of the writing and research I do is on my own time (in case any of you were worrying that the taxpayer was funding my work in composing aberrant novels that nobody wants to read ...) Also, the government has other ways of funding us for the students we teach, so PBRF is only part of the complex equation anyway (albeit an extremely important part).

  5. Individually, it makes very little difference to me how well I do in this PBRF round. There are a whole lot of complex rules surrounding who gets to see the results, and universities are specifically forbidden to use them as a pretext for letting anyone go (or for internal discipline, for that matter). Of course we all want to do well, because everyone likes to be told how good they are, but the big gains and losses are all on the institutional level, not the personal.

  6. Will we all do well? I guess that's where the Clive James-ish self-contradictory cloth-headedness comes in. We're told that we have to demonstrate the (peer-acknowledged) "excellence" of our research profile. We must all be "excellent", in fact. But not everyone can be excellent all of the time. If they are, then you need another word, since "excellent" means "standing out from the common run." (as D. H. Lawrence once put it in a review, "If we use words like 'brilliant' and 'genius' for Miss Snodgrass's new book, then what words are left for Shakespeare or Homer?).

You know, the whole thing just doesn't worry me that much. I accept that you have to ride herd on Academics and what they actually do all day from time to time. Fair enough. I accept that I'll have to spend a lot of time entering research data into a particularly clumsy, inflexible and antiquated computer programme (there's no dispute about that, even from the professionals who oversee said programme). Them's the breaks. The chances that the data from this exercise will actually be available on time in usable form are roughly even-steven, I'd say, as it's quite possible that the whole lot will be lost in some immense meltdown on April Fool's Day next year. Them's also the breaks. Not even is infallible.

What I do kind of object to, though, is having my time wasted with briefing meetings from bureaucrats who can't answer a single discipline-specific question; who seem to feel that we should thrill to having take huge amounts of time away from our actual research to fill in complicated forms for the benefit of a bunch of people who won't (in turn) have time to read any of them in any detail; who, finally, expect us to turn off our brains and ignore all the fine distinctions we try to inculcate painstakingly in the lecture-room between fatuous doubletalk and actual information (the universal "excellence" required of our Academic population being only one and not the most egregious example) when it comes to compiling said forms.

Let's just get on with it, in other words. It has to be done. It'll be interesting to see if the Senior Leadership thugs at Canterbury actually get away with insisting that all of their earthquake-shocked Academics have to submit portfolios on research many of them are unable even to access physically at present. Seems a little harsh, no?

[Vanda Vitali (2010)

It'll be even more interesting to see if Big Chief McCutcheon at Auckland gets away with the mass redundancies he's threatened as a disciplinary measure against those Academics who are threatening not to submit PBRF portfolios as part of their industrial action against his ongoing threats to Academic freedom. I'd have thought that one redundancy at Auckland would solve that problem neatly and with minimal fuss - the Vanda Vitali solution, one might call it.

For myself, I love my job at Massey because of the students I get to meet there, because of my fine friendly colleagues, and also because of the physical beauty of the Albany campus. As a recent student survey revealed, the fact that you can always get a car-park was listed as reason number one for attending this august institution. That may be why they come, but I doubt that's why they stay. I hope to get back to concentrating on teaching (not to mention my own research!) just as soon as this colossal turkey-shoot is over. In the meantime, the less disruption it causes to everyone, the better ...


Dougal said...

Splendid stuff, Jack, many thanks. There's plenty of (ethically & politically dubious) reasons why conservative thinkers want to read Benjamin as obscure.

Couldn't agree more on "excellence". There's a very good piece by Franco Moretti in the latest New Left Review which ends by quoting Stephen Jay Gould that, in science, "fruitful doing matters more than clever thinking." There's plenty of "fruitful doing" in the humanities too which obviously isn't excellent or brilliant or whatever but is important & socially productive. Those distinctions and gradations of ambition and plan get lost amidst all this ghastly PBRF language, though.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, exactly, Dougal. It seems that we do have to go through with these exercises. But I don't see why we all have to agree to cease thinking critically about the value of what we're doing.

Martin Edmond said...

Timely, Jack - the Jamesian exegesis I mean. There are still people here who want to canonise him as a 'great' poet {shriek} . . . even tho, as the latest acolyte observed 'his only subject is himself'.

Jen said...

That was hilarious - or quite funny, at least. Still sniggering.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Martin,

I must confess I was expecting a bit of a caning from some of the PBRF mafia, whereas it hadn't occurred to me that Clive James still had 'fans'' I suppose he wouldn't be the first poet to have himself as his only subject - all he really lacks is the ability to write poetry, actually.

Glad to brighten your day, Jen ... at least I hope that's what you meant.

Jen said...

Yes, very much so! It was the carpark revelation I liked best. They do have awesome carparking at Massey Albany.

Mark said...

I agree with this entire post and I really agree with this, it is evergreen:

"What I do kind of object to, though, is having my time wasted with briefing meetings from bureaucrats who can't answer a single discipline-specific question; who seem to feel that we should thrill to having take huge amounts of time away from our actual research to fill in complicated forms for the benefit of a bunch of people who won't (in turn) have time to read any of them in any detail; who, finally, expect us to turn off our brains and ignore all the fine distinctions we try to inculcate painstakingly in the lecture-room between fatuous doubletalk and actual information (the universal "excellence" required of our Academic population being only one and not the most egregious example) when it comes to compiling said forms."

The intellectual vacuity of the PBRF and the accompanying fol-de-rol along with its mendacity (as in the material submitted is not read at all) is infuriating.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Thanks KiwiMark, your comments much appreciated.

Of course the situation five years ago, when I wrote this post, has now been redeemed by the complete reform of the PBRF system which has since taken place ... No, wait, that was just a fever-dream I had ... No significant changes have taken place in the intervening time, so far as I can see.

Mark said...

[bitter chuckle + rueful look]

Thanks Dr Jack Ross!