Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Language barriers

[This is a companion to a piece published in Exeunt. Might make more sense if you've read that first.]

I managed to make it to lunchtime before I got myself into trouble. A whole morning of sitting in an antiseptic white room around an imposing board table listening to academics deliver powerpoint presentations about austerity and “structural adjustment” with relation to gender and geography, how social relations are re-made through sugar and whether Fairtrade is genuinely fair, peer-to-peer lending and local currencies, feeling sort-of-interested but also sort-of-disengaged and basically incapable of asking any questions, and then something happens and suddenly I'm erupting incoherently with what sound suspiciously like anti-intellectual and anti-academy sentiments and wishing I'd kept my mouth shut.

This is me at this_is_tomorrow. Having an allergic reaction to a university.

In brief (because the business version of this story can be read on Exeunt), this_is_tomorrow is an artist development programme produced and curated by China Plate for Warwick Arts Centre, that aims to forge relationships between theatre-makers and academics at University of Warwick, in the hopes of inspiring innovative new work. Each year since 2012 it's invited a small group of artists to spend a week shuttling from one university department to another, hearing about top-level research in politics, economics, manufacturing, science and maths. Matt Trueman attended in 2013 as an “embedded” critic and each day I gobbled up his report from its furnace and seethed with jealousy that I wasn't there.

In the event, it's just as well China Plate brought me this year in for only one day: I'm not sure I could have handled any more than that. Maybe it was the specific department I landed in – politics and international studies (PAIS) – but from the moment its affable yet stern director of research, Matthew Watson, commented in his introduction on the university's need to demonstrate its impact on the wider world, my back was up. The day became stained with the suggestion of opportunism – and that cuts both ways, because if this-is-tomorrow successfully engineers an artist-academic relationship, it could result in the work being part-funded by the university (as happened with Theatre Rites' Bank On It, supported intellectually and financially by Abhinay Muthoo, head of the department of economics). I do recognise, though, that this is perfect pragmatism, especially in a Tory landscape. And I talk in the Exeunt piece about how this_is_tomorrow resists such cynicism, by refusing to insist on product-based outcomes for the project.

It's not Watson but Joel Lazarus, a research fellow with PAIS, who triggers my outburst about the academy, which even at the time made me sad, because he's the person whose presentation feels closest to my own work, particularly with Dialogue. He used to be a city trader but moved into academia after experiencing a breakdown, and has since dedicated himself to transforming British society by generating “civic literacy” and “mass intellectualism”. He talks about his desire to facilitate discussion, through interaction with culture and the expression of emotional truths, and it's like hearing myself talk about why I love the conversations that happen in theatre clubs – in which, to use Lazarus' phrase, we don't just “read the word but read the world”.

Part of me is really excited by Lazarus' presentation. I recognise the hopes of his work, its structures, its relationship to Marxist thinking, its informal methodologies. But the fact that he gets me using words like methodology rankles. There is an uncomfortable twist in my stomach at the terms civic literacy and mass intellectualism: on whose terms are they being defined? Because from where I'm sitting, around an imposing board table, with only one person of colour and an Eastern European as nods to diverse ethnicity, those terms look uncomfortably white, western-middle-class, and male.

I've since read a thoughtful piece by Lazarus on Open Democracy, in which he presents his vision for a “true democracy” reached through dialogue that is expressive of love, faith in humanity, hope and critical thinking. It calls for “radical, revolutionary social transformation” in terms I find inarguable. And yet I did argue with him at Warwick, for pitching his stall on such high-faluting ground, and not talking more like Francois Matarasso, who writes passionately of the value of traditional and everyday cultures and community arts. “All human beings have intellectual power,” Lazarus opined – but does that have to be expressed in received academic terms to be counted?

Looking back, I realise it was the context that troubled me more than the content. Lazarus spoke at the end of a morning mostly spent listening to male academics; the one exception was Shirin Rai, whose discipline is rooted in feminism and who systematically challenged her colleagues for their failures to acknowledge gender, class or ethnicity in their research. (I got the pleasing impression that Shirin is a thorn in the side of many in her department. I adored her.) Their lapses, combined with the setting, the language, the presentation of the academics as experts, the emphasis on top-down transmission of knowledge: all struck me as traditionally masculine/patriarchal ways of interacting and thinking about the world.

The afternoon brought more women's voices, and shifts in the presentation styles, but also a realisation: that I'd encountered several of the ideas under discussion before, in less formal settings, in more colloquial language, and more conversational relationships. Those encounters had happened in the context of theatre: where I'd felt more engaged, more challenged, more inspired and more equal. In the days following this_is_tomorrow, I thought a lot about the different places academics and artists occupy in British culture. I thought about the similarities between them as groups: both devote time to research, and are rigorous in how they present their thinking about the world to a particular audience. And I thought about the differences in how their perceived: academia as a site of intellectual debate and power; theatre as a place of “entertainment” where attempts to advocate for its ability to inspire civic literacy or mass intellectualism are easily repudiated as variations on the dreaded theme of “theatre is educational” or “theatre is good for you”. A part of me felt affronted that artists aren't already celebrated as public intellectuals, the people who do our best thinking about the world.

Writing this, I recognise an element of defensiveness, another strand of the anti-intellectual reflex that Lazarus keeps butting against. I am part of that problem. There was an acute reminder from Lazarus of the other, pejorative, meaning of the word academic: irrelevant. When the academics in the room ask for help from the artists, it's in plaintive tone: they want their research to reach more people, not out of a desire for self-aggrandisement or to push Warwick up the university league tables, but because they genuinely believe the wider population should be thinking about drones, and public memorials, and alternatives to capitalism, because these things affect how we see ourselves and govern how we live.

Two incidents particularly struck me at this_is_tomorrow. Madeleine Fagan is researching “the implications of disastrous and catastrophic narratives of climate change”, focusing in particular on apocalyptic films and books and thinking about the ways in which they mould the ethics governing political policy on climate change. There was something lovely about the way Chrises Haydon and Thorpe started throwing zombie film titles at her to build on the ideas she's already developed. (I was much less generous, and sat there silently seething that she apparently hasn't read Rebecca Solnit on the subject.) Later, Trevor McCrisken spoke about “the seductive nature of drone warfare”, and broke off in the middle of his presentation to lean towards Haydon to say that his thinking on drones had been transformed by the Gate production of George Brant's play Grounded, which Haydon directed and which focuses on a drone pilot's slow mental breakdown. Being completely honest, both incidents fuelled my mounting resentment at the perceived intellectual superiority of academics. Looking back, I recognise how much scope there is for exchange, conversation and a sharing of expertise between academics and artists – a scope this_is_tomorrow is built upon.

I thought about Madeleine the day after attending this_is_tomorrow when I watched the Zinnie Harris play How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court, a dystopian vision of European collapse. I also thought back to the theatre club discussion Dialogue had hosted for Mr Burns at the Almeida, where some brilliant people talked about their own research into apocalyptic narratives, and the difference between those constructed by men – which basically amount to “only a hero can save us!” – and those generated by women, which hope instead for community transformation. Harris is female, but her play felt like a masculine presentation of disaster to me, in its inexorable subjugation of its female main character, and in the relentless selfishness of almost everyone she encounters. So much of what I was resisting at this_is_tomorrow was the sensation that the very way humanity thinks is defined by male thought and male ideas, that it's impossible to break out of that because our very language was shaped by men from an agenda that was essentially racist and misogynist. And the question that plagues me now is whether theatre is defined by male thought and language too, and I'm so entrenched in it I just don't see it.

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