I have a vested interest.

I keep hearing (from people who really should know better) that women in academia don’t have to put up with the same kind of sexism as in the rest of society. This. Is. Rubbish.

Sexism in society is rife (in fact, as I wrote recently, men’s violence against women is at epidemic levels), and that is reflected in academic contexts too – academia is a part of society! This eloquent blog posting explains that, and makes the connection very clear.

As the author says: “I have a vested interest in convincing you that sexism and misogyny are real, because they are.”

Tenure, She Wrote

In the fourth grade, I was obsessed with marine science and sonar technology, and I’d spend Saturday afternoons watching The Hunt for Red October instead of Saved by the Bell. That summer, I toured a Navy sub in dry dock– my first time! — and I asked the officer leading the tour when we’d be going to the sonar room. “Sorry, kid. It’s classified,” he said. Masking my disappointment, I replied that it was okay, because I was going to be a sonar technician when I grew up, and I could wait until then. “But they don’t let girls on subs,” was the officer’s surprised reply, as he looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns. When I asked why not, he told me I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a sub with a bunch of smelly guys anyway. My “Then…why aren’t there submarines for just girls?” got no reply.

So, I have a vested…

View original post 812 more words

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Duncan Macpherson lecture, 10.3.15

Unfortunately I cannot get to this, but it will be well-worth attending, as Duncan Macpherson is a good speaker and knew Michael Prior very well:

Remembering Michael Prior: Palestinian Rights, the Bible, Zionism and Colonialism A Lecture by Dr Duncan Macpherson

Michael Prior

Michael Prior

Father Michael Prior was a priest of the Vincentian Congregation, Professor of Biblical Theology at Saint Mary’s College (now Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham), liberation theologian and a well-known and frequently controversial figure in the Catholic Church in Britain.

2014 marked the tenth anniversary of Michael’s death. A memorial volume, A Living Stone: Selected Essays and Addresses, Michael Prior CM, was published in 2006 and reissued in paperback also in 2014. This anniversary has been marked by a further volume: Remembering Michael Prior Ten Years On: Selected Essays and Addresses. Both books contain examples of his writings and lectures not otherwise generally available. The launch of this volume in Scotland will be marked by a lecture to be held in the ground floor seminar room at 4 Professor Square in the University of Glasgow at 5.00pm on Tuesday 10th of March – all welcome.  A poster is available here.

I was privileged to be invited to speak on The Bible and Colonialism: a moral critique at a memorial conference for Michael Prior last year, and my lecture is to be published in this year’s Living Stones Yearbook.

Commenting on ISIS

On another blog, I wrote a short piece about ISIS that might be of interest:

Why Graham Wood’s ISIS article needs correcting.

Comments are open on the blog page (but closed here).

The xenophobia at the heart of the UK affects everything, including our university system

Today I read a rather brilliant article about the American justice system by Albert Burneko: The American Justice System Is Not Broken.  Along the same lines, I would argue that neither, of course, is our immigration system in the UK broken, even though some claim it is: yes, it discriminates on the basis of race, but that is entirely deliberate. Xenophobia is an integral part of the system.  All the major Westminster parties are racist in this way: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, and the opposition Labour party (see, for example, this interesting comment from the Spectator, which I, of course, read differently to the way they do!). The parties’ pandering to UKIP probably makes this worse, but we should be clear that none of the parties can legitimately use that as an excuse: they all espoused, and when in government operated, racist policies long before UKIP was in any way a significant force.

Xenophobia and racism, of course, permeate our society, as does discrimination on the basis of class, gender, disability, age and so on. Our political parties reflect that, but they also create it: this is a dialectical relationship, as the parties escalate their racism in order to (as they see it) appeal to more voters, who are presumed to be racists too (incidentally, realising this is what the parties think of us, the voters, leads to interesting thoughts… but that’s for another time, maybe!).

I see this all the time in the context of our country’s university system, and thought it might be interesting to give some examples and consequences. After all, especially at postgraduate level, our universities attract students from around the world, and some of our most able students are those who have gone to great lengths and endured enormous financial and emotional pressures to study here: often they are away from their families and friends for years at a time, with relatively little money, in a strange environment (and therefore with few, if any, support networks, at least to begin with) – and yet often they still produce brilliant work.  I don’t wish to devalue the achievements of UK students, but to produce excellent research under such circumstances does require additional effort and personal resolve.  EU students have it hard compared to UK students (language, unfamiliar context etc.), but non-EU students face even more hurdles – at least EU students have the right to come here and study without visa complications.

That is where, for non-EU students, the xenophobia and racism that permeates our society becomes immediately apparent.  Most non-EU students come here under the Tier 4 visa system, and universities generally have the right to enable students to come here under that scheme.  But if not, the process is complex.  It is also costly: £310 plus £310 for each dependant (so if you are careless enough to have a partner and children before studying and are unreasonable enough to want them to come with you, that gets very expensive!).

Now, let’s presume you have stumped up the money for the visa. Next you have to pay the university fees. This is the first time we see the racism that our political parties espouse in their policies reflected beyond the government.  I don’t think most people realise this, but fees for students in the EU and outwith the EU are different.  For example, if you want to do a PhD with me (yes, please do enquire!), my university charges the following at the moment (and some universities charge more):

EU students (incl. UK)
Non-EU students Mode of study
£3,996 £12,000 Full time
£1,998 £6,000 Part time

Oh, and if you’re here on a Tier 4 visa, you can’t do your PhD part-time, so forget the £6,000 option.  Of course, being a full-time student means you might struggle, for example, to do a part-time job on a supermarket checkout to help pay for your fees and living costs, especially if English is not your first language and you need all the hours in the day to read and understand complex source material or theoretical texts for your research. That’s just tough: be rich, or struggle (see how neatly class is intertwined with the racism here?).

If you need to leave the UK, perhaps for research fieldwork, or to visit your family, getting back into the UK is not necessarily straightforward.  An American PhD student of mine was stopped at Heathrow and nearly not allowed back into the UK, despite having the appropriate student visa – this is just ‘simple’ xenophobia! The immigration official at first pretended not to believe she was returning to study, with the conversation at one stage moving to comments on how pretty she was, and that she was surely just trying to get back into the UK to marry a boyfriend and stay here (all this in the fevered imagination of the border agency person – there was no boyfriend, and she was coming back to meet her supervisors and carry on her study).  That conversation could have been very different had she not been white and not been from the USA, and I know of other students who have been harassed and delayed at airports despite having the right student visa.  If they already have the right visa, they should be allowed straight through the airport immigration checks, rather than face arbitrary harassment.

Let’s presume that you complete your studies on time and graduate – congratulations, that’s a great achievement, and you, your family, and your supervisors should all be incredibly proud! Now, let’s presume that you didn’t just spend your time in a library, but maybe met a local and fell in love! That’s wonderful, and then, maybe with a year or two still to go on your student visa, you get married – congratulations again, that’s lovely, and everyone will be very happy for the two of you and wish you well for your married life together.  That is how it should be.  Unless, of course, you happen to be in the situation of one of our students a couple of years ago: as I recall it, her new husband had a daughter from a previous relationship and lived near to her and the child’s mother so he could see his daughter regularly.  He had sustained some kind of injury at work, and could now only work part-time, thereby automatically lowering his annual salary.  Despite this, the newly-married couple had more than enough money for their needs, and lived quite happily together – until she graduated and her visa ran out.  The UK government pretends to value families (the odious Iain Duncan Smith has recently even introduced a ‘family test’ for new laws), but the reality is that they don’t care about families unless they are wealthy (again, this is where class and xenophobia are linked). Our former student could only stay with her husband if between them they had a certain level of household income, otherwise she had to leave.  No amount of protestation about his situation and the lack of job opportunities for her in a difficult economic climate made any difference: she eventually had to return to America.  Her husband then had a choice to make: did he move to America with his wife (which he could do automatically, being married to an American citizen: their laws appear to be less inhuman in this regard), or did he stay in Scotland so that he could see his young daughter regularly? It’s an impossible decision to make. So much for our government pretending to support families.

But let’s forget about that crazy little thing called love, and presume you just want to stay in the country and work here, having made friends, felt welcomed by the people around you, and are happy in the town you are in.  You might struggle to get an appropriate academic job (it is extremely difficult: “only 19 per cent of UK PhD holders were in higher education research roles three and a half years after getting their doctorate”), but you might be in perfectly decent work, even if it doesn’t pay you that much. High pay, such as academics get, is not necessarily what all want – it’s very nice, certainly, but security, purpose and so on are rewarding for many, and a lot of jobs offer that.  But doing something like this is basically impossible.  Oh yes, the government will pretend it isn’t, but I have seen post-PhD students from non-EU countries try to secure employment with an income level that will satisfy the requirements of the UK government, and in most circumstances it simply can’t be done (unless you’re on a very narrow list of desired professions), especially not for people with humanities backgrounds.

There are exceptions, of course, where certain kinds of visas exist that allow work to be done by specialists without regard to income levels, but it requires a level of commitment from institutions like universities that, understaffed as most administrative departments are, is an incredible stretch.  Too often, there is too much expected of such people, and as they seek to ensure they do things properly, urgency and deadlines slip, and what seems like a perfectly simple thing to do is made more complex to the point where the human objective – helping someone stay in the country who can offer something helpful and useful to our society and where they might be happy – is lost.  Overstretched people often end up having to do things that effectively dehumanise situations, and this is neither their fault nor their moral failing.  Rather, it is that the whole immigration system is so deliberately complex and the penalties for institutions that fail to observe them so severe, that folk are terrified of failing to comply (the London Metropolitan University crisis from 2012 is etched into the mind of every university recruitment and personnel director in the country, I’m sure).

Our government’s policies are constructed in such a way that we don’t see the xenophobia and racism in our institutions unless we actually look for it, but all of our public life is infected by this it. The examples I have given point in part to the process whereby xenophobia and racism is embedded in our institutions – it’s not that people who work in our institutions are xenophobic or racist (well, some might be, but I’m arguing they are not necessarily so and I would never presume they are unless I had evidence to the contrary). People in our institutions have to come to decisions that reflect the principles laid down by the government – and these principles are the problem, reflecting values and positions the parties think we, the voters, want them to embody. We urgently need to disabuse our politicians of these views and find a way to exercise real control over our parties and government in order to address these problems.  Every election offers that opportunity, and I encourage support for parties that explicitly don’t pursue racism and xenophobia but seek to undo the damage the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties have done to our public life (I think this basically means the Scottish or English and Welsh Greens, the Scottish Socialists, the Scottish Nationalists, and Plaid Cymru… any more?).

Industrial action – information for students

As many of you will be aware, the academics’ union, UCU, is in dispute with the employers over the proposed wrecking (in my view) of the USS pension scheme that we are part of, and which is run by the employers and the union.  Our local branch of the UCU here at Stirling is participating in the dispute.

The dispute has dragged on for a while, and the employers are refusing to negotiate seriously over these issues.  More details can be found on the UCU Defend USS website.  Most immediately there is to be a marking boycott beginning on Thursday 6. November 2014.  This is likely to affect you in various ways in many of your courses, and I would urge you to read my union’s briefing written for students.

Academics do not take industrial action that impacts negatively upon students lightly, and indeed a marking boycott may seem like a terrible inconvenience to you.  However, I would urge you to support your lecturers across the university who are participating in the boycott – they are fighting for rights that will eventually (once you leave university) also affect you.  Furthermore, facing the loss of substantial sums of money (in all likelihood thousands of pounds a year upon retirement) is a hindrance for recruiting and keeping engaged and enthusiastic academics: the likelihood of good staff leaving Stirling University increases if pensions become worse and worse, as they will seek employment at institutions with better provision.  Most of us don’t do this for the money (the majority of staff don’t earn quite that much!), but the pension provision hitherto has been pretty good for most staff.  We are fighting for that to be maintained, and I hope that all the staff participating in the boycott can look forward to your support.

Additions: 6.11.14

These further items that may be of interest…

There is an eloquent explanation of why UCU is pursuing this action on J.P.E. Harper-Scott’s blog (although it includes reference to the English fees system that is less relevant here in Scotland).

The National Union of Students has produced a briefing that you can find here.

The UCU has produced a suggested letter for staff to students that I reproduce below, with the relevant email for our University Principal added:

Dear student,

As you will know, due to industrial action starting this Thursday, November 6, your lecturers will not be setting or marking any assessed work or examinations until the dispute with university employers over staff pensions is resolved. I will be carrying out all other duties as normal – teaching classes, giving lectures, seminars, practical classes, supervisions – so your teaching will not be affected.

I understand that you will be concerned about the impact this is likely to have on your studies and that’s why I’m writing to explain what is happening and why.

Lecturers have decided to take this action because of proposed changes to the university pension scheme, USS, which will mean significantly reduced benefits, in some cases as much as £12,000 a year. We are angry that the employers are seeking to end pension schemes that were signed up to in good faith by staff, so our trade union, the University and College Union (UCU) held a ballot to decide what to do. 80% of those who voted were in favour of taking action and there is clear support across pre-1992 universities for the boycott.

This is not a decision I have taken lightly and the last thing lecturers want is to damage your education, but unfortunately we are now left with no other option but to take this stand to protect our right to a fair and decent pension. This action is also about being able to attract and retain the best staff but if the proposed changes go ahead, staff in post-92 universities will have much more favourable pension schemes and many of the best lecturers may well be attracted to work there instead.

The cuts to our pensions are unfair but they are also unnecessary. The projections of a deficit are strongly contested by UCU’s financial experts who advise that the scheme is actually in very good financial health. Since 2011 the pension fund’s investments have grown by £8bn and the returns on these investments have outperformed average earnings and inflation.

Lecturers and support staff all want to avoid disruption to your education and our union, UCU, is trying to negotiate with the university employers to ensure a fair pension but the quickest way to end this dispute is for the pension scheme managers and the employers to sit down and negotiate, rather than just imposing their own proposals unilaterally.

I’m asking for your support in this action. We believe that if student bodies throughout the country make their opinions known to vice-chancellors, there is a good chance that the employers will moderate their position. Please email Prof. Gerry McCormac (University Principal) calling on him to press the national negotiators to produce a fair and sustainable proposal.

How to reduce the likelihood of dying: be a woman in Scotland

Women in Scotland don’t die. Well, some do, but not at the same rate as men. This means I’m doomed, because men in Scotland are nearly three times more likely to die than women – those are bad odds! I can prove this with statistics, as I’ll show below. However, before I get to that, there are two things I don’t really understand, given that girl and boy babies are born in pretty much equal numbers:

  1. if fewer women die, there should be lots more women in Scotland than men, but I don’t really detect that much of a disparity in numbers;
  2. also, there should be an awful lot of very elderly women in Scotland, but there really don’t seem to be that many (but perhaps my scepticism about TV advertising is misplaced – maybe all these anti-aging creams really DO work! But still, there should then be lots of old-but-young-looking women about, and there don’t appear to be, as noted in point 1).

Anyway… by now you may be asking how I know that fewer women die in Scotland. It’s really very simple: for the entire month of June I’ve been reading the obituaries in the printed version of The Herald. For a while I had a sense that there seemed to be lots of men recorded but very few women, so for the entire month June I compiled figures from the obituaries. These statistics show that men die at a much higher rate than women, and presuming the order in which they appear on the page suggests something about their relative importance, I can also deduce that less important women die more infrequently – this obviously means not only should you be a woman if you want to live longer, but you should be an obscure woman.

– o – o – o – o – o – o – o –

Silliness aside: it is obvious to most of us that the mainstream media is sexist: we often think of the tabloids in this regard, but the broadsheet press is also sexist, even if it doesn’t use naked women as a primary selling point. Compiling obituary information is a clear marker of that: these pages record the passing of significant people, and although I have never heard of many of them (because they lived and worked in fields far removed from my own interests), I find obituaries interesting.

Here is the data I collected:

DAY DATE MEN WOMEN NAME AND ORDER
M 2.6. 1 1 Maitland Mackie
Mary Soames
T 3.6. 1 1 Hilda D Spear
Michael Schmidt
W 4.6. 3 0 Duncan MacLean
John Weir Cook
Matthew Saad Muhammad
Th 5.6. 3 0 Walter Yellowlees
Malcolm MacDonald
Herb Jeffries
F 6.6. 2 1 Matthew K Dickie
Dorothy Robertson
Carl Boehm
S 7.6. 1 2 Jean Petrie
Georgina Scott Sutherland
Alexander Shulgin
M 9.6. 3 0 Harry Hyde
Chester Nez
Zbigniew Pietrzykowski
T 10.6. 1 0 Rik Mayall
W 11.6. 2 0 Max Wallace
Eldon Griffiths
Th 12.6. 1 1 David Kynd Brown
Yuri Kochiyama
F 13.6. 0 2 Jane Gray
Barbara Murray
S 14.6. 2 1 David MacLennan
Rolando Ugolini
M 16.6. 2 1 Duncan Fenton
Eric Hill
Anne Donnan
T 17.6. 2 0 Donald Macaulay
Sam Kelly
W 18.6. 2 0 Jim Keays
Casey Kasem
Th 19.6. 2 1 Charles Letts
Kevin Elyot
Elaine Gerber
F 20.6. 0 1 Rhea Martin
S 21.6. 3 0 Phil Mason
Gerry Goffin
Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos
M 23.6. 2 1 Gerry Conlon
Francis Matthews
Ruby Dee
T 24.6. 2 0 Ian Hughes
Jimmy Scot
W 25.6. 2 0 Harry Wylie
Felix Dennis
Th 26.6. 2 1 David Taylor
Eli Wallach
Martha Hyer
F 27.6. 3 0 Peter Mallan
Tommy Craig
Phil Mason
S 28.6. 2 1 Joan Macintosh
Horace Silver
Patsy Byrne
M 30.6. 2 1 Molly Wood
Bobby Womack
Terry Richards
Totals: 46 16 (that’s 2.875 times as many men as women!)

So we can see that on numerous occasions not a single woman was deemed worthy of an obituary in the Herald (only on two occasions did this happen with insufficient numbers of significant men dying). There’s also a pattern where women more often appear as the last person in the list, preceded by one or two men. And so on… We can see very clearly that men predominate in the obituaries in every way, indicating that men’s lives are interesting and worthy of our attention, whilst women’s lives are less so – all of this is a serious problem that permeates our thinking.

I am not, of course, making these comments to in any way mock the deceased, but simply to point out that what seemed like a pattern to me in the months prior to June is a reality, based on this month’s obituaries.  How we mark those who have died and celebrate what they have given our society is tremendously important – and it’s important that the contributions of men AND women are recorded and celebrated.

Now, about race…

Students: this is how to REALLY annoy your lecturers!

Lecturers try, they honestly do.  To make life easier for students, I mean, whilst still ensuring students do the work required to understand the subject.  And yet sometimes, questions are asked that are so irritating, that it makes us want to scream.

If you’re a lecturer, you’ll recognise some or all of these, I’m sure (add more in the comments if you like!).  If you’re a student, then please, don’t ask these things: university management causes us quite enough stress without you adding to it by asking questions like these…

When is the essay due?

All the information about the essay is in the course handbook.

How long should the essay be?

Look in the course handbook…

What referencing system should I be using?

Grrr… have you thought of looking in the course handbook?

Where should I hand the essay in?

LOOK IN THE ******* COURSE HANDBOOK!!!! (ok, so I never swear at students, but sometimes, honestly…)

I don’t have a copy of the course handbook.

You can download it from the course website (On a good day I won’t even ask how you got halfway through my course without a course handbook).

What should I read for my essay?

What have you read so far?

Err… I was hoping you’d tell me what to read.

The book chapter you asked us to read isn’t about the topic.

What makes you say that?  She’s a world-renowned scholar on precisely this topic and her book is all about this…

The chapter title doesn’t mention the topic.

That article you made us read for next week’s class – is there a summary of what he says online somewhere?

Err, no…

It’s just that, well, you know, it’s quite complicated…

(As I stifle the urge to bang my head against the wall).

I am doing next week’s seminar presentation on this topic.  Where can I find more reading?

The library…?

Where’s the library?

(Unbelievable it may be, but I have been asked this by a second year student – I did go and look at his university record after this, and it was evident by his grades in various courses that he really had not found the library…)

You say this happened, but I read an article in the newspaper last week that said it wasn’t like that at all.

What newspaper was this?

The Daily Mail.

[I laugh:] That’s not a newspaper…

Can I cite the Daily Mail in my essay?

Only if you wash afterwards.

Eh…?

[Not really a question, but I don’t need to hear this one again.
I was giving a lecture from 14:00-15:00.  A student stumbled in at 14:30 and muttered:
]

Sorry I’m late, I had a rough night last night.

I’ve realised the seminar presentation I signed up for at the beginning of the semester, well, I can’t do it next week as it’s my new boyfriend’s birthday the day before.  Can I switch to the following week?

No.

I won’t be at the lecture next Tuesday because my girlfriend is visiting me for a few days.  Can I come and see you in your office hours the following week and you can run through the lecture with me again?

No.

But I want to write the essay question on that topic.

Good, and the answer is still ‘no’…

There’s too much reading on your course, so I’ve decided to switch to History.

Err… well, good luck with that! (I’m hoping very much that the first year history course has to read the entire works of Eric Hobsbawm – oh, and I’m feeling immense pity for whoever convenes the first year history course!)

[Monday morning conversation:]

When do we get our essays back?

When I’ve marked them...

But the due date was Friday, and so I just thought…

… what, that I don’t have a weekend?!

I could go on.  I have been asked all of these questions in the past – and this is simply a random sample of the more memorable ones.  I assure you I would quite happily go through life never being asked them again…

Not Everything is Awesome – The Lego Movie and Marx, race, and gender

Last week my son and I went to see The Lego Movie – he’s only 18, so I have an excuse! 😉

It is an enjoyable film – we laughed through much of it, and the various references to other films and cultural elements are sophisticated and well done.  The central story – that creative play is better and more important than the uniformity of business – is elegantly told.  The film ends on a slightly mushy but emotional high that cheered the children and us.

And yet… and yet… this is a film that makes me uneasy.  Primarily this is because of the (ironic) self-referential criticism of capitalist uniformity being promoted – by a huge capitalist corporation.  The number of Lego mini-figures manufactured over the years alone apparently numbers several billion – and the number of plastic bricks they’ve made will no doubt exceed that several times over.  The amount of oil and other natural resources that have been used to create this much plastic is probably impossible to even quantify.  Lego bricks may be small, and the mini-figures rather cute, but the company behind them is neither: it is a global capitalist enterprise, and the bricks it sells are what creates money for them, through the classic form of creating surplus-value from their labour force.  It may be a great toy, and our household has contributed substantially to the profit of the Lego corporation over the years, but it is still a capitalist enterprise with all the problems that entails.  David Harvey shows how Marx explains the various ways in which capitalists excuse and explain what they do in order to make profits from their workforce, and then notes:

Capitalists may… be frugal and abstain, and they may also sometimes exhibit a benevolent attitude toward their workers… Marx’s point is that capitalists could not possibly sustain the whole system by appeals to virtue, morality or benevolence, that the individual behaviour of capitalists, varying from benevolence to vicious greed, is irrelevant to what capitalists must be in order to be capitalists, which is, quite simply, to procure surplus-value.  Furthermore, their role is defined… by “coercive laws of competition,” which push all capitalists to behave in similar fashion no matter whether they are good people or proverbial capitalist pigs. (A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso, 2010, p123)

To pretend that Lego is a “good” capitalist corporation (or even to pretend that it is not a capitalist corporation at all, but just a manufacturer of good quality toys) is to ignore the nature of what it seeks to do – make money for its owners, which it just so happens to do by making little plastic bricks.  The message of the film – that imagination and creative play should triumph over business uniformity – can legitimately be seen as capitalism making its excuses and justifications for the way in which the corporation operates (relying, for example, upon the global oil industry for their product), as Harvey explains using Marx.

Dipesh Chakrabarty also uses Marx to argue that there are two forms of capital’s engagement: the first he calls History 1, which is capital’s attempt to subsume everything into itself to form one dominant narrative of history.  It is counteracted by multiple forms of subversion and resistance that he calls History 2 (or Histories 2, or History 2s etc.), which History 1 is seeking constantly to incorporate into itself and therefore nullify.  To think that Lego is in some way promoting a form of History 2 (or its variants), as the film seeks to suggest, is to mistake the power, adaptability and inventiveness of capital as exemplified by History 1 (see Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000/2007).

The normative understandings of race and gender that the film uses help to show this.

Virtually all of the characters are the uniform yellow of the classical Lego mini-figures.  The only exception I can recall comes when Lando appears: a Star Wars character.  Yellow is used for pretty much all non-licensed Lego mini-figures, whereas licensed figures (e.g. in the Star Wars and Harry Potter sets) have a more ‘natural’ skin tone that is supposed to be similar to that of the ‘real’ characters.  This might suggest that the yellow faces are not really race-oriented, but to my mind, this simply makes the appearance of one single black character stand out all the more – there is no racial diversity in Lego’s world (unless there is a connection to an external source).  In terms of race there is no History 2 here. (For more on this, see e.g. the classic text by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, 1967.)

As for gender questions, there are two key elements I want to pick up on.  The first is the classic Lego pattern of pinks and pastels for many of the ‘girl characters’ such as Unikitty (one of the only named leading girls apart from Wyldstyle/Lucy – see below): when the leads move into these coloured areas, the ‘boy characters’ tend to react uncomfortably and seek to return to the stronger primary coloured areas: a classic portrayal of girls’ and boys’ Lego worlds as marketed by Lego for decades now.  Gender is ‘performed’ in classic style here (see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge: 1990).

Secondly, whilst there is a strong female lead character in Wyldstyle/Lucy, who is generally shown to be more competent than the supposed (anti-?) hero, Emmet, she generally plays second-fiddle to strong male leads, whether Vitruvius, Batman (her boyfriend, though she is shown to be gradually falling in love with Emmet as the film progresses), or Emmet himself.  Then, in the closing scenes, Batman quite literally hands her over to Emmet, saying he (Emmet) deserves her more: Wyldstyle/Lucy becomes piece of property, a trophy, passed on from one man to another.  Nothing is allowed to disrupt the heteronormative patriarchal patterns of society – there is certainly no female agency allowed to disrupt male domination.  As with race, History 1 provides the normative understanding in gender terms.

So The Lego Movie offers a form of engagement with creative play in rebellion against the dominance of big business – within strictly defined limits that do not threaten the interests of capital in any meaningful way.  “Everything is Awesome” as the corporate song in the film has it – but not if you seek any kind of History 2 in relation to race or gender diversity.  Doing so might lead to questioning the dominant structure of white, male society and from there it’s just a short step to questioning the dominance of capital itself – and we can’t be having that now, can we?

Challenging Everyday Sexism

In connection with the launch of the new Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies that I am several others are involved in, there is to be a day of talks, workshops and debate about challenging sexism in public and private life.

The event is free (though you do need to register as numbers are limited), and is open to students and staff at Stirling University, and anyone else who wishes to attend.

The programme has a number of sessions:

  • Laura Bates (founder of Everyday Sexism Project) and Kezia Dugdale MSP on ‘Challenging Everyday Sexism’
  • Workshops on challenging street harassment, porn culture, men challenging men, sexual violence prevention education
  • Gail Dines (author of Pornland) on ‘Sex(ism), Identity and Intimacy in a Porn Culture’

The detailed programme and registration form is available to download here.

Using works in translation – Foucault and de Beauvoir

I have been re-reading Foucault recently, in English translation.  My French is not up to reading the original – sadly… oh if only I’d paid more attention in school! (Perhaps I should add that my school French teacher had a great talent for putting almost everyone off learning anything, so perhaps I can just blame her?!  I can get by reading French if I need to, but complex texts of any great length are problematic.)  In any case, I am sure I’m not alone in finding some of Foucault’s work difficult in terms of language, and so I was interested to see a tweet this morning from Teemu Taira linking to a fascinating article analysing problems with the the translation of Discipline and Punish, and arguing for a new translation to be undertaken: Beyond Discipline and Punish: Is it time for a new translation of Foucault’s Surveiller et punir?

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was recently re-translated, though such efforts are not always straightforward, as Toril Moi shows in this scathing review (as usual with the LRB, it is worth reading the comments).  I first read de Beauvoir’s text as Das andere Geschlecht – i.e. in German translation – and then reading the old English translation a few years later helped me understand the text further.  This is a rather time-consuming process, however, and certainly not to be recommended as a general strategy for reading translated works!

Despite the fact that I cannot analyse the existing translations of Foucault’s work in the way that Stuart Elden has done, his call for new translations is to be supported: it is only natural that translations age and need to be revisited (just look at how many translations of the Bible there have been!), and it is a mark of Foucault’s enduring significance that the need for this is immediately apparent from Elden’s blog posting.  I look forward to the publishers taking this on – I’m sure I would not be alone in wanting to buy new editions of his work if the translation proved to be better, and perhaps some of the decisions taken about the re-translation of The Second Sex might impact upon a revisiting of Foucault’s work.