Category Archives: Student work

On the ‘ridiculous’

There are moments in teaching when students elucidate a point more clearly and precisely than the teacher can. There are moments of self-discovery when everyone in the room is not merely learning, but reorienting their very perspective on the world, asking new questions in new ways. One such moment happened yesterday in my lecture on ‘Capitalism and Climate Change’. The class were discussing Timothy Mitchell’s outstanding political critique of our fossil fuel-based social order, Carbon Democracy. We were working in groups and interrogating our understanding of what Mitchell is trying to say about what is at stake politically in oil-fuelled societies. In effect Mitchell is arguing (I believe) that oil dependent societies came about as a means of undercutting the power of organised labour and of exercising monopoly power in the global market, and that the particular materiality of oil was critical to this project. It is an important argument, if one that I am not wholly convinced by, tainted, as I feel it is, by a certain vulgar materialism.

Nonetheless, there was clearly great interest amongst the group in Mitchell’s perspective. During the discussion three different groups, without prompting, used the same word to describe their understanding of what Mitchell was getting at: ‘ridiculous.’ It is an intriguing word, and the fact that they all used the same term was equally compelling. Something had struck a chord. Something was being seen here for the first time, simultaneously, by a number of people in the group. It was such a curious ‘teachable moment’ that I immediately chose to pursue the theme. Why had they used that word? What did they mean ridiculous? For one group, the notion Mitchell explores that oil companies might undermine their own production in order to push up market prices for their product just made no sense. It was clearly irrational economically and socially; for another, looking at Jevons’ Paradox, the fact that supply and demand might act to turn energy efficiency into the perfect system for the exhaustion of fossil fuels, yet without some kind of conservationist response, was just as perplexing. For others the political effects of using oil to undermine democratic power was disturbing and even counter-intuitive.

It was one of those moments when the assumptions that we have about how the world should be come into open conflict with how it actually is. It was a point where competing rationalities, common sense versus good sense, became apparent. It appeared in a feeling shared by the group in a common point of confusion. I offered some comments on what it might mean to even state that such phenomena were ridiculous when, from the capitalist perspective, they might be perfectly rational, and even beneficial. One student commented that they felt they were being ‘pushed to the left’ by it all, but, as I pointed out, no-one had actually done any pushing at all. The experience was valuable precisely because it was so spontaneous. There was no question of it coming from some pre-existing political agenda of my own; it came from the sense or feeling of my students, who no doubt have a diverse range of political perspectives of their own. Yet this situation had created some kind of a feeling in common. Something can’t be right with a society organised on such irrational lines, can it?

We left the matter there, unreconciled. I felt that we had made such a common leap of self-understanding it was important to leave any question of the conclusions to be drawn for another moment. We had all shared an insight into ourselves, and for the moment that was enough.

On Public Libraries

By Andrea Bonfanti

In our society, the term public has lost a lot of its potential positive meaning. Public should be of everyone as needed, without the burden of single custody. However, the current system of value is one of obsessive possession rather than actual usefulness. If we were to quote Marx, the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” does not apply anymore because, it seems, people do not need, people want. For this reason, public libraries are often depicted as obsolete buildings with inefficient staff and dusty books. This short essay aims to show that public libraries are in fact beneficial spaces to our contemporary society for two reasons. First, these public institutions represent a counter-space to capitalist production due to the opportunity they offer: sharing goods. Second, public libraries are places for research of personal interests, therefore individual achievement, and for the production of new and common knowledge. In that, they oppose the capitalist ideology, which based on an illusionary principle of individualism (alienation).

Libraries have played a major role in humans’ societies since ancient times. The destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria was felt by its contemporaries as a major loss for the whole of humanity. Later, what is now called “The Renaissance” sparkled when a building-less library, made out of thousands of books and manuscripts, was fled from the Byzantine Empire into Western Europe after the “fall of Constantinople”, in 1453. More recently, Lenin, in a short work titled ‘What can be done for public education’, compared sarcastically the state of American libraries, with millions of books and open access to virtually anyone, to that of Russian libraries or, rather, their quasi-total absence. Libraries then, have always been a point of reference for society.
Public libraries’ role as places of sharable knowledge is of primary importance in opposing to capitalist system of production. In order to survive, capitalism needs a market in a constant state of hunger for new commodities. In this viscous circle, on one side capitalism production fills the market with a huge variety of constant new products while the market, on the other side, sustains capitalism through profit. The maintenance of this market has terrible effects, such as labourers’ exploitation, dramatic climate changes and constant humans’ alienation. Public libraries hit the very core of capitalist production, namely the market, because they stimulate the active principle of sharing goods, knowledge, and consequently of non-production. Individuals use the product for the duration of their need and, once they are done with it, put it back in the circle, for the benefit of others. The market request of a product is then weakened, if not cancelled completely. These institutions’ service to share goods puts on the spot how unnecessary the capitalist production actually is and weakens its frantic race. More than that, libraries also represent a place where individuals can grow personal passions.

Public libraries are places for the growth of individuals and for the sequential production of new and, possibly common, knowledge. The current capitalist ideological system spreads the illusionary idea that capitalist production can provide personal fulfilment through a variety of individualised commodities. In reality however, individuals become but mere consumers of whatever product is offered within a limited range of possible choices. We then find ourselves arbitrarily lost in choices such as in which colour to buy our new cell-phone or tablet. We need to have “our music”, “our mac” and “our kindle” when studying, travelling, living. Surrounded by such an abundance of commodities we do not question, for example, when, why or how that certain product had already become a need for us. Without engaging here with the difference between technology for the common good and capitalist technology, it is nevertheless important to pay attention on how individuals lose their own individuality and the response that public libraries offer. In this respect, these public institutions offer the same product as the market, knowledge, but in a sharable way. Through libraries individuals can research topics of personal interest and conduct private research without the necessity to purchase goods and, therefore, dwelling outside the capitalist ideology of the “must be mine”. Furthermore, public libraries, because they are public and based on the principle of common use, stimulate the free exchange of ideas. They then become forums for discussion and for the production of communal and new knowledge for the improvement of common conditions.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to engage primarily with the importance of public libraries in an anti-capitalist approach to knowledge. These institutions have been a communal good since the ancient times, from ancient Egypt to modern times. In our era, an epoch characterised by capitalist system of production and ideology, public libraries are important more than ever before. They represent a challenge to capitalism because they undermine the market request and consequently, the production itself. They also offer a genuine approach towards learning without the addiction of possession- the “must be mine” ideology. Furthermore, due to their public feature, these institutions stimulate communal discussion and knowledge production.

History and Climate Change: The Learning Experience

Increasingly important within the discourse of the University is the need, with rising fees, to provide value for money. Yet how does such an institution go about providing ‘value’ in the first place? In an environment where the consumers (students) come from a variety of different backgrounds (culturally, personally and intellectually) ‘value’ becomes extremely difficult to define. This has however, not prevented the University in an age of increasing competition for graduate jobs articulating value along the lines of employability. As a student, I am wary of university discourse being framed in this way. The pre-emptive move to seek value in employability has the potential to reduce the amount of critical engagement with degree programmes. For subjects such as history this is potentially catastrophic. I want to argue that the Wiki project I worked on, along with two classmates, for the module ‘Past Actions Present Woes: The History of Anthropogenic Climate Change’ offers the opportunity to develop key transferable skills whilst not sacrificing engagement on a critical historical level. The Wiki project therefore offers the opportunity for the contemporary undergraduate programme to sit within universities definition of ‘value’ without losing the core of what an undergraduate degree is, in my view, all about.

Before expanding on the usefulness of the Wiki, there are some problems that need to be raised. Firstly, is the need for at least one member of the group to have a sound knowledge of IT. This might not be so problematic these days with most able undergraduates more than capable of mastering all the latest technology, I however, do not count myself amongst such company. Yet even when the basic techniques have been mastered, to really exploit the full potential of the Wiki requires an exceptionally creative mind and a lot of time, without which the finished product can appear conservative. With restrictions due to other commitments, there is simply not the time to fully explore the capabilities of the Wiki programme, especially since most of the marks come from the content rather than how it is presented.

Leaving these problems aside, our specific task placed a lot of emphasis on critical thought and the ability to bring a new perspective to a contemporary climate issue. My group decided to investigate the conception of a ‘sustainability’ discourse and the potential ideological and political imperatives that its use concealed, which we referred to as the ‘absent referent,’ a concept that we developed from our Lecturer Dr Tim Cooper. Evidence regarding the perceived lack of coal within the British Empire around the turn of the twentieth Century allowed us to investigate explicit references to sustainability. We argued that the use of ‘sustainability’ is a political move to sustain a particular way of organising society and the power relations that are embedded within. By playing on fear of societal collapse, those who control the sustainability discourse are able to reproduce their power through the legitimation of certain practices, colonial expansion being one among many. It should be plain to see how in this process how critical historical thought is developed. While given guidance, the onus is on the group to find relevant historical material and to utilise it in a critical and original way. I cannot think of a better way to develop a history undergraduate’s scholarship.

Gradually however, module programmes have begun to centre themselves around ‘transferable’ skills, often at the expense of other skills. The Wiki project in my experience does not; instead its unique nature, catered for the development of both critical and transferable skills, particularly when we were required to identify a specific audience that our project would ‘speak to’. This took learning out of the traditional lecturer-student complex because we were communicating with an independent group. We therefore had to think carefully about the language we used and how we organised our material to best fit the context we were operating within. The audience for my group’s project was the sustainability committee at Exeter University. To figure out how best to communicate to the audience, we interviewed the chair of the committee to understand their view on sustainability. It was then possible to engineer our argument towards these specific assumptions. By learning to communicate to a specific audience outside the traditional university environment of lectures and seminars, the Wiki allowed us as a group to develop a valuable transferable skill.

‘Past Actions, Present Woes’ used historically relevant material to shed light on contemporary debates and the Wiki project was the perfect way to explore this. A group task, that involved using a critical historical perspective to inform a particular audience about contemporary climate issues allowed students to develop critical scholarship as well as key transferable skills. In the ‘Wiki experience’ there are, I think, two critical components that could provide value for the current and future undergraduate. The first is the development of critical thought. Second, is the conception of a new way of learning, one that moves beyond the current lecturer-student relationship, opening up the production of knowledge and encouraging the development of new skills.

Dan Webb (2nd Year, History)

The Media and Climate Change in the 1990s

This is a summary of an undergraduate dissertation on climate change and the media in the 1990s, kindly contributed by Laura Williams, one of my students. Her work address some of the limitations of newspaper coverage in constructing the way climate change was viewed in the nineties, and concludes with some of the lessons to be considered as a result of this research. It is an excellent example of how historical knowledge can contribute to the questions of how we got where we are, and “what is to be done?”.

TC

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“I was first drawn to selecting a dissertation focusing upon climate change due to a module I took in my second year concerning Anthropogenic Climate Change. In this module we studied various ideas surrounding the development, acceptance and approaches towards Anthropogenic Climate Change and how this was reflected within society. The issue of climate change is an important topic that has relevance to many disciplines and is one that I find can be directly related to the skills and approaches utilized by historians. Climate change is a global issue with potentially global consequences; therefore it must surely be understood and appreciated in both academia and wider society. The study of climate change and the way it interacts within society is perhaps where history becomes most significant. In taking specific questions through tasks like dissertations, there presents an opportunity to explore broader issues and concerns.

The title of my dissertation is “What power relations were at stake within media representations of climate change in the period surrounding the first and second IPPC Reports, 1990-1999?”. There has been much work done on the discussion of climate change throughout the media and within newspapers in particular. Significant examples of such works that I used to initiate my research were studies by Anabella Carvalho and Maxwell T. Boykoff. However in these cases and indeed many other studies the primary focus is upon broadsheet newspapers, with the influence of the tabloid press disregarded as excessively simplified. It is upon the perceived notion of tabloid insignificance that I decided to base my research. The quality press is often focused upon due to its perceived influence upon public and climate policy, however this argument with regards to climate change is perhaps questionable. I would argue that surely public policy is dependent upon and indeed reflects public policy; a policy may encourage action, but the public must first be prepared to act. The tabloid press and especially the newspapers I chose to focus upon, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, have a far greater readership than many of the broadsheet newspapers combined. As such I decided to explore the power relations permeating coverage specifically within the tabloid press and challenge the notion that climate coverage in such publications is too simplistic, serving no influence in politics.

Throughout the two samples I considered I found that a number of similar themes emerged. The establishment of both national and knowledge hierarchies within the text, variations in meanings and language plus a persistent trend of technological optimism all display the operation of power relations within the newspapers. These power relations are significant throughout the samples due to their ability to alter and control public understandings and actions regarding climate change. The use of hierarchies is particularly problematic for they narrow the public’s perception of climate issues, blinding readers to the global nature of a problem that we are not only significantly contributing to, but also suffering from. Nevertheless, there is a difference in each newspapers use of this. The Daily Express often used the notion of national hierarchy to displace individual blame, whereas The Daily Mail often appeared to displace blame from capitalist industries, instead using hierarchy to appeal to provincial readerships. The use of a knowledge hierarchy is equally problematic for in focusing upon the scientific and expert professions, the need for individual responsibility is often diverted. The same issue can be extended to issues of technological optimism and it is here that seems most pertinent to pause and consider the power relations at play. If climate coverage is consistently interspersed with technological ideas then this must surely create a template for publicly acceptable solutions to the problem. By creating a binary based upon climate change and technology, newspapers are protecting the primary position of technology and its associated industries in our society. By using this thematic approach in examining climate issues within the tabloid press I believe I have come some way in questioning whether it is appropriate to disregard the influence of the tabloid press in climate discussion.

Perhaps the most interesting section I found of my dissertation was the consideration of how we should attempt to address climate change issues in the public sphere. The manipulation of language throughout the newspapers has often served to maintain the particular vested interests of industry. A situation has been encouraged whereby the readers have accepted a manipulated form of debate and as such no meaningful action is pursued. Although overcoming such ingrained practices may seem daunting, the situation is far from hopeless. In many cases newspapers themselves are overcoming such issues. By using particular examples, such as a traditional love of animals or peoples pastimes, where the newspaper recognizes values that are important to ordinary people, the papers power is divested. The newspapers must rearticulate their coverage from abstract theorizing to addressing the contradictions that emerge in the face of concrete emotions. Therefore in this way we not only see the power relations at play, but also the power established through the relationship between a newspaper and its audience. Regardless of a newspaper’s rhetoric it is ultimately governed by the desires and concerns of its audience. As such, as anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly accepted and its effects increasingly threaten our society, the demand for information and hopefully subsequent action will surely begin to permeate not only the tabloid and quality press, but all forms of media.”

Laura Williams (3rd Year, History)