Babylon shall fall

Where to start? Perhaps with my sense that the sheer accumulation of dramatic events, both in the UK and far beyond, demands some kind of response from an academic in my position. And a growing concern that my research interests in sound and audio media might be, to put it bluntly, irrelevant to the pressing matters at hand: a nuclear disaster in Japan; uprisings, unrest and civil war erupting across North Africa and the Middle East; drastic cuts to UK public services; riots and looting in England; crisis and debt in the Eurozone; the phone hacking scandal; the list goes on.

I find myself living in a nation governed by a privileged elite who insist that ‘we are all in this together’, when it is plainly obvious that they have sufficient personal wealth and connections to shield them from any significant downturn in their own economic fortunes. Under their rule, the UK has become a place where a girl who stole a mismatched pair of trainers from a smashed up shop has been given a 10 month jail sentence, yet no grounds can be found to prosecute (b/w)ankers like ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin, whose reckless mismanagement of the Royal Bank of Scotland led to a bail out in which an incomprehenible £25 billion of government money has been lost. Goodwin has walked away with a £16 million pension, and our legal system is apparently unable (i.e. unwilling) to do anything to prevent this. That money would buy nearly 140,000 pairs of Nike Air Max trainers. Matching pairs.

And yet much of my time in the last six months has been spent adjusting to a new job in Glasgow, writing funding applications for research on sonic geographies, making audio recordings, taking photos and making minimal techno music. On recent excursions, I’ve found myself recording the sounds of a modernist ruin, the howling of the wind in fences around my local sewage works, and the fizzle of metal-studded winter tyres on cars in Finland.


Is this pure escapism, a kind of apolitical aestheticism? I have a weblog, and I have strong opinions about the unfolding economic and political mess – surely I should be speaking (or writing) up?

Looking around, however, there is no shortage of half-baked, narrowly informed, pre-fabricated analysis being rolled out on all sides of every debate. The danger of saying something stupid and unconstructive seems particularly high. As does the danger of speaking about things of which one has very limited experience or knowledge. For example, why did the BBC decide that David Starkey, a celebrity historian and TV presenter, should have anything worthwhile to say about rioting and youth culture? Or that Jeremy Clarkson – a man who has made a successful career in the media by performing an exaggerated caricature of insensitive, chauvenistic, materialistic masculinity – would be worth quizzing about public sector strikes?

I have a background in social research with children and young people, including on issues of participation and inclusion, and I’ve also spent some time as a youth worker. Yet when it came to the riots in England I genuinely didn’t know what to make of them. The immediate responses on both the right and left seemed inadequate. David Harvey’s commentary, for example, was pretty much exactly what you would expect him to say based on his previous work. Blame global capitalism. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s such a familiar diagnosis that I’m left wondering whether it really adds any insight.

What seems more useful at this point are propositions for action, and in this respect a recent public speech by Harvey seems more constructive, particularly towards the end:


Meanwhile, most mainstream politicians and commentators are offering solutions that seem incredibly negative. The rhetoric is all of necessity, difficulty, tough decisions, limitation, reduction, deficit, essential measures. A miserable, miserly discourse that makes me feel shrouded in permanent drizzle, even when the sun is shining outside. What about joy, hope, fun, play, freedom, life, love? Surely these are things we need most of all right now.

So, here is my end-of-2011, ramshackle, recycled, rehashed, cobbled together, incoherent, poorly-thought-out five point plan for growth – some things that I, you, we could do that might have at least a small chance of making a positive difference.

1. Pay less attention to the mainstream media and party politicians. Both have become largely theatrical, about performance, maufacturing spectacle, entertaining an audience, and the production of celebrity personalities. I don’t know about you, but for me much of the information I’m receiving about the various unfolding crises is being mediated by this process. It’s easy to slip into taking it seriously. Incessant hyperbole and graphic images can seep into the unconscious. Turning off (the radio, the TV, the internet) becomes a survival strategy. If in doubt, do it! We’re also lucky in that the internet has massively diversified the forms of mediatisation available to us. After the riots, I found the London Sound Survey’s recording of looting – which, to my ears, sounds a bit like a rowdy street party – to be an interesting contrast to the looping helicopter footage of burning buildings on the TV news channels.

2. Believe that Babylon shall fall. I’m talking about Babylon in the Rastafari sense of institutional oppression, the various forms of government and policing, and the bureaucracy, lies and corruption they engender. It’s very difficult at the moment to resist thinking in terms of ‘us and them’, and a revolution that will happen at some particular point in history. Babylon fits with that, but I have a different interpretation, of Babylon as a system that we’re all enmeshed in, all reproducing, but that is also continuously falling. ‘Shall fall’ then becomes less a prophecy of some future event, and more a recognition of the inevitable failure that is endemic to processes of control and domination. Check out my current favourite downfall of Babylon anthem, an absolutely deadly Rhythm and Sound track from 2003. It’s the perfect mantra for our times:


3. If you live in England, consider moving to Scotland. The Scottish Government is as problematic as any parliamentary system, but the level of bullshit appears to be several orders of magnitude lower up here. Alex Salmond is certainly a celebrity of sorts, but to nowhere near the extent of Cameron, Clegg et al. We have some sensible things like proportional representation, free prescriptions, ambitious green energy targets, and the government will pay your fees for higher education if you’ve been living here for 3 years or more. It’s by no means perfect but right now it feels way better than what is going on down south. The weather can be hard work, but things like mountains, beaches, islands, wildlife, fewer traffic jams, plentiful clean water and stunning whisky more than make up for that.

4. Do as many fun things that involve no exchange of money as possible. Yes, this is flippant, yes it’s frivolous, and yes it’s the sort of trite bollocks you’d find in a self-help book, but: every time you have fun without exchanging money, you are actively chipping away, albeit in a tiny way, at the whole crisis-deficit-fear mentality, reminding yourself that your personal happiness does not depend solely on money, and flicking two fingers at western societies’ ludicrous, obsessive, crippling subservience to financial markets. The more of that the better in my view.

5. Finally, let’s resist, in all possible ways, big and small, the appalling marketisation and consumerisation of UK higher education. If you’re based in the UK, consider signing this petition in defence of public education. It’s going to Westminster so it probably won’t make a blind bit of difference, but it might help raise the profile of the issue a bit. The full text of the White Paper being opposed by the petition is here. Thinking a bit more widely, the Globalise Resistance website seems helpful. And there are obviously all kinds of more direct actions that academics can take, and in many cases are taking: informal peer support, giving free talks and public presentations, freely distributing electronic copies of publications. So here’s an offer: if anyone wants any of these things from me, get in touch.

Happy Christmas, and all the best for 2012..