‘You, Decorous Bureaucrats Of Angelic Leagues’: A Brief Review of ‘I Melt The Glass With My Forehead’ (2012)

I’ve just seen Martin McQuillan and Joanna Callaghan‘s ‘I Melt The Glass With My Forehead’: A Film About £9,000 Tuition Fees, How We Got Them, and What To Do About It.[1] It does pretty much what it says on the tin, charting the issues talking-heads style. Readers not already deeply involved in the UK higher education system and its various problems will find it particularly enlightening, and the parade of would-be-Ministers making promises soon to be broken is worth the anger-energy alone.

Two things struck me. The first was LSE Public Policy Professor Nick Barr, who, despite making a lonely case for some of the fee changes, nevertheless foregrounded a few crucial issues. Most obviously neglected by higher education activists, there’s the importance of pre-university education, which remains much more important in determining entry, ‘success’ and social mobility than any fee/loan/tax increase. Moreover, as we’ve seen before, there’s the uncomfortable truth that the Browne proposals were more redistributive than the old system, although the Government’s decision to cap fees removed this potential. Linking these dimensions is the fundamental tension of contemporary higher education, which is of matching mass participation with high quality. On Barr’s account, this cannot happen from general taxation alone without something giving. Of course, this only remains a challenge of public policy under certain comparatively narrow parameters, and, as Howard Hotson reminds us, the system being ‘reformed’ for its own good was actually the best in the world when viewed as the combination of overall quality and parity across institutions (and if you haven’t yet read Hotson on the Ivy League, do).

Second, and relatedly, the focus of our reflections seems already to have congealed around fees, and fees alone. Even on the narrow topic of student finances, the question of living costs is almost totally absent. A few voices from another age mention it, but there seems no place in our moral calculus for considering the differential between those who must support themselves and those who have the supporting done for them. But there’s also something evidently arbitrary in discussing fees without a whisper about the REF, or the impact agenda, or the generalised role of the university as a producer of public goods (and I don’t just mean Ancient Norse) in an age of austere retrenchment. Notwithstanding the manifold critiques of Browne and Willetts (charlatanism being primary among them, at least for McQuillan and Callaghan), all this misses the critical perspective provided by Andrew McGettigan, placing the fees SNAFU within a wider ecology of political economy and long-term transformation. We learn just this week of the next stage of this process at London Met, where all in-house admin is being offered for private bidding and where 229 ‘posts’ (read: jobs) are to be abolished across seven faculties (this coming after the closure of 70% of undergraduate courses).

This all matters because the public discussion of the future university is increasing, even amidst our wholesale crisis of economy. In typical academic style, it’s coming too late for the bait-and-switch, but if the renewal of energy around the idea of a public university is to mean anything, it cannot be a mere retreat. Barr’s argument that teaching grant must be restored in the next Parliament seems both commonsensical and strangely unimaginable, but there are other stagnant pits of the old to avoid alongside the risks of the new.


[1] The title is borrowed from a banner at an anti-fees demo, quoting a 1915 poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky mentioned by Dan Hancox in the film. I borrowed ‘You, Decorous Bureaucrats Of Angelic Leagues’ from the same place. It seemed somehow more appropriate.

Atrocity Porn, the Resource Curse and Badvocacy in ‘Unwatchable’ (2011)

Lest it need saying, *trigger warning*.


Unwatchable lasts just over 6 minutes, but is intended to linger far longer. A project of Save The Congo, it was apparently turned down by larger charities on the grounds that it was too extreme. Deploying liberal doses of slo-mo and orchestral overture, it shows an armed assault on a whiter-than-white (and blonder-than-blonde) family somewhere in rural England. The teenage daughter is gang-raped on the kitchen table while her father is forced to watch, and her parents are eventually mutilated and killed on their front lawn while the soldiers laugh and film them on mobile phones. At one point we see a soldier cowering to avoid the scenes wrought by his comrades. The youngest daughter is killed trying to escape. In other words, a BBFC 18-rated piece of atrocity porn doubling as a viral advocacy campaign.

A small clickable box sits screen top-right throughout. It reads: ‘Make It Stop’. The tagline: ‘Warning: this film contains sexualised violence you and your mobile phone manufacturer may find disturbing’. The pay off being that this is really about the DRC, but that it will take this happening to white people for you to notice. Yes, this is another campaign about the resource curse and another entry in the catalogue of rape atrocity ratcheting, now with the obligatory twitter hashtag (#bloodminerals) and a petition demanding: a) that EU companies be forced into transparent supply chains for coltan and the like; and b) that ‘swift and severe’ action be taken against any party responsible for violence.

Kate at Wronging Rights picks up on the incoherence of Save the Congo’s accompanying claims:

W…T…F…? Rape is cheaper and much more effective than guns or bullets??? No.  Rape is not a “cheap” coercive strategy.  It’s time-consuming and it exposes the perpetrators to injury and potential STD infection. Armed groups absolutely use it anyway, but not because it’s cheaper than bullets.

And, [i]f armed groups were to raid a village and force the population to leave by shooting at them, NGOs could be alerted and the UN would have to react??  This is surely news to the scores of NGOs, both local and international, who have worked tirelessly to document and publicize the use of rape as a weapon of war throughout the last decade and a half of conflict in the region.

Look, I realize that grassroots activism often plays a fundamental role in political change, and has been particularly important to the history of the human rights movement, but seriously, this “the news made me sad / I can haz NGO?” nonsense has got to stop.  Time to invoke Amanda’s “Love Actually Test” on a wider scale, I think.

Bizarre and untenable as such ideas may be (say what?), the key points of Save the Congo’s analysis are ones now commonly repeated as part of the general ‘weapon of war’ narrative. Continue reading

Nothing Is Authentic Anymore: Disavowed Selves and the Lure of Realpolitik in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (2011) and ‘In The Loop’ (2009)

Know this: *great clunking spoilers ahead*.


The critical praise heaped on Tomas Alfredson’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy reflects more than the hunger of intelligent audiences for post-Inception thrillers. Nor can it be explained merely by the excessive parade of grand thesps (Benedict Cumberbatch and the under-rated Stephen Graham both wasted, the former with a sub-Sherlock performance and the latter with a paper-thin bit-part, given historical fidelity by bad hair alone). Its visual and affective qualities are seductive and occasionally beautiful, but then so is its submerged vision of espionage and realpolitik.

The antithesis of Bond and Bourne, Tinker, Tailor offers up the almost forgotten Cold War as the stage for its intrigues. Although the voices are softer and the principals older, there is a more deadly game afoot. As Kermode comments, there will be large swathes of the audience who don’t know the political context at all. Not that it matters, since the detail (Hungary, the parallels with Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt et al.) are but window-dressing for the appeal of George Smiley (silent, menacing, magnificent Gary Oldman). Contra the brashness of post-9/11 global political allegory-fictions, we are gently ushered into an epic game of chess, played by men. Men whose tools are wit, logic and cunning. Men from an analog age who use little pieces of card to alert them to potential break-ins.

Our contemporary operatives, even those of clear intellect and cunning are, like Bob Barnes in Syriana, always eventually compelled to revert to Hollywood expectations (explosions, gun fights, fisticuffs) to bring matters to their appropriate climax. Not in Tinker, Tailor. At one stage Smiley and co. require small handguns but, although drawn, they are never used. Barring the quasi-orgasmic final exchange between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux, our other vivid encounters with slaughter and disembowelment are after the fact, still, frozen scenes, crowned by flies. As if painted by Goya. We gulp and turn away, but what beautiful mutilations!

Continue reading

Race, Gender and Nation in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2011)

Mostly garlanded by images poached from Winter Is Coming, Bitches. Also, *spoiler alert*. And now subject to discussion in a critical post by Charli Carpenter over at Duck Of Minerva.


At first sight, Game Of Thrones offers something rather different to the standard fantasy fare. Where Lord Of The Rings and its ilk deal in arch dialogue and grand quests, it provides a more gritty and twisted landscape, peopled with dwarves, bastards, spoilt brats, noblewomen who still breast-feed their near-pubescent sons, eunuchs, exiled criminals and incestuous twins. In one conversation, Baelish and Varys even discuss a Lord who enjoys sex with beautiful cadavers (fresh ones only). A fantasy not only of palaces and mystical objects, but also of the gutter.

There is a near-scandalous thrill to this aesthetic realism, especially when measured alongside the allegoral formality of The Chronicles Of Narnia or the cinematic marathons derived from Tolkien’s high Toryism. Where those source materials and corporate cinema required that sexuality be wrapped in chaste folds and circumvented as the higher union of pure love, Game Of Thrones can indulge lust, rutting and the explicit mention of rape. There’s even talk of homosexuality (although not for any of the linchpin characters with whom we are expected to identify). Bared breasts are the order of the day. Childhood tales filtered by HBO.

But this apparent radicality doesn’t go very deep, and in significant ways covers for a narrative saturated with race-thought and misogyny. Continue reading

Sociology Is A Martial Art

A May Day found object (appropriately enough). Pierre Carles’ 2001 documentary on Pierre Bourdieu, in seven connected parts (missing, unfortunately the end). Besides the biographical, cinematic and intellectual value, it may also be of interest to Disordered readers for the scattered touches on science and its relation to politics and on the character and reproduction of inequality.


Brothers in Arms: ‘Outside The Law’ (2010) & ‘Of Gods And Men’ (2010)

Strange country that gives the man it nourishes both his splendour and his misery!

Albert Camus, Summer in Algiers (1936)

Many presumed his macabre tone would bring back some much-needed edge to the increasingly commercial sensibilities of the Cannes Film Festival this year, but with Ridley Scott’s revamped Robin Hood picked to open the festival hopes were quickly dampened. Tim Burton, the tousle-haired American director, may have a singular visual imagination and be a favourite amongst cinephiles, but as jury president he failed to appreciate the struggle to build a habitable multicultural Europe that was taking place both on and off screen.

A Screaming Man, by French-Chadian Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, is set during the current civil war in Chad, and tells the story of a former central African swimming champion who sends his son to war so as to regain his position as a security guard at the swimming pool of an expensive European hotel. Taking its title from Aimé Césaire’s collection of poems Return to My Native Land, Haroun’s fragile look into post-colonial conflict captures the bewitching impact of a symbol of Europe’s lasting legacy in Africa. Rachid Bouchareb, the celebrated French-Algerian filmmaker, presented Outside The Law; the latest in a new wave of French-North African films aimed at simultaneously curing France’s colonial amnesia and rupturing the borders of contemporary French culture. The film takes place between 1945 and 1961, and focuses on the contrasting fate of three Algerian brothers who have fled for France in the aftermath of the Sétif massacre. It poignantly ends with the credits anticipating the October 1961 Paris Massacre in which over 200 pro-FLN demonstrators were killed by being beaten unconscious and thrown into the River Seine or tortured in the courtyards of Paris police headquarters. Bouchareb has strategically chosen to set his narrative between two of France’s most notorious – but still officially contested – state-sanctioned crimes. Following on from his previous film, Days of Glory, which deals with the discriminatory treatment of indigènes recruited into the Free French Forces formed to liberate France of Nazi occupation in World War II, Outside The Law continues the prescient struggle over representations of France’s colonial history.

'Algerians Drowned Here'

Although Rachid Bouchareb was considered by most to be the favourite to scoop the Moroccan leather encased prize, the man who recently chose to indulge Alice’s imperial ambitions in 3D, decided to award the Palme d’Or to Of Gods And Men. Xavier Beauvois’ drama is set in the Cistercian monastery in Algeria, whose resident monks are confronted by your archetypal Islamic fundamentalists. Saturated with Christian faith, the film squares the noble patience, love and belief of the monks against the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalists and their apparently regressive, intolerant and bloodthirsty worldview. Despite most of the notable tastemakers – from Philip French, Peter Bradshaw, and even the usually astute Mark Kermode – falling for the film’s quaint charms, Of Gods And Men remains a film that enjoys flirting with both audiences’ assumed prejudices and the intolerably stubborn idea of a clash of civilisations. Dare I say Beauvois’ reverential and holier-than-thou tone could have done with some of Roberto Benigni’s light-hearted but equally annoying flamboyancy.

With the likes of Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak now comfortably donning the robes of academic superstardom, cultural studies no longer holds its former position as rebellious younger child of academia. Having breeched the stuffy walls of Ivy League and redbrick institutions, it has becoming increasingly safe in its approaches to contemporary culture, and thus been unable to find an adequate balance between aesthetic concerns and pressing socio-political contexts. Continue reading