Left in the lurch? On Corbyn, comedy and credibility

This arrived in the post at the beginning of July:

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Yep, I signed up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the upcoming Labour leadership elections. (Here’s how to join, if you’re interested. It’s a quick and entirely painless process.) If you’re a UK resident, and unless you’ve been living in an alternate reality for the past month — in, for example, a parallel universe whose inhabitants still give a toss about Tony Blair’s proclamations — you’ll know that Corbyn has had a meteoric rise to the top of the Labour leaders’ board. Yesterday he was named as the bookies’ favourite, at 5-4 odds; six weeks ago he was a 100-1 outsider. This is the “biggest price fall in political betting history” according to William Hill.

This eloquent and compelling piece lays out many of the reasons why I’m voting for Corbyn. (It doesn’t, however, mention that he’s a staunch republican, having petitioned Blair to remove the Royal family from Buckingham Palace and place them in “more modest” accomodation. For that alone he’d get my vote. (And, yes, before you ask, I know about the homeopathy thing. Bear with me, I’ll get to it in a future post.)).

But according to a slew of articles in The Guardian and The Observer over the last few weeks, I’m a narcissistic, deluded, reactionary, dogmatic, immature, head-in-sand (and foot-in-sandal), tribal, ideologically-driven, confused lefty dinosaur for even beginning to entertain the slightest inkling of an idea that Corbyn’s leadership challenge might possibly be a good thing for not only the Labour party but for the entire country.

I’ve got used to reading those articles over my bowl of muesli in the mornings but Wednesday’s Guardian upped the ante just that little bit too far. In a piece claiming that Corbyn was humourless for having the temerity to say that, should he win, he’d like Lennon’s Imagine played at his victory rally, Jason Sinclair — yeah, me neither — made the truly remarkable claim that “We demand our politicians can display their common sense by telling good jokes“.

Errmm, what?

No, really. What?

It turns out that Sinclair, a copywriter, is responsible for the @corbynjokes Twitter feed, the focus of the article he wrote for The Guardian. To be fair to Sinclair, his feed generated one OK joke. This one:

Sinclair must have been spending quite some time in his own peculiar parallel universe, however, if he thinks that politicians tell good jokes. Either that or his threshold for what he considers good comedy is startlingly low. (Perhaps he moonlights as a Radio 4 sitcom writer?)

I’m going with the latter explanation. Here’s why. Another line from Sinclair’s article…

“Boris Johnson is a major political force in part because he has passable comic delivery.”

Hmmm. No politician, including Johnson, has ever made me laugh as a result of their comic delivery. And I’m not talking about gut-busting, tears rolling down cheeks, rolling on the floor laughter. Nor a hearty chuckle. Or even a knowing, spontaneous giggle. Indeed, I’d be more than happy if a politician’s joke could coerce even a weak smile from me every now and again. Instead, politicians’ attempts at humour are invariably so arse-clenchingly, toe-curlingly, cringe-makingly, gob-smackingly embarrassing that my natural reaction is to die a little inside on their behalf.

Now, the explanation for my lack of appreciation of, as Sinclair would have it, the natural comedic flair of our political class could be, of course, that I’m a dour, humourless, bearded lefty gobshite who is genetically incapable of cracking a smile occasionally. While I’d freely admit that grumpiness is not exactly a stranger to me, there are quite a few exceptionally talented writers out there whose well-observed, intelligent, witty, and original insights regularly crack me up. One of these is Charlie Brooker, who has written a wonderfully acerbic weekly column for the Guardian for many years. Here’s what Brooker had to say about a certain tousle-haired toss..  politician back in 2008:

On May 1 London chooses its mayor, and I’ve got a horrible feeling it might pick Boris Johnson for similar reasons. Johnson – or to give him his full name, Boris LOL!!!! what a legernd!! Johnson!!! – is a TV character loved by millions for his cheeky, bumbling persona. Unlike the cartoon MP, he’s magnetically prone to scandal, but this somehow only makes him more adorable each time. Tee hee! Boris has had an affair! Arf! Now he’s offended the whole of Liverpool! Crumbs! He used the word “picaninnies”! Yuk yuk! He’s been caught on tape agreeing to give the address of a reporter to a friend who wants him beaten up! Ho ho! Look at his funny blond hair! HA HA BORIS LOL!!!! WHAT A LEGERND!!!!!!

Copywriters are not exactly renowned for their originality. Like many of their colleagues in marketing and advertising, they have a reputation for churning out retreads of bland boilerplate with little or no creative copy. (See Private Eye, passim). This might help explain why Sinclair’s expectations when it comes to insightful and intelligent comedy are so low – he’s working in a field where wit is the exception rather than the norm.

Marketing, advertising, and copywriting are too often the living dead embodiment of style over substance, responsible for the type of banal bollocks designed to appeal to those who are entirely at ease with cliched, vacuous tripe, i.e. New Labour’s (and the Blairites’) stock-in-trade.

I prefer some substance to my politics. And to my comedy.

Here’s Bill Hicks on the subject of marketing.

The vacuity of ‘excellence’

 

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Originally published at physicsfocus

This post has been simmering and in gestation for quite a while. This week, however, a number of documents arrived in my inbox to finally catalyse me into putting pen to paper. (Literally. I wrote this out long-hand before editing while typing it up. If you think that it’s vitriolic and ranty now, you should have seen the first scribbled draft…)

The source of my irritation? Well, take a look at the five statements below, each culled from the website of a leading UK university. (The names of the institutions have been omitted to protect the guilty).

 “Through research of international excellence, to increase significantly the range of human knowledge and understanding…”

“We seek the highest distinction in research and scholarship and are committed to excellence in all aspects of education and transmission of knowledge.”

“By bold innovation and excellence in all that we do, we make both knowledge and discoveries matter. “

“.. we want to rise further and be amongst the very few premier global universities. We will achieve this through the excellence of our research and teaching…”

“The University …. combines academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research…”

Do you see a common theme here? Yep, it’s that word – “excellence”. (Those are just five examples out of countless others. Go to any university website and type in “excellence” into the search box – you’ll be swamped by links.)

It’s not only the marketing blurb for universities that is riddled with references to excellence. The tagline for Research Councils UK is “Excellence with Impact”; UK academics have just been subjected to the rigours of data collection for HEFCE’s Research Excellence Framework (and the associated game-playing over just who is “excellent” and who isn’t); OFSTED has its “excellence gateway”; the NHS is “energised for excellence”, and even the British Parking Association celebrates parking excellence.

But what does “committed to excellence” actually mean?

Here’s what it means: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s nothing more than the worst form of tedious, clichéd, vacuous, buttock-clenchingly awful marketing hyperbole.

What else is a university, or any type of organisation, going to do than try to be excellent? Strive for mediocrity?  Pursue adequate performance? Try to be a little better than the rest, but not aim too high?

Ugh.

Seventeen years ago, in The University in Ruins, Bill Readings described the many problems resulting from academia’s reliance on the nebulous concept of excellence. (Thanks to my colleague at Nottingham, John Holmwood, for making me aware of Readings’ excellent book). Here’s one particularly insightful argument:

“The point is not that no-one knows what excellence is, but that everyone has his or her own idea of what it is. And once excellence has been accepted as an organizing principle, there is no need to argue about differing definitions… if a particular department’s kind of excellence fails to conform, then that department can be eliminated without apparent risk to the system.”

(In this context, changing the name of the UK’s national research assessment exercise to the Research Excellence Framework makes a great deal of sense.)

Readings goes on to discuss what he describes as the “empty notion of excellence”. There’s an important concept in semiotics which captures this vacuity: the empty (or floating) signifier. An empty signifier is literally meaningless – it doesn’t represent any particular object or meaning which is universally agreed. “Excellence” is as good an example of an empty signifier as one could hope to find.

It takes a particularly insidious form of hypocrisy for UK universities to argue that they will develop the critical thinking skills of their students while at the same time they proclaim a commitment to excellence in everything they do. Laurie Taylor’s wonderful spoof University of Poppleton, with its commitment to being “fair to middling at everything”, at least has the advantage of a clear and original mission statement.

Image: Space is mostly vacuum, but it’s not nearly as empty as meaningless commitments to “excellence”. Credit: NASA/ESA