Hipsters, MOOCs and the KLF: In, Against and Beyond the Accelerationist University

I’m going to step right up and say that I have neither the philosophical nor the political chops to do what I am about to attempt, but I know a fair few people that do and I hope they will comment. But that’s not going to stop me from having a try.

Allow me to start with an infomercial.

This, if you can make it out through the 19th generation VHS hiss and extreme Scottishness, is none other than Bill Drummond, who would go on to release a string of what were possibly the greatest pop recordings of the early 90s as one half of the KLF, and then burn the proceeds in the name of art before disavowing recorded music in favour of the experimental amateur choir The17.

“The Manager” (occasionally, “The Manager’s Speech”) was the b-side to a very early single entitled “Julian Cope Is Dead” – Drummond had briefly managed Cope‘s band (The Teardrop Explodes) and worked as a manager/A&R man at WEA records (now Warner).  In it, he laments that “the music… THE MUSIC… is spiritually bankrupt, there is nothing there…”, and sets out a basic three point plan to reform the industry.

1. Musicians are not allowed to spend any more than 10 days recording any one LP

2. The Musician’s Union have to formulate a standardised contract with all the record companies.

3.  As for advances, they go, we don’t have them anymore.

Further clarity and rulings can apparently be gained by sending a cheque for £100 to “The Manager” at a PO Box address somewhere in Aylesbury, but I am not sure whether this is still valid. Which is a shame, as further clarity is always welcome.

I mention this here not only because it is a damned interesting bit of UK music history, but because this first act prefigured so much of the rest of Drummond’s artistic work. If you like, he has made a career out of appearing to turn away from artforms he used to enjoy back to earlier (and to him, more meaningful) forms of art. From 90s acid house, to 80s hardcore (one of the pivotal moments of my musical history – 1992 Brit Awards no less!), to 60s conceptual art and now to the unrecorded (literally!) depths of musical history.

So far, you may think, so proto-hipster. We know all about the fetishisation of early mass production – a chicken in every pot, jobs for all, forty acres and a mule, and a can of Pabst in the ironic velour saddle-bag of every fixed-wheel bike. We all know that none of these promises were ever fulfilled too – and that a colder, poorer and less equal society now lurches from crisis to economic crisis.

Within this painful reality, we can and should all have our personal searches for reality within the maelstrom of art that it is possible for one to experience, sitting alone at a laptop computer in the UK during the early second decade of the third millennium. But has even this well been poisoned? Certainly Drummond states that:

Within days of getting [an] iPod, I was having unforeseen problems – I found myself skipping through tracks. I would hear a few bars of one of my all-time favourites and then decide it was not what I wanted to listen to and skip to something else. Nothing seemed to satisfy, even though in theory I had every recording on it that I had ever wanted to listen to. Was this just part of the ageing process? Was my palette getting jaded? Then I noticed other people doing the same thing, people in their early teens, 20s, 30s, not just blokes like me who were fast approaching 50. The iPod was changing something in all of our relationships with music. I love it when things change.

There’s two responses to this. One is to yearn fervently for the death of the ipod, the internet and similar technologies and a return to the artistic Fordism of the 60s and early 70s – a time when people would form intense personal relationships with mass-produced copies of artworks. The other is Drummond’s way, to welcome the change as a necessary one – a required clear-out of the the old processes and practices, and the chance for something better. Far from heading into the past, Drummond is excited about the possibility of a more meaningful music in the future.

You could read the #Accelerate Manifesto as a political restatement of this excitement in moving beyond old systems and towards new ones, that may (I emphasise the “may”) provide a better deal. Or you could read it as a reclamation of the idea of “progress” by a political left who are often seen as protesting against every change (“We need a National Union of Students that fights for something, not just against something” as current president Toni Pearce notes). Or, as Charles Stross (an interesting article, go read) cites Joshua Johnson as saying:

Accelerationism is the notion that rather than halting the onslaught of capital, it is best to exacerbate its processes to bring forth its inner contradictions and thereby hasten its destruction

In, against and beyond capital, if you will.

I work in the fast-moving field (haha! no really!) of education technology – an area where everyone seems to be “revolutionising learning – for an uncertain future”. Some appear to want to use technology to bolster and support educators and the institutions that support them, others to see both done away with. Most are agreed that everything needs to be done faster and more.

I’ve written before about the need for “slow policy“, but even in the supposed ivory towers speed is of the essence. How many times have you heard institutional leaders urged to board the MOOC train before it leaves? Often this is obviously driven by financial interests, sometimes by a genuine desire to try something new, but perhaps also by those who see that existing structures are unsustainable and want to get past them to something less painful.

Tempting, but no. The pressures on institutions, on people, on nations exist not through some natural calamity, or via market forces and the doctrine of disruption. The pressures have been designed. Designed by people – often very smart people who should know better – who are in thrall to the logic of capital. We (and they) can rationalise this by pointing to a bright future beyond, but it is difficult (though sadly not impossible) to imagine a way an education system could put more of those who work and learn in it under intolerable pressure.

Seventy percent of academic staff in the US no longer have even the chance of a dependable full-time job. Do we believe that when it gets to 90% there will be some miracle that catapults us into utopia? With management structures already beholden to speed and capital, do we believe that substituting them with more efficient capitalists (who either run or invest in the big edtech darlings) will improve our lot?

Of course not, which is why the Accelerationists propose that ” must develop both a cognitive map of the existing system and a speculative image of the future economic system.” Using – and I’m just picturing Audrey Watters’ face as I write this – BIIIIIIG DAAAAATAAAAA! Now, there are only two things you can actually do with big data – map existing systems (badly) and make (bad) predictions of the future state of these systems, or use data from existing measures of behaviour to plan new means of controlling this behaviour which totally work.

Maybe – and this is a maybe – there will come a time in the future where teaching is entirely automated, along with a range of similar intellectual roles, resulting in an enormous surplus of knowledge workers. Who is thinking about what these knowledge workers will do? What is the job of academia outside teaching – how many do we need? As of yet, no-one is asking – much less answering these questions.

So you’ll excuse me for not wanting to “Immanentize the eschaton” just yet – which brings us to discordianism, a huge influence on the art and music of Bill Drummond. And right now, I need a word with the manager.

1 thought on “Hipsters, MOOCs and the KLF: In, Against and Beyond the Accelerationist University”

  1. Nice one, Drummond is a strange and slippery saint but I reckon the accelerationists don’t dig him, they say that “establishing temporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutes for effective success”, and I’d wager Drummond is a TAZ man before all else, as a TAZ embraces change in its immediate glory, not just in its analyzed functionality in lines of abstract and impossible histories. I wish the accelerationists the best (which could be as simple as listening to Jesus Jones, I mean REALLY listening), but I think as long as a mind is trapped on the deterministic rails of fragmented thought (see David Bohm) then its utopia always waits at the next stop. But hey, I’m a privileged fella and that’s a fact that I can’t and won’t hide from so I’m truly not here to give advice on how to find your golden ticket, everyone’s got their own chocolate factory to something something something you know what I’m saying. . .

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