The ‘Useless’ Knowledge

24th April 2020. Britain just passed the peak. A live broadcast from Downing Street shows an increase of over 5,500 cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours. It is lower than earlier in the week and there are more good news. The PM has made a full recovery from his encounter with the virus and he is now expected back in the swing of things.

Analysing newspapers’ front pages from 24th April 2020, I find headlines suggesting how a ‘grateful Britain’ (Daily Mirror) is slowly ‘taking back control’ (The Daily Telegraph), with the help of ‘mass testing to get Britain back on her feet’ (Daily Express).  At the same time, hospitals are struggling with significant PPE shortages, with ‘failings in the privately run virus test centres’ (The Guardian) and are ‘running out of dialysis kits’ (The Independent).

A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ (The Scotsman) in April, when things are bad and better at the same time. The sigh of relief from governmental departments is so loud, I can almost hear it from the Midlands in the lockdown quietness.

Weather is good, but the angst caused by the ’emergency stop on economy’ is wearing many out. As my professional and social life move online, days and nights blend into each other, in a confusing melange of obsessive handwashing, sleeplessness, overeating and virus paranoia. I would believe anything as long as it brings hope.

The worst has passed and social media takes comfort in the heavily quoted words of Pastor Olawale Daniel who prophetically anticipates the arrival of ‘a time to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the next phase of our existence’.

I admit I have not heard of Pastor Olawale before the pandemic and, checking his website, I am still unable to trust the source but for a while his quote goes viral on social media. Maybe it speaks to a yearning for social change, in a moment when, having lockdown time for reflection, we realise that we have been going in the wrong direction.

© JStadnicki, 2020 / Stroud / UK

25th May 2020. I’ve already been introduced to the science behind the R number. The press conference in Downing Street is chaired by the PM himself who announces an increase in number of COVID-19 cases with only 1,600 in 24 hours. Britain’s records show that 36,900 people died infected with COVID-19, but I’m re-assured that things are ‘being controlled’.

Unfortunately, trust in the government’s concerted narrative ‘together against the virus’ suffers a big blow following the Cummings-gate media revelations.

Newspapers’ front pages explain how the PM’s aide, ‘a cheat’ (Daily Mirror), offers ‘no apology, no explanation’ (The Guardian) for breaking the lockdown rules. While some newspapers report that ‘he acted responsibly, legally, and with integrity’ (The Daily Telegraph), others call for the ‘aide’s sacking’ (The Scotsman) and the public opinion begins to split, reigniting the arguments which fuel the narrative ‘them and us’. My professional and social life are still booming online, weather is good, and then something else happens.

George Floyd is killed in Minneapolis at 9.07pm. Britain is asleep (3.07am) and about to wake up to an updated version of the ‘new normal’; a social normality forced back to the ‘drawing board’ by the inequality and the injustice which stained our system before the COVID-19 pandemic, and our systems before that, and even earlier than that, as back as history can remember.

7th June 2020. The statue of Edward Colston is toppled and removed by protesters supporting the ‘George Floyd Movement’ in Bristol. The British Home Secretary points the finger at the destructive ‘mobsters’ and the House of Commons heats up with MPs recognising the urgent need to improve our education system. We have not learned enough from the past, nor thought enough about a future free from racism, discrimination and injustice. At this point, volume goes up in my headphones.

It is a mistake.  A mistake, for I can hear Sam Terry (MP for Ilford South) saying how UK universities must be:

valued as part of the frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic, […] and recognised for the role they can play in their local economies in terms of retraining and reskilling their local workers during any recovery from the pandemic. (2020, p.1)

The hope for fresh beginning in the ‘new normal’ gets crushed.  Shouldn’t universities be recognised for all their roles, for their contribution to developing critical thinking and creativity, science as well as arts and humanities? If not, then what is the point in having higher education in the first place?

With philosophy, literature and art courses being scrapped in many British universities, public libraries closing, an art sector barely surviving under the new rules of social distancing, our children’s chance to reflect on and to learn from past mistakes is significantly undermined. Not that economic recovery is irrelevant, far from it; but looking at the underlying societal disease caused by ‘outcomes’, it seems that we are moving backwards. Almost as back as 1935 when Bertrand Russell observed a similar symptomatic failure in the education system:

Educational commissions point out that fifteen hundred words are all that most people employ in business correspondence, and therefore suggest that all others should be avoided in the school curriculum. (1935, p.34)

Russell criticised the education system tasked to avoid ‘useless’ knowledge, without practical applicability and immediacy, pointing out the insurmountable value of philosophy and literature, for instance, in creating better visions for the future.

Surely in almost a century we moved beyond fifteen hundred words, surely our world-leading higher education system looks nothing like the system described by Russell in 1935:

Knowledge everywhere is coming to be regarded not as a good in itself, or a means of creating a broader and human outlook on life in general, but as merely an ingredient in technical skill. Educational establishments are not allowed to spend their money as they like, but must satisfy the State that they are serving a useful purpose by imparting skill and instilling loyalty. (In Praise of Idleness, 1935, p.38)

Writing In Praise of Idleness, Russell had the experience of the Great Depression. The Stock Market Crash followed in 1939. Despite his opposition to war, Russell witnessed how a social system, skilled by education, was unable to solve the crisis of the 20th century in any other way but war.

As for us, things are surely different.

© Maria Stadnicka, June 2020 / Published in International Times on 4th July 2020.


Russell, B. (1935) In Praise of Idleness. London: George Allen & Unwind Ltd. An e-version can be accessed here.

Vertical Takeoff

On 1st October 1972, having just left the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky wrote in New York Times a five-thousand words article in which he condemned the political climate in Europe, and worldwide, evaluating its dangerous principles and hunger for domination and destruction. Brodsky expressed his scepticism in reference to all ‘political movements’ which he described as ‘structured methods used to avoid personal responsibility.’

Brodsky defended his belief in a different, and superior, system built on ‘personal movements – movements of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change.’ The article, translated from Russian by Carl Proffer, appeared tangled, verbose and aimless; it sounded like so many other disoriented voices coming from dissidents and defectors of the era, but those who managed to read it in full recognised its unswerving accuracy in describing a failing world system.

Seamus Heaney called it a moment of literary ‘vertical takeoff’, crucial in establishing the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and preoccupations of the self.

It was, in itself, a warning signal that politics became a psychological danger for humanity, as it engaged people in external fights with the Evil, which automatically made them begin to identify themselves with the Good. And when mankind begins to consider itself bearer of Good, it slides into self-congratulation. This is a state of complacency which Brodsky, who was stateless in 1972, saw it as the source of everything that was radically bad about people.

Brodsky carefully re-considers the role of a united writing community which is vital in opposing official points of view and which should support ‘personal movements’ by engaging with our society in real exercises of reflection and learning. This engagement, however, is built on access to books, not articles about books; direct contact with ideas, not ‘pre-packed’ blurbs.

The latest PN Review editorial comments on the closure of nearly 800 British libraries over the past ten years. The Trump era defines how we conduct literature not only politics. ‘The triumph of the tweet’ reduced our engagement with books to a suite of emoticons, in which the responsibility for personal engagement with ideas is a constant forward-re-tweet and a sum of likes. Bring me someone who sits down to read War and Peace or a five-thousand words article in New York Times. I’ll be either their friend or their follower.

© Maria Stadnicka 2020

[‘Vertical Takeoff’ was published in International Times on 25/01/2020.]


Brodsky, J. (1972) ‘A writer is a lonely traveler’. New York Times, 1st October 1972. Available here.

Brodsky, J. (1997) On Grief and Reason. Essays, London: Penguin Books.

PNR, January-February 2020, vol. 46, no.3. Available here.

 

The Politics of Inevitability and the Art Education

Photograph: ©JStadnicki, 2018

There is no way one can observe the social transformations within a community and society without resorting to strong political clues in order to understand the sources of those transformations. And clearly, when things go wrong, we blame the politics, the legislators, the government. But when the political sphere moves away from the reality of the people it represents, the laws and the policies have no real impact on the wide majority. The decision-making groups have little will to support change, and the economic downturn Britain has been experiencing for over a decade seems to move towards a silent collapse. And nobody appears to take responsibility. The blame placed on the government rules like a shadow, hiding underneath the roots of bad financial decisions, personal greed and managerial incompetence.

Let’s consider the situation the art sector is in at the moment.  The issue came into focus with the news of the devastating fire which, this second time, damaged the Glasgow School of Art beyond repair. There you have £35m down the drain, or rather turned to ashes, and everybody is powerlessly looking at the building asking, in disbelief, ‘how could this be possible’. The fate of the Glasgow School of Art seems, for now at least, sealed by confusion and uncertainty. Who is to blame?

Extrapolating the Glasgow tragedy, we are looking for someone or something to blame for the uncertain fate of hundreds of art schools across the country, which slowly, but surely, are decapitated by unachievable targets and percentages. This time, we encounter another type of devastating fire, which is slowly cooking to ashes the art sector, in general, and the art education, in particular: the drive to achieve the funding targets, the attendance and the achievement rates, the literacy and the numeracy benchmarks. What do they all mean? Certainly, they mean nothing to those involved in the art sector (students, artists, writers, musicians, teachers), but mean everything to those in charge to justify the bureaucracy supporting their livelihoods; bureaucracy which satisfies the pleiades of regulators and inspectors. The focus of this type of education is not the youth’s creativity; it is to produce a nation of self-absorbed adults, ready to slot into whatever social square is allocated to them as soon as they join the education system.

And here we face again another type of politics. The ‘politics of inevitability’ as Snyder eloquently describes it, which makes the art education vulnerable and a victim of the constantly expanding globalisation. Since the mid ‘80s, the way we talk about art has fundamentally changed as well as the way the education system works to serve the economy, under the bright colours of neoliberalism.  One would say, what is the problem with that? There is nothing wrong with expecting profitability, and economic success. There is, though, if the principle on which the profit is based, is wrong.

The education and the arts remain essential social institutions  in a healthy society. They create and preserve what we call our ‘decency’. They remain our ‘sane barometer’ if you like, which supports the configuration of our future and the values this future will act upon.

I remember a recent conversation I had with a head of school who recognised that things have taken a turn for the worse, with the Brexit uncertainty looming, but, as he said, ‘what can one do against a whole government, with a mortgage to pay?’

Here we are again, in the blaming game equation. The well-suited head is back in his leather chair, the young artist is back revising for another maths test. New financial cuts are drowning the hope of an economic recovery and the silence of those suffering its effects sounds more and more like a resigned agreement. Not once we feel that the history allows us to see patterns and to understand that action is a possibility.

History permits us, ‘to be responsible; not for everything, but for something’ as the poet Czeslaw Milosz said. This responsibility has always worked against loneliness and indifference.

©Maria Stadnicka, June 2018, Gloucestershire, UK

 

Selfie(sh) Culture

Study I, 2018

Study II, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Study IV, 2018

Study III, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study VI, 2018

Study V, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photography: ©John Stadnicki, 2018

Thought

Tomorrow will come with a sunny spell,

the rain will stop at the border so

we will begin the long-waited rebellion,

as they say,

at the right moment.

 

To satisfy our need for greatness,

we will politely ask the just questions and

sit on the pew

in return for the hand-written answer.

 

We will finally go home,

or so we believe,

to master the only remedy left for pain – patience.

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Photograph: @John Stadnicki, ‘Street Cafe’

Thought

In a country where all books are forbidden,

the hurricane spits out a new world

with a new legacy of destruction.

People stop by the house with a light on and a blue door,

the house with boarded-up windows where

the mandolin player keeps an eye

on his own basement revolution.

These are the days when the truth learns to

travel on cigarette papers, between prison cells,

before the police arrives

to evacuate.

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Ink on paper: ‘Fisherman’, Maria Stadnicka

Exile

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Witness to a repeated history

in exile I learn a new language

facing the border control

at Heathrow Airport I wear my mother’s coat

ready for a winter of politics

when I need to

I keep my mouth shut I change my name

to look just like her

white and uncomfortable

the blinding sun has been washed and

smells of violets

people are happy

in such a beautiful land

nobody minds me

amongst

wrapped-well-packed boxes

brushing the dust off velvet cutlery

the only remains

of life before baptism.

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photographs: copyright@John Stadnicki, 2016

On the Treadmill

I have come to recognise God in a violent song,

played in the evening with broken forks and knives.

If I refuse to kneel, the winter starts at the end of September,

on Tuesdays, when I pass by the Jewish quarters.

My road to confession starts, just the same, in the morning chill.

The stones, the trees, the sky have a message,

of that I am certain, arrived at the wooden door of the hermitage.

And I knock and I knock.

A raven finally opens the white background.

The raven says with calculated words that, at present,

this government is busy.

Important wars need attending, in a land like no other.

I am given a form and I hear the padlocks.

I jump on the treadmill to keep warm.

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Photo: copyright@John Stadnicki, 2016

Of Hats and Social Change

It might be that the Panama Papers will become as iconic in history as the fashionable Ecuadorian ‘panama hat’; a striking and a bit ostentatious item, which everybody wants but nobody knows how to properly wear it. Not in Britain. For obvious climatic restrictions.

 

However though, on Monday morning, Britain received such a hat, delivered by the mediatic postal service, whilst not wide awake yet, post Easter holiday, when the weather forecast was not that brilliant anyway. Would it worth the bother, for the sake of seven or eight hours of sunshine a week? Should it return to sender and have the money back?

 

The British rich and the poor found out, with some surprise, that once they had signed for the goods, the sender remained unknown. And, as the box opened, millions of other items emerged. Things which we all ‘kind of’ knew about, but wished we hadn’t. The truth.

 

The shock of discovering your master licking his honey smeared fingers in your own pantry. The shock of being discovered and still trying to say ‘sorry it won’t happen again’ type of thing.

 

In a society where the wealth and the poverty cohabit undisturbed, in their own universe, parallel with each other, it becomes increasingly difficult to formulate an opinion about social injustice, corruption, and privileged few. Almost impossible to do something about it. This explains the public opinion’s delayed reaction to the recent ‘Panama Papers’. But does it justify it? And even if, let’s say, something could be done about it, what resolution would not involve fundamental change and transformation, on both sides?

 

Given the realities of international and national politics, each of us is, to some extent, victim of conflicting demands between truth and power. Observers of social reality, rather than makers of it. Furthermore, the unfortunate circumstances, which define the current trends, deepen in a climate where radical thinking and critical debate do not address the core values on which we built our social structures and institutions.

 

With the current revelations in mind, it is rather justifiable, once more, the duty to bring in focus the possibility of change, which, ‘to some extent’, comes from our desire ‘to create the future rather than merely observe the flow of events. Given the stakes, it would be criminal to let real opportunities pass unexplored.’ (Noam Chomsky, 2014, ‘A Genuine Movement for Social Change’)

 

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