Guardian Article by Slavoj Zizek

Fat-free chocolate and absolutely no smoking: why our guilt about consumption is all-consuming

From fear of being seen smoking to Starbucks’ ‘coffee karma’, we’ve arrived at a cultural impasse as consumers. As 2014’s Prix Pictet photography prize tackles the theme of consumption, Slavoj Žižek traces how we’ve ended up buying into lifestyles rather than living our lives



I completely forgot to update my blog after finding out that I got a distinction in my Masters! Super happy with the result, it is the culmination of two years of intense and at times highly pressured work.

I’ve made five applications to graduate schools in America to study a PhD in Philosophy. Fingers crossed! I’ll keep posting to this blog from time to time. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy all the other material that’s on here now.

Prayer Vs Rationalism

I just found this great comment in response to this comment piece on the Guardian.

What struck me most is the analogy between playing music and analysing a piece of music. I think that’s a simple but effective way to get at what the appeal of prayer/meditation/religious expression/creativity might be, where it comes from. I also like the point about being in dialogue.

Here’s the comment:

I don’t think prayer and rational thinking have to kill each other off. They’re different modes of thinking used for different purposes–like the difference between a musician’s mindset while playing music vs. analyzing a piece of music. Prayer and meditation might be a way to access the right hemisphere of the brain, which grasps the gestalt but can’t articulate what it knows. Maybe prayer is an attempt to have a non-verbal dialogue with that part of the mind. The other part of the brain is what argues and rationalizes. (Including rationalizing the next one.)

Talismans are a resort to magical thinking, and we know (if we’ve studied anthropology) that people resort to magical thinking when the odds of failure are great. Magical thinking comforts people in incredibly painful and problematic situations, like homelessness, addiction, and abuse. Talismans make us believe we’re under the protection of something other than ourselves, and sometimes they give us the courage to do the right thing. Maybe what people call Deity is a beautiful poetic metaphor for something alive in all of us.

If talismans and prayer lead to hope, and hope leads to a proactive solution–and for an addict that means recovery, it’s powerful and constructive. Too many people, addicts and non-addicts, ignore the proactive solution part.

Researcher Profile at Royal Holloway

My university library is running a campaign about research students and I was asked to write a short profile in response to some of their questions. Here it is!

Please start by introducing yourself:

My name is Fiona Redding. I started at Royal Holloway in 2007 on a BA English Literature programme, graduating in 2010. After my BA, I started working at the College as an Alumni Relations Officer. I am now the Change Communications Officer, and have just completed my Masters in Modern Philosophy.


How long have you been at Royal Holloway?

This September marked the beginning of my seventh year at Royal Holloway!

What is your role at Royal Holloway?

Creating a cohesive and beneficial staff culture is critical if we are to succeed as a university in the long term – you cannot underestimate the importance of gaining acceptance of proposed changes amongst your colleagues across the College. My role involves writing communications strategies for the major change projects we have going on, including the Governance Review, the Masterplan, and staff engagement more broadly.

What did you want to be when you were little?

I really wanted to be a figure skater. Unfortunately I was completely lacking in the co-ordination and grace to achieve such a goal!

Do you have any hero (es), and why?

I really admire my Dad. He could easily have gone to university and trained to be a doctor, but when circumstances prevented him from doing that, he found other ways to develop professionally. That kind of flexibility, not being disheartened if the route you wanted to take isn’t an option, and ultimately succeeding in spite of these obstacles, are all traits I really admire.

What’s your degree/masters etc. in? Could you explain a bit about a MRes?

My Masters is in Modern Philosophy. My tutor was Andrew Bowie in the Politics, International Relations and Philosophy Department. He tutored me for a final year course and I got on with him really well, so he was the obvious choice when it came to applying to a supervisor for my Masters.

The difference with an MRes is that you are working pretty much independently the whole way through your course, so you have to create opportunities to interact with other researchers. I was studying part time over two years, so I had possibly even less interaction than one might expect on a Masters programme. As well as optional tutorials given by Andrew and Neil Gascoigne, another Philosophy Lecturer, I attended a reading group, seminar programmes, anything that brought me into contact with people working in my area of interest.

The whole way through, I was working towards completing a 35,000 word dissertation, on a topic of my choosing. There was a short 5,000 word essay mid-way through the course – to check you are on the right track – but apart from that there was everything to play for on the dissertation.

What advice do you wish you’d known when you were studying for your MRes?

The best piece of advice I can give you is to write something every day. That doesn’t have to mean a 5,000 exegesis closely related to your dissertation; it could be 500 words. The key point is that you are engaging your brain. For me, that came through writing a blog:

What was the hardest thing you found about studying?

I’ve alluded to the independent study, which can be tough at times, particularly when you just need to talk things through with someone whilst writing a key paragraph, or talking more broadly about your argument to ensure you have an overarching theme. But this can be overcome. Of course, your supervisor is also a key part of the feedback process as well.

Could you give your top 5 tips for researchers?

–        Write something every day

–        If you find yourself panicking and staring at a blank page, try handwriting a couple of paragraphs instead of typing

–        Congratulate yourself on achievements – remember that you don’t need to be working all of the time and in fact it makes good sense in the long run to give yourself a break

–        Use as many library resources as you can lay your hands on – electronic, going to Senate House, using the British Library reading rooms

–        Get involved in the wider research community by participating in reading groups and attending seminars – you never know what you might learn!

The Routines of Geniuses…


I really enjoyed reading this article from Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian!

When I was writing my dissertation, I had a routine of sorts. I would aim to rise at 8am and be on the way to the library by 9am unless I was going to the gym in which case I would tend to start working at around 11am instead of 10am.

My haven was Senate House Library in central London. First I used the North Middlesex reading room, but was forced upstairs to the sixth floor when it became too cold to keep one’s hand writing for longer than ten minutes! Up on sixth, ensconced between shelves of philosophy books (and hopefully soaking up some of the influence by a kind of osmosis), I wrote the majority of my dissertation.

I found with routine that it gave me discipline and focus. However, if I deviated from the routine, say by waking up late, then my impulse was to write off the rest of the day. So routine can be a good motivator but a double edged sword.

Rise and shine: the daily routines of history’s most creative minds

Benjamin Franklin spent his mornings naked. Patricia Highsmith ate only bacon and eggs. Marcel Proust breakfasted on opium and croissants. The path to greatness is paved with a thousand tiny rituals (and a fair bit of substance abuse) – but six key rules emerge

Daily ritualsView larger picture

Click on image for full illustration. Illustration: Jean Julien for the Guardian

One morning this summer, I got up at first light – I’d left the blinds open the night before – then drank a strong cup of coffee, sat near-naked by an open window for an hour, worked all morning, then had a martini with lunch. I took a long afternoon walk, and for the rest of the week experimented with never working for more than three hours at a stretch.

  1. Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work: How Artists Work
  2. by Mason Currey
  3. Buy the book
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This was all in an effort to adopt the rituals of some great artists and thinkers: the rising-at-dawn bit came from Ernest Hemingway, who was up at around 5.30am, even if he’d been drinking the night before; the strong coffee was borrowed from Beethoven, who personally counted out the 60 beans his morning cup required. Benjamin Franklin swore by “air baths”, which was his term for sitting around naked in the morning, whatever the weather. And the midday cocktail was a favourite of VS Pritchett (among many others). I couldn’t try every trick I discovered in a new book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Work; oddly, my girlfriend was unwilling to play the role ofFreud‘s wife, who put toothpaste on his toothbrush each day to save him time. Still, I learned a lot. For example: did you know that lunchtime martinis aren’t conducive to productivity?

As a writer working from home, of course, I have an unusual degree of control over my schedule – not everyone could run such an experiment. But for anyone who thinks of their work as creative, or who pursues creative projects in their spare time, reading about the habits of the successful, can be addictive. Partly, that’s because it’s comforting to learn that even Franz Kafka struggled with the demands of his day job, or that Franklin was chronically disorganised. But it’s also because of a covert thought that sounds delusionally arrogant if expressed out loud: just maybe, if I took very hot baths like Flaubert, or amphetamines likeAuden, I might inch closer to their genius.

Several weeks later, I’m no longer taking “air baths”, while the lunchtime martini didn’t last more than a day (I mean, come on). But I’m still rising early and, when time allows, taking long walks. Two big insights have emerged. One is how ill-suited the nine-to-five routine is to most desk-based jobs involving mental focus; it turns out I get far more done when I start earlier, end a little later, and don’t even pretend to do brain work for several hours in the middle. The other is the importance of momentum. When I get straight down to something really important early in the morning, before checking email, before interruptions from others, it beneficially alters the feel of the whole day: once interruptions do arise, they’re never quite so problematic. Another technique I couldn’t manage without comes from the writer and consultant Tony Schwartz: use a timer to work in 90-minute “sprints”, interspersed with signficant breaks. (Thanks to this, I’m far better than I used to be at separating work from faffing around, rather than spending half the day flailing around in a mixture of the two.)

The one true lesson of the book, says its author, Mason Currey, is that “there’s no one way to get things done”. For every Joyce Carol Oates, industriously plugging away from 8am to 1pm and again from 4pm to 7pm, or Anthony Trollope, timing himself typing 250 words per quarter-hour, there’s a Sylvia Plath, unable to stick to a schedule. (Or a Friedrich Schiller, who could only write in the presence of the smell of rotting apples.) Still, some patterns do emerge. Here, then, are six lessons from history’s most creative minds.

1. Be a morning person

Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O’Keeffe: one of a majority of very early morning risers. Photograph: APIt’s not that there aren’t successful night owls: Marcel Proust, for one, rose sometime between 3pm and 6pm, immediately smoked opium powders to relieve his asthma, then rang for his coffee and croissant. But very early risers form a clear majority, including everyone from Mozart to Georgia O’Keeffe to Frank Lloyd Wright. (The 18th-century theologianJonathan Edwards, Currey tells us, went so far as to argue that Jesus had endorsed early rising “by his rising from the grave very early”.) For some, waking at 5am or 6am is a necessity, the only way to combine their writing or painting with the demands of a job, raising children, or both. For others, it’s a way to avoid interruption: at that hour, as Hemingway wrote, “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” There’s another, surprising argument in favour of rising early, which might persuade sceptics: that early-morning drowsiness might actually be helpful. At one point in his career, the novelistNicholson Baker took to getting up at 4.30am, and he liked what it did to his brain: “The mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled… I found that I wrote differently then.”

Psychologists categorise people by what they call, rather charmingly, “morningness” and “eveningness”, but it’s not clear that either is objectively superior. There is evidence that morning people are happier and more conscientious, but also that night owls might be more intelligent. If you’re determined to join the ranks of the early risers, the crucial trick is to start getting up at the same time daily, but to go to bed only when you’re truly tired. You might sacrifice a day or two to exhaustion, but you’ll adjust to your new schedule more rapidly.

2. Don’t give up the day job

TS EliotTS Eliot’s day job at Lloyds bank gave him crucial financial security. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images”Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy,” Franz Kafka complained to his fiancee, “and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvres.” He crammed in his writing between 10.30pm and the small hours of the morning. But in truth, a “pleasant, straightforward life” might not have been preferable, artistically speaking: Kafka, who worked in an insurance office, was one of many artists who have thrived on fitting creative activities around the edges of a busy life. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in the afternoons, before commencing his night shift at a power plant; TS Eliot‘s day job at Lloyds bank gave him crucial financial security; William Carlos Williams, a paediatrician, scribbled poetry on the backs of his prescription pads. Limited time focuses the mind, and the self-discipline required to show up for a job seeps back into the processes of art. “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” wroteWallace Stevens, an insurance executive and poet. “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.” Indeed, one obvious explanation for the alcoholism that pervades the lives of full-time authors is that it’s impossible to focus on writing for more than a few hours a day, and, well, you’ve got to make those other hours pass somehow.

3. Take lots of walks

TchaikovskyTchaikovsky ‘believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortunes would befall him.’ Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesThere’s no shortage of evidence to suggest that walking – especially walking in natural settings, or just lingering amid greenery, even if you don’t actually walk much – is associated with increased productivity and proficiency at creative tasks. But Currey was surprised, in researching his book, by the sheer ubiquity of walking, especially in the daily routines of composers, including Beethoven, MahlerErik Satie and Tchaikovksy, “who believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortunes would befall him”. It’s long been observed that doing almost anything other than sitting at a desk can be the best route to novel insights. These days, there’s surely an additional factor at play: when you’re on a walk, you’re physically removed from many of the sources of distraction – televisions, computer screens – that might otherwise interfere with deep thought.

4. Stick to a schedule

Patricia HighsmithPatricia Highsmith, among others, ate virtually the same thing for every meal, in her case bacon and fried eggs. Photograph: Corbis SygmaThere’s not much in common, ritual-wise, between Gustave Flaubert – who woke at 10am daily and then hammered on his ceiling to summon his mother to come and sit on his bed for a chat – and Le Corbusier, up at 6am for his 45 minutes of daily calisthenics. But they each did what they did with iron regularity. “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day,” Auden advised, “then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” (According to legend, Immanuel Kant‘s neighbours in Königsberg could set their clocks by his 3.30pm walk.) This kind of existence sounds as if it might require intimidating levels of self-discipline, but on closer inspection it often seems to be a kind of safety net: the alternative to a rigid structure is either no artistic creations, for those with day jobs, or the existential terror of no structure at all.

It was William James, the progenitor of modern psychology, who best articulated the mechanism by which a strict routine might help unleash the imagination. Only by rendering many aspects of daily life automatic and habitual, he argued, could we “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action”. (James fought a lifelong struggle to inculcate such habits in himself.) Subsequent findings about “cognitive bandwidth” and the limitations of willpower have largely substantiated James’s hunch: if you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work. Don’t consider afresh each morning whether to work on your novel for 45 minutes before the day begins; once you’ve resolved that that’s just what you do, it’ll be far more likely to happen. It might have been a similar desire to pare down unnecessary decisions that led Patricia Highsmith, among others, to eat virtually the same thing for every meal, in her case bacon and fried eggs. Although Highsmith also collected live snails and, in later life, promulgated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, so who knows?

5. Practise strategic substance abuse

Ayn RandAyn Rand took Benzedrine. Photograph: New York Times Co/Getty ImagesAlmost every potential chemical aid to creativity has been tried at some time or another: Auden, Ayn Rand and Graham Greene had their Benzedrine, the mathematician Paul Erdös had his Ritalin (and his Benzedrine); countless others tried vodka, whisky or gin. But there’s only one that has been championed near-universally down the centuries: coffee. Beethoven measured out his beans, Kierkegaard poured black coffee over a cup full of sugar, then gulped down the resulting concoction, which had the consistency of mud; Balzacdrank 50 cups a day. It’s been suggested that the benefits of caffeine, in terms of heightened focus, might be offset by a decrease in proficiency at more imaginative tasks. But if that’s true, it’s a lesson creative types have been ignoring for ever. Consume in moderation, though: Balzac died of heart failure at 51.

6. Learn to work anywhere

Agatha ChristieAgatha Christie didn’t have a desk. Any stable tabletop for her typewriter would do. Photograph: AFP/Getty ImagesOne of the most dangerous procrastination-enabling beliefs is the idea that you must find exactly the right environment before you can get down to work. “For years, I said if only I could find a comfortable chair, I would rival Mozart,” the American composerMorton Feldman recalled.Somerset Maugham had to face a blank wall before the words would come (any other view, he felt, was too distracting). But the stern message that emerges from many other artists’ and authors’ experiences is: get over yourself. During Jane Austen‘s most productive years, at Chawton in Hampshire in the 1810s, she wrote mainly in the family sitting-room, often with her mother sewing nearby. Continually interrupted by visitors, she wrote on scraps of paper that could easily be hidden away. Agatha Christie, Currey writes, had “endless trouble with journalists, who inevitably wanted to photograph the author at her desk”: a problematic request, because she didn’t have one. Any stable tabletop for her typewriter would do.

In any case, absolute freedom from distraction may not be as advantageous as it sounds. One study recently suggested that some noise, such as the background buzz of a coffee shop, may be preferable to silence, in terms of creativity; moreover, physical mess may be as beneficial for some people as an impeccably tidy workspace is for others. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum cherishes a personal theory of “competing concentration”: working with the television on, he says, gives him a background distraction to focus against, keeping his attentional muscles flexed and strong.

But there is a broader lesson here. The perfect workspace isn’t what leads to brilliant work, just as no other “perfect” routine or ritual will turn you into an artistic genius. Flaubert didn’t achieve what he did because of hot baths, but through immeasurable talent and extremely hard work. Which is unfortunate, because I’m really good at running baths.

Benzedrine, naps, an early night: an extract from Daily Rituals

Gertrude Stein

In Everybody’s Autobiography, Stein confirmed that she had never been able to write for much more than half an hour a day, but added, “If you write a half-hour a day, it makes a lot of writing year by year.” Stein and her lifelong partner, Alice B Toklas, had lunch at about noon and ate an early, light supper. Toklas went to bed early, but Stein liked to stay up arguing and gossiping with visiting friends. After her guests finally left, Stein would wake Toklas, and they would talk over the day before both going to sleep.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care: 60 beans per cup. After his midday meal, he embarked on a long walk, which would occupy much of the rest of the afternoon. As the day wound down, he might stop at a tavern to read the newspapers. Evenings were often spent with company or at the theatre, although in winter he preferred to stay at home and read. He retired early, going to bed at 10pm at the latest.

WH Auden

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, the poet was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. He rose shortly after 6am, made coffee and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. He usually resumed after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6.30pm sharp, featuring several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine. To maintain his energy and concentration, he relied on amphetamines, taking Benzedrine each morning. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep.

Sylvia Plath

Plath’s journal, which she kept from age 11 until her suicide at 30, records a near-constant struggle to find and stick to a productive writing schedule. Only near the end of her life, separated from her husband, Ted Hughes, and taking care of their two small children alone, did she find a routine that worked for her. She was using sedatives to get to sleep, and when they wore off at about 5am, she would get up and write until the children awoke. Working like this for two months in 1962, she produced nearly all the poems of Ariel.

Alice Munro

In the 1950s, as a young mother taking care of two small children, Munro wrote in the slivers of time between housekeeping and child-rearing. When neighbours dropped in, Munro didn’t feel comfortable telling them she was trying to work. She tried renting an office, but the garrulous landlord interrupted her and she hardly got any writing done. It ultimately took her almost two decades to put together the material for her first collection, Dance Of The Happy Shades.

David Foster Wallace

“I usually go in shifts of three or four hours with either naps or fairly diverting do-something-with-other-people things in the middle,” Wallace said in 1996, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest. “So I’ll get up at 11 or noon, work till two or three.” Later, however, he said he followed a regular writing routine only when the work was going badly. “Once it starts to go, it requires no effort. And then actually the discipline’s required in terms of being willing to be away from it and to remember, ‘Oh, I have a relationship that I have to nurture, or I have to grocery-shop or pay these bills.’  ”

Ingmar Bergman

“Do you know what moviemaking is?” Bergman asked in a 1964 interview. “Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film.” But it was also writing scripts, which he did on the remote island ofFårö, Sweden. He followed the same schedule for decades: up at 8am, writing from 9am until noon, then an austere meal. “He eats the same lunch,” actor Bibi Andersson remembered. “It’s some kind of whipped sour milk and strawberry jam – a strange kind of baby food he eats with corn flakes.” After lunch, Bergman worked from 1pm to 3pm, then slept for an hour. In the late afternoon he went for a walk or took the ferry to a neighbouring island to pick up the newspapers and the mail. In the evening he read, saw friends, screened a movie, or watched TV (he was particularly fond of Dallas). “I never use drugs or alcohol,” Bergman said. “The most I drink is a glass of wine and that makes me incredibly happy.”

• This is an edited extract from Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey, published on 24 October by Picador at £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, including free UK p&p, go to, or call 0330 333 6846.


Masters Finished

Apologies for the hiatus – I haven’t had the chance to think about anything other than writing my dissertation for the past few months! I am happy to say that I was able to hand my dissertation in last Monday. I’ll find out in November how I did. At the moment, I am applying for grad school in the US. I have to prepare for the GRE, and then write my applications. Scary but exciting.

I’ll try to keep posting on this blog. It’s been an amazing help over the course of my studies to write regularly and critically – I would recommend that anyone else currently studying tries it.


Globalisation and its Impact on Universities

With the advent of online teaching, pay-per-module, distance learning and MOOCs, we are in danger of losing our scholarly community. These models of globalisation further endorse the idea of students as consumers and institutions as the producers. They run counter to the original intention of education, and betray the economic strategies that underpin the urge toward globalisation. We should be doing what we can to resist the urge, or to at least build institutions that are capable of being both local and global whilst upholding the mission of analysing what is given to us as a normative state of affairs.

I found the following article to be particularly helpful when thinking about the effects of globalisation on universities:

Globalisation and its discontents

17 JANUARY 2013

Scholarship has long been international but the current vision of a ‘worldwide’ academy of rootless student-consumers and national economic competition is as contradictory as it is immoral, argues Thomas Docherty


Globalisation and its discontents

What is the relation of the university to the polity, to “citizenship”? In the autumn of 2011, Kenneth Clark, who was then Secretary of State for Justice, described August’s rioters as a “feral underclass, cut off from everything in the mainstream but its materialism”. What he called their “criminality” was conditioned and explained by their fundamental divorcement from regular forms of participation in the polity or society. This led to their disengagement from “the values of mainstream society”.

Such disengagement, however, could by no means be construed as the exclusive prerogative of a group of supposedly “feral” rioters in August that year. After all, it is precisely what is routinely threatened by senior financiers and others in our allegedly “global jobs market” when they indicate that they are prepared to abandon any commitments to the nation if they are required to pay more UK tax or to forgo inflated bonuses-for-failures. Nor is this local to the UK or even simply a product of the post-2008 crisis. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch famously became a naturalised American, abandoning his Australian civic commitments in order to circumvent US laws that preclude foreign nationals from ownership of US TV stations.

The question of disengagement from, or engagement with, national culture or community – citizenship – is surely among the most pertinent when considering globalisation in the university sector. Globalisation is an “imperative”, said Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, when he opened a World Universities Network conference at Bristol in February last year. Looking through the “visions” (that Blakean replacement for “mission statements”) of many UK universities, one finds an almost routine claim that we are “producing/delivering” graduates who are going to be “global citizens”.

A current danger is that, through endlessly rehearsed but unargued assertion, the sector will find itself endorsing uncritically that which it should critique. Globalisation may establish normative – but problematic – economic practices, and we may find ourselves simply conforming to those norms and ignoring the attendant problems of globalisation and its occasional consequence of disengagement from community or the modern commons. Yet if the university is to maintain its intellectual credentials at all, it must be our responsibility to expose and confront conformity. Our place is to critique and to call conformities into question, not to endorse unexamined norms set by others.

Globalisation, of course, is not global. It is unevenly distributed; it is experienced differently in Adelaide and Accra; it feels different on the sofa of a World Bank office to on a Washington park bench. Moreover, globalisation is not new, even for the university: it has assumed variant forms for well over a thousand years. However, let’s start from the assertion that, in its current form, it is accelerating so rapidly that it must be embraced if we don’t want to be left behind the modernising rush.

The claim often made is that globalisation responds to student demand. Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, breathlessly points out that the rates of global student movement are increasing rapidly. “There has been an increase of 57 per cent in the last ten years,” he wrote in a recent blog; and that looks undeniably huge. But to look at this another way, what it means is that over 10 years, among the roughly 140 million students worldwide, another 750,000 of them participate as “global”, international students. In fact, the total percentage of such global students is about 2 per cent of the total worldwide.

Furthermore, this 2 per cent includes students who remain in their home country while being registered for courses “delivered” from another country, so the numbers actually moving across borders radically decreases. And the fast-approaching deeply globalised future? Current estimations are that worldwide student numbers will roughly double by about 2025. The cohort of students newly entering higher education to make up that figure come predominantly from social groups that are among the least likely to leave even their home town, much less their home nation, for their university education. In fact, the “global citizen” students actually crossing borders are decreasing significantly in percentage terms.

Universities have always had massive international presence and reach. At the turn of the 15th century, about the time of the Great Schism in the Christian Church, with two popes fighting for power and control over Europe and its institutions, scholars sometimes found that their papal allegiance gave them local difficulty. Prior to the Schism – which ended the Avignon Papacy – it was commonplace for scholars to travel for education to one of a small number of institutions. Thus, people from this island attended universities in Bologna, Salerno, Paris, Orléans and Avignon itself. Those institutions were certainly international (if not yet global) in reach.

England boasted two institutions at that time. When Scotland and England backed different sides in the Schism (Scots were for Avignon, the English for Rome), the movement of Scottish scholars to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge became fraught. Similar things were happening elsewhere across Europe. The consequence was the growth of domestic institutions within emergent nation-states, and the determination of those nation-states to use the universities essentially as institutions that would help to forge emergent national identities, cultures and committed affiliations. Universities, as seats of independent thinking, helped to forge the new nation-states, and national “citizens”, that would constitute modern Europe.

All this, of course, says nothing of what else was happening in the non-European world. In Fez, Morocco, the University of Al-Karaouine (founded around AD859 by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri) has some claim to be the first modern university. Alongside this, between about AD760 and AD820, Bayt al-Hikma (Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom”, essentially a library) was constructed. Its project was the gathering and translation of the great knowledge of the world as it was at that time, from all languages. This was, perhaps, the first exercise in what we might now think of as scholarly globalisation.

Yet the contemporary formulation of globalisation is very distinctive, and it is disturbingly marked by a fundamental self-contradiction. On one hand, it praises the idea of the post-national world in which we live; at the same time, globalisation is important if the UK is to “compete” against other nations worldwide. This latter view of globalisation is really an economic strategy of competition, designed to enhance one nation’s wealth over that of others, and is a matter for politicians and government. Should the university institution simply rehearse and endorse, uncritically, the pronouncements of our politicians – especially when those pronouncements lapse into self-contradiction? Our business is reasoning, and here is an example of false reasoning to be exposed.

When we fail to engage in constructive criticism of such arguments, we fall into that version of globalisation that involves us in self-contradiction and places economic competition at the heart of our system. This reduces the university to a brand name to be “traded” elsewhere, primarily to bring in tuition fees. In this way, the academy becomes explicitly politicised, essentially in favour of advancing a neoliberal economic agenda.

We become party to an exacerbation of the already troubling worldwide trend – the global trend – towards increased inequalities. A 2004 report by the International Labour Office in Geneva, A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All, found that the current processes of globalisation generate “unbalanced outcomes”. It agrees that “wealth is being generated” but adds immediately that “too many countries and people are not sharing in its benefits”, and concludes that the resulting “global imbalances” are “morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable”. Yet in 2010, the American Council on Education could issue a Blue Ribbon report on “Global Engagement” that reduced the issues around globalisation to two simple questions: a) the free international movement of staff, students and ideas; b) the question of US economic competitiveness and sustained dominance. The concerns expressed in 2004 are thus simply ignored.

The contradiction between national supremacy/economic competitiveness on one hand and “free” cross-border movement on the other is glaring. It can be explained in a simple formulation: globalisation requires the existence of national political boundaries in order to transgress those same boundaries economically.

Put this way, we can see who benefits from the very high stakes of the globalisation imperatives. The investor and philanthropist George Soros offers a “narrow definition” of post-1960 globalisation as “the free movement of capital and the increasing domination of national economies by global financial institutions and multinational corporations”. Soros is chilling as he explores the logic. He points out that the development of international institutions has not kept pace with the development of financial markets, with the result that political arrangements lag well behind the globalisation of economies. This provokes a crisis in democracy (which is perhaps all too apparent today). There is a visible crisis of legitimacy in our institutions. For Soros, the greatest threat to our democracy comes “from the formation of unholy alliances between government and business”. It is an arrangement of affairs that, as he points out, is not new: “It used to be called fascism…The outward appearances of the democratic process are observed, but the powers of the State are diverted to the benefit of private interests”.

Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel prizewinner, endorses these views. He and Soros (hardly regular bedfellows) agree on one fundamental point: we have not established the necessary international institutions to deal with the problems of globalisation. Instead, we have simply started to endorse the general tendency to accept it as a truistic imperative, as something with whose demands we must comply. But who is giving these orders? Where can we find the institutions adequate to our global predicaments?

The university is perfectly placed to be such an institution: a location of critique that can address inequalities and threats to democracy. Another name for this democracy is “widening participation”; such that our supposed “feral underclass” and our finance sectors start to find that they can share civic commitments, or that they can at least engage each other in democratic dialogue. Surely the university should be recalled to one of its central civilisational functions: to enable more people to engage in reasoned debate, in a polyglot House of Wisdom, democratically open. The contemporary version of university globalisation, however, does not seem to centre itself on widened participation in democratic politics, or even on the relation of the university to the civic polity.

Instead, some institutions are determinedly growing branded campuses abroad. Others strive to implant the voices of their academic community through the massive open online course, or Mooc. The New York University academic Andrew Ross has pointed out that, despite the growth in foreign campuses worldwide – a development that is fundamentally intended to deal with domestic economic shortfalls – the real globalisers are organisations such as the Laureate Education group. Laureate now has well in excess of 600,000 customers in more than 20 countries. Everything is 100 per cent online and everything, including teaching, is done on a pay-per-module basis. Instructors need no previous experience of online teaching but will get a four-week course that “qualifies” them; contractually, they must be prepared to be on call and ready to respond to customers who can be in any time zone worldwide, on a 24/7 basis. Is this the globalised university system that we want? Without students, without scholarly communities at all?

These models of globalisation require us to think of ourselves as commercial producers of human capital or human resources who will fit neatly into a world that is organised around the primacy of competition for private financial greed. Indeed, one major UK university – in a statement typical of many – describes its graduates as a “product”, to be “delivered” to the waiting world as recognisable “global citizens”. Such a position is entirely inadequate to our situations and it represents a fundamental betrayal of the sector, its students and citizenship.

Vice-chancellors seem to be obsessed with global visions. It might serve us better if, instead of having grand visions of this kind, they really just opened their eyes to see what is happening locally as a result of the too-easy acceptance of the globalisation agenda. Globalisation has many discontents: is it not more properly the task of the university to be the international institution that can analyse those discontents and that can offer people the means of engaging more democratically in our social being and welfare?

Global citizens? Just citizens might do for the moment, to replace the primacy of conformist consumers of an ill-assorted world order.



Thomas Docherty is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.


100+ Club!


Officially part of the 100+ club with over 100 posts on my blog!

Also, thank you to the 3,000+ people who have so far visited. I hope that you have found the information as useful as I have found it interesting to write.

Here’s to the final countdown, with only 14 weeks until I submit my Masters dissertation.

Davidson and Triangulation

The metaphor of triangulation appears first in Three Varieties of Knowledge in Davidson’s discussion of radical interpretation. Interpretation must adopt a compositional approach in the determination of meaning. That is, it must recognise the interconnectedness of attitudes and behaviour; in turn attributes and behaviours are constrained by normative principles of rationality.

The holistic consideration is married with an externalist position in which attitudinal content determined by the interconnectedness of attitudes and behaviour is seen in the light of its dependence on causal connections between attitudes and objects in the world. Attitudes can only be attributed and attitudinal content determined through a triangular structure. The triangle is based on the connection between two creatures, and a creature and her connection to a set of common objects in the world.

The content of attitudes is causally fixed by the objects of those attitudes; in turn, the cause of an object is reflected in the cause of those attitudes. Identifying beliefs involves a process of triangulation, whereby the position of an object is determined by taking a line from each of two already known locations to the object in question — the intersection of the lines fixes the position of the object. Similarly, the objects of propositional attitudes are fixed by looking to find objects that are the common causes, and so the common objects, of the attitudes of two or more speakers who are capable of observing and responding to one another’s behaviour.

We may think of it as a form of triangulation: each of two people is reacting differentially
to sensory stimuli streaming in from a certain direction. If we project the incoming lines
outward, their intersection is the common cause. If the two people note each others’ reactions (in the case of language, verbal reactions), each can correlate these observed reactions with his or her stimuli from the world. The common cause can now determine the
contents of an utterance and a thought. The triangle which gives content to thought and
speech is complete. But it takes two to triangulate. Two, or, of course, more. (Davidson
1991, 159)

The metaphor of triangulation is extended by Davidson to explain the interconnectedness of knowledge of oneself, of others, and of the world. It is not possible, Davidson claims, to have knowledge of oneself without having knowledge of the other two concepts of others and of the world.

Triangulation has the implication that interpreting attitudinal content must proceed in conjunction with interpreting objects, be they in the world or in language, for otherwise we would not understand the cause of the belief in question. In the case of language, this takes the form of interpreting linguistic utterances or sounds. Thus, if we cannot understand an utterance we are unable to attribute attitudinal content. For Davidson, this means that non linguistic animals are incapable of thought, since thought is the possession of precisely that attitudinal content disclosed by a linguistic utterance.