June 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
It was never my Warwick. That was clear from the start.
An old enough joke, & obscure enough. When Raymond Williams wrote a piece for a collection recounting experiences of My Cambridge, in the late 1970s, the university system, though it was already being guided towards marketisation, still to a great extent supported cultures outside of the profit-motive, still fostered a lightly enclosed version of the region of public reason proposed by Kant. In June 2010, at the end of my second year, there was a 3-day exhibition, The Idea of a University, at the Mead Gallery on Warwick campus. It presented documents – architectural diagrams, photographs, prospectuses, memos, films, interviews – from the university’s early history. The university was proposed & designed in the late 60s, as part of the second generation of ‘red brick’ universities, principally because Coventry & Warwickshire had no such institution, the closest being the venerable University of Birmingham. As such, it was part of a movement to provide wider access to higher education in the provinces & outside the traditional bounds of the British aristocracy & haute-bourgeoisie; like its contemporaries such as UEA & the University of Essex, the campus was designed with a modish, sanded-down brutalism more appreciable today from the air – with the odd ranks of the Arts Centre’s roof rammed up against the labyrinth of the Social Studies complex – than at a street level marred by the Norman Foster-on-a-budget blocks of the WBS & Maths & Stats buildings. As became clear during student occupations at Essex, Warwick & other campus universities in & around 1968, the paternalist-social democratic programme inscribed in these spaces both enabled, & failed to answer, demands that “everyone will live in their own cathedral”.
The campus was built on unused ground at the edge of Coventry, already then beginning its slide from civic-centre paradigm of post-1945 social-democratic planning & second city of the British motor industry. The town-gown divide that came into being over the ensuing decades was less intense than in other depressed cities (say, Southampton) by virtue of the fact that middle-class students were contained on the very southern borders of the city, or in Leamington Spa; the density of students in Earlsdon, Chapelfields & the Butts was much less than in the permanently haute-bourgeois spa town forty minutes to the south, making their integration somewhat easier. The amount of revenue the university brought flowing back into Coventry was subsequently minimal; the social destruction conveyed in ‘Ghost Town’, inaugurated by Thatcher, was never reversed on the Birmingham model of ‘regeneration’ through investment in cultural capital.
The world of campus & Leamington is colloquially known as ‘the Bubble’: the sense of insulation, from the world of production, wage-labour & the associated rhythms & institutions that make up their subsequent ‘everyday life’, but also the narrowness of horizon that comes with that status, & the sense of that world’s fragility, are all encoded in the name. The campus’ isolation places it, too, in an awkward relation to the rest of the region: transport links to Coventry were awful (the infrequent No. 12 bus runs on an exact fare basis, the roads are too potholed & traffic-ridden to make cycling justified), those to Birmingham & the Black Country even worse – you need to get to Coventry station before you could even get the train; once in Birmingham, the massive sprawl & awful public transport limited your patience; understandably, I was one of few people to attend gigs not at the awful 02 Academy, to visit the Barber Institute of Fine Arts or New Art Walsall (the two best public galleries in the Midlands), etc. Since most student activities happen in Leam, if one lives there, or on campus, one tends to go or stay there. Thus does student life guarantee its parochial, insular character. Everyone knows everyone. If you don’t, & neither have a social niche in which to seclude yourself, you’re fucked.
What I noticed, & clung to, was the isolation. On my first night at Warwick, our residence wardens – PhD students with better things to do than pay attention to us – placed a pack of Fosters on a common room table & played loud pop. (This was, allegedly, a ‘party’.) I walked out into the sports fields on the southern borders of campus & wandered through the woods that fringed them. It was satisfyingly dark, quiet but for bird-calls & the yelp of foxes.
What doesn’t get mentioned in the cosy (& not so cosy, in Williams’ case) reminiscences of undergraduate life is how fraught it is with expectation. My mother bought me The Virgin University Survival Guide, the SU gave guidebooks, they all said the same thing: that as a fresher you are adrift in a limitless ocean of sociality, & have to thrash wildly to avoid drowning. “If you were the shy one at school, so what? You have a clean slate, and nobody knows you, so be whoever you want to be.” After ten minutes I gave up & returned to the familiarity of my own company; I stayed there, & the weeks went by. I was awkward, outwardly, in the most comfortable of situations, & here I was so out-of-place as to be internally unbearable. ‘be whoever you want to be’ – easier said than done, evidently.
If I’ve reconstructed anything of that period, it’s through the anecdotes of others (& their visual equivalent, fb photos). Some have told me they experienced similarities – an awkwardness in this bizarre situation of living with people you’ve met only hours before, that they circumvented by self-dissociation, aided of course by copious alcohol. Beneath the mask of easy sociality, very little was going on. That wasn’t how it seemed. People immediately formed friendships, cooked together, stayed up together, talked, danced, walked & drank together; when I finally met writers, the people from my course, it turned out they wrote together. All, it seemed, I could do was look on while this happened. Augustine rephrased: act as if you are popular, a social being, & you will become one; don’t, & you will be identified as such, & left on the outside permanently. It isn’t simply a question of social ostracism: social difficulty is reinforced by (self-)consciousness of said difficulty, as it re-registers at an ontological level – there’s something, you think, wrong with your very being, as it’s rammed home (for the umpteenth time over the course of the years) that you’re not like the others. It’s hard to believe that ‘everyone goes through it’: no-one else had this originary trauma, from which everything else flowed.
Again, the freighting with official significance: this was, we were told, ‘the best time of your lives’ – & we shouldn’t waste it with timidity. The implication is that this too – the escape from the space of the parental home to unstructured, supported life with one’s peers – is labour, a preparation for ‘not expecting something for nothing’. I knew that too well already – I’d been working for a year, & consequently thought myself an independent, mature, reliable creature; I was, except in the only areas where it mattered. I’d been expecting, perhaps, something else – oh, maybe a free & equal social life – & subsequently, when that didn’t happen, any abilities I’d had were paralysed, leaving the usual sole option of retreat. University was, for me, always already a fraud.
Not isolation – quiet, calm, with the possibility of independent work – then, but loneliness – solitude violently imprinted, deformed, negatively defined by social life.
Of course, hoping for, or expecting, the former untainted by the latter is a mug’s game. Nietzsche writes, “[i]ndependence is for the very few… whoever attempts it… enters into a labyrinth, he multiplies a thousandfold the dangers which life brings with it in any case, not the least of which is that no one can see how and where he loses his way”. This is when, of course, for Nietzsche, self-creation steps in, the process by which the self’s becoming constitutes its own lifeworld, in the concrete contingencies of a life lived outside of existing codes. But that particular form of strength is both rarer and less rare than is usually supposed. One becomes vicious, ethically careless as life’s vacated of external referents; self-hatred & disgust for others feed back, as the manifest & ineradicable reasons for self-hatred mount; one ends up, of course, even further from the world of human beings. A repetition: at university, for weeks I woke up not knowing where I was. I spent so much time on my own I had aural hallucinations, unnervingly present nightmares, anxiety so strong & constant I could hardly leave my room. In the few conversations I eventually had with coursemates I was too morose & exhausted to do much more than impart an understanding of a situation where the fact of my own misery consumed my consciousness. If I could take succour in my work, that would be something, but I found the academic staff cold & unsympathetic as well. Part of the problem is that not being able to talk to people is precisely something you can’t talk about: those with real, substantial lives ostracise the lonely. No-one likes conversations about self-pity. When it comes out at all, it’s in violent confession or oblique reference.
I dreamed at first, & sometimes dream still, of being able to retreat into an observational opacity – an anonymous & unseen lurker on the edges of things, working conscientously, continuously, without recourse to peer-approval, to sociality; blending into the greenwood. I’m thinking, inevitably, of the kino-eye of Keiller’s Invisible Man narrator & his friend in London, drifting through opaque daylight. As a possibility it didn’t happen when I was an corporate cog in a small-town bookstore, so it was never likely to happen at university, especially living on campus. My problem was precisely that I wasn’t anonymous: what I had been was branded into me as my sole, glaring substance; the acute feeling of humiliation that attended me everywhere came from feeling that I stuck out like a sore thumb, marked irreparably with this malfunctioning, ugly body, annoying voice, disgusting, warped personality, bumpkin name. The truth, of course, is that I was probably no more considered than anyone else is: in a social eco-system where the vast majority are averagely good-looking & socially capable, those who aren’t simply fade into the background – where, of course, the ignored have their own social world, admirably unmarked by bitterness. But you realise that later.
My parents reassured me I was playing the long game, & it seems that I was, actually. I didn’t leave university, three years later, in the same position as I was when I started – obvious enough, but then I have friends who were. Why was it then that I couldn’t be satisfied with that life? What does loneliness mean in relation to higher education, this process which becomes your life for years, which posits & possesses its own local social worlds? The obscure sense that I failed university – untrue, from perspective of academic grades – raises the question that has been at the core of the debates over higher education for years: just what is it that students go to university for? What practical or imagined – hypothesised, philosophical – freedom could the university incubate? One answer from the campus novel: ragged, pot–smoking, tragicomic, loosely sexed, lackadaisical, preferable at least to the strictures of the (still-Fordist) business world that limns & chokes intellectual life outside the academy. Another answer, from the remaining liberal fragments of the academy: that it not only delivers ‘modern training & skills needs’ (it doesn’t) but does so w/ a border of free play of the intelligence dedicated to the goods of those skills. Another answer, from the most marginal, opaque & pained zones of locked campus bedrooms & the occupations: the university as a zone of transformation, in which the free potential of students can be formed & explored without collective harm to others – without, in other words, the brands of class & labour. (Notably, this last is a demand that’s persisted in the critiques of anti-racist & queer student groups – not just a hegemonic white-bread ideal.) As is probably clear by now, I nearly didn’t go at all: I chose it & applied simply because it seemed to be what I should do (my experiences of what the life-chances of an unqualified working-class 18-year-old are had something to do with it). During the last couple of weeks of my job & the first few weeks of university I repeatedly wanted to drop out, to leave & slip back into my old life. Nothing, I thought, was worth this level of misery, especially not when I was paying for the alleged privilege. It’s in the SU guidebooks, conventional wisdom & the Browne Report: university is an ‘experience’, a stopgap of freedom, in which to make mistakes, to drink, to ‘have fun’, & “go to a few lectures while you’re at it”. It’s writ large in Warwick: nightly ‘ents’, 2 bars (3 if you count Varsity), a whole host of money-making eateries, a bludgeoning emphasis on societies as a ‘way to meet people’. This made, of course, for a narrow but intense social world which, if you were alienated from it, didn’t allow for any other social worlds to exist (at least until later). One of the more happening second years emailed me a while ago: “what do you do with your free time at warwick? it seems such a sterile place on the whole, i find with my group we have to make our own fun/music/whatever”. The answer being that I, too, had to make my own fun. I can report that all of the things that compose the cliché image of an arts student’s existence – the brief & thin buffer between you & the inequality & unfreedom that characterises adult life under capitalism – do occur. They just never occurred to me, for the simple reason that I wasn’t the kind of person to whom they occur. University failed – abjectly – to make me into one.