In London: A Long-Delayed Update

Not long ago, I posted a rather idyllically indulgent message to Facebook from the Bloomsbury Festival wi-fi:

[Matt] is under a tree, reading “Coming of Age in Second Life” on my laptop at Russell Square in  the midst of the Bloomsbury Festival. It’s a perfect day here weather-wise, the park is full of people, music, crafts, bookstands and art installations – to my right, magnetic poetry-type poems made by visitors on chains of paper that go above my head to the path, strung together thick like a tunnel. Lantern parade/drumline was Friday night. It’s a great London Sunday…

Which was true, more or less. Bloomsbury Festival weekend closed on what was about as close as you could get to a perfect day outside, sunny and low-70s (F) on top of what has already been an unseasonably warm fall, another in a line of what is fast becoming a tradition of relaxing Sundays that have thus far taken me to explore the streets of Whitechapel (see above) and the old hunting grounds that are the forests of Richmond. The Festival felt like a more expansive vision of the grab-the-kids-and-head-to-the-park events that brought together each town I knew growing up, fitting the description of London that seems to resonate most with friends here, “like a thousand overlapping small towns that happen to have millions of people in them.“ I suppose any place you live can feel small – or at least manageable, though not necessarily comprehensible.

The ‘small town’ comparison does bear out (somewhat) historically: much of what we today call London was developed across hundreds of years by aristocratic families who built their estates into residential and business districts. Beginning in 1863, a similar jigsaw development puzzle was enacted beneath London as a handful of companies carved out stretches of railway that would only later be combined into the world’s largest below-ground train system. These two development schemes come together, incidentally, in Cyril M. Harris’ slim but useful volume “What’s in a Name?” which lists the origins of the names of all the Underground’s active tube stops, a catalog of ‘hams’ (from the old English for home, casually indistinguishable from hamm, ‘a water meadow’), towers, hills and family lands – some of which date to the Domesday Book,  William the Conqueror’s commissioned 11the century land/taxation survey and perhaps literature’s greatest discrepancy between interestingness of title of content.

More literally, London has 14 million people and is the EU’s largest city. In a very obvious sense it is a sprawling metropolis, stretching in all directions, disembodied from the countryside to one who flew into Heathrow. Despite being in England, the city is in many respects a cultural no-man’s land –the most recent census (2001) states that over one in four Londoners were born outside the UK. London is a transnational, liminal space, an Everycountry unto itself. University College London’s slogan that it is “London’s Global University” is almost redundant. We’ve all come from around the world for whatever reasons – work, study, following a significant other (and I know people who have done each) – to do our time in this gloriously full place, full of people and energy, to spend evenings in the pubs that spill out onto the sidewalk and the street and to rent rooms in its mold-addled, ridiculously expensive apartments.

Northwest of the center (The capital-C “City” or “City of London”), street-level Bloomsbury was developed by the Dukes of Bedford – the Russell family  – and associated names (Bedford, Russell, Tavistock) label the streets and squares in the area. In the early 20th century, the time of Bertrand Russell (the family’s most famous scion), it was also the home of the “Bloomsbury Group” (whose membership included writer Virginia Woolf and economist John Maynard Keynes). T.S. Elliot had his offices here in a building that is now owned by SOAS; around another corner is the Queen’s Square, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married and along which is a shop where George III’s wife daily went to get his lunch soup in lead-lined bowls. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – which, in the mid-1800s briefly brought painting back to a visually bright if superficially sunny disposition – was founded here, and around another corner its most prominent member, Dante Rossetti, had an apartment.

The neighborhood forms a north-to-south line of most of the locations where I spend my days – from UCL’s campus that flows into Birkbeck’s into the School of Oriental and African Studies (all members of the 31-institution University of London system) to Russell Square to Senate House Library to the British Museum to (a bit further down) the Strand and the London School of Economics. Most of this information is – of course – available in any guidebook, and to any resident the history part is largely as relevant as one cares to invest in (or romanticize) it. As I’m primarily here for the functional reason of being a formal student in a subject other than ‘London’, investing in that history has to come on my off-time in between reading and generally having other experiences. Which is all to say that some of the more focused posts I could have written may have been lost to time, and I realize now I’ve been over here around two months haven’t let most of you in on just what I’ve been spending my time doing.

This may be, by nature, a bit superficial, somewhat ironic given that I’ve been studying a science of qualitative observation. Technology, too, has changed since my 2005 and 2007 trips to China, and the format of the public blog is not quite designed for the personal, candid pieces I was writing then for a fairly heftily-sized email list.  On the other hand, I’ve been posting shorter bits on Facebook (like the above) and an ever-growing folder of interestingly-phrased street signs.

Moreover, studying anthropology makes one wary of spouting too many broad public pronouncements on ‘place’ after being in an area only a few weeks. But in another sense, it is quite anthropological to wait a bit and draw a general sense from the experience, and I hope to build on it in specifics within the coming weeks.

Continuing, some demystification:  London is awesome, but being a student here also has its own equivalents to the “large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches” that David Foster Wallace talked about to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. Being a student (particularly after you’ve worked full time for a while) feels very liminal to me, much as the possibilities life holds often contrast with lived experience’s tendency to skew toward the mundane. Every night London has more people than seem to be able to fit into its buildings spilling onto the streets as late as I’ve been up, yet the tubes close around midnight, many pubs sooner.  There are more events that you could even hear about – and there are events, everywhere, ever night – but one’s hours are limited and the actual experience is of excitement within boundaries.

While I have passed the anti-war protests that have been outside Westminster Abbey longer than I’ve been in the city, I still haven’t made it to the protests at St. Paul’s and the London Stock Exchange – products of growing economic frustrations the likes of which led last year led to protests over cuts to educational subsidies and a lift on tuition caps will allow schools to charge UK students up to £9,000 a year in 2012. While these rates are still not what EU students pay – and a little more than half what non-EU ‘overseas’ students like myself are charged – they are a dramatic step up from the maximum £3,290 that can be charged for this school year, which are in turn an increase from the £1,000 that was allowed to be charged in 1998; prior to that, higher education was free in England, at least for the English. And for me and my middle-class Americanness, the nationality grants an easier time passing a convoluted visa process, and the class grants access to resources, i.e. the ability to borrow money.

I occasionally go to this room in Senate House library to study, but I should also mention that a few weeks ago my library card up and stopped working and I spent half an hour in queue before getting past the security checkpoint. Metropolitan Police Department took two weeks to get back to me after my camera was stolen, and the matter is still tied up with insurance and going on six weeks. There’s also weekend work (spurred by the Olympics) on the Underground that shuts down vital stations just when you have free time, forgetting your student ID when attempting to check out a book on reserve and having to hike an hour round trip back to your apartment to search for it only to find that it was in your backpack all that time and upon returning to the library discovering that the book you were looking for was not there anyway, and waiting a week to get an appointment with the doctor over the cough you’ve been having only to find it conflicts with a meeting with your academic advisor and it’s too late to reschedule so you’ll just have to do without.

I’m not cataloguing petty crap to complain – these wasted moments are getting fewer, I quite like it here, and often while walking down the street after drag myself out of bed after lying somewhere between waking and sleep for longer than I should (if judged by a business, and not a student, schedule) I realize the novelty of the city hasn’t worn off. I just want to be honest about how time gets spent, and what means allow it.

But as for what I’m actually here to do:

For around 20 hours each week from Monday through Thursday I’m attending official functions – that is, classroom lectures, seminars (led discussion), and invited speaker seminars (an hour’s presentation, followed by a half-hour discussion and often drinks or food) from each of UCL’s four branches of Anthropology: Material & Visual Culture / Digital (of which I am a part, and which share classes for the fall semester before splitting next spring), Biological Anthropology, Social/Cultural, and Medical. The list of this fall’s topics is here.  On Friday mornings I attend another anthropology seminar series at the London School of Economics.

This semester I am ‘taking’ the Core course, general Methods, Documentary Film & the Anthropological Eye, and Anthropology of Games and Simulation for credit, though the advantage of the system is that one can audit as many courses as one can physically attend – thus I also attend seminars on Applied Studies (anthropology in the workplace) and Anthropology and Photography. Until this week I was taking the Documentary course but not for credit, and decided to sign up for it when I thought of a good idea for a final paper. I don’t attend all sessions of the non-credit courses every week, but attend most on most weeks. Students are generally not expected to purchase books, but rather to use the library’s (sometimes limited supply of) copies of nearly everything. Journal articles are distributed electronically via the library, to conform to copyright regulations.

The flipside of this system is that virtually all assessment for courses rests on a final exam or essay, as professors don’t distinguish between (or often keep track of) who is sitting their courses for credit and who isn’t. 50% of my final grade for the programme as a whole will be weighted by dissertation, the other 50% divided among an exam, a practical project, and final essays for four modules that are judged entirely on their 2,000-3,000 word final essays, the topics for which are trickling in just in time for the class-free reading week.  The freedom also contributes to an administrative structure in which course locations sometimes aren’t finalized until weeks after they’ve begun, as some courses turn out to be more popular than were anticipated and require larger venues. This can all seem a bit disorganized to those used to different systems; as a friend who went to Cambridge said, “It’s London….the disorganization is a London thing”.

Seemingly more important than courses, however – and this is, no doubt, also related to the shift from undergraduate to post-graduate – is an emphasis on immersion in academic life and the life of the department, a processes of socializing and socialization. The approach here is very much ‘research-led’ – during the first weeks, professors talked with us about the direction of their own research projects, with the understanding that as we develop our own if there could be some convergence, we ought to talk.

“You will read and drink more than you ever had in your life,” said my friend Angela on what this process of postgrad education may entail, something that fits nicely with both the centrality of the pub to life in England and the existential crisis of the single scholar: the fear of dying alone underlining sentences on Chinese immigrant-run portrait studios in Java.

Anthropology is not my academic background – let alone the British ‘social’ strain, which diverges from the American ‘cultural’ one (an explanation of what this entails from the UK Royal Anthropological Society’s perspective can be found here). If there is an underlying goal for the year, it appears to be learning how to speak the discourse: to understand the arguments, the stakes, the nuances, theory, and what makes a query anthropological.  I chose the program, in part, for these reasons:  I wanted a discipline that I could apply to something more interdisciplinary like ‘media studies,’ rather than continuing this stage of my education in that sort of wilderness. It’s an odd feeling: I know how to take apart a movie piece by piece, I can cite directors’ names and influences and the six degrees of Kevin Bacon – that’s a discourse I know – but I didn’t realize how naturally that sort of thing comes to me in that single context (film) until finding myself adrift in a sea of new names, relationships, and arguments that I need to not just connect, but root in some basis.

On a more subtle level, my search is for what Pierre Bourdieu described in his foundational text Outline of a Theory of Practice as the habitus – the underlying aspects of our world that reinforce for us how to behave that are not explicitly stated. Bourdieu himself described academia in similar terms of reinforcement and power structures, though not particularly flaterringly, in his 1984 book Homo Academicus. Or to phrase it another way, the challenge is in part to understand why we cite Bourdieu instead of, say, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, whose experiments with ape language research (which I wrote about in a story that will be published in BV Today in January 2012) hit a turning point when she realized that young apes (and indeed, young humans) learn language through immersion more than direct reinforcement. Or perhaps more simply, just that time-honored method of participant-observation is at work here. Or just education.

Yet Digital Anthropology is in many ways uncharted ground, and not just because approximately every other ethnography describes Papua New Guinea or the Amazonian Ya̧nomamö tribe. I’m used to thinking of interdisciplinarity in terms of the humanities, yet in some views Digital Anthropology is in a sense ‘interdisciplinary’, not just for how it charts of newly-developing frontiers but coming as it does from a Material/Visual Culture background rooted in archeology.  The anthropological interest in new media – as, for example, explored by Tom Boellsdorf in Coming of Age in Second Life (2008) –  is not so much the speed at which technology has proliferated as the ways in which people have adopted it, how social norms have developed (and are developing) in these new environments, and how this relates to the ways in which people have in the past adopted social norms. Boellsdorf did his research entirely in Second Life, wanting to take the virtual world on its own terms.  He created an avatar and opened up an office, conducting participant-observation entirely within the structure of Second Life.  His book is in part an exploration of methodology in such an environment, and on a more underlying level a plea to take the study of virtual worlds seriously, citing such precedent examples of virtuality and virtual/mediated relationships as the printing press (which enabled, as described by Benedict Anderson, people to imagine themselves as parts of a larger nation state), pen pals, and the telephone.

As I posted from Facebook in Russell Square, the strips of poetry were a forest, growing to eclipse the famous lines on posters that had lined the path since Friday, “let us go then you and I / when the evening is spread out against the sky” sounding sweet and upbeat and recontextualized amidst a parade of drums and lanterns. Numerous texts I’ve read in these months note that creative works on virtuality, the Internet, and technology  tend to portray visions that are either utopic (Star Trek) or dystopic (The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Social Network), with technology cast as either savior or destroyer. That same sort of drift toward extremes, I think, happens in a great deal of popular fiction, and can pervade the memories we call up in our own lives if we wait too long to write about them.

The Bloomsbury Festival ended for me at St. George’s, at a musical performance by the Soundcastle collective composed for the site and designed specifically to exploit the acoustics of the environment – the last church Hawksmoor designed, based on notes from his mentor and fellow major London architect Christopher Wren. The first part led us outside and to the courtyard, surrounded by a string quartet, the bells and the sound of the street; the second half was inside the square temple-like church of Plymouth stone, with woodwinds and obscure percussion out of our view on the balcony, the lights of the street through the windows providing light along with the cell phone game played by the hulking, 6’4”+ teenager who sat next to me. The music was ambient but melodic, the performance – unlike anything I’d heard– was put together as part of a masters’ programme with the Guildhall. What I will report next fall on my own project is as yet undecided, though there are several diverse directions with which I’m working.  What I’m thinking about this fall, and synthesizing, remains under development, with more to describe as I head into December and papers.

  1. #1 by Kelly on January 3, 2012 - 7:16 pm

    Sorry if this seems slightly random, I was just accepted into Digital Anthropology at UCL for September 2012 year. Google searching to try and find facts lead me to your blog. I’m from the US too and was wondering if there’s anything about the program that you love or hate that you wish you knew about before starting. I hope you enjoy the rest of the program!

    • #2 by Matt Voigts on January 4, 2012 - 12:08 am

      Kelly, congratulations on your acceptance, and thanks for posting! You’re welcome to send me an email if you have more questions – that might be the easiest way for me to answer, actually. I’m also overdue to be writing a few updates for this site; last semester was (among other things) thoroughly exhausting, and I’ve spent perhaps more of break than I should have getting caught up on sleep, museums, and movies, taking in more than I’m putting out. The short answer to your question, though, is that I wish I had been more aware of the differences in the UK and US education systems (and postgrad and undergrad), a lot of which I outlined in the above post. UCL’s anthropology department is fairly large and diverse in the programs it offers, which allows you to be exposed to a tremendous diversity of material if you take the opportunity. These seminars and related social events, too, are how professors make themselves available; hang around and attend a lot, you’ll get to know people. Some seminars and courses are better than others, of course, but there is truly a lot to take advantage of (or bypass, should it not be to your liking). The same goes for the city.

      The idea of ‘digital anthropology’ is, however, relatively new – the first semester core course focuses on Material and Visual Culture, because that’s where the theory is and that’s the branch that decided to start the program. This is a solid background, though if you don’t have an anthropology background you may find yourself wanting more foundational social and cultural anthropological material. This also leads me to something I wish I would have done – come into the program having familiarized myself more with some of the classics in the field – Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Clifford Geertz,etc, as well as more contemporary people doing the ‘digital’ branch, such as Tom Boellsdorf and Mike Wesch. This isn’t necessary – and you do catch up quickly – but it would have made the first few weeks easier. For a comparison, from my exposure to the London School of Economics, they radiate an intensity and organization (a sense of ‘having one’s stuff together’) in contrast to UCL’s often gleeful informality/administrative disorganization; when I talk to a friend of mine in the anthro program there, she replies that UCL’s students always seem to be working on fun, innovative and interesting projects. This semester I wrote papers on Appadurai’s ‘Disjuncture and Discourse’ article and 43-Man Squamish, made a mock film proposal for a documentary of documentarian John Grierson, and tracked a local bicycle memorial in the physical world and cyberspace (that should be showing up on this blog in the coming weeks). The info on UCL’s website is fairly accurate. I think grad school is what you make it, as is how you apply it after you graduate – if you look at the program and see people working on things that interest you, and see a way to use what you might learn, those are good reasons to join.

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