When the news of B B King’s death reached me earlier this summer, I turned, as I’m sure many others did too, to Google and Youtube to find recorded performances to remind me of the greatness of this inspirational blues guitarist. I had known that he was extraordinarily prolific and catholic in the company he kept but it was still astonishing, in this overview, to see the range of people he performed with over his long and hard-working career: singers ranging from Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt to Tracey Chapman, Susan Tedeschi and Chaka Khan not to mention other guitarists influenced by him, like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood (and even the likes of U2 and Mick Hucknell).
What shines through from many of these performances, as well of course as King’s talent, is an extraordinary generosity of spirit that is always open to new dialogue: that attentive, respectful listening and voicing, breathing in and breathing out, call and response, giving the other people the right amount of time to express themselves before answering, that musicians call jamming and that characterises not just human communication at its best but also how other forms of art are made co-operatively.
I suppose this represents some sort of ideal of collaborative creative creative labour, exhibiting how new wholes can be made that are so much greater than the sum of their parts. For it to work, each participant has to have skills that are recognised and admired by the others, but such interdependence, especially when it involves taking unrehearsed risks in public, also entails making oneself very vulnerable and has to be underpinned by strong mutual trust. It set me thinking about how rare this kind of jamming is in intellectual work these days. Rare but not non-existant.
I remember it very clearly in my teens and early twenties, in long profound conversations that went on till dawn about the meaning of life in which each insight from one person seemed to spark an even brighter response from the other. The morning afterwards, of course, many of these insights were forgotten, or understood to be clichés, or at least less original than one had supposed, but they nevertheless left residues that led to further thought, or reading, or even works of art. But it was not just private conversations that had this quality. In my first ‘proper’ job, at Penguin Education, which I joined in 1970, I was lucky enough to work with a team of people who collaborated in a way that was more characteristic of a film crew than many publishing projects. Here, series editors, commissioning editors, copy editors, authors, picture researchers, graphic designers, typographers, photographers and illustrators, each with a clearly defined role but also willing to learn from each other, collaborated on several series of illustrated books and audio-visual materials for schools several which were groundbreaking at the time.
One of the most famous were the Voices (and its supplement for primary schools, Junior Voices) anthologies of poetry, prose and pictures (here is a link to a recorded version of some of them). Another was Connexions, published, under the editorship of Richard Mabey, when the leaving age for secondary school pupils was raised from 15 to 16 in 1972, to introduce these final year students to contemporary discussions in a groovy way. Celebrated here, it was probably the first time the technical potential of offset litho printing was used (by designer Arthur Lockwood) to bring the ‘feel’ of a magazine to what was still in theory a school text book. The first time a kid was spotted reading one on a bus, as I recall, a bottle of champagne was cracked open. Whilst there were of course hierarchies in the organisation of work what I remember most clearly is a strong sense of joint endeavour and shared satisfaction.
It is a model that does not guarantee success. There are always risks: of creative disagreements; incompatible personalities; competitiveness overpowering collaboration; sharp-elbowed scrambling for recognition; the usual tensions between democracy and efficiency; all combined with the pressures of time and budget. Some of these have been addressed in the film industry by strict mechanisms of attribution (though invisible power battles underpin even those endlessly rolling credits). But it is clear that, despite these many difficulties, our culture would be very much poorer (if, indeed, it could be said to exist at all) if people were not prepared to open up their imaginations to each other in this free and generous way in the faith that, by doing so, they will create something that no individual could accomplish alone. Each has taken the personal risk that the gesture might be seen as a clumsy, the solo might dissolve into incoherence, the joke be unfunny, the sentiment mawkish, or the whole thing met with blank incomprehension; all this has been braved in the hope that if it all works, something glorious will emerge.
I could write at length about the complicated relationship between being alone, and being with others, reflecting and expressing, that is entailed in so many creative processes, but that is not what i want to do today. Nor do I want to get too deep into a discussion of the ways in which ‘project-based working’, whilst drawing on many of the traditions of how teams work together in creative industries, is also used a an instrument of casualisation, keeping workers in a state of perpetual insecurity, with a constant need both to beg and to brag (I have a chapter on ‘begging and bragging’ in this book). No, what prompted me to write this post was the simple regret that this collaborative spirit is so singularly lacking in academic life, despite the rhetoric of collegiality that still haunts university campuses.
Far from being places where colleagues freely share ideas and inspire each other to generate new collective understandings, many universities now feel more like prisons for ideas, where they are corralled into separate schools and disciplines – places where non-competitive behaviours and disrespect for hierarchies and boundaries may actively be punished. The unsuspecting new entrant may arrive with a starry-eyed vision of common rooms and high tables where ideas are aired for general appreciation, to be met with wit, informed debate, recognition and a sense of having contributed to the development of a larger body of knowledge. But, like a cow discovering the limits of a field through a series of shocking encounters with electric fences, you will soon learn the reality. Send an article unsolicited to a senior colleague for an opinion? FSSSTTTT-KKK*! You didn’t really expect them to have time to read it, did you? Co-author an article with a student for publication in a non-ranked journal? FSSSTTTT-KKK! What’s that going to do for your department’s ‘excellence’ score? You do realise you have performance targets to meet, don’t you? Talk about some ideas at a conference that you haven’t yet published in an article? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You have given valuable intellectual property away to your department’s rivals, what were you thinking of? Put your deepest thoughts into a research report that is a ‘deliverable’ for a collaborative project? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You just gave that well-known professor from a Russell Group university the material for his next article! Do you seriously think you’ll be properly acknowledged? Discover that there is someone in a different department of your university whose ideas really chime with yours and suggest a joint project? FSSSTTTT-KKK! You have started a major row between warring Deans about who will own the outcome. How COULD you? Explain what you mean in really, really simple language? FSSSTTTT-KKK! Oh, come on. Be serious!
People being the curious, creative, idealistic beings that they are, there is clearly now a continuing hankering for alternative spaces in which intellectual jamming can take place. It is evident in the profusion of blogs and postings on mailing lists by young scholars, in the setting up of new networks and attempts to find ways of organising conference sessions that go beyond the sequential delivery of over-rehearsed pre-prepared texts. Not least, I see it in the enthusiastic participation of large numbers of, mainly young, researchers in the events organised by the Dynamics of Virtual Work network I am currently leading.
But these opportunities for dialogue increasingly feel like small gaps in the electric fences through which hands can be grasped occasionally and a few ideas at a time can be smuggled. Where is the wide open landscape, the public realm in which an independent intelligentsia can converse openly? We are all, of course, free, within certain circumscribed limits, to make use of the means put at our disposal by global corporations to express ourselves, but, with no independent source of livelihood, this is increasingly looking like Anatole France’s famous freedom to sleep under bridges and beg in the streets. Apart from a lucky few, those inside the academy have no time, and those outside it no money to create opportunities for unhurried, focussed collaboration. The intellectual common, such as it is, is now a minefield of contradictions. On the one hand it provides the main means for expression and collaboration for an exponentially growing proportion of the world’s citizens, but on the other it is also increasingly a site for the accumulation of new capital. We navigate it at our peril.
* Several people have asked me what this strange acronym represents. It is actually my – clearly rather feeble – attempt to evoke the sound that is made when living flesh comes into contact with an electric fence. Here is a recording of what it actually sounds like.