Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rootless fools

I came across a blog from April, here, asking Whatever Happened to the Northern Intellectual?
It had been sparked by a round of debates, led bythinker and writer Charles Leadbeater, who has written an “interactive essay” entitled "The Art of With", which allows paragraph by paragraph comments.

Quotes from others are in italics, by the way. Stick with me.

The summary from the blog’s author Bournemouth Runner (it’s a song by The Fall, but then you knew that already) is as follows:

Leadbeater’s seminar at Manchester's Cornerhouse raised the point that the avant garde has traditionally been "separate" - rejecting the consumerism of the 20th century, but being part of arts institutions that are themselves based upon the consumerist model. Is the web, with its ethos of "shared" and "collaborative" experience a different model? Perhaps.

After a ramble about something called Googleopolis and sampling, he then launches into a bit of a rant about a lack of intellectuals and how that may hamper the development of a knowledge economy. Here you go:

And, around this, and this is why "The art of with" debate is timely, there needs, to be frank there to be an intellectual and critical discussion. I wonder whatever happened to the Northern Intellectual? Our city and regional leaders wouldn't fit that description - and nor, come to think of it, would many of our other high profile figures. When its (sic) debating time in Manchester we roll out the interesting, the practical, and the well-known, whether its (sic) Guy Garvey, Ian Simpson, Wayne Hemingway or Dave Haslam. Nothing wrong with any of them of course; but there's a sense of either the streetfighter tamed, or the Grammar school boy acting down for the masses. It's why Tony Wilson had the streets of Manchester to himself, where 2nd-hand situationism, and a day job at Granada could make for an intellectual high water mark. On the day that MMU/Chorlton-based Carole Ann Duffy most likely gets the Laureate, our professor of contemporary poetry is praised for her humour, accessibility and popularity, not for her intellect. Main rival, Simon Armitage, is always careful to hide his intellect under a laddish cover of northern dry wit.

Ouch. There's more.

There's a challenge for "the art of with" and the Cornerhouse, and that's about Manchester itself. Charles Leadbeater is fine and dandy, but its (sic) when the city doesn't have to import its intellectual discussion, but leads on it, that the city's undoubted knowledge economy will come into its own.

It sparked a response from DJ Dave Haslam, who said...

What or who is a 'Northern Intellectual'??? What or who is 'an intellectual', come to that? If you provided some examples or some description of this mythical being, then I would be able to begin to discuss this with you. Your question implies that once there was a Northern Intellectual but now there isn't. Or even your question implies, maybe there was only ever just one; 'the' Northern Intellectual. Perhaps a man who you once met on a train who read the same books as you and therefore fitted your ideal. I wish you'd been at the Festival Pavilion last night [Saturday] to hear me interviewing Guy Garvey. It was a great event; we talked about death, the creative process, the idea of 'home', the work of Alan Bennett, definitions of masculinity, drinking, how Manchester creates 'scenes', queues in Somerfield and Australian theme bars. And loads of other stuff. God knows if we were 'intellectual' enough for you, but I think we contributed to the world of ideas in a very unique and intense and open way. The audience asked questions. The room was full of love. We had a bit more to drink. There were no 'gatekeepers'.

Bournemouth Runner said he was sorry and that he’d missed a good one, but asked:

We're certainly still in thrall to the "intellectual" - or ideas person - from elsewhere, whether its Charles Leadbetter (sic), Stowe Boyd or Martin Amis - whereas, wrongly, I think, anyone outside of London gets praised for everything other than their intellectual capabilities.

Yet apparently there is a “scene” developing – around something called the Social Media CafĂ© which happens every now and again, this week it was at the BBC on Oxford Road. This "scene" has the potential to be at the beginnings of the so-called knowledge economy, he says.

I think there's a real thirst in the city for this kind of debate - I hope that the expanded Cornerhouse as Manchester's "creative hub" will become this.

Anyway. Here’s my first thought: "The city intellectuals of the world are divorced from the folk-bodied blood of the land and are just rootless fools." Jack Dolouz (and not Sal Paradise). Look it up.

I do sometimes worry about a lack of intellectual ballast in the recent movement to renew the North of England. So I have some empathy with that core concern. But basically, you're just left feeling, so what?

On balance, my problem with the above debate and the central idea of an "intellectual" is it seems very confined to the creation of art and culture, with the vaguest of nods in the direction of urban design. And yet there are, all around Manchester, profoundly “intellectual” people with lots to say about bioethics, theology, economics, civic politics, sustainable development, football, quantum physics and education, to name but a few. Whether these amount to a body of ideas that derive from "a Manchester way" in all of these areas is dubious. And whether in so doing they contribute enormously to the rigourous scrutiny that any new idea requires, then I have to say they do.

Within this huge pool of intellect, there is a grounding in common sense and of people just getting on with it. Does that therefore reduce it's intellectual value? I don't think so.

What I do think is that many worthy efforts to make it more so are just becoming paralysed with the ache of trying too hard. How many times have I heard the complaint that all the policy "think tanks" are in London? And yet, whenever a London-based thinker pontificates on a new way of civic leadership all roads lead to Albert Square. No model of governance could create what Manchester's civic entrepreneurs and political leaders have forged through their own endeavours.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “importing” from elsewhere. Nothing at all.

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