Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle

According to James Dyson the British are turning their backs on the things that once made them wealthy by studying humanities instead of science and technology. I reckon he’s onto something. Take me, for instance. I’m British. I have a BA in languages, an MPhil in European Literature and a PhD in German and I’ve never invented a single piece of useful household equipment in my life. I haven’t even had anything accepted by Take A Break’s Brainwaves Roadshow. And yes, it’s not very scientific to draw conclusions from just one example but I’m not very scientific. That’s the whole problem.

Dyson is worried, not just about getting vacuum cleaners around troublesome corners, but about the whole future of our nation:

Today we’re decadent. We’ve relaxed. […] If we want to be wealthy and have our welfare programmes we’ve got to create wealth.

Which is fair enough, although to be honest, rich businessmen have been saying this for centuries. They used to say it 200 years ago regarding the German Romantics and their “decadent” influence on youth (I know this because I studied it, pointlessly, when I really ought to have been working out a means of improving on the humble tumble dryer).

So anyhow, I’m sorry, nation and economy, for spending so much time pissing about. It’s not as though I was even any good at it. It took me two goes to get my doctorate. To call me a “failed academic” would be flattering, to say the least. All the same, it does irritate me to hear Dyson making sneery comments about “little Angelina wanting to go off to study French lesbian poetry”. First, the subject of my thesis was German, male and straight, so ner (that’s the kind of debating technique one learns in an arts seminar). Second, just what is your problem, James Dyson? Would you have said the same thing about Shakespeare (who may have much to say about the human condition but, as far as I’m aware, knew sod all about bagless vacuuming technology)? To me it sounds as though you’re using the example of an imaginary artist who’s foreign AND female AND not straight to add extra weight to the suggestion that the arts just aren’t relevant. Because clearly, normal people – those who could be (but aren’t) making Britain great – are British, male and straight. A bit like you, really.

I realise that in saying this, I’m starting to sound like a typical lefty arts student. I’ll be honest – arts students do have that reputation. But don’t be fooled. We’re not always as woolly as we seem. We might aim to be inclusive but that’s not to say it’s not often tokenistic. Many’s the time* I’ve sat around with a bunch of middle-class arty types debating marxist and feminist approaches to literature before the conversation’s moved on to mocking someone’s allegedly unattractive, uncultured cleaning lady. Even so, that’s not to say the inclusivity’s all lip service (or based on the fact that the more obscure the person you study, the fewer secondary materials you have to read. That’s true, but it’s not all down to that). The reception of good art – the kind of art that changes other people’s world views – doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes real treasures need to be dug out from all the prejudices that have buried them. And if you’re saying yeah, sure, but don’t expect other people to pay for it, well, sure. It’s a good thing AHRC funding is a complete bugger to access (although a pity this means promoters of diversity in the arts tend not to be very sodding diverse).

The truth is, I like vacuum cleaners. And I like books. What’s more, I don’t really believe absorption in the latter are responsible for the downfall of innovation or the decline of manufacturing industries (but that’s history. You don’t do history, James, do you? It’s one of the humanities, after all). Furthermore, things that improve our standard of living don’t just lie with science and technology. Sometimes good things come from arty-farty, pretentious, poncey, pondering types, the kind of people who don’t study disciplines where there are “right” answers (which, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t mean they’re easier. How many pre-teen prodigies do you see getting GCSE English Lit compared to maths and IT?). We gain from having people who reshape our cultural landscape and put things in new contexts. People who don’t use “lesbian” as a shorthand for irrelevant. People who challenge bigotry rather than flippantly reinforce it. Engagement with feminism and queer theory – when it’s done properly (i.e. not as disastrously as I used to do it) – can change people’s lives far more than a modification to a vacuum cleaner and the fact that it’s made one person very rich. While I have never owned a Dyson, I still have feminism. And yes, one cannot live on feminism alone, but that’s why I’ve bought a cheap Tesco model, complete with bag.

* Oh, okay, it was once.

PS Here it may sound like I am agreeing with Michael Gove for once. Rest assured I am not Michael Gove. Just in case you were wondering.

10 thoughts on “Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle

    1. No – and I think that’s the point (If someone were to buy me a Dyson – as in the vacuum cleaner not the person – I’d certainly appreciate it. But obviously in a different way to how I might appreciate The Second Sex).

  1. Useful as Dysons are (particularly in spider removal) maths made me cry and I would have no idea how to improve one and make millions! Except by maybe making the so-called “stair-hugging” variety lighter and smaller so it can be got upstairs more easily. But that’s besides the point. Even if more people did become huge manufacturers after university, what’s the liklihood that they would either move their business abroad or just decide they weren’t going to pay taxes here? If we want to create wealth, the first step is not to cut more from underfunded arts undergraduates in the hope or encouraging science degrees, it’s to tell Sir Phillip Green and the rest to cough up and stop hiding the huge profits they make. Logic!

  2. Bit rich coming from James Dyson, considering he fired his British workforce 10 years ago and exported their 800 jobs to Malaysia.
    Investing in our country’s future, eh James? Or just lining your own pockets by exploiting cheaper overseas labour, at the expense of the Brits you claim to be so worried about?
    Personally, I wouldn’t have a Dyson if they were giving them away. I own a Henry – made in Britain!

    1. Yes, I’ve never understood how people square being national “wealth creators” with aggressive outsourcing. It’s as though these two things take place entirely separately.
      I used to desperately want a Henry when I was little – now I’m grown up I could perhaps draw a face on my Tesco vacuum (doesn’t deal with any manufacturing morality issues, but solves the cuteness conundrum)

  3. Why are you getting all worked up man? Upibthinkm you are completely missing the point of Dyson’s comment…

    1. I’m not particularly worked up. Dyson is worried about people studying arts subjects, I’m not. If anything bothers me, it’s the subtext of his comment – and his choice of examples – which is not the same as what you might see as “the point”.

  4. One can neither live without art nor live without technology, at least living in a truly human sense not just breathing and waiting for food to appear. Both art and technology are areas of human innovation which are extremely important to a civilized lifestyle. Take either one away, and you’re left with sheer utter poverty.

    That having been said, it is wrong for anyone to be forced to pay for either art or technology which one doesn’t want. It doesn’t matter the reason – lack of affordability, different values/tastes, whatever. I pay for art I like, and I pay for technology I like. The government/state should have absolutely no role in influencing that decision nor in deciding the winners and losers in those economic areas. In the U.S., private schools allow families the ability to choose how their children will be educated, and strong private industry (both in the arts and in technology) allows individuals the ability to decide what wins in the market and what doesn’t. (Disclaimer: neither one is nearly free enough, and our government picks winners and losers much more than we like to think it does.) I suggest that we all move to a freer system, where the only form of protest one can properly make against the oh-so-offensive French lesbian poetry to which you refer is to simply not read it.

    Let me close by saying that art and technology frequently have everything to gain from each other, and a rational individual uses them both for the advantage of one’s overall human wellbeing. Did you know that a prominent American car manufacturer actually wrote renowned poet Marianne Moore for suggestions about the name for a car they were about to release? Perhaps vacuum cleaner producers have as much to gain from poets as poets do from them.

  5. I feel that Dyson is rather like the Dawkins of industrial technology. In a sen
    se I feel he’s right about the central issue, but boy, does he come across as a smug, posh, rich, hyper-entitled shit about it. And (in both cases) toppling over in “outright offensive” on occasion.

    I think the Two Cultures analysis is a tad simplistic here, though. Economically, the UK isn’t weird because of all the people writing poetry, but because it has an especially “capitalism will eat itself” financial sector, utterly out of whack with any sort of “real” economy. To which add, shockingly low social mobility due to a combination of a particularly regressive long-term political climate, and entrenched patronage and social privilege. And much else besides, before we get to Martha Kearny’s share of the blame.

    I do think if you were to look at the “high end mass media” (BBC Four, Radio 3, “broadsheet” newspapers (whatever actual sheet they’re in at the moment), you’d get an impression that does rather speak to the bias that Dyson is describing. “Polite society” has a much higher expectation of same sort of basic familiarity with “cultural matters” than with any sort of literacy in science. I’m not sure that’s a huge cause for we science nerds to be crying into our bran flakes in and of itself, but I do wonder what it trickles down to.

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