Paul Hirst and the London Consortium

Mark Cousins
15 July 2003

Read the reflections on Paul Hirst from his friends, colleagues, students, and Anthony Barnett’s tribute

The new graduate programme called the London Consortium became possible in the early 1990s, due to the accidental fact that Paul Hirst was across the way at Birkbeck, Colin McCabe at the British Film Institute (BFI) and from 1982, I found myself here at the Architectural Association (AA).

From the start we agreed that we were opposed to the increasingly extreme relativism of a lot of cultural studies, not because we were indifferent to the difference between cultures or groups, but because we thought that this relativism had led to increasing intellectual and political demobilisation. Despite the turn of politics in general, the particular evolution of all three of us from an early Maoism, through Althusser and into social democracy, brought us together.

Then there was the added fact, that from years back we all knew how to cooperate. Otherwise, it might well have been impossible to short cut the bureaucracy involved. That coincidence was helped on by the fact that we were all accomplished liars, able to persuade our institutions that this would be to their advantage, without being able at the time to offer any direct evidence.

What is the London Consortium?

The London Consortium is a federation made up of the Tate, Birkbeck College, the Architectural Association (AA) and the British Film Institute (BFI) – until the latter dropped out and was replaced by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). It was clear that this would make an interesting federation: a graduate school without its own space. We liked the idea of an itinerant institution which could dispense with unnecessary administration, placing on its students the inevitable burden of fabricating the identity of the place. This would assist in the aim of nurturing not just another graduate school, but an intellectual project which lay between all these institutions.

It was, to be sure, an open question whether people would respond: and fair to say that in the early years of our recruitment, we were very lucky in gaining a number of students who had an intuitive engagement with the project.

It was to some extent a graduate school for misfits: people who wanted to pursue a number of intellectual issues, and weren’t wildly excited by the depressed state of English universities. This was a real issue for us, starting in 1993. We wanted to produce an arrangement which was not depressed.

London played its part. If we didn’t want to base ourselves in the settled site of a university, then we were going to base ourselves in the city, without a site. Inevitably, the city immediately becomes much more important.

An element of mystery

The Consortium was duly established by a sort of treaty, signed in 1993. None of us had a clear idea as to what was going to happen. You have to imagine that each of its elements was asking, ‘What good do you bring us?’ And from the beginning, Paul was unbelievably talented at being able to answer this question.

I am sure Colin would not mind my saying this – neither Colin nor I are gifted as administrators. It was undoubtedly down to Paul’s strategic intelligence that the inevitable tensions of such a federation did not derail the project. He was simply able to establish the idea that ‘If it works, it will bring good to all of us’. This he offered us not only as a prospective ideal, but as a category of work which was tangible and for now. It persuaded people.

It may be that very few people, especially academics, actually try to think strategically. They are concerned to give you their opinions in general rather than to chart a way for the immediate future. Paul could be just as cross or as funny at meetings as other people, and just as opinionated – but perhaps unlike other people, his jokes and opinions were already directed towards a strategic outcome. It was this concentration upon the strategic question that produced results.

Everyone praises this elusive quality that Paul possessed. Everyone benefited from it, and in my case relied upon it. Now of course, since Paul’s death, if we are to survive successfully the question arises immediately, what was that remarkable quality? And the first thing to acknowledge is that there is a kind of mystery at stake.

A temperamental militancy

The problem in describing the evolution in the political thought of a man like Paul is how to protect that description from well-established clichés. A path can easily be obscured by cliché: and this is true in Paul’s case.

All sorts of tropes talk about the ultra-leftism of the young maturing in middle age to a settled social democrat decency which, of course, properly recognises the complication of the world and the limitation of our powers. But it is important to say, first of all, that Paul was always realistic. Indeed, that peculiar consistency to his thinking could be detected from the beginning.

At a certain point in time, the idea of a social revolution seemed a realistic idea. But if someone could demonstrate to him that instead of being a realistic objective it was a sentimental effusion – he would abandon it. What I am trying to say is that, despite all the major changes which Paul not only went through, but importantly inaugurated, ‘adjustment’ is not a useful way of describing it. If you could show that an object was not real, he would abandon it. It may take some patient working through, but ultimately it would happen. That, after all, is what he spent his time doing in the 1970s.

People have somewhat forgotten the period, from about 1973 – 1980, in which Paul and his collaborators were making a long slow march through Marx’s works, and the implications of a politics based on Marxism, throwing up new problems as they went. In that period, a large number of people who had recently discovered Marx and then Antonio Gramsci, were politically committed not just to the left, but to a revolutionary left. Like any political culture, the culture of this left was saturated in terms of loyalty and identification – categories Paul either had no use for, or – when it came to the consequences of intellectual argument – contempt.

During those years, he and Barry Hindess became one in many people’s fantasies. People used the term ‘Hindess and Hirst’ as if it were a single proper name. Their work acquired not only a large following, but a massive opposition. It is difficult now to remember that this opposition came both from the left and from what you might call the conservative social sciences, people who paradoxically found a way of admiring Marx in a patronising sort of way. It so happened that the more critical of Marx ‘Hindess and Hirst’ became, the more unacceptable they were both to a Marxist left, and to the liberal and conservative social scientists.

One of the ironies is that each time ‘Hindess and Hirst’ took a step forward, not only did the level of opposition increase, but to some extent, people followed five paces behind, from a distance. They wouldn’t accept the new move, but suddenly they had accepted a previous one.

Paul occupied, therefore, a paradoxical position in English sociology. But we speak in cliché about the ‘abandonment’ of earlier positions, as if parents had somehow left starving children behind them, orphaned by their progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1970s, Paul was elaborate in his testing. An object was well and truly dead, or fictional, or a fantasy, before he would move on. But having assured himself of that, he would indeed – move on.

I think this is very important, because it also meant that he brought to his more social democrat period a heritage of militancy. I don’t mean militancy of means, but certainly a militancy of temperament. His contemptuous judgment on the British political class, far from diminishing, actually grew with the evolution of his views. The fact that the social democrat position could engage with real issues, merely upped the level of his antagonism and contempt for the fact that it didn’t. Our political masters’ continuous failure to be serious increased Paul’s fury with them.

Let me put it the other way round. There is a certain complacency in being a revolutionary, because the idiocy of the political class is simply what you would predict – o or actually welcome, in the hope that people will become disillusioned. When, on the other hand, you are fighting on the same terrain, the lack of imagination and pusillanimous relation to real political change – for example the concerns of Charter 88 – become a reason for increasing one’s anger, not for assuaging it.

‘Associationalism’: thinking about democracy

In order to think strategically, Paul would wish to travel light. People were always seeking to embody principles, which he discouraged. Nevertheless, as the years passed, we had all agreed that one of the projects of the Consortium was to denounce ‘education’.

Not so much a disagreement with, but a downright hatred for the culture of British universities, its academic categories, and the educationalist discussion, united us. We had several times thought of trying to float collective research into the absurdities of the Blairite attempt to regulate universities through ‘quality assurance’. We were all convinced that this was an awful waste of time.

But it is important to add that for Paul there was an additional dimension to that critique. People are sometimes baffled by his choice of the tradition of associationalism as an important resource. This occurred as Paul became increasingly hostile to statist regulation, a rejection manifesting itself in a number of ways, including, for example, his commitment to serious constitutional reform.

Paul had come to believe that while left projects in the late 1970s and early 1980s had certainly come to terms with parliamentary democracy, they had nonetheless foolishly mortgaged off this new commitment to what you might call a purely representative democratic model. Paul was extremely sceptical about the idea of deepening democracy through models of representative democracy alone. The very interesting book anticipating democratic associationalist themes published in the early twenties by G.D.H.Cole, Social Theory, actually begins by saying that it is an absurdity to suppose that one person can represent another.

Of course, Paul accepted that the national political system had to be based, albeit reformed, on a model of representation. But that merely underscored for him the fact that this system would be inadequate to the task of what people then called ‘democratising society’.

At the theoretical level, associationalism gave him an instrument to think about the ways in which democracy is always participatory. If people have a vote and access to decision-taking through voting, it should be because of their participation in something, rather than their being ‘someone to be represented’. On the spectrum of Paul’s thinking from revolutionary to social democrat, this is actually a part of his Maoist heritage. One slogan in the Cultural Revolution was, ‘No representation without prior investigation’ – the idea that decisions taken should be the product of work done towards the project in hand.

In Paul’s thinking, this deepens into the requirement to bring the whole idea of democracy into a relationship with the institution. People frequently speak – and I am sure that they are right – of a continuity between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair which is nowhere more evident than in their apparently almost equivalent hatred of the independence of institutions. What associationalism crucially gave Paul was a way of crystallising his concern with institutions.

His radical egalitarianism, his commitment to the informality of institutional life, his commitment to the respect that others should be paid in institutions, was an effect of his concern with the ways in which an institution can function freely and imaginatively. It wasn’t just that Paul was saying, ‘Institutions should be democratised’ – that these things are ethically right and proper. Nor did this always have to be formalised in terms of a vote.

Forging a creative institution

Paul was convinced that a healthy – and therefore democratic and egalitarian institution is the condition of creativity. Not much concerned with psychological theories of creativity, still less of intelligence – for him the intelligence of institutions lay in the way in which they organised their decision-making, production of ideas and internal life. That was a political, rather than just an ethical matter.

Precisely for those reasons, Paul was not afraid of the fact that someone with knowledge might have more influence than someone with less. He was not at all nervous about issues of leadership. But the point is that those questions cannot be taken independently of the institutional commitment to freedom.

Paul wrote an extremely interesting article on the nature of the Architectural Association as an institution. The AA was founded by students in the 1840s and has always been a participatory self-regulatory democracy, with a constitution which enables its students to choose and elect their chairman.

As Paul pointed out, you can’t leave it there. You must ask: what are the institutional internal consequences? In comparison to public sector higher education, the answer is relatively little administration or bureaucracy, enough to serve immediate requirements. Secondly, those who administer are fully part of the community. ‘The Administration’ doesn’t exist.

One of the Open University administrators who validate our graduate programme once asked us, mystified, ‘You’ve lost me – where do you take the following decisions?’ Finally, someone from the AA piped up with, ‘On the stairs’ – a mismatch of language which is profound. For myself as well as for Paul, those elements were deeply connected to the success of the AA.

What the Consortium did was bring us all together to teach. There have been times for all the participants in the Consortium, I am sure, when they have sat in cross meetings thinking, did they really want to be here? But they had only to consider what it would be like to sit in a departmental meeting to realise that the answer had to be ‘Yes’. How we sometimes went about our business would certainly shock the high priests of ‘quality assurance’. On the other hand, I think we took our relation to the student work much more seriously. One core principle was that students had a need and a right to expect the most detailed response to their essays and the most careful reading. I have never been anywhere where that aspect of the work has been undertaken so seriously. And again, I can’t think that this was the case, without also thinking that it was Paul who installed that.

When it started, Paul and I used to teach a course together on Kant and aesthetics. We did that happily for a number of years. Paul was also engaged in teaching some of the research seminars for the PhD students as well as taking on a mountain of supervision for PhD students.

Then in a second round of courses, he was delighted to offer a first year course on ‘Shit and Civilisation’. It gave him great pleasure to use the word ‘shit’, as the name of a course in higher education. He had a glee about it. At the same time he was seriously committed to it. He had a vast knowledge of lavatories, of forms of sewage system, but also about the role that shit played in contemporary French psychoanalysis and philosophy. He taught another interesting course called, ‘The Underground’ which was an examination of a whole range of institutions – everything from hell to the London underground – if indeed there is any difference.

We have an MA course which leads if students want to their PhD. They are assigned supervisors both within a core of supervisors who have been with the Consortium since it was founded, and increasingly from new teachers we have drawn in. Here again, Paul had a very strong strategic sense. He would think, don’t let’s try to answer ultimate questions, let’s just build up the programme.

For a number of students who not only pursued their PhD, but strongly identified with the Consortium as the years wore on, Paul was the focal point. He was assiduous in trying to get them bits of money, junior research fellowships, so that even if we couldn’t keep them forever – they would stay with us for long enough to become a crucial part of our expanding activities.

Without them, we would not have been able to mount the beginnings of a successful summer school last year, and a summer programme this year to an American university, as well as publishing student essays. The hope is that the Consortium itself, as a continuing, functioning graduate programme, is sufficiently successful to keep everyone happy, the four institutions included.

That Paul inspired enormous loyalty, I have no doubt. But no one was more aware than he of what you might call the dangerous aspects of loyalty. He took to heart the idea stemming from psychoanalysis, that while the patient will develop enormous feelings of transference to the analyst – it is the role of the analyst always having analysed that transference, to as Freud put it, ‘liquidate it’. That is in effect to say: I am not the person that you wish me to be. I am not the person you fantasise that I am. This really is a great gift, because it is the only condition in which what you might call freedom is returned to the student.

I think that across higher education, one has always seen a mayhem of un-liquidated transferences. But in Paul’s case I have rarely met such an exemplary teacher, who would always return the student’s liberty to them, even if that wasn’t exactly what the student wanted. He just knew that that was what the student needed.

The way he was

It is difficult to speak of Paul’s death as a public event, because one is so exercised by it as a private event. Even at this point I think it is astonishing to recognise from within my private feelings the sheer number of those who are grieving. I had thought that I knew perfectly well the range of people whom Paul knew and worked with. And then you find that you didn’t.

Moreover, it is difficult to speak of someone whom you have so taken for granted over thirty years, that one stumbles completely about what to say, simply because of the withdrawal of that taken-for-granted thing.

After Paul’s death I came into my office, to find that the first three messages on the phone were from Paul, entirely concerned with the fate of two PhD students – anxious that they got what they needed. It was upsetting, but also typical that he ended the phone calls on a note of such imperturbably generous impulse.

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