Dirty Bomb Culture: A Social Science Fiction

Abstract  for colloquium on Drone Culture, School of the Humanities, University of Lincoln, May 24th 2014:


This paper is a response to a call by Benjamin Noys  to rehabilitate a thinking of negativity against the affirmationalist impulse of contemporary continental theory (2012 ix). Following Noys (2012 172), I claim the recovery of negative critique is not only a theoretical issue, but is a practical problem requiring new forms of actually existing radical subjectivities to emerge. In an society where surveillance has become an increasingly effective dominant principle: ‘Drone Culture’, it is important that these new forms of radical subjectivity become invisible. I offer two devices through which invisibility might be achieved: as  form of ‘collective political agency’ (Noys 2012), and Social Science Fiction, a writerly technique which dissolves the identity of the author into the story they are writing about ( Neary 2003).

The Social Science Centre was established in 2011 by academics and students at Lincoln outside of any formal university structures as a critical response to the massive rise in student fees and the withdrawal of all public funding for teaching the arts, humanities and the social sciences in higher education.  The Social Science Centre is a cooperative that provides free public higher education, managed by the members of the Centre on principles of democracy and equality. This cooperative model for higher education challenges notions of academic professional identity. The Social Science Centre’s very existence provokes a negative critique of academic life: suggesting that substantive critical thought might no longer be possible inside an institution founded on the notions of student as consumer and pedagogy of debt. Contra the pedagogy of debt, I argue the Social Science Centre is grounded in a pedagogy of  hate, rather than  Paulo Freire’s ‘pedagogy of love’, against what the neoliberal model of higher education has become.

Social Science Fiction is  a writerly  form of experimental social science (Neary 2003). My version of social science fiction involves using literary techniques derived from modernist literature,e.g., montage, cut-ups and  interior monologue, to represent the complex nature of social reality in a textual form (Lodge 2011). A key feature of this technique is the way in which it allows the author to deal with issues of identity and non-identity that get beyond the limits of traditional academic writing to create a condition of invisibility.

The substantive issue of the paper is a critique of increasing militarised state violence: drone culture, through an exploration  of leftist political violence –  as a very particular form of negativity (e.g. divine violence, Benjamin, Thesis IX 1968; emancipatory violence Zizek  2009 174; guerilla warfare Guevara 1961)  –  to assess its claims for legitimacy in response to state terror. The writerly exercise  remembers the  activities of The Angry Brigade in the UK in the 1970s ( Vague 1997,  Carr 2010, The Angry Brigade 1985) and the Baader-Meinhof group in the two Germanies before re-unification ( Aust 2008, Smith 2009, Baudrillard 2001). The paper concludes by reviewing some strategies  that have  emerged as forms of resistance to the authoritarian violence of the capitalist state and the ‘violence of abstraction’ (Lefebvre 1991 306) : invisibility (Invisible Committee 2009), class suicide (Freire 1978  103-104), going underground (Nuttall 1968) and the Zapatistas’ war against oblivion (Ramirez 2008 36).


Adorno, T. (1973) Negative Dialectics, Routledge, London and New York: http://www.8pic.ir/images/w5yakrofzvfrp7dljv7g.pdf

Aust,  S. (2008) The Baader-Meinhof Complex, Bodley Head, London

Baudrillard, J. (2001) ‘Our Theatre of Cruelty’, C. Krauss and S. Lottringer (eds) Hatred of Capitalism, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles: 51 – 56

Benjamin, W. (1968) ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations, Schoken Books, New York: pages Carr, G. (2010) The Angry Brigade: A History of Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group, PM Press, Oakland CA – https://libcom.org/files/Angry%20Brigade%20Book.pd

Eagleton, T. (2003) Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, Blackwell, Oxford

Freire, P. (1978) Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea-Bissau, Continuum, New York

Guevara, G. (1961) Guerilla Warfare: A Method , Monthly Review Press, New York

Holloway, J., Matamoros, F. and Tischler, S. (eds) (2009) Negativity and Revolution: Adorno and Political Activism, Pluto Press Invisible Committee (2009) The Coming Insurrection, Semiotexte, Los Angeles

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, Blackwell, Oxford

Lodge, D. (2011) The Art of Fiction, Vintage, London

Neary, M. (2003) ‘All Power to the Power Workers: emerging from the darkness, electricity and progressive politics in South Korea – a social science fiction’, Korean Transformations: Power Workers, Probation and the Politics of Human Rights, Sungkonghoe University, Resource Center for Asian NGOs: 64-118

Noys, B. (2012) The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh

Nuttall, J. (1968) Bomb Culture, MacKibbon and Kee, London

Ramirez, G. M.,  The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement, City Limits, San Francisco

Smith, J. (2009) Red Army Faction, Volume 1 – Projectiles for the People, PM Press, Oakland CA

The Angry Brigade (1985) Documents and Chronology 1967-1984: http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/various-authors-the-angry-brigade-documents-and-chronology-1967-1984, accessed 16th February 2014

Vague, T. (1997) Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade, AK Press, London, Edinburgh and San Franscisco

Welcome Collection (2011) Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life, Exhibition, London

Zizek, S. (2009) Violence, Profile Books, London

Student as Producer: reinventing the undergraduate curriculum through systematic and cultural change

Please see these notes for my talk at the Warwick Universities Summit, 2014, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

15th February, 2014

Thank you for inviting me. It is a pleasure to be here, to share my ideas and my work with you.

I have been asked to speak to the topic: The Measure of a Good Education.

The title for my talk is –  Student as Producer: reinventing the undergraduate curriculum through systematic and cultural change.

There are three parts to my talk which will last twenty minutes:

1. Critique of  the National Student Survey, an influential measure of student satisfaction:  academics argue that the NSS tends towards  instrumental, functionalist and conformist forms of teaching and learning.

2. Alternatives (formal-inside HE) Student as Producer:  reinventing higher education  through a systematic cultural institutional change by re-engineering the relationship between research and teaching so undergraduate students become part of the academic project of the university.  Currently this work is ongoing at the University of Lincoln, as part of an approach to teaching and learning in higher education that began at Warwick and Oxford Brookes University in 2004 with The Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research. The work has continued at Warwick through  Reinvention: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research, published jointly with Monash University in Australia.

3. Alternatives (informal- outside HE)  Social Science Centre, Lincoln, a worker-student cooperative providing free public higher education, attempting to create a new form of ‘living knowledge’  (Roggero 2011): systemic and cultural change at the level of society.

I will conclude with some remarks about the future of the future, and how it has not yet been decided.

1. National Student Survey (NSS)

Since its introduction in 2005 the NSS has come to play a very significant role in academic life, setting measurable standards for the quality of teaching and learning in higher education (Hagyard 2009, Sabri 2011, Buckley 2012). These measures create a competitive environment among Higher Education providers, requiring them to compare each other’s performance as part of National League Tables (Amsler and Bolsman 2012). The NSS has consistently recorded that the quality of teaching and learning is of a high standard (Hagyard 2009). The non-public information derived from the NSS, which includes qualitative comments by students, provides ‘fascinating insights’ into students’ experience of higher education (Surridge 2006, 2007). The NSS generates important information for Higher Education providers on matters relating to the effects of age, ethnicity, gender and disability on student satisfaction (Hagyard 2009). 


The NSS has attracted a considerable amount of criticism from academics (Harvey 2008). Foremost among these criticisms are:

* The survey casts students in the role of passive consumers, when the imperative for the most progressive Higher Education Institutions is to encourage their students to actively engage in both the learning and quality enhancement processes (Sabri 2011, Kuh 2009)

* The NSS is seen as part of an increasingly bureaucratic approach to teaching and learning that reduces the role of academics in the governance and management of their own professional practices (Shattock 2012)

* The difference between university scores can, in some cases, be regarded as statistically insignificant (Hagyard 2009)

* The notion of ‘student satisfaction’ implies a phenomenological approach to pedagogy with no external reference point and grounded in cognitive psychology, while all the time privileging rational-choice theories of human behaviour (Sabri 2011, Amsler and Bolsman 2012)

* This neo-positivist approach to gathering data-driven intelligence about students underplays the social and political issues that lie at the heart of education practices and policies (Sabri 2011).

League Tables

The critiques of the NSS form part of wider dissatisfaction relating to national and international leagues tables in general, where league tables are seen as elitist and exclusionary, leading to the alignment of higher education with neo-liberal rationalities, extending marketised imperatives into every aspect of university life (Amsler and Bolsman 2012, Baker 2010, Stensaker 2005 Morgan 2010, Marginson 2007). It appears as if the main purpose of the NSS is to provide a measure by which Universities can be graded rather than a reliable basis for improvements in teaching and learning (Harvey 2008). In Germany academics are boycotting University rankings, casting doubt on their methodology and motivations, while producing their own alternative method of scholarly evaluation (Universities in Crisis 2013, Mechan Schmidt 2013, Amsler 2013).

Academics argue that the most effective way to improve higher education is through systematic and cultural change at the institutional level (Hagyard 2009). This whole institutional approach needs to be based on a vision of teaching and learning that is shared across the institution (Sabri 2011, Bovill in press). While responding directly to student views and opinions about their learning is important, there is a danger that instrumental approaches to teaching improvement create the kind of teaching regimes that are not the most effective in achieving student success (Kuh 2009). This instrumentalism is seen  in the nature of the questions on teaching and learning in the current NSS, encouraging pedagogical practices that are antithetical to higher learning: Q1 promotes transmission teaching based on the clarity of lecturers’ explanations rather than enquiry-based teaching; Q3 focuses on the performance of the teacher rather than the quality of the learning environment.

HEFCE/HEA Evaluation

Limitations with the current NSS format have been recognised by HEFCE, who have commissioned a pilot study by the HEA. This pilot is complemented by a HEFCE consultation about possible revisions to the current NSS, with the possible intention to introduce a new questionnaire after 2016. It is likely the new format will have a more student engagement focus based on national student engagement surveys already in existence, e.g., in the USA and Australia (Grove 2013). The difference between engagement focused and more consumerist surveys is that while consumerist surveys  focus on what educational offer is made to  students,  student engagement surveys  focus on student involvement  with what is offered (Van der Velden in Buckley 2012).

2. Student as Producer: Mind-Set not Data-Set

How can academics and students  respond positively to the current NSS framework?  The main issue is finding a way to use student intelligence not just as a data-set to which the institution responds, but as a mind-set: an attitude that recognises that students are intelligent subjects with the capacity and potential for enhancing not only the student experience but the quality of academic life.

As we have seen, academics argue the most effective way to improve teaching and learning in  higher education is through systematic and cultural change at the institutional level (Hagyard 2009). This whole institutional approach needs to be based on a vision of teaching and learning that is shared across the institution (Sabri 2011).

At Lincoln that shared vision of teaching and learning is Student as Producer.

Student as Producer is the organising principle for teaching and learning at Lincoln, and the core element of the University’s teaching and learning plan. Student as Producer promotes research-engaged teaching as the default type of teaching and learning across all courses at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. The key principle is that undergraduate students become part of the academic project and culture of the university. Examples of Student as Producer at Lincoln includes student work in the Life Science: Biobunch and in the Humanities Making Digital History.

Student as Producer is based on the understanding that research and teaching have become disengaged in ways  that are detrimental to academic and student life (Boyer1990). Student as Producer is not simply about teaching and learning, but asks fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of higher education: promoting ‘the idea of the university’, as a radical political project. Student as Producer is derived from a critique of ‘academic capitalism’  and  is an act of resistance to the concept of student as consumer. Student as Producer is aware that a free university is only possible in a free society;  otherwise it’s a reading room in a prison  (After the Fall: Communiques from Occupied California 2009).

There is much that can be said about all of this, not least the theoretical underpinnings of Student as Producer and its grounding in critical and popular pedagogies, including the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Student as Producer is derived from the title of Benjamin’s lecture, ‘Author as Producer’ (1934), which attempted to answer the question: ‘How do radical intellectuals act in a moment of crisis? Not all academics at Lincoln are revolutionary Marxists, nor do they all concur with the political philosophy on which Student as Producer is constructed, but many have sought to implement Student as Producer through their own pragmatic, as they might see it, variations. Student as Producer provides a critical framework through which the current nature of academic labour and student life can be considered as an alternative to the managerialist and business logic which has become the  commonsensical language and hegemonic discourse of higher education.

I have written more on this subject and  would like to point you in the direction of that literature (Neary 2012a, 2012b, 2012c; Neary and Amsler  2012; Neary and Hagyard 2011; Neary 2013;  Neary 2014 ). Perhaps I can elaborate on some of  these theoretical points  further during the question and answer session.

Student as Producer has had a significant impact at Lincoln and at other HEI providers nationally, for example, here at Warwick, Liverpool University, the University of Hertfordshire;  and internationally, for example,Vanderbilt University in the USA and the University of British Columbia in Canada. Student as Producer has played a key role in promoting the notion of student engagement and Student as Partners, sponsored by the QAA and the HEA. The danger is that the radical agenda of Student as Producer will be overwhelmed by the logic of the neo-liberal university. The response by some academics and students at Lincoln has been to further radicalise this work by the invention of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln.

3. Social Science Centre, Lincoln

The Social Science Centre, Lincoln provides free cooperative higher education. The Centre has no formal connection with the University of Lincoln.The SSC was set up in 2010 in response to the massive rise in student fees and the withdrawal of all public funds for teaching in the arts, humanities and the social sciences. The Centre uses free available public space in Lincoln, for example, libraries, community centres, museums, art galleries and common land.  Students can study for awards that  correspond to higher education degrees,  granted not by any national validating body but by academics and students (scholars) involved in the Centre, including external members. There is no fee. Members are invited to make a contribution based on their ability to pay. Scholars manage the Centre in  non-hierarchical and democratic ways based on consensual decision making. There are currently more than twenty registered members of the SSC with over 100 names on the mailing list. The SSC has attracted considerable attention: a recent feature article in the Times Higher Education ( May 2013) described the Centre as ‘Something New in Freedom.’ You can also read about the SCC in Adults Learning, published in Spring 2012 by the National Institute for Adult and Community Education. The title of the article is ‘Anyone can teach, everyone can learn.’  In November 2013 members of the SSC were asked to write an article for Radical Philosophy: An Experiment in Free Co-operative Higher Education.

The SSC is part of a  movement to create alternative forms of higher education in the UK, which includes Peoples Political Economy, the Free University Brighton, Ragged University, Cardiff Free University; and internationally, including Edu-factory and the Knowledge Liberation Front.  You can trace some of these projects on a counter-cartographies map curated by my PhD student, Gary Saunders.

The SSC is an attempt to make  systematic and cultural change not within an already existing institution, but as a new form of social institution. This is what Roggero means by ‘living knowledge’.

The future?

Academics argue that the profit motive of academic capitalism, and the measuring systems through which it endures, are antithetical to the academic imperative that seeks  to produce of knowledge and meaning for the benefit of humanity and nature. It is important that those of us who share this academic imperative develop critical interventions that provide  ways of working together as academics and students  based on the politics of abolition,  collaboration, co-operation, democracy, equality and social justice. It is vital that these critical interventions seek to impact not only at the level of the institution, but at the level of society ( Fielding and Moss 2008). The future has not yet been decided!

Further reading

Amsler, S. and Bolsman, C. (2012) ‘University Ranking as Social Exclusion’, British Journal of Sociology of Education (33) 2 283-301

Baker, S. 2010. Share value? Plans to aid creation of HE plc. Times Higher Education, 19th August http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode= 26&storycode=413093&c=1.

Bovill, C. (in press) An investigation of co-created curricula within higher education in the UK, Ireland and the USA, Innovations in Education and Teaching International

Boyer, E. ( 1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: The Priorities of  Professoriate, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Princeton, MA

Buckley, A. (2012) Making it Count: Reflecting on the National Student Survey in the Process of Enhancement, Higher Education Academy, York

Crawford, K. (2013) Report on College of Social Science Workshop to Explore Action Plans Resulting from 2012-2013 Student Surveys, Education Committee, University of Lincoln 25 September

Fielding, M. and Moss, P. (2008 ) Radical Education and the Common School: A Democratic Alternative, Routledge, London and New York

Grove, J. (2013) ‘Hold Bad News About Grades Until After the NSS’, Times Higher Education, 15th August

Hagyard, A. (2009) ‘Student Intelligence: Challenging Received Surveys in Student Surveys’  in L Bell, H Stevenson and M Neary The Future of Higher Education, Continuum, London and New York 112 – 125

Harvey, L. (2008) Jumping Through Hoops on a White Elephant: a survey signifying nothing, Times Higher Education, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/402335.article, June 12th

Kuh, G.D. (2009) The National Survey of Student Engagement: Conceptual and Empirical Foundations, New Directions for Institutional Research  (141) 5 – 20

Marginson, S. (2007) University Rankings, Government and Social Order  http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/people/staff_pages/Marginson/Simons_et_al_chapter%28Marginson%29-0707.pdf.

Mechan Schmidt, F, (2013) ‘German Academics Boycott CHE ranking system’ Times Higher Education, 21st March http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/german-academics-boycott-che-ranking-system/2002595.article

Morgan, J. (2010) Higher Education Becomes a Globally Traded Commodity as Demand Soars, Times Higher Education 22nd July 6–7.

Neary, M (2012) Student as producer: an institution of the common? [or how to recover communist/revolutionary science].’ , Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, Higher Education Academy, York http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/disciplines/social-sciences/ELiSS0403A_Guest_paper.pdf

Neary, M. (2012b) ‘Teaching Politically: Policy, Pedagogy and the New European University’, Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2) http://www.jceps.com/index.php?pageID=article&articleID=266

Neary, M. and Amsler, A. (2012) ‘Occupy: A New Pedagogy of Space and Time’,Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10(2) http://www.jceps.com/?pageID=article&articleID=277

Neary, M. and Hagyard, A. (2011) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy for Student Life, In M. Molesworth, E. Nixon and R. Scullion, (eds) The Marketisation of Higher Education and Student as Consumer, Routledge, London and New York:  http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/files/2010/10/Pedagogy-of-Excess-preprint.pdf

Neary, M. ( 2012c) ‘Beyond Teaching in Public: The University as a Form of Social Knowing’ in M Neary, H Stevenson and L Bell ( eds) Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University, Continuum, London and New York

Neary, M. (2014), “The university and the city: Social Science Centre, Lincoln – forming the urban revolution”, in Temple, P. (ed) The Physical University: Contours of space and place in higher education. Abingdon: Routledge

Neary, M. (2013) ‘Student as Producer: Radicalising the Mainstream in Higher Education’ in E. Dunn and D. Owen, The Student Engagement Handbook: Practice in Higher Education, Emerald Books, Bingley

Roggero, G. ( 2011) The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Academic Labour in Europe and North America, Temple University Press

Sabri, D,  (2011) ‘What’s Wrong with the Student Experience’ Discourses: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education  32(5) 657 667

Shattock, M (2012) Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945 – 2011, McGraw Hill, Maidenhead and New York

Stensaker, B. (2005) ‘Strategy, identity and branding: Re-inventing Higher Education Institutions’, Paper presented to the City Higher Education Seminar Series (CHESS), City University, London, UK 7th December

Surridge, P. (2006) The National Student Survey 2005: Findings, HEFCE Report

Surridge, P (2007) The National Student Survey 2006: Findings, HEFCE Report
Universities in Crisis (2013) Germans Boycott University Rankings  http://www.isa-sociology.org/universities-in-crisis/?p=1003

Professor of Sociology

This announcement has been posted today on the University of Lincoln’s internal website:

Professor Mike Neary: change of role

After seven years as Dean of Teaching and Learning and three years as Director of the Graduate School, Professor Mike Neary has decided to relinquish both roles in order to allow him to focus on his research and teaching.

Mike will join the School of Social and Political Sciences as Professor of Sociology and will make a major contribution to the development of the School’s new Sociology degree, which recruits its first students in September this year. Mike will also continue to supervise his PhD and EdD students, working closely with colleagues in the Centre for Educational Research and Development.

Mike joined Lincoln in 2007 from the University of Warwick where he had been the Director of the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, a collaborative Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning between the Department of Sociology at Warwick and the School of the Built Environment at Oxford Brookes University.

On moving to Lincoln Mike established the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) to provide leadership in developing a new vocabulary of teaching and learning within the institution. As Dean of Teaching and Learning, Mike led a number of projects which have had a transformative effect on teaching and learning. Two of these deserve special mention. The first was the Learning Landscapes project, a HEFCE-funded, Lincoln-led project which explored the relationship between space, spatiality and radical participative pedagogies. The lessons learnt from this project can be seen in many of the University’s new and existing buildings.

Mike’s second major institutional project, which has been adopted as the central organising principle of the University’s Teaching and Learning Strategy, is Student as Producer. This Lincoln-led project was  HEA-funded and has gained considerable recognition not only nationally but internationally, and contributed significantly to the University achieving a commendation for its enhancement of student learning opportunities in its QAA institutional review in 2012.

After devoting so much time and commitment to these and other teaching and learning projects, as well as chairing three of the University’s important academic committees, Mike has decided that it is time to reclaim his academic roots. I am delighted that Mike has chosen to remain at Lincoln to lend his considerable expertise in the field of Sociology to our new venture in this field. I would also like to record my thanks for Mike’s continued commitment to the Lincoln project and his legacy which has provided the foundations for the future.

I am sure colleagues will wish to join me in thanking Mike and wishing him well in his new role with us.

Professor Scott Davidson

Deputy Vice Chancellor