University challenged

Ansgar Allen – The Sick List (Boiler House Press)

The premise of this book – its vehicle – is that an unknown academic in an un-named university is stalking another member of staff called Gordon, who keeps getting books out of the library and annotating them, often idiosyncratically, in green ink.

This book addresses – in Nietzschean style – the death of the university, the death of thought, and the end of the enlightenment, as we cling to its wreckage in freezing waters, under burning skies.

Later, the Austrian misanthrope Thomas Bernhard is summoned, both explicitly and in terms of ‘spirit’.

Some of the work is communicated via its formalism: This book tests your patience, it repeats itself. The one or two ideas on the go in any particular section are put several different ways before we are allowed to move on. This mocks the academic monograph, in which the runny jam of a malnourished intellect is spread impossibly thinly across the surface of each chapter.

Even the green ink signifies: Neither the default black or blue are employed, or the erasable pencil, and certainly not the photocopier-invisible light blue pencil; Green ink is the weirdzone of the writer/vandal Gordon.

For Allen, the intellect crawls into monographs to die. No useful work is done in the university anymore. Thought is completely blocked or almost totally hampered by its structures. The books Gordon gets out of the library – for instance Laporte’s History of Shit, and a book about the fart in the medieval era – double down on the battered university with a fierce scatalogical attack.

Allen’s previous book Wretch has a dimension exploring excrement and waste too. The narrator lives in a cell where he makes copies of copies of copies. In the middle of the cell is a kind of anus/toilet.

This theme flashes up again later as a revolutionary one. Our narrator cites Pierre Leroux, explaining how the sale of shit back into the system as a fuel for agriculture might render poverty a thing of the past.

Books are a kind of excretion. Even academics are coming into the system in order to be shat out. One retires. Our narrator starts to annotate a new copy of Laporte’s History of Shit as though he is Gordon, his quarry. There is a whiff of the oedipal dimension of universities here. Ambitious members of staff have eyes on the seats of their supposed superiors.

In some ways The Sick List is a more narrowly applied version of Wretch. In other ways, it stands alone, but the author has a singular and consistently recognisable voice. We are watching a body of work take shape, and it is an important one. The copies of copies of copies being made in Wretch mirror the recycling of half-read academic works into a grey pulp with a university stamp on it, some dead, some currently trending.

My insouciant, buried, working class self – only a centimetre from the surface at any time – objects that if the university is so bad then try factories. But I know a man who worked in South Wales collieries and claims that his work in Higher Education as a lecturer damaged him far more than his time down the pits.

When I worked in universities, I found myself compromised. Caught between the well-intentioned left-wing struggles and the dismantling of universities, and their retrofitting as businesses.

Despite this, as time passed, I felt less and less able to defend what happened in the places where I worked. As I wrote elsewhere, ‘I lost my faith, but losing your faith, in places like these, is faith.’ To not lose your faith, here, is to achieve a state of willful amnesia. It is not to achieve a graceful state of deep and great commitment.

The words ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’ are badges hung on the wrong people. Like Greenland and Iceland, their names need to swapped. The unions are conservative and the right are a radical right.

The switch needs to be made again to an era in which the left dismantle and rebuild and the right try weakly and futilely to defend their indefensible.

But The Sick List barely touches on the economics of the university. It stays with the production of knowledge, or rather, its lack, or its performative mimesis. It remains on the interior plane of the university floor.

It does not describe university architecture in great detail, at the same time as it conjures it up by default. When reading The Sick List I am at all times in a relatively new Manchester campus building where I once worked. The vast atrium provided a vertigo view from the top floor. The fuzzy-felt of the furniture on the expensive raw concrete is an aesthetic I named, in my head, ‘Ikea Infanticide’. If you wanted to commit suicide on a Manchester campus, that would be the ‘go-to’ place.

The Sick List is part of the ‘creative-critical’ literary zone, where to be critical is to involve formally innovative approaches. It uses the university as its stage set and the tedious monograph as a formal template of send-up. The text does not allow us either a paragraph or chapter break. This book is an assault on many levels.

The Sick List might be the ur-Creative Critical text, and if it is, it is the ur-Creative Critical text as sheer negation. It is the absolute zero degree nadir, from which someone, impossibly, might start to make a utopian push upwards.

Steve Hanson

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