Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle

James Dyson is dead wrong - studying things like "French lesbian poetry” can make people's lives better, even if they don't suck dirt up off carpets.

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 (ie 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.

This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog.

James Dyson would like us all to get rich by inventing things like this. Photograph by Nimbu on Flicker, via Creative Commons

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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