Sir James Dyson Likes Vacuums, Dislikes French Lesbian Poetry

Unlike Romney and feminism, NOM and gay marriage, and DeAnne Smith and early-morning sunshine, vacuum cleaners and French lesbian poetry are not obvious enemies. I want to believe that like an old, ill-matched married couple, they can peacefully exist side by side resigned to not having much in common. Imagine how wonderful it would be to take a class on French lesbian poetry in university, but wait, who’s that British man in a suit, aspirating your French lesbian poetry textbooks into his bag-free vacuum cleaner? It’s Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dual Cyclones Vacuum cleaner and enemy of French lesbian poetry! I’m not sure if it’s specifically the lesbians, the French, the poetry, or a combination of all three that gets Dyson in a jam. But whether it’s because of homophobia, an anti-humanities bias, or good old fashioned French/English rivalry, earlier this month he complained that too many young people still want to “go off to study French lesbian poetry.”

Luckily, British Education Secretary Michael Gove has criticized Dyson, rightly calling him a part of “the anti-intellectual strain in British life.” His comments come amidst an increase in the number of students choosing math, science, and technology programs instead of Arts and Humanities ones. Gove called the idea that schoolchildren are better off learning a trade than going to university “fatalistic,” and that it risks fuelling a bias “against knowledge and a suspicion of education as a good in itself.” I’d say studying French lesbian poetry in England is especially important considering that the French, the lesbians, and the poets are in the minority, and I’m of the mindset that a country that doesn’t study and respect its minorities has a long way to go. Dyson’s nightmare in which the French lesbian poets take over the manufacturing world couldn’t be further from reality. In fact, I would argue there’s not enough French lesbian poetry in university textbooks, in England or anywhere. In the Gay and Lesbian Writing section of The Oxford Companion to French Literature, there are only two lesbian writers mentioned: Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney. Wouldn’t it be great if Dyson’s comments spark an interest in French lesbian poets?

Renée Vivien, French (though English-born) lesbian poet

In my high school we were repeatedly encouraged to pursue the trades instead of a university education. There’s nothing wrong with studying math or science, but there’s also nothing wrong with studying the Arts. Earning a degree in English literature is as commendable as getting one in engineering. Contrary to popular belief, writing and reading at a scholarly and professional level is actually hard work. We don’t just sit around in English classes painting our nails to match book covers while gossiping about those gosh-darn Romantics. Sir Dyson and anyone who agrees with him needs to understand that the Arts encourage the opposite of frivolity; they encourage rigorous and critical thought. Granted, I’ve taken my fair share of mind-numbing jobs because earning money is necessary, but thanks to reading and writing I’m able to think about and critique an economic systems which encourages manufacturing over art. I’m sick of hearing people ask me what I’m going to do with my Arts degree. I’m sick of hearing my fellow Arts graduates say things like, “I only have an Arts degree.” Instead of apologizing for our degrees, we should be enraged that the world in which we live doesn’t give reading and writing the respect it deserves. I’m sure generations of French lesbian poets dealt with plenty of naysayers, yet that didn’t stop them from being badass literary ladies – so badass, in fact, that they’ve managed to spark a controversy in 2012 that’s being written about on the world’s most popular independently-owned website for queer women. If that’s not testament to the survival power of art, especially art from dismissed minorities, I don’t know what is. I think the French lesbian poets would be pretty damn pleased with themselves.


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Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

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  1. It suddenly strikes me that there is not enough French lesbian poetry in my life. Thanks for the heads-up, Sir James! Anyone care to recommend me some (more) French lesbian poets?

    • Not necessarily poetry, but Anne F. Garreta is a queer, female, French writer and a current member of the OuLiPo.

  2. I’m currently reading French literature in France, and no lesbian poets in view. No women at all, actually. I wonder where Dyson finds them all, I haven’t seen a single trace in modern French literature class.

  3. Slightly disappointed here, I mean, What Dyson actually said was really dumb, but encouraging people to do degrees in science and engineering is hardly ‘anti intellectual’ (Also, Gove is terrible and really not helping education here. Much more deserving of the title IMO).

    • Encouraging people to pursue degrees in math and science isn’t anti-intellectual, but doing so while DISCOURAGING people from studying the Arts is – and that’s what Dyson’s doing.

      • Not just discouraging people, but being dismissive and disparaging about those studying the arts. Honestly, that need to put people down in order to elevate his own field comes across as rather defensive.

  4. What Ellie says!

    Re poetry: look up Marilyn Hacker, esp. Love, Death and the Changing of Seasons : )

    Not *strictly French*, but awesome regardless

      • I’m studying engineering (Mechanical and Electrical), and Theatre! Without the arts, I wouldn’t have had a job this summer, and the incredible town in Northern Missouri that supports their local professional theatre would be seriously lacking the most vibrant part of their community. Think about how boring the world would be without these artists. The olympic opening ceremony? Boring. Superbowl half time show? Boring. Broadway show? Non-existant. Decent television? Nope. A decent actual fucking book of paper filled with magical words? Nope.

        • Hey i wasn’t saying arts is useless (hence the fact i’m also doing music, no mater what i think about acousmatic music) I fucking love arts, but i also love me some science and engineering, because science and engineering is cool. I don’t get why there seems to be such a massive thing about the differences, though i can agree on contact hours argument, i have 2 for music and 11 for electronic engineering. That’s a substantial difference.

          • The contact hours argument is a complete red herring. An Arts major typically takes four modules and may have to read an entire novel – plus secondary sources – for EACH course, EVERY week.

  5. Woah.

    After reading several wikipedia entries, it is very clear to me that someone needs to make a movies about Natalie Barney and her cohorts who included Renee Vivien, Romaine Brooks (painter famous for her depictions of women in men’s clothing)and assorted lesbian poets in Paris.

    Olivia Wilde, niece of Oscar Wilde, had a relationship with Barney and her life is CRAZY too. From her wiki page “In 1914, she travelled to France in order to drive an ambulance in World War I. During the war she had an affair with one of her fellow ambulance drivers, Standard Oil heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs, who in the 1920s became a speedboat racer and was known as “the fastest woman on water.”

    Someone NEEDS to make this movie right away.

    • I think you might have the wrong Wilde – lesbian niece = Dolly, actress = Olivia. Oh and Marion Carstairs probably had a relationship with Marlene Dietrich too. But I agree about the need for a film.

      • Olivia Wilde AS Dolly Wilde…? Just another perfect opportunity for her to play a queer lady!

        (Dolly Wilde is obviously the perfect amalgamation of Quorra and Thirteen – All booksy and queer, just without neon or labcoats or lupus – oh wait, there’s never any lupus…)

  6. My gender studies professor always tells us that our job as Arts academics is to get the metaphysics right, then go out and put it into practice.

    I feel so lucky to be an Arts student, learning to think critically and question the way things are in the world. When people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree I always answer, ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING!.

    • Yep. Jian Ghomeshirecently had smart things to say about a liberal arts education: “There is no job security, the skill sets are changing in every sector, and you can’t handicap what you are going to need in 20 or 30 years’ time. I believe a liberal arts education, unless you have a passion for a specific kind of professional job like a dentist, is more valuable than it’s ever been.”

      • Yes, this. It was always assumed that my partner with her IT degree would be more employable than my with my writing degree. But guess what? Businesses need clear communicators! I’m actually in a more highly-paid position than my other half (not that pay is the only measure of worth) working in a company that develops and manufactures new products.

        I work with engineers every day. I can’t do the things they can, and I have immense respect for them. But at the same time, they can’t do the things I can do, either. (Nor can either my group or theirs do what the folks on the manufacturing floor do – a fact most people at my company ignore, but that’s another story.) Yes, we need engineers, but we also need communicators and administrators.

  7. I think this constant arts vs sciences comes from the disagreement about what the purpose of university is. Is it to educate and expand minds or to provide preparation for jobs? Those who see it solely for finding a future job are going to roll their eyes at people who study french lesbian poetry.

    I think a lot of science majors are just bitter about feeling like they work a lot harder than students in arts (and lets be honest, english and engineering degrees are both valuable but one is a lot more work) so they have to tell themselves that the arts students won’t have any future. I’m not sure I’ll even have a job with my Bsc though.

    My high school encouraged the trades as well but socially its pretty class based. I applied to to college and people told me I was throwing away my life, that I was way to smart for that etc.

    • “lets be honest, english and engineering degrees are both valuable but one is a lot more work”

      Arts, right? …Right? Because as someone who slaved over an Arts Masters thesis for six months last year, I’m feeling a little fragile about someone telling me I wasn’t working hard enough because I wasn’t wearing a lab coat.

      • Masters thesis isn’t the same as an undergrad degree comparison, and I think that’s the comparison being made here. Arts undergrad would be easier in terms of time commitment than science undergrad because of at least the lack of need for benchtime on top of lectures (and my recollection is that the arts students didn’t have a comparable number of lectures either). Post-grad is a whole other ballgame.

        • If the undergrad arts students didn’t have a comparable number of lectures at your school, I definitely went to the wrong school.

          • Did you go to school in the US? The system may mean that the number of lectures is equalized to get the necessary credits. In the UK, it’s not necessarily so, particularly since there is no GPA system and it all more commonly hangs on how you do on the final (admittedly I may not be current on that, but that’s how it was back in the day). Possibly you did undergrad in the wrong country.

          • I’m currently studying an arts undergrad course in the UK, my contact hours are 9 til 6, five days a week, plus evening rehearsals, extra-curricular reading/essay writing/extensive amounts of blog-based assessed reflections, and a saturday morning work placement. Also, it’s both physically and intellectually challenging, not to mention emotionally draining, given the HUGE amount of highly personal engagement with my practice. Add to that the sheer effort of constantly battling misguided and outdated opinions like these ones about the arts in general, and I’m sorry, but claiming that a sciences degree is “a lot more work” is just not cricket.

          • Evening rehearsals? If you’re studying a performance art like dance of some sort or an instrument, then yes, I’m sure it is extremely draining and time-consuming. But if we’re talking an undergrad humanities course, like the aforesaid “French Lesbian Poetry,” then what penguin11 posted below in terms of relative hours is much closer to how I remember things. None of this is to say that studying French Lesbian Poetry is not a very good thing if that’s your passion. And I’d also emphasize that post-grad is a different world where humanities becomes pretty brutal to succeed and I always felt I had it relatively easier as a scientist since at least if you got some results of some sort to write up you were much golden.

          • Yes I was only comparing undergrad!

            The way it works at my school is that both arts and science students take 5 courses per semester but science generally spends more hours (5-10ish) in lab and lecture. I guess it then just depends on the major and the student how many hours you’re putting in outside of class. Engineers take 6-8 courses and I don’t know how they survive.

            I’m not trying to say that an arts degree isn’t work. All degrees are a lot of work. And I think the level of difficulty depends on what your particular skill sets are.

      • As an undergrad majoring in mathematics and Russian, my personal experience is that humanities classes are less of a time commitment. I’ve had math and physics courses where I spent 30-40 hours a week doing homework. Not studying, attending lectures, or reading the textbook, just doing homework. And that 30 hours was no guarantee that I’d get the questions done, or that I’d get them right, or that I’d be more prepared for the exam.

        In my humanities courses, there have been fewer assignment and WAY more complaints about how much work the prof is making us do. I can usually get top marks in these courses by putting in less than five hours a week outside of class.

        That is NOT to say that humanities courses are easier. There are tons of dedicated, driven arts students out there who put in more than the required time because they really care about the material. But as an overworked STEM kid getting four hours of sleep a night and still failing real analysis, it can be easy to think that humanities courses aren’t as much work.

    • “and lets be honest, english and engineering degrees are both valuable but one is a lot more work”

      No, not at all! Most of my friends in Sciences couldn’t possibly cope with gigantic reading lists and long essays on said reading lists, and most of my friends in the Humanities couldn’t cope with lab hours. That is to say, both fields can take a lot of work and when it comes to the Humanities there’s more than meets the eye. When it comes to Arts in general as well, one of my bffs is a future visual artist in the making and the amount of time he has to spend on his work blows my mind. In fact, he seems to work harder and for longer than anyone I know.

  8. I should also add that I have a science PhD while my sister got an undergrad in Anglo-Saxon and Norse, but she is now the one who travels the world on fabulous holidays to exotic destinations on a regular basis having turned her acquired knowledge of Viking into fluency in Norwegian, scoring an English teacher’s job, helped write the Norwegian schools english textbook, and then watching the royalties roll in. So, science degree means cash-money is a foolish equation. Study what you’re genuinely interested in is the best approach imho.

  9. Now this is making me grumpy that I have one of his vacuum cleaners. Although it is fucking amazing at picking up cat hair. DYSON Y U ALIENATE YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE

  10. The impression I get from Dyson’s comment (minus context) is less that he’s a homophobe or francophobe, and more that he’s using a poorly phrased way of saying that there aren’t enough people studying engineering. (Fewer students are choosing engineering, and of those students, the percentage of women is usually under 20%.)
    Dyson’s comment doesn’t put him in the same league with people like Dan Cathy, IMO.

    • Dyson’s comment exposed an arrogance and superiority common to many Strait White Males. The fact that worse people exist does not excuse him. Subtle discrimination by decent people is pervasive and hurtful. We need to always call people out on it when they are discriminating.
      On that note, thank god Obama won.

  11. I can’t speak for quality, but here are the additional French lesbian poets I could turn up, if anyone is interested: Geneviève Pastre and Marilyn Hacker, plus Nicole Brossard if you count French Canadians. And Pierre Louys was French and wrote poetry about lesbians, but, you know, he was not a lesbian.

  12. This is good time to point out that James Dyson is provost of the Royal College of Art in London and the James Dyson Foundation gave £5million to create a new college building in Battersea. The Dyson Building houses the Photography and Printmaking courses for the RCA – 2 of the 4 fine art disciplines offered by the college. The RCA of course is known for its design and engineering courses, as well as fine art – Dyson himself is a graduate – but I think it’s pretty irresponsible and hypocritical for the man who funded, and has had named after himself, a building to accomodate art students to then publicly say that those same art students are wasting their education. As a former student in the Sculpture department, his words feel especially insulting, and his failure to grasp the value of an arts education is very disappointing. As a lesbian, I find his choice of words downright irresponsible.

  13. Amongst the stupidity, I also got from this that lesbians are equated with being intellectual, which, even if Dyson thinks is not good, I think is lovely.

  14. This Dyson is a “beauf” as we said in French ;-)
    But I don’t know a French lesbian poetry ??

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