Headless maybe, but not mindless

A lecturer and his work have a starring role in a very novel thriller. Paul Jump gets the backstory

January 6, 2011

Once upon a time there was a plucky academic who followed a rabbit down a hole and found himself a character in a reality-distorting thriller about offshore finance.

Looking for Headless, which is based around the hunt for a company called Headless Ltd registered in the Bahamas, features Angus Cameron, a lecturer in the University of Leicester's geography department. The novel is a semi-fictionalised account of a performance-art project by Swedish artists Goldin+Senneby.

In 2008, Dr Cameron became the publicity-shy artists' spokesman for the project, and the novel features a series of his lectures - or "performances" - that "narrate the hunt (for Headless) through a series of historical and theoretical ideas that underpin the project and at the same time contextualise Headless and offshore finance". The hunting is done by the writer John Barlow, who has written the book serially, as the "performances" happen.

In the book, Dr Cameron delivers a lecture in Toronto, is later bribed and, as he becomes increasingly paranoid, goes on to destroy his computer in a garden shed. He is also portrayed as "cracking up" after taking over the writing of the book as it nears completion.

Dr Cameron admitted to Times Higher Education that the contents of his lectures would probably be edited out as the book is revised for publication, while entirely fictional characters such as a "sort of female James Bond" would loom larger.

"It is a tricky balance because (the artists) want to sell books. But if I know them, they won't want to lose the ambiguity. I will still be named, and people will still be able to find out that there is a real Angus Cameron at Leicester," he said.

The project had a "playfulness" that he found enjoyable, but it also addressed serious issues such as tax avoidance, and raised philosophical questions about concepts such as "offshore", economic space, sovereignty, banking, money, authorship and text.

Despite the project's explorations of topical themes, some academics had been "sniffy" about it, Dr Cameron said. One claimed he was making a fool of himself. "But that just reflected badly on him. He hadn't thought about whether we could do social science in a different way.

"I previously wrote about global finance in a conventional academic way, but it won't go anywhere near where Headless has. This is an opportunity to talk to many people about it in different ways."

He said he would "seriously question" the funding council's definition of impact if it did not encompass such a project. "They'll probably say: 'This is interesting, but let's go back to the serious stuff.' If they do, that's OK. I have my conventional work as well: I am hedging my bets!"


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