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We were thrilled to be joined by Tade Thompson, author of the award-winning Rosewater trilogy, for a special Q&A session with students studying on our MA Contemporary Literature and Culture and MA Creative and Critical Writing on 16th November 2020. We had studied Rosewater (2016), the first novel in the trilogy, as a recent example of what Natalia Cecire and Sam Solomon have termed the utopian “mycological promise” of fungi, in which natural, ancient, and magical energy systems convert decay and waste into nitrogen-fixing, plant-sustaining mycelium. Thompson’s trilogy depicts an alien fungal network known as Wormwood that is described as “protecting, nurturing” and is capable of miraculously healing, or worsening the conditions of, disabled people who visit it. Students explored Rosewater within the context of contemporary environmental posthumanism, as a narrative that deconstructs species boundaries between the human, the fungal, and the alien to offer an Afrofuturist speculative vision of what radical botanists and posthumanist theorists would call “becoming-plant,” reanimating the monstrous vegetal in contemporary ecocatastrophe narratives. A huge thank you to Tade for graciously offering his time after a full day's work during a very busy period of the Covid-19 lockdown! You can watch the full Q&A below, which was chaired by Dr Caroline Edwards and Dr Sean O'Brien, both lecturers at Birkbeck. Featured image by RAS News and Events shared under a CC BY-NC-ND...read more
This year, Birkbeck is delighted to welcome acclaimed author and playwright Caryl Phillips to deliver the annual William Matthews Lecture. Titled " 'One Grim Winter Evening': The Colonial Migrant in Britain,' the lecture will take place on Thursday 12th November 2020, 6-7pm online. 'One grim winter evening' are the opening four words of Samuel Selvon's classic novel, The Lonely Londoners (1956). As Phillips writes: "Selvon's depiction of London as both hostile and a place that his characters hold dear in their hearts, always puzzled me. I grew up as part of a generation who were quick to reject Britain's negative attitudes towards her non-white population. We were 'radical' and quick to push back, while the earlier generation appeared to be stubbornly determined to belong. I will look again at this postwar migration from the colonies into a not always welcoming Britain, and think about how this colonial migration differed from political or economic migration." Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts and came to Britain at the age of four months. He grew up in Leeds, and studied English Literature at Oxford University. He began writing for the theatre and his plays include Strange Fruit (1980), Where There is Darkness (1982) and The Shelter (1983). He won the BBC Giles Cooper Award for Best Radio Play of the year with The Wasted Years (1984). He has written many dramas and documentaries for radio and television, including, in 1996, the three-hour film of his own novel The Final Passage. He wrote the screenplay for the film Playing Away (1986) and his screenplay for the Merchant Ivory adaptation of V.S.Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur (2001) won the Silver Ombu for best screenplay at the Mar Del Plata film festival in Argentina. His novels are: The Final Passage (1985), A State of Independence (1986), Higher Ground (1989), Cambridge (1991), Crossing the River (1993), The Nature of Blood (1997), A Distant Shore (2003), Dancing in the Dark (2005), Foreigners (2007), In the Falling Snow (2009), The Lost Child (2015), and A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018). His non-fiction: The European Tribe (1987), The Atlantic Sound (2000), A New World Order (2001), and Colour Me English (2011). He is the editor of two anthologies: Extravagant Strangers: A Literature of Belonging (1997) and The Right Set: An Anthology of Writing on Tennis (1999). His work has been translated into over a dozen languages. He was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1992 and was on the 1993 Granta list of Best of Young British Writers. His literary awards include the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a British Council Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and Britain's oldest literary award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, for Crossing the River which was also shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. A Distant Shore was longlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize, and won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize; Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 PEN/Open Book Award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of the Arts, and recipient of the 2013 Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence. He has taught at universities in Ghana, Sweden, Singapore, Barbados, India, and the United States, and in 1999 was the University of the West Indies...read more
Birkbeck is delighted to welcome Dr Kaye Mitchell (University of Manchester) for the first Bloomsbury Research Lecture of the year. Dr Mitchell will talk about her recently published book Writing Shame: Gender, Contemporary Literature and Negative Affect (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Through readings of an array of recent texts – literary and popular, fictional and autofictional, realist and experimental, this book maps out a contemporary, Western, shame culture. It unpicks the complex triangulation of shame, gender and writing, and intervenes forcefully in feminist and queer debates of the last three decades. Starting from the premise that shame cannot be overcome or abandoned, and that femininity and shame are utterly and necessarily imbricated, Writing Shame examines writing that explores and inhabits this state of shame, considering the dissonant effects of such explorations on and beyond the page. About the Author: Dr Kaye Mitchell is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Co-Director of the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. She is a literary and cultural critic with particular interests in modern and contemporary literature, literary theory, gender and sexuality studies, and experimental writing by women. She has published books on literary intention (Intention and Text, Continuum, 2008) and contemporary literature (A.L. Kennedy, Palgrave, 2007; Sarah Waters, ed. collection with Bloomsbury, 2013). Her work in progress includes a monograph on the politics and poetics of shame in contemporary literature, and a special issue on women's experimental writing for the OUP journal, Contemporary Women's Writing. Kaye Mitchell's research is mainly in contemporary literature and culture, with a particular focus on gender and sexuality, critical theory and narratology. The lecture will take place from 7.30pm on Thursday 29th october 2020. Please click on this link to join. Featured image: Chris Kraus in Conversation with Kim Dower by WeHoCity under a CC BY-NC-ND...read more
One of our talented PhD researchers, Sasha Myerson, has recently produced this video essay on "Utopian Encalves: The City in Feminist Cyberpunk." The video essay replaces Sasha's conference paper presentation at the Cyberpunk Culture conference, taking place online on 9-10 July 2020. Abstract: Cyberpunk is conventionally considered a dystopian genre. But, as Tom Moylan has argued, there is a sharp difference between dystopias of resignation—which capitulate to the logics of neoliberalism—and critical dystopias, which “adopt a militant stance that is informed and empowered by a utopian horizon that appears in the text”. Such texts seek to overcome dystopia, find a way beyond it, and transform the present moment towards utopia. Furthermore, cyberpunk is a genre deeply rooted in urban experience, recalling both the dense neon-soaked streets of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and the hyperreal, fragmented urban spectacle that appears in the works of Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson. Yet, such spectacle is not necessarily synonymous with dystopia. As feminist geographer Elizabeth Wilson writes, “the excitement of city life cannot be preserved if all conflict is eliminated […] life in the great city offers the potential for greater freedom and diversity than life in small communities. This is particularly important for women.” Wilson’s vision of the city calls for a radical embrace of “the freedom and autonomy they offer”, while making such freedom “available to all classes and groups.” This paper will read Emma Bull’s Bone Dance (1991) and Naolo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), both texts that work within the genre of cyberpunk, through the critical lens of Moylan and Wilson. Both authors recognise the contradictions of the city, a space often built upon exclusion and inequality that can simultaneously incubate surprising political alliances and glimpses of utopia. My analysis will focus specifically on two passages, the opening of Hopkinson’s text and the ending of Bull’s, which take the conventions of the cyberpunk city and locate within it the potential for a non-hierarchical, diverse and utopian vision of the city that “shimmers just beyond” their pages Bio: Sasha is a PhD student at Birkbeck College. Her research focuses on urban space and the built environment in 1990s feminist Cyberpunk science-fiction. Examining posthuman and multiple subjectivities, her work explores how such individuals navigate, survive and resist within technologized cities of surveillance and discipline. Sasha is a co-director of the London Science-Fiction Research Community and helps to organise Beyond Gender, a feminist research collective. For more information see here: http://cyberpunkculture.com/cyberpunk-culture-conference/program-friday/%C2%A726-sasha-myerson/...read more
CCL Director Dr Caroline Edwards recently spoke on the opening roundtable at the Virtual Conference for the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies (BACLS), which was held on Friday 26 June 2020. The theme of the roundtable was "Crisis: Contemporary Conversations" and Caroline spoke alongside: Sheena Kalayil, author of The Bureau of Second Chances (2017), which won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best First Novel, The Inheritance (2018) and The Wild Wind (2019); Ben Doyle, Publisher for Literary Studies at Bloomsbury Academic; and Dr Zayneb Allak, a writer and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. Caroline's talk explored the relationship between utopianism as a praxis that responds to historical crises and science fiction, focussing particularly on ecocatastrophe narratives (the subject of her next book provisionally titled Arcadian Revenge: Science Fiction in the Era of Ecocatastrophe). You can watch her talk below or here on Caroline's YouTube channel. For more information about the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies (BACLS), visit the website: https://www.bacls.org/ Photo by Callum...read more
Birkbeck CCL member and Director of the Birkbeck Centre for Medical Humanities, Prof. Jo Winning, has just published a new article in the BMJ Medical Humanities journal on "The use of an object: exploring physician burnout through object relations theory." The article (see below) examines the crisis of physician burnout, which has been widely and repeatedly reported across the mainstream press and medical journals around the world in the closing years of the second decade of the 21st century. Despite multiple systematic reviews and commentary on the scale of this ‘global epidemic’, understandings of both the phenomenon and the most effective interventions remain limited. Practice-based medical humanities represents the collaborative sharing of conceptual tools for understanding illness and clinical practice and the shouldering of responsibility for mapping the shape of care, in all its local, national and global contexts, thinking-with rather than critique on the profession and its practices. In keeping with this approach, this article offers a new perspective on the contemporary crisis of physician burnout by exploring the objectification of the clinician’s body within the systems and practice of healthcare. Within the context of medical humanities’ scholarship, discussions of objectification usually navigate towards a discussion about patient identity and its potentially reductive objectification within the frameworks of biomedical science. However, this article crosses the cultural divide between clinician and patient, and comes to focus on the objectification of the clinician herself, using object relations theory from the field of psychoanalysis to excavate the psychodynamics of care and their impact on clinicians, and the systems of healthcare in which care is delivered. Jo's article develops the feminist epistemological concept of 'thinking-with', alongside Donna Haraway's concept of tentacular thinking, which she has also written about in a recent article published in the journal Feminist Encounters (see here for info on this). (If you can't see the article embedded below just hit refresh). Featured image by Rob Rogers, reproduced in Jo's article with permission and shared here under a CC BY-NC...read more
by Dr Agnes Woolley, Lecturer in Transnational Literature and Migration Cultures One of the Arts Weeks at the School of Arts this year coincided with Refugee Week (15th-21st June) and this performance from Ice and Fire’s Actors for Human Rights kicked off their virtual tour of the UK. With a pared down performance style based on the verbatim testimony of asylum seekers, Asylum Monologues is well-suited to on screen delivery and listening to the testimony of asylum seekers working their way through the UK system is a stark and timely reminder of the iniquities embedded in so many of our institutional and procedural structures. Much of my work has been concerned with issues of representation and voice in the context of refugee narratives. What forms and in what fora do we encounter refugee stories? What are the ethics of representation in this context? And how have refugees found ways to give voice to their experiences outside the legal infrastructure of the asylum adjudication process? The idea of voice and voicing experience has been – since the middle of last century – the preeminent way in which human rights are analysed and asserted. And I would say that testimony has become the prevailing narrative mode for refugee experience. But the testimonial forms we find in documentary, film and performances like Asylum Monologues are also intricately linked to the legal process to which asylum seekers are subject, where they must testify to a narrative of persecution. The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, first ratified in 1951, continues to be the basis for asylum claims in most refugee-receiving countries (although the African Union has a different and more expansive definition for the continent that has a much larger proportion of the world’s refugee than Europe). The Convention defines a refugee as one who has a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’. Enacted at the level of the signatory nation state, the procedural characteristics of the asylum decision-making process thus demand a particular narrative of persecution for the conferment of refugee status and inclusion in the civic body. For this reason, perhaps more than any other aspect of human rights legislation, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees depends almost entirely on the story of the claimant. But claimants have very little agency over this story in the legal realm because the process operates on a particularly restrictive set of narrative conditions. On the whole asylum seekers must answer questions, rather than be allowed to tell their story in their own way. Translators can often be a barrier to expression if, for example, they speak a different dialect or if the translator represents a political, ethnic or gender identity that the claimant considers a threat. The memorial revisions of trauma are rarely accounted for. And, because asylum seekers must conform to the definition of a refugee as laid out in the Convention, the system produces an idealized version of refugeehood. This version circulates in a narrative economy – comprising not only the legal asylum process, but also media and advocacy fora – where refugees must represent themselves as good, compliant and grateful. This last idea, Dina Nyeri takes up in her recent book The Ungrateful Refugee (2019). Crucially, the asylum system seeks to pin claimants down to a single version of events...read more
Featured image by Andy Holmes on Unsplash The following has been collectively written by a number of academic contributors based at Birkbeck and beyond who, for the purposes of this experimental piece, are calling themselves "Le Comité de Salut Public." I Viral time is a sudden telescoping of the non-human time of virus life with the lived, clock time of human beings. It leads to a sense of the floor falling out: of the inbreaking of the alien into the everyday and the disruption of human history by non-human time. Human history is characterised by a sense of repetition. We tend to imagine it as a horizontal line, divisible, calculable and stable. But its stability hinges on the idea of an impartial observer grounded at safe distance. Everything is then projected on to his sovereign eye as to the vanishing point of infinity, and in this manner the whole of timespace comes to be arranged for this one-eyed spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God. As visuality and spectacle. This is why God and its kingly representatives on Earth could be easily replaced by a money-god fixated on slicing and dicing the body, dividing clock time and the expository value of humans. But alien time reveals human history to be only his-story. It says: “You haven’t heard mine yet!”. The alien is a time of an altogether different scale. The scale of disease becoming the anxiety of disrupted routines. And the latency of the interrupted projects of the past coexisting in the vortex of time, abstract and unfinished. Given its virulence, its spread and its inhumanity, an analysis of the virus can proceed along lines parallel to the critique of capitalism. Thus, the abstract time of the virus, the hegemony of ill-health, suggests that behind all value is not so much labour time, as health-time. The abstract time of the virus, as an inhuman time of universal illness, both reduces individual concrete time to a period of anticipation of ill-health or death, and elevates matters of life and death to the time scale in which they matter most once again: the entrance into the vegetable time of putrefaction and decay, or memory time- provided that there are still some around to remember us. These others need not be friendly. By bringing decay, putrefaction and memory they provide entry into other dimensions of relation and different orders of the visual. They’re a time-machine, in and of time and at the same time producers of time. Vegetable time and memory-time circulate through aliens, critters and enemies in the precise sense that memory has nothing to do with the return to the homely origins of mankind nor with efforts to restore Being against the corrosive onslaughts of an external becoming. Viral time does not belong to the order of recovery or social reproduction: it’s productive, instituting. The putrefaction of others – the foundational concern of moral philosophy! Viral time twists upon our poor human substance – a shared propensity to suffer and reflect upon suffering; the personal and the impersonal twisting together like the filaments of a cord; the very long strings of DNA and RNA molecules that tie us to ourselves, and to the viral life within and beyond us. Not an exchange economy, but a productive one....read more
CCL member Dr Sean O'Brien is running a four-part lecture series for the 87 Press on the Marxian critique of political economy, exploring what it can tell us about the twenty-first century—an historical moment marked by deindustrialization, economic stagnation, growing labour superfluity, and a political landscape in which the figure of the worker no longer occupies the central space it once did. As Sean writes in the introduction to the lecture series, we’re quite far from the world in which Marx lived and wrote, a world defined by the development of large-scale industry, a growing industrial working class concentrated in factories, and the rising power of the workers’ movement. Since then, much has changed economically and politically, a fact made most visible perhaps in the collapse of actually existing socialism. But if the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in the 1990s the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of Western liberal democracy—exemplified for Fukuyama in the end of the cold war and the globalization of the free market—recent decades have witnessed not only a series of devastating economic crises, but also a surge of popular interest in Marx and a renewed scholarly interest in the work of Marxist theory. And this return to Marx gives Humanities students and scholars a chance to read Marx’s work with fresh eyes. The series will open with an overview of Marx’s method and the some of the core categories of his critique before turning to consider theories of real abstraction, questions of geopolitical economy and the history of the capitalist class relation. We’ll explore the relationship between cycles of accumulation and cycles of struggle, concepts such as impersonal compulsion and form-determination, and the difference between what has been called traditional or orthodox Marxism and a more esoteric reading of Marx that, in the Anglo-American sphere, has come to be known as value-form theory. Below is the first lecture in the series: The idea behind the series is basically to offer a public-facing, para-academic introduction to Marx for Humanities students and scholars working in one facet or another of contemporary studies who might be familiar with Marxist literary or aesthetic theory but haven’t yet had a chance to actually engage much with Marx himself and the critique of political economy in particular. And so, over the course of the lectures, we’ll tackle some pressing questions for people who work and study in the Humanities and who are interested in a Marxism for the twenty-first century. For instance, what does the end of growth mean for the future of work? How should we think about the relationship between production and circulation, or the regularity of financial crisis? How might Marx’s concept of a surplus population inform theories of racial blackness and antiblack racism? What insights might Marx’s critique of value offer the feminist critique of social reproduction? What does the decline of the workers’ movement imply for an anti-capitalist politics today? Sean's second lecture in the series explores an 'esoteric' current of Marxian thought rooted in the critique of value and distinct from the ‘exoteric’ Marx of traditional Marxism. Whereas classical political economy takes for granted capitalist forms such as value, labour, the commodity and money, Marx insists on the historical specificity of a social process in which labour is abstracted in order for...read more
by Dr Anna Hartnell, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature, Birkbeck, University of London The current uprisings in the United States are the most dramatic recent example of a war that America has been waging with itself since its inception. Most obviously this is about state-sanctioned racist violence and police brutality – a war against black lives. But America’s conflict over race has always been inextricably linked to the larger engine of capitalism on the one hand and the role of government on the other – a government that in its infancy could simultaneously claim to represent a unique experiment in freedom while embracing racialized slavery as a means to build a nation. Government is thus perceived both as a beacon of democracy and as a potentially violent and coercive body against which individual Americans might need to defend themselves. The spectacle of a quasi-fascist President Trump threatening mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors with marshal law, while at the same time actively encouraging his often gun-wielding libertarian base to rebel against the quarantine measures instituted by state governments to contain the pandemic, brings these contradictions into focus. By way of introduction to this archived talk on America in Crisis, which took place in 2017 between my colleague Dr Grace Halden and me, I’m going to draw a few connections between our contemporary moment and the crises that Grace and I were discussing three years ago. In the shadow of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president earlier that year, Grace explored the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor that occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979, and I looked at the fallout from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We brought together discussions about nuclear power, state violence, the climate crisis, public health, and racialized poverty and inequality. What scholars in the field have described as the ‘Katrina crisis’ in particular bears many parallels with what’s going on now. Hurricane Katrina devastated the US Gulf Coast and particularly New Orleans, where the levees protecting the city broke, leading to catastrophic flooding. The submerged city starkly revealed New Orleans’s racial geography and dramatized the fact that if you were black and poor you were far more likely to be left stranded in the drowning city to suffer hunger, lack of basic sanitation, trauma and death. African American New Orleans residents disproportionately bore the brunt of the storm and thus the consequences of decades of neglect of the city’s flood protection systems and the crumbling social safety net. As conditions deteriorated in the city, the federal and state government launched a response that prioritized the protection of property over humanitarian concerns in a way that criminalized the storm survivors, often portraying them as looters and thugs. As another kind of struggle for survival unfolds on America’s streets today, large sections of the US establishment have similarly portrayed the protestors as rioters and looters. This response is of course key to the immediate cause of these protests: it’s the response of a culture that has supported and funded an increasingly militarized police force that has brutally policed African American neighbourhoods with impunity for decades. This violent state response is also central to the larger contexts of the uprisings, the economic despair that haunts many black neighbourhoods across the US, which has been made immeasurably...read more