Landscapes of Culture
May30

Landscapes of Culture

by Colm McAuliffe Perhaps everybody does love Raymond (Williams), cultural theorist, border-crossing Welshman, television critic, elegant pipe smoker. A special event during Birkbeck's Arts Week 2018, Landscapes of Culture: Raymond Williams Thirty Years On, depicted Williams across three separate television landscapes traversing 1970, 1979 and 1988, through the Welsh borders of his home, the class upheaval of Cambridge where he taught, and the country house of Tatton Hall, to its natural finale: a strangely lit television studio where his legacy was discussed by an ideologically unusual array of politicians, academics and writers. These three documentaries – rarely seen since their original terrestrial broadcasts – formed part of the London-wide archive television season Radical Broadcasts: Theory On TV, which I have curated with Dr Matthew Harle, an Associate Research Fellow of Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Our intention with this season was not simply to provide a series of snug, nostalgic broadcasts of complex ideas on vintage television but to open up questions around the role of public intellectuals and public service broadcasting: why did the commissioners at the BBC deem it important to give televisual space to such complex interlocutors of theory and criticism? And what could it actually mean to consume television during this period when your viewing options could be limited to a documentary on the meaning of culture in society or Match of the Day? Landscapes of Culture was the final screening in our inaugural run of Radical Broadcasts screenings. Our decision to host this at Birkbeck Arts Week was crucial – we were conscious of the enthusiasm for his work across the Department of English and Humanities (and beyond), verified by the sell-out nature of the screening. However, selling-out is a charge one could never level at Williams. His laconic and uncompromising mannerisms, often embellished by a series of astonishingly beige, to the point of almost anti-colour, turtlenecks, made Williams a reassuring and compelling television presence. In Border Country (1970), we witness Williams debating and walking these landscapes of culture with a pre-fame Dennis Potter acting as the effervescent postulant, with Williams the avuncular cultural confidant. We later catch Williams in a domestic setting, briefly setting down to type at his rather insular desk before stepping away to awkwardly recline and face the camera in his leather swivel chair, a strangely modish item amongst his sparse living room; indeed, one could never question Williams’ commitment to both aesthetic and domestic realism. The Country and the City (1979), helmed by the acclaimed television director Mike Dibb (who worked wonders on John Berger’s Ways of Seeing BBC series earlier in the decade), was a more stylish and dramatic depiction of...

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Gaelic Hardship
May29

Gaelic Hardship

Certainly, I suffered Gaelic hardship throughout my life – distress, need, ill-treatment, adversity, calamity, foul play, misery, famine and ill-luck. As part of Birkbeck's Arts Week 2018, the Centre for Contemporary Literature supported an event that completed a trilogy of annual workshops on the brilliant first three novels by the Irish writer Flann O'Brien. Gaelic Hardship explored his third novel An Béal Bocht, written in Irish in 1941 and published under the name Myles na gCopaleen – which was the pen-name that Brian O'Nolan, the creator of 'Flann O'Brien', had adopted as a newspaper columnist. O'Nolan (1911-1966) refused to permit an English translation of the novel during his lifetime, just as he refused to countenance a second attempt to publish his rejected manuscript Third Policeman (written in 1940 and the subject of last year's workshop). Yet just as that novel was published a year after his death, so too in 1973 an English translation of An Béal Bocht appeared, as The Hard Life, translated by Patrick C. Power. It is in this form that this slim volume has become known to the largest number of readers, though there are still calls for a new translation and suggestions that Power's version omits important aspects of the original. Given the linguistic complexities involved, organizers Joseph Brooker and Tobias Harris (Birkbeck) this time enlisted the expertise of Eoin Byrne, who is working at the University of Galway on a project about bilingual writers including Samuel Beckett as well as Brian O'Nolan. After our introductions to the area and to O'Nolan's career trajectory, Eoin offered an incisive account of key issues around this novel, including the state of Irish-language publishing in the early 1940s and the 'Gaeligores' or Irish-language enthusiasts satirized in the novel. With members of the audience joining in discussion, the workshop was then enriched by readings of particular passages: Hugh Wilde recited an early passage where the English-speaking schoolmaster beats the protagonist's Irish name out of him, and N.J. Harris read the close of the novel, where poignancy seemed to take over from comedy. In the meantime we also looked at Myles na gCopaleen's satiric portrayal of a Gaelic festival at which numerous local Gaels die of rain, starvation, drink or exhaustion from excess of Gaelic dancing; Eoin read the passage aloud in Irish. An Béal Bocht / The Poor Mouth has perhaps been overshadowed by its brilliant precursors At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman, but this workshop placed it centre stage, reminding us of the ferocity of its irony and the sense that – as Eoin finally put it, deliberately echoing Richard Ellmann's words about James Joyce – we are still learning to be its contemporaries. A report on the event, by audience member, Charlotte Deadman, has...

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Comparing the Contemporary: The Carnival of War
Feb24

Comparing the Contemporary: The Carnival of War

by Valentina Salvatierra The new ‘Comparing the Contemporary’ group is organised by Valentina Salvatierra (MA Contemporary Literature and Culture) and Carmela Morgillo (MA Modern and Contemporary Literature). In its first session (2 February), the group considered the way in which modern warfare is communicated in literary texts from different countries and decades. Marinetti’s ‘Futurist Manifesto’ (1909) glorifies war as a form of purification, whereas texts written after the first great war of the century shift the focus and present it as a traumatic experience. This applies to Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), and Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poem, ‘Soldiers’ (1918). A key point we raised here is that at least in some sense the war experience is equally traumatic for all parties. ‘Soldiers’ reckons with the feeling of soldiers on the front, the knowledge they may not come back alive, and therefore grapples with an experience not unlike the one depicted by Remarque. Regarding Remarque’s novel, we also noted that in terms of both prose and message it could read like English war literature and also shared concerns with E.E. Cummings’s work, such as the degradation of human identity brought about by war. Rather than confirming the glorious nature of war, then, All Quiet on the Western Front conveys a sense of loss at the personal level that is parallelled in literatures of the ‘winning’ side – transmitting the idea that no side really wins in a war. Our discussion also considered the motivations for going to war, at the personal and national levels. On one hand, the soldiers who enlisted often did not understand the trauma they were likely to undergo or the wider political context – something that is seen in both Trumbo’s introduction to Johnny Got His Gun and in Remarque’s novel. The various nations offer varying justifications for war. We critiqued the idea contained in Henry Kissinger’s writings on US foreign policy that whereas Germany might go to war for power, the US goes to war in order to bring freedom to other countries. This notion is countered by the concept of soft power: whilst the US might not be after the hard power of conquered territories, perhaps it is seeking soft power as expressed in political and cultural influence. Crucially, soft power can be harder to combat because it is less evident, and finds expression for instance in media portrayals rather than in military power. Among other things, media can perpetuate the idea of American exceptionalism, its ‘special mission’ in the global order, and use it to justify war. Meanwhile, Italy had very different...

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Comparing the Contemporary
Feb20

Comparing the Contemporary

by Valentina Salvatierra and Carmela Morgillo Wonderful universes lie unexplored at the very doorstep of our libraries, stories and people and histories often given for granted and never fully investigated. Voices from beyond the Channel and beyond the Ocean and beyond the West that have remained unheard. Voices that the sessions of ‘Comparing the Contemporary’ wish to discuss through a series of meetings aimed at travelling the literary world, bringing together the experience – and expertise – of the diverse Birkbeck student body. Intended as a platform for discussion rather than a formal seminar, ‘Comparing the Contemporary’ is organised by Valentina Salvatierra (MA Contemporary Literature and Culture) and Carmela Morgillo (MA Modern and Contemporary Literature), two students whose international background has motivated them to create something that would diverge from an often Anglo-centric focus. Underlying the group is the belief that our learning can be increased by becoming aware of the selectivity that determines the texts we read as scholars, and opening up to texts that can showcase both the distinctiveness and the possibility for communication between literary traditions. We want to deliberately seek out moments of difference as well as overlap, in the spirit of comparative criticism as described by Reynolds, Omri, and Morgans: Confronting radical difference is a decisive moment in critical and creative work alike. One may call it a border moment. It is open to possibilities, including rupture, rejection, indifference, conflict and communication or reconciliation. [1] Exploring different themes and genres, the sessions will usually compare two texts from similar periods and different countries to seek out literary ‘border moments’ between works. Running every two weeks, students will be allowed enough time to either familiarise themselves with a new text or research different points of analysis for something already known.   Session Structure & Meetings So Far We are meeting every 2 weeks throughout the Spring term. Each meeting has a designated chair in charge of starting and guiding the group discussion. The chair contextualises the text, provides a short extract or clip (if relevant), and a brief critical discussion of the text(s). This should take between 10-20 minutes, and the rest of the session is dedicated to seminar-style discussion around the topic and text(s). The first two sessions' topics were around post-WW1 novels and speculative fictions of North and South America. Read on for more details of each. Starting on 2 February, the first session explored the themes of trauma and exceptionalism in two post-WW1 novels published in Germany and the U.S., each the ‘evil’ Other of the other and yet sharing the very same sense of national failure regardless of having won, or...

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Frontiers of Fantasy, Narrative, and Art: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
Feb20

Frontiers of Fantasy, Narrative, and Art: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

by Valentina Salvatierra The title of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s recent exhibit at the Tate Modern could well be a work of flash fiction. Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future: a suggestively blunt statement that speaks to the limits of utopia and ideologies of progress and raises questions about the fates of those who are to be left behind. Taken at face value, it is aphoristic: of course we are all constantly and inevitably being taken into the future by the unstoppable passage of time. The exhibit develops the aphorism contained in its title by offering up metaphoric, symbolic interpretations of the future that belie simplistic understandings of progress. Among the symbolic entities one encounters when walking through the 10 rooms that comprise the exhibit at the Tate Modern there are angels, giants in a two-tiered art gallery, physical theories about the Universe’s invisible energies, and tiny inter-dimensional men. These elements of fantasy and science fiction, of a renunciation of strictly realist art, are what I would like to focus on in this discussion of the Kabakovs’ exhibit. Fantastical figures are juxtaposed with desolate, realist narratives of Soviet life in the 20th century, especially in the bleakly auto-biographical Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) (1990) that tells, through a long-winded letter in the first person, the story of Ilya’s mother. This contrast raises a question about the role of non-realist representational art (visual, literary, or both) in an allegedly rationalized world where the enchantments of supernatural phenomena such as religion no longer hold sway or generate social cohesion. What are the prospects of fantasy in the ‘disenchanted’ worlds of Soviet historical materialism or contemporary capitalist consumerism? The USSR has been variably hailed either as the brave realization of a utopian project or as its opposite, a dystopia that perverted the true values of socialist communism. Definitional disputes of utopia versus dystopia aside, it may suffice to say that the alleged utopia of Soviet society was certainly not experienced as such by every one of its inhabitants. A few exhibit pieces are directly critical of the failures of the Soviet project, such as By December 25 in Our District (1983), a painting that presents a numbered list of all the great works that would have been accomplished by that date superimposed on an image of a dreary industrial landscape that appears implacably under construction. The criticism here is towards the unfulfilled promises of Soviet socialism, but there are also deeper critiques about what socialism can do to human existence. In The Man Who Flew Into Space from His Apartment (1985, pictured below), Ilya Kabakov explores the desire to escape from a...

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Conference Report: Organic Systems
Nov24

Conference Report: Organic Systems

by Sarah Lohmann On September 16, 2017, the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) held its first ever conference, Organic Systems: Environments, Bodies and Cultures in Science Fiction, at Birkbeck, University of London. It was an exciting and well-attended event that explored the boundaries, intersections and interactions of systems of various kinds, with a particular focus on those of an organic nature. As Aren Roukema, Francis Gene-Rowe, and Rhodri Davies so aptly put it in their programme introduction, these structures, arrays or networks are ones in which ‘system appears as ecosystem, syntax as biology’ (albeit sometimes in tandem with technology), and which make up our world (and those beyond) while constantly being shaped by ‘culture’ – in itself a ‘myriad of entangled interlocutors’. Accordingly, the event gave fertile ground to a myriad of more or less thematically ‘entangled interlocutors’ of the scholarly variety, who nevertheless managed to present a series of individually distinguished and enlightening papers on a variety of related topics. The day was divided up into four parallel panels and framed by a fascinating and wide-ranging keynote address by Dr Chris Pak in the morning as well as a lively and thought-provoking roundtable discussion in the late afternoon, which featured Paul McAuley, Gwyneth Jones and Professor Adam Roberts and was chaired by Dr Caroline Edwards. In the following report, I will give my impressions of the presentations that I was able to attend while attempting a content summary of those which I was unable to see; I apologise for the lack of detail in the latter. However, I am pleased at the chance to supplement my report with some rather excellent ‘sketch notes’ by the very talented Dr Paul Fisher Davies, who has the wonderful habit of taking conference notes in the form of diagrammatic text and drawings and who has very kindly made the ones he created at ‘Organic Systems’ available to us. (For a better view of the drawings, click on the hyperlinks that appear during this report.) To begin with, Dr Chris Pak’s keynote speech illustrated the embeddedness of the conference topic within the previous activities of the LSFRC, referring to texts that the reading group had previously covered, as well as thematically related works. These sf short stories and novels, which all had a focus on organic systems in the shape of ‘environments, bodies and cultures’ in common, ranged from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora via a variety of other texts exploring biological and environmental themes, such as J. G. Ballard’s “The Burning World”, Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean....

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