The Limits of Estrangement
Mar06

The Limits of Estrangement

by Joseph Brooker This is a slightly revised version of the introduction to a panel discussion hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Literature, 2nd March 2017, in which I was joined by my colleagues Mark Blacklock, Caroline Edwards and Mpalive Msiska This brief document summarises some thoughts I’ve recently had about literature and the contemporary, and is presented as the opening of a critical conversation: an invitation for others to develop, substantiate and improve on these ideas.   1: Politics We are used to the idea of a contemporary era characterised by change and challenge, but in the world of society and politics the last year or two have presented more surprises than usual; even shocks. Just to stick to the most evident and pressing: the surprise of the vote for the UK to leave the European Union last June, and its ongoing effects; and the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US election in November, and the ongoing effects of that event. (We can bracket, for now, Leicester City's dismissal of manager Claudio Ranieri, which Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp considered an equally shocking and inexplicable event.) Both these events currently seem endless in their capacity to produce effects: in other words there hasn’t been a day that they haven’t dominated the news agenda in some new or continuing way. The night before this panel took place offered, in the UK, another controversial vote in the Upper House of Parliament, followed by Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address. The effects of the Brexit vote are large and controversial, and will not be addressed further here. It is the US situation that I think has more to do with the mood announced in our title. Put succinctly, my main prompt for this panel was the idea that the new political situation in the US has advanced us into a position where reality seems closer than it did before to science fiction, or to dystopia, or to surrealism, or some other kind of dark fantasy. In one way, when written down in black and white, that proposition looks excessive and itself unrealistic. Yet the idea has been pervasive for some 3 months now. Here are just three instances to illustrate that point. On election day itself, in November 2017, Sophie Gilbert wrote in The Atlantic that ‘many […] writers have been compelled to sketch out their visions of a Trump presidency, and while their scenarios have differed when it comes to specifics, all of them fit neatly into the category of dystopian fiction. From mass deportations to child soldiers fighting wars with Mexico to a nation whose only news source...

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Mark Blacklock on Experimental Fiction
Jan25

Mark Blacklock on Experimental Fiction

Dr Mark Blacklock of the Department of English & Humanities recently appeared on Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 to discuss experimental fiction. Dr Blacklock was in conversation with the acclaimed novelist Eimear McBride, whose work has been described as engaging and reactivating the legacies of modernism and who is in conversation with Professor Jacqueline Rose at Birkbeck on 25th January. The radio discussion can be heard on iPlayer here.     Image by Joe Haupt, used under a CC BY 2.0...

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First Contact
Jan12

First Contact

The ‘First Contact’ Research Cluster First Contact is a group of researchers at Birkbeck College in the School of Arts, both faculty and students. Our work is focused on science fiction, weird fiction and ‘slipstream’ literature, but investigates the implications of technocultural transformation in modern narrative through a wide diversity of forms that include literature, film, comics, photography, art, and cultural history. We meet informally as a support group for our individual projects and to explore the potential for collaboration. We meet formally through Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature, but like to think we are slowly corrupting its DNA to produce new kinds of hybrid monsters. Our ambition is to set up a series of Futurological Congresses to explore a number of inter-related SFnal themes. Since we are all committed to the idea that this fiction is good to think with, we envisage First Contact as a think tank dedicated to wrestling the future back from apocalyptic forces intent on cancelling it.   Recent publication highlights: Martin Eve, Password (Bloomsbury, 2016) H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford World’s Classics, 2017)   Faculty includes: Heike Bauer teaches on 21st century feminism and fiction and writes on graphic narratives, co-editing special issues of Studies in Comics and Journal of Lesbian Studies. Mark Blacklock teaches Science Fiction at Birkbeck and convenes the MA in Cultural and Critical Studies. His first monograph, The Emergence of the Fourth Dimension, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2017, investigates the roots of the science-fictional idea of higher-dimensional space, reading its imaginative forms in work by H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft. He has recently published articles on Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise and New Horror Theories and is planning a research project into science-fictional languages. Dr Blacklock is also a novelist and writer for the national press. Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck: author of books on Irish modernism and on British writers of the 1980s, he is now writing a book centred around the US novelist Jonathan Lethem which explores questions of genre hybridity, the relations of SF to mainstream fiction and other genres, and new connections between contemporary writing and literary history. Caroline Edwards is completing a book about time in contemporary fiction. She is co-editor with Tony Venezia of China Miéville: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2015). An expert on dystopian and utopian narratives, she is often invited to discuss these topics in public forums and national media. Dr Edwards is currently co-editing a Special Collection on ‘Powering the Future: Energy Resources in Science Fiction and Fantasy’ with Graeme Macdonald for the Open Library of Humanities. Martin Eve specialises in...

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Counting Backwards
Jul09

Counting Backwards

by Joseph Brooker In 2014 the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the world's first symposium on the writer Geoff Dyer. The event was organized primarily by Dr Bianca Leggett. I gave a paper on Dyer's first novel, The Colour of Memory (1989). Recently I was contacted by the US project The Creative Process, which had just conducted an interview with Dyer and wished to publish an essay on his work alongside it. I sent them a reworked version of my essay which now appears here. Image: Brockwell Park by fosbry, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence....

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Stuart Hall’s Library
May13

Stuart Hall’s Library

by Joseph Brooker The pioneering sociologist and intellectual Stuart Hall died in 2014. He played a crucial part in developing the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s, and for decades offered an inspiring and instructive influence with his writings on identity, representation and politics. Unsurprisingly he left behind an extensive library of the books, journal and papers that he had acquired over the decades. His widow Catherine Hall is now distributing this material: some of it, I understand, to an archive in Warwick. Some of the rest has been donated to the radical Housmans bookshop on Caledonian Road, for recirculation into the world of readers. Informed of this by my colleague Dr Blacklock, I took an hour off in the blazing May sunshine and walked over to Caledonian Road, naturally reminded of The Shop Assistants’ ‘Caledonian Road’ (which was released on vinyl the month before Hall’s ‘No Light at the End of the Tunnel’, a powerful survey of Thatcherism in its pomp, appeared in Marxism Today). Housman’s general stock is high quality: contemporary novels, a lot of science fiction, politics and theory, the latest n+1 and Believer and lesser-known magazines too; plus postcards and badges with the E.P. Thompson-era slogan Protest & Survive. The general second-hand stock in the basement is very interesting and cheap too. Pierre Macherey’s ATheory of Literary Production was here for £3, a book that seemed a great prize when I was an undergraduate but is perhaps no longer read (come to think of it, it was no longer read when I was an undergraduate); perhaps I should have bought this copy, as my own (£2.75 from a student bookshop) came with an affixed Mr Men sticker that I always struggled to realize was not supposed to be part of the front cover. But today was about Stuart Hall’s library. A selection of books were displayed on tables in the middle of the basement. A less prized set were going cheaper from a trolley. A great deal of what had come in had evidently already been bought up. Where are Hall’s copies of The Uses of Literacy or The Long Revolution? Gone either to the archive or to the first collectors to raid these displays. Yet here were nuggets still. Hall’s copies of two titles from Richard Hoggart, his great colleague at Birmingham. At least four books by global intellectuals of the next generation down from Hall’s, inscribed by them to him with thanks for his inspiration. One significant figure in the development of cultural studies signed their own book for Hall with an elegant tribute: Acknowledging many debts...

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Talking Shop: Dr Harriet Earle
May11

Talking Shop: Dr Harriet Earle

This is the first of a new series of interviews in which we invite people working in the contemporary field to tell us about their work and share their sense of what's interesting. Dr Harriet Earle is currently an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck, whose book on trauma and conflict in comics will be published in 2017. CCL: Do you think there is now a comics canon? (Or would you use a different term?) If so, what's in it? And who makes it? — artists, publishers, fans, academics? Is there, for instance, a distinct academic canon of comics that is different from other canons? Harriet: Canon is a good word – we can use that. As for what’s in it… all the comics that even non-comics-readers have heard of! Spiegelman’s Maus, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are three key texts that were all published in 1986 – something of a big year for comics – and a good starting point for any discussion of the canon. More recent additions would include Thompson’s Blankets, Bechdel’s Fun Home and Gaiman et al’s (mind-blowingly brilliant) series The Sandman. There are some artists whose entire corpus is worthy of a place in the canon: Sacco and his comics journalism, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Chris Ware, Frank Miller and Bryan Talbot. As for who makes it? Who makes any canon? It’s a tricky question because there are so many threads to it. However, with comics I think there’s another angle that does particularly interesting things to the comics canon – awards. There are many comics awards that are prestigious within the field but these are rarely mentioned anywhere except the jackets of the books (and comics-specific press coverage). What people do hear about is when a comic is honoured in a non-comics specific forum. Maus won a Pulitzer in 1992, Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time‍'​s 2005 "All-Time 100 Greatest Novels" list and Persepolis ranked #5 on Newsweek’s list of the ten best fiction books of the decade. This is not to say they aren’t well-crafted narratives that deserve recognition, but the recognition they do get seems above and beyond that which, say, an Eisner Award winner would receive because they have broken out of their own category. As for a distinct academic canon – I don’t know if it would differ too greatly from the ‘general’ comics canon. We’re still squeamish about giving superhero narratives too much kudos (despite there being some brilliant superhero comics out there – Magneto: Testament, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Tank Girl) so these tend to be missing (or at least under-represented)...

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