Report: James Joyce on TV
Jun18

Report: James Joyce on TV

by Joseph Brooker James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) takes place on the 16th of June, which has accordingly come to be celebrated each year – as ‘Bloomsday’, in honour of the protagonist Leopold Bloom. Celebrations in Dublin started in 1954, 50 years after the book’s setting, with a pilgrimage around the city by Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and friends; in 1982, Joyce’s own centenary, it finally started to become the wider civic festival that it is for Dublin today. Around the world, many devotees of Joyce like to do something to mark the date: only a minority dress in Edwardian costume, but many gather to read from the novel. We have held such readings at Birkbeck in recent years. In 2017, Birkbeck’s Bloomsday celebration was distinctive: an evening screening of two very rarely seen films about Joyce, organized by Michael Garrad – a cinema programmer and graduate of our MA Modern & Contemporary Literature – with the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. It was heartening to see a large and engaged audience turn up to spend two hours in the dark, even on a sunny evening worthy of Joyce’s summery book. Michael Garrad expertly introduced the films, and held a conversation afterward with documentary film-maker Clare Tavernor and me. The first film was Anthony Burgess’s documentary Silence, Exile and Cunning (1965). This black and white film of c.45 minutes was made in the BBC strand Monitor, pioneered by Huw Wheldon; the film was produced by Jonathan Miller who had emerged from the Beyond the Fringe set. The film thus exemplifies some aspects of British television culture in the 1960s: adventurous arts programming in the form of personal essay films, with auteurs and artists like Burgess given their head in a relatively free and experimental culture of programme-making. There is a risk of naively idealizing a televisual golden age of the 1960s and 1970s at the expense of the present, but it seems true that certain possibilities existed then because of a less bureaucratic system. Clare commented with amusement afterwards that Burgess’s method had been ‘I’m not going to interview anybody – it’ll just be about me’. His film is indeed centred around his monologue, delivered to camera on Dublin location or as voiceover. Burgess’s voice is punctuated by others reading from Joyce’s writings, including a Leopold and Molly Bloom who both sounded lower in class status than those we have come to know from the more recent CD renditions by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan. Burgess’s film is visually quite striking, using still images and close-ups of waves and water, as well as monochrome panoramas of Dublin Bay...

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Report: Caroline Edwards Keynote for Dystopia Now
Jun18

Report: Caroline Edwards Keynote for Dystopia Now

by Caroline Edwards   Birkbeck's Centre for Contemporary Literature recently organised a one-day conference titled 'Dystopia Now,' held at the School of Arts on 26 May 2017. I was really thrilled to be asked to deliver the opening keynote for the conference, alongside Dr Mark Bould who gave the closing keynote to round off the day's talks.  My talk was titled 'Techno-modernity: how we love it, how we fear it' and considered the way in which ‘techno-modernity’ inspires a double-sided speculative response among writers: firstly, giving concrete form to our fear of the loss of modernity and/or civilisation that we find in so many post-apocalyptic narratives (like dystopias, these are enjoying an impressive renaissance just now) – this is why we love it; and, secondly, also inspires our fear of the kind of future modernity will deliver in its final, perfected incarnation – and this is why we hate it. In the spirit of Gregory Claeys’ authoritative new book, Dystopia: A Natural History (2017), I focussed on a few aspects of literary dystopianism that we can chart through some of the indicative early texts of the genre. These texts comprise what Tom Moylan and Rafaella Baccolini would term ‘the classical, or canonical, form of dystopia’ (Moylan and Baccolini 1) – as described in their influential edited collection, Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination (2003) – including the utopian problem of labour (who will do the drudgery/menial work in the good society) and the solution of automation; the question of designing the good society (in techno-modernity, read here, the good city) and architectural visions of the future; the relationship between the individual subject and the utopian collective (what happens when collectivisation or community is forced or imposed upon you? What happens to privacy and individual space in these techno-modern cities? How are social units organised (families, childbearing etc.).   In the talk, I considered canonical early and proto-dystopian texts, such as E. M. Forster’s 1909 novella 'The Machine Stops,' novels that challenged late nineteenth-century monopoly capitalism, including Émile Souvestre’s The World as It Will Be ('Le monde tel qu’il sera,' 1846), Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), and Frank Norris’ anti-railroad novel, The Octopus (1901) – which I argued might be considered proto-dystopian in their visions of oligopolistic capitalism, which offer a striking relevance for our own contemporary era of unfettered neoliberal globalisation – and more orthodox dystopias such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel We ('My'), Valery Bryusov’s overlooked symbolist short story 'The Republic of the Southern Cross' (Respublika iuzhnogo kresta) (1907), and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). I briefly discussed feminist anti-fascist dystopian texts of the...

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Report: Child Be Strange
Jun14

Report: Child Be Strange

by Joseph Brooker The dramatist David Rudkin (b.1936) wrote the television play Penda’s Fen in 1972-3. It was filmed by director Alan Clarke (himself acclaimed as an auteur in recent retrospectives) and screened as a 90-minute film in BBC television’s Play For Today slot in March 1974. The play was repeated in 1975, then scarcely seen for another 15 years. Until the arrival of VHS recorders in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible for viewers to catch up with or re-view a piece of television unless they managed to be in front of the screen on the occasion of a repeat. In 1990 Penda’s Fen was at last screened again, with an introduction from Rudkin, in a Channel 4 retrospective of the work of the influential producer David Rose. Now it was possible to record works of television that came recommended for their quality or rarity, and amateur VHS copies of Penda’s Fen began to circulate. This was the basis of a gradual revival in interest in the play, which in the 2000s came to be seen as a significant instance of a certain cultural strand from the 1970s: put simply, an English uncanny. The play depicts the experience of teenager Stephen Franklin, living in a conservative household in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, whose stable assumptions are disturbed as he encounters a series of spectral figures, culminating in a meeting with Penda, the last pagan king in England prior to Christianity. As Stephen ventures through this mystical rural landscape, issues of sexuality and politics are also implicitly raised. Following a DVD and Blu-Ray release in May 2016, the revival of Penda’s Fen reached its peak with a high-profile screening at the British Film Institute on 10th June 2017, preceded by a whole day conference about the film, supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The conference and screening were organized by Matthew Harle and James Machin, who both completed PhD theses in Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities. They had assembled a full day of presentations about the film from speakers including David Ian Rabey, author of a monograph about Rudkin’s drama, and Adam Scovell, whose recent book Folk Horror indicates one way to categorize the film. Given the traditional – but now certainly shifting – gender balance of fandom in cult TV and film, it was not very surprising that a majority of speakers were male; but substantial contributions were also made by three women scholars: Carolyne Larrington, a Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, who among other things raised the question of the place...

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Reflections on The Contemporary: an Exhibition
Jun13

Reflections on The Contemporary: an Exhibition

Report by Annapurna Barry On Tuesday 16th May 2017 MA Contemporary Literature and Culture students organised a pioneering and interactive event, The Contemporary: an Exhibition, that pulled in crowds of students, prospective students, tutors and family and friends. Our exhibiters, Hope Dinsey, Daniel Pateman and Aefifa Razzaq, created intelligent and thought-provoking creative pieces that explored the idea of the contemporary and what it means to us in our current social and political landscape. Daniel Pateman’s multimedia exhibition, Ghosts of the Future: Ruinations and Re(creation), created a discourse around the idea of our constant need for regeneration. As Daniel writes in an accompanying text, ‘there is a sense in our culture today of a desire for social, personal and political renewal; of myriad possibilities for change rather than the perceived inevitabilities of monolithic systems.’ Although Daniel’s photographs could initially be seen as an investigation into the hopelessness of contemporary life, they are instead aiming to be hopeful and to suggest that contemporary life is in a perpetual state of transformation and that ruinations are symbols of regeneration and in fact sites of recreation. The photographs in Ghosts of the Future feature a range of sites that are decayed and/or abandoned such as disused hospitals, graveyards and factories. I spoke to Daniel and our guests and everyone seemed to be in agreement that even though these sites remind us of mortality and echo Gothic ideas of the sublime, they are in fact a positive portrayal of the contemporary and of the now – society is moving towards a less binary view of the world and of life and death, and towards a mentality that sees beauty and hope in destruction. Daniel’s exhibition also featured poems ‘I am Demetrius’ and ‘I am Lazarus’ on black card, which metamorphosise and degenerate into a structure-free form that gives the poems opportunity for renewal and leaves them open to interpretation – an exciting development in contemporary aesthetics.   Daniel Pateman’s Ghosts of the Future: Ruinations and Re(creation) This idea of text and narrative being an unstable and unfixed concept, as seen in Daniel’s poems, is something that Hope Dinsey’s exhibit, The Expansion of Narrative in the Digital Age, explores. When I chatted to Hope about her work, she spoke of how since the advent of the internet methods of storytelling and traditional narratives found in literature, film and art have developed and morphed into something entirely new. Hope’s detailed exhibition explored avenues such as fandom, hypertext, fantext and interactive gaming, none of which possess a set narrative. We arguably live in a society that is characterised by choice and it seems that this desire has fuelled...

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Reflections on Dystopia Now
Jun04

Reflections on Dystopia Now

by Amy Butt I must confess to a certain trepidation in the run-up to the Dystopia Now symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck. When so much of my real and virtual life seems dominated by voices keen to correlate the current political state of the world with the darkest moments of dystopian fiction, dwelling in the ‘now’ of dystopia felt like an all too common occurrence. But stepping into the sunlight-strewn Keynes Library seemed to have generated an atmosphere of renewed resolve in those attending: a desire to create a space outside of those immediate and all too pressing concerns, to step back momentarily and re-appraise the critical and constructive potential within dystopian visions, before rejoining the fray. You may have to forgive my professional bias as an architect, but this theme of a place for dystopia, both within genre studies or in wider political discourse, appeared to be a critical point of reflection for many of the speakers. Caroline Edwards' keynote talk which commenced the day steadfastly dismissed this siren call of the ‘Now’, to situate our consideration of techno-modernity and the apparent dystopias therein in the wider historical context of dystopian and utopian fiction. Edwards demonstrated, by tracing the attitude towards of techno-modernity from Wells to Atwood, that just as the word ‘utopia’ was coined as a term of criticism in parliamentary debate, the role of dystopian literature is as an ongoing process of critique. As Edwards drew on H.G. Wells’ reference to dystopia as ‘shadows of light thrown by darkness’ [i], the importance of contextual framing came to the fore. This framing was considered both within the literary text and within the spaces of dystopia in the novels, drawing on Moylan and Baccolini’s definitions of dystopia [ii] to identify how the appendices of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Iron Heel and Nineteen Eighty-Four transform the reading of these apparently foreclosed dystopian visions. Within the novels themselves, Edwards noted that while the dystopian visions of mathematical progress as realized in the panopticism of Zamyatin’s glass walled One State or the breeding vats of Brave New World seem to foreclose any alternative outcomes for purely technological development, these are not reasons to dismiss techno-modernity. As Edwards stated, there may be ’room to live inside that set of visions’, if these novels are considered as a set of boundaries, a framing device which defines the edges of dystopia from all sides. This appreciation of the framing of the text was also dwelt upon by Nick Hubble when considering Iain M. Banks’ novella State of The Art in relation to the narrative of Use of Weapons. Part of...

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Report: Dystopia Now
Jun04

Report: Dystopia Now

by Joseph Brooker On Friday 26th May, the Centre for Contemporary Literature hosted the symposium Dystopia Now. The event continued a significant element of the Centre’s activities in investigating the importance of science fiction and speculative fiction to contemporary culture; at the same time, it responded to a sense, pervasively expressed in recent months, of a dystopian dimension to our political present. The topical theme attracted keen interest, with two dozen speakers travelling from as far as Germany and Japan, as well as from across the UK, to outline different versions of dystopia in recent fiction and discuss their implications. Due to the popularity of the event, its papers ran in parallel sessions, so any impression of it can only respond to half of what took place. This report, accordingly, is only a partial account, which cannot do justice to every contributor; for a more complete picture it may be read in conjunction with other reports that are emerging, and with the live response to the conference on Twitter under the hashtag #dystopianow17. Caroline Edwards, a key member of the Centre for Contemporary Literature team at Birkbeck, opened the conference with a synoptic reading of dystopian narratives in modern history (you can click here to listen to, or download, Caroline's keynote lecture). To understand dystopia now, she implied, we should reconsider dystopias past. Though Edwards’ lecture began with a vivid sketch of the dystopian aspects of the present – via images of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) as adapted for the screen – she returned us to the history of the form, citing the term’s use by John Stuart Mill and offering an extensive discussion of the fantastic narratives of H.G. Wells. In a distinctive move, she also proposed that naturalist fictions assailing monopoly capitalism – like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) – could be considered influences on dystopian fiction. In this way, Edwards both expanded the discussion out of science fiction and into mainstream or realist narrative, and proposed that capitalism, as well as totalitarianism, has been a source of dystopian dread. In a panel on shifting forms of dystopia from Orwell to the present, Simon Willmetts rejected such Marxist critics of dystopia as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson, and emphasized the value placed on individual agency by most dystopian narratives: a value that Willmetts found confirmed by Edward Snowden’s defence of privacy. Patricia McManus, like Willmetts, also addressed Dave Eggers’ Google-inspired vision The Circle (2013), but was more sceptical of the individualism supported by dystopian narratives, and argued that the positive force of crowds and collectives had...

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