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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Call for Papers: Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics
Feb20

Call for Papers: Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics

Conference: 15th September 2018 at Birkbeck School of Arts Deadline for Abstracts: 1st May 2018 Many SF critics have understood science fiction to be specifically guided by a rational empiricist epistemology, and have thus disregarded the important presence of magical, religious, spiritual and metaphysical phenomena in science fiction. Deploying the broad catch-all of ‘metaphysics’, this conference will explore SF’s lost history of engagement with the mythical and mystical. Central areas of focus will include an assessment of what role (if any) metaphysical phenomena have played in science fiction, and to what degree SF can be distanced from the spiritual, supernatural and numinous concerns of other literatures of the fantastic. Assessing SF’s complex relationship with the metaphysical opens into many other productive areas of inquiry as well: How can science fictional texts help us understand broader cultural processes of knowledge formation and paradigm shift? To what degree does SF act as a protected space for ideas that have been proposed within empiricist frameworks, but disproved and/or rejected by established scientific networks? In what way have references to religious cultures and institutions been used to reinforce or undermine normative gender roles in SF texts? How do treatments of metaphysical phenomena in Western SF differ from those which originate in other areas of the globe? How important are the symbols, tropes and imagery of an array of global religious traditions to the quality of enchantment that is as vital to SF as any other fantastic genre? Other possible areas of research/interpretation include: Philosophical explorations of metaphysics in SF Intersections, tensions and harmonies between SF and mythical, magical or mystical traditions The science fictional sublime (e.g. cosmic or divine horror, weird ontologies, Big Dumb Objects) SF and the supernatural Intersections between theoretical science and metaphysics in speculative fiction The use of metaphysical phenomena to challenge or uphold dominant secularist or materialist discourses in SF SF and ‘pseudoscience’ SF adaptations of images, concepts and practices from religious movements large (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.) and small (e.g. Raëlism, Discordianism, etc.) Religious texts that reflect a science fictional narrative mode (e.g. in Theosophy and Scientology) New Religious Movements founded on science fiction texts (e.g. Jedism from Star Wars; The Church of All Worlds from Stranger in a Strange Land) SF as a forum for the exploration of religious experience Technological simulation/production of alternative realities in SF (e.g. VR/AR, cybergods, hallucinogenic visions) The liminal possibilities of the mind in science fiction—telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinetics, etc. Conversely, investigations of the Cartesian divide Cognitive narratology The boundaries of genre—metaphysical phenomena and definitional processes in science fiction scholarship Metaphysical phenomena and the production of utopian/dystopian modes in SF The conference will feature...

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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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Imagined Futures: Museum of London Display
Oct28

Imagined Futures: Museum of London Display

Birkbeck's very own Dr Caroline Edwards has curated a new display at the Museum of London on Imagined Futures. The display was commissioned as part of the year-long City Now: City Future programme of events and the design work was undertaken by Martin McGrath Studio. The display is installed at the Museum's Rotunda terrace, is free to access and will be up until April 2018.  Writers displayed include: Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Richard Jefferies, George Orwell, John Wyndham, Anthony Burgess, J. G. Ballard, Emma Tennant, Doris Lessing, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling, China Miéville, Maggie Gee, Bernardine Evaristo and Julie Myerson. Here's the blurb: Of all cities, London is one of the most widely represented in literature. During the 19th century, when it rose to prominence as the centre of the British Empire, London was considered the peak of civilisation. However, this achievement was matched by the violence of a colonial system that damaged the places and peoples from which the city drew its vast wealth, in India, Africa and the Caribbean. London therefore made the ideal setting in which to imagine future visions – in books that destroy the metropolis through scenes of devastation, or rebuild it as a fairer society. From Mary Shelley’s disaster novel, The Last Man (1826), to H. G. Wells’s techno-utopian vision in The Sleeper Awakes (1899), London established its reputation as a city in which to enact different visions of the future in literature. In the 20th century, such imagined futures became increasingly bleak, particularly in the post-World War II period, and by the 1970s writers were experimenting with surreal future London landscapes. More recently, London has become home to the leading characters in influential books for younger readers, such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996). In the 21st century, as we come to terms with the environmental impact of climate change, the city has once again found a new role as a literary setting. This display was curated by Dr Caroline Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London, and designed by Martin McGrath Studio. Quotes reprinted by kind permission of the authors/publishers. Featured image ©Museum of London. Used with...

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