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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Godzilla Resurges
Oct23

Godzilla Resurges

A New Godzilla Rises for a New Japan in Shin Godzilla (2016) By Craig Thomson Released in the UK as part of a limited run, Shin Godzilla (translated as ‘True’ or ‘God’ Godzilla) stands as an oddity in the ever-changing Godzilla franchise. For those unacquainted with its history, the series stereotypically brings forth images of bad dubbing, even worse special effects and a narrative emphasis on giant monster wrestling. Yet, like many pop culture icons of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Godzilla creature has continued to evolve, not least with Gareth Edwards’s recent underrated 2014 US reboot Godzilla, which returned to the social commentary of the original 1954 Godzilla, whilst updating both its effects and message for a modern-day global audience. While Edwards’s Godzilla may have functioned as a Hollywood interpretation of the monster, Shin Godzilla reinvigorates the infamous monster for a modern Japanese audience, providing something its contemporary cohorts have yet to offer. While many of its predecessors may have focused on big-budget effects and large-scale destructive set-pieces, Shin Godzilla acts as a satirical black comedy; one that attempts to address the key political concerns of a twenty-first century Japan, particularly regarding the governmental response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. At first glance, the film’s structure follows the conventional ‘Kaiju’ or Japanese ‘mysterious monster’ movie template.[1] Reimagined as the physically largest interpretation of the creature to date, the film begins with Godzilla rising from the Pacific, threatening to come ashore. As it does, the Japanese government struggles to respond against the creature, which appears to evolve at an accelerated rate, rapidly transitioning from a larval stage to that of the bipedal, nuclear-damaged, saurian behemoth with which audiences are familiar. After many millions of dollars’ worth of property damage, and a constant to-and-fro between the near-invulnerable monster and the military, the Japanese eventually uncover an ingenious way to defeat Godzilla using an experimental coagulant to freeze the beast’s core, thus saving both Tokyo and the earth from the beast’s continued rampage. Yet, despite such a conventional structure, as noted, the film nevertheless offers a somewhat fresh and intuitive take on the series. While the Godzilla monster’s portrayal might be construed as following its predecessors by being readas an allegorical representation of contemporary Japanese specific environmental terrors, the film also takes a specific swipe at what were widely considered the Japanese Government’s failings following the 2011 triple-disaster. For many within the Japanese public and even the worldwide media, the 2011 disaster only highlighted the inadequacy of the government’s response; with a lack of communication, inadequate disaster preparations and the delay of emergency aid...

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Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair
Oct12

Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair

by Dickon Edwards This review contains plot spoilers. It seems apt that in the time between the publication of Alan Hollinghurst’s last novel, The Stranger’s Child (2011) and the emergence this month of his latest, The Sparsholt Affair, a lot has happened in Hollinghurst studies. Apt, because both novels concern things happening between the acts, as it were. Key events – deaths, births, world wars, sex scandals – only take place in the large gaps of time separating each novel’s five sections of narration. Similarly, in the real world the gap between the two novels’ publication saw no fewer than three academic books on Hollinghurst emerge; in 2011, there were none. Allan Johnson’s study Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) was followed by two essay collections, Alan Hollinghurst: Writing under the Influence, edited by Michèle Mendelssohn and Denis Flannery (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), and Sex and Sensibility in the Novels of Alan Hollinghurst, edited by Mark Mathuray (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). This last book includes an essay by Bianca Leggett, a recent tutor of contemporary literature at Birkbeck. Whether this recent surge in Hollinghurstian scholarship will continue it remains to be seen. One theme of both The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair is, after all, the way literary reputations can wax and wane over time. Just as The Stranger’s Child tracks the life of a 1913 poem by the fictional Cecil Valance down the decades, The Sparsholt Affair begins in 1940s Oxford with the establishing of a similarly invented figure, this time a novelist. A.V. Dax is described as a celebrity on the level of George Orwell and Stephen Spender [i]. But by 1995, in the novel’s fourth section, Dax has become one of those writers dimly heard of and mostly unread. A lecture theatre named in his honour during the 1960s is demolished in the 1990s, leaving Ivan, a biographer, to muse on the way memorials can be as intransigent as their subjects: ‘If the memorial itself was destroyed, then what remained?' (332). In 2017, at least, Hollinghurst’s own profile has never been healthier, critically and commercially. While academia has saluted his work with the aforementioned trio of scholarly books, the British public made the paperback of The Stranger’s Child one of the biggest selling books of 2012 [ii]. Last week the new novel’s publication warranted its own segment on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight [iii]. Thankfully, the news is good. Admittedly, with its more bohemian settings, The Sparsholt Affair lacks the frisson of 1980s power and politics found in The Line of Beauty (2004). It also cannot eclipse the innovatory...

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