Pop Enlightenments

by Emrys Jones, Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture, and host of Pop Enlightenments Listen on Soundcloud and iTunes.

Earlier this year, I received what might be my favourite ever comment from an anonymous peer reviewer. It was regarding an article I had written for Literature Compass surveying recent scholarship on the eighteenth-century poet, Alexander Pope. I had offhandedly remarked in the essay that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the 2004 film written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, was Pope’s moment of greatest visibility in modern popular culture.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, poster c. Focus Films via Wikimedia Commons.

I didn’t think this would prove too controversial. The film takes a line from Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard (1717) as its title, and has one of its characters quote that line as part of a larger extract from the same poem. But the peer reviewer—amiably, it must be said—disagreed. Had I considered the Elvis song, ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, with its assertion, cribbed from Pope but attributed to generic “wise men”, that “fools rush in”? Had I watched the 1997 film—a Friends-era Matthew Perry vehicle—that took its title from that same line of poetry (Essay on Criticism, 1711, l.625)? I was sorely tempted to rewrite the whole article at this stage, to turn it into a lengthy dissertation on Pope’s importance for the romantic comedy genre. Hope Springs, anyone? But instead I stuck to my guns, politely insisted on Eternal Sunshine’s pre-eminence, and resubmitted the essay. Continue reading Pop Enlightenments

Shakespeare at war

By Amy Lidster, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of English, @amy_lidster

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been regularly used to comment on the political and public affairs of their performance moment – occasionally provoking heated responses. In 2017, for example, the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park prompted a media furore (led by Fox News), because the presentation of Caesar bore a striking resemblance to Donald Trump.

The Public Theatre, other news media, and Shakespeare scholars (such as Stephen Greenblatt) were quick to point out that Shakespeare’s play hardly condones the assassination of Caesar and that it explores, instead, the conspirators’ flawed and extreme reactions to a democracy under threat. But audience responses cannot be contained by a careful reading of the text, and, while a production may clearly announce its relevance to contemporary politics, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific application or to control public responses to it.

Shakespeare in the Park/ ‘Julius Caesar‘, New York, 2017.

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Cottonopolis cut down: An English atrocity and its far-reaching consequences

by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English

“The first action of the battle of Manchester is over”, wrote Major Dyneley of the 15th Hussars, “& has, I am happy to say ended in the complete discomfiture of the Enemy.” At 4 pm on August 16, 1819, Dyneley was already back in the Hulme Barracks with his regiment. The “Enemy” was the 60,000 to 80,000 people, most of them textile workers, who had assembled that morning in St Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, to hold a peaceful demonstration to protest against the Corn Laws, and to call for parliamentary reform. The Enemy was the people. And discomfited they had surely been.

Henry Hunt, the orator who had addressed the meeting briefly before being arrested and beaten up, said that the Manchester Yeomanry, volunteers who made the first incursion into the crowd, before the Hussars, had “charged amongst the people, sabring right and left, in all directions. Sparing neither age,sex, nor rank”. It all happened very quickly. Ten minutes after the first charge, William Joliffe remembered that “the ground was quite covered with hats, shoes, musical instruments and other things”. Another eyewitness recounted that, “[s]everal mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered.

Continue reading Cottonopolis cut down: An English atrocity and its far-reaching consequences

‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years as a Widening Participation project. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We run workshops with the students that investigate Shakespeare’s plays through seminar-style sessions, readings, and creative writing activities. Read more about the Shakespeare Academy here.

Below you can read some examples of creative writing by Years 9 and 10 students from our summer 2018 workshops. We asked them to imagine what Lady Macbeth might have written if she had left a suicide note. As you can see, the pieces are inspired by the imagery and language of the play, but re-imagined for a modern audience.

I was particularly encouraged by the ways in which students engaged with the gender politics of Macbeth. Their writings express the limitations of Lady Macbeth’s agency within early modern patriarchy with a subtlety that I found truly impressive. The entrants showcased below were chosen for their originality, insight and imaginative engagement with Shakespeare’s text.  They express the individual poetic and creative voices of the students, while maintaining close adherence to the characterisation, imagery and tone of the play.

Dr Gemma Miller, English Department and Globe Education Continue reading ‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

Stimulating student interest in Shakespeare with the King’s Shakespeare Academy

By Dr Gemma Miller, Department of English and Globe Education

The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years and I am very proud to have been involved from its inception. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 Widening Participation students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We’ve also run Teachers Days with the London Shakespeare Centre.

My role as administrator and workshop leader involves liaising with the schools, creating the programme for the Academy study days, supporting my colleagues in preparing individual sessions and delivering workshops myself. I am particularly passionate about inclusive access to education: my brother and I were the first in our family to obtain degrees. I also  believe that engaging with Shakespeare in an interactive and creative way can help to break down perceived barriers by making the plays seem more accessible.

All ‘national curriculum’ students study Shakespeare (two plays at key stages 3 and at least one play at key stage 4). Many of the pupils we work with are from Black or Ethnic Minority backgrounds, or come from families where their parents or carers have not attended university. We give these students access to university-style learning to give them a taste of what they can expect. This makes Shakespeare’s plays a valuable common currency to reach groups who are under-represented in tertiary education.  Also, plays such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet deal with important social and political issues – power, love, inter-generational conflict, gang warfare –  that are still relevant today. The plays are  useful tools for thinking about wider social concerns that are universally recognisable.

The Weird Sisters (Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 1, Scene 3) engraving by John Raphael Smith after Henry Fuseli. The Met. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/395662

Continue reading Stimulating student interest in Shakespeare with the King’s Shakespeare Academy

Radical transparency: how to build political agency for digital users

by Clare Birchall, Reader in Contemporary Culture, Department of English

It’s not often, as a theorist, that I have the opportunity to watch my ideas come to life. When the King’s Digital Lab offered to fund a workshop to explore how its designers and engineers might help me to build a digital tool that can enact what I call ‘radical transparency’, I naturally jumped at the chance. In contrast to weak forms of transparency implemented by some public and private bodies that offer the public access to certain data in lieu of political commitment as well as responsibility without power, I envisage radical transparency as processes that would offer meaningful, political and contextualised information and data that promote experiences of political agency for digital users.

As well as the team at King’s Digital Lab, I wanted to draw together artists, computer scientists and other digital theorists to think through the ethical protocols as well as practical possibilities of any form radical transparency might take.

Burak Arikan’s network map of concept tags in Japanese, prepared for Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art . Photo © https://burak-arikan.com/

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The soap dish homesick syndrome

by Rabia Kapoor, 2nd year English Literature and Language BA. Featured image via craftybua instagram.

I keep thinking about the soap dish. In Shoreditch, London, during this design festival that my mum took our entire parade to: people I’d met maybe twice in my life coming together for my week-long farewell non-party.

My parents had come to London with me to help me settle in before university started. It was a group of three that kept getting bigger as my parents pulled in all their friends in the vicinity to be a part of the goodbyes. Maybe it was a weird coping mechanism, I don’t know, I didn’t overthink it then. Continue reading The soap dish homesick syndrome

Put sand in the machines: Disobedient objects, protest, satire, resistance and jokes at the British Museum

by Clare PettittProfessor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English

Dissent clearly varies in terms of seriousness”, says Ian Hislop, the guest curator of the British Museum’s new exhibition. It certainly does. I Object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent throws together a peculiarly Hislopian blend of public school scatological gags and objects and images that record acts of resistance under totalitarian regimes that may have resulted in the torture and/or death of their makers. The stakes are vertiginously uneven, and as a result, the exhibition frequently runs into problems of tone.

As curator, we encounter a thoughtful and knowledgeable Hislop, respectful of other cultures and alert to injustice and cruelty in the world. But as presenter, we encounter more of a fnarr fnarr chortler: “Gillray knew what would sell a print – sex, the royal family and fashionable shoes”, he chuckles, or “Have workmen on building sites always been keen on sexual commentary?” It is an interesting problem. Amnesty International meets Finbarr Saunders meets the British Museum, and the result is often confusing, but never boring.

Continue reading Put sand in the machines: Disobedient objects, protest, satire, resistance and jokes at the British Museum

‘Human curiosity has a revolutionary power’: An interview with Paul Gilroy

by Rachel Bolle-Debessay and Paul Gilroy in conversation

Paul Gilroy, Professor of American and English Literature at King’s, was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2018 – a prestigious recognition of his work as a cultural historian, critical race theorist and thinker who has shaped black diaspora studies.  Founded in 1780, the Academy has a stellar list of former members including Benjamin Franklin (1781), Charles Darwin (1874), Albert Einstein (1924) and Martin Luther King, Jr (1966). Here, Paul speaks to PhD researcher Rachel Bolle-Debessay about receiving this award.

Rachel Bolle-Debessay (RBD): Thanks so much for talking to us, Paul! Our trigger for this interview was your election as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. So could you begin at this point – what does this mean for you and the nature of the scholarship that you undertake?

Paul Gilroy (PG): I was humbled and amazed. I’d say that being taken seriously is the best feeling an academic can have. I worked in the US for some years and one of my responsibilities as a teacher and researcher lay in the field of African American Studies. As an outsider, I faced a significant amount of hostility especially when my work was perceived as interrupting the standard cultural nationalist approaches that have defined that enterprise.

So this award cheered me up. It made me feel that in spite of the antipathy I had endured, the work I’d done had acquired its own life and some people had found it useful. It’s absolutely fine if they use it as something to disagree with and sharpen their intellectual claws upon. It makes me feel that I haven’t wasted my time.

‘This award cheered me up. It made me feel that in spite of the antipathy I had endured, the work I’d done had acquired its own life and some people had found it useful.’ Paul Gilroy on being elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2018. Photo © Paul Gilroy

Continue reading ‘Human curiosity has a revolutionary power’: An interview with Paul Gilroy

The long read: Founders of England? Tracing Anglo-Saxon Myths in Kent

by Fran Allfrey, working on a LAHP-funded PhD about the cultural history of Sutton Hoo, and Beth Whalley, English and Geography PhD funded by the Rick Trainor Scholarship and Canal & River Trust.

‘The medieval’ in the contemporary moment

‘A Spot Called Crayford’ is a Heritage Lottery Fund project led by Crayford Reminiscence and Youth (CRAY), all about making the earliest Anglo-Saxon histories of Kent more accessible to school children. As part of the project, King’s medievalists led workshops in two Crayford primary schools, and a day-long journey to five sites in Kent associated with Anglo-Saxons stories.

One site we visited provoked questions that link to a research interest important to both of us: how ‘the medieval’ exists in the contemporary moment. Addressing collisions of archaeological enquiry, folk-stories, and over 1,000 years of writing about this place tested the possibilities of fun but critical activities, and asked us to confront the role of emotional responses to histories and spaces.

Kit’s Coty House and the White Horse Stone. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

The site, or rather two sites, known as Kit’s Coty House and the White Horse Stone, are part of a scattered collection of Neolithic standing stones and barrows known as the ‘Medway Megaliths’. We had been asked by CRAY to lead activities for children aged 8-14 that engaged with these sites and their association with Horsa and Categern, two mythological fifth-century figures integral to the story of the adventus anglorum, the coming of the Angles.

Continue reading The long read: Founders of England? Tracing Anglo-Saxon Myths in Kent

From the Department of English at King's College London