Category Archives: 20th – 21st Centuries

Teaching literature in the age of Trump and Brexit: some reflections

by Sinéad Murphy and Diya Gupta, PhD researchers, Departments of Comparative Literature and English

“Teachers and students produce, reinforce, recreate, resist, and transform ideas about race, gender, and difference in the classroom.” - Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘On Race and Voice: Challenges for Liberal Education in the 1990s’, 1989

“Provoking students to think, really think, is one of the reasons we have universities in the first place.”  - Stefan Collini, Guardian opinion piece ‘Brexit witch-hunt against universities reveals the right’s paranoid thinking’, 31 October 2017

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries selected ‘post-truth’ as its international word of the year. This November, Collins Dictionary chose the term ‘fake news’ as word of the year for 2017 from a shortlist featuring ‘echo chamber’, ‘antifa’, and ‘Corbynmania’. The head of language content at Collins explained that “much of this year’s list is definitely politically charged, but with a new president in the US and a snap election in the UK, it is perhaps no surprise that politics continues to electrify the language.”

At a protest against Trump's presidency. Photo © Wikimedia Commons.
At a protest against Trump’s presidency. Photo © Wikimedia Commons.

It is clear that the swing to the far-right in the US and the UK has come to dominate the basic language through which we understand our political reality. The urgency that these developments lend to current research in literature and language – and across the humanities broadly – was the subject of a meeting of the King’s research cluster ‘Colonial, Postcolonial and Transnational Cultures’ earlier this year.

Comprising academic staff and postgraduate researchers from the English and Comparative Literature Departments, this cluster is organised around three overarching themes: the ‘coloniality’ of language; spatiality and geographies; and the ways in which violence, brutality, atrocity or torture might condition our research projects.

What does it mean, to be ‘more political’…?

Continue reading Teaching literature in the age of Trump and Brexit: some reflections

The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

by Martina Zimmermann, honorary Associate Professor in Pharmacology at Goethe University Frankfurt, with an MA in Literature and Medicine and a second PhD in Health Humanities at King’s College London.

I am a pharmaceutical scientist by training who specialised in neuropharmacology. For over 15 years, my research interests have been the molecular mechanisms that cause the death of brain cells in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. While pursuing, and later supervising, laboratory based experimental projects, I more and more often wondered how patients actually experience the condition which I only knew from studies in cell culture and other disease models. The methodologies, models and approaches I used were unsuited to answering this question.

Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write…

I began looking for patient accounts about a decade ago. At the time, I found only just over a dozen of books published in English, and one diary in French. I was astonished that there were so few, especially because I felt that the popular press had long preferred Alzheimer’s disease to any other subject in its health and wellbeing pages. Also, patients usually have five to ten years between diagnosis and death, and, at the time of clinically perceivable onset, can continue to articulate themselves proficiently in writing, as well as retaining figurative language. Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write. Continue reading The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

The long read: Arabic illness narratives and national politics

by Faten Hussein and Neil Vickers in conversation

Faten Hussein (FH) is a LAHP-funded doctoral researcher in Comparative Literature and the Medical Humanities at King’s College London. Her research investigates representations of illness in Arabic literature. She is specifically interested in what literature reveals about cultural and social attitudes towards illness, and the political, social, and economic determinants in access to health. She is about to take up a fellowship with the House of Common’s International Development Committee, through the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).

Dr Neil Vickers (NV) is Reader in English Literature and the Medical Humanities at the Department of English, and co-director of the Centre for the Humanities and Health. He is associate editor of the journal Medical Humanities, published by the British Medical Journal group. 

NV: Hello Faten. It’s a real privilege to be able to discuss your work with you, and to bring it to wider public notice through this blog interview. Why don’t you begin by telling our readers what you work on?

FH: I work on written accounts of illness from the Arab world. These can be fictional or autobiographical and in any form, so long as illness has a central place in them.

Continue reading The long read: Arabic illness narratives and national politics

Book Review: Literature and the Public Good

by Farah Chowdhury, Master’s student in Medical Humanities, King’s College London

rick
Rick Rylance’s ‘Literature and the Public Good’, published by Oxford University Press, 2016

Rick Rylance’s Literature and the Public Good is a monograph in Oxford’s The Literary Agenda series, which seeks to investigate the state of literary studies in education and demonstrate the worth of studying literature within the wider world.

Rylance’s contribution is expansive, reaching far beyond the traditional parameters of what constitutes literature by situating the book alongside discussions of the value of art and music within society. While at first this might conflict with expectations drawn from the title, as the discussion continues, the subtle thematic links drawn across chapters are a testament not only to Rylance’s style, but also the vast amount of research conducted to produce this work.

Continue reading Book Review: Literature and the Public Good

Conspiracy and Enlightenment: ‘Speculations’ Series at King’s

by Carleigh Morgan, former Fulbright scholar and current PhD candidate in the Department of English

The seminar series ‘Speculations’ at King’s hosted a conversation on 27 April about conspiracy theories in relation to the political spectacle of Trump and the upsurge in global conversations about disinformation, ‘fake news‘, and the alarmist sense that trust in expertise is crumbling. Two interventions – one from myself and one from Clare Birchall – structured the focus of the event on a closer inspection of what we mean by the term ‘conspiracy’. How can conspiratorial thinking be useful for solidifying formative political movements? Can it, perhaps, mount counter-oppositions to some of the more disturbing mobilisations of right-wing political activism?

Continue reading Conspiracy and Enlightenment: ‘Speculations’ Series at King’s

Leaves of Silk

by Clare BrantProfessor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research

The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and  BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).

One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was  British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).

A diary’s lure of intimacy…

Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.

W.P. Barbellion
W.P. Barbellion, or Bruce Cummings, unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived. Continue reading Leaves of Silk

Confessions of a Medical Humanist

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature and Medical Humanities, Department of English

When I first came to King’s more than 10 years ago now, I was dubious about ‘the medical humanities’. I knew what the medical humanities were, or at least I thought I did. It was a name that could be applied to any attempt to make sense of matters in which medicine has a say, using ideas or frames of reference derived from humanities disciplines. But I would never have described myself as a medical humanist. My work – which until then had largely been rooted in the historical study of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature – belonged in ‘English’. ‘English’ had an intellectual and institutional history I could admire (if only I had the talents of William Empson or Helen Vendler!), unlike the medical humanities, which seemed by comparison so diverse, so underdeveloped, and so wannabe. Continue reading Confessions of a Medical Humanist

Book Review: Thinking in Cases

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature and Medical Humanities, Department of English

thinking in cases
Thinking in Cases, by John Forrester. Published by Polity, 2016

John Forrester, who died in 2015, was the most original historian of the human sciences of his generation. His great love was the history of psychoanalysis – he was for 10 years the editor of the journal History and Psychoanalysis – and he published no fewer than four major books in that field, including the classic Freud’s Women (which he wrote with his wife, Lisa Appignanesi).

Thinking in Cases is the first of two books to be published posthumously, the second being the monumental Freud in Cambridge (co-authored with Laura Cameron), due out later this year. It comprises six essays written over the last two decades on what he memorably termed ‘case-based reasoning’. Forrester, along with many historians of science, believed that case-based reasoning had embedded itself in a variety of disciplines, in ways that experts were often reluctant to acknowledge. It might be thought that in the era of evidence-based medicine, medical education no longer needs the case. Yet, as Forrester argues in his classic essay, ‘If P, Then What? Thinking in Cases’ (1996), novice practitioners learn their science by absorbing a handful of standard experiments from scientific textbooks. These case studies – for that is what they are – serve not only to make the underlying principles more memorable, they also provide something like a shared professional memory. Continue reading Book Review: Thinking in Cases

‘We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

by Diya Gupta, PhD researcher, Department of English

Two-and-a-half million men from undivided India served the British during the Second World War.  Their experiences are little remembered today, neither in the UK where a Eurocentric memory of the war dominates, nor in South Asia, which privileges nationalist histories of independence from the British Empire.  And yet military censorship reports from the Second World War, archived at the British Library’s India Office Records and containing extracts from Indian soldiers’ letters home, bear witness to this counter-narrative.  What was it like fighting for the British at a time when the struggle for India’s freedom from British rule was at its most incendiary?

Extracts from these letters, exchanged between the Indian home front and international battlefronts during the Second World War, become textual connectors linking the farthest corners of the Empire and imperial strongholds requiring defence against the Axis alliance.  Such letters map the breadth of a global war and plunge deep into the Indian soldier’s psyche, revealing ruptures in the colonial identity foisted on him. Continue reading ‘We become crazy as lunatics’: Responding to the Bengal famine in Indian letters from the Second World War

On the trail of Doris Lessing

by Lara Feigel, Reader in Modern Literature

My research over the last few years has taken me to some unlikely places. You wouldn’t expect to find the papers of the very British novelist Rebecca West in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or the wartime diaries and letters of Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene in Austin, Texas. It’s odd spending a day in London in the Blitz and then emerging out of the air-conditioned archive into the Texan heat. One evening I even found myself being taught to two-step by a cowboy alongside a couple of other British academics.

But the most adventurous research trip I’ve been on was to Zimbabwe, where I went in August on the trail of Doris Lessing. Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia, as it then was, on a farm in the bush. She then moved at the age of eighteen (in 1937) to the capital city of Salisbury (now Harare) where in the space of the next decade she married twice, had three children, devoted herself to communism and wrote the novel that would make her name.

The Grass is Singing, first American edition cover, 1950.
The Grass is Singing, Doris Lessing, first American edition cover, 1950.

My books seem to be becoming increasingly personal. I still tell students that it’s the text that counts and that it’s important not to use the biography as a kind of code-breaker, enabling us to work out the intention or ‘true’ meaning of the text. But I’ve abandoned my early conviction that the life is irrelevant to the work, and have started to think that often it’s the intersection between the two (the way that the work is shaped by the life and, perhaps more interestingly, the way that the life is shaped by the work) that I have most to say about. With Lessing, though, I’ve decided to take the risky step of making it autobiographical as well as biographical, bringing myself into the narrative. Continue reading On the trail of Doris Lessing