Category Archives: Culture, Text and History

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.

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‘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

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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.

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John Donne and the Jacobean Fake Media

by Melanie Marshall (Lincoln College, Oxford) and Daniel Starza Smith (English Department, King’s College London)

Every regime seeks to control the media. In the quest to dominate the official story, a repressive state might own the press outright (North Korea sits bottom of the 2018 World Press Freedom Index). It might sit tight with those who do (any British Prime Ministerial hopeful must bend the knee to Rupert Murdoch). It might restrict it (Google is making a limited search engine for China). Or it might simply undermine it: a racist tweet from Donald Trump is an effective distraction from ongoing scandals. Meanwhile, the American media’s ability to hold him to account is steadily eroded by accusations of fakery, disloyalty and partisanship.

Such tyrannical controls are hardly new, and early modern England faced its own media restrictions. Queen Elizabeth I famously claimed to want “no windows into men’s souls,” but with their reading material she proved less liberal. Throughout the last decade of her reign, her power waned and censorship tightened, until in 1599 the so-called Bishops’ Ban made the printing of satire a crime. Yet satire thrives on subversion, and the inflammatory material of the 1590s circulated away from the eyes of the state’s press-licensers. Handwritten copies of mischievous material passed from sympathiser to sympathiser, engendering more copies as they went.

Just such a privately circulated manuscript emerged in December 2016. Working through a tin trunk of scraps at Westminster Abbey, Matthew Payne, Keeper of the Muniments, uncovered a small booklet written in an early seventeenth-century hand, containing a work by the poet John Donne (1572–1631). It proved to be a copy of Donne’s Catalogus Librorum Satyricus, known in English as The Courtier’s Library, a satirical list of fake books whose composition we can now date securely to 1603 or early 1604.

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Emily Brontë’s fierce, flawed women

by Clare PettittProfessor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London

Domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, neglect, sexual obsession and torture: Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights is nothing if not graphic in its depiction of the messy, frightening and chaotic lives of unhappy families. No wonder critics at the time were repelled by its “shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity” and its “details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance.” But the women in the novel, trapped in these toxic, inter-generational cycles of abuse, are not passive but remain resolute and resistant.

“Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know,” wrote Charlotte Brontë in her apologetic preface to the 1850 posthumous edition of her sister’s novel. But despite her misgivings, Heathcliff remains one of the most memorable and enduring characters in Victorian literature.

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Figuring Gender Difference in Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy

by Hailey Bachrach, PhD candidate researching gender in early modern history plays in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, @hbachrach.

If you’ve heard of director Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy, which debuted at the Donmar Warehouse from 2012 to 2016 and was released in full on BBC iPlayer on 17 June,  you’ve probably heard of its premise: it is performed by a company made up entirely of women, and framed as plays put on by a group of female prisoners. The three plays—Julius Caesar, Henry IV (the two parts combined into one), and The Tempest—are all intimately concerned with questions of masculinity and male relationships—fathers, brothers, sons—and are all notoriously light on female characters.

The prison framing device means, however, that they are not devoid of a female presence. There is no attempt at prosthetics or illusion in the production’s costumes. The actors wear prison-issue grey sweatpants and t-shirts, with accessories to designate changes of character. When Henry IV opened in 2014, Harriet Walter, who stars in all three productions, wrote that  ‘our neuter prison garb … helps the audience put aside any questions of “Are they men playing women or women playing men?”… I would argue that when the cast are all women, we can look beyond gender to our common humanity’.

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On the Anthropocene, and debts of gratitude and solidarity: reflections on a lecture

by Dr Adelene Buckland, Senior Lecturer in English Literature

On 21 March 2018, I gave a talk for the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) ‘Arts and Society’ series at Senate House. As I spoke, students in the building performed a banner drop in support of the lecturers’ strike over pensions, and had the fire exits drilled shut on them by those who did not support their protest. It was an odd moment in my career, to be speaking on Darwin while unaware of political events unfolding elsewhere in the building, and it caused me some reflections on my paper.

The work was drawn from an essay forthcoming in Philological Quarterly in a special issue on ‘earth writing’, the outcome of a symposium I attended in Düsseldorf in April 2016, when I was five weeks pregnant with my third daughter and unable to drink much of the wine (and unable to tell anybody why). The essay is also poignant for me because it marks (I hope) the culmination of what I guess might be called the ‘early career’ phase of my research, on Victorian literature and geology.

‘The Holocene Extinction’, Image © http://bytesdaily.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/the-holocene-extinction.html.

Reviews and citations of my book, Novel Science, have sometimes surprised me in coming from an ecological perspective: in all the years I worked on the book, I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms at all. Since then, I have often been asked questions about the new geological Epoch in which we are now said to be living, the Anthropocene, and its relationship to my historical research. I wasn’t happy with any of my answers.

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The long read: Medieval Women, Modern Readers

by Fran Allfrey, LAHP-AHRC PhD candidate, and Beth Whalley, Rick Trainor Scholarship and Canal & River Trust PhD candidate.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was ‘Press for Progress’. The campaign focused on the reality that gender parity – which the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report projects as being over 200 years away – cannot happen without organised and inclusive collective action. The theme got us thinking about the ways that our own discipline, medieval studies, intersects with feminist activism, and the ways that medievalists might be able to participate meaningfully in these conversations. And so, on the 28th March, supported by LAHP and King’s Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, we held a two-part event to celebrate medieval women and women in medieval studies.

Part 1: The Wikithon

The first part of our event was a ‘Medieval Women, Modern Readers’ Wikithon, which aimed to improve references to scholarly work by women and non-binary people in articles related to medieval studies, and to create and improve pages for women and non-binary medieval scholars and artists who study or remake medieval texts, objects, or themes.

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Lessons in global commerce (from an early East India Company employee)

Emily Soon is a PhD candidate researching how early modern writers across a range of literary genres perceived the East Indies (principally, China, India and Southeast Asia) in early modern England. This blog was originally posted on Currently @ King’s.

International trade hurts local communities. It causes economic hardship at home and destroys the environment, while the culture of consumerism it fuels is destroying our values and way of life.

Similar sentiments to these recur across the media today: this so-called backlash against globalisation is said to have contributed to Brexit and the rise of Trump, and to have transformed the shape of political movements across the world. This pent-up frustration seems to be quintessentially twenty-first century, the disillusioned rant of a world no longer charmed by the siren song of free trade and borderless commerce.

And yet, the sentiments I began with are taken not from a present-day party political tract, but from a play written almost 400 years ago. While William Mountford’s amateur dramatic effort, The Launching of the Mary: Or the Seaman’s Honest Wife (ca. 1632-3), may not be able to rival the plays of William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson – for a start, we do not know if the single handwritten text held in the British Library archives was ever performed – it does encapsulate, poignantly, the profound anxieties that have long attended the idea of international trade. Continue reading Lessons in global commerce (from an early East India Company employee)

Trumping Transparency: The Need for Government Data to be more Empowering

by Clare Birchall, Department of English

The words “Trump” and “transparency” don’t often appear together. Administrative transparency isn’t something Trump promised during his campaign, and it hasn’t been on the agenda in the last year. Yet the term has begun to turn up recently in communications from the Trump camp.

In July, referring to the Commission on Election Integrity, Trump claimed that the “voter fraud panel”, as he called it, would be a “very transparent process . . . very open for everybody to see.” The American Civil Liberties Union begs to differ. It has lodged a legal complaint stating that the commission has violated “the non-discretionary transparency and public access requirements” of the Federal Advisory Committee Act by holding “its first meeting without public notice; without making that meeting open to the public; and without timely notice in the Federal Register.” Trump also used the word “transparent” to describe his eldest son’s response to accusations that he had failed to disclose meetings with Russians during the presidential campaign.

On July 12, 2017, @RealDonaldTrump tweeted: “My son Donald did a good job last night. He was open, transparent and innocent. This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!”

These examples suggest that Trump hasn’t fully understood – or has wilfully misunderstood – the meaning of transparency and what it would take, in practice, to achieve it.

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