Category Archives: Culture, Text and History

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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Configurations of Empire

by Trisha Remetir (UNC) and James Rakoczi (KCL). though this could not have been written without the contributions of Christine Okoth (KCL), Jennifer Ho (UNC) and Rafael Lubner (KCL), Dr Jane Elliot (KCL), Dr Seb Franklin (KCL).

In August 2017, six students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill travelled to London to take part in the inaugural UNC-KCL graduate student conference: ‘Configurations of Empire’. The two-day conference allowed each participant to present a work-in-progress paper that explored critical-theoretical engagements with conditions of life, labour and belonging under contemporary formations of Empire. Empire, with a capital E, is a term coined by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to conceptualise the globalised—and totalised—political-economic relations that characterise the present.

Topics from the North American side of the Atlantic included twentieth-century African American literature, feminist music studies, queer studies, online streaming services’ television shows and contemporary representations of labo(u)r and migration. On the London side, topics included an experimental electronic musician’s transcendentalist critique of the post-human, the psycho-geographies of mental health service user movements in London and the insidious dynamics of the logic of recycling. The conference culminated in a keynote by Seb Franklin on the coding and forms of disposal.

The conference, then, was an event, a research output, a moment, and the satisfying culmination of a year of hard work. This blog post could be about that conference, but instead we want it to tell a different story, one about the networks of working & reading & collaboration & arguments which led to the “event” and continue to develop after…

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Famous writing desks, southern hospitality and monuments to lost lives: King’s visits UNC

by Amy Murat and Charlotte Taylor-Suppe

In a time of Trump, Brexit and increasing separatist ideology, we three intrepid King’s travellers – Dr Emrys Jones, Charlotte and I -crossed the pond. And not without incident in the shape of an unexpected night stranded in NYC. Somewhat weary and dishevelled, we finally met with our partners from the University of North Carolina in a communal spirit of defiance. Our mission was twofold: firstly to foster collaboration between our two institutions strengthening a long tradition of friendship; secondly, to take part in a wide range of research activities, including a renowned conference run by the British Women Writers Association (BWWA), which UNC were hosting this year.

The conference theme of ‘Generations’ struck me as particularly apt for our trip. Not only did it reflect the historic and continued links between our two universities and nations, but also the sense of boundless generative creativity amongst different peoples across both time and place…

The conference saw a host of different cohorts of researchers coming together from various fields, and this same diversity was reflected in the historic lives of the many women writers under discussion. We heard some wonderful keynotes, including a talk from Andrew Stauffer on flowers and Victorian female reader reception as well as a fascinating joint speech from leading Elizabeth Barrett Browning scholars Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor on the “collaborative energies” of women writers.

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Metaphor in Literature and Science #bslswinter2017

#bslswinter2017

by James Rakoczi, PhD Candidate, Department of English 

There is a gravity to this situation. He has broken my heart. We are waging a war on cancer. Our closest neighbour is Andromeda. Synapses permit neurons to communicate with each other.

Warning: this post is ripe to bursting with metaphors.

Thomas Kuhn argued that you don’t see something until ‘you have the right metaphor to perceive it’ (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). How then might we perceive the literary and scientific dimensions of the metaphor in itself?

Metaphor negotiates across the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities at the university. Does the metaphor stay the same in its transmission/translation or does it transform, transgress, transcend? Are metaphors necessarily rooted within a particular historical context or can productive analogies between literary and scientific texts across disparate historical periods be discovered? Can we (should we?) read a neurological metaphor into a text which pre-dates neurology? Should we (can we?) read a scientific metaphor aimed at pedagogical elucidation like we might a poetical metaphor: an immanent stitch of image which nevertheless troubles and growths beyond itself (by our invention or its design)?

On Saturday 4th November 2017, the Centre for Humanities and Health and the English Department will host the British Society of Literature and Science’s (BSLS) annual winter symposium. The symposium will be an opportunity for many of us to try our hand at solving these questions, or asking even more.

Wiki commons Varsha_ys
A message from one synapse to another. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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On Teaching (and Learning)

by Ian Henderson, Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies and Senior Lecturer in Australian and Victorian literature. This post was first published on The MCAS Director’s Blog.

Ordinarily September arrives like a high-speed gear change with the clutch still half engaged. The teeth-shearing rasp ratchets across British academe as we shift from August’s intensely imagined worlds of more-or-less cloistered research and writing into the induction circus of Welcome Week.

Most of us brush off last year’s complaints about teaching for threadbare repartee in student-filled hallways, while concealing the thrill of it all. Teaching is the lifeblood of most academics, after all; in reality it’s harder to stop us doing it, shut us up.

This year is a little different for me (re the gear-change, not the shutting up). The nature of my role in directing the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies means I was chipping away at College business throughout summer. That kept me in the habit of coming into King’s rather than going to the library or writing at home.

But more to the point, teaching itself came to occupy the place of a research-project ‘question’ during this summer’s ‘research period’: intensely scrutinised, carried about with me in myriad different places (half way around the world, as it turned out), looked at from many sides, held up as a lens and a foil for whatever print matter fell before my eyes.

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Dissertation stories: Don Quixote to cross-stitch

William Burgess and Felicity H-Mackie of the MA 18th Century Studies course organised a conference in conjunction with the Centre for Enlightenment Studies, as an opportunity for 18th Century MA researchers from King’s and Queen Mary to discuss the first stages of their dissertations with students and staff. They share with us here their dissertation research journeys.


A Rake's Progress (plate 8) 1735-63 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Transferred from the reference collection 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01794
A Rake’s Progress (plate 8) 1735-63 William Hogarth 1697-1764 Transferred from the reference collection 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01794

by William Burgess, MA 18th Century Studies

Like all good research journeys, my dissertation started with the discovery of a quotation that upended everything I thought I knew about literature.

Following my BA graduation, I spent the summer reading Samuel Johnson’s 1759 novel Rasselas. Aside from getting a lot of stick from my friends (most of whom were taking it easy with some crime fiction or re-reading Harry Potter) reading the novel revealed some unsettling complications to my idea of what literature means.

“If we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will […] all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.”

Samuel Johnson is telling us that everyone, to some degree, is a bit ‘insane’. Not only that, but – as he goes on to insist – the act of writing fiction is by definition slightly mad.

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Book Review: Balint Matters

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature & Medical Humanities

Balint Matters
Cover image from ‘Balint Matters: Psychosomatics and the Art of Assessment’ by Jonathan Sklar (London: Karnac, 2017)

Michael Balint is mentioned in medical humanities circles as a revered ancestor, much as one might talk about William Empson as a significant figure in the history of English literary criticism. Everyone knows they’re important but surprisingly few people read either writer today or even know why they should. (An important exception is Josie Billington’s superb Is Literature Healthy? – reviewed here – which devotes a chapter to Balint.)

Empson did theory before Theory, and Balint did narrative medicine before Narrative Medicine. Both men were at least as interesting as what came after them, and yet both have become unduly sepia-tinted with the passage of time. Part of the reason for this fading in Balint’s case has to do with the fact that his clinical examples are firmly rooted in the sociological reality of the 1940s and 50s. The world Balint describes is hidebound by class. As a psychoanalytically-minded medical humanist, I occasionally press a copy of Balint’s classic, The Doctor, the Patient and the Illness (1957) on MSc students, but always with the caveat about his antiquated case material. ‘Someone should update it,’ I whisper, as they saunter out of the room.

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