Merridale proposes historian as outsider in Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2017

This article was written by Jack Watling, a Hobsbawm scholar studying for his PhD at Birkbeck

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Professor Eric Hobsbawm

What is the duty of the historian to society? That was the question taken up by Catherine Merridale in her Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture, held at Senate House, on Monday 22 May.

In answer Merridale reached into her own past, as a pioneering oral historian of the Soviet Union, its collapse, and the emergence of the new Russia. “This evening,” she said, “I appear before you in the guise of a witness.”

Merridale arrived in Russia in 1982, and entered an exciting and vibrant world in which she was unmistakably an outsider. Amidst the archives and late night arguments over art, literature, and politics, Merridale described the USSR as “red and brown.” Red pervaded public space, the ever-present colour of communist ideology; “brown was the stuff that leaked out when the snow thawed.”

Eventually the brown, oozing through the cracks of failing industries, the rot in the Moscow food warehouses, the bodies bearing testament to past atrocities, would see the whole edifice crumble, and fall away. In the heady days of the 1990s liberation was not conducive to reflection. “Everyone went shopping.” Merridale recalled a friend demanding to know “Ideology! What good is that? We are sick of it. We want a society like yours without an ideology.”

The idea that British society lacked ideology was not just wrong, but dangerous, Merridale argued, the assuredness of western economists who flooded into Russia in the 1990s was misplaced. They believed they had an answer to a country whose problems they barely attempted to understand. “Their intervention was a disaster.” What were they but ideological, working from assumptions? To be blind to one’s biases is invariably to fall victim to them.

It was a highly suitable subject for a lecture commemorating the late Eric Hobsbawm, described by Birkbeck’s Professor Joanna Bourke as one of “the most exciting and influential historians of the Twentieth Century.” Hobsbawm’s magisterial historical quartet, running from the French Revolution to the Cold War, set a benchmark for the integration of cultural, economic, and political history.  Yet Hobsbawm’s work was also an internal struggle between ideology and intellectual rigor. Hobsbawm was a dedicated Communist, and remained so long after it was fashionable. He was a true believer.

There can be no doubt that his political outlook shaped his work, and in a few cases confounded Hobsbawm’s commitment to the historical method. But Hobsbawm was both aware, and consciously challenged himself to confront his own assumptions. I saw this personally as an undergraduate when I was given his copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a book banned in the Soviet Union, in which the renowned Soviet journalist contended that there was really very little to distinguish Communism from Fascism.

Merridale contends that today society is “drowning in the twittering present,” our communications rarely archived, our historical memory diminishing. We live in a society “that does not force us to confront ideas we find uncomfortable.” The historian then, who always stands as an outsider, peering into the past, ought similarly to force society to confront its own assumptions; to be aware of its ideological tendencies, and to struggle with them. History ought to make society self-conscious.

It was a compelling mission statement, which Merridale entrusted to the new generation of historians that the Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture aims to inspire. Associated with the lecture is the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships to support both Masters and PhD students.

Speaking for myself, such funds are transformative. When I finished my degree I was not in a financial position to fund a Master’s, and yet an MA was a prerequisite for a PhD. There is little government support for Master’s students. The Hobsbawm scholarship was therefore pivotal in my entering the academy. I am now two years into my PhD.

And I am not alone. “Honestly, it’s the only way,” said Sean, an aspiring early modernist who attended the lecture, and is hoping to apply to the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund to support a Master’s.

With Brexit on the horizon it is vital that Britain remains historically conscious. Russia, Merridale explained, has resurrected the Romanov’s, retreating into costume dramas to avoid confronting the contradictions that remain unresolved in Russia’s past. “They failed their own society at its crucial turning point.”

But far from suggesting a complacent superiority Merridale noted that “we Russians and Brits were trapped under the landslide of our victories” in the wake of the Second World War, and here in Britain there is also the tendency to seek comfort in a romantic fantasy of Kings and Queens, that never challenge us to ask who we are, or who we ought to be.

“It is the job of the outsider to be shocked,” Merridale said, as they explore, and like Socrates’ horsefly, to shock others.

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Arts Week 2017: Science as Spectacle

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter's Basilica, 1897  An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter’s Basilica, 1897
An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

Ushered into the dark cinema of Birkbeck, the curious spectators witnessed Science as Spectacle. Over an hour and a half on the evening of Tuesday 19th May 2017, Jeremy Brooker, Chairman of the Magic Lantern Society, demonstrated the workings of the magic lantern.

He began by setting the scene with a brief history of the import of the magic lantern on society. He told the story of Faraday’s presentation in January 1846 to the Royal Institute and was not shy when it came to making it clear that, actually, technologically, what Faraday was displaying was nothing particularly impressive given the popular magic lantern shows taking place at the time.

And this was the crux of the presentation: the lantern’s dual purpose for both entertainment and research. The population were now able to see “actual experiments happening in real time before their eyes.” This capability of the magic lantern was displayed in an archive film of thawing ice. Now, through the magnification properties of the magic lantern, one could peer over the shoulder of an experimenter and see what was being done. Jeremy revealed that people of the time were particularly disturbed upon finding out what was living in their drinking water.

But at the same time, the magic lantern was also being used to show things that were not there. The more familiar history of the magic lantern is for its use in phantasmagoria shows, creating ghostly effects that titillated and terrified the audience. Jeremy and partner Caroline displayed the abilities of the magic lantern as entertainment and Birkbeck cinema witnessed popular magic lantern displays of distant lands, changing seasons and, yes, a vanishing ghost and skeleton or two.

What was remarkable about the display was how science and entertainment were so interlinked. The projectionists at the time realised the capabilities of their tool to both entertain and educate and so, for a time, the two went hand-in-hand. After we were shown the layers of matter that make up the human body, we were rewarded with a skeleton jumping a skipping rope. Similarly, whilst we admired the beautiful vistas of icy landscapes under the rippling Aurora Borealis we also learned something about the geography of distant lands. As the precursor to film and demonstration, the magic lantern projectionists knew that both entertainment and education were of equal importance, making the learning engaging and the enjoyment worthwhile, a lesson that is all too often forgotten on both sides today.

This is not to mention the technical ability of the projectionists themselves. Layering slides via three projectors, working the mechanics of the individual slides and managing the transitions required an artistry and practice that was as entertaining and impressive as anything appearing on the screen.

Ultimately, on Tuesday night we were shown not how the machine worked technically but what the magic lantern did for Victorian society. By not dwelling on the technicalities it remains a medium that is exciting, mysterious and indeed a little magical.

Jonathan Parr is studying jointly at Birkbeck and RADA on the Text and Performance MA

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Arts Week 2017: ‘He Doesn’t Talk Politics Anymore’: The Role of Politics in Contemporary US Fiction

This review was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, Department of English and Humanities

white-houseOn Thursday 18 May I introduced an event about the politics of US fiction since the 1960s. This was part of Arts Week 2017, and a contribution to the theme of art and politics which was one element of this year’s series of events. Though I had been involved in organizing the event, its substance was provided by two speakers, Professor Martin Eve and Dr Catherine Flay, which leaves me in a position to reflect and report on it.

Eve’s title came from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where it refers to a character in the Second World War who comes under suspicion because of his reluctance to discuss politics. Had the same happened, Eve asked, to US fiction in recent times? To answer this question he problematized a number of the terms involved. What, for one thing, was now the meaning and scope of ‘American literature’: could it even, he provocatively asked, include writing from Iraq and Afghanistan under US occupation? What is the best meaning of ‘politics’ itself, and how should we consider politics’ translation into literary work: should this be measured in a utilitarian fashion by the work’s effects, in the form of action taken by readers influenced by fiction? A further issue is the limits of the corpus that we study: the canon of contemporary US fiction, Eve argued, is very narrow compared to the real range of what is published in the US, and does not necessarily correspond to what most people are reading – insofar as they are reading at all, as a recent statistic recorded that 25% of people did not read any novel in a year.

Eve also took note of the recent turn against ‘critique’ in literary and social studies. Scholars like Rita Felski have argued that ideology critique and the performance of symptomatic readings of literary narratives have become formulaic, and requested new models of critical reading. At the same time Bruno Latour in the social sciences has suggested withdrawal from the ideological critique of science as the revelation that science is ‘socially constructed’ can give excessive succour to authoritarian politicians who cast doubt on the evidence of climate change. Eve noted that these two critiques of critique in fact move in somewhat different directions and need to be viewed as distinct.

Eve noted that African-American writers might make a significant contribution to a discussion of the politics of fiction, but also that they had often seemed marginal next to a certain group of white writers such as Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. Eve pointed out that black writers are often viewed primarily as black writers rather than as undertaking aesthetic experiments without special relation to their ethnicity – as Wallace, for instance, is often seen to do. The remarkable and prolific novelist Percival Everett has wickedly satirized and problematized these questions of racial identity and critical framing in his own highly self-conscious fiction.

Eve cast doubt on whether the metafiction of Pynchon, DeLillo or John Barth should be considered politically effective in any direct way, despite its political content. He noted that the cultural status of the novel was not what it had been, and observed that former President George W. Bush was not known to read fiction, save perhaps the government dossiers he had commissioned. (An audience member stated that Bush in 2006 had in fact taken Albert Camus’s The Stranger on holiday: beach reading indeed.) But Eve sought to move the argument on to what kinds of politics fiction might be involved in. In the 1960s, Eve noted, literature had been involved in the expansion of free speech, as legal trials against prohibited publications had foundered. Now, he stated, a different kind of politics was in play around the labour of writing, the remuneration involved, and the threat to bookselling posed by Amazon. The landscape sketched here was bleak, but Eve did not disclose how writers were using their literary labour as a form of activism against these new material conditions.

Dr Catherine Flay gave a full response to Professor Eve’s rich and diverse lecture. She proposed that in offering a space of play beyond market imperatives, fiction might offer models of ethics not typical of the contemporary world of work. She noted that fiction, and indeed literature more broadly, had shifted in significant ways since the 1960s, making a carefully particularized history necessary. The poet Allen Ginsberg among others, Flay reminded us, once sought to contribute as political activist. Where Eve had cited George W. Bush’s lack of interest in fiction, Flay cited the current President Donald J. Trump who in an interview had been asked what he read, and had responded by pointing vaguely to shelves of books. One thinks of The Great Gatsby whose titular figure has assembled an impressive library of books: they may be unread by Gatsby, a character remarks, but at least they’re real. I thought it striking that neither of our speakers, in considering such reading habits, had mentioned President Barack Obama, who late in his period of office spoke at length to novelist Marilynne Robinson about the importance of fiction in fostering empathy and imagination. Perhaps Obama, temporarily, had already entered the notorious obscurity of ‘the day before yesterday’.

In a short period for questions, lively responses came from the audience. One audience member noted that the term ‘populism’ had also been absent, defining it briskly as ‘politics for people who don’t like politics’, and suggesting that complex postmodern fiction was rather antithetical to the political populism of the present. Another asked about distinctions between ethics and politics, and another suggested that if fiction lacked political ambition this reflected what feels like a lack of individual agency to effect change. I wondered whether a comparison of genres would reveal some differences here: whether fantasy, for instance, allows for individual agency in a way that the contemporary realist novel might not, or how the entrapping social webs of crime fiction would compare.

Professor Eve had concluded that his reflections on the politics of fiction needed to be cautious, as these issues were ‘shifting below our feet, part of a matrix of culture and politics that we cannot accurately measure because there are too many interrelated factors’. The contributors to tonight’s event pointed us to some of these diverse factors that we ought to keep in mind if we ask whether fiction ‘doesn’t talk politics anymore’.

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Arts Week 2017: The contemporary: an exhibition

This post was contributed by Hafsa AlKhudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

the-contemporaryThe exhibition featured multiple pieces that could be defined as both art pieces and theses.

My contemporary: student videos

During the autumn of 2016, the students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture were asked to create a short video that expresses their experience of the contemporary. Magdalena Sałata’s response, called “Reading (The Contemporary)”, literally shows the books that created her contemporary reading experience. My response, called “Fandom in The Contemporary” shows all the different ways people express their love to shows, books, movies, and comics. Annapurna Barry’s submission is the experience of an audience watching Rachel Maclean’s ‘Wot U 🙂 About’, expressing an enjoyment and an interaction with subversive and modern art. Nourhan Souk’s “Week 11” explores Peter Boxall’s statement in Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical introduction (2013): “When we look backwards out of a speeding car, the place we are occupying at any given time is a simple, lateral blur, which resolves itself into a picture only when we have left it behind, as it fades into the distance” (1-2). Finally, Samatha Bifolco’s contribution is both an observation about how the hairdressing industry has become creative and innovative using the stylings of the common street factions and turning it into a trend for the masses, commenting on humanity’s affinity to remix trends.

Remote action and reaction

Using a virtual reality headset and an iPhone, war becomes an entertainment and a game, yet this technology is used to train military personnel before they are shipped. For the bystander, it is just an interesting experience into a new type of gaming or a new way of exploring life. However, the exhibit highlights this new technology use in the military, bringing forth criticism towards remote warfare that desensitizes military personnel from the tragedy of war and the loss of human life, but at the same time helps save those who train in a safe environment before being thrust into war.

The expansion of narrative in the digital age by Hope Dinsey

Hope Dinsey breaks down their topic into print media’s reaction to digital, digital media and new fiction formats, fandom and changes to the narrative environment. This exhibit relates the changes in narration to the existence of the internet, for it created a more varied approach. The exhibit demonstrates how print media responded by becoming more creative and innovative in their physical books. Moreover, there was a rise of digital literature after the internet such as interactive fiction and hypertext fiction, presented with an original story by Dinsey. Lastly, the global existence of fan culture became accessible and was perpetuated by the reorientation of the canon in a creative and mostly inclusive manner.

Ghosts of the future: ruination and (re)creation by Daniel Pateman

Daniel Pateman created a multimedia exhibit that shows a video that shows the ruins of a past life and re-created scenes that could have happened in these sites of ruination. It shows the contemporary’s obsession with scenes of the past as a means of exploration of the futility of life and the speed in which things can change from prosperity to devastation. It’s also a reflection of not just physical dissolution, but a mental one too because of the desolate political landscape. However, the exhibit didn’t focus solely on the video; it was accompanied with images and poetry that explores the idea of ruination as well as display different stages of ruination, bring the theme to life.

It’s a Fairy Tale! by Aefifa Razzaq

The current political climate is filled with stories about the American government and children are listening to these stories. As a teacher, Aefifa Razzaq, felt compelled to confront the topic and explain how despite the overarching belief that we have become completely progressive and united, Donald Trump was still elected president with his racist, bigoted, and misogynistic opinions. What was created out of that was a bunch of students expressing their opinions on how influential he is in terms of his aptitude in swaying people’s opinion towards his view. The outcome was a book filled with quotes from past presidents stylized by one of Razzaq’s students.

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