Postguerres: what follows war?

Dr Fernando Gómez Herrero, Honorary Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages, reports back from an international conference in Barcelona which focused mainly on the contemporary history of the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937). The artwork illustrates the violence and chaos of the Spanish Civil War and brought worldwide attention to the conflict.

Inside graffitied buildings at the University of Barcelona by the elegant Las Ramblas, I addressed the topic of intellectual life and the aftermaths of war in relation to three noted figures, mostly in the second half of the twentieth century. I brought “Dos Carlos,” so to speak, to the small-space of the Iberian peninsula, mostly during the Franco Regime but also after. Does any of this conservative and authoritarian thought, in complicity with early Nazism, remain alive today vis-à-vis the still prevailing orthodoxy of the “liberal West”? Symptoms of the loosening of the “liberal order” are easy to detect in different institutions, politics, university and mass media to name a few inside disparate national climates such as Brexit vis-à-vis the European Union, Trump America, etc. This international conference had three languages in unequal relationship (Catalan, Spanish and English) and the focus was mostly on the contemporary history coming out of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Are we witnessing a turn to the Right, a revolt of the masses, even a Right-bound populism (what some authors call the “great Regression,” H Heiselberger for example)? Can we learn anything from the geopolitical situation of the following three figures of uneven visibility and uncertain impact?

These figures are: Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), Enrique Tierno Galván (1918-1986) and Camilo Barcia Trelles (1888-1977), not to be mistaken with his brother Augusto Barcia Trelles (1881-1961), also an interesting figure for another time and place. I addressed internationalism in relation to big-spaces and small-spaces, Grossraum and Reich, legal order and disorderly war, vis-à-vis the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine and the rise of the universalist-liberal ideology denounced as imperialist already by 1939 by Schmitt, sitting uncomfortably on the side of Nazi Germany losing WWII. This ineluctably dangerous thought emerges from the demise of imperial European hegemony, whilst marking differences from the Anglophone world and always keeping distance from the Left tradition emanating from Soviet Russia. Schmitt had plenty of (intellectual) life in him after such defeat finding refuge in the Iberian peninsula for four decades. This presentation developed the significance of such small-space for the historical geopolitics emerging from the middle of the twentieth century (we can think of the scale that goes from city of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, Europe, the West, etc.).

What are we to understand by the ominous sign of “war”? A permanent condition of being? Severe, harrowing test indeed big-time-big-space form of politics? Is there a way out of such politics? Law? Peace? What follows “total war”? Is international law the next chapter of significant difference? Or the first chapter that will be inevitably followed by disorder? What notions of “space” do we see emerging in between 1939 & 1945 and after? Schmitt’s spatialization of social energies: still convincing or useful methodology? What is missing? What is not to be touched with a ten-foot pole? What is the Spanish rendering of the alleged German scholar? What are the differences among these three European authors? Who are they turning to, conversing with? Their blind spots? Where is this Europe –and the liberal West with it– going in the 1950s between the two superpowers (U.S. and USSR)? Towards an inevitable debilitation? This presentation handled some of these burning issues. I played off the contrast with Anglophone environments.

L-R: Giovanni Cattini (Universitat de Barcelona), Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck and University of Birmingham, U.K.), Marcio Orozco (Universidad Panamericana, Mexico), Nick Sharman (University of Nottingham, U.K.).

Schmitt’s are strong words about the obfuscation and the falsification of the original Monroe Doctrine, also about the opportunistic use of messy geography emerging, the thinness of content and the doctrinal incongruence mobilized by the victors of WWI. There is insistence on the extension of the rule of the exception also in international law, that is nonetheless still monopolized by the Anglo Zone and paraded as triumphant narrative in the liberal West. Schmitt speaks of the universalist-imperialist principle of expansion in the Anglo Zone, the Americans picking up the legacy of the British Empire. Yet, international law will fly low in the United Nations in the following decades. There are also eerie sections about the elimination of the minority law in Schmitt, and we all know what that meant. His rejection of the ideals of assimilation, absorption and melting pots is blunt (it is important to remember contemporaneous Latin American thought experiments about “cosmic race” (Vasconcelos) and “transculturation” (F. Ortiz)). How did the Spaniards receive this profoundly uncomfortable thought in the 1950s and beyond?

It turned out that “Don Carlos” found refuge and community, circulation and outlet, even admiration in the Iberian peninsula, particularly Spain, in the final four decades of his long life. His daughter Anima Schmitt de Otero, who settled down in Franco Spain, acting as translator, representative and connector with several authorities and colleagues in legal and international studies. The Instituto de Estudios Políticos, Madrid gave him accolades. Manuel Fraga Iribarne (1922-2012) was among those “friends,” yet kept the figure of German intellectual at some distance. Among these “friends,” we have to include Tierno Galván whose article “Benito Cereno and the myth of Europe,” published in Spanish in 1952, recreates Schmittian’s Melville novel of a decrepit Europe giving way to some type of liberal American barbarism. What do we make of this article now 50 years after the publication of Sociología y Situación? There will be progressive distancing between Tierno Galván and Schmitt, as registered in Mehring’s extensive biography of the German intellectual. How are we to interpret today the gesture of the sociologist? Is the former Socialist Major of Madrid in the early moments of Spanish Democracy holding his own? The presentation answered some of these questions.

There is a second line of thought, which we may wish to call the Catholic international relations soon after WWII. Barcia Trelles, international-relations expert, managed to transition from Spanish-Republic and stay publicly active in the Franco Regime. He played a stellar role in the XIX World Congress “Pax Romana” (Spain, June-July 1946), event satirized by the English Catholic and conservative novelist Evelyn Waugh in his novel Scott King’s Modern Europe (1947), in honour of Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546). What do we make of such initiatives in our own times? This paper contextualized and presented highlights of Barcia Trelles asking whether his vast scholarship remains of interest. Is this a third way? How are we to take the Catholic claims of a certain internationalism theoretically neither West nor East? Do we buy them? Schmitt praised Barcia Trelles’s formulations of land and sea in his magnus opus Nomos of the Earth. Is there evidence of a correspondence? American internationalist James Brown Scott (1866-1942) is in identical Vitoria circle in Spain bringing such legacy closer to the liberalism Schmitt denigrated. What do we make of it?  Where to stand? Does law follow war, or is it the other way round? Isn’t it true that we live now in low-standing moments of international law in our convulsive times and foggy wars of uncertain end?

Schmitt has been a strong point of reference among social scientists and “humanists” from the Right and the Left in the two-to-three decades, at least in continental Europe, including to a lesser degree Britain, and U.S. foreign-affairs circles, expansively the Anglo-dominated North Atlantic. I am insisting on this visibility three decades after his demise. I took into consideration Writings on War (Polity, 2011) edited by Timothy Nunan, spanning 1939-1945. I took into account Tierno Galván’s article on Melville’s Benito Cereno and a selection of texts by Barcia Trelles in the 1930-50s located at the British Library. I was fortunate enough to find a rare book in the Ramblas during my visit: Cardinal Points of International Relations of Spain (1939), which will be incorporated in future works. I said a few words about the said Pax Romana conference. I quickly included references to Miguel Saralegui’s Carl Schmitt, pensador español (Trotta, 2016) and the monumental work of Reinahrd Mehring, Carl Schmitt: A Biography (Polity, 2014). The Spaniards also deserve a place at the discussion table. Reconstruction of their intellectual efforts also interrogates our moments of insights and persistent blindness.

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Arts Week 2019: When a mathematician, a musician and a poet collaborate and converse about symmetry and asymmetry

Miranda Siow, a Birkbeck alumna, shares insights from the Arts Week event that explored symmetry and asymmetry in maths, music and poetry.

View of Dr William’s Library and Euston Church from the central gardens in Gordon Square

Birkbeck was like my first home in London. It began with a conversation on a beach in Melbourne. One of my best friends asked me what I would do if money was no object. After puzzling over her question for several minutes, I concluded that my dream was to travel. ‘What about travel writing?’ she said. The thought had never occurred to me. I returned to London, bought a guide to travel writing book and tried an evening class called Introduction to Creative Writing at Birkbeck. I loved the writing class and rediscovered my passion for stories. I never read the travel writing book.

For years, I studied literature and creative writing at Birkbeck. My studies took me to other institutions to explore the arts and creativity, including achieving my dream of a Masters in English Literature. Last month, I found my way back to Birkbeck through an event entitled ‘Symmetry and asymmetry: maths, music and poetry.’

2 Temple Gardens, a Victorian Building overlooking the Thames

The history of symmetry is even older than the library, church and central garden which also reside in Gordon Square, where we gathered that Friday. Symmetry is often attributed to the Italian renaissance. It celebrates beauty, art and proportion. Symmetry and asymmetry involve balance, harmony, or disrupting these. Sarah Hart was brimming with enthusiasm and knowledge about triangles, crystals and the laws of symmetry. Shapes were folded, sliced and converted. An array of slides showed us triangles, polygons, polyhedra and spheres. We discovered symmetry in sea creatures and in Escher’s Angels and Demons.

Did you know that our world is full of symmetry, not just in poetry, architecture, art and nature, but also in the answering phrases in Bach’s compositions? I didn’t appreciate scales when I practised them as a child. Iain Burnside played the keyboard in that small room that sunny evening. His music had a beautiful simplicity. We heard Dante’s sonata and Conlon Nancarrow’s study number 21. He discussed inversions, inevitability, perfect fifths to perfect fourths, major into minor, tritons, inversions and death how bitter thou art.

Poet, Fran Lock introduced us to gurlesque, rhymes, secret metaphors and metrical patterning in heartbeats. There’s symmetry in behaviour, families and crowds. We desire order in fashion, bus lines and voting. Symmetry can be a constraint. We may break the pattern and seek imperfection, which has its own beauty.

Spring flowers in bloom

After the event, I’ve become more conscious of symmetry and asymmetry in the buildings around London and the vibrant flowers in bloom. The way a path is designed or the branches of a tree stretching out like open arms previously did not warrant a second thought. I have a fascination with how we see the world, the idea of conspiracy theories and different perspectives. Like them, symmetry and asymmetry provide another way to look at things, with a new lens and dimension.

St Paul’s Cathedral dome

I hear songs on the radio and it’s a game of tones. Tunes have a character with progressions and echoes. Some refrains are more dominant and powerful. Patterns and motifs are pleasing to the ear. We need only look up into cathedral domes or even the clothes that we wear to see patterns and motifs. Maths, music and poems have propelled into my life on and off throughout my childhood, teens and adulthood. Now, I also see an abundance of symmetry and asymmetry around me.

Clothes from a catwalk show at London Fashion Week Festival September 2018

Birkbeck’s final day of Arts Week was a serendipitous homecoming. I’ve found symmetry in my life, from my first Birkbeck writing class to blogging about this Birkbeck event. After more than a decade, I’m even living again in the same building as when I first moved to London. I wonder what my life would have been without that conversation on the beach, Birkbeck or creative writing. If I hadn’t done them, I might not have had the pleasure of an evening with a mathematician, musician and poet.


Photos by Miranda Siow


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Arts Week 2019: But Are You Doing Anything? Curating, Producing and Managing as Practice Research

Lara Wuester, BA English and Humanities student on the Erasmus program from Munich, reviews the panel discussion “But Are You Doing Anything?” shown as part of Arts Week 2019.

Gestation is “the development of ideas, thoughts and plans.” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019) For some, gestation is procrastination, distraction, displacement, being bored, lethargic. In terms of the 21st century, it is being unproductive, doing nothing at all. Or at least nothing visible to someone from the outside. Jane Woddis, Rachel Garfield and Lina Džuverović talked about their personal experiences with gestation and the production of art. In the following, a few lessons learned will be summed up.

Gestation is part of the production process.

Jane, Arts Manager and Associate Fellow at the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies at the University of Warwick, presented the interconnection of gestation and production. As a fundraiser, she has seen and analyzed many different approaches to the creative process, from the detailed reflection to the other end of the scale: bold experimenting. Gestation, even more so than production, is a process, that differs from person to person. It can be solitary, it can be collaborative, it can be the writing of a thousand drafts or the perfection of a single one, it can be weeks of thinking, or actually getting things done in a day. The pressure of production does not necessarily have to influence the process of conception and gestation. In our fast-paced world, time to think, to talk, to develop is not valued, the outcome counts. But especially in the creative industries, production needs gestation, gets inspired by it.

Creativity needs boredom.

People today who still have time for boredom and yet are not bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around being bored. For their self has vanished – the self whose presence particularly in this bustling world, would necessarily compel them to tarry for a while without a goal, neither here nor there. (Krakauer, 1993, p.104)

Krakauer argues that in fact to let ideas thrive and develop one needs to let go of headphones, radio, television, thoughts of the stars, staring at pictures in one’s mind that are superimposed by surroundings and people. We need to just close the curtains and spend time on our own to enjoy legitimate boredom, aimlessness, and restlessness without a goal, which resolves in undirected passion and ideas. In this context, Rachel, artist and Head of Department of Art at the University of Reading, highlighted the importance of the context and surroundings of artists on their practice and work. She mentioned, how much a city can be both enabling and tyrannizing, how one can be controlled by thoughts of funding and audience. How taking steps back, taking time to incubate helps the creative process and the product. That in fact, creativity sometimes needs nothing at all, no inspiration, no input, just closed eyes and boredom.

Academia complements the arts.

Academia and arts both are to some point influenced by funding and research, still, academia can offer a healthy retreat from the arts and offer exactly the distance and objectivity required to explore and reflect upon one’s own work, according to Rachel Garfield. Also, the university offers a space of communication, conversation and meeting of ideas and can support the artist community already existing. But can an artist who is not producing constantly still be considered to be one? Does taking a break, for example working in academia, automatically take away the right to call yourself an artist? Can it not be seen as a legitimate break or gestation process?

Art does not have to be dependent on money.

Lina also mentioned in her talk Stilinović’s essay “In Praise of Laziness” which compares Eastern to Western artists. The big difference, according to Stilinović, is that artists in the West always produced something, were involved in production, promotion, museums, competition and money. Artists in the East were lazy and poor, as they knew producing art was pure vanity. Answering the question of the monetization of the arts, Rachel said that it should not be these contexts that prescribe what you are doing, but far more importantly, your relationship to it shows what really matters to you as an artist.

In conclusion, being unproductive may not be paid, but it should be valued as an important part of production and creativity. Although there is a constant professionalization, monetization and academisation of the arts, it is the individual approach and process of making art and the relationship to external processes, hierarchies and structures that counts. And doing absolutely nothing can sometimes be crucial for doing something.

Thank you, Simone Wesner, for chairing this interesting event, that triggered many more thoughts and questions.


Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge university Press, 2019, <> [accessed:7.06.2019].

Krakauer, Siegfried, ‘Boredom’, Facing Value: Radical Perspectives from the Arts, ed. by. Lauwaert, Maaike and van Westreen, Francien (Den Haag, 2017:  Valiz/Stroom Den Haag), pp.104-119.

Stilinović, Mladen, ‘In Praise of Laziness’, Atlas of Transformation, 1993, <> [accessed: 08.06.2019].



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Theatre Scratch Night at Birkbeck

Luke Buffini, an MA Philosophy Student at Birkbeck and co-founder of Lamplight Magazine, reviews the performances shown as part of Arts Week 2019’s Theatre Scratch Night event.

The moment an actor stops taking the situation seriously is simultaneously the moment they are finished being funny. This is not the same as taking acting seriously, or one’s idols, audience or reviews seriously (the last of which always have an inherent silliness to them – except this one of course). These would all be mistakes to the actor, whose very beating heart is her enthusiasm for play. Yet what an actor simply must do to begin with is take every character’s situation with wholehearted seriousness. Without this, nothing interesting or even dramatic can happen, the latter being the stupider and easier to seduce younger sibling of comedy. No matter the silliness or boredom written into the situation, the actor when on stage – that is, the character – must fail to see these things. Every triviality contains the potential for revelation. Each silence, each exchange of eyes is a vertebra in the spine of the story. That’s acting; that’s theatre.

This is a lesson that most of the actors at the Birkbeck Theatre Scratch Night have not yet learned. Victor Mellors and peers were the happy exception to this. Their sketch was a short farce about two politicians stuck in a utility cupboard during the consummation of their election race. It was revealingly similar to another: a post-apocalyptic comedy about two friends trapped in an underground bunker. Both claustrophobic duologues (essentially), inflicted with the absurd and displaying the boredom and frustration of their characters. One ends in reconciliation, the other in confrontation. The defining difference is that Mellors and company do not allow their characters to perceive the absurdity of their situation. They behave with perfect and unironic seriousness in a situation the audience knows to be silly. This moment, for the characters, is the defining one of their lives and they’re spending it in a utility cupboard, amongst the buckets and disinfectant. At one point, Mellors somehow made a throwaway line about ‘having fun with this mop’ into a huge laugh. Here was the reliable convention, the one which mines comedy from seriousness, flaunting itself again.

Once the theatre fledglings had dispersed we were given something by their filmmaking counterparts. First, a short film called Next Floor, by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, was screened, followed by two student adaptations. The Villeneuve was magnificent, with a masterful balance of disgust, absurd humour, political metaphor and beauty. A handful of waiters are scurrying an enormous carnivorous banquet to and forth for a seemingly insatiable group of diners. With increasing frequency, the swelling bellies of the consumers and the piling hoard on the table cause the floor to collapse, sending the banquet down a floor, on which the whole routine resumes. It’s a fantastic allegory for the uniquely stupid and repugnant greed of our age. All readers should spare the 10 minutes or so to watch it. (One student remarked to me afterwards that he had at first thought the Villeneuve was a student production, and was preparing in mind a complaint to the university about budget limits and equality.)

One student adaptation was a touch on the literal side. It edited horrid images of chickens living in disgraceful conditions between bits of the Villeneuve. A true but limited interpretation. Another adaptation I thought more ambitious. That one aroused broader reflections: about capitalism, climate change, environmental plunder and more broadly the shameful state in which blind, relentless growth and competition has placed us. It can only be promising that the artists of tomorrow are treating this frightening dilemma with the critical gaze it demands.

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