Author Archives: Louisa

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.


Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks

On Thursday 2 May, the Department of Law welcomed Professor Peter Goodrich to give the department’s annual lecture on Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks. Professor Goodrich is one of the co-founders of the School of Law at Birkbeck and in 2018 was elected an honorary fellow of the College.

Reader in Law and Political Theory, Dr Elena Loizidou and Professor of Law, Professor Adam Gearey reflected on the evening.

Dr Elena Loizidou: Images in the US are more and more an integral part of judicial judgement and moreover they produce what Professor Peter Goodrich calls an imago decidendi. In his lecture ‘Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Mask’, Professor Peter Goodrich did not only guide us through ways of reading images in judgements, and called for the necessity of having an in court curator of images but gave us a lot to dream for. His powerful, enjoyable and humorous delivery facilitated even more the opening of the imagination.

I could not help, as somebody that is interested in seeing a social, legal and political transformation that at least undoes hierarchies, to imagine a time when judicial ‘pronouncements’ would be made of an assemblage of images that would be specific to the case that the court is handling. I could not stop myself of imagining that this has the potential of undermining the concept of the precedent and how this in turn may see the emergence of a system of adjudicating disagreements without the restrains of law, but emerging out of some other guidelines agreed by parties in dispute from case to case. One always lives in hope.

Professor Adam Gearey: Professor Peter Goodrich gave the Annual Law Lecture, ‘Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Mask’. Professor Goodrich was one of the founders of the law school- and is presently an honorary fellow. There was certainly a sense of occasion, as alumni, students, staff and friends crowded into the basement lecture theatre. Peter Goodrich always gives a good show, and tonight was no different. One of the most interesting and important of contemporary legal philosophers, Professor Goodrich is also a fine performer. Sporting rainbow shoes, he paced the stage and banged on the projector screen for emphasis—a scholar and a dandy whose thinking exemplifies the rigour, intensity and playfulness that characterises thinking that is worth one’s attention.

Such a strange title! Professor Goodrich has long been interested in masks—his legal theory (hardly surprisingly) draws on ideas of drama and performance: the mask allows the actor to speak. It is an artifice or a convention that allows an audience to experience the drama as something ‘natural’. If masks allow actors to speak, then law allows subjects to speak by giving them a kind of structure or affiliation: man/woman/child – property owner; legatee, beneficiary, father, mother, citizen, criminal, holder of rights or duties etc. These features of law are ancient- and so- is the court’s concern with images. These are not just the images of law with which we are all familiar- but the way in which the law must adjudicate images. Professor Goodrich’s lecture primarily concerned images given in evidence; increasingly a central part of the court’s business. What conventions must the court invent to allow images to make sense forensically?

Hence ‘rats and maps’. The rat in question refers to an American case in which an image of a giant plastic rodent figured in the court’s reasoning. The maps evoked in the title are representations of title  to land — evidence often lead in property disputes. Retinal justice- then- describes how the court seeks to do justice using images.

Professor Goodrich’s point is that the courts are incredibly bad at reading images– often using them to merely illustrate words- or- misreading them altogether. It may be that the modern technologies of images have outpaced law’s imaginary (the rhetorical and semantic techniques law uses to encode the world in its own terms). But there is something stranger at stake. Images point elsewhere- compromising techniques that set out to control them. Certainly, in some religious traditions, the image threatens the understanding of divine truth. Other traditions carefully guard licenced images and rituals. What if the disturbing effects of images were also at work in law; disturbing the ways in which it judges the world? Professor Goodrich’s point is that this most ancient of problems haunts modern law. To engage with law and images is to think critically about the ways in which law makes claims about its authority and validates its operations. The disturbances wrought by images provoke us to think about different kinds of adjudication, and perhaps to see different kinds of affiliation: different ways of being and living. Professor Goodrich is challenging students of the law to become more productive, more creative and playful—and, perhaps, as well as dressing better—to see things differently: retinal justice.

Watch a video recording of the lecture.

Listen to an audio recording of the lecture.


Arts Week 2019: Telling Stories about Syphilis

Christine Slobogin, PhD candidate in the History of Art discusses an Arts Week event about the history of Syphilis.

Image: Syphilis, Richard Tennant Cooper, 1912

Dr Anne Hanley began her talk this Monday with: ‘Welcome everyone, to this afternoon of syphilis,’ going on to give a trigger warning that if any audience member did not want to see ‘ulcerated genitalia,’ then perhaps this paper may not be for them. This arresting introduction set the tone for the entire presentation, rife with images of the ulcers that Hanley had promised but also full of thoughtful discussion on narratives of disease, widespread cultural fear, bleak Victorian literature, and propagandistic film.

The main purpose of Hanley’s paper was to trace the shift in the way that syphilis was depicted in Britain’s public imagination between the Victorian and interwar periods. Because syphilis was such a stigmatised venereal disease (VD), men and women who were infected, as well as their relatives were more likely to suppress their stories about their experiences rather than write them down or describe them in another way. Therefore, historians are often thwarted as they search for patient’s perspectives on what it was really like to experience the pustules, the deteriorating nasal cartilage, and even the sink into insanity associated with neurosyphilis.

A large factor in the stigmatising nature of the disease was that it led either to the grave or to the asylum. And this was the narrative that was espoused by Victorian authors when writing about syphilis. Hanley described how novelists used the illness as a plot point to show the medical and moral consequences of transgressing sexual mores and expectations of the time. These stories told about syphilis often followed a similar trajectory, in which a woman and her children are ruined by the moral wrongdoings of the husband. The woman, expected to be innocent and therefore ignorant of sexual matters, can become an easy victim of a morally-suspect spouse and a rampant venereal disease.

This lack of knowledge was compounded at the doctor’s office once the woman sought treatment for her worrying and mysterious illness. Hanley described various medical men who used dangerous paternalism to justify keeping syphilitic women in the dark about their health. After all, the truth could result in a broken home and the damaged reputation of her husband. Often the treatment of these ill women would carry on under the pretence of a different disease, without the patient knowing the full extent of her condition. But sometimes the husbands prevented treatment from happening or from finishing for fear of the monstrous syphilitic truth coming out.

Women could stay ignorant of the risks and symptoms of venereal diseases in the Victorian era because public health information was scarce. The only stories that were told about syphilis were those in the plots of the novels previously described. But this double standard of men having all of the knowledge and therefore power when it came to syphilitic infection began to shift in Britain in the interwar years. The British Social Hygiene Council was established and with it came advertisements for VD clinics through posters and word of mouth but, most importantly, films.

These cinematic visualisations of syphilis contained narratives distinct from the bleak and fatalistic ones of the Victorian-era novels. These films were often light and entertaining moral tales crafted so that viewers could identify with the characters. In one, Any Evening After Work (1930), a man contracts a venereal disease and considers forgoing treatment until his daughter is afflicted with the illness. While the film does use scare tactics to get people to have themselves checked at VD clinics, the overall narrative is that the little girl will get better, and everything will turn out alright—as long as the proper precautions are taken and help is sought.

This shift from pessimistic written narratives to more uplifting and informational films caused an increase of British people going to VD clinics (with both diagnosable diseases and with false alarms). Both ways of telling stories about syphilis fostered an atmosphere of syphilophobia, but the films fulfilled their propagandistic purpose of improving Britain’s sexual health. Hanley argued that to tell stories about syphilis, we need both the fictional and the medical to understand the full cultural narrative of the disease.


Welcoming the research scientists of tomorrow

Trishant, Jenny and Alex, all PhD candidates in the Department of Biological Sciences, were part of a team who invited local secondary school students to Birkbeck to take part in scientific experiments and to show them the College’s suite of electron microscopes. They recount the experience here. 

On the 29 March, our normally peaceful research institute – the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) at Birkbeck – became a bustling classroom. We – a team of research scientists from the ISMB Electron Microscopy laboratory – were hosting a group of thirty 14-15-year-olds from Regent High School in Camden to plunge them into the unfamiliar world of biomolecular research. The visitors, who are on their way to taking GCSEs, were taken on a whistle-stop tour of our high-tech research facilities, and even given the chance for some hands-on experiences! This was in no small part to show off our suite of electron microscopes, with our visitors having the rare opportunity to see our brand-new world leading electron microscope, the Titan Krios. We hoped our efforts would enable our visitors to get engaged with the exciting world of research, help them understand more about what goes on at universities, and, most importantly, stimulate their scientific curiosity.

In groups of six, the students were given a taste of all stages of the process of structural biology studies – from preparing biological samples to the final data analysis. Work that would usually take months was showcased within one afternoon to convey the importance and excitement behind the scientific method at each step. After a discussion of cells, molecules, and atoms, students were quick to appreciate the applications of light and electron microscopy. The importance of understanding the underlying principles of living things and the joy of discovery were quickly grasped by the students, who were engaged and inquisitive. They were not shy to ask questions not only about the science, but about the humans behind it – “What does a PhD student do?”, “Why did you chose to become a scientist?”, “What is a typical day in your job like?”. Some openly expressed their long-standing fascination with biology, chemistry, and physics. Others were just beginning their exploration of different disciplines and discussed the impact that scientific developments have had on their lives. Throughout the day, we and our visitors had valuable conversations centered around scientific concepts and beyond.

After much fun and awe for our visitors, our day wrapped up and we were fortunate enough to receive feedback in the form of a board of sticky notes. It was reassuring to read that the students each enjoyed their visit – something that was clear throughout the day. For many of them, this event was the first opportunity on a light microscope, looking at specimens ranging from developing chick embryos to the striped DNA from a fruit fly, or getting close to a behemoth multi-million-pound electron microscope. Both students and teachers spoke with us about the benefits of getting hands-on with equipment and elements of the scientific process, and even asked about opportunities available in higher education. From our point of view, this event was a success in many ways, allowing us to learn from each other and our visitors. We opened a small part of our world of research, and in doing so, we hope we inspired the next generation of scientists.