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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Arts Week 2017: A look into “the everyday life of digital humanities”

laptop-819285_1920As universities are transformed by the constant presence of digital technology, there is a need to look at how this modifies higher education practices. Lesley Gourlay, from the UCL Institute of Higher Education, has studied the phenomenon of the “digital university” from a post-human perspective and, on Monday 15 May, presented some insights from her work. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion featuring Grace Halden (Department of English and Humanities, Birkbeck) and Tim Markham (Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Birkbeck) who gave their own perspectives on the topic.

Theory: the post-human perspective on digital pedagogy

How should we go about studying digitalized pedagogical practices? Instead of unthinkingly placing the human at the centre of these technologies, Lesley’s post-human theoretical background challenges such naturalized perspectives. Lesley uses the work of Katherine Hayles (2012) to move towards a notion of extended mind, where the clear binaries between user and device are undermined. Lesley’s talk could in fact be given as an example of this extension of the human, and the movement towards the post-human. While Lesley was an engaging speaker, her talk was also made possible thanks to a presentation that included audio-visual elements from her research. The presentation functioned as an extension of her self, giving new context and meaning to the words she uttered.

Observing theory in pedagogic practice

The status quo of materiality within universities has changed. Lesley posits that the way to understand these changes is by rendering unseen practices visible and watching them unfold. Lesley’s research looks into what students actually do when engaged in independent study, revealing materiality as a dynamic process. Multimodal journaling records the ways in which students negotiate the boundaries between print and digital. This negotiation is personal but depends heavily on the settings, which are far from neutral. In the same way, materiality is not neutral to students. Some express a preference for markers, pens, and paper: they need the physical experience. Others prefer digital and go to great lengths (microwaving a book to separate the pages and digitalize them!) to obtain the material in the format they feel best suits their learning.

Through her research, Lesley brings Latour’s theory of the agentive importance of artefacts to life. Objects are mediators: they change the meanings they’re meant to carry. Recognizing this is necessary for studying the effect of digital objects in contemporary academic practice. Lesley’s presentation, in sum, sought to undermine certain binaries such as user/device as well as the ideal of neutral channels and stable human authorship and agency.

Multiple perspectives on technology’s multiple impacts

After Lesley’s presentation, Grace and Tim offered their own views on the impact of digital technology in academia. Grace adopted a practitioner’s perspective, as she questioned whether a traditional written essay continued to be the ideal assessment in an age that, as Lesley had described, was deeply multi-modal. Meanwhile, Tim discussed notions of education and identity, arguing that seemingly banal technologies such as departmental e-mail were constitutive of the community’s identity, and needed to be part of any understanding of technology’s impact. A rich discussion also took place during the Q&A segment, with topics ranging from the paperless office to the role of Wikipedia in research.

Today, it seems positions on the effect of digital technology in education often fall into either excessive pessimism or excessive optimism. The other speakers at this event shed light on what Lesley termed the “messy in-betweenness”, where richer insights can be found. In terms of the magnitude of impact, too, there is a need to get at this middle space. It is disingenuous to think digital text is only another neutral form of communication. On the other hand, it is unwarranted to predict a total transformation of learning practices where bookshops and lecture rooms disappear, and everything happens through MOOCs. Ultimately, this event illustrated the myriad ways in which the impact of digital technology on learning may be understood: ‘digital’ encompasses so many different technologies and practices that it does not make sense to talk about impact in sweeping terms in the first place.

Valentina Salvatierra is a writer and reader currently living in London. She is interested in literary theory, comparative literature, and speculative fiction.

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