Replacement

This article was contributed by Dr Monika Loewy, an associate lecturer in Goldsmiths’ Department of English and Comparative Literature

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

An interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘replacement’ took place at Birkbeck on the 8-10 of December, which consisted of thirty-six presentations from the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Organised by Professor Naomi Segal and Dr Jean Owen, the conference explored the idea of replacement in relation to literature, art, film, politics, and law. There was additionally a printmakers’ exhibition and a screening of three films: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Un Secret [A Secret] (Claude Miller, 2007) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015). The keynote speakers (Jean Owen, Naomi Segal, Professor Juliet Mitchell, and Professor Naomi Tadmor) focused on the replacement child and partner, and the way in which figures of the past affect the individuals who replace them. Throughout these discussions, questions often arose as to how works of art embody, illustrate, and represent these effects.

‘Trauma always causes replacement’, explained Juliet Mitchell in her presentation, a statement that underpinned the entire conference: trauma, and specifically loss, is often the precursor to why and how replacement occurs. Generally, these losses referred to relationships and objects, memory and knowledge. Several speakers additionally suggested that absences are often substituted with fantasy, a notion discussed in relation to individuals, theories, culture, and fictional and non-fictional works.

Day One:

The conference opened with parallel panels entitled ‘writing replacement’ and ‘cinematic dehumanisation’. Here, speakers introduced ideas about replacement in relation to cultural works, and about how objects and relationships can replace loss, as exemplified by a statement about the way in which nature can, and has, acted as a foster parent (in this case, for William Wordsworth). The following parallel panels consisted of talks about holocaust stories, cultural theory, and haunting, raising a variety of questions, including how the mother is represented in art, and how Freud may have replaced emotional loss with fantasy and religion. These various strands of thought coalesced in a screening of Agnieszka Piotrowska’s fascinating documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008), which is about three women who feel an affinity for, and are sexually and emotionally attracted to objects such as a bow and arrow, The Berlin Wall, a fence, and the Eiffel Tower. The film conveyed that these attractions might be linked to traumatic experiences and mental illnesses, suggesting that the objects may stand in for and protect against disturbing experiences. Following the screening was a discussion about Piotrowska’s involvement with film, and how she responded to public and personal reactions to it. The day closed with a showing of Un Secret, a film about a boy haunted by feelings of having a superior older sibling, and how gaps in knowledge (about his parents’ relationships and experiences in the Second World War) impacted these feelings. Here, the concept of sibling replacement was introduced, which was central to the following day’s discussions.

Day Two:

The second day commenced with papers about political practice, mothers and daughters, and law and replacement, covering a variety of topics, including representations of replacement in human rights law, haunting mothers in Alice Sebold’s writings, and the politics of surrogacy. Two thought-provoking keynotes followed, which were presented by Naomi Tadmor (on early modern kinship and family life) and Juliet Mitchell (on the toddler and the replacement sibling). First, Tadmor spoke about early modern England’s kinship system and how it changed over time. Subsequently, Mitchell explored the way in which Oedipal relations have failed to incorporate the importance of siblings. Sibling replacement, Mitchell argued, is a foundational trauma that has been overlooked in psychoanalytic thinking; the toddler harbours murderous desires towards the new baby that replaces it. There were three parallel panels after the keynote, which included talks about cinematic replacement, family dramas, and ‘lost boys’. A variety of ideas were discussed here, such as ‘lost boys’ in Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf, the connections between Un Secret and Morrison’s Beloved, and about spouses, siblings and children in Sir Orfeo and Amis and Amiloun. The day came to a close with a screening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca on 35mm film.

Day Three:

On the final day, panellists explored how memory and place are rewritten through film, the connections between clinic and culture, and the way in which personal haunting may leave its imprint through writing and art. Professor Valerie Walkerdine, for example, suggested that a trace cannot be erased, and that performance and photography may embody traces of traumatic experiences. In the afternoon, keynote speaker Jean Owen gave an engaging talk that compared the incestual relationships between fathers and daughters in Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne, ‘Genesis,’ and the Greco-Roman myth of Myrrha. This was followed by Naomi Segal’s intriguing analysis about what replacement might mean, and what can and cannot be represented or replicated. She asked how language has been altered throughout time, and posed questions about copies, replication, and the act of translation. She additionally discussed how individuals’ lives and works have been impacted by their deceased siblings, exploring various artists such as J.M, Barrie, Didier Anzieu, Salvador Dalí, Phillip K. Dick, and Victor Hugo. The conference then came to a close with a screening of Haigh’s 45 Years, wherein a woman discovers that her entire marriage was, in a sense, a replacement for one her husband had lost.

Dr Asibong introduced the film with a statement that nicely ties together the wide array of exciting discussions about replacement: that ‘real life’ often pales in comparison to the dead, to a loss. Overall, the conference interwove several creative and fascinating thoughts about replacement, raising questions about how loss affects us, how we attempt to replace it, and how experiences and various works of art capture (and are unable to capture) these replacements.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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True Crime Fictions

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, from Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Read the original blog post on the Centre for Contemporary Literature’s website. Here, Dr Brooker reports from True Crime Fictions a one-day, interdisciplinary conference held at Birkbeck investigating the growing corpus of hybrid fictions working with accounts of true crimes and their increasing interest to literary, legal and criminological scholars.

In Absolute Power (1997) Clint Eastwood plays a burglar who laconically states: ‘I love true crime’. I always found it entertaining that Eastwood’s next film as an actor was called True Crime (1999). These were fictions referring to a genre of non-fictional narrative, which capitalises on a public appetite for details of crimes that have really taken place. The critic Mark Seltzer has written a major work on the genre, describing it as ‘crime fact that looks like crime fiction’. But what about ‘true crime fiction’? What does that look like?

Northern Crimes: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock's true crime fiction novel, "I'm Jack"

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock’s true crime fiction novel, “I’m Jack”

Het Phillips (Birmingham) started the conference with a discussion of materiality in true crime, drawing in a wide range of references, mentioning crime writing from the Moors Murders to David Peace. What most struck me was her emphasis on detail as a textual feature of crime writing. Detail might be a literary relative of the detective’s ‘evidence’; reading could be forensic attitude. Phillips referred not just to Roland Barthes’ account of detail in ‘The Reality Effect’, but even, strikingly, to Hugh Kenner’s discussion of material details in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Martin King’s (Manchester Metropolitan) approach was oriented to social science and media studies. His focus was particularly on David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four and the TV dramatization Red Riding, and on the versions of masculinity explored in both. King suggested that Peace cannot be wholly separated from a more prurient representation of gruesome crime. What Mark Blacklock called ‘culture industry questions’ – where is a fiction situated, who is the audience, whom does it benefit, is there profit to be made? – come into play.

Helen Pleasance (York St John) closed this panel with a paper given from a creative writing background, in which creative non-fiction and memoir were key genres. She revealed a personal connection to the investigation of the Moors Murders, via her father who was a probation officer in Greater Manchester at the time. This had deterred her from engaging with the history of that crime – yet she has ultimately been unable to avoid it, and spoke of ‘what it means to know too much about Myra Hindley’. Pleasance criticized Jean Rafferty’s award-winning novel Myra, Beyond Saddleworth (2012) but found much more virtue in David Constantine’s story ‘Ashton and Elaine’ which she described at length. Constantine’s story, it emerged, addresses the murders obliquely and looks to find a way beyond them for the region.

The panel not only highlighted the particular role of the North in crime writing, but also suggested that two cases in particular have dominated the modern history of ‘Northern crime’: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper. Of the two, it seems to me that the former has had the deepest hold over public imagination and has been more prone to mythologization – as was indicated, for instance, by the connections that various quotations drew between the Moors Murders and Wuthering Heights.

True Crime in the United States

The second panel shifted our attention over the Atlantic. David McWilliam (Keele) described the ‘activist ethics’ of author Sarah Burns’ work on the ‘central park five’, a case of wrongful conviction. McWilliam’s presentation opened issues of race, representation and incarceration in the United States. These were also pertinent to the presentation by historian Roger Panetta (Fordham University, New York), who is undertaking a history of Sing Sing Prison. His work took us back to the nineteenth century, as he outlined his aim to better describe the prison’s inmates, ‘retracing the lifelines knotted in one cell’. Adam Gearey (Birkbeck) discussed a work by the former Weatherman activist Bill Ayres, taking ‘true crime’ into the realm of what could be called ‘domestic terrorism’ or home-grown revolutionary activity in the counterculture era. Gearey’s emphasis was not so much literary, legal or political as philosophical, drawing on Aristotle to emphasize ideas of virtue and self-fulfilment, and suggesting that bad rhetoric indicates bad ethical action.

Graphic Art and True Crime

Harriet Earle (Birkbeck) could not be present on the day but her paper was read out. Earle’s discussion of comic book art offered tools for formal analysis, with the comics My Friend Dahmer (2012) and Green River Killer (2011) her particular examples. David Platten’s (Leeds) presentation was on the fiction (written and graphic) of French communist author Didier Daeninckx. Platten showed how Daeninckx had returned repeatedly to the incident of state brutality on 17 October 1961, when Algerian protesters were murdered by police.

Ethical Issues in True Crime Writing

In the final two sessions we moved from criticism towards creative practice. Professor Martin Eve chaired a panel of authors who had written about true crime. Mark Blacklock spoke of his novel I’m Jack (2015), which fictionalizes the Wearside hoax that diverted police attention from the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Andrew Hankinson is the author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] (2016), a narrative based on extensive study of the Geordie killer’s statements and actions. And Daragh Carville spoke of his authorship of a forthcoming BBC drama about the Shankill Butchers of Belfast. The intensity of the material struck me. Author events and interviews often stay at a genial, genteel level; but here, I gradually realized that all three authors had engaged with deeply disturbing and violent material, sometimes in forensic detail. This in turn raised ethical issues – who has the right to write true crime? What about the feelings of the victims’ families? Can you be sued for libel? – which were aired in discussion.

Another point that connected the three was an emphasis on place. Hankinson’s Geordie background connected him to the Moat case. Blacklock talked of his Sunderland background as his crucial motivation, even of his novel as an ‘exorcism’ for his home town. And Daragh Carville spoke of his love for ‘that weird city’, Belfast: a little like Helen Pleasance in her initial avoidance of the Moors Murders, he had avoided the Troubles all his writing life, but here at last he found himself confronting it directly. This intense concern with place – specifically with towns and cities – in turn made me wonder how large a city would need to be to transcend the effects of a particular crime. Sunderland, for instance, is a city of 175,000. Would London, at nearer 8 million, be too large to be haunted by one individual’s actions? True, Jack the Ripper and the Krays are notorious London criminals, but they are also very closely associated with the specific area of the East End. Perhaps the last crime to feel ‘London-wide’ in its effects was the 7/7 bombings: a murder case belonging to that special category called terrorism.

True Crime and Memoir

©Line Kallmayer

©Line Kallmayer

The day closed with a presentation from Line Kallmayer, a visual artist from Denmark who is currently resident in Italy after several artistic residencies in different countries, notably the United States. She described the case of the serial killer Dennis Lynn Rader, who was caught in Wichita, Kansas in 2005. Kallmeyer gave us a narrative of Rader’s life and crimes, but it was intertwined with an account of her own travels in Kansas investigating the case. True crime was mixed with memoir. But it was also a profoundly visual presentation, as Kallmayer’s text was accompanied by a sequence of many photographs that she had taken on her travels. The effect was extraordinary. The academic format of the day was now incorporating a work of art, which accordingly asked for a different response. The quality of Kallmayer’s writing was matched by her immaculate reading and the intriguingly uncertain, Sebaldian status of her images. I already thought that we had witnessed a day of high quality work, but Kallmayer closed it by taking it to a different place, and making us listen and watch differently.

What could the future hold for the study of true crime? Is there more discussion or publication ahead? I hope that this conference has started the conversation in a way that delegates will find helpful as they continue their research on true crime fictions.

This conference was generously supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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Embarrassing Bodies

This post was contributed by Dr Emma Curry, an ISSF Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, who organised the Embarrassing Bodies conference on  17 June 2016.

We live in a particularly self-conscious age. In recent years, the rising popularity of the ‘selfie’ has signalled our increased interest in curating our own image. This renewed self-attention means that moments where we fail to live up to our perfected public image have also become heightened: the popularity of the hashtags ‘#awkward’ and ‘#fail’ on Twitter and other sites indicate our need to highlight and process our moments of social misconduct, or the embarrassing slips we witness in others.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Mr Mac’, unknown author (1886) © Aviva

Like many aspects of modern life, this preoccupation with the particularities of ‘awkward’ behaviour is one which found itself accelerated in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary records John Stuart Mill’s use of ‘self-conscious’ in 1834 as the first deployment of the term in its modern sense, whilst ‘embarrassment’ comes a little earlier, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. With individuals moving in ever-larger social circles and the potential for bodily faux pas heightened, ideas of ‘embarrassment’ began to attract growing attention from writers and artists of the period. This can be witnessed in such diverse instances as Charles Darwin’s work on the physiology of embarrassed bodily responses like blushing; the emerging definition of the ‘self’ and ideas of ‘self-consciousness’ in early formations of Victorian psychology; and the scenes of comic humiliation in the writing of Charles Dickens, where characters are forever tripping or slipping or saying the wrong thing.

On 17 June, over 50 researchers and members of the public came together to explore some of these instances of nineteenth-century embarrassment, and to think about the ways in which this particular emotion continues to shape our relationships to our sense of self, to our bodies, and to each other. 

Embarrassed Victorians

The conference opened with a keynote talk from Paul White (Cambridge), who considered how embarrassment spreads across nineteenth-century discourse, surfacing in literary and scientific texts. He described embarrassment as enjoyably ‘readable’, and considered how writers of the period position the embarrassed bodies of their characters as intriguing social texts. This talk was followed by Philippa Lewis’s (Bristol) fascinating discussion of the emotion in a European context, in which she considered the medicalization of shyness in France in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By exploring shyness as a literary device and as a matter of public health, Philippa traced the curious tension between the individual and the social in the expression of this particular emotion, a question we returned to throughout the day.

The next panel focused upon embarrassment’s relationship to nineteenth-century science. Alison Moulds (Oxford) delivered a fascinating discussion of the doctor/patient relationship in the nineteenth century, considering the ways in which male doctors became acutely aware of and embarrassed by their own bodies when dealing with female patients’ ailments. This was followed by Ryan Sweet (Exeter), who made us giggle with comic depictions of animals stealing wigs, whilst sensitively exploring the Victorians’ complex and conflicting responses to the problems of the ageing and prostheticized body. Rosie White (Royal Holloway) then took us through the embarrassing aspects of being a naturalist in the nineteenth century, describing the snobbery from other scientists, the need to use discrete measuring tools when out and about, and the embarrassment of being caught ‘with all your implements about you’.

Self-Consciousness in Literature and Art

Following lunch (which thankfully didn’t seem to involve any awkward silences), we returned fortified to our second panel, which explored the complexities of self-consciousness as represented in literary texts. Amelia Worsley (Amherst College) began by turning to the early part of the nineteenth century to analyse the ‘poetics of awkwardness’, in the work of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets. During this period autobiographical poetry became a useful space for self-reflection. Mike Davis (UWE) then moved to the work of George Meredith, considering the fascinating overlap between evolutionary theory and early forms of psychology in the later part of the century, and the ways in which Meredith’s representation of individual will and emotional intelligence might challenge some of Darwin’s formations. This paper was followed by Hao Li (Toronto), who charted the subtle, shifting overlaps between constructions of consciousness, self-consciousness, and self-awareness in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, Royce Mahawatte (Central St Martins) considered the literary handling of embarrassment in the writing of R. J. Culverwell, a doctor who wrote on men’s sexual health. Royce gave a fascinating exploration of the curiously Gothic construction of the male body in Culverwell’s work, and considered the ways in which embarrassing topics seem to attract and indeed encourage narrative during this period.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Hush!’, James Tissot (1875)

We next turned to visual representations of embarrassment. Stephanie O’Rourke (St Andrews) opened the discussion with a beautifully detailed examination of French artist James Tissot’s paintings ‘Hush!’ and ‘Too Early’. She drew attention to the blank spaces surrounding the embarrassed individuals in Tissot’s work, describing them as charged focuses for the ‘conspicuous awkwardness’ of the scenes depicted. Her paper was followed by Eva Kenny (Princeton), who delivered an intriguing exploration of Darwin’s representation of blushing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his attempts to define the limits of embarrassment in physiological terms. David Russell (Oxford) considered ‘Embarrassing Ruskin’, describing the many and various ways in which the art critic John Ruskin was considered to be an embarrassing man by his contemporaries. David highlighted how embarrassment might in fact be a useful imaginative force in Ruskin’s writing, with uncomfortable experiences used to shape his art criticism and to link intellectual and physical experiences.

Awkward Academics

For our final discussion panel we returned to the present day, to think about the ways that embarrassment shapes modern life, particularly within universities. Joe Moran (Liverpool John Moores) discussed his experiences as a shy academic, and explored the various senses in which research can reward these inclinations towards introversion and reflection. Francis O’Gorman (Leeds) described his propensity for worrying, and considered how academia can encourage but also allow individuals to work through some of these modern neuroses. Both Joe and Francis also considered the positive potential of shyness and worrying to act as counterbalances to certain aspects of academic life, suggesting that they might provide an important challenge to recent professional trends for extended working hours, increased commercialisation, and the need to create a public portfolio. It was refreshing and heartening to hear two such distinguished academics speak so openly about their personal relationship to their work in this discussion, and to the everyday, embodied processes of teaching and research.

In the run-up to the conference, participants had contributed their embarrassing academic moments on Twitter, and as the Q&A session progressed it became comfortingly clear that imagined hierarchies, fear of saying the wrong thing, and a hyper bodily self-awareness when teaching or presenting were experiences common to everyone, no matter how senior their position. Amidst ever-increasing workloads and the intellectual pressures of modern academic life, it was suggested that acknowledging and nurturing our ‘embarrassing’ bodies is now becoming more important than ever.

Following the discussion, the delegates retired to a well-earned wine reception, where no doubt more embarrassing moments were shared (or indeed created!). I would like to thank all of the speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion on Twitter for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day, and the Wellcome Trust for their generous funding of this event. I hope we can share our embarrassing moments again in the future, and continue to make light of rather than fear the ‘awkwardness’ that poor Ruskin’s friends found so excruciating.

This event was in association with Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and was funded by a Wellcome Trust/Birkbeck ISSF Grant.

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