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