Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Suzannah Biernoff, senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art writes about her current research activity.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Hi Suzannah. What was your route to Birkbeck?

I moved to London from Sydney in 1998, after finishing my PhD. Before taking up a lectureship at Birkbeck in 2007 I taught on the Visual Culture programme at Middlesex University and at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

What’s your current topic of research?

My most recent publications have examined attitudes towards disability and disfigurement during and after the First World War. My book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, is due out with the University of Michigan Press early next year. Wellcome funding has made it possible to publish open access articles in journals including Social History of Medicine, Visual Culture in Britain and Photographies.

I wanted to use visual sources as much as possible – from medical photographs and life drawings to prosthetic masks, photo albums and images in the illustrated press – sources that complicate and at times contradict the written record. As a historian of visual culture I am also interested in how people viewed the disfigured face. Cultural prohibitions against staring, expressions of pity or disgust, and later in the century the visual thrill of the horror movie: all of these ‘ways of seeing’ are part of the story, as much as the material evidence of injury, masking and repair.

I have recently been awarded a Birkbeck Wellcome Trust ISSF mid-career fellowship to begin a new project on images of facial difference within European and North American popular culture, film and visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am interested in how people have responded to unusual or extraordinary faces; the cultural mechanisms of normalisation; and strategies of defiance and re-interpretation (for example, where the damaged face is re-imagined as beautiful, or where artists use disfigurement as a creative or symbolic device). As well as artistic representations of the face, my sources include public health images, advertisements, medical photographs, coffee table books, film and fashion photography.

Why did you choose this topic? What inspired you?

In autumn 2002 I went to the Strang Print Room at UCL to see a small exhibition of Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI servicemen with facial injuries. In western art, the face is a primary marker of identity and humanity, and its violation or absence often represents the limits of the human. Tonks’ portraits are almost unbearably intimate studies. They record men before and after reconstructive surgery: almost certainly in pain, physically and emotionally exposed, but stoical. A surgeon himself, as well as a professor of anatomy and drawing at the Slade School of Art, Tonks managed to reveal something new about the depths of the human face and the ways in which images – and institutions – can shape the way we see. He once wrote that he wondered what the body must look like to someone without his knowledge of anatomy. I wonder if his ability to look without horror or embarrassment at the men he drew allows us to see them differently as well.

What excites you about this topic?

I’ve always liked the idea that the things we take most for granted, the things that feel inevitable and personal – our bodies, emotions or sensations – have a history. My current project focuses on the human face, which has tended to be overlooked in histories of the body.

Each chapter of Portraits of Violence revolves around a particular image or set of images:

  • Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo winning portrait Marine Wedding is discussed alongside Stuart Griffiths’ photographs of British veterans of the Iraq War;
  • Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI facial casualties are compared to the medical photographs of the same men in the Gillies Archives; the production of portrait masks for the severely disfigured is approached through the lens of documentary film and photography;
  • and in the final chapter the haunting image of one of Tonks’ patients at the Queen’s Hospital reappears in the first-person shooter game BioShock, provoking an exchange on a players’ discussion forum about the ethical limits of realism.

What is challenging about the research?

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Like most researchers working on issues of stigma and appearance within the humanities, my approach is informed by a social model of disability, according to which beauty, normality, acceptability and ugliness are in the eye (and cultural imagination) of the beholder. One of the strange things about disfigurement as a topic is that people (both experts and popular writers) have tended to assume that the object of study is self-evident. We think we know what we’re talking about when we refer to disfigurement. In fact there are no sources – historical or contemporary – that define this problematic term. The sociologist Heather Laine Talley observes in her book Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance that the concept of disfigurement has ‘no static intelligibility, no objective point of reference, no stable shared meaning’ (2014, p. 14).

This problem with definitions presents a challenge for historians. If we understand ‘disfigurement’ – and stigma generally – as negotiated and context specific, then the idea of a history of disfigurement is a bit misleading. Really, one would need to ask why and how facial or bodily difference becomes disfigurement within particular social interactions and cultural contexts. In the early twentieth century – the period I’ve looked most closely at – these contexts include the fear and censorship of facial war injuries, and the lingering stigma of syphilis, but the symbiotic relationship between war and medicine had a role to play as well. Thanks to the large number of facial casualties returning home from the battlefields of WWI, plastic surgery – described by the pioneering surgeon Harold Gilles as a ‘strange new art’ – became a recognized medical specialism, and disfigurement a treatable condition.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

Appearance plays a crucial role within social hierarchies. Like gender, class and race, the way we look is a powerful determinant of social mobility and physical capital. In this respect, there are clear parallels between the civil rights and feminist movements, and more recent developments in disability rights and ‘face equality’.

Despite the inclusion of serious disfigurement in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, there is a widespread perception among disability scholars and campaigners that the norms of acceptability are becoming narrower: that society (at least in the developed and increasingly globalised world) is becoming less tolerant of people who look different from a prevailing idea of normality.

Although disfigurement is not an illness – or even, in most cases, a functional impairment – it is widely perceived as having and requiring a medical solution. Understanding the social, political and historical contexts of ‘disfigurement’ is important both from the perspective of the medical humanities, and for scholars, artists, activists and policy makers working in the field of disability studies and advocacy.

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

One of the things I love about working at Birkbeck is that I teach students with such diverse interests and backgrounds. Each year I run an MA option called Exhibiting the Body, on medical museums and the historical intersections between art and medicine. Over the years my students have included nurses, GPs, painters and performance artists, a game developer, a medical photographer, and the curator of Barts Pathology Museum. There have been some memorable debates along the way on topics ranging from 19th-century freak shows to the ethics of displaying human remains.

As a teacher, being able to draw on a wide spectrum of personal and professional perspectives makes for an incredibly rich classroom experience. In the humanities we talk a lot about the value of interdisciplinarity at the level of research, but often overlook the benefits of teaching students in a multidisciplinary environment.

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Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine of the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies writes about her current research activity.

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Hi Silke. What is your current topic of research?

My current project is on the notion of ‘challenging heritage’: I am interested in the ways in which ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult heritage’ is interpreted and managed in different cultural and national contexts. My focus is on the question of how personal and cultural memory relate to each other in modes of engagement framed as affective and experiential encounters with the past, most importantly but not exclusively in (memorial) museums and heritage sites that favour immersive strategies and aim to produce empathy in visitors.

In this context I interrogate preconceived assumptions of what the relationship between affect/emotion, experience and comprehension (and consequently action) is supposed to be; just because we have ‘felt’ and experienced something, does it mean we are any closer to understanding it? Key questions are:

  • the role of interactive media forms (from the oral to the performative and digital) in this process
  • how memory practices and performances are negotiated among groups of stakeholders
  • and how supposedly very different modes of relating to the past (trauma, nostalgia) complement and inform each other in unexpected ways as audiences engage with historical interpretations.

One of my case studies is a comparative analysis of commemorative projects around the First World War Centenary.

Why did you choose this topic?

Living between (at least) two cultures (Silke is originally from Germany, but now lives in South-West London) drew my attention to how collectives relate to shared pasts in very different ways: they do not only choose to remember and forget different bits or tell different stories about shared events, they also have very different modes of engaging with the past.

What excites you about this topic?

Its topicality and relevance to current memory politics, people think of memory as predominantly being about the past but in actual fact the way we relate to the past is mostly about how we want to live in the present.

What is challenging about the research?

The most challenging element of the research I am doing is that it is situated between subject and research areas, which means that I am often trespassing on other people’s turfs. I have to engage with a broad spectrum of research methodologies, increasingly not only quantitative but also qualitative methodologies, so I am constantly forced to step out of my comfort zones.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

I have worked with practitioners from various walks of life – artists, museum curators, theatre people – in order to get closer to the audiences which have a vested interest in the role cultural memory plays in all our lives. I think my research can offer a self-reflective perspective on the modes of memory we all engage in every day and identify how we can mobilize strong affective responses as catalysts that help to transform unprocessed affect into emotional thought (and when I am very hopeful) also into actions.

What misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

When I tell people that I work on First World War Commemoration they often think that I am a historian and that I actually work on the First World War. Some are rather disappointed to learn that I am first and foremost interested in the way contemporary societies relate to the First World War and how they narrativize the past in the here and now.

My focus on cultural memory is also difficult to explain, most people associate memory with the ability of an individual to recall experiences and events through which they have lived. However, the concept of cultural memory provides a conceptual framework that helps to interrogate how smaller or larger groups (families or nations) ‘remember’ and keep memories alive beyond the lifetime of the actual memory bearers.

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Empire of Things

The following are two excerpts from Prof Frank Trentmann‘s new book, Empire of Things How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (UK: Allen Lane, 2016; USA: HarperCollins, 2016).

In the book, which has been released today, Prof Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China, Renaissance Italy and the British empire to the present. Astonishingly wide-ranging and richly detailed, ‘Empire of Things’ explores how we have come to live with so much more, how this changed the course of history, and the global challenges we face as a result.

EmpireOfThings_MockUp_Front - Copy (2) Introduction

We live surrounded by things. A typical German owns 10,000 objects. In Los Angeles, a middle-class garage often no longer houses a car but several hundred boxes of stuff. The United Kingdom in 2013 was home to 6 billion items of clothing, roughly a hundred per adult; a quarter of these never leave the wardrobe. Of course, people always had things, and used them not only to survive but for ritual, display and fun. But the possessions in a pre-modern village or an indigenous tribe pale when placed next to the growing mountain of things in advanced societies like ours.

This change in accumulation involved a historic shift in humans’ relations with things. In contrast to the pre-modern village, where most goods were passed on and arrived as gifts or with the wedding trousseau, things in modern societies are mainly bought in the marketplace. And they pass through our lives more quickly.

In the last few hundred years, the acquisition, flow and use of things – in short, consumption – has become a defining feature of our lives. It would be a mistake to think people at any time have had a single identity, but there have been periods when certain roles have been dominant, defining a society and its culture. In Europe, the High Middle Ages saw the rise of a ‘chivalrous society’ of knights and serfs.

The Reformation pitched one faith against another. In the nineteenth century, a commercial society gave way to an industrial class society of capitalists and wage workers. Work remains important today, but it defines us far less than in the heyday of the factory and the trade union. Instead of warriors or workers, we are more than ever before consumers.

In the rich world  – and in the developing world increasingly, too  – identities, politics, the economy and the environment are crucially shaped by what and how we consume. Taste, appearance and lifestyle define who we are (or want to be) and how others see us. Politicians treat public services like a supermarket of goods, hoping it will provide citizens with greater choice. Many citizens, in turn, seek to advance social and political causes by using the power of their purse in boycotts and buycotts. Advanced economies live or die by their ability to stimulate and maintain high levels of spending, with the help of advertising, branding and consumer credit. Perhaps the most existential impact is that of our materially intensive lifestyle on the planet. Our lifestyles are fired by fossil fuels. In the twentieth century, carbon emissions per person quadrupled. Today, transport and bigger, more comfortable homes, filled with more appliances, account for just under half of global CO2 emissions. Eating more meat has seriously disturbed the nitrogen cycle. Consumers are even more deeply implicated if the emissions released in the process of making and delivering their things are taken into account. And, at the end of their lives, many broken TVs and computers from Europe end up in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, causing illness and pollution as they are picked apart for precious materials.

How much and what to consume is one of the most urgent but also thorniest questions of our day. This book is a historical contribution to that debate. It tells the story of how we came to live with so much more, and how this has changed the course of history.

Age of Ideologies

She was just nineteen and lucky to be alive. Heidi Simon had been born the year Hitler came to power. Frankfurt am Main, her hometown, was among the cities worst hit by Allied bombing; the 1944 raids killed thousands and left half the population homeless. Now, in 1952, Heidi was one of the winners in an amateur photography competition to celebrate the American Marshall plan. Recovery had barely begun. The entries reflected the harsh realities of post-war Europe: ‘Bread for all’; ‘No more hunger’; ‘New homes’. She scooped one of the top prizes: a Vespa moped plus prize money. The officials at the Ministry for the
Marshall Plan may well have been surprised by her response. She was very happy about winning but, she wrote, to be honest and without trying to sound ‘impertinent’, she wondered whether she could not rather have a Lambretta than a Vespa. For the entire last year she had ‘passionately’ longed for a Lambretta. The Ministry refused and sent her the Vespa.

This snapshot of young Heidi Simon, tucked away in the German federal archives, is a reminder of how the large forces of history intersect with the material lives and dreams of ordinary people. The Marshall Plan was a critical moment in the reconstruction of Europe and the advancing Cold War divide between East and West, but its recipients were far from passive. Heidi’s outspoken desire for a particularly stylish consumer good in the midst of rubble also challenges the conventional idea that consumer society was the product of galloping growth in the age of affluence, the mid-1950s to 1973. It jars with the sometimes instinctive assumption that people turn to goods only for identity, communication or sheer fun after they have fulfilled their basic needs for food, shelter, security and health.

It is no coincidence that this psychological model of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, initially proposed by the American Abraham Maslow in 1943, gained in popularity just as affluence began to spread. According to this theory, Heidi Simon should have asked to trade in the Vespa for bricks and mortar and perhaps some savings bonds, rather than hoping for an upgrade to the 123cc Lambretta with its sleek single-piece tubular frame.

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Opening the Open Library of Humanities

This post was co-written by Dr Martin Eve, senior lecturer in Literature, Technology and Publishing and Dr Caroline Edwards, lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally posted on the Open Library of Humanities blog on Monday 28 September.
In 1987, the late Terence Hawkes wrote, in the inaugural issue of Textual Practice, that

It is never a good time to start a new journal. Even so, 1987 seems unpropitious to a remarkable degree. The academic world in general feels itself to be under attack. The Humanities in particular feel marginalized and underfunded. Outwardly querulous, inwardly riven, they sense themselves to be hopelessly at odds with a culture which has long abandoned any recognition of the value of their role. Connoisseurs of the Unripe Time could be forgiven for regarding the present year as a vintage one, with the project represented by Textual Practice self-evidently foredoomed.1

Open Library of Humanities - CopyHawkes’s major contentions about 1987 still ring true for most in the academic humanities. Remaining on the front-line of budget cuts and continually resorting to liberal humanist defences of critical thought in a democracy, our times remain unripe and feel precarious.

In some ways, however, 2015 is worse than 1987 for those seeking to “start a new journal”. The traditional foundations of the research-publication economy are unravelling in the face of unprecedented digital capability and concomitant social expectations. Ironically, in the age of digital reproduction the circulation of our academic humanities journals is decreasing (because our libraries cannot afford to subscribe in the face of an increasing volume of published material and hyper-inflationary journal price increases), even while we have the technological capacity to disseminate and preserve our work online. Meanwhile, the benefits of open access to the humanities disciplines are clear. Unless we extend access to our work to broader publics, our claims to engender critical thinking in the demos are ill founded.

As with most dreams of universal education, though, there has often been staunch resistance in the humanities to open access. One of the principle reasons for this is that the economic models that are being implemented by traditional publishers are uniquely unsuited to our disciplinary areas. Article processing charges (APCs), in which authors or their institutions are asked to bear the entire labour costs (and any profit/surplus) of a publisher, become unaffordable in the humanities disciplines, as opposed to in our counterpart fields in the natural sciences where the model may work. The diversion of scant humanities funding to compensate lost profits for journal publishers undermines the claimed meritocratic nature of academic publishing as well as damaging the career prospects of those without recourse to such funding.

It was within this context that the Open Library of Humanities was born. It has taken two and a half years of planning; a great deal of consultation with academics, libraries and funders; the willing support of almost 100 libraries; many talks and publications; and a great deal of hard work. What we have so far is the seed of a scalable model for journal transition to open access in the humanities that does not rely on payment from authors or readers.

For this initial launch, six journals have moved from their existing homes to our new model: 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long-Nineteenth Century; The Comics Grid; Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon; ASIANetwork Exchange; Studies in the Maternal; and The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. These publications span the range of journal types that the platform can support: those publications that are already open access but that rely on unsustainable volunteerist labour; those that are open access but that rely on unsustainable article process charges; and those that are currently subscription-based but that want to achieve open access. Applications are now open for other journals that wish to join the platform.

None of this would be possible without the support of the institutions that have already signed up to support the OLH. Indeed, the model that underpins the platform is novel for humanities journals: many libraries all paying relatively small sums into a central fund that we then use, across our journal base, to cover the labour costs of publication once material has passed peer review. Libraries that participate are given a governance stake in the admission of new journals. While this model is strange in many ways (as libraries are not really buying a subscription since the material is open access), it works out to be extremely cost effective for participants. In our first year, across the platform, we look set to publish around 150 articles. For our bigger supporting institutions, this is a cost of merely $6.50 per article. For our smallest partners, it comes to $3.33. This economy of charitable, not-for-profit publishing works well at 100 institutions. It should work even better with the 350 libraries that we are aiming to recruit to our subsidy scheme in the first 3 years after launch.

There are countless individuals whom we should thank for helping us to get this far but to do so would mean that we would inevitably offend by omission. We will, therefore, limit our thanks to four broad groups: to the trustees of our charitable organization for helping us to steer the project; to the staff at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their advice and financial assistance in the form of a planning (2014) and then scaling (2015) grant; to the editors of the journals that have already joined us; and to the libraries who have made this possible through their financial support.

What is before you today is not, of course, the end product; it is just the start. While we have come a long way to create a new platform and economic model, challenges remain. Naysayers will doubtless continue to spill words from the sidelines. However, we are more interested in, and draw more inspiration from, the words of an arts and humanities charity in the United Kingdom. Arts Emergency’s mission is to ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds can also receive the benefits of an arts and humanities education; disciplines to which open access can make a substantial difference. The badge that Arts Emergency sends to their supporting members is emblazoned with the following text: “sometimes if you want something to exist you have to make it yourself”. No matter how unripe the time, these are words to remember.

Competing Interests
This is an editorial written by the directors of the Open Library of Humanities.

Notes

1Terence Hawkes, ‘Editorial’, Textual Practice, 1 (1987), 1–2 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502368708582003>.

References

  1. ^ Hawkes, T . (1987). Editorial. Textual Practice 1: 1–2, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502368708582003

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