Her eyes are pulled to a fixed point above us and she seems to find her words only there. Her voice carries, as strange and fluid as her movement: Ruth Padel is quite the performer and she is performing with an aim – she has clear messages. Her poems are enacted rather than spoken, recited not read. In fact it is so enjoyable that we are even prepared to forgive the quality of her slides (as informative and interesting as they are, the photo quality is not great – perhaps this adds to the conversational, natural atmosphere). Her stories are natural and we, the audience, are happy to meander with her trail of thought. Sometimes it gets so far you aren’t sure if she’s lost her trail, but then she comes full circle and dives into the next poem. There is a lot of movement to her: be it her meandering speaking style, the lilt to her voice or, most importantly, the migration of people and animals in her poetry. The subject of her latest volume of poetry mixed with prose, from which she was reading, is migration. The Mara Crossing draws seemingly heterogeneous strands of migration and ties them together. A descendant of Charles Darwin, she is naturally inclined to describe the social impetus to move in terms of the biological. Padel speaks of the migration path of the bar-headed geese over Mount Everest, where they treacherously fly year on year and many die. Apart from this being a literally amazing feat, the question begs to be asked: why? Why not just fly around? The answer lies first in history and then in biology: the flight path was there before the mountains and genetic (would the drive to fly for food and nesting grounds also be social?) determinism literally drives them over the same path, adapting as the years go by so that they can survive the treacherous conditions. The adaptation takes the form of the haemoglobin in these birds absorbing oxygen faster than other birds and their capillaries penetrating deeper into their muscles so that they can get more oxygen. The migration paths of the bar-headed geese pre-date the Himalayas and it seems beautifully absurd that their haemoglobin and capillaries would change, rather than their genetic programming. It is a story you can tell she loves to tell. It is the story of the need to travel; the impetus to move. Continue reading
Having three separate language departments – Spanish and Portuguese, French, and German – as well as Comparative Literature and Film departments, is clearly a testament to the strength of the study and teaching of languages and cultures at King’s. However, one downside of this is that the obvious links between the research we carry out, beyond geographical and linguistic borders, are lost. As the value of literature, art, music and film, of storytelling and sharing culture, is an integral part of ‘being human’, we thought that this year’s Arts and Humanities Festival would be a perfect place to begin breaking down these departmental divisions and to celebrate what we share.
Over three hours, 10 PhD students presented their research in a very informal way, explaining what it is that inspires them. The event revealed the enormous range of subjects studied at King’s, from medieval Spanish fan-fiction to the reception of Sweet Home Alabama among French audiences. It was a real privilege to experience the passion that each student brings to the study of their subject and the reasons behind it.
Unfortunately, however, our first attempt at bringing the departments together was mainly SPLAS dominated, with a few additions from French and Film. The round-table on how to create interdepartmental connections, led by Prof Catherine Boyle (SPLAS) and Prof Patrick Ffrench (French), was therefore particularly apt. All participants recognised the need to facilitate contact between those of us with shared interests, and we hope that this will soon result in both more events and exciting collaborative research.
Like many of those attending this roundtable on the festival’s closing day, I was mostly drawn to the Medieval Science Fiction event out of a sense of curiosity as to what this term might refer to. At a first glance, one would think that the words ‘medieval’ and ‘science fiction’ do not – and perhaps should not – mix. However, the event showed that these seemingly opposite concepts can be brought together, and that this combination may lead to interesting discussions for researchers and science fiction writers alike.
The roundtable discussion was organised as part of the ongoing Medieval Science Fiction project, and the panel consisted of three speakers.
Andy Sawyer (Science Fiction Critic and Librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection) started the discussion by highlighting that the medieval period is often underrated in terms of its contributions to science. He also argued that medieval travel tales can be seen as useful analogues to science fiction, in that these stories often discuss issues of exploration and make us wonder what kind of creatures might be found beyond the borders of the habitable world. According to Andy, some medieval writers have indeed written works that we would group under the heading of ‘science fiction’.
Edward James (Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at UCD and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation) then asked what exactly what the term ‘science fiction’ refers to. He argued that the genre not only deals with science but also deals with visions of the future. Since the Middle Ages are part of our historical past and are often perceived as forming an earlier stage in mankind’s ‘development’, this can make things difficult for a science fiction writer – and indeed the medieval period has traditionally been seen as a more suitable setting for fantasy novels. He added that some science fiction writers create alien cultures that remind us of medieval times, which are often seen as being a little ‘backward’.
Liz Williams (Science Fiction Writer, several times nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award) argued that much of science fiction writing revolves around trying to understand that which is alien, whether on another planet or in another time period. She also gave several interesting examples of late medieval discoveries and inventions that we now view as having been ahead of their time. According to Liz, the medieval period can be an invaluable source for modern science fiction writers.
Part of the reason why such a discussion on medieval sci-fi is interesting is because it begins to challenge some of the common misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the people who were alive then. There is no record, for example, of anyone in the Middle Ages ever believing that the earth was flat – this was a myth popularised mostly by nineteenth-century historians and scientists– and yet nowadays we happily believe this to be true. It is also commonly held that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ saw little to no scientific discovery and that people for several hundreds of years simply sat around discussing the bible and burning a witch or two (or a few thousand, depending who you talk to) – again the result of ‘propaganda’ from a later age. Also, as one of the audience members pointed out, we all know for certain that medieval people never bathed – a modern view that seems to overlook the large amount of medieval records describing available facilities for bathing, both in the private and public sphere.
This roundtable helped to highlight that much of what we think of a period such as the Middle Ages is shaped not just by our own ideas but also by the ideas of people writing in the centuries before us. The past is not a set of fixed rules or ideas, but it is always reinterpreted and reimagined by different generations who sometimes see what they want to see. As Andy Sawyer commented, “each time period has its own Bacon”, as an illustration of how some of Roger Bacon’s ideas and discoveries are nowadays interpreted as precursors of modern inventions – though we might wonder whether he himself would have seen such discoveries in the same light.
There are still some issues that could be raised when looking at medieval science fiction – Can we call medieval inventions science? Does there need to be a word for something for it to have existed? Did medieval people wonder about the future (in a non-religious sense)? Did medieval monsters gradually move to further regions to become what we now call aliens? Can we refer to the ‘medieval period’ as if it was some great homogenous being, or are there differences to be found between cultures, regions or centuries? Nevertheless, it seems that the medieval period is more compatible with modern notions of science fiction than one would first think. I, for one, am very curious about the direction of this project and I look forward to reading its forthcoming essay collection. I want to believe.
Lydia Zeldenrust (Queen Mary University of London),
on behalf of the Being Non/Human Group (http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/).
‘If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.’
So says Detective Somerset to his partner in Se7en, a film which tracks the police hunt of a serial killer. Why is it, Professor Richard Dyer asks, that serial killers are so frequently associated with the supernatural – that we desire them to be supernatural figures?
The Italian word for serial killer is ‘il mostro’ – the monster; serial killers are frequently given nonhuman (or, perhaps more fittingly, inhuman) nicknames, from Peter Kürten aka the Vampire of Düsseldorf to Fritz Haarman aka the Werewolf of Hannover. Moving from what is probably the first film focusing on a serial killer, Georges Méliès’s Barbe-bleue, to more recent films such as Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and Antikörper, Dyer highlights the various supernatural associations these murderers have – with Barbe-bleue’s fairy tale connotations (and the threatening disquiet hidden within the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘fairy tale’) to the more overtly malign manifestations of the serial killer’s supernatural qualities in later films. Serial killers are frequently presented as possessing either superhuman or subhuman features. There is the unnerving intelligence of Hannibal (able to tease and manipulate victims and police alike), the superhuman strength of Gabriel Engel, and the animalistic nature of these killers – whether it’s eating human flesh or covering themselves in blood.
As suggested by Detective Somerset, Dyer argues that serial killers are typically associated with the supernatural – as beings whose humanness is called into question – because this ‘lives up to our expectations’. The enormity of such a crime can only be matched by a figure that equally goes beyond its confines, an entity that cannot be contained by a human body and human abilities but must be a supernatural or near-supernatural being. Dyer suggests that the horrific nature of mass murder exceeds our understanding of motives, raising the disturbing thought that the murderer kills simply because he/she enjoys it. So how do we deal with this? We transform or at least align the serial killer with the supernatural being. After all, what is more horrifying? The serial killer as an inhuman supernatural figure, or the serial killer as a nondescript uninteresting human – just like us?
Moving from a broad discussion of serial killers in film, Dyer then focused on the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). The film’s highly stylised set designs enhance the audience’s sense of unease. Do these sets present contemporary German society as damaged? Do they suggest it is not just German society but the entire world that is somehow twisted? That the film’s plot is narrated by a man confined to an insane asylum offers another alternative. Dyer raises the possibility that perhaps the corrupt nightmarish state of serial killing can only be truly comprehended through the lens of insanity or the lens of the supernatural. If we can only imagine the serial killer as a figure divorced from reality, a figure closer to a supernatural being than a human being, then perhaps too great a comprehension of the serial killer means we also become divorced from reality and so deviate from the normative human. The implication seems to be that mass murder pushes not only the serial killer but also the witness to the limits of the human.
Following Dyer’s lecture, the audience were treated to a showing of the film, accompanied by music from Stephen Horne (acclaimed silent film pianist based at the BFI Southbank).
Reviewed by Sophia Wilson, co-convenor of the Being Non/Human discussion group: http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/
This gallery contains 19 photos.
Ahead of her book launch and panel discussion at the Festival on Friday, Lecturer in Culture, Digital Humanities & Creative Industries Btihaj Ajana explains why it’s time we reconsidered our approach to immigration and asylum issues:
Immigration is a hot topic at the moment. Over the last few months, the UK Home Office has been running a series of controversial schemes including the immigration arrest adverts, immigration spot-checks targeting ethnic populations in London, and most recently the ordering of gay and lesbian asylum seekers to ‘prove’ their sexuality. There is nothing new about the fear-mongering attitudes and negative sentiments currently surrounding immigration issues in Britain and elsewhere. Historically, immigration has always been a sensitive topic as it inevitably calls into question issues of identity, difference, belonging, entitlement, race and so on. These recent schemes, however, are representative of a larger socio-political shift in which a new kind of imaginary is emerging; an imaginary that is shaped by an increasing sense of suspicion towards the ‘other’ and the ‘normalisation’ of various illiberal practices. Fear is becoming a powerful tool of governing and regulating the population. Whether in public discourses, political debates or news media, immigrants and asylum seekers are increasingly being constructed as an existential threat to the well-being and security of the nation. As such, reactions to immigration and asylum issues are currently caught up in a vicious circle whereby governments are responding to public anxieties with more fear-driven measures which, in turn, only ends up fuelling more anxieties and negative attitudes. Fear seems to be, at the moment, a dominant relational affect and a major binding force between citizens and the State.
At one level, the problem is undoubtedly that of (mis-)representation and decontextualisation. Within mainstream political discourses and news reports on issues of immigration and asylum, there is a marked deficit in positive representation and constructive media reporting, coupled with a lack of factual analysis that is capable of addressing this misbalance. Moreover, these debates and reactions often tend to tear issues of immigration and asylum away from their historical and political context. One should not ignore the fact that the enduring legacies of colonialism together with a rising neoliberal globalisation are all some of the undeniable factors that have been deepening the world’s staggering economic inequalities and socio-political problems, and thereby feeding into the wider contextual backdrop of asylum and immigration issues. Staging these issues as if they were stand-alone and decontextualised problems, that only concern ‘others’, is rather irresponsible and misses the bigger picture.
It is about time that so-called citizens begin to question whence their rights and privileges come and to what extent these privileges might be oppressive to others. Parenthetically, this is not about fostering a culture of blame or guilt but a call for a collective and more informed, responsible, accountable and ethical response to issues that do not only touch those who are portrayed as others but the entire fabric of humanity.