Immigration and The Human Other

Photo credit: UK Home Office on flickr

Photo credit: UK Home Office on flickr

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.

More on these issues will be discussed during the event Human Others taking place this Friday (18 October) at 6.30pm in the Safra Lecture Theatre. Book your tickets here

Being/Human or Being Non/Human

This is to announce that the new Being Non/Human discussion group will have its first meeting during the Arts and Humanities Festival, on Monday, October 14th at 6:30pm – 8pm at King’s College London, Strand campus, room S2.39.

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group that meets one Monday evening a month. The meetings either focus on the presentation and discussion of papers or combine papers with the discussion of reading material.

The Being Non/Human group focuses on recent theoretical developments which question the role of the human, analyse what it means to be a nonhuman entity, examine the validity of terms such as ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’, and look at the (shifting) boundaries between the human and nonhuman. This year’s papers concern, amongst other things: cyborgs and golems; physical and figurative metamorphoses; composite and alien creatures; Giorgio Agamben’s ‘anthropological machine’ and Vivian Sobchack’s work on phenomenology; and questions of how medicine, technology or performance art may affect the relationship between the human and the nonhuman.

As our group is concerned with many of the issues related to this year’s festival theme of ‘Being/Human’ we would like to invite all of those interested in humans and nonhumans alike to join us for our first meeting. This meeting will feature two papers, one concerning cyborgs and the other focusing on gaming avatars:

Dr Gerard Briscoe (Queen Mary University of London) – ‘Being Posthuman: Who Controls the Cyborg’
Jon Garrad – ‘ “Who’d choose to be a human? I do that in real life…” – Race, Species and Identity in the MMORPG’

For more details on the papers, our 2013-2014 schedule, and further details concerning the group, see: http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/.

Feel free to come along to the meeting (no booking required; just meet us at room S2.39) or join us for one or more of our future meetings. And, as with any discussion group, there will be snacks and drinks to keep us going!

Members of the Being Non/Human group will also be attending several of the events during this year’s festival (such as the ‘Medieval Science Fiction’ event and ‘The Limits of the Human: Vampires, Zombies, Serial Killers…’ event), so keep an eye out for our reviews here – or join our group and write a review yourself!Being Non/Human organisers –
Sophia Wilson (King’s College London)
Lydia Zeldenrust (Queen Mary University of London)

Riffs on McCarty

obiAhead of Professor Willard McCarty’s lecture on The Digital and the Human at the upcoming Arts & Humanities Festival, long-time colleague and Head of the Department of Digital Humanities Andrew Prescott offers some thoughts on the recent award of the Roberto Busa Prize to the man who has been described as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi of digital humanities’.

The epithet was offered by Matthew Jockers in introducing Willard’s Busa lecture, which marked the award of the major international prize for lifetime achievement in the digital humanities.  Continue reading

Michael Kerr: Why Power-Sharing is the Best-Case Scenario in Syria

Michael KerrMichael Kerr is Professor of Conflict Studies, Director of the Middle East & Mediterranean Studies Programme, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s. On Tuesday 22 October, he will give his inaugural lecture, entitled Conflict and Coexistence in Deeply Divided Societies, as part of the 2013 Arts & Humanities Festival.

In this recent article for the International Business Times, Professor Kerr explains why power-sharing is the best-case scenario for the ongoing situation in Syria. Continue reading

Ways of Seeing both ‘Aura and Information’

As John Berger: art and property now is nearing the end of its time at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House East Wing, I gladly took up one of the last opportunities to visit a unique exhibition that holds a variety of material around the renowned writer, critic and artist. Developed by King’s Cultural Institute in partnership with the British Library, it was born from Berger deciding to donate his archive to the British Library in 2009. His rationale behind this is an important thread in the exhibition and creates space amongst the sixty years’ worth of papers to open up Berger’s own views on the value and place of his archives and lifework.

John Berger by Jean MohrAs you descend down a narrow staircase to some lower level of Somerset House there is indeed something of the sequestered archive of the long corridor and the five rooms that make up the exhibition. Each take on a different period and/or theme of John Berger’s life, with connecting portraits of the man by Jean Mohr. The rooms display his art, broadcasting work and correspondences together with his words printed on the walls to bind them into coherent narratives – on anything from Berger in the 1940s to his reaction to winning the Booker prize. The artefacts engage with each other to represent something of Berger’s life, but the focus is also on his ideology, with one room blacked out entirely to play his voice recordings (Room 4 – evoking Berger’s 1999 collaboration with director Simon McBurney and Artangel, an eerie replication of their sound installation in an unused Underground Station).

One particular room caught my attention as it seemed to me the nub of what makes this such a fascinating exhibition. I first came across Berger as many have through his book Ways of Seeing, a small volume that accompanied the TV series of the same name in the 1970s. In it, he demanded a change in the viewer’s understanding of art, and Room 2 of John Berger: art and property now also pulls the visitor into a similar theoretical debate. The room displays clips of the programme with production notes and various letters, but also alongside them his essay ‘Art and Property Now’, that claims that art is a peculiar mix of sacred ‘aura’ and market value – its ‘information’. Interestingly, the exhibition formulates these into a direct meditation on the value of Berger’s archive and on the exhibition itself; they can both be seen as similar to art as objects of cultural power and value, and so the visitor is asked directly (and slightly disconcertingly): ‘what blend of aura and information made you decide to come and see it?’

The participation of the visitor then becomes an important component of the exhibition, emphasised in an array of interactive opportunities – the public programme of free events, for instance, or life-drawing along with a Berger tape in Room 3. This chimes with Berger’s own ideas on the importance of audience collaboration, but also with a comment he made upon donating the archive to the British Library, noting he felt that uncovering what others thought was the most interesting part of his archive. It is the blend of display and debate that makes this exhibition so worthwhile a visit, as it builds and re-builds its own structure and focus: part Berger, part his friends, but also partly entirely personal to whoever visits – his work still centring on and challenging what we see.

John Berger: art and property now
Exhibition running from 6th September -10th November 2012

Arts@Work: Converting Degrees into Careers

A challenge that besets many idealistic arts and humanities graduates is how to translate their degrees into real working careers. How does a talent for creative writing blossom into becoming a playwright, or a passion for reading into organising a literary festival? To help address these quandaries, King’s College London’s English Department, the Film Studies Department with the help of the Careers and Employability Service and a special grant from the College Teaching Fund, offered a two day careers workshop entitled Arts@Work, running from 28th-29th June 2012. Its aim was to use interviews, talks and workshops to give students the chance to quiz a range of arts professionals on how to use their degrees in future careers. Continue reading

Adapting Parade’s End

One definition of a classic book is a work which inspires many metamorphoses. Romeo and Juliet, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby don’t just wait in their original forms to be watched or read, but continually migrate from one medium to another: painting, opera, melodrama, dramatization, film, comic-strip. New technologies inspire further reincarnations. Sometimes it’s a matter of transferring a version from one medium to another – audio recordings to digital files, say. More often, the new technologies encourage new realisations: Hitchcock’s Psycho re-shot in colour; French or German films remade for American audiences; widescreen or 3D remakes of classic movies or stories.

Adaptations of literary works for the screen have become ever more prominent; not only in television scheduling, but in the teaching of literature. They are among the metamorphoses that feature most often in the working lives of academics and students in the Arts and Humanities. So they might well feature among the topics to be discussed at the Festival’s opening panel.

The adaptation that’s been preoccupying me for the last month is the BBC2 version of Parade’s End, the series of four novels about the Edwardian era and the First World War, written by the British novelist Ford Madox Ford, and dramatized by Sir Tom Stoppard.

Parade’s End (1924-28) has to be one of the most challenging books to film. It’s a classic work of Modernism: with a non-linear time-scheme that can jump around in disconcerting ways; dense experimental writing that plays with styles and techniques. Though it includes some of the most brilliant conversations in the British novel, and its characters have a strong dramatic presence, much of it is inherently un-dramatic and, you might have thought, unfilmable: long interior monologues, descriptions of what characters see and feel; and – perhaps hardest of all to convey in drama – moments when they don’t say what they feel, or do what we might expect of them. Imagine T. S.Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, populated by Chekhovian characters, but set on the Western Front. Continue reading