After our very successful involvement with the first York International Shakespeare Festival two years ago, YSJU’s English Literature team will again be putting on two events as part of the second YISF programme this May in conjunction with the University of Tehran and YSJU’s Drama and Theatre team. Both events are free but ticketed. Please check the external link regularly as they will be available shortly as the York Theatre Royal adds events to its system. If you would like to get involved as a volunteer, please email Saffron at firstname.lastname@example.org
Shakespeare’s play is a significant demonstration of the deployment of the state apparatus, which never discloses the strategies through which power is imposed. When Coriolanus reveals these strategies, the state, together with those who think order is the only guarantee of survival, literally delete him from society. Hence, Coriolanus reflects the current democratic crisis in our region.
-Adaptors Hamed Asgharzadeh and Javad Ebrahiminezhad
QS/015, York St John University 11.00am – 1.00pm, Tuesday 16 May 2017
Titus Theatre Group, in collaboration with Drama and Theatre at York St John University, offer a workshop based around their production of Coriolanus. The workshop will be led by Hamed Asgharzadeh from Tehran, and David Richmond from the University of York St John.
By Dr Adam J Smith, lecturer in English Literature
The claim that we are living in ‘unprecedented times’ is itself becoming disconcertingly ‘precedented.’ This is perhaps to be expected when we live in a world where Britain’s Foreign Secretary hosted Have I Got Newsfor You and the White House is occupied by the presenter of the American Apprentice.
In 2010, a coalition government seemed unprecedented. So too did the gradual corrosion of health-care services, the dismantling of the arts and culture sectors, the commercialisation of higher education, the rise of foodbanks and record levels of homelessness. Then there’s the close results of the Scottish Referendum, the heady triumph of Jeremy Corbyn, the widely-reported implosion of the Labour party and, of course, the vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Unprecedented is the new precedent.
And now, three years ahead of schedule, there will be a General Election, due to be held just six weeks after it was announced. Not only will this be a challenge for the politicians involved, faced with the unprecedented challenge of condescending three years’ worth of planning into less than the amount of time it takes to broadcast a season of Broadchurch, but this also presents an unprecedented challenge for voters.
Since we all seem to be living in a particularly demented episode of Black Mirror it might be easy to feel like there’s nothing to be done. You may feel like you never get what you vote for. You may feel frustrated and disillusioned. You may feel like it isn’t worth voting because there’s no point. If you feel this, ignore that feeling. You should feel frustrated and you should feel disillusioned, but the only way to assert your will upon government is to vote.
But why keep voting, and who should we vote for anyway? These are good questions, and (as ever) the eighteenth century has the answers.
Eighteenth-Century Guidance on How to be a Good Citizen
Cards on the table, all my research is on the relationship between citizens and the state, and on how that relationship is articulated (and effected) by literature. I work on the long eighteenth century and as part of my PhD I spent a lot of time working on a periodical called The Freeholder, written by a man named Joseph Addison.
Addison too lived in ‘unprecedented times.’ The execution of Charles I by parliament, the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian Succession all remained in living memory and each raised serious structural, institution and existential questions. The emergence of cheap print meant that there was plenty of advice out there on how to vote, and The Freeholder offered just such advice. Published twice a week across 1715-16, Addison’s paper sought to tell property-owning gentleman (the only demographic allowed to vote at the time) what to think about when completing their ballot. Much of this advice remains extremely pertinent today, so here are three things to bear in mind as you march down to your local memorial hall on polling day.
It isn’t about ‘winning’, it is about representation
From the very first issue of The Freeholder Addison refers to his vote as being his ‘remote voice’ in parliament. He writes that ‘the House of commons is the representative of men in my condition. I consider myself as one who gives my consent to every law that passes.’
Addison’s MP represents him. He needs to choose an MP whose interests and agendas closely match his own so that he can then trust this MP to vote and behave in parliament as he would himself. That MP is his ‘remote voice’, making a case in Westminster on Addison’s behalf whilst Addison is at home writing his periodicals.
Crucially, contrary to the way that it is often portrayed in the media, the party who win power during a general election cannot do whatever they want. Everything needs to be debated with everyone else that we voted for, and if they can’t get a majority vote they can’t move forward. We’ve seen a lot of this in the last year. Some people have even suggested that the main reason we’re having a snap election is because the party in power can’t get what they want with the house in its current configuration…
If you vote for a party that doesn’t win, that party doesn’t just disappear. If enough people vote for them they will be represented in the House, which means that they form part of the opposition. They offer an alternative opinion to the party in power and they’ll have to vote, on your behalf, on all these big decisions.
Vote for who best represents you so that those views can be aired in parliament. You’re choosing your own ‘voice’, so choose carefully.
You’re voting for a party, not a prime-minister
In Addison’s Freeholder, the ‘happy tribe of men’ who make up a political party (a slightly loser affiliation that we know today… for now at least) are more important than the person leading them at the time. The principles of the ‘party’ will persist far longer than the individuals representing them at any given time, and this is perhaps useful to bear in mind today, given that in neither Labour or the Conservative currently have the same leader that they had going into the last general election in 2015. As Addison says in The Freeholder, all politicians are but ‘blossoms in the wind’ whilst government itself is an oak, rooted in the earth.
Again, vote for the party that best represents you and try not to get embroiled in ‘personality politics’, another twenty-first phenomenon that Addison warned us about three hundred years ago:
When a man thinks a party engaged in such measures as tend to the ruin of his country, it is certainly very laudable and virtuous action in him to make war after this manner upon the whole body. But as several casuists are of opinion, that in a battle you should discharge upon the gross of the enemy, without levelling your piece at any particular person so in his kind of combat also, I cannot think it fair to aim at any one man, and make his character the mark of your hostilities.
The Freeholder, No. 19 (1716)
Omission is a greater crime than commission
This was the big one for Addison, who explains that ‘the great crime of omission is an indifference in particular members of society.’ He explains throughout The Freeholder than it is in fact worse to not do something right than it is to do something wrong. Addison’s overarching argument is that all citizens entitled to vote have both a duty to remain politically engaged and a personal responsibility to ensure that their MP are representing their interests. Again, this is because according to Addison he has lent his own voice to his chosen MP. He wants his voice using properly. As Addison puts it:
A freeholder is one remove from legislator, and for that reason ought to stand up in the Defence of those Laws which are in some degree his own making.
The Freeholder, No. 1 (1715)
It is stated throughout the Freeholder that it is this connection between citizen and state that constitutes the greatest ‘privilege’ of living in a democratic society. It is, for Addison, what gives the governed power over those who govern and, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.
If a citizen chooses not to be involved in the process and turns away from the business of politics then they no longer have any stake in who represents them in government. Their views, thoughts, attitudes and opinions and lost. As Addison highlights, this is not only their loss, but the loss of anyone else who shares their outlook, who similarly would have benefited from their vote.
What about this snap election?
Quoting Addison is all very well and good but he died in 1719, so what good does it do to read his work now?
Well, you need only look at the Gothic buildings that house our parliament to see that the one thing we can count on to remain unchanged, even in unprecedented times, is the mechanics of government. Addison’s advice to voters, then, remains relevant.
What would Addison want us to remember? Be engaged. Think about who best represents your thoughts, opinions, attitudes and interests and vote for them. Think more about who you want to represent you in parliament than who you foresee as the party in power. Look at the party more closely than you look at the people inside the party and remember, your vote is your voice. If you choose not to vote you have no voice, but if you vote wisely, your voice will be heard in government.
Disclosure notice: Joseph Addison was affiliated with the Whig ministry, a party opposed to the Tories.
This post originally appeared on Adam’s own blog, ‘The View from the Coffee House’, where you can find out more about his research:
After four years as an English Literature student at YSJ, last week I learned that an application I’d made for an intensely competitive PhD scholarship at the University of Nottingham had been successful. I was informed that I will be paid around £15,000 a year to conduct my research, my tuition fees will be waived, and that I can apply for further funding to help organise conferences or for research abroad. I will also be provided with opportunities to teach undergraduate seminars, and because the scholarship is provided by a Doctoral Training Partnership, I can make use of facilities and training across six universities in the Midlands. As I read the email, I scanned for ‘we regret to inform you’ that was surely contained within the response, and couldn’t quite believe it when (after the second time of reading it) I realised I had been successful.
After finding a real passion for Literature during my undergraduate, I applied for an MA in Contemporary Literature at YSJ. Having become part of such a welcoming academic community at the University, and not being sure of which aspect of Literature I wanted to specialise in, the course offered the flexibility of studying a range of genres and theoretical approaches. After what seemed the quickest year of my academic life, I realised that the British Literature module had completely transformed my outlook on the study of fiction and, after choosing to study it further through my Dissertation, my specialisation quickly became clear. We studied a range of British writers from around the country: from the Yorkshire Moors to council estates in North-West London and back up to a care home in Scotland for good measure. The geographical focus of the module was fascinating, and my research in this area formed the basis of what is now my PhD proposal.
Upon finishing the MA with Distinction and a range of appropriate experience under my belt, it seemed too good to be true when a PhD scholarship in British Literature was advertised at a university in the Northeast for the next academic year. I eagerly began work on drafting an application, but when I applied, I wasn’t even called for an interview. At the time I felt as though I had completely overestimated my potential, and had no intention of applying for a PhD again. If I hadn’t, however, I would never have received the offer I’ve just accepted (and a second I’ve since turned down). Since last summer, I’ve been working with academics whose work I studied during my MA (who still feel so famous that I get nervous every time I email them) to develop my proposal, which admittedly, is far more exciting than my original application the previous year.
If I could go back and tell my undergraduate self that this would happen in a few years’ time, I wouldn’t believe it. My aspiration to work in academia has always been shadowed by a doubt of whether I could afford to attend conferences, to take time out of my studies to submit to journals, and support my life away from home, while still maintaining the results I need in an increasingly competitive industry. I now realise that confidence was the only thing that could get in the way of achieving my goal, so if you’re considering a similar career but don’t know where to start (believe me, I had no idea!), book that tutorial with your seminar tutor or dissertation supervisor, ask for their advice, and find out what kind of opportunities are available to you. There’s tonnes out there, but it’s a bit of a minefield if you’re encountering the world of academia for the first time! Everyone at YSJ has been through the process one way or another, and I can say from experience that they are incredibly helpful and happy to provide advice – they are there to support you after all!
I can now say that I am being funded by the AHRC to research a topic I am extremely passionate about. As I prepare for my journey from Masters to PhD student, I am reminded of the unique community I was a part of at YSJ, and of the words of Jeanette Winterson, ‘fictions can change, it’s only the facts that trap us’ that unfailingly remain true.
If you turned on your TV on Tuesday morning, the chances are you weren’t expecting to meet the news of an impending general election. But alas, here we are, in the political minefield of 2017.
As students of literature and creative writing, it is our responsibility not only to react to the changing landscape of UK politics, but to inform it. Today we fear the rising tensions between North Korea and the US, we fear Donald Trump’s clear negligence of the working class, minorities and women of America, we fear the consequences of Brexit. But there comes a time when fear is simply not enough, concerns are not heard, and pessimism holds no impact.
News of the opportunity to vote on our leadership should be met with enthusiasm, rather than fatigue. This is a chance to change the way our country is headed, and potentially to sway away from the sort of politics we consistently see making cuts to the arts, cuts to the disabled, ramping up tuition fees and discussing mental health in regard to company productivity and the economy, rather than individual human beings.
When we study a text, we learn about the time that it was written in and what political events influenced the author. One day, students may well be reading our work and thinking about how Brexit, Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis and Chechnya’s LGBT concentration camps have impacted on our writing. Instead of letting the impact of these times on our writing be deciphered, make them clear. Make them stand for change. Use your platform to hold elected officials accountable for their actions, for their silent disregard of atrocities, of minorities, and of the arts which are so vital not only to us, but to those that will be affected by them.
Use your writing and literary criticism to show that change is needed. And make that change. Register to vote in the next election, and write, whether in allegory, article or essay. The arts are needed now more than ever.
I started applying to universities several years after finishing my A Levels, and one of the biggest concerns for my friends and family was that I’d be forking out nine grand a year to be here. If I’d gone straight after college, I’d have paid nine grand for the full three years. For many, the stark contrast in what students pay for their tuition has brought into question what exactly it is we’re paying for. Well, I’ll tell you.
I’m currently wrapping up the second year of my English Literature and Creative Writing course, and one of the modules I’m finishing this semester, Publishing, Production and Performance, is exemplary of the practical skills you can gain from a literature degree. As part of one of the module projects, I’ve spent the last couple of months organising the launch of Beyond the Walls, an anthology of York St John University student writing. The event was a success and completely sold out. Everyone on that module now has a book they can slap on the desk of potential employers, while they proudly say “I helped craft and create that product, and I have the skills to do it again”.
It seems to me that the anxieties surrounding arts degrees are the result of a widespread lack of awareness for the diversity of the creative industries. Using Beyond the Walls as an example, the text would not exist if its production relied solely on the efforts of writers. It needed to be curated, edited and designed, and it needed a showcase event to launch it to the public. The event needed planning; it needed live music, food, booze, projections and lighting. All this was done by creative writing students, and none of it had anything to do with writing; it was done for the sake of the writing.
The English Literature and Creative Writing course, shockingly, is not always about writing, and its student body is not made up of dreamers, hoping to become the next J.K. Rowling. We are members of the literary community, we are merchants of culture, and we understand that the best way to learn how to do something is to do it. My colleagues and I now know how to publish a book because we’ve done it, and we look forward to doing it again. I can tell my family and friends to put their anxieties at ease; creative writing is a commodity, and the industry has never been more exciting than it is in this bewildering modern age.
The 11th Aesthetica Creative Writing Award is now open for entries, presenting an opportunity for emerging and established writers and poets to showcase their work to new international audiences and further their involvement in the literary world.
£1,000 Poetry Winner
£1,000 Short Fiction Winner
Publication in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual for 60 finalists
Consultation with Redhammer Management (Short Fiction Winner)
Full Membership to The Poetry Society (Poetry Winner)
Selection of books courtesy of Bloodaxe and Vintage
One year subscription to Granta
Short Fiction entries should be no more than 2,000 words. Poetry entries should be no more than 40 lines. Works previously published are accepted.
Finality is defined as the ‘impression of being final and irreversible’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2017). Within today’s society the significance of the final, and transition from the familiar into a world of change, is particularly poignant. The Brexit vote in June, and the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, has instigated an upsurge of hatred, vitriol and prejudice. From the horrifying increase in terror attacks all over the world, to the harrowing treatment of refugees reported in the media of the past year, some of us may feel the world we live in is becoming somewhat unrecognisable, and regressing into a haunting ideology of truly dangerous values.
Whilst the world we once knew is under the thumb of violence the necessity to resist, and challenge, these ideas has never been so important. As postgraduate literature students, we are finishing our education in a deeply troubling time; therefore, the importance of the arts and humanities is greater than ever to encourage resistance through new dialogues, voices and literatures. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950 William Faulkner spoke of the ‘inexhaustible voice’ of man and ‘the writer’s duty to write’. ‘The poet’s voice’ continues Faulkner, ‘need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail’ (Faulkner, 1950) accentuating the powerful, and vital, nature of the written word. The study of literature permeates our barriers, activates a space in which to question, critique, write back and teaches us to never stop asking questions. Such ability to evoke change can, we hope, interrogate the concept of finality and introduce new dialogues as a response to harmful and prejudicial ideas.
We are holding a one-day conference at York St. John University, on June 6th 2017, entitled The Book Closes: Finality in Contemporary Literature in which we aim to reflect on and respond to a number of issues in current literature surrounding finality, addressing and challenging its irreversible quality. Please send abstracts of 200-300 words to email@example.com by Wednesday 5th of April. Link to CFP: https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/cfp/2017/01/30/the-book-closes-finality-in-contemporary-literature
Literature and Creative Writing students may be interested in applying for the following opportunity:
The University of Bristol Theatre Collection is delighted to announce that applications are open for the Kevin Elyot Award. This annual award will support a promising writer by enabling them to be resident in the Theatre Collection and begin the process of creating a new work inspired by Kevin’s archive, which may be a dramatic, creative or academic piece of writing
It comprises £3,000 to fund the residency for four weeks (which may be consecutive or split), and will also offer support with research and public dissemination of the work. The award has been generously funded by an endowment given to the University by members of Kevin’s family.
Kevin Elyot (1951 to 2014) was a Bristol alumnus (Drama Department) who started his career as an actor, but went on to achieve great success through his ground-breaking plays and adaptations. The Kevin Elyot Archive is held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, and comprises scripts, correspondence, manuscript and publicity material detailing Kevin’s working process from initial idea to finished product. His process for adapting novels for television is well documented in the archive. Whilst, the content relating to his plays, including the seminal My Night with Reg, demonstrates his creative process and the particular emphasis he placed on the importance of style and form within a play.
It is hoped the award will celebrate Kevin’s life and work and the influence he has had on theatre and, through it, will enable a new generation of writers to find creative inspiration in the archive.
As part of York’s LGBT History Month in February an array of events took place around the city. On the evening of 13th February, York St John hosted a free film screening of Kate Bornstein: A Queer and Pleasant Danger. On entry to Fountains Lecture Theatre, Dr Adam Stock and Dr Kimberley Campanello welcomed everyone to free refreshments. With a glass of red, a few friends and myself took our seats and waited to sit and learn about a woman called Kate Bornstein.
And, well, I came out of it with 103 questions.
My head was spinning off its axis and I couldn’t quite pin down what emotion it was that I was feeling. The friends that came to the screening with me felt the same and as we sat and discussed our thoughts, we pondered on whether it was the documentary that confused us or the wine we were slowly sipping away at.
On entrance to the screening we had been handed feedback questionnaires to fill in. The opening question on the sheet gave four options for gender. You could tick: 1. Male 2. Female 3. Non-Binary 4. Not Listed as Above
What does it mean to be non-binary? Can you be something that isn’t male or female? That’s two questions.
Then as the film proceeded, terms came flying at me from all directions: gender queer; gender fluid; ambisexual; asexual; demi sexual and sapiosexual. What do these mean? Which one am I? Am I supposed to know these meanings? There’s another three questions – I’ve at least another 98 more I could list.
Kate Bornstein was a woman I’d never met before. Sorry, not a woman, not a man, but someone who identifies as “a tranny”. Not transsexual or transgender, but a tranny. Kate Bornstein has reasons for this controversial decision; “there’s a big battle going on between trannies who want to call themselves tranny and there’s trannies who don’t want to call themselves a tranny. I’m a tranny who does want to call herself a tranny. I use the word tranny a lot in my memoir. I’m just saying.” I searched, and the word “tranny” is said 17 times in the documentary. It’s a term that I had previously associated with being quite offensive.
Kate Bornstein was once a young male Jew, and became a Scientologist in her twenties. Years later, she is now a “tranny” – and still Jewish. She has tattoos and piercings. She always wears a bandanna around her head. It looks pretty good. A crucifix always hangs around her neck. She’s crude. Her identity is playful. She is a performer. An avid tweeter. She has lung cancer. And she is transgender and lesbian.
Those are the things I now know. Oh, and she has a golden penis mounted in her lounge as an ornament.
This documentary showed me a lifestyle in the LGBT+ community that I believe sits at a unique position in the spectrum. Tony Ortega writes in the The Village Voice that, “Bornstein has managed to both anger and delight most camps in the LGBTQ universe.” Well, I’m not surprised. If I was to sit and boil a brew with this woman, I’m not sure how long I’d last. Without having met her, just by sitting and watching her through a screen for an hour and a half, (note: with wine), I can tell that her opinions lie always on the tip of her lips. And most of the time I bet they end up sliding off. Now, this is to be envied. Opinions are too often suppressed, leading to lack of communication and misunderstanding. However, as I sat and watched, I empathize that some people in the LGBT+ community must find her vocalization difficult to handle. She has a fire most people don’t see in the day-to-day. She is strong-minded. Bold. Like Marmite.
The documentary shows Bornstein travelling to support groups and LGBTQ gatherings, showing her equally at home discussing gender and sexuality in the context of university seminar rooms or in sex shops. You get the feeling no topic of conversation is ever off-limits, no matter what the venue. Looking into Bornstein’s world is an eye-opening experience.
My main emotion leaving this documentary was pure confusion. I couldn’t pin-point exactly how the documentary had made me feel. But, the truth is, that Kate Borstein is just a spoonful of Marmite that I’ve never tried before. Her controversial opinions and bold outright statements highlighted just how little I knew about her community and the community of many others.
If you are like me, and you haven’t had the chance to know someone in this community or learn about it through school, the head of the YSJ LGBT+ society, Shannon Clay, provided me with some links that I’ll share below. Acquaint yourself with the knowledge. As Claire Fagin once said, “Knowledge will bring you the opportunity to make a difference.”
The scheme will be advertising paid summer internship opportunities exclusively available for York St John students and graduates to intern at North Yorkshire-based Small–Medium Enterprises (SME).
With funding available from York St John University and in partnership with the Sodexo Aspiration Scheme, the subsidised funding will support the training allowance for York St John students or recent graduates to work as interns with small-medium-sized businesses for 4, 8 or 12 weeks full-time during the 2017 summer vacation period (June – September).
Internships will be available in a range of sectors including:
IT and Digital
Creative and Digital
Business and Finance
Social Media and Marketing
The launch events will be held in our new Students’ Union Cafe.
8.00am – Arrive for tea, coffee and bacon sandwiches
8.15am – Opening presentation by Jo Burgess, Careers and Student Opportunities Manager
Hear from previous interns and employer about their experiences and there will be the opportunity for questions and networking
9.30am – Finish
5.30pm – Arrive for drinks and canapes
5.45pm – Opening presentation by Jo Burgess, Careers and Student Opportunities Manager
Hear from previous interns and employers about their experiences and there will be the opportunity for questions and networking
7.00pm – Finish
Expressions of interest from students are open now!
You will need to submit your CV, and a tailored cover letter online for each application you make.
Follow us on social media to hear about each role as it goes live. You can find us by clicking on the links to Twitter and Facebook or by searching YSJJobsCareers.
You will need to be eligible to work in the UK full-time during the internship. If you are on a visa, your visa must cover the full duration of the internship.
It is the student’s responsibility to ensure they are eligible for the scheme and comply with York St John University sponsorship duties and visa regulations before submitting an application. It is the responsibility of the business to check their intern’s eligibility to work in the UK taking into account the above regulations.
Internships can be anything between 4 and 12 weeks, with a starting date anytime from the 5th June 2017 ending 1st September 2017.
Prepare: Register your interest now! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your course name, course year and preferred email address to be added onto the Student Internship mailing list.
Perfect: When you know which internships you want to apply for, you might want to book in for an Applications Appointment to make sure your application documents are competitive with other applicants’.
Each employer will receive a shortlist of the best applications for their role. They will then invite York St John students and graduates to interview.
Prospective interns should know if they have a place on the scheme by mid-May, so please bear this in mind when making holiday plans.
Once the employer has made an internship offer and you have accepted that offer, York St John Careers will send both you the intern, and the employer, an agreement letter each to fill in and return to York St John. Please note that funding for the internship will not be released to the organisation until these completed letters are returned.
NOTE FOR THOSE WHO ARE ALREADY IN CONTACT WITH A COMPANY ABOUT AN INTERNSHIP:
If you are already in contact with a small-medium-sized company who is hoping to offer a summer internship to you, which would benefit from some financial assistance, please encourage them to contact us by sending an email to Suzanne Dickinson email@example.com
The proposal form we will ask all companies to complete about their vacancy will ask the question of whether they already have a student or graduate in mind to hire. If the company and the internship proposed meet our criteria, the internship will be reserved funding without having to be advertised.
York LGBT History Month 2017 runs from 31 January to 28 February, and is packed full of great events. With support from the School of Humanities, Philosophy and Theology, and the YorkYSJ Staff LGBT Network, we’re running two events:
6 February, Eagle and Child Pub, 12.30pm
Dr Adam Stock (lecturer in English Literature) and Dr Kimberly Campanello (lecturer in Creative Writing) are hosting “Lunch Poems”.
Taking its name from gay New York poet Frank O’Hara’s celebrated collection ‘Lunch Poems’ (1964), Kimberly and Adam will host a lunch time discussion and reading group of poetry on LGBT themes, over lunch. Poems will be circulated in advance to ticket holders, but you do not need any previous experience or knowledge of poetry to take part in the discussion. Tickets are free, but do NOT include food.
Trailblazing performance artist-theorist-activist Kate Bornstein takes us on a mind-bending quest through her world dismantling gender and seeking answers to the age-old question: What makes life worth living?
An award-winning documentary by director Sam Feder
All good things come to an end some day, even undergraduate study. Around this time of year, a certain anxiety begins to nag at the minds of many third years: what to do with life after university.
If you’re keen to continue into postgraduate education, or you’re not sure what you want to do but you’d like to explore all of the options available to you come along to the Postgraduate Study Fair 2017.
The informal, drop in event will take place on Wednesday 22nd February 4 – 7pm and its open to current students and the wider public. The venue for the event is Quad South Hall / Foyer and surrounding break out rooms.
Campus tours by student ambassadors will be available throughout the evening, as will members of admissions, support and finance teams for attendants who may have these types of questions.
Our business is representation. Whether we be literary scholars, films scholars or creative writers, our business is always representation. Events happen, ideals or anxieties emerge, they get represented, and then we study (or create) the representation. First comes reality, then comes representation. Of course, if you’re half-way through a degree in English, Media or Creative writing you already know that it is never really that easy.
Thinking like this assumes that there exists a dichotomy between reality and representation, between fiction and non-fiction, between the real and the hyper-real. We should always be sceptical of any apparent binary and of this one in particular. One cause for scepticism is that it presumes a chain of influence that only goes one way: something happens and people write about it. Real world stuff becomes fictional stuff. Science becomes science fiction. But what happens when fiction starts to inform reality? What happens when what we imagine informs our lived experience? What happens when science-fiction has an impact on science? Nowhere is there a better example of that, I don’t think, than in robotics.
This was the opening premise of a lecture that I gave earlier this week on ‘2EN440: Imaginary Worlds’, a second-year optional module about science fiction. The module is taken by students on the English, Media and Creative Writing programmes who this week were reading Villiers de L’isle-Adam’s The Future Eve (1886) and watching Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015).
Over the course of the lecture I referred to an awful lot of films and TV shows (even for me!). Subsequently a few students have asked me to recap everything I recommended, so I’ve written the list up at the bottom of this post.
Before starting your way down the list (make sure you have provisions to hand, it may take some time) let me just give you some context for these suggestions, just in case you didn’t see the lecture itself.
During the lecture, I sought to foreground the peculiar relationship between the fictional robots that saturate our popular culture and the actual robotics industry. After familiarising ourselves with the ‘pop culture’ robot in the form of the Forbidden Planet’s famous Robbie we considered the frustrated perspective of roboticist Joanna Bryson. In her controversial essay ‘Robots Should be Slaves’ Bryson argues that the robotics industry is inhibited by the misguided notion that robots are owed some sort of ethical obligation, a misconception that she blames on science fiction.
The representation of the robot as slave has been there from the very beginning. Karel Capek’s play R.U.R (1921), which stands for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, is often acknowledged as the first popular use of the word ‘robot’ in the sense that we recognise it today, and here it is the Czech word for ‘slave.’ The play essentially stages a slave uprising, with factory robots rebelling against their human masters. Elsewhere literary scholar Gregory Hampton has successfully foregrounded the similarities between American Slave narratives and common robot narratives, a point rendered startlingly overt when comparing a text like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) with Issac Assimov’s Positronic Man (1992), later adapted into the movie The Bicentennial Man (1999).
Hampton finds such treatments of the robot (both inside and outside of fiction) profoundly disturbing. When a relationship is recognisably one of master/slave, regardless of whether the slave is human or robot, born or formed, physical or fictional, there will be harmful psychological side-effects. Hampton stresses that it doesn’t really matter if robots have feelings or not, the question is: how will engaging with robots change us, and what we consider acceptable behavior?
In both of the texts studied by Imaginary Worlds students this week, The Future Eve and Ex Machina, this question is explored through the treatment of robots who are clearly coded as female. In fact, it is central to a series of questions raised by a huge range of science fiction texts interested in what it means to have sex with ‘female’ robots. Can you truly have sex with a robot? Where do you draw the lines of consent? How must you think of robots to want to have sex with them? And, what are the psychological effects on the participating human?
We get a disturbing contemplation of this in Ex Machina, as Domhall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith slowly discovers what Nathan Bateman has been doing with all of the robots on his island, becoming increasingly sadistic in his behaviours as he goes from having sex with the robots to torturing them, only to eventually be killed by the robot Ava in an act that lends itself very openly to a reading in which she is taking cathartic revenge on her depraved abuser. And, just like that, we’re back to slavery again: the common narrative of the megalomaniac slave master who, drunk on the power he holds over other subservient humans, becomes increasingly cruel, killing and raping his own slaves in an overflow of nihilistic and hedonistic violence.
So, what can we take from this? Well, first the idea that when it comes to robotics, for better or worse, the representation can clearly be seen to dictate the reality. Perhaps the most important question is not about whether people should or shouldn’t treat robots badly but about why it is that people feel compelled to treat them badly.
And second, you can take from it the a hugely ambitious list of things to watch, detailed below.
Gregory Hampton, Imagining Slaves and Robots in Literature, Film and Popular Culture (2015)
Joanna Bryson, Robots should be slaves, IN: Close engagements with artificial companions (2010)
Watch list (in the order that they appeared in the lecture)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, dir. by Garth Jennings (2005)
Prometheus, dir. by Ridley Scott (2012)
Robocop, dir. by Paul Verhoeven (1987)
Short Circuit, dir. by John Badham (1986)
I, Robot, dir. by Alex Proyas (2004)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, dir. by J. J. Abrams (2015)
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, dir. by George Lucas (1977)
Wall-E, dir. by Andrew Stanton (2008)
Transformers, dir. by Michael Bay (2007)
Interstellar, dir. by Christopher Nolan (2014)
The Black Hole, dir. by Gary Nelson (1979)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence, dir. by Steven Spielberg (2001)
Lost in Space, dir. by Stephen Hopkins (1998)
Aliens, dir. by James Cameron (1986)
Alien, dir. by Ridley Scott (1979)
The Day the Earth Stood Still, dir. by Robert Wise (1951)
The Terminator, dir. by James Cameron (1984)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, dir. by James Cameron (1991)
The Forbidden Planet, dir. by Fred Wilcox (1956)
The Bicentennial Man, dir. by Chris Columbus (1999)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Terminator: Salvation, dir. by McG (2009)
Metropolis, dir. by Fritz Lang (1927)
Austen Powers, dir. by Jay Roach (1997)
Blade Runner, dir. by Ridley Scott (1982)
Ex Machina, dir. by Alex Garland (2014)
Weird Science, dir. by John Hughes (1985)
The Matrix, dir. by Lana and Lily Wachowski (1999)
Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Mamoru Oshii (1995)
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, dir. by Kenji Kawai (2004)
Ghost in the Shell, dir. by Rupert Sanders (2017)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
Red Dwarf (1988-)
Doctor Who (1952-)
Lost in Space (1965-68)
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981)
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
Kraftwerk: representing the robot community since 1978. Fair use, Link
After managing to swipe the last tickets to see ‘Arrival’ with the Imaginary Worlds module, I was stoked to see some sci-fi that wasn’t a reboot (and for free, too!). Having only seen 30-second trailers for the film, I’d assumed it would follow your average ‘defeat the evil aliens!’ storyline. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that ‘Arrival’ focused on communication and language, rather than big guns and all-out war.
The film opens with a voiceover by the protagonist, Dr Louise Bank’s (Amy Adams), in which she considers where her daughter’s story really begins. Usually I’m a bit adverse to voiceovers. But by the end of Arrival, it is clear that these are the glue that holds the cyclical narrative together. Louise’s stream of consciousness is the key to understanding a complex narrative, revolving around bootstrap paradoxes and communication barriers.
Louise’s character is certainly well developed. She is such a talented linguist that she is asked by the military to visit a spacecraft, or ‘shell’, within two days of its sudden appearance. Two days, it’s worth noting, in which she continues to attend university to give lectures to empty classrooms. Of course, she’d be damned if giant squids from space disrupted her teaching schedule.
It is a shame that Louise is the only female main character – in fact, one of the only female characters present. This causes the film to fail the Bechdel test, a flaw that is also shared by director Villeneuve’s 2015 film, Sicario. Indeed, one of the funniest moments in the film comes when Louise interrupts a trigger-happy soldier with the quip, ‘why do I have to talk to him?’
Ian Donnelly, on the other hand, proves that slapping some glasses on Jeremy Renner is enough to constitute a scientist. Whilst his friendship (and inevitable romantic arc) with Louise is great fun to watch, watching a physicist refuse to do any actual physics is rather concerning. Especially when his primary response to intense gravitational distortion is a mere stumble, without a sign of fascination.
The film shares many elements with the psychological horror ‘The Babadook’, increasingly dependent on dreams, sleep deprivation and hallucination to create a sense of unreliability. These elements are ultimately manifestations of Louise’s mindset adapting to the Heptapod language. A language which is complex, palindromic and resembles tea-rings so much it’s a shame the humans couldn’t introduce them to coasters.
The scenes of communication between the Heptapods, affectionately nicknamed Abbot and Costello, are arguably the best moments of the film. ‘Arrival’ spends majority of its run-time attempting to establish discussion with aliens behind misted glass, pushing back military action all the while. This feels particularly prevalent in our society, which is reluctant to embrace discussion with minorities and refugees, fogging up these issues with misleading media representations and fear of the unknown.
It is hard to deny that the film is gorgeous. Louise’s house is like the Cullen’s, all glass and view. The soundtrack, finely composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, mixes dread and child-like wonder through acapella acoustics and daunting basslines. The twelve spaceships hovering above the Earth’s surface resemble Airwick’s attempts to make air fresheners in keeping with minimalist decor. Or, if you prefer, very large eggs. There is barely any Michael Bay style explosion flaunting. Yet, where scenes depict changes in gravitational force, and the Heptapods themselves, the film shows a subtle ability to create intriguing visuals with little displays of incongruity.
‘Arrival’ was an intriguing film. I’ve avoided spoiling the ending in this review, because I really believe it’s worth watching for yourself. Although the film did leave me with a lot more questions than answers (which you can see here [spoilers]), perhaps this is the point. After all, isn’t it better to leave the cinema with big, existential questions than none at all?
Ebor Teaching Schools Alliance will be on campus on Tuesday 29th November to run a panel session. The focus of the event will be to inform students of their options regarding teaching training, and specifically the Schools Direct route.
Ebor Teaching Schools Alliance offer both Primary and Secondary Schools Direct programmes.
The panel will take place in Quad South Hall between 2pm and 3pm. Interested students can book their tickets by following this link.