York St. John English Literature Research Showcase 2020

Adam Kirkbride reflects on the English Literature Research Showcase which took place on the 12th of March 2020.

It is truly an honour and a privilege to be able to say that, for the second year running, I attended the annual English Literature Research Showcase. Writing a response to an event like this is never a chore, as nothing makes me prouder to be a student at York St. John University than observing the passion with which our lecturing staff present their varied and multi-faceted research projects.

Without further ado, here are some brief summaries of the four spectacular presentations that were given on the night.

Dr Fraser Mann – Vinyl Affair

Following the publishing of Music, Memory and Memoir in July 2019 (a collection of essays that combines a critical and creative methodology to examine the connection between nostalgia, music, and memoir writing), Dr Fraser Mann and his colleagues have been wondering one thing: “Where do we go next?” Wherever this would be, the Music Memoir Research Group decided that it was vital to keep their multi-disciplinary methodology at the heart of all they do:

As academics we’re interested in exploring the liminal spaces between scholarly investigations, form, and cultural narratives, but as music fans we’re also interested in the ways that we construct our own cultural selves through engagement with the textual practices in question.

Ultimately, this work asks some key questions about how scholarship creative expression are engaged in dialogue with one another.

Dr Mann has been experimenting with various ideas using the Music Memoir Research Group’s blog space, Twisting my Memory, Man, and shared his thoughts on a recent area of interest: record shopping narratives, examining how “records as a conduit to memory”. The audience were also lucky enough to hear a short excerpt from Vinyl Affair, a creative-critical piece that we can (hopefully) soon find in the Music Memoir Research Group’s next publication.

If you would like to hear more about the Music, Memory, and Memoir project, check out Erin Byrne’s post on Dr Mann’s Words Matter lecture here!

Dr Adam James Smith – The Word “Satire” Matters

Dr Adam James Smith presented a hilariously satirical examination of the modern usage of the word “satire”, focusing in particular on the social and political ramifications of this usage. Usually, Dr Smith works on eighteenth-century print culture, particularly “periodicals that were secretly paid for by political parties (if you can imagine such a thing).” However, in an unexpected variation upon his usual research focus, who did Dr Smith use as a case study? None other than the one and only Prime Minister of Great Britain: Boris Johnson!

Dr Smith compared the literary genre of satire to the discourse around Mr Johnson’s so-called “satire” and found several discrepancies within the usage of the word. For example, rather than using satire as a tool for challenging and discouraging stupidity, Johnson’s usage of the word more often functions as an excuse for external criticisms of his own buffoonery. But can one really be a fool-disparaging fool? This presentation would suggest not.

“What satire definitely isn’t,” Dr Smith notes, “is just saying what you want.” Of course, a politician is allowed to use satire to make a political point, but what Johnson engages in, is certainly NOT satire. The piece that Dr Smith is currently working on examines further when and why are things labelled satire, and how that seemingly innocent word has become a politically loaded term. “Satire is a symptom of a diseased nation” Dr Smith concludes, “and if you’ve been watching the news recently, what are we if not one of those?”

Want to find out more? Check out the “Smith and Waugh Talk About Satire” podcast, available on all major podcast platforms.

Dr Jo Waugh – “When Rachel, Jeremy, and Bella read the Brontës, or When they Didn’t”

The night took another comic turn when Dr Jo Waugh presented the research she has been doing for a piece within an edited collection on The Brontës and the Arts. In particular, research around the act of reading the Brontës within popular culture.

Dr Waugh has been examining the use of Brontë novels within Friends, Peep Show, and the Twilight series. One thing that became apparent within the two comedy series, is that Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, two famous Brontë novels, are novels one should have read, but novels one probably hasn’t read. According to Rachel in Friends, and Jeremy in Peep Show, attempting to read the Brontës is tantamount to torture, readers struggling to read even the shortest passage of text without having to restart (like Jeremy) or abandoning ship altogether (like Rachel). Sure, the novels hold potential for cultural capital, but the real value for these characters comes from the ability to discuss something without having read it, often resorting to blatant plagiarism.

So Peep Show and Friends have limited engagement with the analysis of the text. Surely Twilight is better? Of course not! Dr Waugh reflects on how Meyer uses Wuthering Heights to characterise Bella as a reflective introvert, who has been “reading for pleasure (or narcissistic self-identification) for years.” Ultimately, all the Twilight series seems to offer in its use of the Brontës, is that “once you realise a book is basically all about you, the book accrues some value,” a rather reductive understanding of the texts which is used to justify all sorts of otherwise concerning content. Overall, it’s pretty bleak.

Dr Sarah Lawson-Welsh – Jay Bernard’s Surge

Surge by Jay Bernard, originally a multi-media performance piece which won the Ted Hughes prize for poetry in 2017, catalogs memories of social injustice in and across London. It has also been Dr Sarah Lawson-Welsh’s most recent obsession/research focus!

Dr Lawson Welsh has been examining the Bernard’s text, which looks in part at the similarities between the New Cross fire in 1981 and the 2017 Grenfell Fire, two fires characterised by police cover up, incompetence and insensitivity. Bernard’s poems meditate on the role of memory, trauma, grief and disembodiment. They trouble and haunt history examining “what it means to be haunted by history, and what it means to haunt it back.”

Dr Lawson-Welsh lamented the tribulations of her new exposure to Jacques Derrida, a theorist whom she is not entirely fond of. This exposure, however, proved incredibly rewarding to Dr Lawson-Welsh’s study of hauntology (the study of what it means to be haunted) within this text.

“This is a text that shows and hides.” Dr Lawson-Welsh reflects. What does it mean to follow a ghost? To inscribe? To archive? How does Bernard harness power of poetry to unsettle discourse by inhabiting the voices of the dead and disembodied? This paper, which is set for publication in 2021, promises to be a thoroughly interesting read, putting under a microscope the cost of treating black citizens as statistics.

*  *  *

There are many things that I could say about this event; how inspirational it is to hear such originality, how I came away with a million different ideas and many more books to add to my reading list, how it affirms the choice I made to study English Literature in the first place. All these statements are true. However, I will give the final words of this article to Dr Fraser Mann, whose closing remarks perfectly encapsulated all I could ever want to say on the matter:

I think that what this all shows is that the work we do is an act of resistance. The work we do speaks back to power. The work we do demonstrates that the humanities are more than a football being booted around by political powers, that they are more than a plaything, which I think some other disciplines start to see us as. That the humanities have got a lot to offer in shaping our understanding of the increasingly complex world around us.