Though I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to submit something to this conference, it looks like a very tempting post-summer project. You can find the original abstract here.
SIIBS and The Centre for the History of the Gothic are pleased to announce an interdisciplinary one day conference exploring the theme ‘Gothic Bible’. Since the creation of the Gothic genre in 1764, religion and the Bible have proved to be major influences on Gothic fiction, and our event aims to explore this important and enduring relationship. The conference will take place at the University of Sheffield on Tuesday 31st October 2017.
This event is part of the Gothic Bible project, which is an ongoing research theme at SIIBS and in partnership with The Centre for the History of the Gothic and The University of Auckland. The project seeks to explore the relationship between the Bible, theologies, and the Gothic, and we hope to encourage existing and new academic interest in this area. We welcome papers that examine the Bible, religion, and theology within the Gothic—including but not limited to: novels, plays, poems, films, TV shows of any period—as well as papers that examine passages or narratives within the Bible or other religious texts that can be read through a Gothic lens. We welcome and encourage papers that approach this theme using interdisciplinary methods.
The Gothic Bible conference is open to researchers from any level (including, but not limited to, undergraduates, postgraduates, and Early Career Researchers) and from any discipline. We invite the submission of abstracts of no more than 250 words to be sent to GothicBible@sheffield.ac.uk along with a short bio. The deadline for submissions is Monday 14th August.
Topics may include, but are not limited to:
Theological explorations in Gothic texts
Gothic readings of Biblical passages or narratives
Gothic appropriations and adaptations of biblical characters and narratives
Depictions of The Wandering Jew, Lilith, or other mythological/religious characters
Depictions of religious communities and identities within Gothic fiction
Biblical vampires and other supernatural characters and phenomena
Biblical influences in contemporary horror film and TV
Apocalypse and End Times narratives
In conjuction with this event, and as part of the Gothic Bible project, Sheffield Gothic will also be hosting an ongoing Gothic Bible blog series exploring the broad theme of ‘Gothic Bible.’ As always, blog posts can be an informal and fun way to explore a topic that interests you, whether it be through a TV series, a film, a book, or a particular bible passage, narrative, or character. Extensive knowledge of the Bible, Biblical Studies, or the Gothic is not required – so if you want to explore the Gothic Bible theme, and want to blog for the Gothic Bible series, get in touch!
The PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.
After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.
Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.
This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.
Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.
Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.
The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.
The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.
Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.
This week’s post may at first blush seem entirely unrelated to my research on monsters, mashups, and popular culture, but it has more to do with these topics than you might think.
It will also blow your mind.
A number of years ago I discovered that a member of my immediate family could not visualise things in their mind, or bring to mind what something tasted or sounded like. We both assumed that this was a well-documented phenomenon, like colour-blindness or other altered perceptions. Last year, we learned that no one had actually bothered to study it before, and that it apparently affects a surprisingly large number of people – perhaps one in fifty. It’s called ‘aphantasia’, literally ‘without mental image’.
If you tell me to imagine a beach, I ruminate on the “concept” of a beach. I know there’s sand. I know there’s water. I know there’s a sun, maybe a lifeguard. I know facts about beaches. I know a beach when I see it, and I can do verbal gymnastics with the word itself.
But I cannot flash to beaches I’ve visited. I have no visual, audio, emotional or otherwise sensory experience. I have no capacity to create any kind of mental image of a beach, whether I close my eyes or open them, whether I’m reading the word in a book or concentrating on the idea for hours at a time—or whether I’m standing on the beach itself.
Ross’s writing process is equally interesting to those of us who are used to imagining a scene by visualising it. In the (rather lengthy) excerpt below, he describes how he imagines scenes when he is writing general prose:
First I think of a noun in my milk voice: cupcake. Then I think of a verb: cough. Finally an adjective: hairy. What if there was a hairy monster that coughs out cupcakes? Now I wonder how he feels about that. Does he wish he was scarier? Is he regulated by the FDA? Does he get to subtract Weight Watchers points whenever he coughs? Are his sneezes savory or sweet? Is the flu delicious?
If I don’t like the combination of words I’ve picked, I keep Mad Libbing until the concept piques my interest.
This has always struck me as an incredibly inefficient way to imagine things, because I can’t hold the scene in my mind. I have to keep reminding myself, “the monster is hairy” and “the sneeze-saltines are sitting on a teal counter.” But I thought, maybe that’s just how it is.
Overall, I find writing fiction torturous. All writers say this, obviously, but I’ve come to realize that they usually mean the “writing” part: They can’t stop daydreaming long enough to put it on the page. I love the writing and hate the imagining, which is why I churn out 50 dry essays for every nugget of fiction.
Perhaps my favourite part of Ross’s account is where he explains how hard he found it to believe that a ‘mind’s eye’ actually existed:
Even after the Exeter study, I was certain that what we had here was a failure to communicate. You say potato, I say potato. Let me be clear: I know nobody can see fantastical images through their actual eyes. But I was equally sure nobody could “see” them with some fanciful “mind’s eye,” either. That was just a colorful figure of speech, like “the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s pajamas.”
For Ross, it was the people who could picture things in their minds who were unusual. ‘Imagine your phone buzzes with breaking news’, he writes. ‘WASHINGTON SCIENTISTS DISCOVER TAIL-LESS MAN. Well then what are you?’
U. Exeter’s Adam Zeman, who coined the term last year, remains adamant that aphantasia is ‘not a disorder’, though ‘it makes quite an important difference to their experience of life because many of us spend our lives with imagery hovering somewhere in the mind’s eye which we inspect from time to time, it’s a variability of human experience.’
‘We have known of the existence of people with no mind’s eye for more than a century’, writes the New Scientist:
In 1880, Francis Galton conducted an experiment in which people had to imagine themselves sitting at their breakfast table, and to rate the illumination, definition and colouring of the table and the objects on it. Some found it easy to imagine the table, including Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin, for whom the scene was “as distinct as if I had photos before me”. But a few individuals drew a total blank.
Zeman’s speculation about whether the ‘mind’s eye’ is a key part of human experience is part of what interests me so much about the condition. What perception do we define as human perception, and how do we account for natural variability in that perception? Are the people who saw a gold and white dress somehow less ‘human’ than those who saw a black and blue dress? Ross comments on this question as well:
I think what makes us human is that we know we’re the galactic punchline, but we can still laugh at the setup. The cosmos got me good on this one. How beautiful that such electrical epiphany is not just the province of the child. And were the bee’s knees real, too? And have the cats worn pajamas all along?
Are people who can’t picture things ‘inhuman’ or ‘disabled’ in some way. Of course not, you’re probably thinking, but why does their existence (or ours, from Ross’s perspective) surprise us so much? Furthermore, how do they then consume popular culture, which is intensely reliant on familiar modes of phantasia, and what does a piece of art geared towards a person with aphantasia look like? For me the question immediately becomes: ‘How many people with aphantasia are working in the arts, and how many have sat before me in an English Literature classroom?’
The answer potentially has huge implications for the humanities, and as someone teaching in English Literature I wonder how effective our current methods of approaching reading and meaning actually are. When I mentioned the condition to my colleagues at Cardiff University, many jokingly responded with something along the lines of: ‘What, you mean someone without an imagination?’A recent article by Mo Costandi in the Guardian explores the potential impact of aphantasia on education. He writes:
One study shows that using mental imagery helps primary school pupils learn and understand new scientific words, and that their subjective reports of the vividness of their images is closely related to the extent to which imagery enhances their learning. Visualisation techniques are also helpful for the teaching and learning of mathematics and computer science, both of which involve an understanding of the patterns within numbers, and creating mental representations of the spatial relationships between them.
While Costandi’s article is fascinating, the title (‘If you can’t imagine things, how can you learn?’) is poorly found. People with aphantasia still imagine things, they just do so very differently than people without aphantasia. Their experience is not inherently less rich, or less creative. It is simply rich and creative in a way the rest of us cannot imagine.
The article essentially concludes the same thing – aphantasia is not a disability in any traditional sense:
“We know that children with aphantasia tend not to enjoy descriptive texts, and this may well influence their reading comprehension,” says neurologist Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter who, together with his colleagues, gave the condition its name last year. “But there isn’t any evidence directly linking it to learning disabilities yet.”
While it’s good to know that aphantasia doesn’t affect reading comprehension more generally, current evidence says little about how metaphorical language is perceived. Descriptive passages in novels may be out, but what kinds of description? My aphantasiac family member is an avid reader, and passages like this one, from the opening of Iain Banks’ A Song of Stone (1997), are no problem:
So comparing things to ideas still seems to carry impact and emotion, while comparing things to other things, as in the opening passage of Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1985), becomes more problematic:
The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.
The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.
This is part of what Adam Zeman’s AHRC project, ‘The Eye’s Mind’, aims to discover, but I suspect there’s enough work on this subject to go around for a good long while. I would be fascinated to know if any of you reading this identify as aphantastic, especially if you happen to work in the arts or creative industries. You can take an abridged version of the aphantasia test at this link.
Or, better yet, let me know if any of you are researchers at Cardiff, Exeter, Bristol or Bath, and would want to set up a GW4-funded project with me to explore these questions. (You can also contact Adam Zeman about his neurological research into aphantasia at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
As you may already have heard, the internet was livid with rage on Monday, after Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones accused Terry Pratchett of being a mediocre writer who pens ‘ordinary potboilers’. Perhaps the most prominently featured response came from Sam Jordison. Crucially, Jones casually admits that he has never read Pratchett himself, and Jordison chides Jones for this admission, arguing that ‘[t]he moral weight that Jonathan Jones says is missing from the Discworld novels is very much there – but to know this, you do actually have to read them’.
The Literature Problem
Much ink has already been spilt by others in response to Jones’s article, but I’m interested in the discussion for what might be a different reason than most. For me, the debate over whether or not Terry Pratchett is guilty of literature is moot. The answer will invariably be either yes or no, depending on the individual reader’s perspective. This is fine. I personally adore the Discworld series, and think it has merit on many levels, but I’m not really bothered about whether it’s literature or not. What interests me is how we (both the highly educated and the popular readers) can still talk about what makes ‘literature’ and not first answer one immediately important question: when we say that a work is moving, or artful, or can ‘enrich the very fabric of reality’, who is it effecting in this way? With which group of people does a text need to be popular in order to be considered ‘literature’, and where does this group exist in relation to other groups in the cultural spectrum? There are literatures and there are literatures, and, as a Facebook friend of mine aptly put it:
Resolving the conundrum by implying that you somehow just “know” which works are classics – let’s get real, let’s not fool ourselves – takes us back to New Criticism’s obsession with discovering the intrinsic value of works.
I’ll have my criticism 21st century, thank you very much.
This is where Jones goes most wrong, though to be fair his 500-word article is more clickbait than criticism. Provoked by the public response to Pratchett’s recent death, Jones argues that ‘middlebrow’ writers like Pratchett are drawing the attention from where it belongs – with ‘real literature’:
Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.
Like many champions of the traditional Western canon, Jones buys into the concept of creative genius. He also invests literature with that special je ne sais quoi that is paradoxically both transcendent and timeless, and down-to-earth, or quintessentially human. Even more problematically, Jones equates literature with a particular kind of pleasure, where only a particular kind of intellectual investment can offer real rewards:
Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.
As Damien Walter (who also happens to be a Guardian columnist) points out, even if the ‘difference between serious and light reading’ isn’t entirely arbitrary, shifting from decade to decade, the real issue lies with the fact that the power to decide what belongs in each category rests in the hands of an unjust and undeserving elite:
Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan [sic] Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.
When we discuss ‘literature’ as a category or as an institution, we need to be wary of the very terms of the conversation. If we’re honest, the indefensible values Jones defends still dominate Western culture as a whole. Literature in particular is still built on the repression and exploitation of poor, female, and minority voices. Who do the texts Jones champions empower, and who is empowered by Pratchett’s work? At the end of the day, that is the most important question, although the answer is rarely so straightforward.
The ongoing debate about ‘literature’ and literariness actually reminds me of a Terry Pratchett novel. Like Walter, one of my favourite Discworld instalments is Small Gods (1992). It tells the story of Brutha, eighth prophet of a once-great god named Om. Most of Om’s followers don’t really believe in him anymore, but they keep his institutions around because they represent a useful way to hang on to their power. Brutha is quite possibly Om’s last believer. Though Om is fading away, and only has enough strength to manifest himself as a turtle, Brutha persists in believing that his god’s actions are driven by careful consideration and divine knowledge rather than necessity. You can find a nice analysis of the plot here.
In addition to being incredibly funny, the novel is at once a wry satire of organised religion, and an honest exploration of belief. I could draw quotes from any number of Discworld novels to defend Terry Pratchett’s ‘literariness’ (in whatever sense), but if Small Gods weren’t overtly addressing religion, it could easily be read as a metaphor for the literary establishment rather than a religious one. Likewise, you can interpret this metaphor as coming down either for or against Jones’s defence of ‘real literature’.
Like Om, Pratchett may not always be driven by divine forces, or by the particular brand of aesthetics to which Jones subscribes, but this clearly does not diminish the impact he has had on a vast group of people. They continue to believe in power of Pratchett’s work, and for me, this makes all the difference. As poet and critic Ian Darda points out in an excellent article on contemporary conceptual writing (which exists at another focal point in the ‘literature’ debate), power over a text’s meaning has always resided with context, not with the author, the reader, or even the text itself.
I won’t spoil Small Gods for you – provided you promise to go (re-)read it! – but it feels appropriate to let Pratchett’s work and parables speak for themselves. So without further ado, in the light of this discussion here are some of my favourite Small Gods quotes:
“There’s no point in believing in things that exist.”
(Terry Pratchett. Small Gods. London: Corgi, 2013, p.287)
Their listening was like a huge pit waiting for his words to fill it. The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy, but they were listening in gibberish.
“Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place.”
“Life in this world,” he said, “is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, ‘Go on, do Deformed Rabbit…it’s my favorite.”
This week I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out which literary monster mashups had been translated into which languages, as well as how and by whom. This turned up all kinds of interesting information – for example that Quirk’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters are the most widely translated (which I sort of expected), and that other languages have their own original monster mashups (which I didn’t). Another interesting bit of data I turned up is that mashup translators often approach the comic mixing of styles and genres in a way similar to mashup artists like Seth Grahame-Smith, Ben H. Winters, or Sherri Browning Erwin: they turn to an older version of the canonical text in their own language.
Literary translation is challenging enough on its own. What happens when you’re not only dealing with an author’s style, but another translator’s as well? The following is an excerpt from a blog post by the Dutch translator of Pride en Prejudice en Zombies, Maarten van der Werf, who had previously translated work by Karen Armstrong and Edward Said. I’ve transposed it into English and reposted it here (modified with links and images), with the gracious permission of both the author and Amsterdam’s Athenaeum bookshop:
‘A lot of people thought it was a kind of sacrilege – that someone would dare to tackle a classic like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that way. That was the reason I got the job: the person who was originally asked didn’t think much of the project, and approached me instead. Since I’m not averse to iconoclasm, and also enjoy the odd brush with ninjas and swords, I decided to take the job.
In spirit, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a parody: Austen’s narrative has been adjusted and bits have been added, though the storyline and text remain largely unaltered. Naturally this doesn’t hold true everywhere, starting with the book’s opening paragraph [Dutch translation here]:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.
The Victorian [sic] setting has been changed slightly: England has been stricken by a zombie plague. The undead keep multiplying, immersing the country in an ongoing struggle for its very existence. The renowned Bennet sisters have also been recruited to the war, which they wage with flint muskets and Oriental combat techniques. The result is hilarious, because the fuss about whether or not Elizabeth will marry the mysterious Mr. Darcy remains largely intact. Emphasis on “largely”.
As Seth Grahame-Smith – the evil genius behind this project – made changes and additions to the original story, I too worked in an older translation of Pride and Prejudice [Trots en Vooroordeel, published in 1980 by L.J. Veen and translated by H.E. van Praag-van Praag]. I changed what Grahame-Smith had changed, translated what he had added, and also made a passing sweep through the original translation, which needed some modernisation. I had to be careful not to get too enthusiastic with this last step, because the somewhat worn, old-fashioned language added to the book’s feel, and could even be turned up a notch in places. The parts I translated myself had to fit in with this language, so I could go to town with dowdy words and phrases. I enjoyed myself immensely – and as I worked I found myself appreciating the original work more and more.
Of course, reactions to a book like this are mixed. Some consider it a waste of every drop of ink used to print it, or are upset because they feel you can’t maim a classic like Pride and Prejudice this way. I think Asten’s story can take it: the Mona Lisa is no less beautiful for all the jokes made about it. I’m also sure a lot of people will find it incredibly fun. They can look forward to more fun as well, because Sense & Sensibility & Zeemonsters is already out, and Android Karenina and Jane Slayre may be up next for translation into Dutch.’ [–Maarten van der Werf, 2010]
Five years down the line, there is sadly still no Dutch translation of either of these texts, at least to my knowledge, though the trend has definitely continued in other languages. I would be particularly interested in seeing how a translation of Android Karenina would work in practice, given that the version of Anna Karenina used in the English mashup is already a translation: a highly influential (if controversial) 1901 version by Constance Garnett.
I’m guessing there’s a whole other post’s worth of material in why Jane Austen’s work is the most popular target of this kind of adaptation on a global scale, but I’ll leave that for another day – and possibly another blogger. In any case, I’m now definitely in the mood for some Austen indulgence. Anyone have any opinions on 2013’s Austenland, or that recent Matchmaker card game? If all else fails there’s always Bridget Jones’s Diary on Netflix.