PATOLOGÍAS DE LA REALIDAD VIRTUAL BY TERESA LÓPEZ-PELLISA: A REVIEW

maig 24th, 2016

Patologías de la realidad virtual: Cibercultura y ciencia ficción (2015, Fondo de Cultura Económica) by Teresa López-Pellisa is a necessary book. As Naief Yehya writes in the Prologue, “Cada vez es más claro que en nuestro tiempo las relaciones sentimentales con los dispositivos tecnológicos materiales o immateriales han dejado de ser una extraña perversión para volverse la nueva normalidad” (12). I’m reproducing these words here on the day when I’m meeting novelist and robotics engineer Carme Torras to start work on the English translation of her novel La mutació sentimental, an excellent SF novel which I have often mentioned here. La mutació deals, precisely, with this ‘new normality’ and warns us against the absurd sentimental attachment that we’re developing for, in this case, robots. Carme Torras’s novel is set in a near future when robots will be everybody’s domestic companions although the malaise diagnosed in it is by no means fantastic neither futuristic. Sherry Turkle, as I have also commented here, has analyzed brilliantly the strange bonds growing between children and elderly people and their robotic pets and how impossible it is to turn these bonds into something less irrational.

Teresa López-Pellisa diagnoses in her book five disorders concerning our relationship with cyberculture: “esquizofrenia nominal”, “metástasis de los simulacros”, “el síndrome del cuerpo fantasma”, “misticismo agudo” and “el síndrome de Pandora”. Before these ailments are described in detail she launches into quite a long digression about the confusing way in which we use the terminology associated with the digital domain. Following the nomenclature developed by Antonio Rodríguez de las Heras, she proposes that we correct the misuse of ‘virtual reality’. She asks us to distinguish between “espacio virtual”, “espacio digital” and “espacio real”. ‘Real space’ is more or less self-explanatory –‘more or less’ as the author herself realizes that all kinds of philosophical questions (and the Matrix trilogy…) must be left aside to accept that there is indeed a ‘natural’ space which we tread daily. In contrast, the concepts of “virtual space” and “digital space” require some radical reconfiguration of our vocabulary, for de las Heras and López-Pellisa claim that virtual space is, basically, the product of our imaginative capacities and cognitive system lodged in our brain, whereas digital space is a specific kind of virtual space generated by computers. She also asks us to refine the way we use the very concept of the digital space, distinguishing between cyberspace (i.e. digital space maintained online) and other types of digital space, not necessarily online. This reconceptualization is certainly appealing as it reminds us that our brain is a potent generator of virtual domains, both when we’re awake and, most particularly I would add, when we sleep. Yet, after three decades of using ‘virtual reality’ to actually mean ‘digital space’ it is unlikely that the vocabulary can be corrected in the short or the long term. Likewise, unless I am wrong, few digital spaces are off-line in this voraciously interconnective online world for which no digital device is off-limits.

The first section of the volume offers not only a (re)definition of virtual reality along the lines I have mentioned but also an extensive genealogy, which invites us to consider the predecessors of the 20th century technologies leading to the computer and the digital space. Beginning with Plato’s cave, López-Pellisa includes in her historical overview the invention of pictorial perspective, the diverse automata, and the many visual spectacles developed in the 19th century, including cinema. Her survey of the 20th century runs from Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine (1945) –the PC’s greatest ancestor– to augmented reality, passing through William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the SF classic that made the words ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘cyberspace’ popular all over the world in the 1980s. The impression the reader gets reading this well-informed segment is that all the names, dates and data that López-Pellisa contributes should be part of our general culture. They’re not. Alexander Graham Bell or Guglielmo Marconi are household names but Vannevar Bush is not –much less Jaron Lanier, to whom we owe the very concept of ‘virtual reality’.

At the beginning of the second part of the volume, which describes the five pathologies previously named, López-Pellisa declares unambiguously that she considers virtual reality a sick patient, though by no means a terminal one. It is her purpose, she states, to classify the diverse ailments and to make the reader aware of their existence rather than offer or demand a ‘cure’.

‘Semantic schizophrenia’, the first syndrome analyzed, refers to the imprecise, ambiguous way in which we use the vocabulary connected with computers. López-Pellisa expands in this segment on the basic warning against the misuse of the computer-related semantic field of the volume’s first part, albeit also in other directions. Thus, she refers to ‘Don Quijote’s syndrome’ (her own label) as the condition preventing the compulsive visitor to the diverse digital spaces from disconnecting. She does not mean that individuals no longer recognize the difference between reality and fantasy but that they choose digital virtuality as a refuge from reality –which offers incidentally an interesting re-reading of Alonso Quijano’s madness. The author also gently reminds us that ‘virtual reality’ does exist, if only as software in very real computers without which it would not survive.

The second syndrome, or ailment, diagnosed is the ‘metastasis of the simulacra’, a certainly unnerving terminology used to name the condition of those fictional texts which not only offer “distintos niveles de virtualización al generar diversos entornos virtuales en el texto, sino que además nos proponen mundos artificiales digitales en el marco del espacio virtual del texto literario, con realidades virtuales que configuran el discurso metadiagético en el texto” (105). The main characters, whether they are the protagonists of a story by Bioy Casares or Neo in Matrix, are disconcerted by the discovery that reality is unstable and entering metastasis with a cannibalistic alternative virtual domain. The list of examples that López-Pellisa explores is quite impressive and has the great virtue of mixing Spanish-language and anglophone texts, with examples from other languages, which is not that usual. In the case of this syndrome the author warns that although we are very far from being console cowboys needing a daily fix of cyberspace surfing, like Case in Neuromancer, there’s no need to fetishize Reality, with a capital R.

The ‘phantom body syndrome’ criticizes the radical transhuman aspiration to disconnect body and mind, supported by their claim that the organic human body can be replaced by computer hardware and also that the mind is akin to software. Following lines of thought that transhumanists call ‘bioconservative’ but that those concerned prefer to ‘moderate posthumanism’, López-Pellisa accepts our cyborg nature –already proclaimed by Donna Haraway in 1985: “Somos transhumanos ciborgianos y ciudadanos de un futuro en el que la convivencia entre lo natural y lo artificial estará tan normalizada que dejaremos de emplear estos términos como algo dicotómico” (137). She is, however, extremely critical of the radical transhumanist (or extropian) assault on the body: “Me resisto ante la afirmación de que el cuerpo está obsoleto, ya que supondría asumir la propia obsolescencia del cuerpo humano y aceptar que si el cuerpo desaparece, nos extinguiremos” (165). The fourth syndrome, ‘acute mysticism’ connects with the third one, as it merges the disembodied ideal of radical transhumanism with nebulous notions of what constitutes the soul and with a selfish longing for immortality. López-Pellisa does not hesitate to call this cultural disorder dangerously irrational and, hence, as damaging as a virus.

Finally, the section devoted to the ‘Pandora syndrome’ is, no doubt, the best one in the volume. Here the author’s own voice is most clearly heard for –and this is really the only major objection to be made– in the rest of the book her argumentation is overwhelmed by a constant barrage of citations. This is habitual in PhD dissertations and it is indeed the case that Patologías de la realidad virtual is derived from López-Pellisa’s own thesis. Yet, the heavy weight of the quotations is also to be blamed on the Spanish academic tradition, which still mistrusts the argumentative essay and in which authority is built on the basis of humbly accepting one’s low position in the hierarchy of the many predecessors.

In this segment, in contrast, the author uses her predecessors in the field to reinforce a strong feminist voice, which is very critical of men’s fantasies of female exploitation, centred on the figure of the artificial woman. The originality of her approach is that she rejects Galatea to focus on Pandora, for whereas Pygmalion lives happily with his statue turned into a compliant flesh-and-blood wife by no other than Venus, the male protagonists of the stories analyzed in this segment come to a bitter end when they try to control their rebellious Pandoras. The gamut runs from the classic tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, “The Sandman” (1817) to Craig Gillespie’s film Lars and the Real Girl (2007) among many other examples focusing on ginoids, “maquiniféminas” and virtual women. A controversial point which López-Pellisa raises is that even though all these stories present dehumanized women, they actually reflect men’s dehumanization and inability to deal with actual human peers. Misogyny, in short, backlashes to destroy its defenders.

To sum up, then, this is an absolutely recommended volume which contains in just 280 pages plenty of food for thought. Of a very necessary kind.

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CLASS IN THE CLASSROOM: RE-STARTING THE CONVERSATION

maig 17th, 2016

A couple of days after publishing my previous post, I continued the conversation about the low level of students’ participation in class with the colleagues who started it. This was, as usual, in the middle of the corridor and, taking advantage of the sudden emergence from her office of our emeritus professor I asked her what the situation was like in the 70s, when she started teaching.

This is the same professor who implanted the teaching methodology we use in our Literature classes, based on close reading and a (supposedly) lively interaction between teacher and students. Did students participate actively in class when you were a junior teacher?, I asked her. By no means, she answered vehemently: only when she prompted them and because groups were very small, under 10 students, and no one could escape her attention. She recalled fondly a class of mature students at the Universitat de Barcelona, composed mainly of women who, it seems, read avidly and were very keen on class participation. From what I gathered this was the only time throughout her long career in which the ideal matched the actual performance of students (my Harry Potter course…). To what, then, do you attribute current falling standards?, I asked. Her answer was ‘class’.

She elaborated: our students at UAB come mostly from a working-class background and, besides, from the geographical area surrounding Barcelona, which is by no means as cosmopolitan (I add) as the city itself. The emeritus professor explained that English language and Literature (or our former ‘Filología Inglesa’) used to be a middle-class degree, which totally coincides with my first impressions as an aspiring university student back in the early 1980s. The first students of this ‘Licenciatura’ I had ever seen were, believe it or not, participants in Chicho Ibáñez Serrador’s extremely popular TV contest Un, dos, tres… (season 2, 1976-78). They were, definitely, middle-class and very exotic birds to boot, individuals who could speak English in a backward Spain where the illiteracy rate was still too high. I recall from my first visit to UAB, in 1983, the many well-dressed students who got off at Sarrià from a train still divided in second and third class carriages, a distinction kept until 1991. As a working-class child attending a public secondary school placed in the middle-class neighbourhood of Sant Gervasi and with students from all ranks and areas, from blue-collar El Carmel to posh Sarrià, I was quite confused about class. I naively believed that education was the road to a middle-class life and that just by taking that train to UAB I would be one of the same kind with the students I had seen.

When my colleague and myself reminded this professor that we’re both originally working-class, she insisted that things are nonetheless different in working-class families, with less access to books and in which conversation is limited. Of course, she forgot about public libraries. I can’t remember when I got my first library card, it must have been in 1976, aged 13, a time when in Barcelona a foundation run by a bank, La Caixa, maintained the local library service (my public primary school did have a library… off limits to us, children). The Barcelona libraries are now run by a public institution, la Diputació, and children get library cards much earlier –the beautiful public library in my neighbourhood boasts indeed an excellent children’s section.

I do remember, however, feeling deep chagrin when my favourite teacher, Sara Freijido, described in class with a condescending smile (sneer?) the kind of books that could be found in a working-class home: a few illustrated volumes about the wonders of the world and volumes composed by abridged biographies published by Reader’s Digest, a handful of best-selling novels purchased most likely from Círculo de Lectores, an encyclopaedia paid in monthly instalments. Exactly that. She neglected to mention the bolsilibros or novelas de kiosco, those cheap novelettes written by Spanish authors using anglophone pennames which started my education in genre fiction. I blushed, mightily mortified, hearing my teacher expose my family to public opprobrium, or so it felt, though she clearly confused possessing books with reading books. After all, my middle-class peers in secondary school, who had access to richer home libraries, were not more active readers than I; those who read (and who kindly passed me their books) belonged to the more bohemian segment. And I mean by this one girl.

Many of my class background and generation were the first ones in our families to attend university. I would say even to dream of attending university. Our teachers played in this a major role by steering surprised, indifferent or reluctant working-class families to making the effort of educating the strange children in their midst, children who took it for granted that if you had good grades, the university was were you should be. I don’t know what percentage we amounted to, nor do we have reliable information about the social background to which our current students belong (do all middle-class children attend university??). My impression is that the upper and upper-middle classes are attending private universities either in Spain or abroad, with the Spanish public universities attracting mostly low-middle and working-class students. My own university, I grant this, might have a much higher percentage of working-class students than the Universitat de Barcelona given, precisely, their geographical provenance, as the emeritus professor highlighted. Still, we have no hard data and are quite in the dark about all this.

When I discussed this matter of the social background with other colleagues quite like me, they were quite offended, seeing themselves as examples that the working classes include many individuals of high academic ambition. They also made a point of noting that the middle-class children in our upwardly mobile families and in more traditional families are not distinguishing themselves academically and that the number of readers is fast declining in all classes. I often remind my classes that whereas many aristocrats were key participants in culture of the past centuries (think Sir Phillip Sydney or Lord Byron) now it’s hard to see any very rich person producing culture –they just seem interested in purchasing it (or in sponsoring it in the best-case scenario). But just bear with me and let me propose for the sake of argumentation that our emeritus professor is right and that the falling standards are the result of opening up university education to the working classes.

I’m mystified by her impression that conversation is more limited in working-class families. I confess that one of the main enticements that a university education offered to me as an 18-year-old was the chance to hold ‘better’ conversations, meaning more fulfilling intellectually. This fantasy was fuelled by countless pre-1980s novels and films which seemed to promise that the grass was greener on the other social side; yet, conversation, as we know, is fast disappearing from the novel and almost gone in films (and TV) and, as Sherry Turkle argues, it’s also vanishing from our daily lives under the impact of the social networks. As Dani Mateo joked yesterday on El Informal, the Twitter generation cannot speak further than 140 characters, which quite limits dialogue.

Do middle- and upper-class families have ‘better’ conversations? Is, in short, intellectual exchange and intellectual curiosity stronger in more affluent families? I should say this is not the case at all. Furthermore, I actually make the upper and middle-classes responsible for the falling standards in our universities, on the grounds that if they had kept the conversation going on at the same pace as when they were alone in the Spanish university classrooms, the rest would have joined in. One can only feel spurred onto proving him or herself when their social betters (excuse me!) pose a challenge. In a society in which the upper and middle-classes have abjured the task of being active cultural leaders, conversation stagnates. Even worse, it starts dealing with the Kardashians (and I don’t mean from a Cultural Studies point of view). This could also be a case of the conversation stopping in mid-sentence when us, the working-class interlopers, tried to join in back in the 1980s, and moving elsewhere. Or perhaps it just stopped for good when being a person of culture started being a synonym of being boring and, excuse the Americanism, unpopular.

One of my (middle-class) classmates in the first year used to carry a copy of Ulysses under her arm at all times, which certainly sounds extreme as a show of academic commitment. Funny to think I didn’t find her ridiculous. I felt, rather, awed that she had the spunk to advertise herself in this way and sheepish that I had not read the book. Perhaps, poor thing, she was just looking for deep, intellectual conversation… without realizing she was scaring people away. Or perhaps her Ulysses was intended to be a gauntlet to slap her classmates into a literary duel that would put them in their right, proper place. What I wonder is: where has her type gone? Who would today come to class ready to challenge their peers in this in-your-face way?

Who could re-start the conversation?…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

LOSING THE BATTLE: THE VICTORY OF THE LECTURE OVER THE SEMINAR

maig 10th, 2016

Once, while still a second-year undergrad, I took a year-long course on 18th and 19th century Spanish fiction during which I never met the teacher face to face. No wonder I have forgotten her name. She was a brilliant lecturer and I recall fondly many of the books she lectured on, a selection which included some hard reading, such as Friar Benito Feijóo’s Cartas Eruditas. I passed the corresponding final exam but, as I say, I never interacted with this teacher nor with any of my peers in class, as she never addressed us directly nor did she ask for our thoughts and opinions. I did go through her extensive reading list because I’m the kind of reader that reads even the information on cereal boxes. I can’t say, however, whether my classmates read any of the texts or simply swallowed our abundant class notes to regurgitate them back to our teacher on exam day. Yes, she was brilliant, but was she a teacher? Not in my view…

There was another teacher whose lectures, the rumours suggested, hadn’t changed in years. A kind, anonymous student had photocopied his or her class notes and these circulated among us, the new students, freely. We simply took said photocopies to class to underline the main points as the teacher lectured on–the notes were practically verbatim and we were amazed to see that she hadn’t altered a single word for years, jokes included. This teacher eventually discovered the famous photocopies and, I’m told, published her own lecture notes as a book. If there was little point in attending her classes knowing how reliable the photocopied notes were, just imagine what the handbook must have done to students’ interest in spending time listening to this teacher. My point being that classroom time must be used for interaction between teacher and students, for students can always read at home the corresponding handbook.

The Department of English at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, where I have spent my academic life since 1986, first as a student then as a teacher, simply does not believe in lecturing and it never has. My class notes as a student did not reflect what my teachers lectured on but what I found interesting as they read and commented on the texts with us (partly their ideas, partly my own); I did have pages and pages of notes but these came from my autonomous, independent reading of the set texts and of the background texts (handbooks or other secondary sources). And I was satisfied with that. After going through the courses offered by the two teachers I have already mentioned, I found the interactive approach frankly refreshing; I spent the first semester at UAB marvelling that teachers actually admitted questions in class and welcomed students into their offices for even more questions.

Of course there were and there are lectures but they constitute just a small part of our teaching practice, perhaps around 20% or 25% at the most. I myself don’t keep a formal set of notes for each course, but, rather, a class diary where I jot down the basic arguments for each single session. And if there is something I love about teaching Literature and Culture this is how open and flexible it can be. For instance: I started my class yesterday teaching my students the word ‘propioception’ (a 1890s word meaning the individual’s ability to connect with his or her own body, which can be impaired by neurological disease). I had learned this word literally on my way to class, as I read on the train Oliver Sacks’ best-selling The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. It turned out that ‘propioception’ explains wonderfully Richard Morgan’s SF novel Altered Carbon, which I started teaching yesterday. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is used to switching from body to body, as in his world individual identity resides in a tiny device, the cortical stack, which records personality and which can be easily transferred to a new ‘sleeve’. Kovacs has, in short, a very high propioceptive ability to connect with his new sleeves. There you are: I love the improvisation that comes into teaching and could never limit myself to a lecture prepared in advance, and re-used year in and year out.

This must certainly sound strange to teachers working in the British system (or similar) which distinguishes between carefully planned lectures delivered before a crowded classroom and more open seminars shared with a small number of students. In my Department we simply prefer to turn ALL our classroom time into seminars, even when our classes are as big as 80 students. An important justification for this, of course, is that our second-language students need to practice English and, so, class participation is basic in our methodology. Students read the texts at home, prepare their notes, exercises, and remarks in advance. Classroom time consists of a lively exchange that makes the time fly by, for students are extremely interested in learning and love to engage in debate with us and their peers. We, teachers, feel fulfilled and offer our best, raising standards as our students demand, always happy to get such positive response to the many hours and hard work we put into our teaching.

This, of course, has never really happened and is not happening at all currently. Now, after 25 years of struggling to implement this healthy academic ideal I am about to give up and start lecturing. Our methodology, the methodology suggested by all the documentation about the new degrees established in 2009, and all the college-level pedagogues agree that lecturing, the famous ‘lecturas magistrales’, should not have a primary place in the university. We are expected to be, and we do want to be, Platonic teachers in constant academic dialogue with students keen on learning (remember? Plato’s Athens school was called ‘The Academy’) but it is simply NOT happening. Our students’ passive resistance is simply colossal. And they are getting the upper hand.

I was teaching yesterday my session on Morgan’s novel and I started hearing myself speak, a very uncomfortable feeling. This happens when even though you don’t want to lecture, you find yourself lecturing because the students have not read the book (yet?) and, so, you need to cover much more basic ground than you expected. Then you start feeling disengaged. I saw my students taking notes and I felt uncomfortable because I was not delivering a formal lecture and I have no idea which points they are making a note of. Dialogue on a novel which has not been read soon grinds to a halt, and so I keep bringing into my ‘stream of pseudo-lecturing’ outside elements. This doesn’t always help, quite the opposite: I was trying to explain that Morgan’s protagonist is the high-tech, futuristic equivalent of the Navy SEALS that killed Osama Bin Laden five years ago–but neither of these two concepts rang a bell with my students. Of course I reacted in dismay, and of course they reacted to my reaction also in dismay… are we ever going to be on common ground? I get politely interested faces mostly, but also the teacher’s worst kind of kryptonite: the glassy stare. This makes me lose my thread, start rambling and even mumbling… There are many moments when I feel like stopping to ask: if you tell me what interests you, perhaps I could lecture on this and we would all be so much happier. Perhaps.

I was going back to my office in quite low spirits when I came across a Language colleague who also looked dispirited. Some students in her class, she explained, have objected to some of her teaching methods finding them, basically, excessively interactive (meaning too demanding of students’ attention in the classroom). She was anxious and concerned that students simply want us to lecture, providing them with the kind of neat classroom notes that, well, can be photocopied from year to year. She vehemently declared she would not offer that kind of teaching and I wholeheartedly agreed with her – no, I will never ever turn lecturing into the foundation of my teaching!!!! I can only call myself a teacher if I keep a dialogue with my students and lecturing is a monologue!!! Out with it!!!

When I finally reached my office I started considering how much easier my life would be if I taught the same course every year, using formal, written down lectures that I could upload at the end of each session, without altering a single comma from year to year. And how thankful students would be for that: notes to circulate, underline, regurgitate in exams and then forget. Final exams instead of continuous assessment, no papers in which you need to develop your own thesis, no contact whatsoever with the teachers, not even to greet them in the corridors. And so end the continuous pretence that students read, when they don’t; and so end the gruelling task of engaging them in reluctant dialogue which only serves to stress the state of our miscommunication…

Some one said once that the tragedy of teaching is that it can never work, for we teach in the way we wished we had been taught and not in the way the younger generation in our classrooms prefers. I’m thinking that after almost 25 years as a teacher I should be wiser but I find that the effect which time has is the opposite: I simply don’t know the young persons in class and what kind of teaching they do prefer. We, teachers, commiserate with each other in the Department corridors and I’m sure the students commiserate with each other at the bar. The result of all this, as I wrote in my previous post, is that even vocational teachers reach a point in their careers in which they stop caring and I am worried sick that this is coming to me – for I still have at least 15 years more to teach. Teach, not lecture.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE FIFTY-YEAR CRISIS: A PECULIAR TURNING POINT

maig 5th, 2016

(No, I’m not suffering from writer’s block, which would be ironic given my last post. The problem is that every subject I’ve come up in the last ten days for raving and ranting about here is so problematic that I have given up all of them. The one I am dealing with her seems to be the safest one… Yes, there is a measure of self-censorship at work here.)

I’ll be 50 in about one month, a figure I like. For women, 50 tends to be associated with the biological changes caused by the onset of menopause and although it would be tempting to write a post about the cultural readings of this natural transition this is not what I am up to today. Some other time.

In this strange time in which we seem to be stretching a whole decade into the next one, I am constantly being told by kind friends and relatives not to worry for, after all, 50 is the new 40. This confuses me very much because a) 50 is 50, as 40 is 40, b) since this chronological stretching manifests itself for all decades and everyone seems younger than people the same age did thirty years ago, 50-year-old women look distinctly like 50-year-old women.

Famously, Oscar Wilde declared that “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young” which, of course, means that one is not aware of one’s own ageing in the same way others are. I am not kidding myself that I am still 20 inside, however, for I am surrounded by 20-year-old female students and it would be foolish of me to pretend that I’m younger than I am. The young have an instinct for detecting that kind of phoniness… Also, generally speaking, I find myself enjoying my actual age and gleefully celebrating each new birthday. The only thing I certainly don’t care about is being addressed as ‘señora’ by strangers, a term I certainly prefer to the appalling ‘señorita’ used for young women but that is often used with a sneer or, at least, a clear wish to indicate ‘you’re old and I’m not’. Twice already, courteous young people have offered me their seat on the train, which I’ll attribute to my always carrying too many bags rather than to my ageing looks. Hopefully…

A few weeks ago a dear male friend whom I have known since we were both 14 hit 50. He is also an academic (mixing Sociology and Media Studies), though he has been a full professor for a few years already and, hence, as you will see, in a slightly different frame of mind. It’s always funny to discover that the processes one goes through regarding private matters–like how to face the next period of one’s life–turn out to be shared by many other people. And this is what happened with my friend which, surely, you can also attribute to our having parallel academic lives. We both agreed that when you turn 50 and you are a ‘privileged’ academic, secure in his or her job, the new buzzword looming on the horizon is ‘retirement’. This may sound callous and insensitive to the scholars still struggling for tenure (and at the rate we’re going now, this includes colleagues not much younger than myself) but it’s the truth.

I was hired by my Department aged 25, which means that next 15 September I’ll be celebrating another significant date: my 25th anniversary as a university teacher. Even if I retire at the ripe age of 70, as Spanish legislation allows, this means that my career can stretch for just 20 years at most. Naturally, it could stretch longer if I go on publishing academic work past retirement, for, essentially, retirement means for us that we stop teaching. If we can afford it. Precisely, we have started asking our Department colleagues about their plans for retirement, for it turns out that 6 of them are aged between 59 and 63. This is a bit awkward but we just need to know what we’re going to do with our fast ageing tenured staff in the next ten years. Their reactions were diverse but, from what I see, money is the main concern.

Until before the crisis civil servants (and tenured university teachers belong in that category) could draw a pension after only 30 years of service which means that, if you were willing to accept the reduced pay, you could retire before 60. The IP I have been working with in the past few years retired at 57, though she is still very much active in research. Under this rule, which no longer applies, I could have retired at 55, which sounds totally crazy to me. Provided I can afford it, then, I am planning for 65 or 67 at the most because a) 40 years as a teacher will do, b) I don’t see myself connecting with students almost 40 years younger than me and c) I see too many people dying around 60 to believe I’ll reach 93, the age my grandmother was when she died last summer.

Sorry to sound so grim but I’m an extremely pragmatic person and in view of what I see happen every day, I need to take death into account. Yes, it’s the fear of mortality that so much Literature talks about and it is certainly the hardest part of ageing. Funnily, I went through a very profound hypochondriac bout at 30 when I was writing my PhD dissertation, mortally afraid (ha, ha…) that I would die before finishing it. Realizing, once the thing was submitted, the silliness of it all, I decided to face life as it came in a kind of perpetual ‘carpe diem’ (highly recommended against hypochondria).

I am certainly digressing today… must be my ageing brain…

The conversation with my friend revealed that 50 is when you count your academic eggs in the basket and ponder what they are worth and whether you want to go on producing them at the same crazy rhythm. The answer is no. A relative no. In the Humanities 50 is still a rather young age, the time when you may turn out to be ‘wise’, if that word still makes any sense, after decades of reading. It is also the age in which you tell yourself that ‘since what I love doing is reading, why don’t I simply use all my time for it?’. It’s very tempting. This is why the ages between 50 and 55 are, I’m sure, the time when many researchers start to slow down, not because they lose interest in their subjects (quite the opposite) but because they want to be let alone by a system that demands an absurd, stressful productivity offering very little reward.

At this point and after twenty-odd years of teaching my friend has decided to teach exclusively online, a possibility that his university offers; another dear male friend chose to transfer to UNED at a similar age. I have tried online teaching myself and I know that I need personal contact with my students, but I also know that this year for the first time I am teaching in a more detached, mechanical way, pretending I don’t notice the students’ disinterest (with few exceptions). My sociologist friend has run a diversity of research projects and is a well-known scholar, with an enviable h-index and all that. Possibly because he is already a full professor and, hence, lacks the enticement (carrot?) of becoming one I can see he is fast losing interest in accumulating more achievements. He is clearly aiming at pleasing himself in his research and this is what he advised me to do–a course for which I am certainly aiming. As my friend told me, the way we’re valued should be a logical result of our academic career, meaning that if you go out of your way only to accrue merits you’re heading for deep disappointment.

I have in my own Department and among the six most senior colleagues past 59 good examples of academic hyperactivity, one in particular who positively bloomed when reaching 50 or thereabouts. This is always an enticement. What drains the energy of any ageing scholar are the achievements of the very young, for this is when you start thinking that you’ve already missed the chance to do this or that. Perhaps one of the most glaringly overlooked aspects of our academic monitoring system is that its obsession for productivity is ageist, in that it requires an amount of energy impossible to sustain in the long run. Or not just impossible but also counterproductive, for past certain age one starts losing the concern about what others may think and this is how academic careers dwindle and evaporate.

To sum up the argument here, while most people place the midlife crisis around 40 (at least the Spanish idiom is ‘la crisis de los 40’), I find that for a Humanities teacher/researcher this happens, rather, at 50. It is not, however, a sad time in which you bemoan what will not be but a happy time when you start enjoying what I can only call, in the best sense, maturity.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE BIOLOGY OF CREATIVITY: A FIRST APPROACH

abril 26th, 2016

I keep on telling my students that nobody is doing research on what I call fabulation–the writer’s ability to string together an imaginary story–but it turns out I am partly wrong. My mistake lies in having supposed that this research should be a branch of psychology when it is actually also a branch of biology and, to be more specific, of neuroscience. If this is the case, then I am not surprised that I have missed its existence because I feel a certain mistrust for neuroscience. This is grounded on my totally bigoted belief that neuroscience is trying a bit too hard to explain human emotion as a set of biochemical reactions. Call me Romantic, but I do not look forward to the day when human nature (I was going to write ‘soul’ but then I recalled I am an atheist) is fully explained by rational science–a point I have already made here. But I digress, as usual.

I have been given a wonderful little book for Sant Jordi (book’s day here in Catalonia), a classic of American journalism: Joseph Mitchell’s The Secret of Joe Gould (1964). The book actually contains two pieces by Mitchell on Gould, a.k.a. Professor Seagull, written at two different moments of the relationship between the two men. Gould, a bohemian gentleman, very popular in New York’s Greenwich Village, managed to eke out a precarious living by convincing his sponsors that they were contributing as patrons to his writing of an American masterpiece: An Oral History of Our Time. Mitchell discovered the secret mentioned in the book’s title, which I am not going to reveal, and this rounds off a unique portrait of a unique personage. If you’re curious, read the book, or see the film adaptation with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. Furthermore: see for an alternative version which questions Mitchell’s conclusions the article by Jill Lepore (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/joe-goulds-teeth).

Sorry about my ignorance of topics which, I’m sure, must be very well-known by my Americanist colleagues but it turns out that the book on Gould was Mitchell’s final volume: he suffered from one of the worst cases of writer’s block ever, and could not manage to write anything between 1964 and his death in 1996, even though he spent many hours every day in his New Yorker office. The words ‘writer’s block’ send chills down my spine because this is a mysterious condition which does affect all types of authors for reasons ultimately unknown (and we, academics, are also authors). In some situations, writer’s block is to be expected such as when a novelist who has published an immensely successful first novel simply cannot produce a second one. In other cases, such as Mitchell’s, there is no clear reason why writer’s block happens. My personal belief is that his case, as I am sure many other people have theorized, may have had to do with the impact of Gould’s work on An Oral History of Our Time, which perhaps unleashed deep-seated fears in Mitchell that he could not write at all. I simply do not know whether Mitchell tried to be cured but the point is that his case is mentioned in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain a book by neurologist Alice W. Flaherty, which back in 2004 was a controversial pioneer in a new field. Funny how, despite the many volumes on Literary Theory which I have read in the last 10 years, none mentioned Flaherty nor any other volume remotely similar to hers.

I have not read Flaherty yet but I have learned from her a new word I had no idea existed until yesterday: hypergraphia, the opposite of writer’s block. In a promotional interview (http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/flaherty/), Flaherty explains that hypergraphia is “driven, compulsive writing” triggered by “known brain conditions” involving “the temporal lobes”; also, and this is a puzzling sentence, “hypergraphia seems to reflect a component of literary creativity, namely creative drive”. Ironically, one of the most hypergraphic authors, Stephen King, also became a most famous sufferer of writer’s block after being hit by a truck. You’ll see now why I distrust neuroscience: after diagnosing 70% of all poets as “manic depressive” individuals, Flaherty makes the classic claim that “in women, there’s evidence that creative ability varies with the menstrual cycle. Plath illustrates this very vividly”. This, as we know, cuts both ways: some feminists will see the ebbs and flows of women’s body as part or source of our creativity, others (like myself) will be horrified by yet another attempt at picturing us as poor things (animals?) tied to our menstruation. Really… Flaherty stresses that while the treatments for writer’s block seem to work well and are much in demand from those afflicted with it–unsurprisingly… –those affected with hypergraphia do not seek professional medical help. “What right”, does Flaherty wonders, “do I have to give a medical name to a character trait that people value in themselves?” Indeed. By the way, Flaherty stresses that “talking about creative drive in neurological terms does not have to degrade the experience or value of creativity” and that “the medical terminology can coexist with the equally important, more subjective language that we are more comfortable with”. I’ll stick to the ‘subjective’ language for the time being, being a Humanist and not a scientist.

The field beyond Flaherty is so big I do not know how to start wandering into it, for there is, of course, a whole discipline called ‘Creativity Studies’. To begin with, you may check the Tennenbaum Centre for the Biology of Creativity at UCLA (https://www.semel.ucla.edu/creativity/references), founded by the kind of eccentric tycoon that I had thought extinct since Orson Wells’ Kane (Michael E. Tennenbaum even has a glass castle). As I should expect, many psychologists devote their research and practice to creativity. Division 10 of the American Psychology Association, which gathers them together, deals with “interdisciplinary scholarship, both theoretical and empirical, encompassing the visual arts, poetry, literature, music and dance” (see http://www.apa.org/about/division/div10.aspx). There is even a journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/aca/index.aspx). Many articles seemed informed by affect theory and deal with reception, but none, as far as I can see, with fabulation in the sense I am using it. Most likely, I need to search further.

I am particularly interested in the writer’s fabulation in the field of the fantastic, in particular science-fiction, although I would certainly agree that realistic fabulation is equally important. So far, however, we, literary scholars, have failed to explain where Madame Bovary comes from in the same way we have failed to explain the origins of Dracula. We speculate endlessly on whether a certain biographical event or the impact of a text read by the author is connected with particular plots points or characters but the method thus far followed is full of errors. Biographical research often degenerates into mere gossip and intertextual connections are frequently vehemently denied by authors. The formalist rejection of the personal to focus on the textual seems in this context quite convenient but, of course, it is ultimately unsatisfactory as texts happen to emerge from people’s brains.

There must be, however, a middle ground between the claim that Rose Maylie’s near death in Oliver Twist was inspired by the real death of Dickens’ young sister-in-law, and the claim that Rose Maylie emanates from a neurochemical reaction in Dickens’ frontal lobe triggered by God knows what… This is where I would like to go and explore… If I found a writer patient enough, I would beg him or her to examine at the end of the day the process of fabulation they have followed. Writers love to talk about their technique even when they claim that it is all a bit nebulous and characters seem to follow their own paths (I’ve never read an article about this often repeated claim). I would end up this way with something similar to the ongoing director’s comments in the Blue Ray or DVD edition of films. But, then, no writer, I’m sure, would want to have an academic looking over their shoulder as they write… Pity… If you know of any, let me know!

One day some scientist will discover that the predisposition to read and the predisposition to write and/or fabulate are genetic, perhaps a mutation, and we will finally understand why those of us who love Literature feel increasingly like freaks.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SO YOU WANT TO PUBLISH A BOOK…: AUTHORS AND PUBLISHERS

abril 21st, 2016

The post today refers to three situations connected with publishing books. The first one is the presentation that two independent editors gave recently, to an audience mainly composed of my students, explaining how a small press works. The second is the publication of a collective book to which I have contributed an article. The third are my attempts to get an academic book in Spanish published. Actually, I’ll add a fourth point having to do with desktop publishing programmes. It all connects, you’ll see.

I have recently met Hugo Camacho, a young man with a degree in ‘Filologia Inglesa’, who runs single-handedly Orciny Press (http://www.orcinypress.com/). A week ago he offered a presentation at the bookshop Gigamesh in Barcelona together with his colleague Ricard Millán, who runs another small press, Sven Jorgensen (http://www.svenbooks.com/). I had agreed with Hugo that I could ask as many questions as I wanted on behalf of my students and so I did. The result can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pS_Nnp6vqQ, an hour full of very interesting information about how the business of publishing books looks from the side of the (small) publisher.

I could comment on what Hugo and Ricard explained point by point and never be done, which is why I’ll highlight just one issue: the mathematics. An independent publisher, they explained, self-distributes by selecting sympathetic booksellers. Small presses like theirs tend to be one-men (or one-woman) shows in which most of the tasks that occupy ten-person teams in middle-sized presses are done by just one person. The maths: they publish, generally speaking, from 7 to 10 books a year, perhaps 12 at the most. A typical print run is 150/250 books, though volumes are also offered through print-on-demand services, and as e-books. The habitual distribution of benefits works like this: 10% for the author, 30% for the distributor, 30% for the publisher, 30% for the bookseller. You need to deduce from all this taxes and costs (in the case of the publisher these include items such as translation, book design, text composition, style correction and proof reading). Small presses tend to cut the middleman off, that is to say the distributor, but even so if your 10 books sell 200 copies each at 20 euros–and that’s supposing a lot–we’re speaking about 40000 euros, of which 24000 would go to the small press. It’s not much… By the way, the author of each of the books would get 400 euros (before taxes).

At least, authors are paid by small presses but (and this covers points two and three) for reasons I have never quite understood when you publish an article in a collective volume you never get paid; I’m now finding out, besides, that when you try to publish an academic book in Spain you’re expected to pay in more and more cases.

I have recently published, as I say, an article in a collective book. I’m very pleased with the volume and with the work of the editors, particularly because they commissioned me to write a piece which has pushed my research in interesting directions which I had only half-considered before. I don’t wish to name the title of the volume, nor the publishing house because this is irrelevant for the point I’m trying to make, namely, that the volume (hardback, 250 pages) is on sale at the price of €99,00 ($128.00). This is not exceptional at all. Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic, which I have already mentioned here, is sold at £95.00 or $160.00 (both hardback and e-book!). I ended up asking for a copy to write a review and that’s how my institution’s library got it (I won’t say a word about the book being in the basement depot, out of sight).

If I, with my Senior Lecturer privileged salary, need to blink hard and think twice before spending €99,00 on a book, imagine what it’s like for undergrad students. Or is the other way round? Are publishing houses demanding these fantastic prices because students (and teachers) have stopped buying academic paperbacks? More questions: how do young researchers writing their PhDs manage? And how many people will read our exciting collective volume? Can a €99,00 book make an impact? How many copies can be sold all together? 400 world-wide at the most? Can we really ask our Departments and university libraries to spend so much public money on high-priced books? Is this all part of the general trend to re-directed academic publishing in the Humanities towards journals? At least, we’re not paying to be published in journals–or are we? A look at the Spanish market for university-produced books reveals that here the prices for volumes in the Humanities are not that high. Check http://www.unebook.es/, the bookshop of the Unión de Editoriales Universitarias Españolas, and you will see that our national university presses are still selling available paperbacks (most for under €25), some of them truly cheap in their e-book version.

I must at this point declare my incompetence, for I see colleagues announce on our AEDEAN list volumes published with major Anglo-american academic presses and I wonder why the impossible fifteen years ago has now become, if not exactly common, at least feasible. I’m mystified. We, Spanish English Studies specialists, tend to publish less in Spanish, which is why I decided to try to publish in this language a selection of works I have already published elsewhere in English. The first lesson I have learned is that when you ask for permission to reproduce articles published abroad in collective books, the publishers drag their feet. I’ve been given permision to translate myself and upload the resulting translation onto the digital repository of my university but not to use my own translated work in a Spanish book. Odd. Journals seem more flexible. The second lesson I’m learning is that publishers expect to be paid, in principle with money from research projects. I don’t know how this works in other projects, but I’ve always been in large groups with limited funding, which has gone to a great extent into the collective books published by Spanish houses but not into books by individual researchers. When I asked my previous group whether they could help me to publish my projected volume they said no, on the grounds that if everyone else made the same petition that would quickly exhaust our scant funding. I’m talking about a figure between 2500 and 6000 euros per book.

I have a bad experience of not being paid royalties for two of my books by a commercial publisher so it’s not the case that I expect to get money from any volume. I’m not, however, willing to pay for publication out of my own pocket if I can help it, not only because I already invest a good deal of my salary in my career but because if you pay, then this is a vanity publication, which should not count for our CV. Funnily, Hugo and Ricard, the small press owners, were very proud to stress that they do not charge authors. I think that the book I’m working on is attractive enough to justify that a university press publishes it but I was told by the publishers I visited yesterday that my potential audience is actually limited to just a few hundred, with luck. Naturally, they are reluctant to invest money on my book and prefer that I finance it, or co-finance it. Now, my question is whether most of the many books I see on the UNE bookshop have been published in this way. I’m mystified, more and more so.

I told my potential publishers in what was, believe me, a very friendly conversation, that if there is no market for my product then I would be very happy to self-edit my volume and upload it as a .pdf onto UAB’s repository. I already have more than 50 documents there, not including syllabi and the dissertations by my tutorees, with more than 15,000 downloads in total (talk about impact…). I was asked what my documents looked like and when I showed one example (an article) edited using Word, it was hinted to me that I would need professional services to publish an e-book. I felt so mortified that about five minutes later I was asking Hugo Camacho what do professional publishers use (Adobe InDesign) and my university whether we have a licence for that (no, too expensive, we don’t even have one for Acrobat beyond Reader). A colleague has suggested Scribus, a free desktop publishing programme; I’ll give it a try. So, there you are: now I intend to train myself in pseudo-professional desktop publishing to make my own e-books. The things we university teachers do…

So, here’s my conundrum–and, yes, I think that I’m asking my readers a direct question. What should I do?

A. Try to find a (hopefully prestige) commercial publisher outside the academic circuit and aim at a general readership (target: 800 copies?)
B. Convince my potential academic publisher that my book is worth publishing, perhaps in co-edition with another university press (target: 400 copies?)
C. Pay to be published by said academic publisher or another (target: 400 copies?)
D. Produce my own professional-looking e-book and make it available for free on DDD (target: 1500/2000 copies, judging by previous volumes)
E. Produce my own professional-looking e-book and make it available for money on Amazon.es (really?), or a specialized platform (is there one for academic work? Hugo and Ricard use Lektu and I could do so, but it’s not academic)
F. Persuade AEDEAN that we fund our own e-book platform for English Studies and that we give the books away for free as we do with the journal Atlantis
G. Fund my own online academic small press and invite colleagues to publish with me for free, provided they produce their own e-books

You tell me… (and guess which options do not count as valid academic publications for the Ministry).

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

PRESIDENT RAJOY AND THE STARSHIP THAT FAILED TO LAND ON NOU CAMP: ‘ESPERPENTO’, LOW SELF-ESTEEM AND CERVANTES

abril 12th, 2016

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick, who is working on the representation of monstrous masculinity in SF cinema, visited last week my SF class to offer a presentation based on one of her dissertation’s chapters, the one on District 9. In that film a massive alien starship reaches Johannesburg carrying thousands of refugees who have nowhere else to go. Their unenthusiastic South African hosts decide to lock them in an insalubrious township placed in, precisely, District 9, as they decide how to cope with these unwelcome, unsightly visitors. If you have seen the film you know that the central plot concerns the accidental transformation of a pathetic white man into one of the frankly disgusting ‘prawns’, a metamorphosis usually read in the context of post-Apartheid policies but that Josie is reading taking into account this man’s strange fall out of the human species.

District 9 is exceptional, as any SF fan knows, because it changed the trope of the alien invasion in cinema by turning the extraterrestrial visitors into refugees and by setting the action outside the habitual US context. Its closest precedent is possibly Alien Nation (1988, TV series 1989-1990), in which the aliens are not invaders, either, but runaway slaves seeking refuge from their masters in the Los Angeles area. Men in Black (1997) included a scene showing the MIBs patrolling the Mexican border, trying to make sure that no illegal aliens would cross it. In the more recent Monsters (2010) the metaphorical link between the extraterrestrial alien and the illegal human migrant is emphasized: the monsters of the title have invaded most of Earth and only the USA remains a safe haven for humans–or so Americans think. Like real Americans today, the fictional Americans of Monsters seem to believe that migration can be stopped, which is never the case.

I started a conversation about the aliens in these films and I asked my students what kind of stories we could tell, taking into account the shameful humanitarian crisis affecting the poor refugees stranded in Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. Imagine, I said, that a spaceship similar to the one in District 9 lands on Nou Camp, here in the middle of Barcelona… How does the story continue? And the students laughed. As Laia explained, one can easily imagine President Obama addressing visitors from outer space, but the idea of President Rajoy doing the same is simply hilarious (President Puigdemont seems to be slightly less hilarious, but still…). Laia herself added that if a spaceship landed in Spain this would result in another episode of Aquí no hay quien viva, the popular TV sitcom about a group of raucous neighbours.

At the end of the 1960s, Carlo Fruttero, editor of the SF publication series Urania, the most important one in Italy of its kind, was asked why he never published Italian SF. Famously, he replied that it “was impossible to imagine a flying saucer landing in Lucca”, a controversial statement that, of course, only spurred the imagination of Italian SF authors. I’m not familiar with Italian SF, and not even that much with Spanish SF, and I don’t know whether a starship has ever landed in Lucca. I know that Spanish writer Tomás Salvador produced an absolute masterpiece, even translated into English, with his tale of a generation ship, La nave (1959). Of course, this ship never lands in Franco’s Spain, it has been already travelling in space for many years when the story begins.

The aliens, curiously, have trodden Catalan land in at least two very well-known novels. One is Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (one alien at least is stranded after her companions manage to massacre practically all humans before abandoning their intended colonization project). The other is, there we go again, the hilarious Sin noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (serialized 1990 in El País, published as a volume in 1991).

In this novel the eponymous Gurb, a metamorphic alien, takes the physical appearance of singer Marta Sánchez (!) and decides to explore Barcelona, going awol. Another alien, a shy fellow quite disturbed by his mate’s French leave, follows his tracks also using a variety of human disguises, each more outrageous than the previous one. My fellow citizens respond with total dead-pan indifference to the absurd situations in which the poor alien finds himself in the midst of the chaotic upheaval of the city which preceded the Olympic Games of 1992. This is the funniest book of any kind I have ever read, more than Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, more than Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember re-reading it once on the train and having to give up because I could not suppress my laughter. And, to be honest, I would have been very happy to have written Gurb.

Mendoza practices in Gurb the very Spanish literary genre of the ‘esperpento’; Aquí no hay quien viva is its television version. ‘Esperpento’, usually associated with writer Ramón María del Valle-Inclán is, supposedly, a deformed mirror of Spanish society which emphasizes with great irony its worst traits, among them its vulgarity, widespread ignorance, excessive pride, lazy habits and so on. It connects closely with the older genre of the picaresque novel but goes much further in highlighting the grotesque in local Spanish reality. Any Spanish literary critic will tell you that there is no consensus on whether ‘esperpento’ is a deformed or an exact mirror image of Spain (by the way, in Catalonia we also have ‘esperpento’ as seen in the popular TV political satire Polònia).

I believe that ‘esperpento’ is the reason why Laia and my other students laugh at the idea of President Rajoy welcoming the aliens. Unlike what is often believed, the inability to imagine the aliens landing on Nou Camp or in Lucca has nothing to do with the alleged low technological level of Spanish and Italian societies, as both societies are like any other in the West in that sense. It’s not, either, a matter of occupying secondary positions in the world order for District 9 and Monsters show that being a world leader is no longer a requirement to the object of the aliens’ attention in SF movies. I don’t know how things work in Italy, but Spain is dominated by a terrifying low self-esteem which ‘esperpento’ tries to mask with humour. That might explain the lack of alien visitors.

I’m sure that many others have given far more satisfactory explanations of why Spaniards have generated ‘esperpento’ as a strategy to cope with Spanish reality. Also stuck in a similar post-Imperial decadence, England has reacted very differently–unless, that is, we come to the conclusion that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and certainly Monty Python are also ‘esperpento’, and perhaps they are. Americans have also generated plenty of humour around the idea of the visiting alien. I’m thinking of some TV series: Mork and Mindy (1978-82) the sitcom that made Robin Williams a star, Alf (1986-1990) with its furry alien visitor or Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). In US culture, however, the humour at the expense of alien contact is perfectly compatible with the countless examples of fictional American Presidents facing alien visitors or invaders in far more dramatic circumstances. It must be, as I say, a matter of self-esteem. Theirs is so high that American cannot conceive of aliens visiting first other countries on Earth–I’m sure they would be flabbergasted if the aliens chose China.

One of the saddest films I have seen on the topic of alien contact is Óscar Aíbar’s bitter-sweet Platillos volantes (2003). This movie tells the pathetic real-life story of José Félix Rodríguez Montero (47), a textile worker, and Juan Turu Vallés (21), an accountant in the same Terrassa factory, near Barcelona, who committed suicide on 20 June 1972. Following the supposed call of the aliens and believing that they had somehow mutated, the two men lay down their heads on the tracks of the Barcelona-Zaragoza railway line convinced that dying was a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

I’m not the only spectator to have seen in these two poor deluded men the shadow of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, although they seem to have been both Quijotes. Aíbar’s film is a singular portrait of a naïve, poorly educated Spain easily misled by fantasies of alien contact, as I remember from my own childhood (yes, I did believe in aliens then… now I want to believe). If this were an American film, of course, José Félix and Juan would have eventually met the aliens, proven everyone wrong, and been carried away by an breath-taking starship to Jupiter and beyond. Being Spanish, the film is dominated by Cervantes’s legacy and, so, must punish those who dare fantasize–or, rather, since this is a real-life story, the director is conditioned by Cervantes’ legacy to choose this sad tale, rather than a more uplifting fantasy, for his film. True, he made amends with El bosc (2012), but the damage is done.

To sum up, then, Cervantes + ‘esperpento’ + Spanish post-Imperial low self-esteem = no alien contact. And just in case you were thinking of this, yes, Rajoy with his inexistent English and his frequent gaffes seems to embody much of this inconvenient mixture. It is certainly easier to imagine Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera, Pablo Iglesias or Alberto Garzón, perhaps even Soraya Saéz de Santamaría (?), engaging in elegant alien contact on behalf of Spain.

Perhaps a clear sign of the decadence of American world leadership is that soon we may have to imagine Donald Trump welcoming the aliens–now, that’s ‘esperpento’…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HOW TV IS IMPLODING: SERIES, RATINGS AND NEW CONSUMER HABITS

abril 8th, 2016

This post is inspired by two sources: one, the article “The 2015–16 TV Season in One Really Depressing Chart” by Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro published online in Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2016/03/2015-2016-tv-season-in-one-depressing-chart.html#); the other the collective non-academic volume Yo soy más de series (2015, http://www.esdrujula.es/libro/yo-soy-mas-de-series/) in which I have participated with, once more, an article on The X-Files. What these very diverse sources show implicitly is that the current boom around US TV series may well result soon in the destruction of television as we know it.

The article, quite brief, comments on the declining ratings for the “old-school broadcast networks” in the United States, or “Big Four”, regarding their current star product, namely, fiction series. They have lost “about 7 percent” viewers for “first-run programming” since the 2014-15 season, “continuing a pattern of substantial decline” in the last few years. The problem is attributed mainly to “a paucity of breakout hits” even though what seems more worrying is that “audiences appear to be abandoning established shows”, usually in the second or third season. You may next check the chart accompanying the article, which shows the ratings for a long list of series or, as they call them in the USA, ‘shows’. The authors claim that audiences have stopped being loyal to their favourite shows: “Now, in the era of viewing on demand, it seems audiences are increasingly having sordid affairs with new shows and then quickly moving on”. Of course, the problem for the broadcasters is that Nielsen rates connect directly to revenue for, remember, TV is basically one long ad interrupted by programmes. Streaming services have started competing for what the writers call “eyeballs” (the part for the whole, you know?) seemingly forgetting that the money business companies can spend on advertising is not unlimited.

Now let’s turn to the really juicy part of the article. Yes, you guessed right: the readers’ comments–far more relevant and informative than the article itself. Here are some highlights (see with how many opinions you identify):

*(…) there is such an over saturation of shows that it is forcing people to really pick and choose what they want to watch and thus people are ditching poorer quality shows that don’t work for them anymore. Or ditching long running favourites that have run out of steam.
* [the lengths of US network seasons] 21-25 episodes is just ridiculous, it’s not conducive to making a good product.
*(…) ad-based business models result in content that puts audiences into a soporific state conducive to being influenced by ads, while subscription-based models favour content that locks in passionate fan bases.
*Networks need to cultivate small, passionate audiences for their shows and recognize that the audience is now so splintered that huge audiences will be rare one-offs for special events.
*Cable and streaming services are investing in creativity, giving writers and creators more freedom to make interesting things. The Networks are sticking to the old formula, and seeing fewer and fewer returns. It’s a loosing game. They’ll be gone in a few more years.
*By the time Nielsen’s gets with the times, broadcast will be defunct anyway and all the shows will be on streaming services, which know exactly who is watching what and when, but has no motive to share that info with anyone else.
*Not only are networks competing with cool streaming shows that are new (…) but there’s entire runs of old series to discover.
*I will never again watch a new network show. Why bother getting invested in a show that is likely going to get cancelled? I vastly prefer the Netflix way.
*Loyal viewers are going to be more important than massive numbers in the future.
*I have a lot of shows I love and a lot of shows I like. I don’t care if they are on networks or not. I’m not depressed by this. Sorry.

And my favourite comment: “Thank God for books”.

Look at the paradox: the networks have always broadcast series but something changed about 25 years ago (arguably) with ABC’s Twin Peaks (1990-91), which proved that audiences were willing to enjoy new kinds of TV fiction series. Then the TV model changed radically with the introduction of new local and national channels (think Fox), satellite and cable TV. The current model also includes internet streaming services of which, obviously, Netflix is the most popular one right now. What all these diverse ways of watching fiction on a smaller screen (TV, computer, tablet, cell phone…) have in common is their trusting series to keep them afloat–logically, since series have that strange quality: they may last for years and keep an audience loyal to a channel/service (or so it was assumed). What broadcasters of any type don’t seem to realize is that the personal viewing time of each spectator (eyeballs, argh!) cannot increase at the same pace, hence the new ‘disloyalty’. Spectators feel that the market is indeed oversaturated and, so, navigate it as well as they can: some give up TV for good, others give up certain series. All tend towards the same goal: controlling their viewing time regardless of network interests and desperately old-fashioned Nielsen ratings. What is at risk, in short, is not the fiction created to fill our smaller screens but any TV business based on advertising, even TV consumption itself.

Now to the book, Yo soy más de series, coordinated by Fernando Ángel Moreno. You will find in it articles dealing with 60 series, all of them American with a few British and Japanese exceptions (Spanish TV is represented by El Ministerio del Tiempo). The articles are very different, some are 100% academic, others 100% personal and informal, some (like mine) a combination. Having read its extremely appealing 472 pages, the impression I get is of a gigantic collective failure by American TV series’ creators to produce truly solid work. Actually, this is my personal point of view and, of course, I have sought confirmation in the volume.

I have often voiced my post-Lost opinion that a narration that begins with no firm plans about its ending is not to be trusted, which is why I very much prefer mini-series. When you try to stretch a series beyond its natural run, when the series ‘jumps the shark’, then the series is doomed and what started as an exciting tale ends up as flat as a bottle of champagne left uncorked for a week. And this is what I see again and again in the articles of Yo soy más de series: with the exception of the mini-series (I, Claudius) or of the series planned for a limited number of seasons (Babylon 5) and a few honourable exceptions, most series outstay their welcome. The reasons may be that, as one of the comments I have reproduced notes, the number of episodes per season is too high, but whatever the reason is very few series can maintain the same level of interest and creativity for long. After the second season, which is when ‘eyeballs’ start looking elsewhere, the plot lines get more and more twisted as writers and producers run out of ideas struggling desperately to go on. The shows enter then a sort of entropic process of decadence that leads to their final, eventual implosion.

Funnily, I’m writing this at a time when The Big Bang Theory is keeping me glued to my sofa for hours at a stretch at least once a week. Typically, we decide to watch a couple of episodes and may end up watching eight in a row (they’re 20 minute long). I am not following any other series and, frankly, after reading Yo soy más de series the only one truly tempting me is Breaking Bad; we’ll see… An advantage of sit-coms like Big Bang, I find, is that it’s somehow harder to feel disappointed for they do not make such high claims as drama series do to being avant-garde narrative, even better than novels… If there is an opinion I hate about TV series is that one. I feel, in short, refreshed by Big Bang but oversaturated by soap-opera products masquerading as great TV–like Game of Thrones or Homeland.

I’ll finish with the story I tell in my own article for Yo soy más de series, a story I have already told many times: TV is paying in Spain a high price for having despised spectators in the past. If TeleCinco had not cancelled arbitrarily The X-Files just when the internet was entering Spain, we would not have rushed to become TV pirates. Once learned, the habit will not be unlearned. Illegal downloading is, simply, a central aspect of TV consumption in Spain, which does not seem to be the case in the USA. Here satellite, cable and streaming are, I’m 100% sure, second to piracy, while this no doubt as popular as actual TV broadcasting if not more. I wonder how Nielsen is dealing with this when it counts Spanish ‘eyeballs’ for we all wear a pirate’s eye patch.

Soon, if not tomorrow, ‘TV’ series will drop the ‘TV’ part of their name to be called something else, perhaps just ‘series’, for they will no longer be connected with watching television at all. Nielsen be warned.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REMEMBERING KURT COBAIN (MUSIC AND ENGLISH STUDIES)

abril 3rd, 2016

Channel-hopping a couple of Saturdays ago, I came across the documentary Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind (2005) on BTV, the excellent local Barcelona TV channel (you may see the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lu48P8dZTk&list=RD2lu48P8dZTk). BTV is, as far as I know, the only public channel I have access to which bothers to broadcast a weekly series on popular music, simply called Música Moderna. Amazing how music has disappeared from public TV in Spain… I think back to all the variety I could get as a young girl and I’m truly mystified (thank you, by the way, Paloma Chamorro, wherever you are, for La edad de oro!). Anyway, I digress (or not, as you’ll see). The documentary stirred in me plenty of feelings, memories and impressions I had almost forgotten and I’m trying to make sense of them here.

Two years ago I attended the ‘16th International Culture & Power Conference’ at the Universidad de Murcia and I had the great pleasure of listening to my colleague Rubén Valdés (U. Oviedo) deliver a paper on Joy Division. Finally!, I told everyone present, we start dealing with the aspects of anglophone culture that matter so much but that we dare not acknowledged in our academic work. After the ensuing exciting conversation, I came up with an idea for an article on the role of popular music in the awakening of English Studies scholarly vocations in Spain, thinking in particular of my generation, the ones born in the 1960s for whom Joy Division’s music had been an undeniable inspiration. I even drafted a questionnaire which Juan Antonio Suárez kindly reviewed for me but I haven’t been able to find the right moment to get down to work. Maybe after this post… My thesis, as you can see, is that popular music played a major role in leading many young aspiring scholars in the 1980s to choose ‘Filología Inglesa’, in combination with Literature and cinema (also TV). Many of us learned about Britain and the United States through their popular music: translating lyrics from English was, I’m sure, a favourite activity, as was attending concerts both in Spain and, with luck, in the UK and the US. We knew that this would never be the subject of our ‘proper’ research but the music never stopped playing.

Or did it? In my own case ageing has brought an increasing intolerance of background sound, which means that I have progressively lost the ability to work as I listen to music–now I need total silence. My otolaryngologist has given me very strict instructions not to use earphones and to attend very loud pop and rock concerts only sparingly… And so I have little by little disconnected from that indie avant-garde I used to know all about, also because now I easily lose my way in the endless lists of new bands, emerging one day and gone the following week. Students have also changed. Years ago I could rely on their suggestions but the last time I used music in my classes (‘Literatura anglesa del s. XX’, 2012-13), I found that they didn’t know who Kasabian are… Now I myself don’t know what Kasabian are up to, if they’re still together at all.

Back in, I think, 1999 I visited Professor Simon Frith in Glasgow, no doubt the main anglophone academic specialist in pop and rock (http://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/reid-school-of-music/simon-frith). My students have heard about this visit countless times… I asked him how he had managed to develop his amazing career in this field and he gave me a golden recipe: use an impeccable scholarly methodology and nobody will be able to object. I soon wrote a piece on US 1990s Goth star Marilyn Manson (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Marilyn%20Manson%20Limits%20Challenge%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf), and I have subsequently written on gender in music videos (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn%20El_Cuerpo_en_el_Videoclip_Musical.pdf), Scottish female singers (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/112359), Linkin Park (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Linkin%20Park%20AEDEAN%202010%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf) and, my favourite piece, on Kylie Minogue (with Gerardo Rodríguez, http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Forget%20Madonna%20Rodriguez%20Mart%C3%ADn%20AEDEAN%20Cadiz.pdf).

Year in, year out I promise myself that I will teach an elective on pop and rock but I don’t seem to find the moment, feeling a bit hampered too by not being sure about which methodology to use in order to assess students. Like many other teachers, I assume, I have used lyrics in introductory survey courses to complement poetry. I used to ask students to choose their own lyrics and it was funny to see how they offered quite conservative proposals thinking they would please me (Bon Jovi???). There was a girl absolutely surprised that I chose Linkin Park’s “Somewhere I belong” for class analysis… but that was so long ago. One of my fondest memories is a really hilarious first-year session in which we tried to make sense of Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”–just give it a try, worse than The Waste Land

The other fond memory connected with Nirvana –also a bitter-sweet one–belongs to 6th April 1994, the day after Kurt Cobain (b. 1967) shot himself dead. I was 28, still a doctoral student, and teaching somebody else’s syllabus for ‘Literatura Anglesa Moderna i Contemporània II’, the 19th century. I had to teach Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), a novel for which I have not yet managed to feel any enthusiasm. When I heard on the radio first thing in the morning that Cobain was dead this brought me back to the day when Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, killed himself (18th May 1980). I told myself, ‘If that day was crucial for my generation, then today is crucial for my students’ generation’ and, so, I spent the whole 90 minutes talking about all the iconic pop and rock figures that had died too early and how this connected with the Romantic idea of suicide (poor things, my students!!). No mention of Waverley… except to say ‘Who can care about Scott today? Not me…’

I did not intend then and do not intend now to support the idiotic cult around early suicide (or youth suicidal lifestyles). I soon became a New Order fan, which I remain to this day, and I can only say that I have a great deal of admiration for how the members of Joy Division decided to move on and become a new band, full of energy and preaching a radiant, hedonistic pleasure in life. The same applies to Dave Grohl’s career after Nirvana. Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, called him many names, none of them nice, during the funeral; unlike her, I believe that suicides deserve compassion but I’d rather not turn them into cult figures. What the documentary on Nirvana’s hit album Nevermind brought back (and perhaps Amy, this year’s Oscar winner, also does that for the late Amy Winehouse) was the explosion of talent before the regrettable early death. Cobain’s case is crystal clear: he simply could not cope with the sudden, massive success of his band. I know that there is a deep contradiction in choosing a career as a rock musician and not thinking of the consequences of success but if you read, as I have done, Bernard Sumner’s recent memoirs Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me, you will see that this is a quite common contradiction.

Back to Nevermind (1991), what I most appreciated about the documentary was the insight into how inexplicable creativity of this very high quality is. The focus of the film is producer Butch Vig’s narration of how the album was made, accompanied by interviews with Nirvana band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Vig gives many technical details about how he came up with the now classic Nirvana sound (the double voice tracks, and so on) and recalls beautiful accidents; the final version of “Lithium”, a song that gave band and producer countless problems, came from Cobain singing softly to Vig to demonstrate what he was after. Yet nothing and nobody can explain how everything cohered into the making of that landmark in rock history.

I love the album with a fan’s irrational passion and completely lack the musicological training to explain in scholarly terms why it is so potent–I can go on and on about male voices that transmit Romantic intensity (Curtis, Cobain, Chester Bennington…) but this is still an impressionistic approach based on a very personal preference. One thing the documentary seemed to highlight is that, as Michael Forsythe comments in the YouTube segment for the documentary, “The music scene today could sure use another Nirvana. I know there will never be another Nirvana but something to regenerate rock again and take it by storm before it dies”.

This might be basic generational nostalgia though I think I’m not alone in feeling, like this person, that in the last 25 years since Nevermind no other main event has changed the course of pop and rock with the same power. New high-impact artists have emerged (think Beyoncé) but they seem to be more about image-packaging than about the music. Kurt Cobain’s dishevelled, grungy look couldn’t be further from that… I could joke in very bad taste that if he started his career today, Cobain would anyway end up shooting himself rather than submit to the image manipulation that music artists routinely accept today. I have never seen a man with such a beautiful face make himself so ugly as a way to protect his music.

I’m thinking of the equivalent of BTV’s Música Moderna in 25 years’ time and wondering which classic albums will be revisited… By the way: has any PhD dissertation on popular music been submitted yet within English Studies in Spain? I had one in my hands but, you know what it’s like these days, the author had a full time job, a family life… and abandoned it rather than, as he said,’lose coherence’. You don’t know how sorry I am…

Now enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vabnZ9-ex7o

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

…AND SUPERMEN: READING GRANT MORRISON’S SUPERGODS

març 29th, 2016

[This is my 400th post and I want to thank all of you, readers. I feel very embarrassed when someone sends me a message or approaches me with a kind word but it is also a great pleasure. I do hope you also get a little bit of that from reading my raving and ranting. Thanks!!]

One of the most exciting perks of being a teacher is how much one learns from students. Until last January I had no idea who Grant Morrison was and then, suddenly, my doctoral students Angélica and Matteo decided to enlighten me from very different fronts and without even having met. You won’t believe me but I heard the words ‘Grant Morrison’ from their lips on the very same day–serendipity! If you are a comic book lover, I’m sure you must be thinking that my ignorance of Morrison’s oeuvre is simply appalling… and I would agree now that I know that he is one of the greatest new voices in the recent renewal of the superhero universe caused by the ‘British invasion’ (Morrison is a Glaswegian). The Brits, he explains, “dragged superhero comics out of the hands of archivists and sweaty fan boys and into the salons of hipsters. In our hands, the arrogant scientific champions of the Silver Age would be brought to account in a world of shifting realpolitik and imperial expansionist aggression.”

I don’t wish to comment here on Morrison’s long career (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Morrison) but on his essay Supergods (2011). This is an irregular volume both because there are more accomplished introductions to the superhero but also because Morrison’s self-portrait of the artist is too sketchy. The insights into his own career range from down-to-earth financial aspects to his candid report of an out-of-earth crucial paranormal experience. All this, coming from the horse’s mouth is fascinating but, as I say, not fulfilling enough. Guided by Matteo’s interest in the mythopoesis of the superhero and Angélica’s curiosity about Morrison’s approach to scientific notions of the multiverse, I have, nonetheless, quite enjoyed Supergods.

This is the opening week for Zack Snyder’s blockbuster Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, a box-office hit despite dismal reviews venting the same twin complaints: why do we take superheroes so seriously?, and why is Snyder’s bleak film not fun? I have not seen the film yet (I find the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman quite repellent) but I should say that we have been taking superheroes seriously at least since Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns back in 1986, thirty years ago… Here Morrison can help: “By offering role models whose heroism and transcendent qualities would once have been haloed and clothed in floaty robes, [superheroes] nurtured in me a sense of the cosmic and ineffable that the turgid, dogmatically stupid ‘dad’ religions could never match. I had no need for faith. My gods were real, made of paper and light, and they rolled up into my pocket like a superstring dimension.” As ‘supergods’.

As I have explained to Matteo, I believe that we are still missing a much needed explanation about why Western mythology (including Greek, Roman, Germanic, Nordic, etc.) has resurfaced of all places in the United States. As Morrison writes, “Like jazz and rock ’n’ roll, the superhero is a uniquely American creation. This glorification of strength, health, and simple morality seems born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility.” Morrison points out that other countries have superheroes (the UK, France, Italy, Japan…) and offers the habitual explanation that Superman appeared as a fantasy aimed to compensate Americans for the ugly daily reality of the Depression Era and the horrors emerging in Nazi Germany. Still, I’m not convinced.

My husband, an habitual reader of comic books, suggests that I should explore the idea that, lacking the medieval tradition of the knight, America invented superheroes (Batman, remember, is the ‘dark knight’). I quite like his thesis but it cannot explain why superpowers were added to the figure of the hero/knight. If you recall, classic heroes were the hybrid sons of couples formed by an ordinary human and a divine individual, hence technically they were demi-gods. I would agree than when the alien Superman lands on the cover of Action Comics in 1938 America generates a new version of the demi-god, though perhaps Morrison exaggerates by claiming that “Superman was Christ, an unkillable champion sent down by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to redeem us by example and teach us how to solve our problems without killing one another.” In view of the dark night of the soul that many superheroes have been going through since Miller re-drew the campy Batman as a brooding Gothic icon, Morrison sounds certainly overoptimistic when he wonders whether the superhero could be “the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project”. I wish!

Perhaps because of my own atheism I feel far more intrigued by Morrison’s declaration that the superheroes “may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models.” It had never occurred to me that superheroes are a prefiguration of what we call now ‘post-human’ and even ‘transhuman’ yet this is indeed what they are. Think X-Men, above all. Nonetheless, as you can see, my student Matteo will have plenty to do in order to explain why myth has resurfaced specifically in the early 20th century comics published in America and how exactly the mythopoesis of the superhero genre has evolved in the past 80 years. The connection with the post-human scientific paradigm might be the missing element…

This brings me to Angélica’s focus on how Morrison’s awareness of current theoretical physics shapes his narrative style (in case I forgot to say, Morrison is a writer, not an artist/draftsman). Here we face two different questions: one commercial, the other personal, as you will see.

In Morrison’s words: “in place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’”. The many storylines owned by American comic book publisher DC “were slowly bolted together to create a mega-continuity involving multiple parallel worlds” aimed at integrating past periods in the life of re-booted superheroes (as we would say today) and new acquisitions. A singularity of superhero comics–possibly their main defining trait–is that DC and Marvel series have become “eternally recurring soap operas—where everything changed but always wound up in the same place”. The problem of how to prolong ad infinitum a successful character or series was solved, in short, by appealing to the idea of multiple narrative universes. This happened just when “string theory, with its talk of enclosed infinite vaults, its hyperdimensional panoramas of baby universes budding in hyperspace” started theorizing the existence of a multiverse (or our ‘multiversal’ existence). In this way, a plain commercial strategy was given an unexpected philosophical depth (I’m really serious about this–just in case…).

Morrison embodies better than any other current writer in any genre the confluence of the mythical, the mystical and the scientific, with an added in-your-face flaunting of his dabbing in the occult. A turning point in his career happened, he claims, one night in Kathmandu when he had an intense vision, courtesy of what he described as “chrome angels”. This experience introduced him to a new sense of time apprehended not as a linear event but as a total simultaneity “with every single detail having its own part to play in the life cycle of a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super-organism”. Morrison decided to explore this epiphany in his comic books as he tried to find an explanation for his own new superpower, an ability to see a 5-D perspective of objects and of life “as it wormed back from the present moment and forward into the future: a tendril, a branch on this immense, intricately writhing life tree”.

What is most original about Morrison’s neo-Blakean visionary capacity is that, without doubting its reality one iota, he grants that it could be due to a temporal lobe seizure (“would it not be in our own best interests to start pressing this button immediately and as often as we can?”, he proposes), a lung infection that almost killed him, or his massive consumption of a variety of drugs for a long time. Never wavering for an instant, he concludes that “Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. (…) The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need”. Myth, mysticism and science coalesce, then, in the superhero mystique, at least according to Grant Morrison. And if you’re willing to accept that writing fiction is opening the door to beings coming straight out of the universes in our skulls it all fits. After all, even the gods and God are creations of the human imagination.

I envy Morrison his happy, gleeful fusion of the rational and the irrational and his ability to have turned this exercise in tightrope walking into the very productive foundation of his career. I just simply do not know enough about comic books to test his claim that superheroes are channelling our simultaneous need to a) bring the old gods into a world increasingly sceptical about God, b) maintain our falling ethical standards, c) supply a template for future post-human behaviour, d) connect us with the multiverse and e) inspire us to connect with our inner superhero. A very tall order indeed! I’ll trust Morrison, however, as he seems to know best.

After all, a world with no superheroes sounds, definitely, boring. And I don’t mean that they’re here to simply entertain us (this is just part of their truth) but also to re-connect us with parts of the ‘infinite interior space’ that our trivial daily lives are obscuring. Long live myth!

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

OF MEN… : MASCULINITIES STUDIES AND THE GRASSROOTS REALITY

març 28th, 2016

I’ll refer here to an article by Alejandra Agudo published in El País on March 18th: “Hablan los ‘nuevos’ hombres. Son feministas, igualitarios, cuidadores. Paco Abril, Octavio Salazar y José Ángel Lozoya defienden una sociedad más justa en la que ellos pierden poder” (http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/03/18/planeta_futuro/1458333179_184806.html). These three men were participants in the conference celebrated at the Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Paternidades que transforman (http://aitak.deusto.es/), hence their joint interview. I know Paco Abril from the seminars held by the research group I have worked with in the last four years, ‘Constructing New Masculinities’ (http://www.ub.edu/masculinities/), and I have a great deal of respect for him. He is a sociologist and a teacher at the Universitat de Girona and, above all, a pro-feminist activist for equality, the president of the Catalan branch of AHIGE (Asociación de Hombres por la Igualdad de Género, http://www.ahige.org/). I had never heard of José Ángel Lozoya, a member of the Red de Hombres por la Igualdad (http://www.redhombresigualdad.org/web/) who defines himself as “househusband, sexologist and gender specialist”. The name of Octavio Salazar, who teaches law at the Universidad de Córdoba, is more familiar, perhaps because he also writes for El País.

I find nothing particularly controversial in the article, which essentially confirms the impression that while the number of men who defend equality in their private lives is (slowly) increasing, men’s public activism is extremely limited. Men like Abril, Lozoya and Salazar do not represent, then, a recognizable movement but appear to be, rather, inhabitants of tiny islands of equality in a vast sea of inequality (excuse the corny metaphor). The sad, sad thing is that you needn’t go very far to see the enormous resistance they face: you just have to read the readers’ comments added to the article at the bottom of the webpage. Remember this is El País, supposedly a progressive newspaper read by liberal-minded persons.

There are very few positive comments, perhaps about 5 in a discussion amounting to 178 comments, and I must note that the most virulent opinions have been erased by whoever in El País monitors this kind of exchange. I have highlighted a few sentences, all by men, except where indicated; if you allow me, I’ll leave them in the original Spanish version, for the ‘castizo’, ‘machista’ nuances not to be lost in translation:

*Teniendo en cuenta lo que significa hoy en día el término ‘feminista’, un hombre que se defina como ‘feminista’… no es un hombre. (original ellipsis)
*Esos hombres no representan a los hombres ni a la igualdad. Son un instrumento al servicio del feminismo más radical. (…) En realidad, quienes defienden la igualdad de los hombres y los derechos de estos son los activistas por los derechos de los hombres o masculinistas.
*(…) Los retos de los nuevos tiempos nos deben de hacer reaccionar para no perder nuestro estatus y nuestra posición de privilegio en la sociedad. (…) ¿Nuevos hombres? no es mas que otra patraña de las que quieren desplazarnos de la esfera de poder para ser ocupada por ellas. (…)
*Y digo yo, ¿a Lozoya, las mujeres le endurecen la …..????
*[by a woman] (…) como mujer me gustan los varones hombres, sin cortapisas, ni melandros(sic)… la masculinidad es un valor en baja… Creo en la igualdad, no en la estupidez y lo digo como mujer que cada día lucha por ello, pero seriamente. (original ellipses)
*Lo que llegan a hacer algunos para ligar …
*(…) si estos tíos quieren luchar por la igualdad de derechos, que se pongan a a luchar por una ley de divorcio justa para los hombres (…) no veo a los colectivos feministas protestar por esto, ni por las denuncias falsas de maltrato, más del 80% de los casos, ¡¡es increíble!! (…)
*Señores, déjense de feminismos y de odiarse a sí mismos. No necesitan expiar sus pecados de varón, ya son buenos hombres porque sí, no por la luz salvadora del feminismo.
*¿Están siendo los hombres lo que de verdad desean ser o es el feminismo el que decide lo que debe ser un hombre? Parece haber un sentimiento de culpa derivado de una reducción de los hombres a machistas, maltratadores, violadores… que no deja libertad de elección. Me parece igualmente triste esa representación de una masculinidad obediente, bondadosa y dulce, que vive más pendiente del reconocimiento de su buena conducta que de su verdad. (original ellipsis)
*La masculinidad nunca ha abusado ni de la mujer ni de nadie. La paternidad comprometida ha sido lo único que ha movido a los hombres de todas las generaciones. (…)
*¿Y éstos marcianos de que país vienen?
*Me parece muy respetable que estos señores sigan un ‘modelo’ de vida acorde a sus ideas. Yo defenderé el derecho que tienen a seguir ese modelo. También supongo, y espero, que estos señores y los medios de comunicación desde donde se expande este ideario actuen con el mismo rasero y defiendan el derecho de los que no quieran seguir ese ideal.

These readers–and, please note that each passage corresponds to a different reader– might not represent all the Spanish defenders of patriarchy out there. It might well be, besides, that their in-your-face tone is deterrent enough for other men and women to express their anti-patriarchal views. I myself see no point in attracting plenty of negative energy by sending comments to this type of forum–yes, a bit cowardly of me. Yet I have come across the same or similar points in so many comments in different newspapers that I firmly believe they do represent our local reality too well. What is most disarming is the recalcitrance, by which I mean the impossibility of addressing these men in rational dialogue. I still have hopes that men like Abril, Lozoya and Salazar–and others like Luis Bonino and Miguel Lorente–can reach men in a way that feminist women cannot but I had not realized how much courage their task requires.

Recently, I tried to explain over a long coffee to a (male) colleague just arrived in the field of Masculinities Studies what these aim at and how little we have progressed. He was a bit alarmed, I must say, at my bleak panorama but I want nonetheless to reaffirm the (utopian?) ideas I am defending from my position. Unlike many other women who simply misunderstand what feminism is about–the struggle for equal rights–I have no problem to declare myself a feminist. I do not believe, however, that women can reach equality without men’s participation in a wide-ranging anti-patriarchal struggle. I preach to whomever listens that the common enemy is not masculinity but patriarchy, a social organization based on hierarchy conditioned by the individual’s degree of power and so insidious that its biggest triumph is making us believe there is no alternative to it. Yet, there is: a society based on equality among all citizens in which the will to help and not the will to power is the main aim. Sorry to sound so hippy.

I believe that we women have been thinking and doing for decades plenty to try to enjoy a better life but that we are facing enormous obstacles which have to do with women’s own complicity with patriarchy but, above all, with men’s lack of a clear anti-patriarchal agenda. In times when the patriarchal agenda is crystal clear and gaining adepts all over the world–think DAESH–the lack of a well-defined anti-patriarchal front is our worse enemy, both in the private and the public front. In the private front, it seems obvious to me that legislation is far from helping to stop the daily terrorist attacks committed against women and children by patriarchal abusers (I’m horrified to see that right here in my city the Maristas have chosen to defend rather than accuse the teachers who abused so many very young students in their schools). In the public front, it is simply not very clear on behalf of what we are fighting DAESH, for, if it’s human rights, then the refugee crisis sweeping Europe from East to West shows that nobody really cares to defend these rights. For all these I am using a good deal of my academic energy to insist that men have to become not (just) feminists but anti-patriarchal activists. It is my belief that if men are made aware of how evil patriarchy is and they embrace an anti-patriarchal stance then, automatically, they also become defenders of equality (pro-feminist) and the bane of any abuser.

It’s not, then, not only for me as a feminist to criticize and attack the men (and women) who have written the appalling comments I have reproduced here, nor for other women: men are the ones who should say ‘enough is enough’, patriarchy cannot and should not define masculinity for there are much better ways of being a man. Gentlemen: you are all invited to join the anti-patriarchal fight. Begin by freeing yourselves from the monster holding you down.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

“RINGIL ESKIATH. FAGGOT DRAGONSLAYER”: READY FOR A QUEER HERO? (RICHARD MORGAN’S A LAND FIT FOR HEROES)

març 13th, 2016

I don’t particularly enjoy reading fantasy of the type set in pseudo-medieval settings because of its more or less covert patriarchal inclinations. I have to interview, however, British author Richard Morgan at Eurocon and, hence, I’ve gone through his fantasy trilogy of tongue-in-cheek title A Land Fit for Heroes. This comprises The Steel Remains (2008), The Cold Commands (2011) and The Dark Defiles (2014) and it is clear from the misadventures of the heroic trio of protagonists that their land is anything but fit for heroes.

Morgan’s trilogy is part of so-called ‘grimdark’, the currently popular trend in fantasy which aims at presenting readers with plots in which terrible things happen on the philosophical grounds that existence is a burden with or without a cool sword and magical powers. Generally speaking, Morgan’s fans (like myself) prefer his science-fiction to his fantasy though I believe that his diverse imaginary worlds are not so distant, linked as they are by the angst of his male protagonists, always at odds with their environment. In this particular case, what disgusts Ringil Eskiath are the homophobic laws of Trelayne, the land where he holds a privileged position as a nobleman but which makes an outcast of him as a gay man.

Yes, Morgan does this: he challenges readers to accept oxymoronic characterizations for his male heroes that go beyond the very obvious. Ringil is an extremely original character not just because he is, for all I know, the first (or one of the first) gay heroes in sword-and-sorcery fantasy but also because, despite his victimization, he is also an extremely violent man and, hence, an amazingly effective warrior. Perhaps because of his victimization. Whether they enjoy or not the convoluted plot, beset by too many deus ex-machina turns, many readers claim to admire Ringil for his rebelliousness and defiance of rules. This is another peculiarity of Morgan’s writing, as I know very well having devoted a long article to Carl Marsalis in Black Man: he charms readers with male characters who are extremely brutal and do unspeakable things but who are also burning with anger against the unfair systems of power that bind them. And you fall for them.

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In Ringil’s case his rage combines his horror at the execution of a former lover decreed by his own father, following the rules of the realm (the method is impalement), and his abhorrence of slavery, resurrected and legalized after a devastating war that seemed to announce a better future. Morgan, however, may have gone a bit too far in the violence which Ringil inflicts on others. Not only is his ‘hero’ guilty of killing children (never mind that these children are far from innocent cherubs), he also allows his men to gang-rape a female slaver. Brit Mandelo suggests in a review of The Cold Commands (http://www.tor.com/2011/10/12/a-hard-but-worthy-read-the-cold-commands-by-richard-k-morgan/) that Ringil does feels guilt at this atrocity and that Morgan “makes it clear” that his “sanction of her rape (…) is not acceptable.” There is something of that but, arguably, had he been heterosexual Ringil would have joined the other rapists–an ugly proposition for a so-called hero. Moving on, I found something else which gave me that icy punch in the guts you feel in the presence of evil. At one point in The Dark Defiles Ringil commits a horrifying act of violence against the man responsible for the brutal homophobic executions in his father’s domain. Morgan again uses this moment to teach Ringil a lesson, making him feel jealous of the deep bond this man enjoys with his son–but I was too aghast to pay attention. Both at Ringil for commiting that outrage and at Morgan for imagining it.

Other readers have been disturbed, or even disgusted, instead by the many gay sex scenes in the trilogy–you may read Morgan’s fuming answer to one such complaint in his own website (http://www.richardkmorgan.com/2010/10/i-got-another-one/comment-page-1/). Nobody, by the way, seems to have rejected Ringil as a homophobic representation of a gay man. I have no problem with the scenes, I just wonder where Morgan got his information from (and how his wife reacted to reading her husband’s books…). What bothered me was how the scenes highlight, essentially, Ringil’s inability to love any man he has sex with and a sexual behaviour that is not truly new in relation to your classic patriarchal hero. Gil’s hard-boiled cynicism may be a novelty regarding the representation of gay characters, which might explain why The Steel Remains won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, intended to “honor outstanding works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which include significant positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues” (http://www.spectrumawards.org/whatis.htm). I feel, nonetheless, trapped by the classic dilemma: have we reached a point in which a gay hero can also be a nasty man? Morgan says yes, for we need to accept all kinds of (gay) men; I have my doubts for I don’t wish to glamorise any barbaric man. No matter how attractive (same problem in Black Man).

I think that Morgan is making the point that the evil patriarchal systems which his heroes fight are destructive even of heroism, which is why his men are as monstrous as they are rebellious. I feel, however, the same unease I felt when I finished Black Man: I would have loved to see Ringil take one step further and claim justice for gays and end slavery–in short, to become politically effective. Morgan, however, does not want to go in this direction. Fair enough. The irony is that this task falls eventually into the hands of his female protagonist–a story suggested by the end but that remains eventually untold.

As happens, A Land Fit for Heroes is also a tale of deep friendship among a peculiar trio brought together by the war (against the Scaled People, a dragon species): Ringil himself, his berserker male friend Egar and their common female friend, Archeth. You seldom see the three together but the point is that they share a solid camaraderie and loyalty despite their differences. The bond between the macho warrior Egar and Ringil is supposed to show that male friendship needn’t be contaminated by homophobia, whereas the respect that the two men show for Archeth suggests that women can also bond with men… provided they are lesbians?

In a patriarchal land in which women only appear as either prostitutes (I lost count of how many times the word ‘whore’ is used) or slaves, whether within actual slavery or within marriage, Archeth manages to find a more or less secure political position as the main advisor of Yhelteh’s obnoxious Emperor. Just look at what this requires: Archeth is an immortal half-breed born of the union of a human woman and an alien Kiriath man. Her Kiriath genes have given Archeth her ebony skin but do not make the mistake of thinking that she is respected for being a black lesbian–no, what saves Archeth from rape and slavery is her literally unique paternal heritage. Other readers have complained that Archeth behaves like a man, which I find to be totally wrong. She is a profoundly feminine character, always concerned not to make herself too prominent and–something I don’t get–also extremely reluctant to assume any type of leadership. By the way, while Ringil enjoys encounters with many lovers, she agonizes about whether to have sex or not with a more than willing slave girl… When the long-awaited lesbian scene happens this is not as enthusiastically described as Ringil’s romps.

Since I am not a native speaker, the hero’s jokey, in-your-face self-presentation at one point of the trilogy as “Ringil Eskiath. Faggot dragonslayer” is more confusing than challenging. I was under the impression that ‘faggot’ was old-fashioned British slang when all the sources I have checked confirm that this is a US term currently used to abuse gay men–similar in offensive potential to ‘nigger’ (check if you wish the wonderful Wikipedia list of slang terms for gay men at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_slang_terms#Male). I do not know why an English writer would use an American term in a pseudo-medieval fantasy novel but, well, this is how limited my philological skills are. Perhaps Morgan is very specifically targeting American homophobia, which seems to be much more profound and widespread than British homophobia.

I have found myself, in conclusion, ready enough for a gay hero but, if you ask me, I’d chose Archeth over Ringil to protect me (Egar is the best choice in case dragons attack!). After all, Archeth appears to be the real queer hero in Morgan’s trilogy–in all senses.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AFTER INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: PROGRAMMING WOMEN WRITERS IN OUR SYLLABI

març 9th, 2016

Once more we have ‘celebrated’ on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and like last year (see my post) I only feel irritation. A main downside of ageing is that one accumulates a memory of past events long enough to understand that although many things change at the speed of light, others seem to take for ever. One of these is achieving gender equality (actually, dismantling patriarchy should be the real target).

What I am specially resenting today is the hypocrisy and the cant: you no longer hear anyone in the media openly declaring that women are inferior and should be discriminated on the basis of our possessing a vagina but it seems to me that the misogynists excluded from public view for reasons of political correctness are doing their best to do their job–you see plenty of them lurking, by the way, in the readers’ comments sections of online newspapers or behind the masks of the many trolls aggressively policing women in the social networks. Even in courts of justice and I do not mean male judges. At a time when Spain already has more female than male judges, which should call for celebration, we have female judges harassing abuse victims with questions that come straight of pure sexism. I am simply appalled that the question ‘did you try hard enough to close your legs?’ addressed to a rape victim has been heard on a Spanish court and from a woman’s lips in 2016.

I’ll try to avoid the rant that I published here one year ago and strike a more positive note. I’ll start by recommending 25 excellent science-fiction short stories by women that I have chosen for my elective course. This is part of a project to produce with my students a guide to reading short stories (which will also include 25 tales by men). Here they are (enjoy!); all authors are US-born, unless specified:

Bear, Elizabeth. “Tideline” (2007).
Brackett, Leigh. “No Man’s Land in Space” (1941).
Cadigan, Pat. “Is There Life After Rehab?” (2005).
Cherry, C.J. “Cassandra” (1978).
Due, Tananarive. “Patient Zero” (2010).
Ermshwiller, Carol. “Creature” (2002).
Fowler, Karen Joy. “Standing Room Only” (1997).
Goldstein, Lisa. “The Narcissus Plague” (1995).
Goonan, Kathleen Ann. “A Short History of the Twentieth Century” (2014).
Griffith, Nicola. “It Takes Two” (2010). British author (naturalized US citizen)
Gunn, Eileen. “Coming to Terms” (2004).
Hoffman, Nina Kiriki. “Futures in the Memory Market” (2010).
Hopkinson, Nalo. “The Easthound” (2013). Canadian author.
Johnson, Kij. “26 Monkeys also the Abyss” (2008).
Jones, Gwyneth. “The Tomb Wife” (2008). British author.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Evil Robot Monkey” (2012).
Kress, Nancy. “Out of all them Bright Stars” (1985).
Lee, Yoon Ha. “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” (2011).
McCaffrey, Anne. “The Ship Who Sang” (1961)
Moore, C.L. “Shambleau” (1948).
Norton, André. “All Cats Are Grey” (1953).
Russ, Joanna. “When It Changed” (1972).
Tiptree jr., James. “The Women the Men Don’t See” (1972).
Wilhelm, Kate. “Mrs. Bagley Goes to Mars” (1978).
Willis, Connie. “Daisy in the Sun” (1982).

Next, I’ll refer to my title. An implicit rule in my Department is that syllabi must be balanced and contain an equal representation of men and women. This is not always easy to accomplish, not because women have not produced excellent work but because much of that work is not as canonical as that of men. I have been reading with my class a very good piece by Adam Roberts (in The Science Fiction Handbook edited by Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis) on how canons are formed. In it he explains that Dale Spender changed back in 1986 the conditions for the upkeep of the canon for the English novel by claiming with her book Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Novelists Before Jane Austen not only that at least 100 women novelists had been so far ignored but that they were good. The 18th century canon has, therefore, expanded to include many more women and it is quite possible to teach a course including a mixed selection of men and women. Whoever does this is, in practice, altering the old-fashioned canon for good if only for the benefit of a handful of students. Roberts presents the gender-inclusive transformation of the canon as a solid, generally accepted process and simply dismisses as ‘not-the-done-thing’ all-male reading lists in any university course. (He should have visited my Department last semester…).

The real challenge, however, does not lie just in finding a new balance in our classroom for the canon of the past but applying new strategies to the formation of the canon of the future. And this is done mainly in contemporary fiction courses.

This is why I want to praise here what a colleague in my Department has done for, precisely, our course on current British fiction. This teacher has selected six novels by six women novelists: Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely beside Ourselves (2013), Poppy Adams’ The Behaviour of Moths (2008), Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine (2010), Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (2014), Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) and Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007). The course objectives are, as described in the official syllabus, “to come to a fuller understanding of particular aspects of post-modern Britain (…) attempting to comprehend those concerns and leitmotifs that may be generally applicable in these novels to the culture as a whole, with the aim of attaining a closer conception of the cultural parameters currently at work in contemporary British society.” Now, here is the best thing: my colleague is a man, David Owen.

And, yes, I’m extra happy that the course objectives do not refer at all to gender for this means that for David the writers chosen are, above all, high-quality writers and not principally women writers. When David confirmed this approach to me I joked whether the problem is that male British novelists are not up to the task of producing good fiction and he said that certainly the diverse new currents started back in the 1980s by Martin Amis and company have run their courses and now, I paraphrase, the novelists offering the more interesting proposals are women.

If one of my women colleagues had produced a similar syllabus I’m sure this would have been read as yet another feminist attempt as displacing the men, mere ‘women’s literature for women’. The idea of a woman teaching a reading list composed only of women writers faces inevitably this problem. This is why we need the men as allies, for with this list David is sending students the message that a) men do read and enjoy fiction written by women, b) men can certainly value women’s work above the fiction men are currently writing and c) it is about time that the inclusion of women writers in any syllabus stops being an act of feminist defiance to become the most habitual thing in the world… So, please, let’s have more men teaching work written by women because they are good writers.

I asked nonetheless one of my women colleagues whether David’s list is not a bit too much, an excessive reversal of the too often habitual exclusion of women. This colleague told that me she personally prefers mixing her writers (remember I am not mentioning other identities markers like race, ethnicity, etc) but she welcomed the idea of teaching only women. After all, she said, we have had only-men Literature courses for too long. And been told, besides, that the only principle of selection was their high quality, not, as it was always the case, their gender.

I am also particularly happy that there is no international writing women’s day, for this means that women writers have no specific grievances to vent regarding their profession (or am I wrong and women writers are also paid less for their work than their male peers?). I am myself privileged in relation to most women in my country, the sixth one in Europe in the black list of nations where women are exploited for basic gender reasons (women are paid 20% less here than their male peers). This does not mean I forget the simple fact that women are still woefully under-represented in the ranks of the Spanish full professors (15% to 53% of female students).

I’ll end as I started by wondering in irritation who International Women’s Day addresses. The media were full yesterday of items celebrating women’s achievements but also of many reports on the appalling conditions which women endure all over the world. We women already know about all these achievements and horrors and, seemingly, so do the anti-patriarchal men. The others, the patriarchal bastards that keep us tied to their sexism and misogyny were, I’m sure, mocking all the protests while enjoying the snug positions of power they occupy.

The European Commissioner responsible for gender equality, Vera Jurova, has declared that the European Union might reach equality in rights for all persons in 70 years. Two more generations?? I should say we have a serious problem if this is the best the EU can offer… Now think of the rest of the world. (And include more women in your Literature syllabi!!)

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SOME ARCHEOLOGY: THE OLD ‘LICENCIATURA’ IN ENGLISH PHILOLOGY (THINKING OF THE 3+2 REFORM)

març 2nd, 2016

The student assembly at the Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres where I work have decided that the national student strike announced for tomorrow is not enough and so have extended it to yesterday, today and tomorrow. I have lost count of all the strikes I have witnessed in my 30 years at UAB, as student and teacher–one thing I know is that none of them have bothered the diverse Ministries of Education at all… I certainly am in favour of people struggling to defend their rights but I wonder why the methods have not adapted to the 21st century. Also, I fail to understand why suspending one’s education for a few days may send the Ministry any message, as there is no way a students’ strike can reproduce the effect which a workers’ strike is supposed to have. Anyway… the same arguments all over again every few years if not every year.

I have already written here about the reasons for the protest: the new degree reform announced in 2014 (see my post for 19 October) and legislated in 2015 (see my post for 4 February). Although we have not yet started drafting the new syllabus and we are actually going through our first process of BA degree accreditation, it seems that the Catalan universities will go ahead with the plan to transform our degrees into the 3+2 model beginning in 2017-18 (some new degrees are starting in September). I was reminded yesterday that the Generalitat has not yet appointed a Secretary for the Universities; besides, there is currently only a provisional Spanish Government, with a most likely chance of new elections in June. How wise it is for any reform to begin at this point is for the reader to decide.

My own view, already expressed here again and again is that the 3+2 model might be acceptable for English Studies provided a) the 3-year BA is taught only in English, including possible common courses shared with other language and Literature degrees; b) the fees for the 2-year MA are the same as for the BA, so that all newly graduated students can have the option to complete the 3+2 model. This is pretty much the official position of my Department. I have observed also again and again that this apparently new 3+2 model reproduces that of the old ‘Licenciatura’, which consisted of a first cycle after which you could be granted a ‘Diplomatura’ degree and a second cycle, followed by a doctoral programme. Actually, the Spanish Parliament has recently determined that in legal terms possessing a ‘Licenciatura’ is the equivalent of possessing a ‘Grado’ and a Master’s degree. So, why, many of us are wondering, not go back to the ‘Licenciatura’.

I’ve done my digging at the website of the Boletín Oficial del Estado to find the syllabus (Plan de Estudios) implemented back in 1977, the first one after Franco’s death, that is, the first university reform of our then young democracy. The ‘Orden por la que se aprueba el Plan de estudios de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona’ can be found at https://www.boe.es/buscar/doc.php?id=BOE-A-1977-27200 (16 November 1977, BOE 274). I had forgotten that the Facultat offered then 1 single degree in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ with specialities, but it is interesting to note that the decree speaks of students tailoring their degrees to suit their needs with the help of a tutor… (which I never had).

Credits were counted by classroom time, i.e., 1 hour = 2 credits. The first cycle amounted to 90 credits (15 annual subjects), of which only 18 credits had to be from another speciality; 60 had to be taken within the speciality. The decree gives the Facultat the choice not to organize a common first year syllabus. This sounds quite open in relation to what we have now, though my suspicion is that the freedom granted by the decree was actually diminished by internal regulations. Second cycle: 60 credits, 42 belonging to the speciality chosen, 18 to any other speciality (the word ‘minor’ was not part of the vocabulary). Now, this does contrast with the current limitations, as students’ need to stick to a much more limited choice. Interestingly, the BOE speaks of ‘transversal specialities’ taught by different Departments–we could have had, for instance, a second cycle on Literature in different languages… never happened!!

Thus, until the ‘Licenciatura’ became a 4-year degree in 1992 (see http://www.boe.es/boe/dias/1993/01/28/pdfs/A02385-02388.pdf), students of ‘Filología Inglesa’ at UAB took the following yearly courses: ‘English language’ (I, II and III), ‘English Literature’ (I and II), ‘Anglo-Saxon Civilization’, ‘History of Language’ (with the pompous name of ‘Filología Germánica), and ‘German language’ (I, II and III). Students also had to take ‘Lengua Española’ (I and II), and ‘Introduction to Literary Studies’ (taught by the Spanish Department). In the second cycle, if I remember correctly, you could choose to specialize in English language or Literature, provided you chose a minimum of 5 semestral electives from the other branch. I haven’t been able to find a list of subjects, though.

Seeing this information, I realize that little by little the ‘Licenciatura’ descendants have pushed German out of the syllabus, to make room for more English language courses beyond the instrumental; Literature has also expanded to include more American Literature. The number of courses outside the Department was back in 1977 the equivalent of 6 semesters, in comparison to the current 4, but still so, these 4 semesters are a bone of contention, for we feel they should be taught in English. Needless to say, this is going to be the main obstacle for our Department in the new reform. All in all, however, the impression that ‘Licenciados’ (pre-1992) had a better exit level than later students may have to do with their taking a five-year course of studies than with the actual training they received. Following this line of thought, the students receiving the worst training were the ones in the period 1992-2009, as they took a 4-year ‘Licenciatura’ with no option to take an MA (except abroad).

Beyond the crucial question of the fees (they were relatively lower for the ‘Licenciatura’ and the same for the five years), our specific problem–and I refer here to all English Studies in Spain–is our students’ low command of the language we teach in. This is something we all know: the 1977 ‘Licenciatura’ attracted mostly students who understood that their English had to be solid enough to face the demands of the degree; since 1992, however, and particularly since the implementation of LOGSE in 1994, we are attracting students who, mostly, want to learn English. I’m perhaps exaggerating and back in 1977 (or 1984 when I started the ‘Licenciatura’) there were also many students with an inadequate command of English. I recall, however, from my students’ days a high rate of competitiveness among students to test who had the best accent, the largest vocabulary. This has been gradually vanishing from our classrooms. It makes for a certainly more relaxed atmosphere but the absence of peer pressure and the decreasing standards have also increased the time we need for pure instrumental language training. Hence the need to turn absolutely all subjects into English language practice.

That this is seen with a great deal of hostility became evident to me recently. I explained the idea that the common courses should also be taught in English, even when they are taught by teachers outside the Department, to a colleague in the Comparative Literature section (they teach the first year core course) and he was absolutely furious. Two things were striking in his overreaction: a) the idea that, we, English philologists, are not qualified to teach Linguistics and Literary Theory and b) a total incomprehension regarding the role that English plays in our classrooms. I understand the territorialism though, obviously, I disagree with it. What baffles me is the other matter. I tried to explain that if my students’ English is too weak, there is no way I can teach them Dickens (for example) but I totally failed. Now, my students’ English has been too weak for Dickens since, at least, I insist, 1994 and may never again be strong enough. Whether we limit the BA degrees to 3 years might make no difference at all, as I’ll probably still be teaching Dickens in the second year but, surely, if we could use more time for English in the first year, that would make at least some difference. Why this is so hard to understand is beyond me…

I’ll stop here. My master’s students have democratically decided not to be on strike this afternoon so I’m off to the UAB, hoping the habitual picket lines and barricades will be no obstacle… But that’s a topic for another post.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHY RESISTING EXCELLENCE IS (PARTLY) WRONG: RESPONDING TO AN INTERVIEW WITH INDOCENTIA

febrer 26th, 2016

Have a look at this interview published in the online El Diario.es. The title is long but self-explanatory: “Disciplinar la investigación, devaluar la docencia: cuando la Universidad se vuelve empresa. Entrevista al colectivo de profesores y estudiantes Indocentia sobre la transformación neoliberal de la Universidad” (Amador Fernández-Savater, 19/02/2016, http://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/Disciplinar-investigacion-devaluar-docencia-Universidad_6_486161402.html).

Indocentia groups a number of Social Sciences professors and students at the Universitat de València (contact them at indocentia@gmail.com). Its name alludes to ANECA’S programme ‘Docentia’ (http://www.aneca.es/Programas/DOCENTIA), aimed at monitoring the excellence in teaching of the Spanish Universities. UAB’s reference is DOC14UAB/07, and we have signed up to obtain a certificate for the period 15/10/2014 to 15/10/2019. I didn’t know this–check the list at ANECA for your own university. I gather from the interview, though this is just implicit, that the application of Docentia at the UV appears to be quite unwelcome among the teachers there, hence Indocentia.

I feel an itch to play devil’s advocate, you’ll see why later on, so here we go.

Indocentia point out that the media critique of the Spanish university is outdated as it fails to understand how the traditional feudal system based on client networks has adapted to the new requirements of the (American-inspired) liberal university. We need, hence, they claim a “real-time critique” which surveys and questions new key issues such as, I translate, the demand of hyperactivity, the subjection of knowledge to the market, the devaluation of teaching, the frailty of the precarious jobs. They criticize the complicity with the liberal programme of many researchers who, they say, appear to be selfishly obedient and who only care for their own CVs.

Whatever knowledge is generated ends up, Indocentia claim, locked up in closed circuits and measured with standards set up by ANECA and CNEAI following the directives of, they point out, “two private companies, Thomsom Reuters and Elsevier (owners respectively of databases WoS and Scopus)”. Indocentia strongly criticise the bias which this generates in favour of English-language publication, which they connect with a “colonial logic”. They strenuously complain, in addition, against the Government decree (or ‘ley Wert’) which has turned the ‘sexenio’ (or personal assessment exercise) into an instrument to discipline both research and teaching, to the detriment of the latter. Docentia is in particular criticized for trying to measure teaching using ruthless computer applications that simply are not adequate to the task (at UAB we are not using this… yet).

I am sure we all agree with the diagnosis. We must also be grateful to Indocentia for pointing out what we suffer in silence (or over coffee with other depressed colleagues): the constant anguish that we do not measure up, the psychosomatic complaints associated with the need to keep personal energies constantly available, the fear of mediocrity: “La excelencia mata, la competitividad enferma, decimos desde Indocentia”. Also the incomprehension–the look on my doctor’s face during my last visit a month ago regarding a scary, persistent headache. ‘So what do you do?’, the dialogue goes. ‘I’m a university teacher’. The raised eyebrow and the classic question: ‘And that’s stressful?’

The Indocentia interview, by the way, refers constantly to texts produced by the collective but they do not seem to be centralized in a single platform. You may want to read Carmen Montalba’s “El sueño de la excelencia: desvelarlo, desvelar-nos” (http://roderic.uv.es/handle/10550/49036) or Lucía Gómez and Francisco Jódar’s “Ética y política en la universidad española: la evaluación de la investigación como tecnología de la subjetividad” (http://atheneadigital.net/article/view/1169-Gomez).

Now, here’s my problem. The article ends with a bland declaration that, I translate, “Therefore, we cannot renounce the possibility of collectively producing new rules, new constituent praxis”. Check, if your wish, my own post of 18 April 2015 commenting on “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” published by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). I should say that this manifesto is much closer to what we need here in Spain in terms of including a programme of anti-liberal activities. Perhaps, as usual, even as regards the complaints against the liberal university we are lagging behind our European peers…

I do not want to go into the list of grievances and the list of proposals which our Dutch colleagues offer, for one year later I feel quite tired of going in circles and advancing nothing. A few days ago, for instance, I found myself helping the Head of my Department to prepare the meeting she is to have with our Vice-Rector of Personnel. Here’s the impossible situation: like everyone else, we have got no new full-time permanent positions for about eight years, not even to replace the many full-time positions we have lost to retirement and even early death. How you can run a Department of fast ageing teachers, with too many seniors past 60 and with associates past 40 who might have to wait 10 years for tenure…, is beyond anyone’s understanding. The secret masterplan of neo-liberal policies is, clearly, the complete elimination of the public university.

What bothers me about the Indocentia interview is this: by throwing the idea of excellence away as the trademark of the liberal university we’re throwing away the baby with the bathwater. I do aim at being an excellent researcher and teacher, hopefully a much better one than some of the personnel I had the misfortune to come across as a student in the 1980s Spanish university. I do not want this aim denied or criticized just because the instruments to measure it are downright wrong. I am entitled to being acknowledged as a researcher because I am doing my best–like many other of my peers. Also as a teacher.

I think we are missing one significant part of the History of the Spanish university–the time when my own generation (I was born in 1966) understood that we had to pull ourselves by our boot strings and do much better than our predecessors. ‘Sexenios’ were introduced back in 1983 and, please, remember, they were initially an incentive to pull out of their lethargy the many university teachers who simply published nothing–including full professors. Even with the ‘sexenios’ as an incentive many university teachers have managed to generate no publications at all, which means zero knowledge transfer (whether to open or closed circuits). The supposition that this is because they are devoted 100% to good teaching is simply a lie. I am also very tired of the assumption that a committed researcher can only succeed at the cost of being a poor teacher. Actually, among my colleagues the best researchers are also the best teachers. This does not mean that I know of no excellent teachers uninterested in research but, then, perhaps what we need in the university, and nobody is considering, are separate categories for teachers who wish to do no research and for teachers/researchers.

I can only agree with Indocentia’s diagnosis of all the faults of the monstrously demanding system used to measure our activity and bemoan, like them, its consequences, for I suffer them first hand. What worries me is whether the resistance to being accountable for our task by the current dubious methods might conceal a certain backlash to the time when university teachers were not accountable at all. I remember that time very clearly, for I suffered it as a student–the arbitrary teaching methods, the unavailability of always absent teachers who did not keep office hours, the nepotism, the appalling textbooks forced on us, the provincial lack of international connections, the general backwardness…

I’ll end, then, by repeating my warning: no matter how much you hate the methods to measure it, do not reject excellence itself–just fight to take it away from the hands of our liberal oppressors back into our hands. We had the chance to construct a functional version of ‘excellence’ briefly there, perhaps for a few years in the 1990s, before we lost it. Consider also who is complicit with that loss, and name them. I have a suspicion that many of them are the people we proudly sent abroad to be trained in American universities and improve the state of our own university. Generally naming ‘the liberal university’ as the arch-villain does not seem to be helping us…

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