TOWARDS LIBERATION FROM EMPOWERMENT

November 12th, 2018

I was watching last week the new wonder woman of Spanish music, Rosalía, in an interview on TV (in Pablo Motos’ El Hormiguero) and she confirmed that, indeed, her new recording, El mal querer, deals with ‘el poder femenino’ (I’m not sure whether she means female, women’s or feminine power). Rosalía herself is an example of sudden artistic empowerment that I don’t quite understand, as I think that we’re missing crucial information about her family background and her training as a musician. But that’s not my point (to clarify matters: like millions of people around the world, I love what she does, it’s so thrilling and refreshing!). My point is this: why do we speak of power rather than of liberation? When did liberation stop being a keyword for feminism?

The very accomplished article ‘Empowerment: The History of a Key Concept in Contemporary Development Discourse’ by Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès (https://www.cairn-int.info/article-E_RTM_200_0735–empowerment-the-history-of-a-key-concept.htm) offers a very useful overview of how this term became so widespread and why. She cites as a major inspiration ‘the conscientization approach developed by the Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968’. According to Calvès, the 1970s were the time when ‘the term formally come into usage by social service providers and researchers’, particularly after Barbara Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities (1976).

 The current popularity of ‘empowerment’, however, sinks its roots in the mid-1990s, when,Calvès explains, it firmly ‘entered institutionalized discourse on women in development’ thanks to feminist NGOs. Calvès highlights the UN’s InternationalConference on Population and Development (Cairo 1994) as one of the main events ‘to give the concept international visibility’. Precisely, the article by Ann Ferguson ‘Empowerment, Development and Women’s Liberation’–one of the few publications linking the two concepts that interest me–appears in a book published by the UN’s University Press, The Political Interests of Gender Revisited (Anna G. Jónasdóttir and KathleenB. Jones, eds., 2009, 85–103. The article itself is not available online but you may easily find the volume’s introduction.

I have serious doubts about the word ‘empowerment’ because it seems to be intrinsically patriarchal. If, as I am preaching, patriarchy is a form of hierarchical social organization characterized by its placing individuals in different ranks according to the power they wield, why is empowerment desirable? If you start from a position of oppression and you manage to empower yourself, you may end up in a higher position but how do you contribute to undoing the very system of power? Could it be that we use empowerment mistakenly and we actually mean ‘liberation’?

Let me go back to Rosalía (born in 1993) to discuss next another young woman also born when the word ‘empowerment’ was become popularized, Malala Yousafzai (born in 1997).

As far as I know, Rosalía has freely taken all the decisions concerning her career and has not been the object of any patriarchal attempts to curtail her artistic creativity. In short, she is enjoying the chance to develop her personal agency in freedom (within the legal and moral limits of current Spanish legislation) like any other young man of her generation and inclinations. Agency, incidentally, is a word that seems to have disappeared from the horizon, though it seemed to be ubiquitous just a few years ago. So, how’s Rosalía a ‘powerful woman’ rather than a ‘free’ or ‘liberated’ woman? And how come ‘liberated’ has taken on this sexualized meaning? It seems to me that the ‘poder femenino’ she invokes and maybe embodies is a position, rather than a reality, a sort of pre-emptive strike against the patriarchal power that might limit her–it’s a way of saying ‘you can’t touch me’,even though, as we know, successful women like Rosalía attract much attention from misogynistic haters. Her ‘power’, then, is in how her popularity and public presence outdo the control that the patriarchal trolls would use, if they could, against her. It’s not power to repress or control others.

 Now takeMalala, the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and, thus, also another example of empowerment–or is it liberation? Unlike Rosalía, Malala grew up in an environment dominated by an extreme patriarchal regime, that of the Taliban in her native Pakistan. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was motivated by his personal and professional circumstances to become an anti-patriarchal activist,willing to sacrifice his own life to give girls in his community an education.His sisters never attended school but he made sure that his daughter and other girls like her would have a school to welcome them: the one he himself ran. Malala learned her own educational activism from her father and almost lost her life in 2012 when a Taliban patriarchal terrorist shot her in the head. The family relocated then to the United Kingdom, from where both Malala and her father continue their task of empowering (or is it liberating?) other girls by providing, to begin with, the inspiration to demand an education.

Empowerment takes, then, as many forms as personal experience dictates and is supposed to act, as I was arguing, as a barrier against further oppression by shifting the relationships of power and introducing a better balance. This is where my misgivings resurface: if power is, say, a cake, the more I eat, the less you eat–which means that empowerment is necessarily finite and also that those in power will always resist giving any away. This is how things seem to be working so far: the oppressed demand a bigger share of the cake, which they seem to be getting but the ones who feel entitled to holding the whole cake under their control do not like the situation a bit (a bite?). Hence all the lashing out, from Taliban violence to online trolling, simply because we cannot all be empowered. In contrast, we could all be free, that is to say, liberated from the restrictions imposed by patriarchy if only we started thinking about who baked the cake and why we have to eat it at all for, you see?, you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

Bob Pease writes that ‘The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful while doing the tasks that are not traditional for men’ (30 in Carabí & Armengol, editors, Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World), such as… rearing children, he adds. I think these words encapsulate much of what is wrong with empowerment: what does ‘feel powerful’ mean, whether you’re a man or a woman? Isn’t Pease himself suggesting that being powerful is the same as having the capacity to oppress others? How can you ‘exercise power’ without controlling others? If you ask me, for men to change they should oppose the very idea of patriarchal power to liberate themselves and others from oppression–ask Ziauddin Yousafzai whether being powerful is a priority for him. He is the very example of what liberation is for men and for women under harsh patriarchal regimes. Why, then, knowing as we do that patriarchy survives because it appeals to men with a sense of entitlement to power, we want to empower women? Again: why not liberate everyone from the shackles of power?

Women who manage to choose how to live their lives, whether they’re called Rosalía or Malala, are, to me, not instances of empowerment but of freedom. Power, as we see in patriarchal men, does not free you: it’s the other way round–it enslaves you to living life as others dictate. If you’re thinking that I’m wrong and that only enjoying a great amount of power guarantees your personal freedom then you don’t mean power, you mean agency. Vladimir Putin has plenty of power and he’s not using it for his personal liberation: he’s using it to compete with other men for the title of biggest living patriarch. Angela Merkel also has much power–but isn’t she the counterexample of women’s liberation? Perhaps she’ll feel truly liberated when she retires next year and can finally use her agency to help others rather than uphold, as she is doing, the status quo.

 I think I’ve now hit on the key of my own personal philosophy of power, perhaps I should call it anti-power. If being powerful is being in a position to cause things tohappen (and being powerless is being in a position in which you can’t stopthings from happening), then I can say that the only use I see in empowerment is an altruistic ability to make life better for others. Rosalía’s ‘poder femenino’ should ideally translate into lending a hand so that other persons can flourish,as she is doing. Malala is more clearly following this path already, as are others. I don’t mean Bill-Gates-style philanthropy (though this is much better than what he used to embody and now Elon Musk embodies) or charity, not even NGO activism but a rethinking of what power is for. If, as a teacher, I am in a position to use my (very limited) power to benefit the careers of others who will in their turn help others, this is how I should use it. This may sound endogamic but that’s not at all what I mean. Patriarchy will be undone when we,men and women, ask ourselves ‘how can I help?’ rather than ‘how can I dominate?’

I’ll end by suggesting that empowerment is much more popular than liberation because the very idea of power is, regrettably, too glamorous. We also need to recall that empowerment is mainly a US export, pace Paolo Freire and NGO activism, and that in American culture the opposite of being powerful is not just being powerless but being a loser, which is even worse. Perhaps if we free ourselves from the obligation of being a winner that would be a step forward towards true liberation and the abandonment of the current obsession with power, which, trust me, is suspiciously patriarchal.

SLAP IN THE FACE, PUNCH IN THE GUTS (ON MACHIAVELLI AND TOLKIEN)

November 5th, 2018

I was recently re-reading Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) in the elegant translation by Peter Bondanella (Oxford UP, 2008), when I came across this passage in ‘Chapter XXX: Of Fortune’s Power in Human Affairs and How She Can Be Resisted’: ‘I certainly believe this: that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down’ (86-87).

I’m still reeling from the force of the slap, for this was possibly three weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about these words. I didn’t feel feminist indignation at Machiavelli’s blatant misogyny, which should be any thinking woman’s reaction, but a very strong sense of exclusion: I felt as if he was telling me to my face from his grave ‘you are a woman and the words you are reading are not for you’. I also felt positively unwanted in the circles discussing The Prince, perhaps, above all, because Bondanella added no explanatory note to this rude remark (among the many, many devoted to much minor details).

He did explain, as editor, that Fortune was habitually represented as a woman–for, I’ll add, Fortune is fickle and so are women. Bondanella also noted that, as I could check in his bibliography, very few women scholars have done work on Machiavelli; this comes as no surprise because they possibly felt the same rotund punch in the guts that I felt. Incidentally, Bondanella neglected to mention that Machiavelli was married (to Marietta Corsini) and he had six children. It took me a few clicks to get her name and the number of children, not out of idle curiosity but because I wanted to know whether Machiavelli could possibly be gay. I feel even more downhearted than usual when gay men support patriarchy.

Then, last week I was reading Humphrey Carpenter’s selection of Tolkien’s letters (published in 1981) and enjoying it very much until I came to a letter sent to one of his three sons, Michael, dated 6-8 March 1941. Tolkien was in the middle of writing The Lord of the Rings and, so, the female Elf Galadriel already existed, also Lúthien in The Silmarillion, both characters much praised by feminist critics. Incidentally, Tolkien also had a daughter, Priscilla, 13 at the time.

Tolkien theorizes in this letter to his son about how ‘The sexual impulse makes women (naturally when unspoiled more unselfish) very sympathetic and understanding, or specially desirous of being so (or seeming so), and very ready to enter into all interests, as far as they can, from ties to religion, of the young man they are attracted to’ (49). Um, I’ve always had my doubts about this fantasy of the Elf woman (Arwen) who gives up her mortality to marry a mere mortal (Aragorn). Tolkien continues in the same vein: women are not deceivers (what a relief!) but moved by ‘the servient, helpmeet instinct, generously warmed by desire and young blood’ (49).

As an Oxford professor, Tolkien had learned that women ‘can in fact often achieve very remarkable insight and understanding, even of things outside their natural range: for it is their gift to be perceptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that’ (49). That possibly explains why so many male teachers see no difference between different types of fertilization in different rooms. Tolkien, not the kind to have affairs with his female students, explains himself further thus: ‘How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point–and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him’ (49). Learning for women, to sum up, is a love affair not with knowledge but with male teachers. I wonder what Tolkien made of female teachers and male students.

So, again the slap in the face, the punch in the gut, though neither Machiavelli nor Tolkien seem to understand, particularly Tolkien, that we women can read in their texts their candid revelations about masculinity. My message to all the feminist critics wasting their time in endless discussions of how empowered poor Eówyn is that they should look, rather, into how the villain Sauron’s defeat matters less than Aragorn’s ‘legitimate’ patriarchal entitlement to the throne of his ancestors. By the way: Tolkien engraved on his wife’s tomb the name of Lúthien, the brave Elf she had inspired. Here’s something the two women have in common: Lúthien, like Arwen, gave up immortality to marry a man; Edith, a fervent  Anglican, became a Catholic to please the ultra-conservative Tolkien before they married. Lúthien never regretted her choice but Edith, Humphrey Carpenter informs us, raged and raged (she hated compulsory confession) until her husband allowed her in 1940 (they had married in 1916) to attend church as she pleased.

What I am describing is yet another case of noticing the idol’s clay feet. I don’t mean that either Machiavelli or Tolkien are my personal idols but that most texts, past and present, which are extremely relevant to how we think and read in Western culture exclude 50% of humankind. (Of course, you silly girl!). Those reluctant to changing any rules of grammar concerning genre usually claim that ‘man/men’ is often a generic way of referring to all human beings, and that we women exaggerate when we complain against this usage. What I find, however, is that actually ‘man/men’ refers specifically to the male half of humankind and if you press me actually to its patriarchal top. Take the title of Damien Chazell’s recent film on Neil Armstrong, First Man: what is the word ‘man’ doing there? Does it actually mean ‘person’? Or is it, as I suspect, another neglectful way of telling us women, ‘none of you have travelled to the Moon’ (because we men didn’t allow you)? One more slap… (Now check what the Mercury 13 programme was).

I’m trying to be fair here and think of how often women’s writing excludes men, which is often, I’m sure, particularly in radical feminist works. The difference, I think, is that male readers (and please excuse my essentialism) are less likely to be caught unaware, as we are. If you read a feminist text you know where you stand. The problem with most patriarchal texts is that they tend to conceal their filiation not necessarily out of hypocrisy but because they assume that the whole world is patriarchal. Only when some kind of explanation is offered (e.g. Tolkien’s letter) are the true colours of the man in question displayed. It is, I believe, far less likely for a feminist woman to avoid commenting on her own gender views. Even so, I just don’t see a radical feminist making androphobic comments such as ‘Destiny is like a man and he needs to be grabbed by the testicles to be controlled’ or ‘male students only learn if they feel erotically bound to their female teachers but, even so, their ability to learn evaporates the moment she shows disinterest’. Amazing how things sound when you reverse gender.

Reading recently Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution (a collection of lucid blog posts) I had to agree with her that it is very difficult to relax at the end of the day without being slapped in the face by patriarchy in any of the fictions and non-fictions we consume. I started watching a few days ago 1922, a Netflix movie based on Stephen King’s eponymous novella, and I stopped about 15 minutes into it when farmer Wilf James convinces his teen son Henry that they should kill his mother Arlette (she insists on selling the land they live off and move elsewhere). I did grasp that King and Netflix intended this crime to be a horrendous example of patriarchal abuse, and I knew that Wilf’s and Henry’s lives would be destroyed by it–but is this what I want to see? How does this help male viewers be interested in undermining patriarchy? How many enjoyed the very graphic scene of Arlette’s murder? The difference in relation to either The Prince of The Lord of the Rings is that I can ignore 1922 without feeling that my cultural capital is seriously diminished–but how can I ignore Machiavelli or Tolkien? I must read them, if only to better understand my own marginal position in a patriarchal world.

I think sometimes of what the world was like for, say, Mary Wollstonecraft, who understood so well her own marginal position 200 years ago and I wonder what it was like to know that, as a woman, you were not even a citizen with full rights. Some of us in a handful of Western countries have been told that we are equal to men but we get these constant reminders that we are not. You may be thinking that it is very naïve of me to expect to connect with Machiavelli and Tolkien, as they are instances of very different times and ways of thinking but here’s my question–how do we go on reading what we should read to be cultured persons without being constantly insulted as women? For we need to read men, right? It’s not a matter of not reading The Prince. And I certainly don’t want to ignore The Lord of the Rings (as I don’t want any man to ignore Frankenstein).

Here’s a riddle to finish: this is 2018 and no woman has travelled to the Moon yet–can we, then, say that the human species has reached our satellite? Will there ever be a film called First Woman about how the first human to step on Mars will be/was a woman?

Deep sigh.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ENJOYING BIBLIOGRAPHY LIVE! (AND CALLING FOR THE RETURN OF CONVERSATION)

October 30th, 2018

Comparing the lists of works cited in pre-1990s bibliography and in recent academic publications, it is obvious that we are about to reach a critical turning point after which our secondary sources will overwhelm our writing. At least this is how I feel.

There are, I think, two justifications for the use of quotations in academic work. One is the need to prove that you know how to find the relevant sources–a task now made easier by digital databases but also more onerous, precisely because you can download in one afternoon a torrent of information that takes time you don’t have to digest. The other is the need to show that your argumentation is in touch with current debates on your topic and that you’re not rediscovering the wheel.

Beyond these two factors, it used to be the case that quotations were used to strengthen a point of your thesis or because the author in question expressed an idea with greater accuracy than you could muster. Now, every article begins with a barrage of increasingly short quotations and numerous parenthetical references to other sources simply alluded to by author’s surname, before a thesis can be minimally discerned. This is usually offered but only developed, if at all, many paragraphs later into the article as the barrage of quotations and references continues. In contrast, pre-1990s articles often rely on a maximum of ten sources, often no more than six, leaving thus room for close reading–which is what we need to do–and more importantly, for the expression of new ideas in creative ways.

How have we reached this situation? It’s a simply matter of numbers: the amount of English Studies specialists publishing new work in the 21st century is simply staggering. This means that in order to produce a reasonable list of works cited that does not consume 50% of the paper, as researchers we need to invest an enormous time in a) making a list of the relevant bibliography, b) reading as much and as fast as we can, c) taking notes. Then, once we have amassed about as many words as we can write (this happens to me every time), we need to start paring down all the information so painstakingly amassed in order to select the few precious words we can quote. I tend to write much more than I need for the limited word count we can fill in journal articles or collective books, which means that I need to weigh very carefully every secondary source I insert, hoping nobody will notice omissions. Needless to say, I try but do not always manage to read in depth all the sources I use, for there must be a balance between the time we consume in writing each piece and its importance in our research.

This issue of the proliferation of secondary sources is a problem affecting all topics, since there are specialists in all areas. I grant that more bibliography is generated on the canonical classics than on newer work but writing about some popular favourites–for instance, The Hunger Games–is also daunting. Basically, no matter what you want to discuss it takes much longer to combine your writing with the sources than to express what you wish to say. My student tutorees often complain that once they read the bibliography on their topic they feel dismayed rather than encouraged, and almost crowded out of their dissertations by the many other researchers they need to name. This was one of the reasons why I started writing this very blog: to be able to express my ideas in a simple, direct way without the compulsory search for bibliography–here I just quote what I really need to quote–and the insertion of footnotes.

In Catalan Studies matters are, naturally, very different. The number of specialists is tiny in comparison to those in English Studies, which means that whole stretches of Catalan Literature are still unexplored (or neglected, depending on how you look at it). Last Saturday I presented the collective book I have edited, Explorant Mecanoscrit del segon origen: Noves lectures (Orciny Press, http://www.orcinypress.com/producto/explorant-mecanoscrit-del-segon-origen-noves-lectures/), which is a translation of the monographic issue published in English in 2017 by the online journal Alambique (https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/alambique/vol4/iss2/). I still marvel that this is pioneering work–sorry to brag–despite the fact that Manuel de Pedrolo’s best-known volume (he published 128!) has sold more than 1,500,000 copies since 1974 when it appeared and has been read practically by every Catalan speaker under 50. There was a gap to fill in, it seems, and I’m glad to have helped.

If you look at the works cited list for each of the six articles in the new volume, you will immediately see that the bibliography on Pedrolo is far more limited than that on his anglophone equivalents, such as Graham Greene or George Orwell. We (the six authors) have nonetheless used the whole bag of tricks to give each of our essays the expected list of 25/35 secondary sources, almost scrapping the bottom of the barrel and bringing in an assortment of tangential items (such as newspaper articles, documentaries and so on) into our work. I have enjoyed, for once, the certainty that the limited list of extant sources is all the available bibliography there is, and relished my familiarity with most of the entries.

This is why last Wednesday 24 was such an exceptional day for me. I was invited to participate in the one-day conference at the Universitat de Barcelona, ‘Manuel de Pedrolo, una mirada oberta’, and I had the immense pleasure to see in the same room most specialists in Pedrolo–almost the complete bibliography! In no particular order: Antoni Munné-Jordà, Víctor Martínez-Gil, Àlex Martín, Elisabet Armengol, Anna Maria Villalonga, Patrizio Rigobon, Francesc Ardolino, Ramon X. Rosselló, Jordi Coca and my co-authors Pedro Nilsson-Fernàndez and Anna Maria Moreno-Bedmar (who invited me, for which I’m very thankful). This may be a common situation for other researchers but, as a non-native specialist in English Studies I always have the impression that the inner circles of each area I’m interested in happen elsewhere, and this is the first time when I find myself not only part of a circle but in the presence of most of its members.

Beautiful as the meeting on Pedrolo was, it was also further proof that, generally speaking, textuality is overwhelming conversation by which I mean that, because the paper presentations were so many and so long, we had hardly time to debate the issues we had ourselves raised. This is always frustrating to me, to the point that once I considered with a friend the possibility of having a one-day conference organized on the basis of speed-dating, with academics actually talking to each other for a few minutes at least and reading the papers either before or after the event. The way we do things now, interaction happens too seldom and too hurriedly, which means that what we produce in writing is not as advanced as it might be.

Sometimes you need someone from outside to realize that things are far from ideal. A non-academic friend who attended the presentation of Explorant Mecanoscrit del segon origen was very much surprised to see that some of my co-authors were meeting then for the first time. He had assumed that a collective book springs from a series of previous conversations in which we draw a plan for the volume, then divide the tasks and next spend time debating each point in our corresponding papers. I explained that actually we tend not to read each other’s work when we participate in a collective volume until this is published (at least, I always do that), and he was flabbergasted. In a way, so am I but, then, as I have just pointed out, not even seminars have room for debate.

I’m not the only one to be calling for a slowing down of academic life, of course, but the particular bee in my bonnet is, I insist, conversation. In our frenzy to produce texts than count as research, we have forgotten how to communicate with each other–we read and quote each other, but this is not real conversation. It might even be a sign of profound loneliness. In my days as a naïve undergrad I imagined that joining academia would mean enjoying whole afternoons of intelligent conversation once morning lectures were over, but this has never happened. I really believe in the traditional institution of the common room, but instead what we get is each researcher in their office answering e-mails. If we stop to talk, this happens mostly in the corridor, as we rush from office to classroom (or bathroom!). Conversation has the bad reputation of being idle chat, when it might solve the problem of how to slow down hectic academic life and produce less but better research. (And here I am, writing to whoever is reading me instead of discussing books with my ultra-busy Department colleagues…).

So, to sum up my sketchy argument today–easy access to what others write thousands of miles away is a miracle in comparison to my days as a pre-internet PhD candidate, yet digitalization and the very growth of English Studies has also generated the burden of colossal works cited lists. Experiences like the recent Pedrolo seminar show me that, sometimes, small is much better than big but also that textuality carries too much weight in comparison to conversation. If only we could re-learn the almost lost art of conversation, academic life would slow down and we could produce better research. Less prolific, of course, but deeper. (But, then, would quoting from live personal communication in papers be valid?).

I wonder which Departments still have common rooms and whether they’re ever used for truly meaningful academic conversation. Or has this never happened?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ON PATRIARCHY AND CATALAN INDEPENDENCE

October 23rd, 2018

I have been trying to avoid the thorny subject of Catalan independence here but the recent hullaballoo caused by the (supposed) misreading of Agustí Colominas’ words on a television interview last 17 October might be useful to offer an alternative, gendered interpretation of the self-styled ‘procés’.

My personal political opinion is simple enough: Catalan independence should be won in a legal referendum with at least 75% to 80% support for–as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya has recently acknowledged and former Generalitat President Artur Mas also acknowledged–you cannot start a new state with only half the citizens’ support. You risk in this way a terrible split, at worst a civil war (though I doubt this would happen here). The Catalan conflict is not really a matter of Spain versus Catalonia but of how the independentists are trying to rush the political process without a convincing discourse that entices hostile, reluctant or even just indifferent people to their cause. Argue your case with solid ideas, explain how a Catalan Republic would be much better than any top-of-the-world Scandinavian country and then let’s vote. Legally, with UN and EU backing, if not with that of Spain, for who could stop a unified population absolutely convinced of what they want (which is not the case now)?

Colominas’ unfortunate words raised the issue of violence, which had been so far more or less suppressed. I mean mortal violence–much has been said, of course, about the brutal, intolerable use of police repression on October 1st 2017. Allow me to explain that Agustí Colominas is a historian and political theorist attached as major ideologist to Carles Puigdemont’s Crida Nacional, soon to become a formal political party. This is why his words carry so much weight. Speaking on La Xarxa, Colominas was trying to celebrate the fact that Catalan independentism has chosen a pacifist strategy. However, the way he defended this argument was most awkward (or a Freudian slip…): ‘There were a number of naïve steps. No doubt. Above all, if you try to carry out this very Catalan experiment of trying to get independence without a single death’. He was asked whether people should die for an idea and he replied that ‘so far, in all independences in the world people have died. In ours we have decided we don’t want that. If you make that decision, then it takes longer. The process is far longer’.

Unsurprisingly, his ambiguous wording was interpreted as evidence that Colominas was asking for human life to be sacrificed if necessary for the sake of Catalan independence. The reactions on Twitter and other media were furious, including that of Esquerra’s notorious member of Parliament, Gabriel Rufián. Not too elegantly, Colomina twitted back: ‘You can see that Gabriel Rufián possibly does not understand Catalan. I’ll translate [into Spanish Castilian] and simplify: “the Catalan process does not want any dead and this why it will take longer to accomplish our aim”’ (“el procés català no desitja morts i per això portarà més temps aconseguir l’objectiu”). Fair enough and happy to read so.

Now, here’s a nasty surprise–last 24 August, Stanford University professor Joan Ramon Resina (director of the Iberian Studies Programme) suggested in an interview published by VilaWeb that sacrificing Catalan lives could have helped defend the Republic, declared on 27 October but quickly suppressed for lack of internal and external support. Acknowledging that he is speaking from a position of complete safety (he lives in California), Resina describes a terrifying scenario, imagining that the Catalan Parliament could have been stormed and the Spanish State would have used then extreme violence, leading to fatalities. The cost of the “collateral victims” (his own quotation marks) ‘would have been too high for the European institutions’ and, presumably, independence would have followed. Next, he adds: ‘I have trouble understanding those who say that a people’s freedom is not worth a single victim. Great causes have never been won with anaesthesia. Why should freedom be cheaper in Catalonia than in other places?’ (https://www.vilaweb.cat/noticies/joan-ramon-resina-entrevista-tardor-republicana/).

Here’s the answer: because Catalonia–like all civilized nations–should aspire to being a dignified post-patriarchal nation that respects human rights and lives, and not another patriarchal national aberration, full of pointless violence and bloodshed. Resina’s suggestion that the death of some individuals hypothetically murdered by Spanish police, or troops, could be a desirable event in our history is disgusting, despicable, atrocious and, above all, deeply anti-Catalan. Even Colominas understands that.

I have always wanted to write a book about the gender issues connecting the quadrangle formed by the Basque Country and Catalonia, plus Ireland and Scotland. I won’t do that because I’m too busy dismantling patriarchy in other projects (I’m currently writing about villainy) and, so, I’ll use this post as a sort of summary of my project. I’ll insist here on the central point of my theorization: patriarchy is not masculinity–as we can see, many men reacted in horror after (mis)interpreting Colominas’ words as a call to take up arms and sacrifice life for a political ideal. Theirs is what I would call an anti-patriarchal position, one that defends argumentation and a pacific, legal struggle rather than revolution–for this is 2018, not 1789 or 1917, and we know how bloody revolutions end. So this is what my imaginary book would discuss. Please, bear with me.

If you notice, what characterizes the case of Ireland and the Basque Country is that both had terrorist movements presenting themselves as political organizations for the defence of the homeland (following the chivalric scenario of the knights saving the damsel in distress). Fernando Aramburu’s excellent novel Patria (2016)–now filmed as an HBO series–has done a very good job of dissecting the absurdity of E.T.A., which left in its gory wake 800 dead and hundreds of casualties, in a mad bid to attain the independence of the Basque Country. Today, the independentist option is peacefully represented by legal party Euskal Herria Bildu and growing, following the non-violent Catalan process.

Likewise, the I.R.A. (in its different incarnations and factions) killed hundreds and maimed hundreds more, before surrendering to plain reality and accepting that the Republic of Ireland and British Northern Ireland could not be unified by force. Brexit will perhaps manage the deed, probably with a good share of personal suffering but, hopefully, no loss of limb or life. A woman too often neglected, Mo Mowland, was behind the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, which brought much needed common sense and placed Sinn Feinn firmly within Northern Irish legality. Of course, another woman, Margaret Thatcher, was responsible for responding to terrorist patriarchal violence with even more patriarchal violence, coming from the state. But, then, this reinforces my notion that patriarchy is not masculinity but a way of organizing society and personal life through fear and violence.

My thesis is that in Ireland and in the Basque Country the independentist, national political struggle was coloured by gender values attached to classic patriarchal masculinity: glory, honour, duty. This is both the basis of militarism and of terrorism, which is why it is sometimes so hard to distinguish heroes from villains (what was Napoleon?). You are probably thinking that women were also part of E.T.A. and I.R.A. and that some are today ISIS supporters. The matter of the poor sex slaves, represented by the new Nobel Prize winner for Peace, Nadia Murad, should make it obvious to you that ISIS is an extremely patriarchal terrorist organization–far beyond any patriarchal European ideology and criminal band. At the same time, you should begin to see that all violence is based on the typical sense of patriarchal entitlement: I kill (or try to kill) you because I personally decide that your life matters less than my struggle, even though by using violence I undermine the justification for my own fight and cause state violence to grow accordingly.

Now, Scotland and Catalonia also had their own patriarchal terrorist movements–but they were small. Scottish author Ian Rankin refers in his novels to the 1950s/1970s proto-terrorist Sword and Shield, but this appears to be his own invention (is it?). The Scottish National Liberation Army (SNLA), a.k.a. the Tartan Terrorists, was formed in 1979–after the failed referendum for devolution–by one Adam Busby jr., a convicted terrorist since 2010. Mr. Busby preferred letter bombs and even parcel bombs–in the style of the infamous Unabomber–but does not seem to have caused major human harm. In Catalonia, Terra Lliure, formed in 1978, went much further than SNLA, injuring many in a series of similarly misguided attacks and even killing a poor woman before its dissolution in 1995.

I’m not making the idiotic point that Scottish and Catalan terrorism was less effective (if that is a word that should ever be used in this context) than Irish and Basque terrorism because it lacked committed enough ‘warriors’. The point I’m raising is that both Scotland and Catalonia were and are societies uninterested in political violence of any kind, including terrorism, because the classic patriarchal values are less appealing there and here. The counterargument I give myself is that the British Army (Scottish soldiers were always a mainstay of the Empire) and gang-related street violence, an endemic problem, have absorbed much patriarchal violence in Scotland. Yet, the fact is that the recent referendum and its aftermath have not generated any violent incidents. Catalan nationalists tend to claim that being subordinated to Spain has resulted in a constant need to negotiate and this is why violent confrontation is not part of our society–or the other way round: being mainly a trading nation, we understand the advantages of negotiation.

Let me recap: nations with a deeper patriarchal foundation may be tempted by terrorism and, generally, political violence leading to revolution, whereas nations with a shallower patriarchy (there is no nation with a wholly alternative social arrangement) abhor political violence and will not sacrifice human lives for ideas. The two World Wars, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq, the Balkans War and Syria today have done much to erode the appeal of the glory/duty/honour triad based on bloodshed. Neither in Scotland nor in Catalonia has the craving for independence resulted in personal clashes, or rioting of any kind–though the image of the Catalan police almost losing the national Parliament last 1 October to a horde of violent protesters is certainly worrying.

Now, here’s a problem. Few of the Catalan men and women that were scandalized and appalled by Colominas’ words in the basic, immediate interpretation–and I hope they were 99%, though there are always lost souls–were aware that their reaction was anti-patriarchal, for the simple reason that we are generally ignorant of how patriarchy operates. Patriarchy is not, as radical feminism assumed in the 1970s, a terrorist system established to intimidate women into submission. It is certainly that but also, more generally, a social system based on using violence, against both men and women, to impose its own views.

In Resina’s ugly vision, the Spanish Other is the violent patriarch and the dead would have been part of the gendered discourse of Catalonia as a victimized nation. Yet, this is not good at all: what Resina presents is the case of an abused wife who welcomes her husband’s murdering one of their children because its death will free her… You can see this leads nowhere. A truly anti-patriarchal nation does not put its hopes into the acts of bullies or into male messianic leaders but into the ability of its male and female citizens to renew the jaded, 19th century scenario of national liberation. What is needed is a new approach based on a collective capacity to re-imagine the community as a forward-looking project (not a vague, dreamy utopia). For that, it is important that the men, above all, continue eschewing all violence and embrace an alternative way of being a (Catalan) man.

They are not doing so badly… I only know of one book about Catalan masculinity, the collective volume edited by Josep-Anton Fernàndez and Adrià Chavarria Calçasses, gallines i maricons: Homes contra la masculinitat hegemònica (2004). That wimps, chickens and faggots appear in the title as terms of pride rather than opprobrium says a lot about how unafraid Catalan men are of resisting hegemonic masculinity. Perhaps the strong reaction against Colominas’ words, whatever he intended them to mean, shows that we are now ready to make anti-patriarchal policies absolutely central in our society. My suggestion is that this might be the way to build something truly new, even post-national, to replace the worn-out patriarchal stories we have been hearing for the last two centuries. Just an idea. Scotland, now headed by a woman First Minister, is continuing its non-violent path, as it educates its young men into abandoning street violence. And happily, in Ireland and the Basque Country peace continues.

Some days, I find there is hope for the world. Can we, please, set an example?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

READING LIVES: BIOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH (AND VD)

October 16th, 2018


Back in 1994 I met one of the most delicious persons I have ever met in my life–it is very, very hard to encapsulate in just one adjective the vivacity, cheerfulness, zest for life that Prof. Lois Rudnick transmits with her presence. Now emeritus, Lois was that academic year a Fulbright visitor from the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She spent that time teaching in my Department (also in the English Dept. at the Universitat de Barcelona). Lois gave me personally many wonderful moments to remember for ever, from our seeing together Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (Prof. Rudnick is Jewish) to teaching me why contemporary dance is more thrilling than classical ballet (it’s about the freedom to create new moves, as pioneering US dancer Isadora Duncan demonstrated her whole life).

Prof. Rudnick’s academic career has been focused mainly on researching the life of literary and artistic hostess Mabel Dodge Luhan. Several of the many biographical books she has devoted to Luhan are available from Amazon.com, if you’re curious. I must say that, before meeting Lois, I had never heard of Luhan (1879-1962), a wealthy socialite from Buffalo (New York) particularly known for having chosen Taos, in New Mexico, as her home and having attracted there a long list of artists of all descriptions from 1917 onward. D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe are usually mentioned among her guests, but the list is far, far longer. Incidentally, her beautiful Taos home is now a bed-and-breakfast establishment–though she hated tourists. Luhan, née Ganson, went though four marriages that gave her not only a long list of surnames to choose from but also a troubled private and public life. Her last husband, Tony Lujan (notice the different spelling) was a handsome Pueblo Indian (today native American…) whom she married in 1923, at a historical period when very few interracial unions of this exceptional kind were celebrated at all. They stayed married for almost 40 years.

Lois Rudnick’s latest book on Luhan is The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture (2012). This is actually an edition of a number of autobiographical texts which Luhan did not include in her groundbreaking autobiographical tetralogy, Intimate Memoirs (1933-37), which she started writing at 45. In this 1600-page long, poignant text Luhan gave a candid account not only of her network of celebrity friends and acquaintances but also of her own personal life, with a sincerity that is to be praised. This woman was born in an American Victorian home but her life ended the year before second-wave feminism erupted with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. In these 83 years she had to learn, at a great personal cost, how to break the tight rules she had been handed down as a girl while she and the rest of the international Modernist coterie(s) re-invented love, sexuality and identity. Not an easy task.

The ‘suppressed memoirs’ that Prof. Rudkin could not access before 2000 (there was an injunction placed by author’s son, if I understand correctly, against their publication) deal specifically with the episodes in Luhan’s life connected with sex, and more particularly with how the transmission of VD negatively affected her marriages and her many affairs. Indeed, the volume even contains a nicely-packed condom–a clever reminder that VD is still rampant, despite all we (supposedly) know about gonorrhoea, syphilis and the rest. Also, a reminder that (though also transmitted in other ways than VD) HIV and syphilis connect distant periods of heterosexuality in ways we hardly pay attention to.

The paradox in Luhan’s life is that of her four husbands, three suffered from syphilis and, although she did all she could to avoid catching the feared disease (except, it seems, using condoms, for she wanted children) ultimately Tony’s infidelity was the reason why Mabel was infected and their idyll radically transformed. I am very much reluctant to reading biographical material and I have a very prudish Victorian horror of intruding into the sex lives of persons who have not entrusted their confidence to me. Fiction is fine but real-life events are not so fine. You may imagine how befuddled I felt reading the passage in which Luhan describes that she knew simultaneously that her husband Tony was a) unfaithful and b) infected with syphilis, when she noticed the stain of bloodied semen on the otherwise pristine white sheet he used to wrap his body in.

I get Lois’ point: Luhan gives unique evidence of how the Modernist sexual liberation of the 1910s-1930s was accompanied by the dark shadow of VD, so why not explore it? We do know that Victorian women (and their babies) were often the innocent victims of their husbands’ secret lives but we have little information about how women of Luhan’s generation coped with the reality of VD, once first-wave feminism introduced a certain measure of female sexual liberation. Fiction could not go very far: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1929 (privately and in Italy) was the object of an obscenity trial in 1960 and could only be published in the UK after that date. And there’s no mention of VD in it despite its frank sexuality! So, yes, I value and understand Luhan’s painful, brave testimonial. Still, I’m somehow sorry that I need to intrude into the privacy of her bedroom to grasp a truth everyone in her time seemed to be hiding. I must thank Lois Rudnick, then, for bringing that truth to us while I wonder whether that is the only way to raise awareness. Possibly.

Having got that off my chest that, I have other issues to raise. You can, by the way, listen to Prof. Rudnick herself discuss her book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibTHhgQ74ew. One of these issues is that, obviously, only educated, upper-class women like Luhan were articulate enough to offer an insightful portrait of private life (and even so, she mostly wrote her texts for the psychologists and psychiatrists treating her all her life). The anger and disappointment with which she receives evidence of infection (and hence, of betrayal) must have also been part of the life of less privileged women but, then, we will never have their testimonial. They’re just statistics, if at all.

Another issue is that, from what I gather, early 20th century women who, like Mabel, appeared to be liberated and even had a notorious reputation as men-eaters, did not really find much satisfaction in sex, which was not even the main point in their search for romance. Reading Luhan’s account of the affair she had with Dr. John Parmenter during her first marriage, it seems that she fell in love above all with a certain patriarchal ideal of protective masculinity, paradoxical as this may sound. The pain which she felt when this idealized man turned out to be incapable of abandoning a wife he didn’t love seems to come directly from the Romantic period rather than the 1910s. This is Jane Austen with sex and not the post-second feminist wave accounts of bedroom misencounters we are used to now.

In fact, and this is what kept me reading–apart from Prof. Rudnick’s manifest passion for her subject–the suppressed memoirs function as a chronicle of a lost struggle against infidelity. Decades into their marriage, and even though Mabel knows that Tony has had liaisons with other women, she feels again a deep Romantic pain caused by the budding relationship between her husband and a younger woman, Millicent Rogers. A celebrity in the circles of fashion and art, Rogers moved from Hollywood to Taos in 1947 intent on imitating the much admired Luhan, to the point of also obsessing with Tony. Luhan never acknowledges that she is in the same position as Dr. Parmenter’s wife back in the first of the suppressed memoirs, either because she is mortified by the comparison or because she cannot see the parallelism. I don’t mean that infidelity necessarily leads eventually to some kind of retribution but, rather, that Luhan must be one of the first modern women to describe how monogamy and sexual liberation clash–a situation we are very far from having solved.

Thus, the most painful memory Luhan narrates is not her chagrin at realizing that, despite her caution, she has syphilis but her realization that she can do nothing to stop Tony from loving this Rogers woman, the upstart whom Mabel so hates. Much more so because unlike Dr. Parmenter, who acts as a cowardly child with both wife and mistress, Tony assumes with all the serenity he can muster that he loves Mabel but also Millicent (she eventually left him for his nephew, Benito). Encountering that type of deep Romantic pain in a book about venereal disease gives Lois Rudnick’s exploration of American Modernism a strange twist, for my impression is that in current discussions of sexuality love (which is what Mabel feels) occupies in the end little room. I may be ranting and raving at my worst today but, beyond the clichés of romance, is there any serious current attempt at considering love? Don’t we talk too much about sexuality, too little about feeling? And how come I notice this void in a book about syphilis?

There is also a subtle subtext in The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan which has do to with race and class. As a rich, white, female intruder in the Pueblo community Luhan is not particularly well-liked; her affair with Tony, which begins when both are still married, is less than welcome and she even more or less acknowledges that her money bought this Pueblo man just as she purchased Taos land. Eventually, Mabel convinces the Pueblo Indians indirectly through Tony (by then her husband) and, if I recall correctly, the intervention of John Collier–later Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in President Roosevelt’s administration–to test the adult community members for syphilis. Among those who refuse to be tested is the husband of Tony’s mistress, the woman who passes syphilis onto him. If you add two and two, Rudnick is hinting at a plot of revenge aimed at putting the Yankee interloper in her place. The impulse to do biographical research exposes, thus, patterns in History we might never be aware of.

I recall conversations with Lois, worried already in 1994-5, before the internet really exploded, about what would happen with documentation in the future and how biographers would work. Funnily, if Luhan were alive today, she would most likely be an influencer with a heavily documented life in the social networks. And/or perhaps one of those novelists that write narcissistic auto-fiction, though I wonder whether there is a single grain of truth in the sub-genre. As for the truth we get from Luhan’s ‘suppressed memoirs’ (and ‘suppressed’ here means both unpublished and self-censored), it is necessarily biased towards a zeitgeist obsessed with sex and very much reluctant to consider love–and the models we follow in our lives. At one point Mabel throws a tantrum at her husband, she writes, not so much because she is uncontrollably angry but because she intends to seduce her man back into her arms as the heroines of romance do. Impassive, Tony responds coolly ‘You’re tearing my trousers’ and the whole edifice of romantic seduction comes crashing down. At least, Mabel knows which model is failing her. As for us, how do we love (or fail to love)? I wonder.

By the way, you might be surprised to know that in the USA, ‘During 2017, there were 101,567 reported new diagnoses of syphilis (all stages), compared to 39,782 estimated new diagnoses of HIV infection in 2016 and 555,608 cases of gonorrhoea in 2017’, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/std/syphilis/stdfact-syphilis-detailed.htm). Just in case you thought syphilis was a thing of the distant Victorian past and not of post-modern sexuality.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

Romanticism: Doubts and Queries

October 9th, 2018


Next semester I will be teaching again English Romantic Literature after a long lapse, spent teaching mainly Victorian Literature. I last taught Romanticism in the academic year 2004-5, which is really a long time ago–even though the 21st century produces this strange effect of making all yearly dates beginning with 20 seem just yesterday. Although to the layperson it might seem that the literary periods of the past stay static, the fact is that they are in constant turmoil because of expanding research. What Romanticism was back in 1988, when Prof. Guillermina Cenoz so beautifully taught it to my second-year undergrad class, is not the same Romanticism I taught in 2004. 14 years later, in 2018, Romanticism is, once more, quite a different construction. Or is it?

The way to gauge the changes in how a particular literary period is apprehended is to read the introductions aimed at students. In my undergrad years I learned Romanticism from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume 2) and the truly splendid New Pelican Guide to English Literature, edited by Boris Ford. The nine volumes are still in my office and I marvel at how dense they are–Ford and his collaborators assumed that undergrads were sophisticated readers, willing and happy to study what amounts to an extraordinarily long text. The last volume, if I am correct, was published in 1995 and put an end to a classic style of presenting information to students, before the emergence of theory seeped down to more basic levels and before identity politics wreaked havoc on the canon (or tried to). I’m not being nostalgic but just making a note of how academic fashions come and go.

We have been using as background reading for our second-year ‘Victorian Literature’ course Maureen Moran’s guide, simply called Victorian Literature and Culture (Continuum, 2007). When I write ‘using’ I mean that students are expected to read it in the first month and then pass a quiz. I must confess that my colleagues and I had great fun preparing the multiple choice questions, particularly the nonsensical option that should be discarded first (but that each year a handful of students do choose…). I have read, then, Sharon Ruston’s introduction in the same series, called Romanticism, to consider whether we could use it in a similar way. I have enjoyed it very much but there are a number of issues that worry me and that I would like to address here. One is the very construction of the books called introductions and the other is the resilience of the canon.

I have already written here two posts about the sub-genre of the introduction. One in 2011, on British theatre (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/09/like-a-crowded-party-reading-introductions-to-british-theatre/); the other just last year, 2017, about Scottish Literature (http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2017/07/03/trying-to-catch-up-a-book-on-recent-scottish-literature/). I may be repeating, then, some of the arguments, though this topic always takes a slightly different angle depending on the material. Thus, last September 27, I attended the presentation of the volume edited by Teresa López-Pellisa, Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española at Llibreria Gigamesh and you can see that the presenter, Prof. Miquel Barceló, spent a good deal of his talk wondering how such a dense volume should be read (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzgkedREkjg). I myself intervened to question whether a book is the ideal vehicle for an introduction, guide, or history but seeing Teresa’s concerned face (her publisher was in the room…) I quickly changed subject.

Historia… is very different from Ruston’s Romanticism yet they present similar problems because these are books that need to be studied, not just read. Miquel Barceló referred to Teresa’s excellent volume as a ‘reference book’ but this is not really what it is. His own Ciencia ficción: Nueva guía de lectura (the 2015 new edition based on his 1990 classic) is, for me, a reference book: you can read it from end to end or just dip into it for specific information. Of course, this is what he meant in relation to the 14 chapters in Historia… but even if you take each chapter separately, you still need paper and pen to make notes or, as I did, keep your tablet close by to check whatever you need to check. And here’s a problem (also with Ruston’s Romanticism): when I read books that survey a literary field, I need to see pictures as a memory aid–of authors, book covers, places, arts, you name it… Whether this is a thick 500+ page book (like Historia….) or a slim 150-page volume like Ruston’s, a survey which offers no illustrations is beginning to be problematic for me as a reader of the internet age. Imagine what the digital natives seating in our classrooms must think of so much print…

I’ll leave the ambitious Historia de la ciencia ficción en la cultura española aside to focus on the introductions to literary periods for undergrads to claim that they should be offered, ideally, as hypertextual online resources most attractive to navigate. Now, the problem with the available resources (at least the ones I know of) is that either they are too basic, or too sprawling. Also, excuse me, antiquated. Look, for instance, at the very well-known Victorian Web. If you read the credits page, you will see that, basically the website’s configuration dates back to the mid 1990s. It has been growing magnificently in number of documents and now it offers versions in Spanish and French. But, although it is listed as one of the resources we recommend to our students, I’m very sorry to say that it is not really useful to them–it can even have the negative effect of overwhelming them. It is not my intention to criticize in any way what is, I insist, a wonder of the academic world but to question the inexistence of truly adequate, basic level introductions to literary periods and schools that can be safely recommended to undergrads.

Let’s see if I can explain myself better. Take Ruston’s book, with its four sections: 1. Historical, Cultural and Intellectual Context, 2. Literature in the Romantic Period, 3. Critical Approaches, and 4. Resources for Independent Study (including a chronology, a glossary of key concepts, and a bibliography). This is about 125 pages of text (parts 1, 2 and 3) and about 30 for part 4–a reasonably brief text, of a size that would adapt very well to the website format. The moment I started reading, I could see where the links to other online resources could be placed and where the pictures should be inserted; their absence grew louder as I read on and what appeared to be basic information started thickening into a lovely but very thick broth.

Half-way into the book, I understood what the problem is: Ruston has a marvellous understanding of the Romantic period and an impressive ability to offer a synthesis but she thinks as an expert academic and not as an undergrad student. Her introduction made perfect sense to me–as does Moran’s to the Victorian Age–because I already know what she is writing about and can, thus, enjoy the new twists and turns she has introduced in the canonical story I was handed down back in 1988. But I’m sure that our second year students approaching the Victorian age or Romanticism anew must be mostly baffled.

In Ruston’s volume there is, also, a perceptible tension between what is relevant and irrelevant, which is part of all introductions. Thus, no matter how amazing the Lunar Society (a Midlands scientific league of the most advanced minds of the time) seems to the author, I doubt that our students find the 3.5 pages about it relevant to the study of Wordsworth and company. This tension is, of course, most palpable in Ruston’s attempt to undo the vision of Romanticism as a period dominated by the poetry written by the six male geniuses (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats).

Our syllabus, as you may imagine, is focused on their poems (30% of the course) with the other two thirds devoted to celebrating women’s fiction, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Reading Ruston, however, I felt positively guilty that we strike such a poor gender balance in the poetry segment; then, at the same time I wondered whether I really want to teach Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith or Joanna Baillie instead of any of the six men. We might correct this by including in our booklet more poems by women but classroom time is awfully limited as it is. I realize that for others the real sin lies in not teaching Walter Scott’s novels but, again, if we had one year instead of one semester, we might include one of his books. As things are now, neither Mary Shelley nor Jane Austen are replaceable (at least to me).

A problem, then, is that if we really follow the picture that Ruston draws of the Romantic period and we radically alter the syllabus we run the risk of giving our students an impression that would not agree with the standard view. I do realize that we are changing the syllabus all the time: Frankenstein would have seemed an odd choice for the 1988 course I took. At the same time, I doubt very much that students will criticize us for not telling them about Hannah Moore–and the other way round: the experiment last year consisted of including the anti-slavery autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) to emphasize that the Romantic period was a time of abolitionist agitation. From what I’m told, students failed to be enthusiastic.

In an ideal situation, I would have the 70 students in my Romanticism class produce their own study materials, not in e-book form (as I have done in other courses) but as a small, limited, accessible website. This, I know, is pure madness for it requires an investment of time and digital know-how that I simply lack–and also because, guess what?, the result would not count as a Ministry-approved merit for my CV. A friend told me recently that publishing an introduction in book form has many advantages because this is a kind of text often quoted. I must stress, however, that the Spanish Ministry of Education, or, rather, the ANECA agency, does not rate introductions as valid research. Two friends, each the author of a valued introduction to their fields, have confirmed this point after failing their personal assessment exercise.

We, then, simply need to make do with what we can purchase or check online–which is, besides, produced in the anglophone world with no consideration of whether it is adaptable to other cultures. And hope that this will do for our students.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DRIFTING APART?: LINGUISTICS, LITERARY STUDIES AND ENGLISH PHILOLOGY

October 2nd, 2018


Two weeks ago I gave the inaugural lecture for the four-year BA in English Studies at the Universidad de Murcia. Actually, my lecture was intended to represent the Literature and Culture segment of the degree, and a colleague from the Universidad de Zaragoza, Dr. Iraide Ibarretxe Antuñano, offered a second inaugural lecture on Linguistics. She asked the students present how many had chosen the BA because of an interest in Linguistics and only a few raised their hands. She asked then the rest whether they were interested in Literature but, again, only a few hands were raised. The immense majority, then, had either no particular inclination or had not made their mind up yet. Or were confused–and no wonder!

Now bear with me…

Dr. Ibarretxe, though a graduate in English Studies has a Doctorate in Linguistics and works for the ‘Departamento de Lingüística General e Hispánica’ (not to be confused with ‘Filología Española’). This is an interesting name for, as happens, in my university we have no Linguistics Department and, indeed, the Spanish Department–familiarly known as ‘Hispánicas’–is the home not of this language speciality but of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. Linguistics belongs, so to speak, to the Catalan Department–at least, they are the ones in charge of the first-year compulsory course common to all language-based BAs. At the Universitat de Lleida, in contrast, Linguistics belongs to English Studies, and the corresponding unit is the ‘Departament d’Anglès i de Lingüística’.

Still with me?

Many Departments in Spanish universities which, back in 2009 or thereabouts started offering degrees called ‘English Studies’ (‘Estudios Ingleses’) or similar are, however, still called ‘Departamento de Filología Inglesa’. My university has Departments of ‘Filologia Anglesa’, ‘Filologia Hispànica’, ‘Filologia Catalana’ and ‘Filologia Francesa i Romànica’ even though the BAs are, apart from the above mentioned ‘English Studies’, ‘Spanish Language and Literature’, ‘Catalan Language and Literature’ and ‘French Studies’. The old degree in ‘Classical Languages’ (‘Filologia Clàssica’) has been integrated into a new BA called ‘Ciències de l’Antiguitat’ (‘Sciences of Antiquity’). This BA mixes classical philology, history and archaeology and is offered by the ‘Departament de Ciències de l’Antiguitat i de l’Edat Mitjana’. At the Universitat de Barcelona, in contrast, they have a ‘Departament de Filologia Clàssica, Romànica i Semítica’. And English is part of the ‘Departament de Llengües i Literatures Modernes i d’Estudis Anglesos’–not ‘Filologia’.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Juliet Capulet once said, trying to convince herself that Romeo Montague’s surname was of no significance. Her argument makes sense for the flower but not for her lover, as we know and she learned tragically, whereas we need to wonder what this confusing nomenclature signifies in relation to what we teach and who we are. I myself identify as a ‘filòloga anglesa’ because I have an official document from the Spanish State guaranteeing that I possess degrees (‘Licenciatura’, ‘Doctorado’) in ‘Filología Inglesa’ but, even so, I call myself a ‘cultural critic’ rather than a ‘philologist’ (a job description I connect with the analysis and edition of non-contemporary texts). For many in the anglophone world a ‘philologist’ is a sort of historical linguist, so see how confusing things can get.

In the tradition we come from, the study of a language and its Literature within a single degree is justified on the grounds that a language is the expression of a culture and its Literature the highest artistic manifestation in that tongue. Thus, the reasoning goes, if you want to know all about English you’re bound to learn how each anglophone community contributes to the common language and how Literature expresses its most sophisticated uses. This is, however, a very old framework, established back in the early 19th century in Romantic Germany, which is why the two main areas of knowledge under the yoke of ‘philology’ as it is known is Spain are pulling away from each other. In Literature we have been gravitating towards Cultural Studies, and thus expanding the number and variety of texts in English available for study. In Linguistics, though I’m not sure I am using the word correctly, they tend towards a kind of ambitious theorization in which the English language is just one element of the general entity known as language (funny how the difference between ‘idioma’ and ‘lenguaje’ helps in Spanish but is lost in English!). Properly speaking, then, there are very few ‘philologists’ among us, English Studies specialists.

I am actually beginning to realize that, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what our Language and Linguistics colleagues do. What we do in Literature and Culture Studies is far easier to explain for we are classified by geographical area and/or historical period. A course called ‘Scottish 18th century Poetry’ is self-explanatory but what do mysterious labels such as ‘Pragmatics’ or ‘Discourse Analysis’ really mean? Is ‘Historical Linguistics’ the same as ‘History of English’ or is it a more theoretical area? I’m even told that the yearly conference of AEDEAN (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) is increasingly seen as a Literature/Culture event, for which there is some evidence (see the programme for Córdoba this year), though not any intentionality. Linguists, I’m told, prefer meeting at the conference of AESLA, the Asosiación Española de Lingüística Aplicada (http://www.aesla.org.es/es), at least those inclined, logically, towards the applied aspects of Linguistics. This association, needless to say, goes far beyond English and you might well be a specialist in Mandarin Chinese and join it (after all, it’s about Linguistics not languages). In the same vein, ASETEL, the Asociación Española de Teoría de la Literatura, welcomes all kinds of specialists but I don’t think it has much weight within English Studies.

The centrifugal forces at work means that in some universities like Seville there are two separate Departments called ‘Filología Inglesa’, one for ‘UK and US Literature’ and one for ‘English Language’. I know that other universities have considered this structure but splitting Departments goes now against the crazy fashion for grouping as many of them together as possible (for basic financial reasons). In my own Department, we have asked several times to be considered at least separate units, in the same way our colleagues in ‘Filologia Alemanya’ are a different section. However, the UAB tells us that as far as they’re concerned we are a single body, which affects negatively our chronically under-staffed Literature/Culture section. If you think about it, an interesting solution might be the reshuffling of the language and Literature Departments into two macro-units: a Department of Language and Linguistics and a Department of  Literature and Culture, but I can hear the groans already as a I write this. There is a sort of conviction, odd as this may sound, that each Department’s culture depends very much on the language named in our degrees and that, essentially, we  in English Studies are a sort of ‘foreign body’ in habits and methods wherever we can be found. At least, I always have that impression.

Now think what it is like for a newly arrived students, like the ones I addressed a while ago in Murcia. They have most likely chosen English Studies with a vague idea that they like this particular language (this is the same all over Spain) and with very little actual knowledge of what the degree really means, much less of its tradition, and even of the meaning of ‘filología’. Then, on the first day, they are given two examples of research in the field which could not be more different and unorthodox: Dr. Ibarretxe’s invitation to consider the whole field of human language, not just English, and my own invitation to shatter the literary canon and bring even television series and videogames into their BA. If any of them originally registered to, say, study Shakespeare and learn English grammar, they must be wondering what hit them… And what hit them is, precisely, what I’m trying to pin down: the centrifugal forces of our study area.

At this point it is also necessary to raise the matter of how current ideas about science are also having an often unacknowledged impact in our midst. I have no doubt that Linguists are scientists and consider themselves so because they use method that can only be called scientific: data gathering, running experiments, and so on. Curiously, every time I tell a linguist that I’m not a scientist but a critic, s/he usually responds that I’m certainly a scientist, too, because I use a method. I do use a scholarly method of study, research and argumentation, which I also teach my students how to apply, and that is certainly based on gathering data (textual evidence from primary sources, ideas from secondary sources). I think, however, that there is an important difference: I don’t use labs, nor run experiments as scientists do and, above all, I celebrate full subjectivity, which is not welcome in science. I’m actually far more comfortable with the German concept of Wissenshaft,  which is practically impossible to translate but that I translate in my own style as ‘the cultivation of wisdom’, surely twisting the original word to suit my own ends. If you get the idea, I feel conceptually closer to Philosophy than to Linguistics and this a peculiar thought coming from a ‘philologist’.

Any kind of re-arrangement affecting knowledge as produced and transmitted by (Spanish) universities is costly and cumbersome. The school I work for is called ‘School of Philosophy and Letters’ which may have made sense back in 1968 when it was founded but is a really eccentric name today: Why is Philosophy foregrounded? What is the meaning of ‘Letters’, except a reminder that we have lost ‘Belle-lettres’ to the passage of time? When I asked whether we could possibly be renamed ‘School of Humanities’ I was reminded that many colleagues would possibly prefer ‘Human Sciences’ and that, anyway, the current name is convenient enough. As, I should add, ‘Departament de Filologia Anglesa’ is convenient enough but, then, no longer descriptive. Or, I think, accurate.

Perhaps, in the end, I just feel a bit envious that the language colleagues can call themselves ‘linguists’ and be done with the problem of what a ‘philologist’ should be called today. Those of us in Literature and Culture are not faring that well for if you call yourself a ‘literary critic’ people will think you’re a reviewer and I don’t think I know anyone calling themselves ‘literary theorist’ with the confidence others use the word ‘linguist’. Maybe I should give ‘literary scientist’ a chance… and, yes, I’m kidding.  

And to the students in Murcia, and any other first-year students in language and Literature degrees: remember that scientists were once called ‘natural philosophers’ and don’t forget that we used to train you as ‘filólogos’. Yes, lovers of language in all its extension…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ROBOSEXUALITY: BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND REALITY

September 25th, 2018

[This is a sort of preview of the talks I’m supposed to give on 2nd October at the conference of the International Robotics Association and on 24th November at CatCon II. Same topic, different languages.]

My good friend Prof. Carme Torras has kindly invited me to be part of a forum connecting the Humanities and robotics, to be staged within IROS 2018. I’m not 100% sure how come I have ended up choosing the topic of robosexuality but, after all, I’m a Gender Studies specialist. So that must be it.

Part of my summer reading was Teresa López-Pellisa and Lola Robles’ edited collection Poshumanas: Antología de escritoras españolas de ciencia ficción. One of the pieces, Nieves Delgado’s award-winning story ‘Casas rojas’ (2015) had stayed with me, buzzing at the back of my head. This story supposes that there exists a large network of brothels (the ‘red houses’ of the title), staffed with CorpIA’s advanced sexbots, to tell a tale of anti-patriarchal retaliation, as some of the dolls have been attacking clients (and particular owners). This inspired me to take the chance offered by Prof. Torras to take a peek at the current state of the debate on sexuality and robotics. The issue is much more urgent than I could have assumed, and certainly worrying. ‘Casas rojas’ might soon be a reality.

When I started preparing my presentation, I didn’t know the word ‘robosexuality’. I came across it in relation to a young French woman, called Lily (not sure about the surname) who is building a ‘male’ robot for her pleasure. She, among others, are vindicating the label ‘robosexual’ as a valid preference or identity. You might think that it’s too early to speak of robosexuality in that sense but, at least, the foundations are already set.

Apart from Lily and her InMoovator (no idea what the name means), the anglophone press has been showing a strange penchant for Catalan engineer Sergi Santos and his sexbot Samantha. Santos owns, together with his wife, a small company that sells Samantha look-alikes, already more than a sex doll but still much less than a.i. animated robot. Let me clarify concepts: the Chinese, above all, are selling ultra-realistic sex dolls and these (or similar ones, produced elsewhere) are being used as the bodily basis for the application of a.i. technology and robotic mechanisms. Dr. Santos claims to be at the forefront of advances, explaining that Samantha is, in ‘her’ current programmatic version, capable of orgasms but also of rejecting the advances of his owner. I hardly believe this is the case but, then, I can’t tell for sure. The RealDolls now being commercialized (at about 15,000$ for a basic model) by RealBotix are also supposed to be robots but, again, I doubt they have gone too far down that road. RealDolls, by the way, also has plans to sell a ‘male’ sexbot called Henry, apart from Harmony and ‘her’ friends.

As you may imagine, the sexbots look hardly like ordinary women, taking, as they do, their anatomical referents from current porn. This has sparked a furious feminist reaction headed, among others, by Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University in the UK (https://campaignagainstsexrobots.org/). Another valuable contribution to the debate, less militant but equally serious is the Dutch initiative, Foundation for Responsible Robotics. You might want to peruse their recent report “Our Sexual Future with Robots” (2017) to understand at which stage we are.

The summary is simple: sooner or later there will be fully functional sexbots, which individuals will buy as they purchase cars or similar products. This will inevitably create complicated legal and emotional tangles (Dr. Santos claims that Samantha has saved his marriage but warns that he will divorce his wife if she has sex with a ‘male’ robot). There will also be, no doubt about it, a surge in misogyny, due to the presentation of women as passive sex objects through the sexbots, but also increased androphobia–as women like Lily will choose to (literally) embrace synthetic men made as they prefer rather than actual men. To my surprise, incidentally, the debate is narrowly focused on heterosexuality, which is reductive. To begin with, I’m sure that RealBotix will soon have gay clients for Henry–though I simply don’t know whether Harmony appeals to lesbians. There is no reason, of course, why sexbots must have conventional sets of genitalia or bodies, which means that there could be a market for intersex robots. Whatever fantasy dictates.

The line is drawn, though, and this very clear, at child sexbots. Some Chinese manufacturers are offering ultra-realistic child sex dolls, which, for instance in Britain, you may own but not import (I can imagine the black market thus generated). A lonely young man was recently judged for having imported one of these dolls and he claimed in his defence that he hadn’t realized the ‘female’ doll was so small (only four feet) because ‘she’ had breasts. One needn’t be too clever to detect the ambiguity of both the body and the purchasing operation. On the other hand, there is a Japanese manufacturer, who openly presents himself as a paedophile, arguing that his products (non-robotic child sex dolls) can be not only of therapeutic value but also a guarantee that prospective young victims are safe from the attentions of molesters and abusers. The specialists in these revolting areas of human sexuality–mostly male, let’s be honest–are claiming that this is by no means true. As happens with the adult dolls, the child dolls invite users to display unrestrained sexual behaviour against real individuals, whom they come too see as doll-like, depersonalized objects.

I find it interesting that my search for science fiction about the child sexbots has failed, and led me instead to a story, ‘BoyBot™’, included in the collection by Irish writer June Caldwell, Room Little Darker (2017). Caldwell, reviewer Frankie Gaffney explains, shocks readers ‘with a proud and wanton abandon’ in her story about the use by a paedophile of Conor, a ‘child-robot replacement therapy, assigned to him by the state, and designed to keep him away from human victims’. I haven’t read Caldwell’s grim tale yet, but Gaffney claims that ‘The reader is made to dwell on the idea of how, in reality, such crimes are sentiently experienced by victims’, turning the sick story into a valid cautionary tale. I shiver at how we have passed from Brian Aldiss’ presentation of the child robot as a surrogate son (in ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, 1969, filmed by Spielberg as A.I., 2001) to this brutal, callous use of plastic replacements as sexual toys and victims.

Science fiction offers abundant examples of sexual relationships between humans and artificial persons, with variations that range from the purely robotic (Westworld) to the organic (Blade Runner) and even the virtual (Blade Runner 2049). There are, I think, two constants in this abundance: there is no middle ground between ‘love’ and (often violent) exploitation; and women users approach robots from a more romantic stance. If, so to speak, the protagonist manages to overcome the uncanny valley that makes us feel such evident discomfort before a humaniform robot, what follows can well be ‘love’ (if one can love a machine as we love a human person). In other cases, the sex/robot is the object of a sadistic violence intended for the human beings it replaces. You may see women disgusted with their male robots but not truly hating them, though I agree that often men have obsessive attachments to their artificial companions in many stories.

Since my talk cannot be encyclopaedic, I’m focusing it on the above-mentioned story ‘Casas rojas’ for a presentation of the feminist arguments but also on texts in which the robot user is a woman. There is a double standard at work: whereas the use by men of ‘female’ sexbots is presented both in sf and in real-life mostly as a despicable exercise in misogyny even when it appears to be romantic, women’s use of ‘male’ sexbots is presented as liberating (though also emotionally problematic). You might think that this is the situation mainly in feminist sf like Marge Piercy’s novel Body of Glass (1991) but, no–to my surprise Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn (1983) goes much further in analyzing the implications of a sexual relationship between a woman and her robot than many feminist readers and critics can imagine.

When I see the photos of Dr. Santos and Samantha I feel, as a woman, dismayed that (patriarchal) men are going that way. I refuse to get angry because I find the whole idea quite ridiculous. I actually wonder what type of client uses the LumiDoll surrogates available from at least one classy brothel In Barcelona (LumiDoll opened a separate establishment but soon closed). Yet, when I consider my own (hetero)sexual perspective I come to the conclusion that, as Asimov narrates, there could be a place in society for ‘male’ robots capable of keeping women company apart from offering sex.

Actually, I even think that in the case of women sex is of secondary importance–in the film Marjorie Prime (2017, based on Jordan Harrison’s play of 2015), the titular character enjoys the company of a holographic reconstruction of her dead husband, Walter (she is in her 80s, he looks 40). This is not uncomplicated: in Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’ (2013), Martha, a young wife who loses her husband Ash to an accident, finds it easier to connect with him as a disembodied a.i. than as an embodied robotic reconstruction. I don’t see much hesitation, in contrast, in the sexual use of ‘female’ robots in films such as Ex-machina (2013) no matter how harshly this is condemned.

The Robots of Dawn strikes, I should think, quite a good balance: Gladia Delmarre, a widow, is exiled far from her native planet and a kindly neighbour, Dr. Falstoffe, lends her his extremely advanced humaniform robot R Jander Parnell for company. One thing leads to another and Gladia discovers with Jander orgasmic pleasure she has never known with men–until someone ‘kills’ Jander. Gladia is never confused about her attachment to Jander, whom she regards as her husband, and she is very rational both about the beginning and the end of the relationship. She refuses to feel shame but also reaches the conclusion that she needs to re-learn sexuality with a human male to reach personal stability. This is not patriarchal, believe me.

I do know because, in contrast, Catalan author Montserrat Segura presents in her recent novella El contracte Wong (2017) a very confused protagonist, unable to accept, unlike Gladia, that sex with her ‘male’ robot works well because he is programmed to please. Gladia knows that robots cannot reciprocate feelings, which is why she can overcome her grief at losing Jander; Amèlia is, in contrast, too hurt by K-Dick’s inability to truly desire her that she ends their relationship catastrophically. She is trapped by a hetero-normative romantic scenario in ways that Gladia never is.

There is an unwittingly gay passage in The Robots of Dawn which explains very well what the main problem is in any emotional fantasy of binding/bonding with a robot. The human man Bailey is happy to meet again his partner (in crime detection!): ‘And then, little by little, he collected his thoughts and knew that he was hugging not Daneel but R. Daneel–Robot Daneel Olivaw. He was hugging a robot and the robot was holding him lightly, allowing himself to be hugged, judging that the action gave pleasure to a human being and enduring that action because the positronic potentials of his brain made it impossible to repel the embrace and so cause disappointment and embarrassment to the human being’. Programming rejection in robots, as ‘Casas rojas’ defends and Dr. Santos claims he has done, makes as little sense as giving your Nespresso the choice to make you coffee… A robot is, after all, a machine, as R. Daneel understands better than Baley.

Since, however, we seem unable to control our feelings for humaniform robots perhaps the solution is not to make them. Jander’s maker, Dr. Falstoffe, explains disingenuously that he gave his robot a set of genitals because he was inspired by the ‘abstract problem of building a totally humaniform robot’. Current robotics engineers stress that a bodily shape that imitates humans makes sense if robots are to solve everyday situations connected with human life. Yet, both reality and fantasy suggest that ‘humaniform’ needn’t mean a perfect copy. Nobody would be lured into having sex with Star Wars’ C3P0, no matter how nice he is, much less with R2D2. And that is, ideally, the way to go for everyone human.

As we know though, if there is a will, there is a way. Or, rather, if business opportunities loom, someone will provide the corresponding product. Who knows? Perhaps the household of the future will be composed of individuals and a harem of sexbots, which will double-up as servants. That is a picture I don’t personally like (it reminds me too uncomfortably of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives) but, if it ever comes, I hope it excludes child robots. I’m sure you’ll understand why.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IRVINE WELSH IN TOWN, 25 YEARS AFTER TRAINSPOTTING

September 17th, 2018

I had a truly weird experience yesterday attending Irvine Welsh’s presentation of his novel Un polvo en condiciones, Francisco González’s translation of A Decent Ride (Anagrama, 2015). This is the tenth novel in Welsh’s long list, which also includes four short story collections and also plays. I decided to attend because I was meeting a friend, not because I’m a fan of the author. As happened, my friend arrived in time for the talk but after admittance to the auditorium was closed–that’s 250 seats. So, there I was, surrounded by 249 persons in a packed house, wondering how many who had rejected the translation aid could really understand Welsh’s Edinburgh brogue (and suspecting he was overdoing it…). About 15 minutes into the talk, two persons walked out, and then a few more–one a woman possible in her sixties, who did have the translation aid but, my guess, didn’t know who Welsh was (some members of the public will attend any literary presentation) and had left… in disgust at the obscene humour? Yet, when I left, towards the end of the q&a segment, 75 minutes later, there were people still queuing. I didn’t know Welsh had such loyal fandom.

Actually, I have a tale to tell. This was back in 2005 and Irvine Welsh came to Barcelona to present a new translation (Anagrama, which publishes his books, used to bring all prominent UK authors to the British Council thanks to the good offices of a now retired head of cultural affairs). The book was probably Glue–I’m not sure–but one thing I recall is that I had never seen, in years of attending, any presentation as crowded as that one… and with so many men!! In the q&a segment I did ask Welsh whether he saw himself as a writer specifically addressing men, and how he connected with his female readers–I don’t recall the exact words but he replied something along the lines that he hoped women found his books anyway interesting. Like many others, women and men, I consider Welsh’s first novel Trainspotting (1993) a great achievement. As a newly arrived PhD student in Glasgow, in 1994, I couldn’t help noticing the black book with the guys in silver skull masks on the cover, so frequently seen on the metro and the buses in the hands of young readers. I was fascinated by the phenomenon and I was subsequently fascinated by the text (once I could make sense of the dialect!)–I do have a copy signed by Welsh on that day of 2005.

I also have a peculiar personal memory. The British Council kindly invited me to stay for dinner and I found myself sitting between Welsh and his new wife, Beth Quinn, a Chicago native. I suspect that Welsh does not care for academics and, so, the moment I was introduced to him was, more or less, the last moment he spoke to me, despite my efforts. Perhaps the man is shy. In contrast, I found myself deep in conversation with Quinn, who, embarrassingly for me, chose to discuss the very personal topic of whether she should have children immediately, wait, or never have them. Welsh was then 46 (he was born in 1959); Beth, his second wife, 23. He had divorced Anne Antsy, his wife since 1984, and dedicatee of Trainspotting, in 2003. I was so enchanted young Beth and she was so absolutely full of very American charm and candour, that when we said goodbye, and I can’t believe I did this…, I shook Welsh’s hand and told him ‘you take care of your wife, she’s wonderful’. He said he would. The relationship has lasted for 15 years, until 2017–and they never had children.

So, yes, maybe I’m a bit prejudiced against Welsh because the social skills he displayed over that dinner were not top-notch, but, then, I trust that Beth Quinn was happy with him for a long time and, so, this is in his favour, absolutely! What makes me bristle at his novels is, rather, the glamorisation of a type of laddish masculinity that few women, if any, can abide. He is, clearly, still not thinking of his women readers, which is why his candid exposé of the dregs of the masculine underworld is, ironically, so useful to us: because we learn a lot.

Welsh is fully aware, as he acknowledged once more yesterday, that he occupies an extremely unstable position for, although he claims to be still surrounded by the working-class male friends of his youth, at the same time he is an educated man (with an MA) who makes a living writing novels–hardly a cultural product that interests men like his mates. No wonder then that, as he joked, they monitor him constantly for signs of his going soft (too middle-class), whereas he is transparently using his books to prove that he is in possession of a macho bravado that few, if any contemporary novelists, have. His presenter yesterday (Spanish novelist Kiko Amat) and most of the audience (except the grey-haired lady who left and yours truly) found it hilarious that A Decent Ride has so many penis jokes. I found the excitement with Welsh’s gross prose quite boyish, which in this context is not a word of praise.

Welsh defined himself as a brand, and he is right–specifically, he is a one-trick pony: a writer stuck in his Trainspotting universe while he himself and his characters age. This is neither good nor bad. He lives and works, however, in constant tension to prove to the reviewers he claims not to care for that he is not a literary writer. In his logic, he cannot be one because he is too prolific (lack of time was the reason he invoked to justify his disinterest in the reviews) but, then, his books are clearly unique and belong in no known genre, except the sub-genre of the ‘Irivine Welsh novel’. Anyone who has read Marabou Stork Nightmares can tell you that Welsh is an extremely ambitious literary novelist doing his best to undermine any possible reputation as such.

Thus, in order to prove to himself that he cannot be touched by the critics because he is not a literary writer of the kind that is shortlisted for the Booker Man Prize, Welsh spins increasingly delirious tales of men gone wrong and doing unspeakable things, or provoking them. The in-your-face scatology grows with each novel and is humorous if you’re already interested in that kind of bodily, iconoclastic comedy but it also produces a feeling of déjà vu and a sad impression that Welsh refuses to grow up as a writer. His staunchest fans are actually loyal to the spirit of Trainspotting and will buy anything he publishes (or queue to see him in the flesh) but they do so in a spirit of mateship, so to speak, than of readerly pleasure.

I’m re-reading these days Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, now about to reach its 22nd instalment with In a House of Lies (to be published in October), and I was wondering how his Edinburgh and Welsh’s Edinburgh overlap. Rankin’s villain, Big Ger Cafferty, uses his taxi business as a cover for drug dealing at one point, and the protagonist of Welsh’s A Decent Ride is a self-employed taxi driver. Does Big Ger know this Terry Lawson, I wondered? Has he at any point done business with Sick Boy? Has Rebus ever arrested any of the Leith crew in Trainspotting? How would Rebus fare in a Welsh novel? Has he read, perhaps, Filth and enjoyed the exploits of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson? Has Frank ‘Franco’ Begbie ever read a Rankin novel?

It’s funny how we accept such separate literary universes as representation of the same city, and even of the same circles, and how authors highlight each other’s strengths and foibles. After a dose of Rankin, Welsh seems dirtier than ever; after a dose of Welsh, Rankin seems over-polite. And it’s funny how you have no doubts of who the bigger literary artist is. Rankin is very good at spinning convoluted plots held together by extra-thin threads–his Rebus novels are very clever spider webs–but in his novels the prose is limpid and the main word-games are found only in Rebus’ sometimes obscure banter. Welsh, in contrast, elevates to literary art the prose one finds in elevator and loo graffiti, while pretending he just has a good ear. It may not be to everyone’s liking, not even the author, but Mr. Welsh you do write Literature. Please, note that Kiko Amat mentioned Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) as a referent to understand Welsh’s work, and who doubts that Céline wrote Literature?

Amat also argued that perhaps it would be in Welsh’s benefit to be as dead as the French author because then he would be a proper cult author for the reluctant critics. This was Amat’s polite way of hinting that perhaps Welsh should have stopped writing once he published Trainspotting. After all, Emily Brontë only wrote Wuthering Heights–the Trainspotting of 1848– and then she died at 30, and look at her! Imagine, if you can, twelve more novels by Ms. Emily dealing with the same characters and environments, and you can understand Welsh’s problem.

Another unsubtle thing Amat said is that if you don’t enjoy the gross-out factor in Welsh’s novels and his kinky humour this is because you’re a prude, which barely concealed a misogynistic taunt, as he really meant ‘a prudish woman’. This is a type of justification that admits no counter-argument because if you acknowledge your prudishness then you’re done for in our heavily sexualized times, and if you reply that you’re unprejudiced but just don’t like vulgar humour, then you sound prissy anyway. As Stuart Kelly put it in his very negative review of Welsh’s novel in The Guardian, ‘The tired old rebuttal is “it’s a satire and you don’t have a sense of humour”. But listen. What’s that? It’s the sound of no one laughing. There is a faint and distant sniggering, though. If anyone parts with £12.99 for this, they’re being taken for a ride’. Not having read A Decent Ride yet, I cannot say whether it is indeed a scam perpetrated on pliant readers but, at least, I’m satisfied that not all men enjoy Welsh’s kind of laddish, boyish or childish humour, whatever you prefer.

There’s a slumming factor here at work that I need to unpack and that is verging on the dangerous side of snobbery. Welsh may be working-class originally but he is, I insist, an educated, middle-class writer reproducing in his works an idiolect conditioned by class and regional markers, with its peculiar humour. He has built his reputation on building characters that sound genuine and that you might recognize in certain areas of Edinburgh (perhaps as they used to be, not as they are now). He is doing, so to speak, literary-anthropological work for the benefit of his middle-class readers (perhaps mostly declassed readers with a working-class background) and presenting the ‘life of the others’ as humorous material.

I’m not about to suggest that this is cultural appropriation or politically incorrect in any way. What I’m saying is that Welsh’s novels are yet further proof that the working-classes have not been yet given a dignified literary representation which is neither sentimental nor humoristic. I’ll mention, however, William McIlvanney’s novels Docherty (1975) and The Big Man (1985), as an example of how Scottish fiction can offer better portraits of working-class masculinity beyond Welsh’s shenanigans. Incidentally, McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977) started the Tartan Noir tradition from which Rankin’s John Rebus descends (the first novel, Knots and Crosses was published in 1987). I cannot recommend enough McIlvanney’s elegant The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), with dour Inspector Jack Laidlaw.

I wish I could have asked the 249+ persons attending Welsh’s talk with Amat why they were there. Perhaps in a city of 1,500,000 million, this is a tiny figure. I had an easy excuse: I’m a Literature teacher, and I have even taught Trainspotting (well, the film rather than the book, try to have second-language students read Welsh…). Was it celebrity? Was it a the memory of handsome Ewan McGregor, no matter how Rent-onized? For, and this is one last nasty barb, if you think that reading Welsh in translation is reading Welsh at all… you’re being taken for an (in)decent ride…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE IDEA AND THE EFFECT: NOSTALGIA FOR THE 1980s (IN READY PLAYER ONE AND STRANGER THINGS)

September 10th, 2018

I have just gone through the second season of the acclaimed series Netflix Stranger Things (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334/) and I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One (2011, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ready_Player_One), the object of a recent film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Cline himself. This is the second time I try to read Cline’s novel and if I’m trying again it is not because I enjoyed the movie version. Rather, the negative comments on the film by the novel’s staunchest fans have inspired me with the patience I need to finish Ready Player One, if only for academic reasons.

My impatience with Ready Player One and also with Stranger Things is motivated by their second-handness, if that word exists, which is in its turn based on their (mis)use of the 1980s. Allow me to explain.

Cline’s novel takes place in 2044 (Wade Watts, the 17-year-old protagonist, is born in 2027) and narrates the obsessive hunt for an Easter egg in the virtual environment of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a search which will grant the winner a formidable reward. Life on Earth is on the decline because an unsolvable energy crisis has pushed civilization to the brink of total collapse; instead of using their brains to try to redress this crisis, though, most people prefer to live a second life (if you get the allusion) in the MMOSG (massively multiplayer online simulation game) created presumably in the mid-2030s by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, of Gregarious Simulation Systems. The late Halliday, obsessed with the pop-culture of his 1980s youth, has shaped the hunt for the treasure buried in OASIS with a string of obscure leads that only individuals with a vast knowledge of his preferred decade can follow. Wade is one among the many ‘gunters’ (egg hunters) that accumulate a vast erudition of 1980s pop-culture, supplemented by the videogame-playing skills which he needs to solve each of Halliday’s riddles.

Ernest Cline was born in 1972, thus, he was 8 in 1980 and 18 in 1990. Indeed, only an original 1980s teen could have the detailed knowledge that Cline displays in Ready Player One: no research starting from scratch could be as convincing. Yet, this is what Cline supposes for Wade. The way US society is organized, children can choose to be educated in the virtual schools of virtual planet Ludus in the OASIS to receive a basic, compulsory education in a more orderly environment that presential schools can offer. This education also includes electives on the OASIS, the equivalent of teaching school children about current social media as part of the school curriculum. Except for the mandatory school time (and sleep), however, Wade spends all his other waking hours also in the OASIS but learning about the 1980s and interacting with other similarly obsessed people. He claims to have consumed basically all of 1980s videogames, popular films and TV, commercials, novels and music.

I was frankly amused by Cline’s view of teen erudition for, although adolescents of the nerdish variety tend to be extremely well self-educated they usually apply their efforts to their own era. I have never ever met a nerd (and I consider myself one) interested in the culture of sixty years before, as is Wade’s case. I stand corrected: yes, I have met many–they’re called academics and can be found in the Humanities schools of our universities but not in secondary schools.

The Ready Player One Wikia claims that James Donovan Halliday was born in 1972, just as Cline, and died in 2039 so, again, it makes perfect sense that as a 1980s nerd he built all these references into the adventure that obsesses the ‘gunters’. Now, I was born in 1966 and was a teenager through the 1980s, and one thing I can tell you is that young people in that decade were characterized by an abhorrence of seeming old-fashioned. That’s how I recall it. There were ‘retro’ touches in the ubiquitous use of shoulder pads and in other matters but the idea of a 1980s teen obsessing with 1920s pop-culture (the sixty year gap in Ready Player One) is totally preposterous. The 1950s were often a reference (in re-makes like John Carpenter’s The Thing of 1982) but the general idea was increasing creativity and looking forward. You can see evidence of this trend in how spectacularly Carpenter’s movie outdoes Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) in all fronts. This had nothing to do with the current obsession with recycling 1980s culture, too deferential to be truly innovative. I’m 100% sure that The Predator, a remake of John McTiernan’s 1987 Predator to be released next week, will soon be forgotten as the mere copy it is.

There is then a contradiction embedded in Ready Player One signified by the very different cultural positions occupied by Cline/Halliday and Wade (and friends): the former makes sense, the latter is an absurdity. So absurd, in fact, that when Spielberg made the film he eliminated the many references Cline makes to his own 1980s films (other references to the 1980s had to be abandoned because of the high cost of rights). If you think about it, Spielberg is the last director that should have tackled Cline’s novel for, evidently, even he realized that he could hardly pay homage to himself! When I saw the movie with my husband, another 1980s teen, we went ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ every time we caught a clever allusion, yet at the same time I was bothered by a) how could the retro allusions make sense to the Millennials and to Generation Z?, b) I never played videogames in the 1980s (or now). Actually, many of the pop-culture achievements celebrated in Ready Player One as central to 1980s were products I absolutely hated; others, I simply missed. I saw Heathers (1988) only a few weeks ago, and Cocteau Twins rather than Thompson Twins (and I mean the Sheffield band, not Tintin’s characters) blew my mind as a teen. There was not only one version of the 1980s but many, yet I see a canon being formed which excludes the original variety. I know that this is the same for all decades but I am now living this process as part of my own personal biography, and I find it utterly reductive.

Stranger Things, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, born in 1984, provokes another kind of impatience, that of the product that enjoys behind second-hand. The Duffer Brothers, as they call themselves (in allusion to the Blues Brothers?) were 1990s teens, and, so, I’ll argue that Stranger Things is a series created by Millennials (born 1984-1999), enjoyed by Generation Z (born in the 21st century) but actually inspired by the cultural experience of Generation X (born 1965-1983), mostly based on texts by Babyboomers (born 1945-1964). Stephen King, a major referent in Stranger Things, was born in 1947; his novel Firestarter, a main intertext for the Duffers’ series, was published in 1980 and filmed in 1984 (with a young Drew Barrymore). King was a favourite with my own generation, and we are responsible for taking him with us into (academic) respectability, of which we convinced the Millennials. They have enchanted Generation Z audiences with the tale of Eleven and her friends in the same way King enchanted us. But… the Duffers are not King, for, whereas they are King recyclers, King is as original as one can be.

I am bored stiff by Stranger Things precisely because I notice the recycling. One thing is the new version of It (2017), based on King’s novel of 1986, and quite another matter is presenting pseudo-King as a great novelty. Generation Z audiences logically love Stranger Things because the plot is new to them and because kids like them are central to it. This pleasure, however, is not easily shared – we, 1980s relics, notice, rather, how Winona Ryder has aged from her days as Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Also, the moment I read the name Paul Reiser in the second season credits I shouted ‘spoiler!’ for the Burke of Aliens (1986) was bound to play a shifty scientist. The multilayered approach aimed at offering a series enjoyable by all family members results, rather, in a cacophony and creates a conversation at cross purposes with Generation Z. Notice that Ready Player One’s message is that the 1980s were an awesome generator of texts worth knowing first hand, as Wade does. Stranger Things, in contrast, appropriates the culture of the 1980s as its temporal background, but hardly mentions any names and titles. Do the kids in the series ever say that Eleven is like someone straight out of any of the King novels they must be reading?

What truly irks me about Ready Player One and Stranger Things, in the end, is that they aim at producing the same effect 1980s pop-culture had but by re-issuing the original ideas, hence their second-handedness. The much more important matter is that they reflect, though it might seem the opposite, a lack of actual dialogue with the past. In Wade’s future the OASIS works as a kind of universal multi-media library and, so, he can directly access any 1980s texts first-hand, which is the only way to be conversant with the past. Of course, the hunting of the Easter egg provides a major enticement to acquire a solid education in 1980s pop-culture–Cline does not explain what happens to the rest of literally unrewarding culture. I am sure that many Generation Z kids will be curious to know what inspires Strangers Things and, thus, enter that dialogue with the past but if the Duffer Brothers can get away with their parasitical stance, this is because there are no longer massively shared media that keep the 1980s alive. Generation Z does not watch TV, where you can still catch The Goonies now and then, and for reasons that I will never ever understand the healthy habit of the cinema re-release (and double-feature sessions) was lost some time in the late 1980s (wasn’t it?).

My point is not that things were better in the 1980s – this is what texts like Ready Player One and Stranger Things claim! My point, rather, is that each generation needs their own culture and referents, and that this cult of the second-hand is counterproductive. I am not saying ‘don’t touch my Predator’ (well, maybe I am!); what I am saying is, if you’re interested in the 1980s, then see the McTiernan movie and read King’s novels (don’t forget Cocteau Twins!) but make sure you have a culture of your own that kids in sixty years’ time can marvel at.

If this is happening, then I am happy for you, Millennials Generation-Zers and but is it really happening…?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THEORIZING CHARACTER: A FEW POINTERS

September 3rd, 2018

I have suggested to one of my prospective doctoral students to consider studying the configuration of secondary characters (in Harry Potter) for his dissertation and, so, I have embarked on a small bibliographical search to see what is available generally speaking on characters. This post is a record of my failure to find much of significance and implicitly a call for your suggestions.

As usual, I have started with the MLA database, which to my infinite surprise carries no entry for a monographic or collective volume on ‘character’. You get hundreds of entries, mostly journal articles, with analyses of this or that character but nothing systematic that can be used as a departure point to study this central concept. Next, I have turned to WorldCat, where I have found a couple of academic books with the title ‘character’. They have turned out to be studies on moral philosophy within ‘Virtue Ethics’ (https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_virtue_ethics.html). Here ‘character’ is used in the sense of personal identity that needs to be fortified in order to make adequate ethical decisions. Interesting! And how Victorian!

Next, I have turned to the Spanish database Dialnet, in search of anything on ‘personaje’. Here are some of the most relevant results:

*La construcción del personaje, Konstantin Stanislavskiï, Alianza Editorial, 1999.
*El personaje novelesco, coord. Marina Mayoral, Cátedra/Ministerio de Cultura, 1990.
*Más allá del personaje, José Javier Muñoz, Confederación Española de Gremios y Asociaciones de Libreros, 1996.
*Teoría del personaje, Carlos Castilla del Pino, Alianza Editorial, 1989.
*La condición del personaje, Álvaro Salvador, Caja General de Ahorros de Granada, 1992.
*El personaje teatral, Jesús G. Maestro, Universidade de Vigo, 1998.
*Personaje dramático y actor, César Oliva Olivares, Universidad de Murcia, 2004.

What do we have here, then? Very little!! 20th century research, with one exception; books that are hard or impossible to find and, in any case, more of interest in the field of drama than of the novel. Marina Mayoral’s collective volume gathers together the papers presented in a seminar and cannot be the type of systematic study that should exist but does not exist… but at least it is something…

Of course, E.M. Forster made a famous (or infamous) distinction in Aspects of the Novel (1927) between flat and round characters and most specialists in Literary Studies are content to pass it on our students with no further thought. This is, however, a very limited impressionistic difference of little actual use. I may be completely off the track but it appears that the major academic book in English on characters is W.J. Harvey’s Character and the Novel published in 1965, yes, +50 years old (see https://ia801601.us.archive.org/31/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.459267/2015.459267.Character-And-The-Novel.pdf). Its most recent edition is dated 1970, which gives an important clue about when the study of character went out of fashion. There is an article by Mark Spilka, Martin Price, Julian Moynahan and Arnold Weinstein called “Character as a Lost Cause” published in 1978 (NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring 1978, 197-217) so, let’s say, for the sake of the argument that 1980 marked a turning point.

The article by Fernando Sánchez Alonso, “Teoría del personaje narrativo (Aplicación a El amor en los tiempos del cólera)”, in Didáclica (10, 79-105, 1993, https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/DIDA/article/viewFile/DIDA9898110079A/19784, offers in its abstract an interesting summary of the issue: (my translation and my italics) “In this article, we try to explore our understanding of character as well as explain the reasons why its study has fallen into disrepute in modern literary theory in comparison to its prestige in Greco-Latin and Renaissance poetics; we examine character next in relation to psychoanalysis and society to finally explain how it is built and which kinds of character there are.” That is to say: in the 1980s stylistics lost ground to the forces of identity politics, whether on an individual basis (Freud and company) or in the context of representation (need I explain this?). Narratology, though, opened other ways to consider character, of which an example is Francisco Álamo Felices’ article “La caracterización del personale novelesco: Perspectivas narratológicas” (Signa 15, 2006, 189-213), which I must recommend for its thoroughness in presenting the case. I must say, in any case, that his bibliography does not include any text dealing specifically with characters but mainly with narratology–as it should be expected from the title.

Here I open a brief parenthesis to note that I personally disagree with the application of psychoanalysis to the study of character, which was pioneered by Freud’s reading of Prince Hamlet as an individual manifestedly suffering from Oedipus complex. A character is a construction, not a person. If we have to psychoanalyse anyone that should be the author but this is not at all a strategy I would endorse. Now, being myself extremely guilty of exploiting character traits to endorse this or that aspect of gender representation, I must insist that it is precisely because I am researching representation that I find the gap in the study of characterization so worrying. We need to understand collectively much better what kind of stylistic device a character is to see how innovation is produced, hence contribute to a better kind of representation for specific identities.

It has finally occurred to me that the obvious place to find volumes about characters in fiction (and here I mean novels, short stories, drama, film, TV… all kinds) is in creative writing. Here’s the list of 115 books with the words “creating characters” in their title offered by WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/search?q=ti%3A%22creating+characters%22&qt=results_page), and here’s the shorter list (88 volumes) of ‘Books for Writers’ that you may find in GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/13705.Books_For_Writers

Allow me to highlight a few titles, with the word ‘character’ in them, though I think we can safely assume that all these books offer instruction about characterization (please do read Stephen King’s On Writing):
*Characters and Viewpoint by top science fiction and fantasy writer Orson Scott Card
*Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger, a very well known name in the field of creative screenwriting
*Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
*Characterization and Sensory Detail (Writing Active Setting #1) by Mary Buckham
* The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
*Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell

Here’s the daring thing to do: incorporate all this ‘advice literature’ to the academic study of character. I know that this is not as straightforward as I am suggesting here for, when read from an academic point of view, these volumes can be problematic. We are not used to their pragmatic approach, which clashes with our textual heuristic, etc. It might also be the case that, at least speaking for myself, I distrust this type of book because at heart I think that authors should know without being told how to build a character from reading other authors–and I know this is silly.

So far I have only mentioned ‘character’ in general, without distinguishing between protagonists and secondary characters. This is one of my pet obsessions these days: that secondary characters reveal the true tensions in the text. But… what does secondary mean? Think, for the sake of argumentation, of Mercutio and Count Paris in Romeo and Juliet: neither is a main character like those in the title, yet we can see that Count Paris is of lesser importance because he has few lines. However, if you think about it, you could take Mercutio off the play and the plot would still work (you could have Romeo slay Tybalt for another stupid, macho reason), whereas if you eliminate Count Paris the plot collapses–his arranged engagement to Juliet is the reason why she marries Romeo secretly and in such a hurry, as she does not want to marry her father’s choice. It makes no sense at all, as I’m sure you see, that secondary characters have been overlooked with such intensity in Literary Studies, with very few exceptions (the monographic issue of Belphégor, 2003, http://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210).

In drama a ‘spear carrier’ is the nickname that actors in walk-on parts with no dialogue receive. The film equivalent would be the character seen but not heard–poor Álex González made his Hollywood debut in X: First Class, part of the X-Men franchise, appearing in the credits as Janos Quested/Riptide though he had no lines. A glorified spear carrier, then. I amused myself by asking some literary colleagues what is the minimum we need in print fiction to define a character as such: is a name enough? There was no agreement… These are examples to make you see that the problem is not simply that we do not know how to approach fully developed characters–we don’t even understand the spectrum of characterization connecting spear carriers and main characters, nor where to draw the line between kinds of secondary characters.

Plenty of work to do, then…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

46 VOLUMES, 200 HOURS: BENITO PÉREZ GALDÓS’ EPISODIOS NACIONALES

August 20th, 2018

I have now completed the project of reading Benito Pérez Galdós’ five series of novels generically known as the Episodios nacionales (1872-1912), which I started back in January 2017. I could have finished earlier but I have delayed reading the last series about half a year because I wanted to keep attached to Galdós’ lucid view of 19th century Spanish History for as long as possible. It has been an immense pleasure, though also a disheartening lesson about who we are here in this corner of Southern Europe.

To my surprise, when I told a colleague in the Spanish Department that I was about to finish the Episodios–a big smile on my face, hoping the revelation would bring a torrent of positive comment–he asked me with total puzzlement ‘but why? You’re a specialist in English Studies!’. I must have looked so confused that he added ‘I mean, few researchers in Spanish Literature have read the Episodios, so why have you put yourself through the task?’ This left me utterly flabbergasted. If a colleague in the Spanish Department announced to me that s/he had read the complete works of Charles Dickens, I would offer congratulations, not commiseration. Poor don Benito, everyone still believes he is a ‘garbancero’–a chickpea merchant!–as Valle Inclán maliciously called him. Or perhaps with a little bit of envy, who knows?

I have read the Episodios using my Kindle (the 46 novels are available from dominiopublico.com in a rather nice edition) and, so, I cannot tell how thick each paper volume is. The 2005 Alianza paperback edition is about 200 pages per book. Considering that I read fast, each episode has taken me between 3 and 4 hours, a bit longer in some cases. To round numbers, that’s 184 hours or, if you want to stretch it a bit more, let’s say 200 hours. That would be the equivalent of about 100 films or 267 TV series episodes (45 minutes each, American style). This is like watching all of The X-Files (150 episodes) and Lost (118), which I have done, to my immense regret in the case of Lost (because of its moronic ending). I’m offering this information, silly as it may sound, in case you might consider joining the club of the Episodios’ admirers, whether you’re a specialist in Spanish Literature, in Quantum Physics, or a plain reader.

Galdós’ Episodios are a series, and although they were published along four decades (which means that original readers in their twenties finished them in their sixties!) they can be read as a single story, as I have done, in the same spirit we watch series on the screen. Reading, of course, is more demanding than watching, no matter how easily Galdós’ prose can be followed (which does not mean it is simple), but, on the whole, I get the impression that writers like Dickens and Galdós prefigure somehow current TV series. Today perhaps they would have been series’ screenwriters, something quite easy to imagine because both loved the theatre and were proficient at writing dialogue, on which all screen writing logically depends.

Reading the Episodios is a double experience in readerly endurance (and satisfaction) and in historical awareness. Galdós had an obvious didactic intention, expressed on these two fronts: he combines the specific lives of his attractive characters (I mean as rounded creations, not as physically beautiful persons, though they often are) with his cleverly managed History lessons. Instead of directly placing well-known historical figures at the centre of each episode, his protagonists are fictional characters in touch with their real-life counterparts one way or another. This creates a wonderful effect, for the Episodios deal both with the History shaped by the great figures and with the history of the more ordinary people around them–the novels are not a dry lesson enlivened by using historical characters in a puppet-like fashion but a slice of life. At the same time, Galdós’ technique incites you to consider what it would be like to turn current political life into fiction in this way, with the likes of King Felipe VI, Carles Puigdemont or Pablo Iglesias in the pages of a novel focused on someone very much like any of us, working as our delegate in the texts.

Most likely, the Episodios are best appreciated in a second reading, for the cast of characters is simply impressive and I suspect that many connections between them are missed in the process of simply getting on with the long reading. Many things have surprised me, above all that Galdós’ is far more open about sexuality than one may imagine for a late 19th/early 20th century Spanish writer, not only regarding his male characters but also the women. Another strong point is his ability to connect high and low, so that as readers we get to meet monarchs but also many marginal characters, with some even rising from rags to riches along several episodes.

The historical span is, of course, also enormous, for the series opens with Trafalgar (the battle took place in 1805) and closes with Cánovas (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was the Spanish ‘Presidente del Consejo de Ministros’ several times between 1875 and 1897). This also means that whereas in the case of the first novel Galdós was writing about events happened 65 years before, the time lag had been reduced to 15 years when he wrote the last one. Incidentally, it must be noted that the fifth series is incomplete, running only to six rather than ten volumes, though I have been unable to find an explanation for why Galdós abandoned the Episodios. His last decade (he died in 1920) was particularly intense, specially after being elected an MP for his native Gran Canaria in 1914 (as a republican) when he was an ill, blind man past 70. That might be explanation enough.

The main doubt I felt before embarking on my reading of the Episodios was whether they demand from the reader a sound knowledge of Spanish History. I have not done any systematic study of this area since my years in secondary school and I’m far more confident naming the periods and monarchs of British History than of Spanish History. Our 19th century is, besides, an unbelievable chaos, with constant changes in the Government and administration, the series of civil wars provoked by the absolutist ultra-Catholic Carlists, and the love-hate relationship with the reigning Borbón dynasty. This resulted in the exile of Isabel II, the crowning of Italian Amadeo de Saboya as her unlikely replacement, and the disastrous first Republic–a complete shambles. Galdós, as I soon saw, has a transparent informative style and, so, I needed no textbook on the basics of 19th century Spanish History. I have used Wikipedia often, sometimes to check that specific events happened as Galdós narrates them (they did), other times to take a look at portraits of real-life characters. A scant knowledge of the 19th century complex political background is, then, no excuse but perhaps even an advantage to follow Galdós’ excellent History lessons.

As I have noted, the Episodios cover basically the whole 19th century. Read at the beginning of the 21st, with the memory of the calamitous 20th century still recent and with Pedro Sánchez’ Government struggling to bury Francisco Franco’s remains elsewhere (an anonymous ditch on any lonely road seems ideal), Galdós’ voice sounds poignant and ominous. The mere presentation of the pathetic, backward Spain he describes is depressing enough but the occasional authorial comments about, for instance, the absurdity of the carnage caused by the Carlist wars, highlight how we are collectively condemned to repeating the same mistakes. You see the Civil War (1936-39) coming already in the first Carlist War (1833-40), and I marvel that the Borbón monarchs have managed to stay on the throne in view of how their ancestors misbehaved.

Although the fifth series was never finished, as I have noted, the last novel, Cánovas, contains an often quoted pseudo-conclusion. Once Parliamentary monarchy had been installed under Alfonso XII and a democratic two-party system set, with Cánovas on the conservative side and Práxedes Mateo Sagasta on the liberal one, Galdós concludes: “Los dos partidos que se han concordado para turnar pacíficamente en el poder, son dos manadas de hombres que no aspiran más que a pastar en el presupuesto. Carecen de ideales, ningún fin elevado les mueve, no mejorarán en lo más mínimo las condiciones de vida de esta infeliz raza pobrísima y analfabeta. Pasarán unos tras otros dejando todo como hoy se halla, y llevarán a España a un estado de consunción que de fijo ha de acabar en muerte. No acometerán ni el problema religioso, ni el económico, ni el educativo; no harán más que burocracia pura, caciquismo, estéril trabajo de recomendaciones, favores a los amigotes, legislar sin ninguna eficacia práctica, y adelante con los farolitos…” (original ellipsis)

The death foreseen in this passage, caused by the inaction of the two parties which these men headed, gave me a terrible chill, for, of course, this is the Civil War with its million dead, still 25 years ahead on the horizon when Galdós wrote these words. At the same time, the same ills still abound in current politics, though Spain is today richer and less illiterate. For all these reasons, I certainly would make the Episodios compulsory reading at least for aspiring politicians and then for the rest of us. As historian George Santayana once stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is less than one year ago that I read the words ‘Civil War’ in relation to current Spain in the pages of The Guardian. An exaggeration, hopefully, but also a reminder that we are locked in the same conflicts that Galdós narrates and that brought so much misery 80 years ago.

Among recent academic work on the Episodios I’d like to mention Mary A. Kempen’s PhD dissertation Concepts of the Nation and Nationalism in Benito Pérez Galdós’s Episodios Nacionales (2007, U. Wisconsin). The same American university awarded a PhD to Glenn Ross Barr back in 1937 for his pioneering dissertation A Census of the Characters of the Episodios Nacionales of Benito Pérez Galdós (618 pages!). Checking Worldcat and other sources, it is easy to see that a great deal of the academic analysis of the Episodios has been produced in English by Hispanists in the United States. I’ll add, for good measure, Mary Louise Coffey’s The Episodios Nacionales: A Sociological Study of the Historical Novels of Benito Pérez Galdós (1997, Northwestern University).

In contrast, TESEO only offers three titles of dissertations on the Episodios written in Spain, all on partial aspects such as the press, communications and the most recent one, youth and childhood (2017). Happily, there is at least one notable collective volume, La historia de España en Galdós: Análisis y procesos de elaboración de los Episodios nacionales (U Vigo, 2012), edited by M. Dolores Troncoso Durán, Salvador García Castañeda and Carmen Luna Sellés. It seems, however, very little homage, on the whole, to Galdós’ magnificent achievement from his fellow Spaniards. Perhaps he makes us feel uncomfortable with our shortcomings and he is easier to approach from other cultures, such as the United States.

Trust me: if you’re minimally interested in understanding Spain, the Episodios nacionales are what you need. They’re not a dried-up mummy but a living body, worth the effort of reading them–if that is an effort at all. Stay away from Netflix and use the 200 hours you were going to waste on all those series going nowhere to read Galdós’ own unique series. Or bully Netflix into adapting the Episodios

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHEN CULTURE ONLY INTERESTS WOMEN, PATRIARCHY WINS

August 14th, 2018

A couple of months ago, El Confidencial published an interview with former film director and screenwriter Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2018-06-15/manuel-gutierrez-aragon-ojo-cielo-libro_1577791/). The occasion was the publication of his new novel El ojo del cielo, which focuses on four women in his native Cantabria’s Valle del Pas. I saw the interview by mid-July before taking my summer break but some pressing matter prevented me from reading it. Its title, however, “La cultura ya sólo interesa a las mujeres”, has kept nagging me these past weeks.

I got the impression from that title that Gutiérrez Aragón was showing his bitterness about how his very manly work is only appreciated by us women, those inferior creatures. It turns out, reading the interview as I should have done, that he’s expressing the opposite belief: regrettably, men are no longer interested in culture and, so, it’s thanks to women’s generous dedication that culture survives. Blame the journalist (Marta Medina) for distorting the interviewee’s words, hoping to catch more clicks on the link.

Gutiérrez Aragón (Torrelavega, 1942) has an illustrious career as film director and screenwriter, spanning the four decades between 1969 and 2007. He announced his retirement from cinema in 2008, winning the following year the prestigious Premio Herralde with his novel La vida antes de marzo. The new one, El ojo del cielo, is his fourth title. As an artist devoted to cinema, Gutiérrez Aragón has been the winner of an impressive list of major awards, among them a Festival of Berlin’s Silver Bear for Camada negra (1977), two Festival of San Sebastián’s Conchas de Oro for Demonios en el jardín (1982) and La mitad del cielo (1986), and a Goya to the Best Adapted Screenplay for Jarrapellejos (1988). He has a Medalla de Oro de la Academia de las Artes y las Ciencias Cinematográficas de España and the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes (both 2012). Why is all this information worth transmitting? A simple reason: if he feels pessimistic about the present and the future of culture because of its low allure for men, we need to listen, for he is a man of culture, and no doubt about it.

In the interview, Gutiérrez Aragón acknowledges that the great dreams of the Transition generation are gone, and that the youngest generation (the ones we call Millennials) must feel very frustrated. He’s very critical of directors like J.A. Bayona and Alejandro Amenábar and of their anglophone fantasy films, and quite bitter with a film business environment that would deny the likes of Ingmar Bergman any chance to direct. Even if winning the lottery allowed Gutiérrez Aragon to make a new film, this would mean nothing, he says, as nobody really cares for culture. Except women. “Right now,” he explains, “theatre, cinema and the novel are dominated by feminine consumption. I don’t think women have a particularly feminine and exclusive outlook; rather, they are keeping the flame of culture alive, women care about reading and going to the cinema. They are the ones in the book clubs, the ones you see on the seats”. Well, thanks for noticing!!

Another article in El Confidencial, “Todos los museos vacíos de España” (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2018-08-05/museos-vacios-espana-plan-desarrollo-publicos_1601237/) presents the average visitor as a woman in her forties. She alone is maintaining most Spanish museums open while, above all, male teenagers, families with young children and senior citizens above 65 (unless they visit as part of a group) stay away from them. I recently saw the excellent exhibition on Auschwitz in Madrid (open until 7 October) and I did notice that there were some pairs of teen girl friends visiting but not of teen boys. Of course, this was no place to see families with young children and, so, there were few but I would say that there was a majority of women, many on their own. Most men were accompanied by a woman friend or partner.

This is a common pattern whenever I attend any cultural activity: all are full of ageing ladies like yours truly, and conspicuously empty of young men. I will also stress that whenever I see two or three men together you can bet they are gay, which shows that the ones fast losing interest in culture are not all men but, specifically, heterosexual men. If you push me a little, it will come out: the individuals with little interest in culture are the patriarchal men who, realising that they cannot control it and that their opinions are not revered, reject culture as the territory of women and gay men. Hardly a new idea, but there it is.

In contrast, back in the 1980s when I was a young girl, I doubt that any secondary school lacked a pair of male heterosexual friends who knew everything about culture, and often used a snobbish approach to flirting with the less enlightened pretty girls. You could see that these guys were not really interested in culture since they would not discuss it with the better learned girls, pretty or otherwise. It seems that as more and more girls started exploring culture on their own, the patriarchal male snobs stopped seeing the point of erudition. There is, by the way, a delicious mockery of the type in this wonderful film, Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017). Interestingly, odious Kyle is played by Timothée Chalamet, who did a great job of playing the only truly cultured teen boy of recent fiction (novel and cinema): Elio in Call Me by Your Name. His story with Oliver, a young learned scholar in his twenties, is set in the 1980s. You can tell that today Elio would face a very hard time in high school, not so much for his sexual choices as for his truly amazing thirst for knowledge.

Culture, of course, comes in many manifestations and teen boys play a major role in many of its aspects, such as sports (including e-sports), music, comic and illustration, videogames, design, and so on. I assume that some teen boys still feel the urge to write Literature in any of its levels and genres, paint and sculpt, play classical music, sing opera, dance ballet… and all the many aspects of fine culture. I will also assume that increasing homophobia and misogyny are making it harder than ever for heterosexual teen boys to pursue careers which require great erudition in one aspect of high culture, unless their families, of course, are equally erudite. Despite Billy Eliot (2000), every time I attend my nieces’ dance festivals I see two boys for every forty girls, and you can tell which one asked his parents to register him for ballet school and which one did not (and was possibly forced by his mum).

I think I’ll blame in particular the obtuse masculinist sub-culture we import from the United States for the current terrifying transformation of European young men into active snubbers of culture, which is worse than being ignorant for no fault of your own. Constant bullying into patriarchal illiteracy is fast undermining young men’s contact with ambitious creativity and fast spreading the idea that learning can only appeal to women and gay men–never mind that some gays are also patriarchal and that not at all are highly sensitive, as the stereotype goes. The same applies to women: not all are eager to visit museums or jump at the chance of going to the theatre. I would say that the ones more interested in culture are a sub-set in each social class, with, perhaps, the main group in the upper working-class and the middle-class but not really in the upper classes. Just an educated guess.

A reader reacted to Gutiérrez Aragón’s comments complaining against political correctness and its imposition of a general mediocrity; despite the neutral nick, you can easily see that this is a man complaining against the production of culture by women, which is telling because Aragón refers specifically to women’s consumption, not production, of culture. Women have always been, one way or another, great consumers of culture, even when they were allowed to approach it only in small numbers. What is happening, then, is not really that women are flooding the territory of culture but that men are withdrawing at a ridiculous fast pace that will leave them stranded in the tiniest possible corner.

The Japanese universities that have fraudulently limited female students’ presence in their Schools of Medicine, with a 20-30% cap, (https://www.ft.com/content/54e98c1e-9c54-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d) have been protecting, obviously, men’s entitlement to this area of knowledge. In the School of Humanities where I work, in contrast, young men have withdrawn willingly, leaving culture in the hands of their female peers in an 80%-20% proportion, or worse (for them, not for the young women). Funnily, many universities are running campaigns to increase the presence of female graduates above 20% in degrees like Engineering but nobody is telling young men that they should be interested in culture and in the Humanities. And they should, if only because a truly thriving culture must integrate a diversity of voices, and the male ones are also needed–without the patriarchal discourse. This is not mere political correctness but an active anti-patriarchal stance and plain logic: diversity cannot be built on a hierarchical basis, and this is what patriarchy is about, maintaining power-hungry hierarchy and privileging just a few.

The problem is that we are importing, also from the United States, a paralyzing model of male behaviour. Gutiérrez Aragón himself declares that, although he has written about women in some of his screenplays, he would not have focused on us if he had started his new novel after the #metoo campaign. The point of the campaign, however, is to out the harassers secretly dominating all areas of public life, including culture, not to gag all men into silence. You might like to see John Oliver’s interview with Professor Anita Hill (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHiAls8loz4), the woman who was so appallingly ill-treated back in 1991, when she outed U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas as a sexual predator. When Oliver tells her that many men are positively afraid of making a mistake which women might use against them, she coolly replies that only harassers should be afraid. The #metoo campaign has its dangers but the men who feel harassed by it should start considering how harassment has curtailed women’s lives, also in the domain of culture.

I bring this topic here up because there are many U.S. men claiming that the only solution for the #metoo ‘problem’ is a total separation of the gender spheres, not at all what is needed. This sounds, rather, like a poor excuse to retrench into ultra-patriarchal circles and end up creating new mutually exclusive cultures. They already exist, of course. As I have already written here, you don’t see middle-aged women queuing to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster or yelling with excitement at gamers’ conventions. But we all know this is not a problem because we are not wanted there anyway. The problem is the opposite: the increasing absence of (young) men in the kind of culture appealing to values which are not male-centred and patriarchal.

The article about the empty Spanish museums mentions a programme by the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid to attract male visitors: children visiting with their schools are given free tickets to visit the museum again with their father (not their mother!). I know what you are all thinking: most little girls will propose the plan to their fathers and charm them into accepting it; fewer little boys will try and even fewer will succeed. You can imagine their fathers. The day this Valladolid museum is crowded with father-son pairs will bring a victory for culture and a loss for patriarchy. This may sound odd, but, then, these are odd days in the anti-patriarchal frontline.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

BIBLIOMETRICS AND OPEN ACCESS: FIGHTING FOR COMMON SENSE

July 16th, 2018

My topic today is the corporate hold on academic research on two different but closely interrelated fronts: open access and bibliometrics. Open access policies are very simple to understand: the publications generated by research funded with public money should be available for free to anyone interested. This is, simply, not happening. Bibliometrics used to be a system designed to aid university librarians to choose how to invest their meagre, or large, resources into the best journals available but became about ten years ago an Orwellian way of measuring what cannot be measured: scholarly reputation and impact.

I attended back in 2010 a one-day workshop, organized by the Catalan Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya (AQU), to debate the best way to implement the, at the time, rather new bibliometric approach to research. I was on the side of the Catalan researchers who complained that if you work on a tiny corner of the world of knowledge (and in a minority language) you can hardly expect your research to have world-wide impact. Your specialized journals will always be on the C and D list, even for your own local Catalan universities. So why measure not only personal production but also whole areas of research by pitting them against each other? Who has the right to say that a journal in English about Milton is more relevant that one in Catalan about Pedrolo? Why should an article published in the former be automatically regarded as superior to one published in the latter?

The other main concern expressed had to do with how bibliometrics negatively affect new publications, as scholars have quickly learned that since newly-born journals take time to consolidate it is preferable to try to publish in older, fully consolidated B or A-list journals–the only ones that really count for assessment though it make take years to publish in them even when accepted. I believed all this was plain common sense but was totally flabbergasted when hearing the line defended by some of the Catalan colleagues present at the AQU workshop, who were truly convinced that where you publish and not what you publish is what matters. Since then I have learned to do as required by my employers, and, so, I made sure that my last research assessment exercise included at least one article in an A-listed journal. I am also flooding, however, the digital repository of my university with plenty of academic work which I am self-publishing, following my own version of open access.

I say my own version because what is usually meant by open access is not free self-publication, whether peer-reviewed (which can be easily done) or not, but the online liberation of work previously offered through an academic journal (occasionally in collective books). That is to say: even though most universities have set up digital repositories to guarantee their researchers easy access to a platform where they can publish their work (beyond Academia.edu or Research Gate, which are private), it turns out that this has had no major impact because our CVs are measured, more rigidly than ever, on the basis of journal bibliometrics. If, to give an imaginary example, I publish an article in an A-ranking journal available by subscription that gets read by 30 persons but the same article is downloaded 300 times from the DDD of my university, which has the higher impact? You might think it’s the DDD but, no, it’s the journal publication–officially, digital repositories contribute zero to academic CVs. I am not speaking here of peer-reviewing vs. self-publication, I’m speaking only about access, which is supposedly the basis of impact.

Open access, in short, cannot function unless all journals decide to act like repositories and offer their publications for free online. Many, of course, are doing that and even using, besides, open peer reviewing, which means that you can leave comments either as a plain reader or as a formal reviewer (not anonymously). In contrast, most of the A- listed journals (highly-ranked according to bibliometrics, not necessarily scholarly consensus) tend to be available only by subscription, which means that universities are spending most of their library budgets on publications that actually depend on the researchers’ giving their work away for free. As we all know, though we do not get payment for our articles, the main academic journal publishers do good business by charging money for each article independently and for the subscriptions, some truly expensive–I mean up to tens of thousands of dollars for one journal (in the sciences).

A recent article in The Guardian complains that the European Union, in charge of guaranteeing the growth of open access policies, has hired academic giant Elsevier to check its progress. As the author, Jon Tennant, protests, “That’s like having McDonald’s monitor the eating habits of a nation and then using that to guide policy decisions” (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jun/29/elsevier-are-corrupting-open-science-in-europe). Elsevier, naturally, very much disliked at the critique. See in Tennant’s own blog the letter that Elsevier sent him, defending their appointment, and his arguments (http://fossilsandshit.com/elsevier-open-science-monitor-response/).

Business is business and corporations will do their best to go on accruing power over us, academics, as well as they can–just as Amazon, Apple and company do. What you should be wondering at this point is why this state of affairs is tolerated. If most of us, researchers, agree that open access is the way to go, why is this so hard to implement? Well, one answer is that open access is not free in the sense that if you want to set up a respectable online journal you still need extensive resources: a platform funded by your university, the know-how to operate it as editor (a time-consuming task), and lots of stamina to send regular cfps and manage peer reviewers, that unruly lot. It seems easier to let others do the job or, to be more specific, help to give the job you’re anyway willing to do more resonance.

Also, and this is the main point, for whatever reasons the political authorities, from the European Union down to each regional government, including the university admin teams, are upholding an assessment system that benefits the major academic publishers. We are assessed on the basis of their impact and reputation not of ours and, one way or the other, we have ended up working not quite for the good of knowledge but mainly for the benefit of our publishers. Let me give you an example of things that are beginning to scare me very much: I was planning to reuse a chapter that I wrote for a collective volume issued by a very well-known academic publisher in a monograph for another publishing house; I found out, however, that I was expected to pay 1000$ to get their permission. Needless to say, I’m writing a completely new chapter for the monograph. A doubt now corroding me is whether I can use the arguments without repeating my own text verbatim, for I’m not even sure that I can. What exactly do we give away with copyright?

Concerned specifically about the Journal Impact Factor, The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) published in 2012 a document known as the “San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment” (https://sfdora.org/read/). JIF, a product of Thomson Reuters now published by Clarivate Analytics, is being used to measure academic CVs at all levels and beyond the USA. Incidentally: Clarivate Analytics is owned by the Onex Corporation (a Canada-based private equity or investment fund) and by the London-based Barings Bank, now in the hands of ING. Draw your own conclusions. Anyway, the San Francisco Declaration couldn’t be clearer: its general recommendation is “Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. What should you use, then?: “assessments based on scientific content rather than publication metrics”. As an alternative, Altmetrics is proposed (http://altmetrics.org/tools/). For the British view of the matter, see James Wildon’s article which, among other matters, announces the establishment of the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jul/10/has-the-tide-turned-towards-responsible-metrics-in-research).

I cannot find (sorry) another article in which a scientist working on an emerging field (possibly big data) explained that although researchers have organized themselves competently through open-access networks and publications, a major publisher has announced the launch of a journal specializing in their little patch of the academic quilt. This researcher was positively furious at what he regarded as an unwanted interference. I seem to recall that a number of the leading researchers in his field have signed a manifesto vowing not to publish in that corporate-owned journal but the question, obviously, is whether they will be able to stick to their resolve, or risk being pushed out of the fierce competition for funding and jobs by those who publish in the new journal.

Let me explain something I am doing. Since early 2017 I have been co-editor of the online journal Hélice (www.revistahelice.com), which specializes in science fiction. My co-editors, Mariano Martín and Mikel Peregrina, and myself had the intention of transforming the journal, originally founded by Asociación Xatafi in 2007, into a proper academic publication. Hélice certainly is an academic publication because we three are scholars and we publish in it scholarly work. What I mean is that we intended to introduce peer reviewing and bibliometrics into Hélice, and publish through my university’s online platform. We have decided, however, to post-pone indefinitely the decision for several reasons: one is that we do enjoy being editors in the classic style of many SF-related publications; another is that we are publishing work by rooky undergrad researchers not necessarily interested in an academic career; also, that we simply don’t have sufficient time to meet the demands of a university-endorsed journal. This may change in the future but we find ourselves interested in filling in the gap between fandom and academia, and in doing that beyond what counts or not academically speaking. And we need not worry about any major academic publisher wanting to steal the limelight from us. Perhaps we’re being Quixotic but, then, why not?

I think I am calling everyone to change the way we make research available. Establish your own online resources though blogs and websites, question your university’s investment into expensive subscriptions rather than full-time jobs, cite colleagues’ work because you find it relevant not because it is published in A-list journals, use peer reviewing wisely but also welcome other editorial approaches, don’t let yourself be consumed by your CV, that hungry monster. I personally know that I’m doing my most important academic work here in this blog yet, you see?, I have never counted who is reading it and whether it has an impact or not at all. It adds, by the way, zero points to my CV.

Some might think that doing academic work at any level which is not officially measurable is a waste of time but, believe me, though I feel enormous satisfaction when I see my academic work in relevant publications, I also feel much happiness when working outside the rather inflexible lines of current academia. That the words ‘inflexible’ and ‘academia’ may appear in the same sentence gives me, and should give you, much cause for concern. Let’s vindicate common sense instead and re-imagine how we approach reputation.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

DEATH OF THE NOVEL, DEATH OF THE READER: A DEBATE (WITH AIs)

July 10th, 2018

This post is inspired by two articles about novelists considering whether the novel is in its dying throes. The interview by Vicent Bosch of Guillem López (Castelló, 1975) for JotDown bears the heading “No creo que la novela sobreviva medio siglo” (https://www.jotdown.es/2018/06/guillem-lopez-no-creo-que-la-novela-sobreviva-medio-siglo-la-literatura-si-pero-sera-otra-cosa-tal-vez-un-videojuego/). The Guardian’s article about the BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking talk by novelist Howard Jacobson (Manchester, 1942) is titled “‘The Problem is the Reader’”.

Guillem López is one of the most important Spanish fantasy writers, and Challenger (2015)–which does deal with the space shuttle disaster of 1986–his most acclaimed novel. Here is an anecdote. López novel won the 2016 Ignotus for best fiction, the main award for fantasy fiction in Spain (apart from Planeta’s Minotauro). The awards ceremony is usually celebrated within Hispacon, which that year coincided with Barcelona’s Eurocon–and there I was. López was not in the room and his publisher, Cisco Bellabestia of Aristas Martínez (Badajoz, active since 2010) collected the award. He then launched into the total opposite of the thanks speech you might expect, shaming everyone in the room into considering sheepishly the charms of the floor tiles. His main point was that it was no use giving awards and clapping authors on the shoulder if sales remained so low–he mentioned having sold only 100 copies of Challenger in its first year. My, he was angry… The JotDown interview mentions an iron ceiling of 2000 copies at most for Spanish fiction (not just fantasy), and other editors and authors I know put habitual sales figures between 150 and 450 copies. In contrast, top YouTuber El Rubius has 30 million subscribers worldwide–yes, that is correct. There is a series of books presenting him as a superhero. No wonder…

Towards the end of the JotDown interview, López is invited to speculate on the future of the novel. He notes that even though the foundations of the genre remain quite static, innovation is still possible, as shown by Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000)–most likely, the only truly post-postmodern novel I have come across and an admirable text but also a one-off eccentric beauty. López remarks next that, in his view, novels will have probably disappeared in about fifty years, with only a small circle of committed readers keeping them alive at the end of the 21st century. If, I add, pastoral poetry went out of fashion why shouldn’t the novel go out of fashion, too? If, furthermore, you can date the birth of a genre then why couldn’t you imagine its death?

In López’s view, and this is what gives the interview its controversial subtitle, “Perhaps we should all be writing videogames because videogames are the literature of the end of the 21st century”. For López literature will survive, then, though not necessarily the novel. I must clarify that López does not mean that videogames are literature as they are right now but that they offer a model to explore. He stresses that the novel should fit the world awaiting us round the corner and not the other way round, and we need to start thinking of novels amenable to virtual and augmented reality, transmedia contents, etc rather than just the book. Why he assumes that ‘literature’ is a synonym for ‘narrative’ is an issue that I’ll leave aside for the time being.

What is in question, then, is not so much the novel’s survival but the convention according to which the novel must be read between the covers of a book and transmitted in printed text. This is not at all a new argument, though so far the constant obsolescence of computers has prevented most of the hypertextual fictional experiments to make it into any kind of canon (popular or otherwise). I still wonder that we don’t have hypertextual editions of the classics, with ‘footnotes’ popping up windows with all kinds of information. And, though I’m not sure this will ever happen, I have no problems imagining the use of virtual reality technology in immersive versions of novels, as if you could insert yourself in a BBC adaptation as you listen to Charles Dickens, to name an example. The videogame format that López alludes to suggests, however, something more interactive but, then, I’m not sure how that would still be a novel rather than an enhanced film.

In Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (1953) the protagonist’s wife, Mildred, is totally addicted to a soap opera she can interact with through the four screens in her living room, a sort of predecessor of immersive virtual reality. This might be the kind of novel most valued in the 22nd century. Of course, in Bradbury’s dark tale books are banned and firemen are, ironically, in charge of burning them–the texts survive in the wondrous memories of volunteers who recall them verbatim for future generations, that is to say, the literary works survive as oral artefacts. Perhaps audiobooks and not videogame books are the future, one way or another, for even Bradbury grants that while books need to be written they needn’t be read.

Jacobson’s talk was given at the Man Booker festival (Southbank Centre, London) at a time when the award itself is under fire for not generating the enthusiasm of past decades. Incidentally, Michael Ondatjee’s The English Patient (1992) has been voted the best Man Booker novel in the 50 years of the award’s history, which sounds a bit suspicious to me for this in an extremely demanding novel and I would think that many voters were thinking of the far more accessible film. Maybe I’m wrong… Anyway, Jacobson’s argument is the opposite of López’: for him, the screen is the enemy to beat (he forgets e-book readers, as usual). Instead of the “infinite distractions of the Jumpin’ Jack Flash screen” Jacobson praises the “the nun-like stillness of the page” and, above all, of the page that requires concentration. “To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites”. To reinforce his point, he offers a comparison: “Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away”. Um, perhaps that explains why few keen readers are also keen athletes: our sport is reading.

“Until people fall out of love with the screen, I don’t know what will win them back to writing”, Jacobson sentences. We are, then, lost because unless nuclear Armageddon or alien invasion wipes out electricity-based civilization, the reign of the screen in all its multiple forms is here to stay. Jacobson, the way I see it, is a combination luddite/print Taliban, not much to my taste. I love screens (cinema, TV and computer) and I don’t see that this love has affected in any way my passion for reading. Neither the screen nor the page are monogamous affections for a great percentage of individuals, though I agree that the youngest age demographic is where the real problem lies. People change and, thus, my father who had not read more than ten books before he hit 80 is now reading a thick novel every two days–boredom has unexpected effects. It is, however, much harder for me to imagine my 17-year-old nephew suddenly dropping his iPhone for a bunch of printed papers between covers. The last book I bought him was an exercise in self-defeat for both author and aunt: it explained, in print, why young people like him do not find enjoyment in reading and studying.

I grant, then, Jacobson one major point: concentration is going the way of the Titanic and the iceberg is not so much the screen itself but the downsizing of dialogue and discourse to the tweet and the Instagram post. Influencers’ blogs are all photos, no need to go through much text. And why read if YouTube can teach you all you need to know? Just imagine what I am thinking these days, now that I know that next year I’ll have to teach Romantic Literature (the main poets, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen) at 8:30 in the morning, and on Fridays. I can feel already the waves of enthusiastic concentration…

The problem which the reader has become for the writer is a consequence of the ambitious US white guys, now billionaires, who have peddled their wares to the most vulnerable age segment: Google, YouTube, Instagram, Whatsapp (add whatever you wish) have their uses but they are heavily undermining the more productive revolution which Johannes Guttenberg brought about (I’m not sure whether he would like the idea of the online repository of e-books Project Guttenberg being named after him…). Many defend the idea that reading is at no risk because we are continuously reading what reaches us though the screens (like my posts!) but nobody should claim that reading thousands of words in tweets is the same as reading longer, monographic pieces of writing.

I myself do not fear very much for the novel but I do fear for the book-length essay, as I see more and more of us, academics in Literary and Cultural Studies, publishing collective books rather than monographs. The short essay has its place in journals and volumes of this kind but, again, it aims at a short burst of attention both from writer and reader. There are days when it seems to me that only doctoral students will ever produce monographs–unless they start producing, as my university wants, theses which actually compile three or four articles.

Is the novel dead or dying, then? I think the answer is ‘it depends on which novel you mean’. The books that are dying, whether they are fiction or not, are those that demand, as Jacobson notes, concentration and attention. Ulysses will die faster than The Pillars of Earth, if anyone under 35 can recognize either of the titles. Conquering The Magic Mountain, still a badge of honour in my time as an undergrad in the mid-1980s, now means nothing. And I’m sorry to say that Howard Jacobson’s own novels are not really that thrilling as a readerly challenge. We may be going towards a world without difficult books, which is not the same as a world without novels.

I read yesterday that AIs are already writing fiction and perhaps our hope is that our machines will generate a new fashion for the exquisitely crafted page though, so far, the snag seems to be that they’re not very good at characterizing human beings. Perhaps the new Jane Austen, the new Noam Chomsky will be born from AI talent and computers will be not only the truly sophisticated authors of the future but also the only accomplished readers left, while human beings continue wasting their lifetime and the precious gifts of the human brain in inane messaging in the social networks.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/