PHILOSOPHISING ABOUT GARDENING: A SINGULARITY OF BRITISH CULTURE

agost 16th, 2016

Although this is a short volume, it has taken me a while to read David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens (2006), which my philosopher friend Marta Tafalla recommended to me. I had assumed that reading post-structuralist criticism had prepared me to deal with most kinds of abstract thinking in the Humanities. I was wrong. Before passages such as “The meaning of The Garden, if there is one, is what exemplary gardens exemplify. The Garden is appropriate to what it means through exemplifying it” (129), I was still baffled… Also, Cooper insists again and again that he aims to discuss ‘The Garden’ as an ideal concept, beyond its socio-cultural material realities and his is a position that I found myself resisting as a Cultural Studies specialist. I ended up eventually combining my reading of Cooper’s book with the delicious documentary mini-series presented by Monty Don, The Secret History of the British Garden (BBC, four episodes, available from YouTube).

Both Cooper, emeritus professor of Philosophy at Durham University, and Don, a popularizer or horticulture famous for presenting the BBC television series Gardeners’ World (started in 1968…), are very British in their taste for gardens. This doesn’t mean that other nations do not care for gardening (just think of Japan, or see Don’s series Around the World in 80 Gardens). What I mean is that a foreign student of British culture is often mystified by the intensity of the British devotion to gardens and gardening. When I started reading English Literature in its original version one thing I noticed is that flowers and plants were very often mentioned, of types I could by no means identify in my own two languages. I marvel at how many times I have come across the word ‘nasturtium’ in fiction. As for the famous poem with the daffodils, I learned when first reading it and trying to understand all its words that the flowers are called ‘narciso’ in Spanish (I first saw one in England…).

The Spanish gardens most often named and praised are those of la Alhambra in Granada, the royal palace at Aranjuez, the Reales Alcázares in Seville–and that’s about it (I know the list of notable gardens is much longer, but here I mean popular). The city where I live, Barcelona, is a disaster when it comes to gardens and parks. Madrid boasts of the extensive El Retiro park next door to the botanical gardens, all downtown and easily accessible. Yes, we have Ciutadella, the equivalent of Retiro in Barcelona but, discounting the zoo, it’s not as big nor as popular. The mountain of Montjuïc has several gardens (one even specialising in cactuses) but, well, it’s a mountain, which means it’s not particularly accessible, no matter what the Town Council preaches. One needs absolute determination to visit the botanical gardens there… I see park Güell from my window but, leaving the crowds of tourists aside, I find no aesthetic pleasure of the kind Cooper praises in its so-called gardens, too dusty, too unkempt.

Having enjoyed daily evening strolls in the central park of the small Spanish city where I have spent my holidays I wonder what is wrong with Barcelona and its gardens. Turó Parc, a very pretty little garden which I love, designed by the city’s most revered garderner–Nicolau Maria Rubió I Tudurí–is now in a pathetic state which is hard to believe. Something then, having to do perhaps with the merciless heat of summertime, which kills so many plants and demands constant watering, has made us, Barcelona citizens, less than keen on gardening. I see the wilting plants in the few window sills adorned with plants at all and I positively want to scream… particularly when I think of what you can see in Andalucía (extremely hot, remember?) and the north of Spain, where even the palm trees imported by the nostalgic ‘indianos’ thrive.

I don’t have a garden, that is to say, a plot of land to grow plants in, but I do have (rent…) a biggish terrace, where I battle daily with stubborn plants that refuse to stay healthy and survive the season. This is why I have read Cooper’s book with a bit of scepticism, perhaps because he does not care for the down-to-earth details of actually growing a garden. I think he makes a wonderfully valid point of remarking that the pleasure we take in gardens is distinctive, and not at all a mixed pleasure derived from our parallel enjoyments of the artistic and natural values of gardens. A garden is a garden is a garden. Now, his main philosophical argument, once the rules of appreciation have been established is that “The Garden, then, is an epiphany—a symbol, in the Romantic sense—of the relation between the source of the world and ourselves” (150). He himself jokes that you might be “liable to draw a blank” (132) if you approach you neighbour with that kind of sophisticated thought. Nonetheless, he is really in earnest when he insists that The Garden (the ideal place, not any specific garden) exemplifies “a co-dependence between human endeavour and the natural world” and is “an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery. This relationship is its meaning” (145). In gardening, we strive to achieve the “good life (…) led ‘in the truth’”; in tending to our plants we learn “care, humility, and hope”, informed “by a sensibility towards a fundamental truth of the human condition” (157). If in tune with The Garden, we engage in an “appreciation of the place of human beings in the way of things” (157).

I see you, dear reader, raising an eyebrow, as I did, and thinking that this is overdoing it and that although parts of Cooper’s ideas ring true the whole argument is overblown. In taking care of one’s garden and in appreciating the beauty of someone else’s garden, private or public, we engage in a unique aesthetic pleasure, I grant that. Yet, I fail to see the epiphanic quality of that experience and I feel that it is a much more direct kind of pleasure, attuned to our love of being in places where you can relax and feel in peace with yourself and the world. Um, or is this what he means all in all?

Monty Don’s mini-series provided me with what I was missing in Cooper: a history of how the aristocratic privilege of owning a park and garden is in our times combined with the privilege of owning a few square metres to grow your own garden. Yes, privilege. As a working-class city dweller raised in a flat with just windows (and not even flowers in the windowsills much less fresh cut flowers in vases), I have always felt truly envious of people who could grow plants at home. As a little girl I felt envy of my grandmothers because they had each a tiny balcony to grow flowers in (to this day, I love hydrangeas because one grandma preferred them). Whenever we visited relatives in my mum’s village or saw some house with a garden outside the city, no matter how modest, I grew really moody and resentful. Just by chance I got my terrace, and now one of the main problems in my life is that I cannot afford to buy a bigger flat with an equivalent-sized terrace in absurdly overpriced Barcelona. Terraces, by the way, are often called ‘solariums’ by local real-estate agents, which gives you a clear idea of what people prefer doing with them: sunbathing.

The thought of giving up my terrace is simply inacceptable to me. Why? Because no matter how much effort municipalities may put in designing public gardens and parks for their citizens, the real privilege is not having to leave home to relax surrounded by bits of green. This is the privilege that neither Cooper nor Don address. The difference between Britain and Spain (or Catalonia) is that suburban sprawling gave the privilege of owning a garden to low-middle-class and even working-class British persons. In Catalonia geography is our enemy, for the terrain is mostly hilly and you see even in expensive ‘urbanizaciones’ houses placed in steep inclines, occupying plots in which there is hardly any room for a strip of grass. Having said that, I think that even when we have the space, either in a terrace or a proper garden, we in Spain lack the cultural background that makes gardening a rewarding activity, as it is in Britain or other countries. Perhaps, just perhaps, gardening is too close for comfort to the backbreaking agricultural work many of our grandparents fled as migrants to the city and we want no soil to dirt our hands.

Watching another documentary, I learned that the major British newspapers have ‘gardening correspondents’. Also that Prince Charles is a much more respected figure than you might think in the gardening world, which, by the way, has its long list of celebrities (Monty Don is one). I’m even beginning to worry that there might be already a discipline called ‘Garden Studies’ which I have completely missed (wait for Routledge to notice the gap…). The list of resources connected with gardening in Britain available online is simply staggering and has by no means an equivalent in Spanish (though I recommend the lengthy Wikipedia article on gardening in Spain, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_de_la_jardiner%C3%ADa_en_Espa%C3%B1a). You might think that gardens make a small cultural difference, and one quite easy to overcome as everyone enjoys a beautiful garden. Yet, my impression is that this is a deeper cultural difference than it seems. Just think of how unlikely the existence of a ‘corresponsal de jardinería’ for El País or La Vanguardia is and you’ll see my point. Or try to imagine Queen Letizia showing an interest in gardens beyond the ones at la Zarzuela Palace.

One last word (or not). Here are three beautiful spots with gardens: El ‘señorío de Bértiz’ in Navarra (an extensive natural park and gardens), El Habana (a hotel with a lovely garden in La Pereda, near Llanes in Asturias) and the Casa Sorolla in Madrid, which will give you a very clear idea of the kind of privileged urban seclusion which a wealthy Spanish person might aim at in the 20th century.

May you enjoy an epiphanic moment in them.

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

WORKING FOR MEN’S CHANGE (II): LESSONS FROM JOHN STOLTENBERG

agost 4th, 2016

John Stoltenberg calls himself a ‘radical feminist’ activist, though in my view he appears to be one of the few genuine anti-patriarchal male fighters. There are two reasons, however, why he prefers using ‘feminist’, as I deduce.

One is that feminism made him aware of patriarchal injustice. As he writes in his main work, Refusing to Be a Man (1989)–the volume on which I’ll comment here–“In various ways, feminism has blown like a gust of fresh air through a lifetime spent agonizing and anguishing about the place of other men in our lives”. I’m hesitating to provide this piece of information but the case is that Stoltenberg, who identifies as gay, learned his feminism from Andrea Dworkin, his partner and wife for a total 31 years. His is, then, a classic case of a man learning to defend anti-patriarchal justice from a woman he loves, though I’d rather leave aside the gossip about the actual arrangements in their marriage (I assume everyone knows that Dworkin was a leading American radical feminist). On the other hand, unlike hooks (and myself), Stoltenberg prefers calling the enemy ‘male supremacy’ rather than ‘patriarchy’. For him, all masculinity is tainted by patriarchy, which is why he calls for men to reject being a man and embrace feminism; likewise, he believes that racism can only be eliminated if white people reject whiteness. Now, if you’re a white man and you are wondering what you can call yourself if you reject these main features in your identity, the answer is ‘person’.

Reading Stoltenberg’s complaints against how Elizabeth Badinter misrepresented his position as ‘male self-hate’ in her book XY: On Masculine Identity (1992), I realised that she may have prejudiced me against his work, which is why I have taken so long to read him. However, I have found Refusing to Be a Man (which is actually a collection of essays), an extremely lucid, well-argued and sensible book, deserving to be much better known. Badinter, of course, is not to be blamed for Stoltenberg’s marginal position as an author but, rather, the immense resistance which his critique of male supremacy elicited from patriarchal men–as it was to be expected. Stoltenberg refers to “a mass retrenchment, a counter-refusal, as it were, refusing to refuse to be a man” including the “earnestly liberal academics” in Masculinities Studies. In his view, which I share in part, this discipline “does not get at the problem” of how the blatant lies upholding male supremacy survive from generation to generation. He claims that our academic approach “serves theoretically only to deceive another generation yet one more time” though I’d argue that progress is slow because there is not a male anti-patriarchal civil rights movement similar to feminism. Unlike Stoltenberg, I don’t believe that men should join feminism: rather, my view is that both women feminists and men in need of liberation should join in their common anti-patriarchal fight.

“Male supremacy”, Stoltenberg explains, “is the honest term for what is sometimes hedgingly called patriarchy” (which he limits, rather, to the father). Stoltenberg places the material penis rather than the symbolic phallus at the centre of male supremacy, complicating in this way women’s contribution to this noxious social system (see bell hooks). The biology of sex is, thus, central in his view although he stresses that both the sex itself and male supremacy are constructions. For Stoltenberg even penile sensations are socially constructed, that is to say, men do not feel during sex anything we might call natural but what male supremacists tell them they should feel (mainly, the pleasure of domination). He even denies that sex exists as a class of individuals: “The penises exist; the male sex does not”. Of course, he worries that the ‘male sex’ does exist for those who maintain it as a social construction, since this is “a political entity that flourishes only through acts of force and sexual terrorism”. In Stoltenberg’s view of male supremacy, individuals accept the “values and interests of the class”, for which the “habit” of “sexual objectification” of women is essential: “Male sexual objectifying is not simply a response to male supremacy; it functions to enforce male supremacy as well”. What perhaps surprised me most in his argumentation is the idea that “male supremacy requires homophobia in order to keep men safe from the sexual aggression of men”; without homophobia, he claims, men would be raped as often as women (think of what happens in jails).

Stoltenberg’s volume is so varied in the topics it touches that it’s truly hard to summarize his main points. I’ll have to skip, then, aspects as important as how male supremacist fathers terrorize their boys into accepting the rules of patriarchal manhood. Also the shocking idea (for me) that the penile erection which confirms male supremacy is not limited to sexual arousal but to many other mundane experiences like feeling danger. I left unfinished a complicated article in which I tried to explain terrorist bombings (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as the ultimate patriarchal orgasms but, if I credit Stoltenberg, I was not really wide off the mark… Let me turn then to two central topics in Refusing to Be a Man: pornography and, of course, change.

It comes as no surprise that Stoltenberg’s views on pornography are very close to those of Andrea Dworkin in her best-known volume Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Dworkin, together with Catharine MacKinnon, defended the view that pornography should be outlawed not depending on vague obscenity legislation but because it attacks women’s civil rights. Dworkin’s views generated a massive confrontation between feminists who decried pornography and those who defended women’s rights to choose in any matter connected with sex. She and Stoltenberg describe in their works the kind of hard-core pornography based on humiliating women that any right-thinking feminist should reject; they do not even contemplate, however, the possibility now defended by many young feminists that women may create and enjoy their own kind of pro-feminist porn. When Stoltenberg claims that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice” or that “Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men” I tend to agree simply because like him I don’t believe that real sexual freedom, accompanied by what he calls sexual justice, exists. “Essentially”, he writes, “sexual freedom has been about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy” and in which porn is central. With true equality, if that ever comes, sex will not be at the service of male supremacy and only then will we find out whether porn can be dissociated from domination, humiliation and hatred. In the meantime, yes, by all means, let’s persecute abusive porn which infringes civil and human rights. And let’s question whether we need porn at all, pro-feminist or otherwise.

Another very important point which Stoltenberg also disputes is the widespread idea that men can’t express their feelings. As a “class”, men “have always expressed their feelings, eloquently and extensively”, he observes, through religion, nationalism, militarism, the diverse social institutions and even sciences such as psychiatry: “whether or not a particular man is feeling the feeling at a particular time, the feeling is being expressed through the institutions men have made”. Logically, only if the number of “men of conscience” ready to face these institutions rises can we hope male supremacy to be shaken to its foundations. Stoltenberg, is, however, quite pessimistic about the ‘man of conscience’, for “he won’t do anything until it is clear to him how it affects him and his brethren as men”. Thinking of the men of the 1990s (the men in the decade after the book’s publication), Stoltenberg makes a series of very negative predictions, which can be summarised this way: they will do nothing but will claim this is because they don’t know what is politically correct, and will feel good nonetheless for at last discussing their feelings. I’m sorry to say that this describes very well Masculinities Studies… though to be fair the current men of conscience are still facing an extremely recalcitrant male supremacy (see my post of 27 March).

I am currently reading an excellent book by American historian Adam Hochschild focused on WWI: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (2011). In this volume Hochschild examines how a variety of male and female activists opposed this brutal war in Britain (feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, let’s recall this, sided with the Government). Hochschild gives very many examples of how the patriarchal institutions behind the war were opposed at a very high personal cost, and thus pays homage to the individuals who changed the private and public view of the Great War. When Stoltenberg writes that “The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood” or that “The pride to which we aspire is not in being men but in being men who…—men who are living their lives in a way that will make a difference. We must be transformers of selfhood—our own and others”, then, what is missing is a specific programme of acts of resistance that can bring about this transformation, in imitation of other movements in other historical periods.

We might argue that the liberation movements that crystallized around the time of WWI (feminism, pacifism, anti-imperialism, communism) have failed in many ways but at least they have succeeded in others. The same can be said about the anti-racist civil rights movement of the 1950s. 27 years after the publication of Stoltenberg’s denunciation of ‘male supremacy’, however, there is not yet a visible public movement engaged in its destruction with men’s massive participation–the very existence of male supremacy or of patriarchy is still denied on a daily basis despite the evidence that links couple-related abuse and widespread military terrorism. Women are certainly divided between feminists and patriarchal collaborators but at least feminism has made us aware of the division and of who our enemy is. In men’s case, patriarchy totally prevails thanks to having convinced men that there is no possible collective action against it; I even suspect that the figure of the outsider has been glamourised to pre-empt, precisely, any collective anti-patriarchal reaction. Patriarchy tolerates the partial erosion of some of its main tenets (misogyny, homophobia, racism, slavery, militarism, capitalism) at particular points but has so far managed to survive by pretending it’s not open to change because it is basic human nature. How long for we are going to accept this appalling lie is really up to us.

Refuse being a man, and refuse being a woman. Let’s all be persons.

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

WORKING FOR MEN’S CHANGE (I): LESSONS FROM BELL HOOKS

agost 4th, 2016

[I’m still enjoying my three-week summer break, which is why I feel today particularly rusty. In academic terms, my holidays consists of a) not answering work-related email and b) not thinking of my extremely busy agenda from next week onwards. Beyond this and as all academics do, I’m reading all I can manage between outings. Above all, I’m enjoying the luxury of thinking about what I read in leisure, which is why we academics should have much longer holidays… The holiday also explains why this post comes in two instalments.]

Today’s post will turn out to be intensely personal for I wish to deal with the thorny topic of patriarchal man’s recalcitrance in the face of necessary change and I know of no more recalcitrant patriarch than my father. His unwillingness to change despite the universal criticism and rejection of his appalling private and public behaviour is the colossal rock against which my own personal feelings and my training as a Masculinities Studies specialist crash again and again. This is why I always find some kind of comfort in reading about other Gender Studies male and female activists who also have the misfortune of having terrible, unmanageable, uncaring fathers. In this case, the volume providing some solace this summer is bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004).

I find myself quite comfortable with bell hooks’ ideas for I share many points in her own brand of feminism, which she calls, perhaps excessively, ‘visionary’. To begin with, I do agree that 1970s radical feminism was too angry “to imagine a culture of reconciliation where women and men might meet and find common ground”, based on forming a shared front against patriarchy. Like hooks, I stress all the time a most basic point: one thing is patriarchy and another masculinity–there’s no reason at all for masculinity to be always patriarchal, and it is in men’s interests as much as in women’s to get rid of patriarchy, the ugliest system of social organization ever invented. Patriarchy needs to be outed and named again and again as our common enemy, for its most insidious piece of social engineering is pretending that it is simple human nature, thus pre-empting any possible alternatives.

Like hooks, I have often placed myself in the very uncomfortable position of telling other feminist women that hating men (that is, engaging in androphobia or misandria in response to misogyny) leads nowhere, for we happen to share the planet with them. Some radical feminist SF writers have imagined in many stories what life would be like without men and, tempting as some of these stories might be, I don’t wish to participate in the extermination of the male half of the human species if only in our imagination. Like hooks, I’d rather build bridges among what often feels like separate alien species. At the same time, I do belong to the collective which wishes on a daily basis that particular men die so that the suffering they cause may end. This is our only hope in a situation in which patriarchal men simply refuse to change though, here’s the downside, wishing that someone dies feels terrible–a black hole sucking into the void the positive energy required to build those necessary bridges.

“Men cannot change”, hooks writes, “if there are no blueprints for change”. Here’s the question, though: who will provide the blueprints? We, the feminist women who believe in men, have been trying to help for decades now with an alarmingly low rate of success. hooks argues that, paradoxically, women love patriarchal men despite their not loving us back (“they would cease to be real ‘men’”) because our longing for “father love” overwhelms our better judgement. Also, I would add, because we believe against all evidence in the power of love to transform men–you see how cheesy this sounds. Thus, hooks plunges fearlessly into total sentimentalism when she argues that “the deep inner misery of men” springs from a “longing for love” that we, “feminist thinkers” must dare “to examine, explore, and talk about”. Patriarchal culture “really does not care if men are unhappy”, which is why it provides no outlets for the expression of feeling and, so, “The masculine pretence is that real men feel no pain”. Quite provokingly, hooks accuses women of not wanting “to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire” for a ‘real’ man.

Her recipe, then, looks something like this: find unhappy men, listen to them, sympathise with their woes, explain how patriarchy works, offer comfort, provide the blueprint for change. Been there, done that, and quite often, since I was a teenager. However, and this is where I diverge from hooks, a woman needs to be careful when choosing who to invest her sympathy on. As she notes, the only emotion that patriarchy values is anger and, as most victims of couple-related abuse can tell you, this often bursts out when the woman is offering emotional empathy: if there is a thing which recalcitrant patriarchs hate is being exposed as (in their view) weak men before ‘inferior’ women. Quite logically, then, “Fear keeps us from being close to the men in our lives; it keeps us from love” for too often our attempts to approach these men have been rebuked with violence, either verbal or physical.

Unlike hooks, then, I have learned to distinguish between deserving and non-deserving men, that is, between potential allies in the anti-patriarchal struggle and downright patriarchs. The former are the object of all my love, respect, interest and attention. The others I hate with the passion of 1,000 radical 1970s feminists for there is NOTHING to love in them. I have made mistakes in my life, like any other woman, but at the ripe age of 50 I am experienced enough to know when argument (whether emotional or rational) will make no inroads into patriarchal brains. I no longer speak, then, of ‘men’ in general but of two classes of men: ‘patriarchal men’ and (hopefully) ‘anti-patriarchal men’, or, simply, good men. To make my point clear, suppose you are an anti-Nazi person trying to survive in 1940s Germany: surely, you would try to find allies of your same ideology to build a common anti-Nazi front and would never make the mistake of trying to persuade Nazis that all they need is love. So, yes, hooks does sound quite naïve by proposing that we learn to love men in general…

“To create loving men”, hooks writes, “we must love males”. Obviously, as she highlights, this passes through loving boys, of which the highest measure is teaching them to avoid the patriarchal pitfalls as soon as possible. As things are now, families, including new-style fathers, have learned to love their boys much better; however, as everyone knows, patriarchal society is so all-pervading that an anti-patriarchal father’s love provides hardly any protection against the bullies his boy will find at all levels. We women can love men as much as we can but if men still hate each other in order to prove their patriarchal credentials there is little we can contribute to changing their ways. It’s really up to men… Like hooks, I’m aware that women contribute much to upholding patriarchy, whether as victims or as perpetrators and it is true that often sons who wish to free themselves from patriarchy have to fight both father and mother. Indeed, few fathers and mothers understand that their behaviour is conditioned by patriarchy’s need to renew itself; this is why the monster needs to be named, exposed and destroyed. The point of the brutal patriarchal psychological violence parents inflict on children is to “reinforce a dominator model” of “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” which few see with as much clarity as hooks. So, yes, let’s name it as often as we can.

I must also agree with hooks when she writes that patriarchy “promotes insanity”. Patriarchal men lash out against children and women because they cannot get satisfaction out of their lives, having been promised a degree of power and respect they never earned nor deserved. “The patriarchal manhood that was supposed to satisfy does not”, hooks sentences, adding that “by the time this awareness emerges, most patriarchal men are isolated and alienated”. Rage serves “as the perfect cover, masking feelings of fear and failure”; anger, she observes, “often hides depression and profound sorrow”. It is also a formidable barrier. My own father appears to be a textbook case: nothing any member of my family can say to help him out of his rage resonates with him; he sees himself, rather, as a deeply misunderstood man, a victim of our collective ill-will against him.

“To this day,” hooks writes, “I hear individual feminist women express their concern for the plight of men within patriarchy, even as they share that they are unwilling to give their energy to help educate and change men”. I close this post with the same thought I closed her book: a man can only wish to be educated and change if a) he understands what patriarchy is, b) he is willing to abandon it. Yet this is a classic example of tail biting: a man dazzled by patriarchy will reject all attempts to be re-educated and, as patriarchy works now, already baby boys are too stepped in its mystique to embrace an alternative. So, when exactly are we to save boys from patriarchy? And how does hooks expect to establish any kind of conversation with the adult patriarchs? Going back to Nazi Germany, this is charging the Jews with the task of convincing Hitler and company to abandon their evil ways.

It seems to me that we, feminist women, can help to educate the good men we come across into our anti-patriarchal stance. Then it’s up to them to take the front line in the fight against the patriarchal aggressors. Turn now to my next post to see what happens in this case…

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

JANE AUSTEN FOR BOYS?: ENJOYING MALE INTIMACY IN THE AUBREY-MATURIN SERIES BY PATRICK O’BRIAN

juliol 13th, 2016

An important function of film adaptations is calling the attention of potential readers to works they would have missed otherwise. I am one of the many readers who became familiarized with the world of the Aubrey-Maturin series by English writer Patrick O’Brian thanks to Peter Weir’s excellent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Supposing I saw the film in 2004 this means that it has taken me 12 long years to finally come round and start reading the novel series. Why? The obvious reason: there are 20 volumes (1969-2004). And I was busy in the meantime going through a similar number of volumes by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin in his series on rebellious Detective Inspector John Rebus. This led, incidentally, to an article, “Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus” (Clues: A Journal of Detection, 29:2, 2011, 73-82, http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052), which might now be obsolete depending on events in Even Dogs in the Wild, which I have not read yet. Since O’Brian died in 2000 there is no danger, sorry to be so callous, of yet another Aubrey-Maturin novel unless, that is, someone decides to continue the series, left unfinished at the author’s death.

Sooner or later English Literature specialists come across O’Brian’s name as this is often coupled with that of Jane Austen. Even though two centuries separate both authors, O’Brian’s saga is placed in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which are also the background of much of Austen’s fiction. As every specialist knows, there is now an ongoing academic operation to claim that despite the scant references to historical and political events, Austen’s novels are perfectly grounded in the public national reality of her time meaning that they are much more than just domestic fiction. I am personally quite irritated by this stance since it suggests that domestic fiction needs to be muscled up to be really ‘serious’ literature and, to be honest, I find the whole operation quite sexist. Austen is perfect at what she does and I see no need to distort it by pretending it is something else, whether political or feminist fiction. O’Brian does not have at all the kind of reputation that Austen enjoys, suffering from the opposite condition: his novels are too often seen as ‘just’ genre fiction, whether this is adventure or historical fiction and, even worse, as just pap aimed at unsophisticated male readers. Both opinions are quite wrong as a) O’Brian’s work is the product of impressive philological research on the language of the early 19th century, which makes them, at least in my view, literary enough, b) check GoodReads and you will see that I’m far from being the only woman addicted to them.

Did I say addicted? Yes. I’m writing this post to try to explain to myself what on Earth I am doing devouring fiction dominated by naval battles of which I only understand a tiny part, as O’Brian’s nautical vocabulary is colossal. Before I forget, let me say that the Aubrey-Maturin series deals primarily with the friendship between English Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his ship surgeon Stephen Maturin, an illegitimate child born to an Irish father and a Catalan mother who grows up to be a physician, keen naturalist and sly spy. If I recall correctly, the compound Irish-Catalan is never mentioned in the film, in which Paul Bettany plays an English-accented, much prettier version of Maturin. So, yes, here’s one reason for my being hooked: Maturin is a fierce independentist in his two national identities and Catalan is one of his mother tongues. O’Brian was a resident of Colliure in Southern France (or Northern Catalonia) which is why he’s very well informed about our tongue. Yet, the ones who are not paying attention are Catalans themselves, as I have found no article, academic or otherwise, analyzing ‘Esteva’ Maturin. He is, after all, the most prominent Catalan character at an international level so far.

However, I know that this is not the main reason behind my addiction. Let me backtrack. I have read so far three volumes and I’m into the fourth one. When I started Master and Commander (1969) I was so dismayed by the vocabulary that I decided to keep my cell phone at hand to check on the bits and pieces of each ship. I must have looked pretty desperate because this led my husband, concerned that I would spoil my eyesight, to buying me a tablet… I did the corresponding MLA search, found a few articles on O’Brian and Austen (an issue to which I’ll return), and on the novels’ genre but nothing on the Aubrey-Maturin friendship, nor a book covering the whole series. Asking around, I found out that there is indeed a dissertation written by none other that a dear colleague at URV, John Style: Patrick O’Brian, Questions of Genre (1998). I contacted John at once but, oh my!, he has no computer files of his thesis. A print copy is now waiting on my desk for me to read. There is here some kind of lesson about our undervaluing our own research…

So, anyway, I read Post Captain (1972) and that was it. HMS Surprise (1973) followed and seeing that I’m running the risk of losing track of any other fiction I should be reading, I told myself that I would alternate O’Brian with other books. The result was that I found myself rushing through Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice to return to Jack and Stephen. I’m now sailing towards the Pacific Ocean in The Mauritius Command (1977).

Leckie’s space opera made me see that there is somehow little difference between the spaceships of the future and the tall ships of the past, which might be an advantage for me as a reader of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I’m used to coping with all kinds of weird neologisms in SF which is possibly why I’m quite patient with O’Brian’s nautical lingo (more or less). Austen might also be a factor as, particularly in Post Captain, O’Brian does a wonderful job of showing the men’s side in her time. In this novel Jack is the new neighbour in want of a wife soon beset by a widow with five marriageable daughters, a harpy who puts Mrs Bennett’s feeble efforts to shame. In O’Brian’s intensely masculine world men are very imperfect and, as captain, Jack struggles to discipline his unruly men taking it for granted that turning them into decent fellows must be his priority (he loves a ‘happy ship’). He himself and Stephen are far from being Darcys in public and go to odd lengths in private that would scare away many women. I’m sure, though, that Austen would have enjoyed the humour: O’Brian puzzles Mrs Williams tremendously by having Jack employ his own seamen to run his house –she can’t understand why there are no women there. Nor what role Stephen plays.

So here we go: the main attraction of the novels is the intimacy between the two friends. This is a word which O’Brian uses himself whenever he needs to explain how Jack and Stephen are friends and on what implicit rules their intimate bond relies. A female friend who disliked Weir’s film told me she was annoyed they didn’t clearly say that Jack and Stephen are gay. Well, they are not. As I have argued in my most recent publication (“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”, http://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war) paradoxically the unmasking by Gay and Queer Studies of male affection as repressed desire has negatively affected the representation of male friendship. I have no doubt that O’Brian was a homophobe as ‘sodomites’ are mocked in the novels but I simply do not think that we reach a deeper understanding of friendship by claiming that Jack and Stephen secretly desire each other. They do not. One can insist that Jack’s paramour Sophie and Stephen’s femme fatale Diana are inserted in the text precisely to dispel any hints of homosexuality. Again: this is missing the point, which is that (asexual) friendship (probably) is a far more important bond in the lives of many people than overrated love, not to mention extremely overrated sex. I wrote the article amazed by how the male characters in both novels express downright love for each other and although I still jump every time Stephen calls Jack ‘joy’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and I don’t know what else, and Jack reciprocates in his own away, I’m getting used to the idea that not all human affection needs sex as an outlet.

This, in the end, is the reason why men and women love the Aubrey-Maturin series: as happened in WWI, which provided men with an excuse to express affection beyond the usual homophobic restrictions of ordinary life, the Napoleonic War sea battles provide male readers with an excuse to enjoy this extraordinary intimacy between these two disinhibited men. As for women, everyone knows we’ll go to any lengths for a drop of intimacy –including having to read about extremely violent but also extremely boring naval engagements. Also, after Austen, I enjoy reading about men who are less than perfect, not at all good-looking, even coarse and, yet, good company to each other… and to the reader. Jack and Stpehen are both extraordinary and incredibly real, and I think this is why I must praise O’Brian.

Um… 16 novels to enjoy…

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FROM MECANOSCRIT TO TYPESCRIPT: TRANSLATING PEDROLO (AND THE QUIRKS OF INTERNATIONAL CULTURAL COMMUNICATION)

juliol 7th, 2016

Allow me to take Manuel de Pedrolo (1918-1990) as the centre of the argumentation I want to develop here. Pedrolo is a key author of Catalan literature, to which he contributed about 100 works in all genres (poetry, drama, novel, journalism) and also his translations of first-rank international work by American and European novelists. He was also the author, as I explained in my previous post, of the best-selling Catalan novel ever, Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974). He worked, in addition, at all literary levels: from the popular (he made significant contributions to detective fiction and to science-fiction) to the post-modern experimental.

Now, if you check the very useful data base TRAC (Traduccions del català) available from the website of the Institut Ramon Lull (http://www.llull.cat/catala/quiesqui/trac_traduccions.cfm), you will see that his name appears only 46 times –mostly translations of Mecanoscrit. This is the only book of his translated into French. Pedrolo has been translated into German only four times and in all cases within short story anthologies; once, in identical circumstances, into Russian. In English the only translations of Pedrolo’s works are Final trajectory (trans. Albert M. Forcadas & Selley Quinn, New York, Carlton Press, 1985) and Touched by fire (trans. Peter Griffin, New York, Peter Lang, 1993). Mecanoscrit, by the way, has been translated into Castilian, Galician and Basque within Spain, and abroad into Dutch, French, Rumanian, Portuguese, Italian, Bulgarian, Estonian, and Macedonian.

As it is obvious from my previous post, I’m extremely happy to have had the chance to translate Mecanoscrit into English for the first time ever. Luckily for me, this is a shortish novel (45,000 words only), otherwise the task would have been absolutely daunting. Translating from one’s own language into a second language one does not speak as a native is a complete nightmare, as you can never be sure of what you’re doing in the same way natives are. Of course, native speakers also need to have a very deep knowledge of their own language but at least they have a clearer sense of what sounds ‘correct’. I did consider working in tandem with a native speaker but finally decided to face the translation alone and rely on a good number of English readers for corrections and suggestions. I have only translated one book –the collection Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla, which I myself edited, see http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808) – and I must say that I have great admiration for translators, for their task is incredibly difficult. In the case of Mecanoscrit the main obstacle for me turned out to be the most common words, those instances in which a second-language speaker is lost in a sea of get, have, do… I’m certainly happy that the work is done and that my translation will reach the 800 Eurocon participants, hopefully also American readers through Wesleyan UP. And, no, I have not received any fees yet; besides, I am embarrassed to apply for grants as, after all, I’m an tenured academic with a regular salary and not a self-employed translator. I would be actually happier to find a sponsor for Wesleyan.

Apart from the translation itself, and the edition of the trilingual volume this summer, I have produced a good number of shorter documents about Pedrolo and Mecanoscrit, including an entry for the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. It just turns out that the ESF does not have an entry on Catalan SF, and so I asked Antoni Munné-Jordà to write one, which I translated (our two entries are currently being edited by John Clute, who welcomed very warmly my offer to write them). To my infinite surprise, Antoni sent me an article longer than the corresponding ESF entry for Spanish SF, which opens up the chance to expand the Catalan presence in ESF with many other entries. The question is where I am going to find the contributors among the Catalan Literature specialists… I happen to be the board member in charge of academic contacts of the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia and, well, that should be my main task. I’m also editing for the online academic journal Alambique the first monographic volume in any language on Mecanoscrit (to be published in August in 2017 in English, and then to be followed by the Catalan version).

But, wait a minute, you must be thinking: aren’t you an English Studies specialist? Yep! Will all this work on Catalan fiction count for your CV? Nope! So… why do it? The obvious answer is that this is an academic labour of love, the kind you do because you love a certain book. The situation is, however, much more complicated than it seems at first sight.

To begin with, translations of any kind are not considered as proper academic work in Spain and, so, do not count for research assessment –even when they are critical editions. We, academics, produce them anyway because we think they are a relevant part of our jobs, particularly in the case of those of us working in second-language areas. ‘English Literature’, supposing you can imagine it as a single entity, can trust that we’ll do the job of transferring to our languages its most relevant works. Nonetheless, as we know very well, not even the immensely important Anglophone Literature can be certain that it is fully represented in other languages. Think now of minor language Literatures, like Catalan, with a very restricted circle of academics preaching its beauties abroad and you’ll see the problem. We, Catalan speakers, need to cross our fingers and hope that someone will choose to put their energy into doing us the favour of translating our works. And the money, of course.

Literary translation is, I’m trying to say, an extremely haphazard process. It would make perfect sense for each language to have a body of experts whose job would be to ensure that an agreed-upon list of works received translations into the major languages. No such body exists, as far as I know. In Catalonia the Institut Ramon Llull offers grants to translators and for the promotion of Catalan culture abroad but these depend on the applicants. I might be wrong but, apparently, no Catalan organism is checking that our most prominent authors are indeed translated. The problem, as it is obvious, is that many relevant authors in one language are completely unknown in another. This, by the way, affects both the classics and the contemporary works for the root of the problem is finding a readership big enough to guarantee business.

After all, translations are published by companies that expect to make a profit and there is no way around this hurdle. Unless, that is, official institutions decide to invest money in making these translations available themselves (perhaps as ebooks). This might be expensive but, even so, relatively cheap thinking of the authors whose copyright has expired. In the case of writers whose copyright needs to be respected the problem, of course, is that local publishing houses expect to get foreign rights fees. There is, nonetheless, a world of difference between the benefits that a first-rank living author may bring and the very limited market open to someone living but less prominent or someone dead and little known abroad.

So, back to Mecanoscrit: no native English-speaking Catalan Studies specialist has offered to translate this book. Local native Catalan specialists may translate foreign works into Catalan but they do not translate Catalan literature into other languages; hence, nobody has volunteered, either. This is how I have found myself at this strange crossroads: I’m a Catalan native speaker with an English solid enough (excuse me!) to attempt the translation. The rules of the translation game, however, are limited as regards the circulation of the translation: we, the Eurocon team, are very lucky that we have permission from Planeta, who owns the rights on Mecanoscrit, to publish the trilingual volume, and, most crucially, a sponsor, the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdence. Planeta is willing enough to have Wesleyan UP publish the translation but, logically, Wesleyan worries that there are not enough potential readers in the USA to cover the expenses. Since the commercial publishing houses I have contacted have not even replied to my emails, if Wesleyan rejects the translation Typescript of the Second Origin risks remaining in a limbo. I could try to convince somehow Planeta to let me find a public online platform to publish Typescript –like my university’s repository or others– but, of course, they’ll demand a fee. And who is to pay for that? So you see the conundrum. Now apply this to any other case you might know about and if you find a brilliant solution, do let me know.

To be continued…

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

TYPESCRIPT OF THE SECOND ORIGIN: THE MASTERPIECE OF CATALAN SCIENCE FICTION

juliol 5th, 2016

[Please, note: This is the prologue I have written for the trilingual edition of Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974). The text explains why and how it has been produced.]

When I joined the team in charge of organizing the Barcelona Eurocon, back in the autumn of 2015, little could I imagine that I would fulfil one of my dreams as a reader turned into English Studies specialist: translating into English the extremely popular novel by Manuel de Pedrolo Mecanoscrit del segon origen (hereafter, Typescript of the Second Origin). Someone—apparently Cristina Macía—had come up with the brilliant idea of commemorating our Eurocon with a trilingual edition of the book (Catalan / Spanish / English); this would be given to the 800 participants of the event, thus helping to place Pedrolo on the map of the best European science fiction. When I learned about the project through fellow organizers Hugo Camacho and David Alcoy—with I whom I have collaborated in the task of producing it—I naively asked who would take care of the translation into English. This was one of those questions that one asks despite knowing that they will lead to unpredictable consequences (and much hard work). Of course, had I been given the name of another translator my disappointment would have been immense. I was fortunate, therefore, to be in the right place and at the right moment to fulfil, as I say, one of my dreams.

As Antoni Munné-Jordà explains [in his own foreword about Pedrolo] Typescript (1974) appeared just at the time when Catalan literature could finally be made part of secondary education (from 1976 onwards). I myself am one of the beneficiaries of this new breath of wind and of the collective decision by Catalan Literature teachers to trust Pedrolo to interest us, young students, in reading. The copy of Typescript that I have been using as the basis for the translation into English is the one I bought in 1980 for my first year in secondary school—already the ninth edition of the 1976 book in the series ‘El cangur’ of Edicions 62. The cover shows an image iconic for my entire generation: that of a young woman, her face half-covered by her black hair, riding a huge tractor and staring at the horizon. Alba starts on the road towards survival aged only 14, the age I myself was when my teachers invited us to read the book—I cannot vouch for the impact which Pedrolo’s story had among the boys but I can declare with no hesitation that brave Alba became for us 1980s Catalan girls a simply wonderful role model. This felt, at the same time, very natural. We were then so young that we just did not know about the many restrictions limiting girls in post-Franco Spain and Catalonia (and that still apply…). Alba was definitely what we needed as women: a born survivor. Hence my dream to share with the world her story in English.

Alba’s example still persists: just a few weeks ago one of my students, thirty years younger than me, told the class that Typescript is her favourite book. Quite perplexed, she also confessed that she had not realized that Pedrolo’s novel is science-fiction. This statement in turn caused great perplexity among the SF fans in class: after all, Pedrolo narrates a post-apocalyptic story of survival, prompted by the destruction by extraterrestrials of all mammals (both human and animal), with very few exceptions. The terrifying vision of Barcelona devastated by the lethal vibrations used by the visitors, and with most of its buildings collapsed, is unforgettable. At this point, however, I can only speculate about why the teachers who aroused such passion for Typescript in us young readers chose not to teach this novel as science fiction but as… literature. Perhaps this decision—if a decision was ever made, maybe our teachers simply were not aware of the codes of SF—was, after all, a wise one; at the time Typescript was too close for comfort to the still very popular pulp SF novelettes sold by newsagents.

Typescript of the Second Origin is the most widely read work in Catalan literature; however, since it is not read mainly as SF, this may have prevented Catalonia from becoming a powerful generator of works in this genre. This statement may seem very unfair in view of the extensive bibliography compiled by Munné-Jordà himself (see the Archive of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Catalan Society at http://www.sccff.cat/) and the SF series he directs (for Pagès Editors). There is no doubt at all that Catalan SF is plentiful and of good quality but in no way can it be said to be popular, as Typescript certainly is. If we asked the thousands and thousands who have read Pedrolo’s novel to name another SF Catalan author, only a tiny minority would pass the test.

I confess that one of my fears when undertaking the translation of Typescript was that it would not measure up to my powerful memory of the book. I had actually re-read it at least twice in the past, finding it still as satisfactory as any other classic read in adolescence. However, my biggest fear was that the intense reading which translation requires would reveal all its defects. In part this has been indeed the case: Pedrolo wrote very hurriedly and without many revisions, and I must confess that a couple of sentences have been absolutely impossible to understand. Typescript, in short, is not a literary masterpiece of the same rank as the perfect The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L. Stevenson; yet it has the kind of imperfect charm that has turned other novels, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, into universal classics. That Typescript endures well the passage of time was for me proven by the capacity of its final segment still to move readers very deeply (at least those of us who love the book). Despite being concerned about the linguistic precision required to translate the book, Alba and Dídac’s fate once more touched me to the core. I hope its new readers will be likewise moved.

Although the ideal age to read Typescript, as I have said, is 14, I would insist that Pedrolo’s novel can find new readers among all ages. Adelais de Pedrolo, the author’s daughter—possibly the inspiration for Alba, though she denies it—confirms that her father never intended Typescript to be fiction just for young readers. The novel did certainly find a large young readership, but, then, in 1974 when Typescript was published, there were no boundaries between young and adult fiction. The label ‘young adult’ (YA), so popular today, arose precisely in the 1970s and in the English-speaking world partly to appeal to those adolescents less interested in reading, selling them products mostly designed to accommodate their preferences. Today it might seem that Typescript is part of this trend, simply because it is a very accessible book that has very often been read in a school context. I think, however, that reducing Typescript to the any specific age readership is doing it a disservice.

One last word on the volume now in the hands of the reader: this book is a labour of love, a long-deserved homage to Manuel Pedrolo and to his Typescript of the Second Origin. The initial impulse could not have materialized without the generosity of the Fundació Pedrolo headed by Ms. Adelais de Pedrolo and of Group 62, which have allowed us to reproduce the Catalan original. Planeta has also given kind permission for the reproduction of the Spanish translation made by Domingo Santos in 1975. The inclusion of Santos’s translation in our volume is also part of the homage that Barcelona’s Eurocon wishes to pay to one of the main personalities of Spanish SF. On my side, I must explain that since English is not my native language I would not have dared to publish the translation of Typescript without first having it pass through the careful scrutiny of several English readers. I would like to express here my deepest gratitude to Josie Swarbrick, Felicity Hand, David Owen, Donna Scott, and especially to Ian Watson, who has taught me that the art of translation is the art of good writing (at least, the art of doing one’s best). Of course, the mistakes—and I hope they are few—are my own responsibility.

Finally, on behalf of the whole Eurocon team and of the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia, I would like to thank the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs of the Diputació de Lleida for the warmth, kindness and generosity with which they have supported our project. There was a time when the endeavour of publishing our dream trilingual volume seemed even more fantastic than the story Pedrolo narrates in Typescript. It is impossible to convey fully the joy we feel at the chance of making available to all European readers Pedrolo’s novel in this first English translation. We do hope that Typescript will soon be recognized as a universal classic.

[PS: my manuscript is currently in the hands of an American university press, Wesleyan, which hopefully will publish it. Please, keep your fingers crossed for me and, above all, for Pedrolo. And if you can in any way help, I’ll be very, very grateful.]

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

THE BODY AND THE BODIES: AGAINST UNIVERSALISM (IN AFFECT THEORY AND IN HORROR FILM)

juny 29th, 2016

I have read with great pleasure Xavier Aldana Reyes’s new volume, Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership (Routledge). I’m very proud to see how he is fast progressing into being a truly first-rank academic, as it is always delightful for a teacher to see how someone who used to sit in her classes is now producing such excellent academic work. As happens, my review of Xavi’s previous book, Body Horror, has just been published, long after I actually wrote (see: http://atlantisjournal.org/index.php/atlantis/article/view/359). This time, however, rather than write a review (the book is outstanding, believe me) I’ll delve into my disagreements with Xavi’s theorisation of the body in Horror (capitalized to mean the genre).

The model of viewership he offers is not just corporeal but, to be precise, corporeal-affective. As he puts it, “corporeal threat is by far the most common affective experience in Horror and (…) a more rounded understanding of how Horror seeks to make the viewer experience fear is necessary” (16). Certainly, I couldn’t agree more: basically, when we see Horror films, we fear for our bodies because, as Xavi (sorry, I can’t call him Aldana Reyes) argues very well, we connect with the threatened bodies on the screen through ‘somatic empathy’ (itself generated by ‘sensation mimicry’). We do not really feel identified with the characters (actually in many cases we may feel no sympathy at all) but we appear to feel with our bodies, as if these were their bodies. Correcting a generalized impression, Xavi argues that the Horror film viewer is not a sadist but a masochist, although here’s my first disagreement: hearing viewers very vocally demand that this or that is perpetrated on a victim’s body in the cinemas of Sitges during the popular fantastic film festival, I doubt very much that all viewers are masochists. Let’s suppose for the sake of argumentation that these bullies are just 5% of the audience and that they are not the intended target audience of the filmmakers. Even so, the risk exists to activate affects that go in the sadistic direction.

Sorry, but I know besides that this kind of reaction is much more common among men when watching female bodies under attack in Horror films than among women seeing male bodies destroyed (women are generally more empathetic). Xavi’s volume, however, is very clear regarding why he will not consider gender: “Arguing for the continued need for studies that highlight gendered representations, I propose instead that the body in Horror, as far as its affective powers are concerned (and here I mean their capacity to scare and horrify, not to titillate sexually, which is not a general intention of most Horror) is largely ungendered” (16). But how do you separate the horror from the sexual titillation, if only in that hypothetical 5%? I absolutely agree with Xavi that the feminist/psychoanalytical approach used by Barbara Creed in her seminal The Monstrous Feminine (1993)–based on Julia Kristeva’s notions of the abject as discussed in Powers of Horror (1982)–is not useful to illuminate how Horror film works. I praise Xavi for his demolition job and for cutting the Gordian knot: very obviously, when you’re seeing films like The Thing the fear you experience has nothing to do with “the primacy of the maternal body as principal guide or indicator of abjection” (29). It has everything to do, in contrast, with the state of special effects in the year that film was made, 1982, and with director John Carpenter’s skills in mixing image, sound, music, etc. Xavi, therefore, proposes that we liberate Kristeva’s abjection from the “psychoanalytical remit” (44), and re-conceptualize it as ‘fearful disgust’, which can be felt by any human being –any body.

Thus, he observes: “Because my approach entails a de-gendering of images of abjection, this means that the nature of affect needs to be theorised regardless of the gender or sexuality of the viewer and characters, and rather in terms of viewers’ acquaintance, tolerance and enjoyment of images of abjection” (71). Fair enough. Or is it? Accepting the importance of the cultural factors associated with the production and enjoyment of Horror films, but refusing to produce sociological analysis, Xavi stresses that his study is “theoretical and wishes to look at the way Horror ideally affects viewers” (98, my emphasis). This is where I begin to object, and quite strongly.

Affect Theory cannot be pinned down with precision for it is rather quite a heterogeneous collection of conflicting currents. However, at the core of the area there seems to be a staunch belief that the universal body exists in the same way the body exists for Medicine. This is propounded on the basis of the neuro-scientific foundation on which Affect Theory rests. I have, however, very serious doubts that the body exists in the sense intended here.

Surely, we are all one singular body and at the same time part of the universal body, a construction without which Medicine could not work. This science relies on the assumption that all human bodies function in exactly the same way, which is why, naturally, its techniques (from medication to surgery) are universally valid. That must be also the reason why every time I visit a new doctor and see them look at my body without caring who I am, I feel so confused. Anyway, I digress. Affect Theory, and generally speaking, neurology and the ever expanding neuro-sciences, are also applying the universalist view to the delicate connection between brain and mind. You can see by my recent posts that the study of this connection is slowly creeping into the Humanities, with, arguably, little resistance. This is, I believe, due to our low self-esteem and to the generalized belief that ‘scientists know best’. This new fashion is, however something that I dispute. As doctors know, Medicine is not mathematics and bodies respond differently both to disease and to treatment. If the condition of your heart and your clogging arteries is cultural (i.e. directly connected to your consumption of the toxic food on offer in your society), what is the ground to believe that affect is not also conditioned by culture? Meaning, in short, that I don’t believe that a theoretical model of corporeal-affective viewership can ignore particular bodies.

This is not, by the way, sociology but Cultural Studies and, in particular, Reception Studies (and Theory, if you wish). As Xavi points out, one inconvenient of studying Horror film viewers in a laboratory situation is that the ‘artificial’ environment conditions their response. Fair enough: visit the Sitges film festival. There you’ll notice a few interesting things. One is the age of audiences–you always find veterans who never lose their taste for Horror but the viewers are predominantly young (16-35). Also, let’s be frank about this, of the type colloquially called ‘nerd’, which, yes, does call for some kind of sociological study. Among them, the presence of girls has been growing in recent decades and it is now not much lower than the presence of boys. Young women are certainly enjoying Horror films in a way unthinkable for, say, the generation born in the 1940s; you certainly don’t see groups of nattily dressed elderly ladies queuing at the Sitges cinemas. If you asked the viewers why they enjoy Horror, you would get many incoherent answers, which is why academic theorisation is absolutely necessary. In this sense, my impression is that curiosity possibly plays a bigger role than we assume. Without leaving culture and personal identity aside at all, quite the opposite. Much less gender.

As I read Horror Film and Affect, I found myself considering whether I wanted to see some of the most extreme films analyzed there. As I have already noted here, Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) meant the end of my interest in Gothic Studies, as my ‘somatic empathy’ was too high to allow for any kind of enjoyment (also I totally rejected being academically complicit in the success of a film based on torture). Yet, reading about Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), which appears to be far more graphic in its depiction of torture than Hostel, I felt dominated by curiosity (academic or personal, I’m not sure). Funnily, my husband already had this notorious film in his list of Horror films to see. I don’t think, however, that my curiosity will overcome my somatic empathy. I’ll rely, then, on his report…

Now, this somatic empathy is an emotion provoked by the affects that participate in Horror films’ effectiveness but also a cultural factor–a crucial one. It is what has made us reject the use of (legal?) torture universally, beyond our beliefs in human rights. It turns out, in the end, that the ideal body that enjoys seeing Horror film is by no means universal: not only because somatic empathy is absolutely personal (as personal as the taste for, I don’t know, strawberry ice cream) but also because Horror film itself is the product of particular cultures. Yes, I respond to the startle effects (or shocks) of Japanese Horror cinema but its codes are very alien to me–and I wish I had never seen Audition. I marvel that my favourite startle effect (the face hugger jumping out of the egg in Alien) works every time I see it, whether I see the complete film or the isolated scene. But fancy showing that to a member of an Amazonian tribe who has never seen a Horror film. Yes, she would be shocked, but not at all in the same way I am–her shock might be massive or she would burst laughing, I’m not sure.

Sorry to use my own personal experience, but it’s the only one I know. I love Horror films which suggest there is something else beyond humanity, whether this is the Devil or an alien monster, a supernatural or a natural threat. I realize, however, that I feel increasingly repelled by the Horror films in which evil is caused by a sadistic person–usually a man. When I presented my first paper ever, back in 1994, this dealt with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), technically a thriller and not Horror, as the victims are killed off-screen (yes, Xavi, I agree). The feminists in the audience were horrified that I had enjoyed a film in which women were so savagely victimized; but, of course, the question was that you could not see this and I was (still am) fascinated by Clarice. As Hannibal Lecter moved, on, however, the franchise lost all its appeal for me, since it became a series about a guy hurting people. And I reject this… particularly if the victim is a woman. I have walked out of a cinema only once, my body totally overwhelmed by Steven Spielberg’s ultra-realistic depiction of the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan. I have, however, left my husband alone on the sofa countless times whenever the Horror film we had chosen to see together eventually focused on cruelty against female bodies. Xavi avoids the issue of rape, which, as any woman will tell you, does make you very much aware that you’re a different kind of viewer from a man. No way I could watch Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), which might not be even Horror for a male viewer but is certainly Horror for a female one.

Let me focus on pain to finish. Xavi points out that “pain is normally either cast out or eradicated from public view” (176) and I’m wondering very seriously whether the fast advances in the special effects in Horror films (and in general in any film in which bodies are destroyed) has to do with this. I was watching a documentary on the Holy Grail on TV which argued that Saint Lawrence might have brought the relic with him to Huesca. The churches in this city abound in images of his martyrdom: the poor guy was… grilled. In public. Not only martyrdom but also other public events of bodily destruction come to mind: the spectacle provided by Roman arenas, Medieval executions (think William Wallace…). We have hidden the public spectacle of the broken body out of sight, as we hide disease and even surgery (how does a surgeon react to contemporary Horror film effects, I wonder?). And it might well be that, like Saint Thomas, we need to see in order to believe. We hear torture victims describe their ordeal and automatically we ask ourselves ‘but what was it really like?’. If porn satisfies our curiosity about how people engage in sex, then 21st century Horror film most likely satisfies a similar curiosity about how bodies are broken in pain. I’m writing this on the day yet another terrorist attack (this time in Istanbul’s airport) has caused a terrible massacre–bodies unseen on TV. The more we fear pain, in short, the more we need to face it vicariously and this is the urge that Horror film is satisfying. If you are already in pain or if this curiosity has never arisen, or is already satisfied, then there is no need for Horror movies.

I have many other questions to ask: after how many Horror films does an aficionado start losing the edge?; are the affects generated by Horror film different depending on the situation in which the viewer is placed? (alone/in company, at home/in a cinema, at night/at day); how do actors feel seeing their bodies used in this horrific way?; who provides the main innovations: directors or FX artists?; what about sound and music?

A theory, logically, is a proposition (a hypothesis) that needs to be tested and Horror Film and Affect is transparent about this: the volume is an invitation to go and ask. Forget psychoanalysis, ask filmmakers and everyone involved in Horror films how they pull the strings (and who they’re thinking of when they envision their terrible images). I’m sure that the more we ask, the more blurred the universal body will become and the more visible particular bodies will be.

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

THE INCREDIBLY SHRINKING UNITED KINGDOM: ON BREXIT

juny 24th, 2016

This is a time-capsule post, of the kind that gets written with the author expecting to check in five-years time what really happened.

Like many people all over the world–as shown by the instantaneous collapse of the stock market–I expected Britons to have voted in favour of staying in the European Union. This is a people known (unless until today) for their pragmatism and common sense. Clearly, though, many things have gone the wrong way and we’re witnessing today, with a sour taste in our mouths, the success of the Brexit campaign. 24 June 2016 has been hailed by The Sun and by UKIP leader Nigel Farage as ‘independence day’… You know that something is bad when, in addition to this absurdity, Donald Trump claims that this is good (for the time capsule: Trump, who failed to be elected President of the United States by a landslide in 2016). ‘May you live in interesting times’, the Chinese curse goes.

I have titled this post ‘The incredibly shrinking United Kingdom’ because I see the UK even further diminished in its global position by this strange manoeuvre. Let me get a couple of ideas out of the way before I continue. To begin with, someone should change the rules of referendums, for in the end the percentual difference between the two options has been quite small: 52% to 48%. This is not a clear victory but a divided country. Now, if Brexit goes horribly wrong and throws the UK into the waste-basket of History (a phrase often used in Catalonia in the last year), can the overruled 48% demand any responsibility from the other 52%? Obviously not. This is why this kind of potentially very dangerous decision should be made by a much wider difference, at least 65/35. You need to be sure that your victory (or defeat) is final and this is not at all the case today. Second point: Brexit is, no doubt about it, a clear sign of the European Union’s failure to constitute itself as little more than a commercial union. I cannot imagine Donald Trump celebrating the secession of, say, California; the fact that he’s toasting today to Brexit means that the EU is not at all a union, as the United States are. I would not like as a Catalan to be left outside the EU, which is one of my main doubts considering a possible independent Catalonia. At the same time, the EU has utterly and completely failed to inspire in us, Europeans, the feeling that this is what we are, in the same way Californians feel that they are American.

I’ll add a third point: that the UK leaves the EU is particularly poignant because, of course, it was one of its founding members back in 1957, when it was born as the European Economic Community–a name bearing all the seeds of trouble to come. British disaffection for Europe is an extremely complex issue, which many others have analyzed with better, finer tools. Nonetheless, this disaffection has its roots in the perception that the UK is contributing more than it is getting out of the EU; European solidarity is based, after all, on the idea that the richer states must help the poorer ones, which is why Brexit will certainly be a terrible blow for us, in Spain. Now, this suggests that Germany should be happier than any other nation to abandon the EU but the Germans do see that the union is needed if only because, let’s be clear about this, cheap labour is to be found in its southern and eastern areas. The Britons are right now too blinded by an oddly euphoric chauvinism that won’t let them see that European migration is not the problem but the solution to their economy. I’m aware that much of Brexit has to do with Britain’s wish to decide for herself which migrants to admits to its shores but the vision of an all-British workforce is not only treacherous but also downright silly.

If we accept the argument that staying in the EU brings more economic benefits than staying out of it –and I think this is a powerful argument because the previous arrangement of nations in Europe led to WWI and WWII– then we need to wonder what is being pursued with Brexit. It is not impossible to think of a future scenario in which Scotland will be an independent nation and a member of EU, and in which Northern Ireland might be unified with Ireland for the same reason (or Gibraltar decide to return to Spain). There is, then, a very real danger of national dismemberment with even England/Wales being sharply split between pro-EU London and the rest. How British (English?) economy can thrive even supposing the UK’s split is prevented is beyond me. Norway is doing fine on its own without being a EU member (and so is Switzerland). However, part of their success has to do with their being very realistic about which role in the world they want to play: a marginal one (at least politically, I would not say the same about Switzerland and world finances). Oddly, Brexit supporters dream of a Britain which is not only free from EU restrictions (so they claim) but also a powerful nation in the world. Like in Victorian times.

This is the way in which Britain is shrinking: it has lost track of its dwindling importance both within Europe and in the world. In Spain we’ve gone through that: we used to be the biggest Empire in the world, remember? Being rich didn’t suit our (or rather, the Castilian) temper very well, which is why we went downhill all the way into bankruptcy and even invasion by Napoleon. A series of independentist uprisings eroded little by little the Empire until this was finished off in 1898 by the United States pushing us out of Cuba. The Civil War (1936-9) happened when the Republic was getting Spain used to the idea that we should be a modern European country rather than an ex-Empire. Yet the band of ultra right-wing nostalgics headed by Franco fought its way into what the Brexit campaigners now want: autarchy (or total self-rule). I do know that the parallelism between backward, isolated Spain, which only joined the EU exactly 30 years ago, and Britain does not hold. Yet the lesson we learned after Franco is that imperial glory will not feed people; we very humbly accepted the crumbles at the table of the rich EU, briefly believing before the 2008 crisis that we were finally one of the diners. The UK went through its worst economic crisis back in the 1970s and that 52% who have voted ‘out’ today seem to feel confident enough that, no matter what, they will stand on their feet and do fantastically well in terms of economics, politics and general prestige. As an English Studies specialist I can only call this position neo-Victorian.

This is, naturally, an extremely false position to be in. Whereas those who want to stay in the EU have given a long list of reasons why leaving it would be negative, the Brexit campaigners have given no truly valid reason to leave the EU, other than wounded pride. Most likely, they imagined a Europe in which the UK would be the leading country and cannot simply accept that the leader is Germany, the hated enemy of the past. Somehow, they have managed to convince themselves that the United States will play a crucial role in this post-Brexit British Renaissance, even though President Obama warned Britons against Brexit. As a Catalan I feel that the path taken is even much more uncertain than independence. Supposing the Scots voted to leave the UK, they should be doing so in the hopes that they would do much better on their own, including the possibility of joining the EU. But the UK has not voted for independence, no matter what UKIP says, but for isolation, which is a completely different matter. Britain was isolated in Victorian times, in the sense that it did not belong to any other international association, and was extremely powerful. Now the same solitary status wants to be recovered. But, then, what’s next? Leaving the United Nations?

I’m flabbergasted–that’s the word I was looking for. I simply don’t understand how a civilized nation can make this very obvious (right-wing) mistake in the 21st century. It must be the influence of so much SF but I always imagined the world converging eventually into a world-wide federation, Star-Trek style. What I wonder today is not why the Britons (well, 52% of the 75% voters, that is to say, 34% of Britons over 18) want to leave the UK but where they think they are going.

Among the many questions about the future of the EU I heard this morning on TV, here’s the one closest home, as an English Studies academic: will English still be an official European language? That’s a good one… Everyone, start learning French and German as fast as you can…

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

RE-INVENTING EXAMS: AN EXPERIENCE

juny 21st, 2016

It’s June and these days we’re also busy marking exams. We’re also busy wondering why we give our students exams and what use they are (the exams, not the students!). What use assessment is, in fact. I have just entered the final marks for the course I have taught this semester and they are exactly the same marks I would have awarded each student one week after meeting them. Funnily, their marks did not depend on just a final exam but on four different items, with their corresponding percentages, etc, all that requiring Excel to be worked out… I don’t know what this says: that assessment only validates subjective impressions, that assessment that does not rate the exercises but the person, that I am such an experienced teacher that I know at first sight how students will perform (ehem!), that I could have saved myself a lot of hard work… Take your pick.

This was an elective course and I always prefer for assessing this type of course a paper rather than exams. This time, however, I decided to use exams for assessment, apart from a short essay written at home and a class presentation. I hated exams as a student and do not particularly like them as a teacher. One of my colleagues claims that we should never ask students to write papers, for they plagiarize all the time–which is an exaggeration… though also a constant fact in teachers’ lives. My position is quite the opposite: I do not see any equivalent situation in real life in which people would have to write a piece of academic work in a tightly limited time. I associate this, rather, with journalism and newspaper’s daily deadlines. Otherwise, why would anyone produce a piece on Wordsworth’s poetry, to name the first case that comes to my mind, in a very short time? It’s simply ridiculous. I’m rather of the persuasion, then, that exams only measure people’s ability to take exams. Or negative ability–I always performed well but only after bouts of nausea and vomiting that did nothing for my faith in the use of exams. I must have passed the last one in my doctoral days (I’m not counting vivas or oral examinations for tenure) and that surely was a happy day.

Accordingly, I play all kinds of tricks if I can manage to try to deconstruct exams. I believe that good academic work requires a reasonable time of preparation (not just of cramming) and I’m known to have given my students the exam questions in advance. I don’t care very much for failing students and I find that the students who fail in my courses usually trip themselves up by not handing in exercises or not taking the exams. If I get the chance, however, to help my students to do well enough for me to pass them, I’m happy. This is not the same as saying that no matter how they perform I’ll pass them, but rather that I don’t want anyone vomiting before taking one of my exams. I just want them to have studied and, above all, to have planned their exam question at home. I found out, however, that students given the exam questions in advance got quite nervous for a reason I failed to anticipate: if you know the questions in advance then a good deal of the justification to fail vanishes. Who would have thought that Prof. Martín would ask such a devious question? That seems to be the kind of thinking that comforts students that do poorly. Now, if Prof. Martín puts her questions in your hands, thus eliminating the surprise factor (not necessarily the deviousness), that’s another matter. Your inability to plan the answers is highlighted, which is, let’s be honest, much more embarrassing that simply being unable to answer a question you could never have anticipated.

You might argue that surprise is the whole point of exams and the target that collective groan you can hear when students find the questions too hard. This just happens to be a sound I do not enjoy (my exams, in contrast, seem to be the source of much sighing…). Anyway, what happened when I gave students an exam to take home, consider and plan is that still a few failed. I certainly felt less responsible for their failing, if you know what I mean. What I noticed was that the effort done in the actual writing in class was similar: the same stream of sighs, the same flushed faces and always the lack of time (some students would run out of time even if given five hours instead of two, it seems). The pressure had eased, the quality increased, hopefully there had been no vomiting, but, then, it was still an exam written by Prof. Martín.

For my latest course, I have tried another tactic: have the students write their own exam. In hindsight, I realize that no exam questions could ever match the deviousness of this proposal but let me say that I was not acting wickedly but in good faith. The group was small, only 15 students, and I explained that they should write a two-question exam using our habitual Department format: select a passage from the book we’ve studied (maximum 10 lines) and ask a question that can be developed in a short argumentative essay (maximum 500 words), referring both to the passage and to the book in question. It was clear to me that students would be very uncomfortable if I didn’t check their questions, so I gave myself the task of validating each exam a few days before the corresponding exam date. What I found is that students wrote, on the whole, perfectly valid questions just badly phrased. Some of the questions were simply too big in scope for a short essay but could mostly be re-used; others came multiplied by two or three (students seemed insecure about which version to use). None of the questions was insultingly easy to answer, and here’s where I noticed my own deviousness.

Imagine my students telling their peers in other courses ‘Sara has allowed us to write our own exam questions’. The answer from said peers should be ‘My!, you’re lucky, now you can’t fail!’. Now, most of my students probably replied at this point what one of them told me: ‘No way! This is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life!’ Why? Because they quickly realized that my proposal to let them write their own exams would not result in easier exams–no way I would validate shallow questions. Therefore, they had a twofold task: produce the kind of exam I would write myself and do it so that they could secure a pass. Lacking feedback from them (I have asked, and I’m waiting) I can only surmise that they told themselves: ‘Ok, so I need to make things as easy as possible for me while writing the exam as if I were a teacher’, demanding Sara Martín, in particular. Sure–only I had not gone that far in my own thinking when I proposed the experiment.

Exam one went well: nobody failed, though I believe that nobody performed either at a higher level than if I had written the exam myself. My guess (I need the feedback) is that students were more relaxed and confident about what they were doing, having got the annoying surprise element out of the equation. My colleagues say that written exams have the added bonus of offering exact information about the actual command of English each student has. Maybe. By giving students the questions or asking them to write their own questions, I also expect them to work on their English at home and produce far more polished exams (much easier to correct for me, too!). I don’t know how they do this: if it were up to me, I would write the answers at home (using the dictionary, etc, etc), try to memorize as much as I could and then write them in class. It might well be, however, that they have memorized outlines, I don’t know. I’m sure, though, that many language doubts and errors could be ironed out at home. This is fine by me for in this way they had to learn some English language in order to prepare the exam, in addition to the English Literature.

For the second exam I asked students to produce questions combining both a passage from the primary source and from a secondary source. I’m not sure whether this was my fault or not, but it seems that my instructions were a bit ambiguous about which secondary source to use. I had asked students to read one article for each novel and I expected they would use the ones I had selected for them. However, some students just chose other articles, which was a bit complicated to negotiate. I validated their exams eventually. What I found, and this was both silly and funny, was that the most complicated thing to do was validating the exams in which my own article was quoted. I sensed a kind of mutual embarrassment: students seemed to feel a bit awkward writing ‘As Martín claims’, which was not the case when they wrote ‘As Vint claims’, or ‘As Frelik claims’, for they didn’t know these academics personally. On my side, I found myself disagreeing with how students read my own article, even though their questions were perfectly valid. It felt very, very strange to be ‘Martín’ rather than ‘Sara’, as my students call me in our informal Department.

In both exams the contents reflected very accurately was what being discussed in class. The questions did refer with no significant exceptions to the issues we had discussed together though the passages chosen were not necessarily the ones I had selected for class discussion. The exams were, in short, more personal and less ‘parasitical’ of class discussion than I expected (this was my main fear). Some exams, particularly in the second series, were actually quite sophisticated. When marking them, I often marvelled that students who knew nothing about SF a few months back were confidently discussing artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation or post-humanism. Happy, then, as far as I’m concerned.

I failed, however, in just one thing. I decided to use exams because I wanted students to read the five novels in the course–if they wrote a paper, then they might read just one or two. What I failed to notice is that the second exam, covering three novels, should be much longer, perhaps two hours and a half, rather than one and a half. And we simply don’t have that kind of time. In old times exams had a separate schedule, apart from teaching time. One of my own teachers was famous for giving us exams that could run for four hours or more. Since 2009, however, exams are part of our teaching time, which means that the more exams you introduce the less time you have for actual teaching; also that they need to fit our 90-minute slots. Either I introduced a third exam, or I let students choose two of the three novels for the second exam, which is what I finally did.

Was the experiment worth carrying out, then? Certainly. I think that the class size was ideal, as validating the questions–not an easy task!–could be done in a reasonably short time. Also, these were fourth year students. I don’t see myself repeating the experiment with second-year students in my Victorian Literature course because a) they would panic, b) at about 50, the group s too big and validating the exams would consume too much time and energy. I believe that my experiment in tailor-made examination shows that asking everyone the same question is a bit of an absurdity for each student is motivated by different things in the same book. What we do when we ask all students in our class the same question, then, is just something convenient. We tend to ignore the fact that, beyond what each student has studied in preparation for the exam, some will automatically do well (or badly) because of the nature of the particular questions. I’m talking about Literature, not mathematics, of course…

Now, I would be really glad to get feedback from my students…

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

GONE LOVE: FROM ELIZABETH BENNET TO AMY DUNNE

juny 11th, 2016

I assumed that there would be already a handful of academic articles on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 best-selling novel Gone Girl, adapted for the screen by David Fincher in 2014 from a script by the author herself. Not at all. My university’s meta-searcher, Trobador, has returned 712 results, only 2 of which appear in the MLA database–both turned out to be journalistic pieces (a third piece is a biography of Flynn). Cultural Studies has always been accused of being merely academic journalism, too concerned with the contemporary–with the transient and the banal in the worst cases. I’m sure that pieces about the Spice Girls read now as terribly dated and as obscure as the analysis of a 16th century villanelle, yet I do believe that academics should react promptly to their surroundings and I’m quite surprised that Gone Girl has escaped our collective radar. Perhaps it’s just too early and a flood of articles on Flynn’s novel are now going through the sluggish process of peer reviewing… After all, I decided to read this novel (not quite my cup of tea…) only after listening to my UB colleague Cristina Alsina deliver an excellent paper during a recent seminar on crime fiction and the family, so there you are.

June 2016 is, of course, too late to review a book published four years ago and this is not what I intend to do here: I wish, rather, to consider why the trope of love and marriage is receiving such a degrading treatment in contemporary fiction. For this is the case in Gone Girl to an extent that is simply painful to read.

One of the best books I have read on romance is David Shumway’s Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis (2003), which I discovered only after the author finished a three-month stay in my Department, during which I found it impossible to connect with him at all… Shumway explains with great lucidity that what is destroying long relationships–at least in US society–is women’s constant demand for total intimacy, inspired by the traditional romantic discourse originating in fiction. This may sound misogynistic in my simplified summary but it is not at all: Shumway is also adamant about American men’s inability to respond to that demand for intimacy if only at a very basic level.

The main contribution, I believe, that Gone Girl makes to the fictional representation of love and marriage is turning intimacy into the most brutal form of hell one can imagine, a life sentence. The romantic ideology that women have incorporated into their relationships with men, Flynn argues, is fundamentally psychopathic, as her heroine Amy proves; men, like Amy’s average husband Nick, try desperately to avoid needy women for, understandably, the stress of responding to a constant demand to be loved and to be fully understood is impossible to sustain. The joke in Gone Girl, however, is that Nick tries to escape his wife’s extreme ideas of what constitutes a successful marriage only to find that his young mistress is as needy as Amy (though, of course, sexually more pliant). Ironically, Flynn does give Nick a perfect relationship with a woman, his twin Margo, perhaps suggesting that being siblings (free from “twincest”) is preferable for men and women to being married.

If you pare it down to a basic plot line, Gone Girl deals with the extreme measures to which a wife may resource in order to keep her cheating husband. Divorce is simply impossible because neither Nick nor Amy can go back to being the autonomous person they were before they met (if that’s what they were). Second lesson about modern love, then: marriage annuls the capacity to be yourself, as many recently divorced people find out. Gone Girl is a horrifying novel, then, not just for how far Amy takes her radically sick romantic ideology (and for how Nick eventually responds to it), but for what it tells about marriage, particularly in American life and fiction. The acknowledgements turn Gone Girl, besides, into an even more bizarre product if that were possible, since Flynn thanks with total enthusiasm her husband for his support (and for having married her!). If I were her husband I would, however, worry: Flynn’s grim novel was intended, as the author declared, to make couples consider each other with suspicion and wonder ‘who are you?’ Now: how does this connect with the author’s own happy marriage, I wonder?

Why, then, the insistence on the marriage plot if all couples we know are actually unhappy? There seems to be a kind of circularity at work: the romantic idea of the happy marriage for life was constructed by the first novels and now the novel is deconstructing it. This, of course, is based on a misreading of the original fictional romance. Take Pride and Prejudice (1813) and you will see that Elizabeth and Darcy are surrounded by unhappy married couples, beginning with her parents, the Bennets. Actually Austen plays a peculiar conjuring trick by placing the disagreements that eventually surface in most marriages at the beginning of the relationship between her heroine and hero. The fantasy of the happy-ever-after ending consists of supposing that in some magic way Elizabeth will avoid the pitfalls of her parents’ union as she’s marrying a man who shares her own idea of intimacy. In the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, English actress Rosamund Pike plays her demure elder sister Jane, a spider-woman patiently spinning her web to catch rich bachelor Charles Bingley (he and not Darcy is the “single man in possession of a good fortune” and “in want of a wife”). Pike also plays the patrician Amy Dunne in Fincher’s adaptation, which links Austen and Flynn very conveniently for my argumentation here. Jane and Amy, after all, are not so different in wanting a nice husband but the intervening 200 years have turned this aspiration into something aberrant.

The pathology of the good marriage is extended in Gone Girl to Amy’s parents, a couple of soul mates, as Amy describes them, who have cannibalized their daughter’s childhood as material for a successful series of children’s books, Amazing Amy (later, Amy calls her mendacious memoirs Amazing). Rand and Maryelizabeth Elliot appear to be truly committed to each other but also quite phony, no doubt because Amy, an only child, hates them for exploiting her economically and emotionally. If, then, the happy, long-lasting marriage is, as Amy claims, damaging for the children because it sets high romantic standards impossible to fulfil, than what should be the target for couples? Since Flynn’s own happy private life contrasts so sharply with that of her heroine Amy, or so she claims, perhaps what we are witnessing is not so much the degradation of the marriage ideal, as it exists in actual social practice, but the inability of current (American?) fiction to narrate happiness. Even worse, rather than plain unhappiness women novelists are offering a monstrously false form of happiness, twisted beyond all recognition. On the other side of the Atlantic, incidentally, Glynn’s British peer E.L. James has refashioned happiness as sado-masochism in her Grey series, perhaps concurring more than we imagine with her American colleague.

Initially, I was going to use Michael Kimmel’s controversial Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (2009) to comment on the current degradation of the romantic discourse. The need for mutual seduction, Kimmel hints, is vanishing, replaced by a predatory view of sex common among American young persons aged 18 to 25. I realized, however, that this is not yet the generation that Flynn is addressing but rather that of the thirtysomethings in need of abandoning guyland (and girlland). Flynn is suggesting in Gone Girl that marriage has become a fiction which both members of the couple embrace when the hedonistic lifestyle of the twentysomethings runs its course and individuals start feeling a vague need to settle down. The biggest gap in her novel is not connected, ultimately, with Amy’s improbable masterminding of her elaborate final trap for Nick but with how and why Amy and Nick fall into the marriage trap of their own volition.

Amy offers quite a good diagnosis regarding Nick’s self-deception: he falls for the ‘cool girl’ which she so proficiently impersonates. Yet since plain Nick is so easy to read for Amy, I wonder why she targets him as the object of the obsessive marriage plot which she builds for both. In Flynn’s reading, indeed, marriage is a piece of fiction which we women write throughout our lives with men in secondary roles and if Amy is exceptional this is because she writes two versions: the one her diary captures, intended paradoxically for public consumption, and the private one she forces on Nick. Since Flynn makes Amy so exceptionally abusive, readers–like myself–who resist reading women’s fiction about violent women may miss her main point: the idea that men are also addicted to the trashy marriage plot that women churn out (Fincher’s film, in contrast, simply places Amy in the long line of dangerous blondes, a classic femme fatale, though married).

A reader called Gone Girl the story of “a jerk and a bitch” and even though Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation masterpiece Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) is there to remind us that mean, scheming wives have not been invented by Flynn, it is still shocking to see that Amy and Nick are presented as an extreme instance of modern love. Try, if you can, to call Pride and Prejudice the story of “a jerk and a bitch” and you will understand at once what I mean by the contemporary degradation of the romantic discourse on love and marriage. Or to put it the other way round: while I very much dislike Austen’s novel as a dangerous fantasy about men’s willing submission to women through love, I am appalled by Flynn’s nasty little tale for, instead of denying Austen’s daydream it claims that it works–on the basis of the most atrocious mutual dependence you may imagine. Never mind that this is not love at all as it should be felt, for it is love as we have been told it should feel by countless romantic novels.

Not the girl but love is gone, burnt out by the cynicism dictating that sentimentalism is tacky. Amy never tricks herself that she and Nick are like Elizabeth and Darcy yet she builds her own repulsive marriage plot because she does want that fiction to be her life (and Nick’s). This is both cynical and desperate, a decision born of her realization that modern love is hollow at the core and intimacy two-edged, for there are things you might not want to know about your spouse. Is Gone Girl, then, a good novel that will stand the test of time like Pride and Prejudice? Not at all but it is fascinating as a symptom of the malaise that is rotting the marriage plot in fiction and in life from the inside (no wonder that Flynn’s background is also the economic decadence of Amy and Nick’s America).

This malaise is not, however, as Flynn might believe, limited to her pathetic couple: her novel participates of the terrifyingly decadent imagination surfacing all over American fiction (think The Hunger Games). What made me gasp for fresh air when I closed the book was not Amy’s wickedness but the sheer ugliness of Flynn’s fabulation, the hours spent plotting the hideous details of how Amy plots her own life. Bret Easton Ellis did the same, and arguably even with more bravado, for contemporary American men 25 years ago in American Psycho (1991). It has taken American fiction, then, a quarter of a century to present us with the female version. To many people this might read as a healthy exercise in female sincerity, even as a feminist step forward. For me, however, the decision to focus on a psychopathic woman as an instance of the psychopathologies of a whole society is a setback, for I still believe that for a society to progress its fiction needs to provide it with role models. The kind of urge that Amy, the anti-role model, satisfies is a luxury that women cannot afford in our patriarchal times–I know the argument is not new but think of Hillary Clinton and now think of how little she needs Amy Dunne to exist.

I’ll end, then, by bemoaning the way love has been dealt with in fiction: it deserves better than the implausible plotting that both Jane Austen and Gillian Flynn give it for drastically different reasons. I wish both Elizabeth Bennet and Amy Dunne were gone girls but I’m sorry to see that only love is gone.

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

THE BIOLOGY OF CREATIVITY: A SECOND APPROACH

juny 6th, 2016

I published a post back on 26 April in which I quoted from an interview with American neurologist Alice Weaver Flaherty, author of the book The Midnight Disease (2004), an essay on neurology and literary creativity. I have read now her volume and although I do not wish to offer here a formal review I certainly want to consider (or re-consider) a few ideas based on Flaherty’s claims. I do not hesitate to recommend The Midnight Disease not so much for the rotundity of its arguments but for their many flaws, as they offer plenty of food for thought.

By the way, Flaherty finds it necessary to justify why she has written a book despite being a scientist, since her colleagues communicate with each other by publishing papers. “A melancholy fact,” she writes, “is that in the sciences, the book has become as marginal a literary form as the sestina or the villanelle”. Torn between her impression that academic books will soon disappear under pressure of online paper publication and her need to narrate “an unusual personal experience” (the sad death of her two premature twin boys), Flaherty tells supercilious scientists that “writing this book was something I could not stop myself from doing”.

Flaherty, who has always written, went through a very serious post-partum depression which manifested itself, among other symptoms, through ‘hypergraphia’, “the medical term for an overpowering desire to write”. This, she explains, is due habitually to alterations in particular brain areas and overlaps only partly with ‘graphomania’, or “the desire to be published”. Hypergraphia, she speculates, seems connected with the temporal lobes, the brain areas in charge of facilitating our understanding of meaning. Many hypergraphic patients appear to have suffered temporal lobe epilepsy.

It is important to clarify that hypergraphic writers are dominated by a mania for writing, by an unstoppable drive to scribble, no matter what the results are in terms of quality for, remember, this is a pathology. The ‘problem’, as noted in my April post, is that this is a condition for which sufferers demand no treatment, as they derive pleasure from writing. If you’re reading this and thinking ‘oh, well, I am certainly not at risk of being labelled hypergraphic’ you should be aware that many of us, readers, appear to be hyperlexic. Do you belong to the “subset of avid readers whose reading has an especially compulsive quality”? Do you need a book to prevent you from reading “the newspaper used to wrap the fish”? There you are: you’re hyperlexic –the proud owner of a brain in thrall to an unruly bunch of print-mad neurons. I can see the t-shirt: ‘Hyperlexia rules!’

Flaherty’s sweeping statement that “A surprising proportion of writers are manic-depressive”, is open to all kinds of jokes (‘no wonder they’re depressed seeing the state of the book market’… and so on). Surely, you can see for yourself that a) not ALL writers are manic-depressive (or have epileptic temporal lobe seizures like Dostoevsky), b) not all manic-depressives become published writers and c) if this were the case, creative writing courses should start by plunging their students into deep misery at once. An additional problem that Flaherty simply hints at is whether writer’s block, presented as a mental condition treatable with the right combination of pills and therapy, “may be culturally determined”. The phrase ‘writer’s block’, Flaherty explains, was coined by American psychiatrist Edmund Bergler and although many writers from other nations suffer from block, “there is a paradoxical sense in which suffering from writer’s block is necessary to be an American writer”. Flaherty names Russian-born, hypergraphic (=absurdly prolific) Isaac Asimov as an interesting exception but she seems confused by him; her list of writers “contains few genre writers because of the convention that genre writing isn’t quite writing”. It’s just hypergraphia, you know?

Funnily, although I intended to keep the tone of this post as straight-faced as possible my repressed sneering is surfacing throughout… Perhaps this is because I’m scared that Flaherty is right in her main claim: that the mind has a material basis in the brain; hence, alterations in the brain result in abnormalities regarding the average mind. Basically, she speculates that the passion for writing and reading might fall within the gray area of the brain alterations that, while not being pathological, are uncommon and even exceptional (abnormal?). We write and read with glee because, in short, we have funny temporal lobes that connect in a funny way with our limbic system. She may be making a totally valid point: if Usain Bolt’s body is worth studying for what it says about the abilities of record-breaking athletes, then perhaps Toni Morrison’s talent as a writer stems from the subtle chemistry of her brain. As Flaherty writes, “By scanning people thinking creatively (with the usual caveat that judging creativity is difficult), researchers may soon be able to see which patterns of brain activity underlie creativity”.

Flaherty softens the impact of her chilling scientific claims by stressing that “literature can also help us to understand science, the way it is both driven and sometimes misdirected by metaphors and emotion”. No doubt. Her arguments, however, are distressing (I can’t find another word). A point Flaherty stresses is that medication is advanced enough so that, for instance, bereaved people need not go through the intense pain of their grief by simply taking the corresponding helpful little pill. She understands why many grieving individuals reject this chemical aid, believing that lessening the intensity of grief amounts to betraying their lost beloved. To be clear about this: Flaherty claims that the more we know about our brain the better our chances will be to control emotion and mood. Like many others, I resist this idea because taking pills is for me too closely connected with taking illegal substances but, then, most people get by in this way (read Roberto Saviano’s analysis of cocaine consumption in Zero, zero, zero…). Yet, going through a very black mood this week I caught myself thinking, ‘oh, boy, my temporal lobe is misbehaving, I wish I had a little blue pill’ to go on (happily) marking exams.

How does this connect with literary creativity? Patricia Highsmith once said that writers’ favourite drug is coffee and, of course, there is a long list of literary and non-literary authors controlled by their chosen or unchosen addiction. In Flaherty’s book writers are a bundle of brain and mind irregularities, as you can see, which ultimately begs the question of whether we prefer, as a society, happy individuals or unhappy authors. That’s the only conclusion I can reach after reading her book since the well-adjusted, happy author seems not to exist in her vision of literary creativity. I wonder whether this is why literary biography always insists on presenting literary genius as practically a pathology (yes, I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of bipolar, manic, hypergraphic Dickens). At least this is a pathology we admire.

As I read The Midnight Disease something else bothered me: the future of education. Education works on the principle that all children should start at the same point and be taught a little of everything, regardless of their abilities and preferences. Little by little, each child navigates their way into being an engineer or a star piano player (supply your own worst-case scenario). Primary and secondary education are, thus, a compound effort to teach children a common minimum denominator and to find out which particular abilities each child has. Now imagine a near future in which we will be able to scan the brain of a four-year-old while engaged in creative play and determine how his/her brain conditions his/her mind. This imaginary brain scan would have detected, for instance, my hyperlexia (‘wow, this one is a Literature teacher!’) and my limited ability to imagine space (‘no stage designer, this one’). Flaherty never says that she wants to see this implemented. However, her view that our minds are our brains implicitly suggests that we will be eventually classified in this way, just as we will be soon classified according to our genetic make-up. Pass me the happiness pill…

From an extreme, alternative point of view one might argue that education works poorly precisely because we wrongly insist on the egalitarian approach. A timely brain scan would save the little ones many painful hours of mathematics or of English soon to be forgotten –which sounds tempting– and place the children with the most promising creative abilities on the fast track to… what exactly?? We are already hearing so much cant about the so-called ‘exceptionally gifted’ children that I shudder at what the further exploration of the human brain can do to human minds.

Clearly, neurology can help us to overcome the accidents of life caused by malfunctioning brains (and it’s impressive to learn the myriad odd ways in which brains malfunction). Nonetheless, it may be overstepping its boundaries– like all medicine today, with its suspicious endless pressure to connect good health with joining expensive gyms when you’re young and with taking absurd amounts of prescription drugs as you age. There is, however, a fundamental difference between, say, correcting the ravages of diabetes and forcing literary creativity into a sort of medical freak show.

There are also other dangers: if my students learn that I’m hyperlexic (am I?… show me that brain scan), then they may reject my preaching in favour of non-stop reading on the grounds that they’re not hyperlexic themselves. Or, as the trend seems to be now, they may claim that their massive use of the social networks, the internet and videogames, has re-wired their brains in ways that my 1960s hyperlexic brain is not equipped to understand.

Pass me the little blue pill…

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WORKING, STUDYING AND THE EVER RISING FEES: SOME UGLY THOUGHTS

juny 3rd, 2016

[Just one sentence to say that while the activities I have been engaged in this week –exams (both oral and written), yearly doctoral interviews, last minute BA dissertation revisions– are absolutely necessary I hate how they use up the energy needed to write. With no writing (and I realize this is another sentence) it feels as if there is no point to a week, no matter how exhausting it has been… or how useful.]

Today I’m combining two items which have been waiting for attention for a while. One is an article from La Vanguardia and the other a report by the union Comisiones Obreras. I’m here interrupting myself to comment that one thing I learned while interviewing students for their oral exams this week is that students don’t read papers (which I know) but just use Twitter to check on the day’s trending topics (I guessed but didn’t know for sure). This means that, among thousands of other relevant items of information, they may have missed the two I’ll comment on. One, by the way, I found browsing the papers as I do at lunch break (I no longer read print papers… that’s for retired people as a student said); the other reached me via email, a medium that students also find obsolete and that, I’m sure, only use with us, ageing teachers.

La Vanguardia sums up the main findings by Fundació Bofill’s 125-page report Via Universitària: Ser estudiant universitari avui by Antonio Ariño Villarroya and Elena Sintes Pascual (http://www.fbofill.cat/sites/default/files/ViaUniversitaria_InformesBreus62_100516.pdf). This report is based on a survey run among 20,512 students in the 19 universities of the Catalan-speaking regions of Spain, within the network Vives. I confess I have not read the report and I refer only to the summary.

No surprises here: families are the main contributors to the cost of educating their children which, logically, puts children from impoverished social backgrounds at a serious disadvantage regarding their better-off peers. Nothing new, then, except that a matter such as taking a year abroad within the Erasmus programme is now practically compulsory, disregarding how this widens the gap between middle-class students and their poorer peers (the grants are a joke…). The report claims that 30% students finance their studies by working, part or full time; only 0.7% of the students surveyed have fallen into the trap which student loans are turning out to be. 13% enjoy some kind of grant; they are included within the 41% of students who study full time (um, the figures do not add up, do they?). More interesting findings: Mothers are crucial–it seems that the more educated a mother is, the more they invest in the education of their children (most of these mothers were themselves new in the Spanish university in relation to their family background). The report is clear: most students (above 40%) have an upper class or upper-middle class background and college-educated parents, yet many outside this group are upwardly mobile, coming from families with no college-educated members. I have never heard, however, of middle and upper-class children taking up professional training in a blue collar trade–though there must be some measure of downward social mobility even when both parents are college- educated and/or wealthy.

The Boffill report claims that combining work and study need not affect the student’s marks, though it does affect class attendance. No student, they claim, uses more than 20 hours a week to study anyway… though I don’t know whether they mean apart from attending classes. This is, excuse me, total bullshit. Along my own university years I went from being a full-time student (with my fees funded by the Government on the basis of my marks) to being a full-time worker, as my life became complicated by my father’s total lack of interest in my university education and his constant pressure for me to work full time. I left home too early, married unwisely and found myself in the obligation of doing whatever it took to study –which, of course, meant working full time, as my father wanted. Not common, perhaps, but replace ‘married unwisely’ with ‘started sharing a flat’ and then the whole situation is not that odd. This means that in my last year I did what I could to attend classes and I suffered very much for missing them. It’s true that in my first two years, when I just worked some hours a week as a private tutor to earn myself some very necessary pocket money, I had plenty of time to spare. Yet, I put it to good use, reading, visiting exhibitions, learning all I could beyond my courses. In my last year, I simply hated my life, as I didn’t know whether I was a worker or a student. Would I have got better grades? Not necessarily. I recall, however, that time as a horrid, stressful period of my life. A student should be a student, period, and that means full time. A paid job is fine as a complement but when it starts draining away energies needed for study then it’s a serious obstacle, not an aid.

The Comisiones Obreras report shows what families and students in Spain face up regarding the cost of study. This is a study of the evolution of university fees between 2011 and 2016 (see http://www.fe.ccoo.es/comunes/recursos/25/2227033-Estudio_de_precios_publicos_universitarios.pdf). No surprises here, either, though it’s frightening to see the actual figures. The report shows, to begin with, that Spain is among the very few countries in Europe to have responded to the 2008 crisis (which coincided with the implementation of the new BA and MA system in 2009) by steeply raising the university fees. It’s funny to see that the United Kingdom is neatly split between England/Wales/Northern Ireland, which decided to go as far as possible down this road with fees up to 9,000 pounds, and Scotland, where a university education costs the student very little. The report offers the figure of 6,460 euros as the average cost of the current 4+1 university education system in Spain, which is certainly nothing in comparison to the 54,728 euros the same costs in England; still, Spain has 4,000,000 unemployed people and one should think that state-funded free education should be the way our of that situation. The report reaches exactly that conclusion.

It is funny to see how different the tone is in the Bofill and the CCOO report: the former is descriptive of a situation contemplated with a certain scientific distance (the comment on upward social mobility discloses even a certain optimism), whereas the latter is clearly biased towards implementing better social policies regarding access to education. As usual, the more advanced European countries in this sense are the four Nordic ones: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark –precisely the ones distinguished by a very different approach to social equality. Scotland is another interesting case, particularly for Catalonia, for its independentist aspirations have led to the realization that it must invest on the development of its human capital (though Scots have a serious problem in that their best educated citizens tend to migrate elsewhere).

Spain, in short, is just a disaster: we are keeping away from the university talented people by not giving enough grants and forcing the few who manage nonetheless to prove their brilliancy to migrate, thus doing rich nations like Germany and the United States the favour of benefitting from our scant public money. And what can I say about Catalonia? The price per credit in 2011 was already the highest in Spain (at 20.11 euros) and it’s now 33.52; the average 60 credits fee used to be 1,206 in 2011-12 but it’s now 2,011 euros. The second most expensive average yearly fee, that of the community of Madrid, is just 1,638. The lowest is 713 (in Galicia). I won’t even mention the fees for MAs, which have no explanation at all as the same staff is used to teach them with no extra cost added to our salaries.

It seems then clear that the 2008 crisis (still ongoing in Spain as Brussels knows and the Government wilfully denies) must have expelled many thousands from the Spanish university: those who suffered from some personal calamity like their parents or themselves losing their jobs, and those who could never afford the ever increasing university fees. The crisis, in case I have not insisted sufficiently on this here, has also done away with the full-time teaching jobs that allowed PhD candidates to complete their dissertations. And, yes, we all know that things are worse in Catalonia, for obscure political reasons that are never evident enough, whether they are national Spanish or national Catalan.

There are days when nothing makes sense. If the idea is going back to the smaller middle-class Spanish university of the 1970s, before Felipe González’s Government opened up the classroom to us, working-class children, I wish they would tell us. The same applies to the even scarier impression that perhaps the plan is shutting down the public university for good. What cannot be sustained is this constant anxiety that we’re not wanted: the students, the teachers, the research, the whole university. Why all this ill-treatment? How are we offending society?

Perhaps, just perhaps, what is feared, after all, is the downward mobility which I mentioned, for if the university is made accessible to the best students, no matter what class they come from, this means necessarily that the room at the top for the upper classes will shrink. After all, there are no good jobs for everyone with a university education, as we know, so why not make sure these are not available to working-class persons, beginning by making sure they never get the required university education?

Just an ugly thought, as who would jeopardise the future of a whole nation in this way, right?

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

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

maig 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLASS IN THE CLASSROOM: RE-STARTING THE CONVERSATION

maig 17th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who could re-start the conversation?…

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

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

maig 10th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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