ALL THAT RESENTMENT: UNIVERSITY TEACHERS AND SPANISH SOCIETY

January 22nd, 2019

My post today refers mainly to the article in El País, “La Universidad afronta la salida del 50% de sus catedráticos en siete años” (https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/01/09/actualidad/1547044018_002135.html). As it is habitual in the Spanish media, El País mistakes ‘catedráticos’ (i.e. full professors) for tenured teachers (i.e. those with positions as civil servants until they retire, but not necessarily ‘catedráticos’). The point raised is the same, though. By 2026, 16200 of the current full-time university teachers will have retired (almost 17%) but, here’s the nub: the current hiring system will not allow to fill in the vacant positions. The Spanish university will dramatically shrink though, in view of the constant demand, it might have to offer in a rush a high amount of tenured positions. Most likely, as we fear, 2026 will be the date when many Departments might disappear.

Allow me to comment on some on some points raised by the article, and then on some comments by the always angry readers of El País.

Point 1: the average age for teachers in the Spanish public university is 54. This refers only to full-time tenured teachers for, as we know, the average age for part-time associates is much lower (but also rising towards 40 since no tenured positions are being offered). I am myself 52 and was hired full-time aged 25 (yes, 27 years ago), so I am of the privileged best-paid, best-positioned teachers that aspire to retiring before 2026 (I certainly don’t want to be teaching 20-year-olds when I am past 65). Whenever I read this kind of news, I feel guilty that I am so lucky and profoundly annoyed that my professional group is presented as unusually, or even unfairly, privileged. This is the trick that the Spanish Government (and many others around the world) have been using to antagonise the different generations: the problem is not that the young are being grossly abused (they are!!) but that we, the ageing parasites, cling to our privilege.

Point 2: Pedro Sánchez’s current Socialist Government does not want to offer “an avalanche of tenured positions” that might bar access to the following generations, as happened in the Orwellian 1984. What happened then? Well, 5000 teachers with five years of experience and a doctoral degree were offered tenure in quite accessible state examinations. This, it is said, was a serious error as a blockage was formed that prevented the next generation from accessing tenure. The information, however, is not correct. In 1984, the year when I myself became an undergrad, there was a massive influx of students with working-class backgrounds (me again) thanks to Felipe González’s Socialist policies. This influx made it necessary to improvise the hiring of the new teachers; at the time, nobody thought of an alternative to the tenure system because this is how the university traditionally worked.

By 1991, when I was first hired as a teacher, the system still ran quite smoothly: you were employed full-time, with the expectation that you would write your doctoral dissertation in three years, and next face the corresponding state examination one or two years later. I should have been tenured, then, by 1997 or 1998, at the latest. What interrupted the quite acceptable ratio of generational replacement was not the bottleneck allegedly formed in 1984 but the new restrictive policies by the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar, which started to brutally attack the public university by destroying its hiring system. Thus, to use my own example, I did between 1996 and 2002, when I finally got tenure, the same amount of work as a tenured teacher but on the basis of temporary, poorly-paid contracts, while I waited. In 2008 the full-time contracts to hire junior researchers, as I was in 1991, were withdrawn. Then started the agony of the system and of the individuals who, like me, only aspire to doing their best for the Spanish university. Incidentally: replacing 17% of all employed teachers in seven years is a very acceptable ratio below 3% each year. This should liberate money that would suffice to pay for new tenured positions, which would be anyway cheaper as teachers would not be receiving money for any extra merits as after a long career. As things are now, though, this is considered too much and here lies the main problem.

Point 3: the function of ANECA and the accreditation system. Since the university system no longer could absorb the junior researchers, for lack of tenured positions, the Government raised the amount of qualifications needed to apply for one about ten years ago. The agency founded to grant national accreditations, ANECA (and other regional equivalents) guarantees the possession of those qualifications but has also created a fantastic amount of frustration. El País reports that ANECA has certified that 15000 Spanish doctors qualify for tenured positions (both ‘titular’ and ‘catedrático’) but this is far more than it is offered. Once you’re ANECA-approved, the waiting can take many years, during which, if you’re an associate, you might easily be dismissed by your university. I see that many of my colleagues have started signing as ‘catedrático acreditado’ or ‘titular acreditado’, which, in my modest view, is very sad.

By the way: I totally disagree with the opinion that, when we retire, there will be no sufficiently qualified personnel. It might well be that the Spanish university goes up a few notches in the international rankings, since the patient ‘anecandos’ know very well how to be competitive. What I see is that the 70-year-olds will be replaced, at the rate we’re going, by 50-year-olds with waning energies, past their prime in some specialities which require the stamina of the 25-35 young. After a time of restrictions, in which only 10% of the positions occupied by tenured teachers could be offered again, the Government has finally allowed universities to replace all their teachers. Yet, without better funding, this cannot be done. What I say: many brilliant researchers now in their 40s will still have to wait long years for tenure. Only 2.3% of all current ‘titulares’ like myself (i.e. senior lecturers) are younger than 40. Of course, many researchers in the 40-50 bracket are hired rather than tenured, but, even so, the case is that students aged 18-22 are being taught by their grandparents’ generation!

Now, three comments from readers (there are 270).

Comment 1: some countries, a reader says, would take the chance as a “golden opportunity” to replace the “endogamic, stagnant” Spanish teaching body. Thank you very much on behalf of the generation currently doing our best to educate students who are amazingly reluctant to being educated and to do, besides, research at levels never known in Spain before the 21st century. It is extremely satisfactory to receive so much support from the society that we serve and to be told, besides, that anyone younger would be better prepared. By the way, dear reader: the article does not refer to the massive dismissal of currently employed teachers but to our retirement. We do expect to be replaced by much better personnel, of course, but the point the article is making is not that we should retire but that the younger generation should be employed in adequate conditions. Not the same.

Comment 2: who cares, a reader writes, if the public Spanish university disappears? There are not sufficient students, anyway, to maintain a “bunch of lazy, overpaid guys, while the mass of workers lives in miserable conditions”. Thank you again, on behalf of my colleagues and myself. The whole point of the 1984 university revolution was to guarantee the higher education of the working classes so that they could be critical with their life conditions, including employment, and socially mobile upwardly. The 2008 crisis was used to destroy the university hiring system following the same abusive economic policies that have reduced the life of those born after 1985 to a constant struggle to survive. I am well aware that I am a luxury but what we should be demanding is not an end to the Spanish public university but an end to all the ultra-capitalist policies that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. You might say that a university education does not guarantee any upward social mobility (the upper classes have done all they can to hinder it) but imagine for one moment a Spain with only ultra-expensive private universities and a paltry scholarship system, possibly much worse than what we have now. How’s that an improvement on the lot of the working classes? The upper and the middle classes can choose between the public and the private university, either in Spain or abroad. But, how do you allow the talent of working-class individuals to flourish? Aren’t you interested?

Comment 3: (with this one I must agree). “Spanish society does not value research”, nor any merits attached to it. This is possibly the key to the whole matter: the comments elicited by this article show a colossal miscommunication between those of us who take university research and teaching seriously and those who, unaware of what we actually do (or in some cases rejected by the system), show enormous hostility at what they assume to be our privileged positions. Reading the comments you can see how the colleagues that try to explain our job face an adamant dislike, even hatred, based on immovable premises: we get tenure aided by a close circle of accomplices though we lack sufficient merits, and the little we do does by no means justify the enormous salaries we are paid. Of course, to someone paid 800 or 1000 euros a month, a salary of between 2500 and 4500 (these figures are public) might seem stratospheric. Also, the very idea of tenure. It is funny to see, though, that nobody disputes what football players, top models, influencers of all kinds and the CEOs that kills thousands of jobs at the drop of their hat are paid. Supposing, then, that in the next seven years a new generation is given tenure, this is what they’ll find: generalised resentment. Just what one needs to offer good teaching and progressive research.

We’re trapped, then, in a vicious circle: any defence of the Spanish university as a necessary public service and of their under-50 workers as unfairly exploited sounds to lay ears as a defence of privilege. I do acknowledged that some of my colleagues shamelessly abuse their positions but a) they are the minority and will be out by 2026, b) the same can be said about many other workers–we’re not saints, and nor is anyone else. The resentment poured on us is a product of envy, the ‘national sin’ as many call it, but also of the low educational levels in Spain. Germans, Britons or Americans do not seem to hate their university teachers, though they’re possibly only socially respected in places like Japan (my guess). Long gone are the times when being a ‘catedrático’ or a simple senior lecturer elicited respect and I keep no illusions about that. But why we are so misunderstood baffles me. Also, why instead of urging the Government to solve a situation that can be indeed solved with a minimum good will the solution offered is getting rid of absolutely the only institution that can bring some social change to our chronically backward nation. Unamuno’s ugly “¡Qué inventen ellos!” still has us in thrall.

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

CAMERON AND SIMON: LESSONS IN COMING OUT

January 15th, 2019

[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]

I first heard about The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), a novel by emily m. danforth (without capitalized initials), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015) by Becky Albertalli reading reviews of their film adaptations. The former, directed by Desiree Akhavan from a screenplay co-scripted with Cecilia Frugiele, has the same title as the novel. The latter, directed by Greg Berlanti and adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, has a different title: Love, Simon. Both films were released last year, 2018. Miseducation won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which is why it has attracted more critical attention; its IMDB rating is, however, only 6.7, in comparison to Love, Simon’s 7.7. Since I haven’t seen the films (yet), here I focus on the novels.

Both books are debut novels (winners of the William C. Morris Debut Award) originally published by Balzer+Bray, a HarperCollins label which specializes in young adult fiction. And both deal with the coming out of an American teenager. They seem to me, however, very different texts in style, content and approach. Miseducation is a literary novel, which is not surprising given the author’s training: an MFA in fiction (University of Montana) and a PhD in creative writing (University of Nebraska–Lincoln); she teaches creative writing and Literature (at Rhode Island College, Providence). In contrast, Becky Albertalli used to be a clinical psychologist specialized in children and teens before becoming a full-time writer. Her Simon is far less ambitious as a literary novel though, surprisingly, it made it to the National Book Award Long List (for Young People’s Literature). A major difference, and the source of much controversy, is that whereas danforth is a lesbian narrating the coming out of a lesbian teen, Albertalli is a heterosexual woman telling the story of how gay Simon comes out. Cameron’s story is rather bitter, Simon’s bubbly and happy.

Danforth’s novel has some autobiographical aspects, as she has granted, though she denies that Cameron’s experience mirrors her own. Author and character are natives of Miles City, in Montana (population a modest 8410), where the novel is mainly located. I usually read this as a negative sign: intense descriptions of one’s own small town in a debut novel tend to mean that the author has no other story to tell. We’ll see.

Danforth uses 470 very long pages to tell a rather simple story: Cameron Post is 12, in the early 1990s, when her parents die in a car crash–while she kisses a girl for the first time. Her unacknowledged, untreated sense of guilt prevents her from properly mourning them, and also from defending herself when she becomes the ward of her conservative maternal aunt Ruth. A heterosexual girl Cameron gets entangled with, when both are about 16, reports their first and only sexual encounter to her mother and, appalled, Ruth sends Cameron to a religious institution which offers conversion therapy (the novel’s implicit addressee is a progressive person, of course, and we know this cannot work). The last third of the novel concerns Cameron’s stay in this place, subjected to the increasingly absurd sessions with her bigoted therapist, Lydia, as she plots her escape with fellow sufferers Jane and Adam. Cameron eventually visits the site of her parents’ accident, finding closure for her mourning, though it is unclear whether the escapade with her new friends will come to a happy end.

This is a rather flimsy plot that could have been told far more efficiently in 350 pages, as many other readers have noticed. The prose is beautifully crafted but it often hinders the advancement of the scant plot. It screams at every page ‘look at me, I’m a sensitive, nuanced writer’, who learned her lessons well. Two caveats, then: I wonder why no editor cut this extra-long text and, more importantly, I wonder how much damage creative writing courses are inflicting. Reading Cameron this seems obvious: the subject matter asked for an acerbic style, less prettiness, and more insightful storytelling. Plot, tone and message end up muddled. I expected rampant villainy to colour the characterization of the obnoxious Ruth and Lydia but I was left instead with a confusing impression that they meant well but were misguided by their Christian values.

I have not read yet Boy Erased: A Memoir, by Garrard Conley, and the object of a yet another recent film adaptation (directed by the truly interesting Joel Edgerton) and cannot say how the memoir and the novel compare. Conley tells the story of his own religious conversion therapy, forced upon him by his father (at that time about to be ordained as a Baptist Minister). One thing I can say is that I learned practically nothing about this totally discredited way of ‘curing’ individuals of their own natural sexual inclinations reading danforth’s novel. She reduced this bizarre but important issue to the personal quirks of Ruth and, above all, Lydia, without providing in any way her young readers with information, and much less guidance, to resist being ill-treated in this way. This fuzziness was even more horrific to me than what they actually do, also because Cameron Post is very far from being a rebel in a way a real teenager might recognize. If the novel had focused more narrowly on the ugly issue of conversion therapy, it might work, but as it is everything gets diluted by danforth’s artistic ambition. My personal impression, then, is that this is a failed novel containing two possibly great novels: one about conversion therapy and the other about Cameron’s process of mourning–which in the end seems to be the main issue.

I also found in The Miseducation of Cameron Post much coyness in the treatment of lesbian sex. Once you read Sarah Waters, anything else seems coy but Cameron’s sexual awakening is so limited that you wonder whether the word ‘miseducation’ also extends to this. 1993 is pre-internet prehistory but, even so, Cameron seems vey little informed about lesbian sex. Her Seattle girlfriend, who boasts of being a progressive, well-connected lesbian, is not really much better informed. Whether you are a lesbian or another kind of reader, you are left pretty much in the dark about the many pleasures of this kind of sexuality. When interesting things finally happen, the encounter is terrible for Cameron, both in its development and its consequences. I wonder how many teen lesbian girls must have felt saddened and even scared, rather than encouraged, in view of this tepid approach and also because conversion therapy is not sufficiently described, or opposed.

Albertalli is much more fun but even worse at describing sex. She reminded me of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and her awkwardly limited way of narrating the sexual awakening of the Hogwarts teens. I’m very much aware that Rowling is far, far worse since she completely excluded gay sex from Harry’s universe, a pathetic oversight which countless readers have corrected with their abundant slash fiction. Albertalli’s novel is quite different in that sense but her openly focusing on a gay teen does not mean that she is comfortable describing gay sex. The worst moment happens when Simon finds himself alone for the first time with his love interest (I won’t disclose the name, for this secret is the core of the novel). Believe it or not, they kiss and caress their naked chests as they lie on Simon’s bed. Yet, rather than masturbate each other, as one would expect of two 17-year-old gay boys (I think), Albertalli has each go to the bathroom separately. The words she uses are not very different from my own plain phrasing.

These are novels for young adults and the case is that adolescents–or teenagers, whatever you prefer–usually have their first full experience of sex (i.e. attempting to give each other an orgasm) around the age of 16 or 17. What Cameron and Simon do at that age corresponds to an earlier age, which is puzzling. Or one of the unstated rules of young adult fiction: discuss sex but describe it only coyly. Do I sound like an adult, heterosexual voyeur asking for some teen porn? I hope not! The point I’m making is that, in my view, the experience of coming out as narrated in fiction must be focused not only on acceptance by the corresponding social circle (or rejection, as happens to Cameron) but on the presentation of homosexuality as fun, pleasing and sexy. Sarah Waters does this–why can’t danforth and Albertalli do it? Are they bound by narrow YA codes? Or by the same irksome American puritanism that has Katniss and Peeta spend chastely so many nights together during the Hunger Games? Is Rowling a sign that this YA puritanism is not just American?

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a very nice novel–not necessarily a term of praise. I do prefer stories that end well for their gay protagonists and I frankly enjoyed sharing time with adorable Simon (a word frequently used by Albertalli) than with bland Cameron. The plot, however, completely lacks the tension one is supposed to find in romance. The story, again, is very simple: Simon replies to a post on Tumblr by a gay high-school fellow, calling himself Blue, and what follows is a sincere, friendly correspondence, only mildly complicated by this boy’s reluctance to give his real name. The game the author plays with her reader is straightforward: you need to guess Blue’s real identity, which is not so difficult. In romantic comedy, typically protagonist A meets protagonist B, they start a promising relationship, and then a mistake leads A to lose B. Subsequently, A and B are gradually brought together, the mistake is cleared and eternal happiness follows. Shakespeare fixed this productive model in Much Ado about Nothing and Jane Austen polished it in Pride and Prejudice. Simon’s and Blue’s romance, however, goes through no crisis: it’s nice to see it unfold but not thrilling. As for Simon’s coming out, it also lacks a significant turning point. His blackmailer cannot really hurt him and his loving circle of friends and family is welcoming and accommodating. This might be the reason why Albertalli’s novel is popular: it’s an uncomplicated tale, what teen readers need to come out and the rest to learn tolerance. It seems, however, disingenuous, to take this simple road in view of the horrors that danforth narrates (or tries to).

At one point, Simon says that everyone should come out, including heterosexuals. I have done that a few times: whenever I start teaching a Gender Studies course, I declare explicitly what I am. This is not easy because coming out as a heterosexual should never be about clearing out any suspicion that I might be gay. If I do it, this is because I want my students to feel comfortable and speak frankly about who they are. I find that declaring yourself asexual is hardest since everyone assumes that all individuals are interested in sex. But I digress. Cameron and Simon teach us that there is a happy and an unhappy way of coming out as gay and that both need to be discussed, in fiction and in life. Hopefully, one day teens won’t have to come out at all, for there will be no closet and all persons will be free to be whatever they are.

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

REMARKABLE BOOKS: A LIST TO END AND BEGIN A YEAR

January 8th, 2019

This post comes in a little late, as it is customary to close the passing year with a list of the best and to begin the new one with a list of the most expected books. This is not, at any rate, what I intend to offer here, as I gave up long ago any attempt at keeping up with the overwhelming mass of literary novelties. Every December I discover horrified that I have missed all that was (apparently) worth reading the previous eleven months and, so, it is only then when I select a few titles for the bottomless list of what I’d like to read. Add to this the classics, the accidental discoveries, and the odd, neglected books that surface from reading other books. I do wonder how the readers who appear to know what is relevant every year do manage. Or is it all marketing?

I keep track of everything I read since the tender age of 14 and this is the closest I have ever come to keeping a regular diary (excepting this blog). It is always exciting to close the list for the year and go through the books read each month to recall the best moments spent in the company of intelligent minds. And it is also exciting to open a new list and wonder how it will be filled as the months to come pass (or, rather, fly!). I don’t know that this in an average measure of any use beyond my personal experience but the 2018 list throws this result: I have much enjoyed about 40% of the books I have read but, basically, put up with the mediocrity of the remaining 60%. I mean here the books I have entirely read for I don’t count the many books I have abandoned, a figure that grows every year as I get more and more impatient with writers who do not care for producing good prose (also with those who care about the prose but not the content).

I’m not sure how this works for my academic colleagues in Literary Studies but about 50% of all the books I read each year are novels; the rest may also include fiction (short stories) but are mostly non-fiction and academic essays. No poetry, shame on me. Most of the worst books I read are novels and most of the best books are non-fiction, which either means that my own personal preferences are changing as I age, or that generally speaking, novels are overvalued and non-fiction undervalued.

Thus, if you ask me to choose just one of the 90 books in my 2018 list, I cannot hesitate: every person on planet Earth should read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1966), the non-fiction book that explained to the world how 1940s-1950s science had horribly polluted the whole environment with its pesticides and other venoms. I must seriously wonder what is wrong with our education since it has taken me so many years to get to this book, which I have only read because it kept surfacing in many academic works on science fiction. Why we think that reading such and such novel is more important than reading Silent Spring is a matter that we need to address urgently.

The justification used to be the artistic enjoyment supposedly found in reading novels but I find that few current novelists have either the literary skills or the intellectual equipment required to produce masterpieces, whereas the best essays (why has this been word abandoned for non-fiction??) contain both good, solid prose and admirable brainpower. Also, being myself a writer of academic work, I appreciate the hard work that often comes into writing non-fiction and in comparison to which fabulating novels seems a far less daunting task.

I have, then, much admired this past year books as diverse as David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Jungle (2010) and Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2004). And taken off my imaginary hat before gigantic achievements such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) or Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), which need to be revisited now and then. I have likewise revered Ian Kershaw’s work in The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (1987) and, on the literary front, absolutely loved John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003) and Humphrey Carpenter’s The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s (2002). Sometimes books talk to each other without the authors knowing it in the individual experience of readers and, so, I find that Pavla Miller’s short but intense Patriarchy (2017) complements very well Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning (2018)–another book I would include in our basic education together with Carson’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t read illustrated books for children–I say unfortunately because we adults stupidly miss in this way the most beautiful books published each year. My personal award for prettiest book read in 2018 goes then to the British Library’s Harry Potter: A History of Magic (2017), the companion to the recent exhibition, and a book that manages to be highly informative and a true visual pleasure. Finally, I have already enthused here about Pablo Poó’s Espabila chaval (2017), worth one hundred novels because of his impeccable understanding of what is wrong with current secondary education or, rather, with under-18 students.

How about the fiction? Well, whereas I would award the books above named an A or A+ (or 4 to 5 stars in Amazon’s and GoodReads’ parlance), the best novels I have read are, with few exceptions, B+ to A-. I find, anyway, that recommending novels is harder than recommending non-fiction/essays for whereas all readers should read Silent Spring to be informed, regardless of whether it bores them or no, with fiction boredom does play a bigger role. Thus, I can insist that you should read Albright’s Fascism but I have fewer elements to argue that you should read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), the novel that best narrates what she discusses. I find Lewis’ tale very exciting but, then, you might not. Take, then, the following list as a very personal record of the fiction that has kept me turning pages, sometimes for hours.

Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (1883) is a splendid Victorian novel about a woman’s failure to pass on to the next generation the power she has acquired by accident. John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) is a novel for children that many connect with Harry Potter but that is worth reading on its own, if possibly re-visiting the 1980s TV adaptation. I don’t particularly like the work of Doris Lessing but I have found much to enjoy in my second reading of The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). I can say the same about Lucia Berlin’s short stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (2016)–which everyone praised so highly a while ago–and young Abi Andrews’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness (2018), a mixture of fiction and non-fiction which is simply awesome. André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name (2007) and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (2016) are the novels I would award an A, a mark I will also award to Octavio Salazar Benítez’ Autorretrato de un macho disidente (2017), if only because it is a brave, singular book which too many readers will miss.

Forget Kevin Spacey and the American TV series, and do read Michael Dobbs’s original trilogy: House of Cards (1989), To Play the King (1992), The Final Cut (1995). If possible, see the author speaking in any of the videos available on YouTube, he’s a most interesting gentleman! So is John le Carré, who cannot do female characters well but kept me up for hours one night reading his The Secret Pilgrim (1991), a fusion of the novel and the short story collection that works very nicely. I was also thrilled by Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992), which has so many points in common with Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937) but is also a great thriller–and I speak as a reader who is not really into crime fiction. My one favourite author, Ian Rankin, has published this year possibly his best John Rebus novel, In a House of Lies (2018), a subtle tale suggesting that Mr. Jekyll has already overpowered Dr. Hyde. Following Rankin’s suggestion, I read Lawrence Block’s Everybody Dies (Matthew Scudder #14) (1998). Again: see the author on YouTube, what a lesson in writing!

For those of you who like SF, as I do, I must mention Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age (1965), Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018) and Richard K. Morgan’s Martian novel Thin Air (2018). I found the tales in the collective volume by women authors I Premio Ripley. Relatos de ciencia ficción y terror (2017) very good. And was totally surprised by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2016), a novel translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright which narrates the efforts of a local man to give peaceful rest to the victims of terrorist bombings by assembling a corpse out of their bodily remains. A corpse that is suddenly animated…

Do read Silent Spring. On second thoughts, do read Fascism: A Warning. It is even more urgent. And share with other readers what you love, for those books truly worth reading are too often by-passed by the list of the best. Life is too short to waste on bad books…

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

LORD OF THE FLIES, WITH GIRLS: OF COURSE

December 11th, 2018

After re-reading last week William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), simply because some classics need to be revisited now and then, I got curious about whether there was a re-telling of the story with girls, rather than the all-boy cast of characters. What I found out is that there have been two recent projects, with very different outcomes, which are very useful to comment on patriarchy.

On the one hand, American film-makers Scott McGehee and David Seigel seem to have abandoned their project, presented in August 2017, to make a new film adaptation only with girls, following a deal signed with Warner Brothers. There are, by the way, two film versions of Golding’s novel, one directed in 1963 by Peter Brook, the other in 1990 by Harry Hook. A Twitter storm-in-a-teacup made it clear to McGehee and Seigel that this was a bad, unwelcome idea. A typical tweet (by @froynextdoor) read ‘uhm lord of the flies is about the replication of systemic masculine toxicity, every 9th grader knows this, u can read about it on sparknotes’. Front-line feminist Roxane Gay tweeted ‘An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because… the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women’. The comments by readers following The Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/31/lord-of-the-flies-remake-to-star-all-girl-cast) make for very interesting reading. The discussion, as it may be expected, focuses on whether Golding depicts specifically masculinity or generally humanity, and on whether girls would behave exactly like boys. Opinions lean towards the conclusion that the novel is indeed about masculinity but girls are also capable of the same cruel behaviour. A crucial, bewildering paradox to which I’ll return in a couple of paragraphs.

The other project is a stage adaptation of Golding’s novel, presented last October by director Emma Jordan at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, later transferred to Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. A small affair (with apologies to Jordan), then, in comparison to a Hollywood production. The Guardian reviewer, Mark Fisher, generally praises Jordan’s ‘muscular and brutal production’ of Nigel Williams’ 1996 adaptation of Golding’s novel (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/oct/01/lord-of-the-flies-review-theatr-clwyd). Jordan presents two novelties: the play is set in the present, not the 1950s and the cast is all-female… but the names of the boys in the novel are kept–which is confusing. This production appears to be similar to recent Shakespearean productions with all-women casts rather than a retelling with girl characters. Another reviewer, Natasha Tripney reads, nonetheless, the characters as girls: this version ‘makes sense–there are few things crueller than a schoolgirl–but the production doesn’t capitalise on this premise’ (https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2018/lord-flies-review-theatr-clwyd/). She complains that the production ‘lacks tension’ but welcomes it anyway, for ‘Jordan’s female-led production makes it clear that violence, tribalism and a hunger for power are not–and have never been–the sole preserve of men’ (my italics).

First lesson: it is fine for women to experiment with texts written by men by altering the gender of the original characters BUT it is not acceptable for men to do the same, as, regardless of their intentions, it is automatically assumed that the result will be sexist. If I were McGehee, I would hire Jordan as script writer and in this way the problem of who has the right to retell Golding’s story would be solved. Now, let’s address the problem of whether the plot of Golding’s novel would or wouldn’t work with girls.

I haven’t read Golding’s most immediate referent, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne. This is a Robinsonade (as the stories inspired by Defoe’s classic are called) about three stranded English boys who cope very well with the tasks of survival and in several encounters with evil Polynesian tribesmen and British pirates. Golding, it appears, decided that in his own tale, his English boys would carry evil inside and this would emerge as they gradually detach themselves from civilization and from the hope of rescue. A sort of Heart of Darkness for boys, then, but without Kurtz’ excuse of having fallen under the allure of tribal adoration and of the dreamy jungle.

Is Golding’s novel a story about masculinity? Yes and no: it is a story about how patriarchal masculinity overwhelms the positive influence, or rather lead, of non-patriarchal masculinity over the community. This is NOT a story about how all men react, but a story about how some men (Jack and his hunters), who are already patriarchal, make the most of the circumstances to impose their rule over other men with a far more rational worldview (Ralph and Piggy).

I agree with reviewers who downplay the public school background of Golding’s tale but, since this will help, let me rephrase his plot with other well-known names. Suppose that only the boy students of Rowling’s Hogwarts got stranded on a desert island (where magic does not work…). Initially, all would follow Harry Potter’s Gryffindor-inspired, sensible leadership but the moment Draco Malfoy declared that Slytherin should rule, the same split that takes place in The Lord of the Flies would follow. Both Harry and Draco are men (well, boys) but this does not mean that they have a common understanding of what masculinity is, and this is what happens with Ralph and Jack in Golding’s novel. What the author is criticizing has been usually called evil but it is actually patriarchy, even though people are now stubbornly calling it ‘toxic masculinity’, a label which is confusing, distracts attention from patriarchy and is useless to discuss women’s own hunger for power.

As soon as cocky Jack appears leading his submissive choirboys we can already see that he is trouble. When, two thirds into the novel, most of the boys have joined Jack’s tribe of hunters, Ralph asks Piggy–whose real name Golding, very cruelly, does not reveal– ‘what makes things break up like they do?’. They do not have a clear answer but I do: it’s the sense of entitlement that patriarchal men act by. This is the key to everything we call evil, a befuddling pseudo-mystical concept I totally reject. The non-patriarchal, non-toxic men like Harry Potter or Ralph are not interested in power and lack that sense of entitlement but, since they are not as violent, they tend to fight a losing battle. If the providential officers had not appeared in the nick of time to rescue the boys, Ralph would have been hunted down and impaled, as Jack intends (remember the stick with two points that his lieutenant Roger makes?). Harry is almost destroyed by the mission Dumbledore gives him to cancel out Voldemort’s genocidal sense of patriarchal entitlement, but–and we must admire Rowling for that–he does so on his own terms, using intelligence rather than murderous violence.

So, can we have The Lord of the Flies with an all-female cast? Of course we can! Girls would be split in exactly the same way as the boys in the novel, BUT not because girls are essentially cruel or because they behave like boys. It’s because everyone, of any gender or genderless description, feels the pull of patriarchy and its promise to reward a personal sense of entitlement to power. So far, patriarchy has pushed women out of the rat race to accrue power, but the more conquests feminism makes, the more women we see acting out their own lust for power, and not at all to help other women.

I have recently heard Michael Dobbs, the author of the original House of Cards novels and Margaret Thatcher’s Chief of Staff (1975-1987) praise her thus: ‘But it was that drive and that anger, that determination, that obsessiveness that drove her on to achieve things which most of her people could not’. She stood out among other women and among other individuals of her low middle-class background but only to claim power for herself, not to do any good to others like her. I can easily see a girl named Maggie play the part of Jack in a female retelling of Lord of the Flies, and a girl called Katniss resisting her.

The confusion springs, then, from this idiotic, harmful, essentialist supposition that all men behave in one way and all women in another, which does not take into account the OBVIOUS intra-gender divisions. If anti-patriarchal men like Ralph were not constantly opposing patriarchal men like Jack, we would still be living in prehistoric times and women would be much, much, much worse off than they are now. It is, then, both silly and extremely dangerous to go on speaking in essentialist terms of men and women when, actually, human beings are divided along power lines.

Patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid), endorse the idea that society is a hierarchy determined by the degree of power each person enjoys (or lacks). Non-patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid) are not being motivated by a hunger for power, and so they (we!) prefer communal circles to hierarchical pyramids. This looks very much like the political division between right and left, but let’s not be naïve: many individuals in the left also seek power (remember Stalin?). I’m talking about something that transcends political divisions even though politics depends very much on it: the allure of power (for domination).

Golding published Lord of the Flies in 1954, at the end of the first decade in the Cold War. His boys are evacuees from some unnamed British colonial outpost, which they must leave following the explosion of a nuclear bomb in a war never mentioned, nor explained. The author had then a very good reason to abandon the optimistic Victorian view of Christian gentlemanliness in Coral Island and replace it with a Conradian pessimism. His novel is supposed to link tribal primitivism with modern barbarian so-called civilization and it is clear to me that the target of his attack were the patriarchal men like Jack or like the makers of the bomb, not the good guys like Ralph. What is very, very sad in Golding’s work is that it came out the same year as Tolkien’s final instalment in The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. Why is it sad? Because, though profoundly damaged, Frodo manages to defeat Sauron with the help of his loyal Samwise and other friends in the Fellowship of the Ring. Instead, Ralph loses Piggy and has no chance at all of becoming the hero that will stop the villain Jack. He is radically alone, as Frodo never is–this is what is sad.

The lesson to learn, then, from Golding’s Lord of the Flies is how to protect ourselves from patriarchal fascists like Jack (or his imaginary female counterpart Maggie) by listening to the voice of reason. Like Piggy, who embodies it in the novel, this is a voice constantly bullied and denied–even by the supposedly sensible persons. Piggy begs Ralph not to tell the others that he is known by that body-shaming, awful nickname but he non-chalantly lets it be known, thus paving with this act the way for Piggy’s final murder. I do not mean that Ralph wants Piggy dead but that failing to protect reason leads to appalling consequences for all.

A last word: dystopias like Lord of the Flies are born of despair but make us cynical, which is why their current proliferation is so dangerous. If you want to redraw Golding’s tale changing gender lines, make the community of children varied (including boys and girls, hetero and LGTBI+). Tell how Jack and Maggie try but fail to establish heteronormative racist tribal patriarchy, and then have Ralph and Katniss and Hermione (in Piggy’s role), choose their colour, organize the whole community to resist their rule. If this works, Jack and Maggie end up isolated in a corner of the island, where, with some luck, they kill each other in a fight to determine who is more powerful; the rest build a democratic community based on mutual respect and tolerance. This works so well that when their adult rescuers appear it, they join it.

See how easy it is to think of a utopia that works? What, you find it sentimental? Well, some feeling would be welcome in our age of narcissistic unfeeling and hypocritical dystopian pessimism. And fight patriarchy not masculinity!

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

UNLEARNING ROMANTICISM, LEARNING REGENCY LITERATURE

December 4th, 2018

As part of preparing for my Winter-Spring course on Romanticism, I have been reading Duncan Wu’s incisive 30 Great Myths about the Romantics (Wiley Blackwell, 2015). I’m inwardly smiling at how little the world may care for a crisis involving a middle-aged woman teacher suddenly discovering that she has to unlearn everything she thought she knew about Romanticism. But, well, this is the crisis I’m going through. I feel blessed and fortunate to be sharing it with my co-teachers, David Owen and Carme Font, who have been in charge of the course for several years. This crisis is already resulting in very fruitful discussion with them, and I am certainly benefitting from their experience and insights: David specializes in Austen, Carme is an expert on women writers of the 18th century, so you see what great company I keep!

I do not intend to comment here on all the thirty myths–a kind word for lies–that Wu destroys with his razor-sharp scholarship. Some are ideas which every self-respecting feminist has been battling for years (myth 25: ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein’); others are a matter of common sense, for it is obvious that myth 5, ‘the Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses’, is nonsense. Almost as barefaced as myth 6, ‘Romantic poems were produced by spontaneous inspiration’. Funnily, the myths about Byron are the ones I cannot stop thinking of, mostly because Wu is quite brutal with poor George Gordon. I accept with no problem, except Wu’s barely concealed homophobia, that Byron was a fat queen who preferred 15-year-old boys to women. Yet the demolition job applied to myth 19, ‘Byron was a “noble warrior” who died fighting for Greek freedom’, ends with a truly pathetic image: that of the poet dying in Greece not in the battlefield but at home, bled to death by incompetent physicians treating him for a fever caught from a tic in his dirty pet Newfoundland, Lyon. This is indeed the complete antithesis of Romanticism!

I must say that myth 14, ‘Jane Austen had an incestuous relationship with her sister’–Cassandra and the author shared a bed for 25 years, it seems–though improbably lurid made me reconsider again a nagging suspicion: Austen may have been a lesbian mocking the heterosexual women of her class, desperately seeking enslavement by the gentlemen of 1810s. An idea to consider when I teach Pride and Prejudice… with much care, for this is what Wu is attacking: using speculation and misinformation as the basis of scholarship. One thing is inviting students to consider ‘what if…?’ Jane Austen had been a lesbian, and quite a different matter is accepting with no proof that this was her sexual identity and, hence, this is how we should read her books. If you find this second option preposterous (which it is!) then you’ll be as surprised as I have been to discover that most assumptions about Romanticism are of that kind: empty bubbles very easy to puncture if only the right bibliography is read. For that is Wu’s main message–if scholars worried to check their sources, the myths would not be perpetuated. An extremely important point to make in the age of fake news.

I’ll quote two passages from Wu’s ‘Introduction’ that call for a profound reflection. ‘What we call Romantic’, Wu observes, ‘might more accurately be called Regency Wartime Literature were we to backdate the Regency, as some historians do, to 1788’ (xiv). Anyone who has studied the early 19th century knows that, properly speaking, it begins in 1789 with the French Revolution and includes the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). I read a while back the twenty-two volumes by Patrick O’Brien narrating the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin at sea during those wars, but even so I still find it problematic to connect Romanticism with war.

The problem also affects our understanding of Modernism (roughly 1910-1939) for similar reasons: the name attached to a particular movement is used for a historical period, thus breaking the neat monarch-based chronology of English Literature. ‘Victorian Literature’ (1837-1901) should be preceded indeed by ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’ but, then, it is also followed by a mess of labels in the early 20th century which contemplate Edwardian and Georgian as periods but then get lost into Modernism and Post-Modernism (rather than the Second Elizabethan Age!). The point not to forget, however, is that Romanticism belongs in the Regency Period and that this was beset by revolution and war, as was Modernism (WWI, 1914-18; Irish uprising, 1916; Russian Revolution, 1917).

The second passage: ‘The point is that the contemporary perspective was different from our own. Today Jane Austen is one of the most popular novelists of all time but in 1814 no one thought she would occupy that status, nor did they suspect an obscure engraver named Blake would 150 years later be hailed as a literary and artistic genius’ (xv-xvi). The writers that Wu names as popular, best-selling names in Regency Wartime Literature (let’s start using the label) are not at all part of the canon that has survived, in which mostly unknown names with some exceptions (Byron, Scott) shine. I suspect that Wu cheats a little when he claims that ‘The current popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner would have been unimaginable to the scattered few who heard of them when they first appeared’ (xvi, my italics), for I believe that their fame soon grew (or am I perpetuating a myth?). Yet the point he makes is equally relevant. What survives from the past is a haphazard selection no person then living could foresee. If we could bring back a handful of common readers from the early 19th century they would be as amused (or dismayed) by our preferences as we’re certain to be should we return from death in the 23rd century. What great fun it is to guess who will survive!! I wonder that gambling houses are not already offering the chance to bet, for the benefit of our descendants…

Why do the myths persist? Wu replies that ‘The limpet-like persistence of some myths may be related to the illusion they draw the Romantics closer to us’ (xviii) but I’m not quite convinced. It might even be the other way round: Wu’s presentation of Byron as a flamboyant homosexual feels somehow more relatable than his reputation as a heterosexual Don Juan; likewise, his middle-class Keats, the well-educated Medicine student, makes more sense than the working-class apprentice apothecary killed off by a review. Wu, then, is the one approaching the Romantics to our time while debunking old and new myths (lesbian Austen!). Rather, what seems to be happening is that since the instability of the label ‘Romantic’ makes it impossible to understand what Romanticism truly was, we clutch at the myths, even knowing they’re lies. At least they form a coherent body of knowledge, fossilized into respectability first by the Victorian critics and scholars, and later by all the rest until our days. The myths, in short, are convenient and, as we know both as students and teachers, they’re also a convenient way to keep undergrads interested as they swallow with immense difficulties the poetry and the novels (we don’t even touch the Romantic plays).

Wu is at his most sarcastic when he highlights the ‘nuttiness of the thesis’ defended among others by John Lauritsen, according to which Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Why? Because any scholar who bothered to check the two volumes of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition of Mary Shelley’s Manuscript Novel, 1816–17, edited by Charles E. Robinson (1996) could see that a) Percy contributed little and b) of no interest. Wu is specially annoyed because most of the textual evidence required not to blunder and perpetuate myths is easily accessible online. The point that he is making is transparent: all our knowledge of English Literature, beyond Romanticism, relies on bad scholarship; even worse, despite the efforts made in recent decades to correct the most glaring mistakes/lies/myths, they are still being perpetuated because nobody really cares about the truth. You may be thinking, ‘well, I prefer my Byron thin, handsome, and a woman-eater’ but apply lazy scholarship to other fields and we might get ‘Stalin was never as big a genocidal tyrant as Hitler’, a myth we should question. For, you see?, if the History of Literature is based on almost indestructible myths, surely this also applies to History, only too easy to sum up as a pack of lies. Not what you want to do in Trump’s era.

How should we, then, teach Romanticism? There is no introduction yet that follows faithfully Wu’s volume, which means that we’re bound to teach still a myth-based version of Romanticism (a mythical version?!). I see little sense in teaching the myth and the truth together to students who know nothing about Romanticism, yet I don’t feel ready to incorporate fat queen Byron into my teaching–I might be starting another myth, for all I know. Then, as Google tells me, with two exceptions in minor colleges, everyone still uses the label ‘Romantic Literature’ rather than ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’, though I’d be happy to re-name our course at UAB. What Wu has produced, then, is a sort of intaglio effect in cameo carving, by which you see the figure as concave or convex, depending on the light. I have reached the point when the effect is visible but, to be honest, I don’t know how to proceed.

Well, I do know: hard study. I doubt, however, that I have before February the time it will take to undo 30 years of knowing the Romantic in the standard, clichéd way. And this is how myths survive: by acquiring partial, biased knowledge we are later too pressed for time–or too plain lazy!–to undo.

(PS: Now go and check myth 26, ‘Women writers were an exploited underclass–unknown, unloved, and unpaid’)

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

RESEARCHING WOMEN’S WRITING: WHEN WILL INTEGRATION HAPPEN?

November 27th, 2018

Last week I gave a lecture in Bilbao within a cycle devoted to publicising women’s work as scientists. My lecture was called “Women Scientists that Tell Stories: New Humanist SF Written by Women” which sounds worse in English than it does in Spanish (“Científicas que narran historias: Nueva ciencia ficción humanista escrita por mujeres”). You can see it on YouTube (https://youtu.be/fZTZqG0lI-k), and I hope you enjoy it!

Then two days later, I gave another talk, this time for the SF Catalan convention, or CatCon 2, on robosexuality as an emerging identity in real life and also about its representation in fiction (with a focus on ‘male’ robots). In the Bilbao lecture I spoke about Vandana Singh, Nieves Delgado and Carme Torras, whereas in the CatCon lecture I spoke again about Delgado and another woman author, Montserrat Segura, but also about a man: Isaac Asimov.

The strategies are, as you can see, quite different: a) publicising women’s work, b) discussing a topic in relation to both women’s and men’s writing. This has set me thinking hard about which of these two strategies is better and I must declare that I cannot solve this riddle: I prefer mixing authors in the discussion of a specific topic but I realise that we still need to make women much more visible. I wonder, however, why it is taking so long and whether we have collectively taken, as feminists, the right path. I’m afraid we have not.

I have been pondering this matter for a long time (you may check, for instance, “Hacia una nueva utopía en los Estudios de Género: El ‘problema’ del feminismo (en la ciencia ficción)”, http://ddd.uab.cat/record/176095) but still feel stuck in the same dilemma. As a feminist woman, I feel that I do women writers a disservice by asking for an end to the separate study of their work. And so, for the same reason, because I’m a feminist woman, I take up all the chances that come my way to explain why women should be better valued and discussed separately to increase their visibility. I do not particularly enjoy discussing feminism and femininity so often but if you’re a woman this is what you’re invited to do. I recently heard SF author Becky Chambers say that she’s happy discussing gender but she’d rather discuss spaceships and I sympathise, particularly because men are hardly ever invited to discuss gender and often monopolize the public discourse on spaceships (if you know what I mean).

Although the feminist approach to studying women’s writing had been used long before, among others by Virginia Woolf, for convenience’s sake I’ll date the academic project of tracing back the presence of female authors in the History of Literature to Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1978). That project is already forty years old, then, with all the controversies it has generated but also with all the colossal tasks so far carried out.

We have now a variety of resources cataloguing practically all the writing women have produced from the dawn of times, perhaps only missing sixth- or seventh-tier authors. The effort to make their works available continues and will continue for decades. Let me suppose, again for convenience’s sake, that it might take forty more years to fulfil the feminist utopia of bringing all neglected women back from the sexist past and into the limelight of a post-patriarchal future. Then what? Do we still continue writing monographs with the words ‘women’ or ‘female’ in the title? Or do we stop and start full integration?

I complained, perhaps too loudly, in the question time following a lecture on 18th century women’s writing that the problem with the separatist strategy is that a) we don’t have titles that refer specifically to men’s writing, b) feminism has failed in its attempt to make the study of women’s writing compulsory for male researchers. We may continue publishing volumes called Women’s Poetry of the 18th Century, for instance, but this is self-defeating, for we don’t have the equivalent Men’s Poetry of the 18th Century. Instead, a book called Poetry of the 18th Century written by a man is likely to be mostly about the male poets, though academic fashion, political correctness and perhaps the work of a female editor might result in the still token presence of a handful of women.

We should rewrite all the textbooks, then, for this is where the foundation for real change lies, and not only in the separatist line of feminist research. I must acknowledge, though, that when integration is fully achieved in an introduction, this produces a funny feeling. Perhaps a specialist in neuro-science should explain this to me but it seems that once you pass the early stage as an undergrad when you learn the basics of the literary canon it is really hard to change your own vision.

Of course, this is enlarged as you learn more names and read more women writers. Yet, if you’re asked about the main authors of a given period, your reply is likely to result in a string of male names. You need to stop and think, ‘oh, yes, and then there were all those women’. The names of Austen, the Brontës, (George) Eliot or Virginia Woolf do come to mind because they have been canonical for a long time. But, it is still easier to recall Anthony Trollope than Fanny Trollope, or Wilkie Collins rather than Margaret Oliphant. See what I mean? This is why, I insist, integration must happen at textbook level. The way I see it, that should be the focus of the feminist project.

Or, perhaps, I have all along misunderstood what academic feminism is about and integration is not at all its end. Yesterday I was interviewed by a fourth-year student of journalism and she told me that many young women involved in the current feminist movement in Spain do use feminism in the radical sense of reinforcing women’s superiority over men. As I explained to her, that is precisely the reason why I tend to call myself these days anti-patriarchal rather than feminist (my feminism aims at achieving equality, not exchanging one type of inequality for another). But I digress. There is then the likelihood that part of the women involved in feminist academia are actively working in favour of gender separatism–and, yes, I’m sounding this silly and naïve on purpose, to make this choice sound the more suspect.

And, then, we have the men in Literary Studies, some truly pro-feminist and anti-patriarchal, some rabidly misogynistic and the rest carefully navigating the waters of, as mentioned, political correctness. One strategy is the one followed by Peter Boxall in a recent lecture I attended and in which he managed not to discuss identity at all, as if that was not necessary. He is one of the researchers constantly producing surveys and introductions which is why I was so aghast at the neutral tone of his lecture (which dealt with men and women writers, that’s a comfort at least).

I simply don’t see men like Boxall, or similar academic male luminaries, facing the issue of how to write specifically about men writers, for they needn’t do that. We, women, being still subordinated in patriarchal society must consider how/why we write but men can still afford the luxury of not looking into their own masculinity and how they’re positioned in relation to patriarchy, and I mean both writers and academics. I feel deeply annoyed right now thinking of this… Women like me, interested in dismantling patriarchy, are the ones, then, writing about male writers as men, which is, if you think about it, quite strange since we lack the experience of being men.

I wish we lived in post-patriarchal, post-gender times and could get over the onerous task of having to take positions that are so hard to defend. Then we could talk about spaceships–though dear Becky Chambers forgets that this is also a heavily-gendered issue. Every time I see a phallic rocket taking off, I wonder what dictates the shape: pure physics or gender issues? In contrast, in Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood, or Xenogenesis Trilogy, the alien Oankali spaceship is an organic, fully sentient being, which often feels as a gigantic womb. You see where I’m going with this…

I cannot write here ‘in conclusion’, for I don’t know that I have reached any conclusion. I’ll continue accepting invitations to discuss feminism and women’s writing, as I work on gender integration as a teacher and a researcher. As a feminist, then, I’ll antagonize both my radical women feminist colleagues and also the recalcitrant patriarchs who think, for whatever reasons, that being a feminist entitles you to receiving constant support from the Government (does it??). I’m already working on a book about men’s writing within the context of patriarchy, so I cannot say that will be my next step. If anyone’s listening, please write inclusive introductions for, I’m fully convinced, that’s the only way to change the way we learn the canon.

And if you’re a woman fully committed to working only on women’s writing and for a female audience, well, I’m happy if you’re happy but do consider how/why male researchers can still afford to ignore your work, and simply not discuss identity in its most basic sense.

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

(NOT) TRAINING STUDENTS FOR JOBS: EMPLOYABILITY, TEAMWORK, DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES

November 22nd, 2018

I’ll begin today with a semantic quibble about the presence of the word ‘Bachelor’ in the name of the degree ‘Bachelor of Arts’ or BA.

Pop etymology indicates that the Medieval Latin word ‘baccalaureatus’ derives from Latin ‘baccalaureus’, a portmanteau of ‘bacca’ (berry) and ‘laurea’ (‘laurel’), because of the laurel crown awarded to graduates as if they were Roman victors. In Spanish this eventually gave ‘bachiller’, which refers to the man with a secondary education; ‘bachillera’ was used mockingly, since women were not educated to this level until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. The word ‘bachillerato’, still used for the two-year course after E.S.O. and before university has, then, that peculiar origin. For higher education, Spanish preferred ‘licenciado’, that is to say, the person who has a license to teach to others what he has mastered (note my sexist choice of pronoun), usually in a five-year course. Now we have ‘graduado’ in imitation of English ‘graduate’. ‘Bachelor’ appears in English as an import from French meaning a young man in training, whether this is in arms or in academic knowledge, hence the eventual use of the word for the degree. Also for the man who remained single for life, as, I assume, that was the case for many minor knights and scholars too poor to marry (besides, bachelors eventually took orders, or already belonged to them). So, ladies, think how funny it is that you claim to have a Bachelor of Arts degree.

This prologue is just the opening salvo for what I want to discuss to day: what is the point of a BA in the Humanities, and specially in English Studies? Please, note that I mean the Spanish-style BA combining Language and Literature in a four-year course, not English in the Anglo-American sense of the study of the literary arts, though my argument also applies in many ways. My post today is specifically a very personal response to the assessment the degree I work for has gone through. We have passed it though not with flying colours because it seems we have shortcomings to solve in three areas, or, rather, types of skills: employability, teamwork and digital skills.

To understand what we’re going through now, I need to mention that universities are Medieval institutions that have survived the vagaries of time because they are very slowly to change. In recent years, meaning within the timespan of my own personal memory, this change has been accelerated with very questionable results. I am constantly narrating here how as researchers we are constantly on the verge of burnout but hardly given any psychological support, much less reward. I won’t go again through the tragedy of the chronically exploited younger staff. Rather, the focus is why we have degrees at all.

The old focus was that degrees exist to enhance the territory of knowledge, and, so, ‘Filología Inglesa’ first saw the light in 1952 in the Universidad de Salamanca because it was such a shame that English language and Literature were so woefully unknown in Spanish scholarly circles. The initial reason why ‘licenciaturas’ were established, then, was self-centred in the sense that the presence of the student body justified the tenure of the staff, so that they could generate knowledge mainly for scholarly use. The students attended university to benefit from, so to speak, the fallout of academic life and perhaps enter it themselves. Students who did not pursue an academic career (95%) were supposed to get an education, not necessarily professional training. The education was supposed to give them general credentials to find a job beyond the specific knowledge they had earned. A ‘licenciatura’ in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ meant that you were competent, intelligent and capable of further learning.

The current model–established in 2009 after an intermediate period in which ‘licenciaturas’ were reduced to four years rather than five and before MA degrees were established in Spain–is radically different. Now universities need to justify their very existence depending on what they contribute to society via results, usually connected with the employability of students. Let me give you an example. Suppose you have, as we do, a German language and Literature unit, which contributes to our BA degree and to others in the Facultat. As long as student demand of German reaches a minimum, this section survives. If, as happened in Universitat Rovira i Virgili years ago, the demand dwindles dramatically, then the section is closed, regardless of the research it contributes. There is usually a time of transition during which the State will wait for the tenured teachers to retire and will hire no more staff (or only associates that can be dismissed). But, yes, whole segments of knowledge can be lost in this way, and I’m not talking about obsolete science.

In this market-oriented new model, then, teaching matters more than research when deciding which Departments you keep alive and, what is more, even though universities are formally research centres, the cost of keeping certain units open is calculated on teaching-related statistics. Now, here’s the problem: we know that we’re giving our students an education but we do not know what it is for. Furthermore, if you think about it, BA degrees should not worry about employability because they exist as a bridge between secondary education and the advanced education provided by MA degrees and doctoral programmes. Technically, then, the burden of employability should fall on the MAs, which is not an exaggeration considering that old ‘licenciaturas’ were five-years long, thus the sum total of UK-styles BA and MA programmes (3+2 courses).

Employability is a very tricky question for a BA degree in English Studies: 75% of our students will end up being secondary-school teachers, whether they have a vocation or not, but 25% are open to other possibilities (jobs in management or in professions connected with publishing, translating, writing and so on). We cannot formally train our students to be teachers, for this task corresponds to the School of Education (though, paradoxically, they train mainly primary school teachers). So, we proceed on the basis that whatever our students learn will be later applied to their future profession through some intermediate stage, whether this is a formal MA or direct work experience.

As a Literature teacher, then, I train my students in skills that are 100% of direct scholarly application, should they decide to pursue an academic career, but that are supposed to be also of general applicability in any professional occupation requiring intellectual abilities (reading and interpreting texts, seeking sources, giving presentations, writing reports, and so on). I use a mixture of the traditional and the new model. I cannot, however, organize my teaching around the idea that I’m training students for professions they don’t even know they will have. As for teacher-training, well, I wasn’t trained myself: I made a good note of what my teachers did and then copied what I think worked best. Other than presenting myself as a model to follow or not, I don’t know how to train future teachers, thinking besides that they might teach secondary school, which I have never taught, and against a mid-21st century background with God knows what kind of classroom technology (and students!).

Teamwork is an obsession with current regulators of educational rules that in practice all students hate. This is why they don’t like participating in class discussion, which is our basic, most uniformly used type of teamwork. I keep on telling my students that classroom work is collaboration and that I’m not there to lecture (only sometimes) but to guide them in collective discussion–if only for the sake of practising English. They do know that a class is a team which must work together but this is resisted every day in class. If I ask my students to work in pairs or in small groups of up to four and then walk around and talk to each little group that works well (though our classroom space is hardly designed for that). Ask them, however, to work in teams on a project and you have that typical situation: out of, say, five students, two do nothing, two do a little and one does everything, which ends up benefitting the lazy ones. Perhaps that is realistic training for actual job-related situations but students tend to see teamwork as frustrating (at least in this little corner of the university where I work). This is why I have tried other kinds of teamwork: producing collective volumes as e-books (available from the digital repository). The problem, I’m told, is that this is not visible in the official syllabus. Well, it is not because I’m still experimenting (this year, for instance, I’m thinking of applying project-oriented teaching to second year teaching, rather than third and fourth).

Digital skills–here I feel like screaming…!!! Teachers born in the 1960s and before should be learning digital skills from the digital natives in their classroom and not the other way round. We have self-trained at each point since the internet first reached Spain (in 1996) to use e-mail, online catalogues and databases, blogs, websites and the social networks. I don’t understand, then, why we should be made responsible for the digital training of our students–persons who often sit in class compulsively checking their cellphones rather than listening to us. Just let me explain that I do want to have my students collaborate in a booktube channel and produce basic documentaries to accompany papers or dissertations. However, when I asked my university for help to learn the required skills, they basically told me that they lack the budget and the facilities. I asked next the student delegation to find me a student with advanced audiovisual know-how who could train me and other students, supposing that we must have some vloggers in our classrooms. So far, no luck. I contacted then a professional company but they asked for 1000 euros which with our ridiculous yearly budgets is an impossible quantity (we get now one fourth of the money I could use back in 2005-8 as Head of Department and that was already very little).

I am, in short, plain angry to be constantly judged, as a teacher and as a researcher, by standards that can never be met because they are fundamentally elusive. Also the other way round: I have the suspicion that the standards chosen are elusive so that we can never be up to task. It’s this constant feeling that you’re working hard to run a 100-metre race and when you get to the starting line than you’re told that actually you must also compete in other events for which you didn’t know you had to train. If you manage you get some inkling, by the next time you’re assessed rules have, anyway, changed again.

The market, in short, wants to invest as little as possible in educating citizens, preferring instead to train workers that must have skills universally employable so that they can be moved around from one badly-paid job to the next. The market wants, in addition, to have us, university teachers, assume the burden of passing on skills for which we have not been trained, while at the same time it undermines the respectability of the academic skills we do possess. I often feel that the message I’m being sent is that, as a Literature teacher, I am a useless luxury and, as such, society would be better off without me. And I’m not speaking here of myself personally but of all Literature teachers in the world.

I must, then, justify how what I teach trains the university’s clients (are they still students?) for employability, team work and the use of digital technologies. Well, I have a double answer to that: a) obviously and b) not at all, depending on whether you are willing to value what we, Literature teachers do, or not. We can always improve our teaching in relation to our own subject needs but we cannot turn critical scholarly work on William Shakespeare into skills generally needed for current jobs. It is the employers’ responsibility to train employees, not ours, for we’re educators–and that’s a different set of skills. Don’t make us, then, shoulder a burden which belongs to the market, not to the university.

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

TOWARDS LIBERATION FROM EMPOWERMENT

November 12th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep sigh.

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

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

October 30th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON PATRIARCHY AND CATALAN INDEPENDENCE

October 23rd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READING LIVES: BIOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH (AND VD)

October 16th, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romanticism: Doubts and Queries

October 9th, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DRIFTING APART?: LINGUISTICS, LITERARY STUDIES AND ENGLISH PHILOLOGY

October 2nd, 2018


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

Now bear with me…

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

Still with me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBOSEXUALITY: BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND REALITY

September 25th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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