Bruce Charlton - and Charles Moore 
Friday, May 23, 2008, 02:36 PM
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I hadn’t realized I was a dangerous leftie – and neither, I suspect, had most of my colleagues – until I (rather masochistically) posted a comment to an article by Charles Moore in the Telegraph (in response to what I felt was a sneering comment about new universities) - and then read the responses from Moore’s fan base. (You’ll have to scroll down to read these.)

Despite my (blandly on message) enthusiasm for widening access and so on, I felt some sympathy for Bruce Charlton, whose recent research paper, which was covered in this week’s THES and picked up by much of the rest of the press, argues that, as lower social classes have, on average, lower IQ scores than middle class professionals, we shouldn’t get worked up that so few working class children get into prestigious universities.

My vague feelings of sympathy for Bruce Charlton stemmed from the lack of logical argument used by the many people who were invited to respond to his piece – most of these didn’t like his conclusions and lashed out angrily without trying to engage with them.

One of the better responses was from Alan Ryan, who pointed out that one’s IQ ‘score’ isn’t fixed – the IQ scores of well off children rise as they get older whereas those of the poorest children go down. IQ scores thus can’t really (it would seem) be used as an objective measure of raw ability.

Another piece in the THES indicates that – whatever the rights and wrongs of Charlton’s data - culture/environment does play a large – and reversible – part in school exam results and thus in university destinations. King’s College has admitted students from poorer backgrounds onto its medical degrees with C rather than A grades. With extra help (surely far less than that already received by their fellow students who attended private schools?) they performed nearly as well in their finals as ‘traditional students’.

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What Lies Beneath: Forbidden Planet and The Man in the Maze 
Friday, May 2, 2008, 02:41 PM
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The 1956 film Forbidden Planet reinvents The Tempest within an SF setting. The action takes place, not on an island, but on a distant planet. One of the adaptation’s many differences from Shakespeare’s play is the introduction of the Krell, a long dead alien race whose mysterious technology is far superior to anything produced on Earth.

I was strongly reminded of Forbidden Planet by a novel I’ve just finished reading, Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze. This is a reworking of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, another narrative of island exile. Muller, the Philoctetes character, is stranded on Lemnos, a planet which contains a lethal maze, constructed millions of years ago by another long dead alien species with a mysterious and advanced technology.

As part of my work on uncanny allusion I’m investigating the relationship between ruins and textuality. Ruins (like ghosts) are sometimes used to flag the presence of an earlier text, buried beneath the new work’s surface.

In both The Man in the Maze and Forbidden Planet, the presence of a wondrous but long extinct alien species is particularly intrusive because it has no real basis in the source text. Perhaps this is the point. The mysterious ruins in both these SF adaptations could be said to be the visible signs of the source text, the brooding presence of an ancient canonical work haunting a product of modern popular culture.

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Reinventing the Renaissance: The Science and Medicine Colloquium and the Skinner Young Lecture 
Thursday, April 24, 2008, 02:38 PM
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This week at Anglia Ruskin, we’ve enjoyed two excellent events of particular interest to Renaissance scholars. On Saturday the first of a series of colloquia around the title ‘Reinventing the Renaissance’ took place. The focus of this particular event was on science and medicine.

We began with an angelic double act. Raphael Lyne (Cambridge) and Gabriel Egan (Loughborough) both gave fascinating papers on the ways in which modern developments in cognitive science can illuminate our study of the past.

Synecdoche – the way in which a part may stand in for the whole – was at the heart of Raphael’s presentation. We discussed whether the trope was somehow integral to the way humans’ minds work, even at a preverbal level.

Gabriel’s paper emerged from his work on textual editing – knowing more about the workings of the mind can help us understand how textual variants are produced – and how the play is transmitted from the author’s mind to the page in the first place.

We then all discussed Montaigne’s painfully compelling account of the sufferings he endured from kidney stones. This session was led by Margaret Healy (Sussex) and she opened up many intriguing questions about the way in which the experience of illness may vary from culture to culture.

Our fourth speaker was a graduate student from Anglia Ruskin, Jo Vine. She gave an excellent talk based on her MA dissertation project – an investigation into the possibility of diagnosing SAD in the characters of Shakespeare.

Finally Sarah Gull from Lucy Cavendish College, who has a long standing interest in the relationship between medicine and the humanities, gave a lively response from a medical perspective.

Equally enjoyable was last night’s Skinner Young Lecture, given by Professor Sylvia Adamson from Sheffield University. ‘Who is Sylvia, What is She: Negotiating Identity in Early Modern Drama’ took just two little words that we don’t normally think very much about – ‘who’ and ‘what’ – and used them as the starting point for an absorbing discussion about changing perceptions of selfhood in the period.

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On Sitting Down to Read Clarissa Again 
Friday, April 11, 2008, 07:24 AM
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I first read Clarissa about twenty years ago when I was a student. Some things had really stuck in my mind but other parts were hazy. Meanwhile I’d since picked up (without ever researching the novel at all seriously) some of the things critics said about the novel – her supposed anorexia for example, and the idea that Lovelace was a more positive force than Clarissa herself.

Rereading it (the first edition incidentally, not Richardson’s later altered version) took me a good three months – I had to have a Georgette Heyer break every so often for light relief.

Clarissa often seems to be trapped between two opposed criticisms – that she is too good to be true (or interesting) and that she isn’t good enough, she is somehow complicit, a ‘rapee’.

I found both criticisms unfair. Although it’s easy to think of more obviously endearing heroines (her friend Anna Howe for example) Clarissa seemed to have just enough faults to make her human - a degree of pride and complacency, which she fully acknowledges, and also a nicely human edge of spite when she taunts her sister Bella, knowing that she would have liked to be wooed by Lovelace herself.

And I felt Richardson really ruled out any complicity in her rape, carefully and elaborately justifying her elopement for example. On rereading, I was struck by how lukewarm her love for Lovelace was, how provisional and uncertain even at its height. During their period of uneasy truce she seems to want to marry him because to do so would be the least bad option. He cannot bear being the object of such prudent calculation.

Richardson’s handling of Clarissa just after her rape seemed particularly effective. Whereas Lovelace expects her to be abashed she remains forthright and unembarrassed – in fact it is Lovelace who is embarrassed by her frankness about the incident.

I did start to lose some sympathy with her around page 1200 though. Her rather legalistic anxiety to assure – and be assured – that she is not starving herself to death seemed a bit dubious. She appeared to want to die in order to maintain the moral high ground and her obsessively detailed will and elaborate designs for her coffin made me link Clarissa (still a teenager at the time of her death) with today’s young suicides who, apparently, are anxious to be memorialised on MySpace.

What about Lovelace? An idle trawl through the internet revealed plenty of readers (and critics) who admired Lovelace’s supposed subversive energy. I found him pretty consistently despicable, and letters which might seem clever, warm or affecting in isolation lost their charm when read in their full, devastating context.

I can’t agree with Samuel Johnson that if you were to read Clarissa for the story you’d hang yourself out of frustration. One or two longeurs aside, Clarissa has plenty of narrative drive. But I do think that a remark made by Johnson about another literary masterpiece could aptly be applied to Clarissa. ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’

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Outin' Singin': The strange case of Cosmo Brown 
Wednesday, March 26, 2008, 06:48 AM
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As part of my research into the relationship between allusion and the uncanny I’ve been researching (re)animation, especially in responses to the Pygmalion myth. In a surprising number of stories about female statues coming to life I’ve identified a queer subtext (see my earlier post on Lot’s wife). Singin’ in the Rain is part of this pattern but doesn’t otherwise quite fit in to my research – so I’m doing it as a (rather extended) blog instead.

Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t feature a female statue precisely. However it does represent the creation (via dubbing) of an artificial woman, the perfect leading lady to play alongside hero Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), one who combines the glamour of Lina Lamont with the lovely voice of the film’s heroine Kathy Selden. But I won’t to focus instead on Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown (played by Donald O’Connor).

The famous musical is set in the early days of cinema just at the beginning of the rise of the talking picture. We first meet the hero, Don Lockwood, at an opening night. He is accompanied by his beautiful leading lady, Lina Lamont, and it is assumed by his adoring fans that they are engaged. But in fact Don dislikes Lina, who is both vacuous and manipulative. When interviewed by a gushing reporter Don ignores Lina and instead emphasizes the importance of his relationship with his best friend Cosmo Brown, his song and dance partner from childhood. This sequence, incorporating several quick flashbacks, exemplifies the film’s sly play with illusion and masquerade. Whereas Don’s voiceover presents his early life as privileged and respectable it is clear from the visual flashbacks that he and Cosmo were mischievous ragamuffins. What we see and what we hear are two quite different stories.

Tellingly the reporter interrupts Don, silencing his tribute to Cosmo and brushing away his hand as he leans across her to shake Cosmo’s hand in an extended and affectionate handshake. A further hint at a gay subtext is offered when Cosmo informs Lina that she “looks good for a girl” – a line which is barely audible, but picked up by the DVD subtitling

But any suspicions in the viewer’s mind will probably be laid to rest with the arrival of Kathy Selden. The film’s main focus is on how this actress, less glamorous but more talented than Lina, rescues the studio by dubbing Lina’s own Brooklyn accent when movies become talkies. Don teams up with Cosmo to ensure that Kathy gets the credit for her performance – when Lena performs a song ‘live’ both men pull the curtain revealing Kathy hidden behind Lena on stage - and the film winds up to a (delightfully) heteronormative ending.

But the surface love story between Don and Kathy can be seen to figure a hidden alternative romance between Don and Cosmo. Homosexuality was an obvious presence in early Hollywood but almost invisible in its products, the films themselves. Gay stars, just like the apparently straight Don, often dated or even married in order to keep up their image. This dynamic of concealment is repeated in Singin’ in the Rain although here it is a woman (Kathy) rather than a man who is being hidden, both as the real singer in The Dancing Cavalier and as Don’s real girlfriend. Kathy is deeply upset by her concealment behind Lina which she ascribes to Don’s own lack of loyalty in apparently supporting her continued invisibility, not realizing that he plans to unmask Lina’s meanness.

This is one of the many texts and films I’ve discovered which combine a ‘Pygmalion’ motif with a queer subtext. Although the screen siren is a hybrid of two women, the composite is persistently associated with cross gendering. Cosmo stand in front of Kathy miming her song when he first dreams up his plot, the film and the sound track later get out of synch forcing Lina to speak with the voice of her male co star, and at the end of the play Cosmo takes over from Kathy to provide Lina’s voice in a live performance, symbolically sharing her role as the concealed artist/lover, standing behind her as though hinting at a further punchline which remains unspoken

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