Motion 25: Israel and the UCU 
Monday, June 30, 2008, 09:13 PM
Posted by Administrator
Having been advised that a boycott of Israel would not be legal, the UCU has recently adopted Motion 25, which supports action just short of a boycott, advising lecturers to ‘consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating’.

Michael Yudkin and Denis Noble put the case against Motion 25 very well:

We have noted before (Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week Trinity Term 2008) how, in their obsessive campaign against Israeli academics, some members of UCU are prepared to disregard the views of the majority of the membership, jettison the universally accepted principles of non-discriminatory interchange among scholars, and divert the Union’s resources away from its core functions of protecting members’ salaries and conditions of employment. (It is reported that the legal advice obtained on the 2007 Motion cost the Union a six-figure sum, and we know that the time of branches up and down the country has been taken up in dealing with this one divisive issue rather than attending to the Union’s core business)

It is particularly frustrating that members of the UCU have been denied a simple vote on this issue. Personally I don’t want to support an organisation which singles out one country for obsessive criticism without acknowledging a) the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or b) the iniquities of other regimes. So, for the moment, I’ve resigned.

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A Bug’s Life: Starship Troopers as a Myth of Transformation 
Wednesday, June 25, 2008, 07:10 AM
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I’ve recently been drafting a paper for a conference in Durham called Myths of Transformation. I think it was probably a research paper given by my colleague Jussi Parikka which got me thinking about the relationship between humans and insects.

As suggested in the conference link I pasted above, there is a tendency to think of humans as inhabiting an intermediate point on a sliding scale, with potential for movement both upward and downward. I found myself questioning this slightly, and wondering whether the scale was in fact a parabola – with humanity in the middle, certainly, but also at the summit.

This is partly because the things which characterise the pinnacle of human achievement – such as art, poetry and music – seem to be inseparable from the more destructive elements of human nature such as jealousy, religious conflict, nationalistic pride and competitive drive. To move away from these negative emotions is thus to move away from genius and passion towards a peaceful yet bland existence on a human anthill.

Many SF texts explore post human societies which have become more antlike. These include John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent, and perhaps most famously Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

On the surface this is a gung ho tale about future soldiers wiping out alien bug invaders. But although Heinlein seems bent on reinforcing the differences between humans and bugs he silently invites the reader to make connections between the two species. Specifically, some of the advances made by society and technology make humans simultaneously stronger and more insect-like. Earth’s society has become stratified into castes, civilians, soldiers and mysterious ‘sensers’ who possess a kind of ESP.

Also the soldiers are physically more antlike – they wear ‘jump gear’, complex personal armour which acts as an exoskeleton, protecting their bodies and enabling them to jump high up in the air, even ‘fly’ for short bursts. The suits also contain advanced communications technology which allows them, like ants, to act in apparent unison.

There are numerous other odd references to insects in the novel as well as an interesting invitation to think about how mankind will next evolve. The narrator describes a planet called Sanctuary which has no radiation and on which mankind will always remain the same with no chance of productive mutation. In the context of the novel, we are tempted to speculate whether earthbound humans will, by contrast, advance – or decline – further towards the insect.

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Reinventing the Renaissance: Criticism and Creativity 
Tuesday, June 10, 2008, 05:49 PM
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The second Reinventing the Renaissance colloquium, ‘Criticism and Creativity’, will take place on Thursday 3 July at 1pm. (The room will be confirmed shortly) A group of critics and practitioners will explore the role played by creativity within criticism and scholarship – and the role played by criticism and scholarship within creative practice: theatre, fiction and painting. Anyone is welcome to attend – and I plan to order another cake from The Black Cat Cafe as that seemed to go down well last time – but do email me to register as I need to know numbers.

Dr Ewan Fernie and Dr Simon Palfrey will offer a joint presentation on their co-authored fiction, Dunsinane: A Creative Response to Macbeth. Professor Richard Cave’s paper, ‘Theatrical practice and Textual Editing Online’, builds on his longstanding interest in exploring how the theory and practice of theatre may illuminate one another.

Complementing these speakers from an academic background we have two papers from different kinds of creative artists. Ros Hudson’s beautiful and striking paintings inspired by Renaissance themes have been informed by her scholarly research into the theatre of the period, and she will speak on ‘Ambiguity and Identity on the Renaissance Stage’. Jo-Ann Goodwin studied English at Hull, and her excellent novel Sweet Gum, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, draws on her experience of studying The Faerie Queene.

Although none of the speakers will address this question directly, I would also like to explore the place of creativity within ostensibly conventional critical discourse. When putting together a grant application or preparing a publishing proposal academics are encouraged to explain what ‘gap in knowledge’ they will fill, as though they were repairing pot holes or decaying teeth. But sometimes literary criticism might more usefully be thought of as itself a kind of creative practice. This possibility is explored by Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist:

ERNEST: But is Criticism really a creative art?
GILBERT: Why should it not be? It works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful. What more can one say of poetry? Indeed, I would call criticism a creation within a creation. For just as the great artists, from Homer and Æschylus, down to Shakespeare and Keats, did not go directly to life for their subject-matter, but sought for it in myth, and legend, and ancient tale, so the critic deals with materials that others have, as it were, purified for him, and to which imaginative form and colour have been already added. Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and, as the Greeks would put it, in itself, and to itself, an end.

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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
Posted by Administrator
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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