SCAENA behind the scenes 
Monday, July 21, 2008, 07:21 AM
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As Alex can testify I became increasingly fretful as SCAENA approached. Would the food arrive on time? Would Anglia somehow have double booked all the rooms? Would all the speakers pull out at the last moment?

And would our conference house guest like mess, small children and three legged cats? He seemed fine with these things, luckily, and we soon discovered important shared intellectual interests and spent the first evening of the conference in a local pub with a few other delegates.

I can’t remember much about the pub, but I am grateful to Alex for his mercy dash to Asda very early on Saturday morning to purchase orange juice, coffee and ibuprofen.

Actually I think Alex quite enjoyed his role as conference widower. When I came home briefly on Saturday afternoon for a pre dinner bath he was looking after, not just our own children, but the children of one of my conference colleagues as well. He had done all the laundry too and was radiating smugness.

I really enjoyed the conference dinner at St John’s – a traditional Cambridge affair with four different wines, including a very interesting white wine from Tblisi. And then off to the Eagle! The conference lunches, courtesy of Cotto, were outstanding – I have lots of compliments to pass on to Hans and Ruth, Cotto’s new owners.

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SCAENA 2008: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: Performance and Adaptation 
Monday, July 21, 2008, 06:56 AM
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Here at Anglia Ruskin the third SCAENA Conference (Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: Performance and Adaptation) has just come to a close. I think we all found it an immensely stimulating and enjoyable event.
I won’t talk about every paper I managed to hear – though all were excellent – but will just say a little about the keynote talks.

Peter Holland opened the proceedings on Friday evening with an extremely entertaining paper, ‘Passing Through: Shakespeare, Theatre Companies and the Internet’ – this included a very striking Eminem style lego Macbeth. In the evening we heard Judith Buchanan’s excellent paper ‘Orgies of gesticulation’?: Performing Shakespeare on Silent Film’. This revealed the surprising complexity, allusiveness and self deprecating irony of some of the very earliest film versions of the plays.

Then on Saturday morning we all enjoyed Stanley Wells’ elegant and erudite ‘Romeo and Juliet and Sex’, which was followed by Luke McKernan’s very helpful introduction to an excellent project – the British Universities Film and Council’s new international database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio.

Ann Thompson’s ‘Looking before and after: why so many prequels and sequels of Hamlet’ introduced us to some fascinating (and bizarre) responses to the play, including a sequel purportedly dictated to one Lincoln Phifer (in 1916) by the shade of Shakespeare himself. And finally the conference was brought to a fitting close by Catherine Belsey’s ‘William and Geoffrey’ which identified the striking and suggestive similarities between the strategies of self representation deployed by Chaucer and Shakespeare.

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Motion 25: Israel and the UCU 
Monday, June 30, 2008, 09:13 PM
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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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