Nice work if you can get it: Eros in Montpellier 
Sunday, November 30, 2008, 05:57 PM
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Alex recently enjoyed a week long business trip to Jeju island, Korea’s top honeymoon destination. Jeju’s attractions include Loveland, a sex theme park or, for more timid newly weds, a museum devoted to displays of teddy bears enacting scenes from famous paintings. But now I’ve had my revenge, having spent four days at Eros, an erotic mythology conference in Montpellier. We enjoyed many stimulating and suggestive papers – but I’ll just pick out a few of my favourites.

I’d never really paid much attention to Cupid – I’d always thought of him as a rather static, emblematic figure (by contrast with say Actaeon or Pygmalion). However two papers offered fascinating insights into his representation and function in early modern literature. Andy Kesson gave an extremely assured and entertaining paper on Cupid – ‘Cupid, what hast thou done? The Career of the God of Love in Lyly’s plays’, and Jane Kingsley-Smith gave a fascinating presentation on Cupid within the (edgily erotic) context of early modern child rearing, ‘Cupid, Infantilism and Maternal Desire on the Early Modern Stage.

Laetitia Sansonetti’s paper, ‘Interpreting Desire in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis’, addressed the (vexed) question of how far early modern writers and audiences imported the full context of an allusion’s source into the derived text, negotiating the opposed positions of Martindale and Bate with sophistication and aplomb.

I also particularly enjoyed Marguerite Tassi’s compelling reading of Macbeth, ‘Enraptured by Images: Eros, Myth and Violence in Shakespeare’ – a paper which built on her 2004 monograph The Scandal of Images: Iconoclasm, Criticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama.

Agnes Lafont, Eros’s déesse tutélaire, together with her colleagues, made us all feel extremely welcome – we were taken on a private evening tour of the Musée Fabre and treated to a splendid conference dinner at the Brasserie du Théâtre.

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Children of Peace: Send a Parcel to Bethlehem 
Friday, November 21, 2008, 06:40 PM
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Just a quick entry to publicise this very worthwhile charity’s seasonal appeal ...
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Return of the Vampires: Stephanie Meyer's Breaking Dawn 
Sunday, November 16, 2008, 03:57 PM
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SPOILERS!

I’ve just finished Breaking Dawn, the last (so far) of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels. (See recent post below.) It’s been fascinating reading about the flack Meyer’s been getting from all sides. Some have criticised the series from a broadly feminist perspective for making its heroine, Bella, so passive, unambitious and adoring (of the vampire hero Edward). The same readers often also object to the perceived anti-abortion slant of Breaking Dawn.

Others think the novel is perverse and immoral including some of Meyer’s fellow Mormons. The most sensible criticisms of Breaking Dawn I’ve read focus on its wish fulfilment excesses – Bella ends up with the perfect husband, perfect child, super nice in-laws, not to mention a huge walk in wardrobe stuffed full of designer outfits.

I haven’t waded through all the 3,000 or so comments which have been posted on amazon.com. But none of the comments/reviews I’ve read so far have said anything about what was, for me, the series’ genuine surprise ending. Bella has always wanted to be a vampire. The saintly Edward didn’t want her to face the perils involved in the transformation. The ‘will she, won’t she’ puzzle drove the opening books of the series. Now I’d assumed that Bella would stay human, and thought that perhaps Edward and the other ‘good’ vampires would be allowed to regain human form.

But Bella gets her wish and becomes a vampire. This is presented as an almost unequivocally positive outcome. Bella loses her trademark clumsiness, gains special powers which make her a kind of übervampire, becomes ten times more beautiful, practically indestructible and pretty much immortal. And there is no penalty – she and the ‘good’ vampires survive on the blood of wild animals and never harm humans.

I thought this was quite an audacious solution to the lovers’ dilemma – and, although I can see the case for feminist objections to some aspects of the series , it was at least nice that Bella was allowed to have it all and not (despite some trials along the way) be punished by the text for her rather transgressive desires. Given the nature of Bella’s wishes the ‘wish fulfilment’ fantasies provided by Breaking Dawn’s conclusion are really quite subversive.

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Visions of the Future: Anglia Ruskin SF Panel 
Sunday, November 2, 2008, 12:01 PM
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Yesterday afternoon I participated in a panel discussion about Science Fiction at Anglia Ruskin University as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My fellow panellists were Professor Rowlie Wymer and author Chris Beckett, author of The Holy Machine and The Turing Test.

Together with members of the public we discussed a number of questions raised by the study of science fiction. What is the relationship between politics and science fiction for example? It was easy to come up with examples of broadly left and right wing sf but some examples were more problematic.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed portrays an anarchist society – but readers are divided as to whether that world represents a positive alternative or not. The sf film Invasion of the Body Snatchers might be seen as a paranoid response to the threat of Communism or, by contrast, as a satire on the tyranny of the McCarthy era.

It’s very difficult to keep up with sf publishing so it was useful to swap recommendations of books and authors we’d recently enjoyed. Here are three books which (on the advice of some of our audience members) I’ve now put on my ‘to read’ list:

Ian McDonald’s River of Gods
Charles Stross’s Accelerando
Adam Roberts’ Salt

One book I strongly recommended to others was Ronald Wright’s A Scientific Romance which wasn’t really marketed as sf but is a powerful and compelling vision of humanity’s bleak future viewed from the perspective of a time traveller from our own day.

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AHRC Peer Review College 
Thursday, October 30, 2008, 05:37 PM
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Yesterday I attended a training day at the AHRC in my capacity as a member of the Peer Review College. Members of the College are asked to provide detailed academic appraisals of grant applications and other bids for different kinds of funding. Each proposal, typically, is evaluated by two reviewers and given a grade. These grades and comments are then considered by a panel of subject specialists who rank the applications, determining who will get awards.

However this system is now being changed slightly. The panels will now be less subject specific, less specialist. They will no longer be offering a further layer of evaluation. Instead they will simply (not that it’s that simple!) be carrying out a comparative analysis of the Peer Review College members’ reports. Principal Investigators (ie the academics chasing the grants) will have been offered the opportunity to respond to any problems or questions raised in these reports – and their responses will also be scrutinised by the panels.

I’d initially had misgivings about these changes but feel more confident about the new system now I’ve learnt more about how it will work. Three expert reviews will now be sought, not just two, and the recruitment of many more academics to the Peer Review College should make it easier for the AHRC to identify really appropriate reviewers for each application.

Whereas previously people served on the specialist panels for three years or more, now the panels will change more regularly, offering more Peer Review College members a chance to participate. Having the chance to discuss the issues at stake with colleagues, and to compare notes on a set of applications, will be extremely helpful, I think. (Normally we work very much in isolation.)

I think the one issue which still troubles me is the instruction that we should not bring our subject expertise into play within the context of these new panels, even if that expertise would help the panel evaluate and rank the applications more precisely. However I can see that there might be some unfairness in raising new objections which the Principal Investigator then has no opportunity to respond to.

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