CfP: Sponsored Panel on “Gendered Experiences of Pain” at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo (MI, USA), 2017

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

Panel title: “Everybody’s (Gender) Hurts: Gendered Experiences of Pain”
 

Sponsored by: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
Conference: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, (MI, USA), 11-14 May, 2017

"Pain has a face..." by duncan c. Via Flickr

"Pain has a face..." by duncan c. Via Flickr

Following Elaine Scarry’s (1985) seminal work The Body in Pain, researchers from various disciplines have productively studied pain as a physical phenomenon with wide-ranging emotional and socio-cultural effects (e.g. Boddice 2014; Cohen et al 2012; Davies 2014; Morris 1991; Moscoso 2012).  Academics and scientist-clinicians have demonstrated that the experience of pain is highly gendered (see e.g. Bendelow 1993; Bernardes et al 2014; Hoffmann and Tarzian 2001). For example, the severity of women’s pain is often less readily accepted by medics. Women in pain are more likely to be dismissed as attention-seeking or suffering from psycho-somatic conditions than men. Painful conditions that affect many women, such as endometriosis, are woefully under-studied. 

Medievalists have also analysed pain, including its’ gendered dimension, elucidating a specifically medieval construction of physical distress (see e.g. Cohen 1995, 2000, 2010; Easton 2002; Mills 2005; Mowbray, 2009). In particular, Caroline Walker Bynum’s ground-breaking feminist scholarship (see e.g. 1988, 1992) has shown the specific ways in which medieval holy women harnessed ascetic suffering as forms of empowering worship praxes. 

"Pain" by Kasia Ferguson. Via Flickr

"Pain" by Kasia Ferguson. Via Flickr

This panel will examine the gendered experience of pain in the medieval period, engaging with, and moving beyond, the limited context of holy women established by Bynum. It will dissect the ways in which men and women experienced -- or were understood to experience -- pain differerently, to elucidate the wider framework of gender-specific suffering in the period. The subjective experiences of medieval men and women in pain will be unearthed, allowing their marginalised voices to add context and further urgency to contemporary debates about inadequate medical care for modern men and women in pain. 

 

Relevant questions for this session include: 

  • How are the pains of  “women’s complaints” -- including menstruation and childbirth -- depicted, and understood in the medieval era? Are other forms of physical discomfort coded as predominantly feminine - even if they have no direct biological link to womanhood? Are there similar “male” forms of pain?
  • How are men and women socialised differently to understand, to contextualise, and ultimately to experience their pain? How do men and women express their pain? And share their pain with those around them? Are specific patterns of lexis, imagery, or metaphor routinely used by either men and women, or both?
  • What differences can we observe between the ways in which men and women in pain are treated by medical practitioners, the religious community, and their families? What was the contemporary rationale for classifying and treating men and women’s pain differently?
  • As a counterpoint: what similarities are there in the treatment of pain for men and women? Does the pain experience ever unite suffering men and women as a cohesive group, a group in which pain -- and not gender -- is the most important identity marker? 
"pain" by Chris Frewin. Via Flickr

"pain" by Chris Frewin. Via Flickr

If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit the following documents to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] qmul.ac.uk), by 15 September 2016:

  1. One-page abstract
  2. Completed Participant Information Form (downloadable in .pdf and Word format from the Conference website).

 

N.B. Conference regulations stipulate that speakers may only present on one panel each year at Kalamazoo. As such, we cannot consider papers from individuals who have already submitted abstract proposals to other sessions at the conference. Nevertheless, if a paper submission is not selected for the “Gendered Experiences of Pain” panel, we will forward the submission to the Conference organisers for potential inclusion in a General Session.

CfP: Sponsored Panel on "Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity" at International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 2017

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

"Joan of Arc, light alteration" by Anne Petersen (2008). Via Flickr.

"Joan of Arc, light alteration" by Anne Petersen (2008). Via Flickr.

Panel title: “Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity”

Sponsored by: Hagiography Society

Conference: International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 3-6 July 2017

 

Far too often, modern cultural commentators – and unabashed misogynists –  refer to the medieval era as a nostalgic time of ossified gender roles. That was when “men were men, women were women, and everyone knew their place”, after all. Medievalists have long fought back against this cliché, including undertaking important work in contextualising pre-modern hagiography in terms of gender and sexuality. 

Hagiography is all too often assumed to be a place where gender essentialism festers, complete with claustrophobic gender roles. See, for example, the importance of virginity for holy women; (avoidance of) rape as a central motif for female martyrs; the male power-base of the Church; God and His son as exemplars of male superiority; etc. Yet, in the early 1980s, Caroline Walker Bynum showed that Jesus was, in fact, “mother” in much medieval spiritual thought. Numerous other scholars have since shown that saints routinely challenged, more or less explicitly, the options offered to them by the gender binary. 

"Joan of Arc at the coronation of King Charles VII at Reims cathedral" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1854). Via Wikimedia Commons

"Joan of Arc at the coronation of King Charles VII at Reims cathedral" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1854). Via Wikimedia Commons

Saints could, and did, cross-dress; live as a gender other to which they were assigned at birth; and modulate their identity by blending traits traditionally coded as male and female. Despite their potentially transgressive behaviours, not all of these saints have been shoved into the historical dustbin of obscurity. Transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, for instance, called upon Joan of Arc as a powerful example of historical transgendered experience with the publication of Transgender Warriors in the mid-1990s. This panel seeks to develop the important work of these scholarly forebears, directly responding to the vital discussion of “Otherness” which is the special topic strand of the International Medieval Congress 2017.

Relevant questions for this session include: 
•    What do narratives of holy men and women blurring – or outright challenging – the notion of a stable gender binary show us about pre-modern sanctity? What do such narratives contribute to the ongoing cultural conversations about modern non-binary identities? And the battle being waged for human rights for all individuals, no matter their gender identity? Can pre-modern hagiography be a potent political instrument to combat modern transphobia?
•    What kind of reception did transgender and/or genderqueer holy individuals and their texts receive – theologically, practically, and in contemporary devotion? 
•    Is gender subsidiary to holiness as a category of difference for saintly individuals? 
•    As scholars, is our focus on gender(s) and binary gendered difference the most useful hermeneutic for productive interrogations of hagiography? 
•    Can we even meaningfully apply our modern categorisations of gendered experience to the pre-modern era?

 

If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] qmul.ac.uk), by 1 August 2016.


N.B. Conference regulations stipulate that speakers may only present on one panel each year at Leeds. As such, we cannot consider papers from individuals who have already submitted abstract proposals to other sessions at the conference.

Goodnight Menses: Period Realities & the Big Bad Wolf of PMS

1945 Illustrated Ad, Chi-Ches-Ters Pills for Relieving Pain from Menstrual Cramps. First published in The Family Circle magazine, November 9, 1945, Vol. 27, No. 18. Via Classic Film/Flickr.

1945 Illustrated Ad, Chi-Ches-Ters Pills for Relieving Pain from Menstrual Cramps. First published in The Family Circle magazine, November 9, 1945, Vol. 27, No. 18. Via Classic Film/Flickr.

Last week, I shared a video in which Penny Higgs, Australian reality-TV contestant, threw down some real talk about the lack of attention given to women’s period pain. As a complement, may I present to you Goodnight Menses, written by Sami Main and illustrated by Dan Meth, which was posted to Buzzfeed in April 2015. Main and Meth’s digital work is a deliciously tart riff on Margaret Wise Brown 1947 children’s book Goodnight Moon.  

Brown’s famous work memorialises an anthropomorphic bunny’s bedtime ritual of saying ‘goodnight’ to all the artefacts in his room, and then the evening itself, the ‘stars’, the ‘air’, and finally the ‘noises everywhere’. (For a .pdf of the non-illustrated text, posted by the Early Childhood Lab at Stephen F. Austin State University, click here.) Every object to which the bunny wishes ‘goodnight’, then, is a part of his intimate – and fairly quotidian – experience. The text works as a catalogue of the landscape inhabited by the sleepy bunny, the routine contours of his life. The bunny’s words are a protective incantation: a means of reassuring himself, and also the objects, that they can reciprocally let go, close their (even inanimate) eyes and drift to sleep. This ‘goodnight-ing’ is an ending, surely, but also a ritual which suggests a perhaps interminable repetition – the ‘goodnights’ only end on that very un-good night when the bunny, or his subjects, are irrevocably absent. 

The delight, and impact, of Goodnight Menses is its skillful leveraging of these layers of Brown’s original work. Instead of the bunny’s childhood bedroom, the scene now is a woman’s ‘great dim room’, a glum space in which our sleepy protagonist endures her period. The text opens with a catalogue of the objects which populate the woman’s space, including analgesics, comfortable clothes, TV to binge-watch the pain away, and junk food:

In the great dim room
There was a beanbag chair
And a jar of Nutella
And a picture of
A goddess jumping over her moon.
And there were two little wolves sitting on stools
And three little Doritos
And a bag of Cheetos
And a little bottle of Midol
And an iPhone with a missed call
And a laptop and some sweatpants and a small old lamp
And a dent in the bed from where you rolled around with cramps.

Though not every woman will have these specific items in their menstruation survival kit, they are familiar enough items to operate as generalize-able categories. I read ‘Cheetos’, I nod, I think of my preferred salt and vinegar crisps. The text’s anonymous protagonist functions as a proxy for all menarcheal women. As Goodnight Moon allows us to envision the particularities of the bunny’s room (read: everyday existence), Goodnight Menses throws into relief the often unpleasant commonplaces of female life once a month. The text’s humour is drawn, at least partially, from the mundanity of the experience and the implicit familiarity of the tableau. Our collective coping mechanisms are on display. Therein, the enchantment of the ‘goodnight’ refrain: the ‘monthly visitor’ will stay only for a few days. With enough ‘goodnights' (stand-ins for 'goodbyes’), maybe you can speed its leave. But remember, the period is a repeat customer, it will be back. And, as with the bunny’s farewells in Goodnight Moon, that anticipation of interminable repeat casts its pall over Goodnight Menses

'mask' by Luisa Uribe. Via Flickr.

'mask' by Luisa Uribe. Via Flickr.

Beyond the concrete items – ‘Midol’, ‘Doritos’, ‘iPhone’ – we encounter ‘two little wolves’, menacing embodiments of a hormonally frayed emotional state. PMS in lupine form, reminiscent of the fairy-tale staple of the Big Bad Wolf. In Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf swallows grandmother whole, dressing up in her clothes to fool, if only for a short while, a somewhat naïve Riding Hood. Goodnight Menses’ ‘two little wolves’, then, can pounce at any time to a woman in the ‘dim little room’ of menstruation. The space is not all bad though. For one thing, it’s a room of one’s own, in terms of lack of human co-habitants at least. And there’s that picture of the ‘goddess jumping over her moon’: a serene representation of the goddess of menstruation, traditionally tied to the lunar cycle, and a main-stay of New Age pro-period imagery. Embrace your goddess within! Jump over the moon with me! Do femininity! So the goddess, then, can be a two-edged sword. A positive affirmation of the ‘right-ness’ of menstruation; an irritating tone-deaf elision of real pain and discomfort. What’s more, the upbeat menstrual goddess meets her match in the sinfully female Biblical Eve, and it’s Eve that closes the text:

Goodnight Eve, for this original sin.
Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere.

Eve and her ‘original sin’, symbolized graphically in her monthly ‘curse’, are just part of the status quo of a misogynist patriarchal culture – ‘noises everywhere’ – which categorises women’s bodies as abnormal, evil, or disgusting simply for behaving as biology intended.

Ultimately, Riding Hood too joins her grandmother in the pit of the Wolf’s stomach. The Wolf is superficially the agent of their demise. Yet he is also, symbolically at least, agent of their (re)birth. When a rescuer slices open the Wolf’s belly, both women fall out of his stomach alive. Goodnight Menses’ ‘two little wolves’ represent the hormonal component of menstruation, broadly speaking. Saying ‘goodnight’ definitively to these wolves would entail splitting them open, generating two alternate forms of womanhood – pre-menarcheal (Riding Hood) or post-menopausal (grandmother). Note, then, that we never say ‘goodnight’ to the wolves in the text, not directly:

Goodnight room
Goodnight moon
Goodnight goddess jumping over the moon
Goodnight bloating
And the two little wolves.

Letting go of the ‘wolves’ is hard to do, a grudging appendix to other menstrual attributes to which we are more than glad to bid farewell, relegated to the next line. Wrapped up with the ‘wolves’, we see potential elements of adulthood and independence:

'Flow' by Eugenia Loli. Via Flickr.

'Flow' by Eugenia Loli. Via Flickr.

And goodnight missed call.
[…]
and goodnight Cheez Whiz.
[…]
and goodnight marathon of Breaking Bad.
[…]
and goodnight to the lamp.

It’s good to be a grown-up some times. You get to stay up as late as you want. Decide what you eat for dinner, no matter how unhealthy. Develop an independent social life, sex life. What happens when there are no more missed calls on the iPhone? When you’re no longer in demand, or viewed as sexually desirable? This is aging womanhood writ large, and it is not a particularly attractive prospect. So, goodnight menses, goodnight but hopefully not goodbye for good. 

Period Pain & Reality TV - Big Brother Australia S11E45

Until about five minutes ago, I had no idea who the woman in the video below is. Master Google tells me that her name is Penny Higgs, an Australian actor-dancer who finished fifth in the 2014 cycle of Big Brother Australia (i.e. series 11). Cool.  I am not super interested in learning more about her, nor has she motivated me to rewatch endless hours of Big Brother, vintage or otherwise.  But  I wish her very well, and hope she has a great life. Basically I'm sending her the kind of decent-human vibes I hope most people beam out into a world filled with people in whom they're neither hugely interested nor squarely disinterested. I will forever respect Penny, however, for a short and impassioned monologue she delivered in the Diary Room in episode 45 (24:04-25:36 of the video below). She lays out the utter ridiculousness about the cultural silence about women's period pain with vigorous clarity:

Yeah, I've had a weird day. I'm going to talk about something. And I don't know why, like, this doesn't get spoken about really ever. And I want people to hear this. Like, don't be like, don't be like, 'Ooh, no we shouldn't do that'. But my ovaries are on fire today, like nobody talks about period pain. I just have to say, right, for a quarter of the year, a woman will have her period. A quarter of the year. Now, this is a fact of life, right. No-one talks about it, but just think about this, right? When you walk around to the shops, and you go to the shops, and someone's serving you, or you go order your coffee, or you go to the bank and a woman serves you, you know what? You didn't even know, that woman might actually be in excruciating pain. Like, fully, like so much pain. But they just get on with their day, no-one would know. But sometimes, when I have got this kind of period pain, which it doesn't get spoken about, because I had to tell one of the boys [fellow housemates], they said 'What do you need painkillers for?' And I said, and they were all like 'Oh, oh,' [and] like got all a bit weird.
And I said 'Period, period, period! Period!' It's just a fact of life. So, like, hats off to women, they just walk around like everything's OK.

 

 

Honestly, I am so overwhelmed with adoration for Penny's soliloquy I find I can only respond in .gif form. To wit: 

 

And, indeed: 

Victoria Wood (1953-2016)

I can't remember when I first saw Victoria Wood on the telly. She was just sort of always there, popping up now and then for Christmas (and other) comedy specials, and inspiring my undying respect and adoration for a middle-aged dinner lady called Bren. Her humour always seemed be marked by a kind of humane appreciation for the banality of every day life, for a kind of comic reverence for the humdrum. Today, I woke up and Twitter told me that Victoria Wood has died, all too young at 62. I am poleaxed by her death. If you asked me yesterday for a list of my heroes or cultural influences, I probably wouldn't have mentioned her. But she contributed massively to my background understanding of what funny can be, what women can do, and how gloriously ridiculous much of human life is. So no, I don't have a Victoria Wood poster on my wall, but her work carved a niche somewhere in my inner gubbins. 

Osmotically and imperceptively, Victoria Wood gave me confidence in being a woman in the world. The videos below are a few of her routines which capture a bit of what I'm talking about.Seeing Victoria Wood use her body as a tool for her comedy felt (and feels) pretty revolutionary. Not to mention, deeply chest-achingly funny. She normalised women's bodies, and her cast of characters often made visible the kinds of women usually absent from TV. More than that, she spoke plainly about the realities of women's life, skewering the innate bullshit whilst letting us laugh at ourselves, and our worries, relieved that finally we could share this tragicomic farce with someone else. I will miss her. 

 

Seeking Second Life Christians for Research Study

Are you a Christian Second Life user? Have you engaged in some form of religious worship online in the past 6 months? I would like to talk to you!

 

•    My name is Alicia Spencer-Hall and I am a researcher in the French Department at Queen Mary, University of London (UK). I am conducting a study into the religious practice online and offline. I want to find out how Christian Second Life Residents worship both within Second Life and offline in the real world. I also want to hear how Residents understand their worship practices in their own words, and what role they think their avatars have in worship.

Screenshot of the researcher's SL avatar from the 2011 study, "Pixelated Prayers 1"

Screenshot of the researcher's SL avatar from the 2011 study, "Pixelated Prayers 1"

•    I am looking for volunteers for 45 minutes interviews, to be conducted in Second Life over IM (Instant Messenger) in private. All volunteers need to be over 18, self-identify as Christian and have engaged in some form of religious worship online (any activity you find to be meaningfully spiritual) in the past 6 months. 

•    This study is a follow-up of an earlier study undertaken by the researchers in 2011, “Pixelated Prayers 1”. We are very appreciative to participants in this earlier study. However, in order to not double up on responses, individuals who took part in the 2011 study are not eligible to take part in this study.

•    The only personal data I will be collecting is: age, sex, offline country of residence, religious beliefs and behaviour (online and offline) and Second Life username. I will NOT be collecting any other identifiers such as your offline name, address etc. Please be reassured that all interviews will be completely confidential, and all research data will be maintained under the British Data Protection Act of 1998. Your Second Life username will NEVER be revealed in the research findings report(s).

•    Participation in this study is completely voluntary and you will be able to pull out of the study at any time, without any disadvantage, if at a later point you do not wish to complete the study.

•    Please also read my Information Sheet (below) for more details on this study.

•    Please feel free to email me at a.spencer-hall [AT] qmul.ac.uk if you have any questions or queries, and/or wish to join this study. Equally, please feel free to get in touch in Second Life with my avatar for this study, “pixelpray”. 

•    This study has been approved by Queen Mary, University of London (Ethics of Research Committee Ref: QMERC2015/77 ).

 

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Kathryn Williams - "No-One Takes You Home"

I am not one of those people who glances back to adolescence nostalgically. Being a teenager sucks. There, I said it. Probably the best bit of teenage-ing is that when it ends you get to suppress all its horrors, be that with the help of legal alcohol, an ephemeral and organic blossoming into one's person, or intensive application to the work of re-inventing oneself. I can't remember exactly when I heard Kathryn Williams' track "No-One Takes You Home" (2002), but it was deep into my teenage wilderness, in the period where I obsessively loitered in the CD section of my local library, sourcing any and all balms for my soul. To this day, the song makes me cry. It encapsulates the unsettling isolation of trying to figure out who you are in the world, how to navigate social landscapes and to make connections. It's that slippery feeling of needing to move beyond an emotional economy based on external validation - who likes me and how much?; what box should I be in? - to inhabit instead one founded on authentic extension of yourself into the world. And how desperately difficult, if not impossible, that shift can be. So I guess, this is a track for teenagers only in the sense that that it when I discovered it first. Really, it says a lot about adult-ing too. I would argue - perhaps predictably - that it is a song that expresses in particular the tensions of woman-hood, of being a feminine object entrapped in the patriarchal system, whose worth is defined more or less explicitly by being taken home by a prospective sex partner, rather than by one's ability to create a home for oneself in the world: 

Now is the time to find out why you're buying everything
Now is the time to find out why you sigh at everything
You dress your self up to the top of your knickers
And you smell so good it's like a box of chocolates
But no one takes you home
No one takes you home

You've watched all the romance on the television
It's too much to bear you've got to get a new sort of vision
You've done your best at the gym you've got your lip-gloss on
You're going to the doctors to see if it's a medical problem
'Cause no one takes you home
No one takes you home

It's breakfast, it's lunchtime, it's dinnertime
Spent with all those women's magazines
That tell you you're not as fine as you look
To yourself in the mirror
In the morning when you smile
To get yourself out of the door
To give life why can't life give you some more?
'Cause no one takes you home

The lyrics are deceptively simple, with clean lines. And that sparseness, the banality of some of the imagery - knickers, gym, the television - lets your own life fill in the gaps. Or at least it did back when I first heard it, and every time since then that I have listened, as my connection to the track evolves as my own life changes over the years. This is a heart-breaker of a song - a yearning love song for the self, for the satisfaction of being taken home one day and the hope of not needing that validation at some point. 

Crimes Against Medievalism #1 - "White Collar" S01E03

Look, I'm actually quite a chill person, OK? (Shut up, members of my inner circle.) Yes, I can get a bit enervated by pretty much anything, and - OK - it would be fruitless to pretend that I don't have strong opinions. But as any trashy-romance-novel connoisseur knows, that just means I'm "passionate", "feisty", "firey". (And probably running from the law / about to solve a crime / in the midst of untangling a hunky cowboy's tragic history and showing him how to love again.) In case you hadn't realised by now, dear reader, I take my media consumption equal parts seriously and frivolously. I adore watching TV for its innate (mindless) pleasures as much as I adore analysing the fuck out of TV shows, unpacking what they do and how they do it. The vast majority of the time, these two activities occur sequentially: watching --> analysing. That way, I get to have my televisual cake and eat it too, as the near-unparalleled joy of getting totally absorbed in a show gives way organically, a little while after the credits roll, to my geeky analytical pre-occupations. But. This neat little flow-chart breaks down in cases of what I term "Crimes Against Medievalism". And it is in light of such Crimes, I admit, that I - to use the appropriate jargon - pointlessly lose my shit. 

Given how niche the medievalist discipline is within academia, our lofty field does crop up a disproportionate amount of times on TV. Nevertheless, at least the media portrayal of medievalists and our primary material is authentic. My colleagues and I are, practically daily, central to solving various crimes, smuggling antiquities, laundering money willy nilly (for a juicy cut). All whilst we rewrite global histories on the basis of our minute attention to the symbology of just-discovered manuscripts. Simples! Oh wait, that was a fever dream I had when struck down by a killer bout of flu last year. My bad. Finally, I get what hard-done-to forensic scientists must have felt when CSI (and its various insidious spin-offs) "showcased" their working praxes. As long as you put The Who on, and do some weird close-up shots to reveal impossible levels of detail, you can solve ANY crime! Crimes Against Medievalism, in essence, cause medievalists - or at least this medievalist - to vent their spleen at the screen, a cathartic outpouring of utterly futile rage at how we are mis-represented in the media. Or, how people just DO THINGS WRONG with manuscripts, and medieval stuff. So, this post is the first in a new series in which I channel my pointless rage your way, dear reader. Yes, I know, I am kind aren't I? You're welcome! 

With this backdrop, may I present to you the horrors of White Collar, SO1E03 (2009), "Book of Hours". Here is a synopsis of the episode: 

On a routine stakeout of a well-known mob hang out, Agent Cruz and Agent Jones get a surprise visit from Leo Barelli, the local mob boss. Someone stole the bible from Barelli's church, and he wants it back...badly enough to come to the FBI for help.

Peter and Neal soon discover that this is no ordinary bible. Over five centuries old, the book is rumored to have the power to heal the sick. Peter is skeptical, but Neal knows there are true believers out there. Neal's theory leads them right to the culprit: Steve, a homeless veteran who took the bible to save his sick dog, Lucy. As it turns out, Steve was actually hired to take the bible by none other than Paul Ignazio, Barelli's nephew. [...] 

Neal and Mozzie investigate Ignazio's apartment and come up with Maria Fiametta, a local art historian who is familiar with Neal's past exploits. Peter thinks Maria has something to hide, but she's just too smart to keep the bible close. If Neal convinced Maria he was coming out of retirement, would she give up the book? There's only one way to find out, but for Peter it means putting all the cards in Neal's hands.

 I am ignoring the mystical woo element of the manuscript-as-healer narrative arc, which suggests that homeless veterans with PTSD don't necessarily need tailored services and support to get off the streets and re-integrate into society. Nope, just give them a dog (healthy preferred), and access to a miraculous manuscript! Problem solved!! Anyway. Because I have a life, I have summarised my key points of medievalist contention with the episode in the form of three handy images, Figs. 1-3 below.

 

Fig. 1. Red wine is bad for manuscripts. FACT.

Fig. 1. Red wine is bad for manuscripts. FACT.

Fig. 2. You don't know where those hands have been. I swear I see oil and dermal debris. 

Fig. 2. You don't know where those hands have been. I swear I see oil and dermal debris. 

Fig. 3. Somewhat bizarrely, manuscripts are not regularly used by the military as shield devices. 

Fig. 3. Somewhat bizarrely, manuscripts are not regularly used by the military as shield devices. 

A while back, in the immediate aftermath of my White Collar rage, I posted these Figs to Twitter. Somebody - forgive me, I can't find the tweet now - pointed out that, actually, donning white gloves is no longer standard operating procedure for handling manuscripts. The British Library, for example, is quite clear

Clean dry hands, free from creams and lotions, are preferable in the majority of circumstances. Wearing cotton gloves when handling books, manuscripts or fragile paper items reduces manual dexterity and the sense of touch, increasing the tendency to 'grab' at items. The cotton fibres may lift or dislodge pigments and inks from the surface of pages and the textile can snag on page edges making them difficult to turn. All these factors increase the risk of damage to collection items. 

Members of the public, nevertheless, routinely criticise the Library (and its staff-members) when they see or read about artefacts being handled sans gloves. White gloves signal a cautious, professional touch honed by years of training. They operate as a kind of visible reverence for the manuscript being handled. This object is so important, so rare, that you have to wear gloves to touch it. More than that, the gloves speak a kind of privilege: you have to adopt the metaphorical - and artificial - "skin" of intellectualism just to come into contact with it. It turns out my rage at the absence of white gloves in the White Collar episode is, perhaps, even more pathetic than the usual impotent Crime Against Medievalism reaction. Digging a little deeper, I am astounded - and let's face it, a little jealous - to see manuscripts treated as fairly routine objects that you have at home. This is not my experience, visiting my lovely manuscript friends in various well-policed libraries over the years. I am not a private collector; a priceless manuscript will never adorn my desk, ready and waiting for disastrous wine spillages. 

As Neal and Maria by turns flirtatiously stroke and chuck around the manuscript (Figs. 2-3), I'm struck that they seem to adopt the role of (moneyed) medieval expert without a second thought. Not so for the usual medievalist, whose skills have been honed over years of study and work, a period marked more and more by long hours and low pay. The white gloves would sort of suggest that we're "special" in some sense - again, that sense of a touch not normally accessible to those without our career devotion and sacrifices. And then! Neal puts on some damn gloves - but he's not supposedly the expert in this narrative, Maria is. Maria, who is about to shoot a man THROUGH A PRICELESS MANUSCRIPT. Jesus wept. I'm not quite sure what I think, where my rage is going, after working through this a bit more. Given the dire state of the medievalist job market (just a sub-section of the appallingly difficult academic job market), perhaps I wanted to see some kind of validation of the skill-set of medievalists, a sign of our "special-ness" that would suggest we, and our work, are needed. Don't panic, though, it's not all maudlin self-reflection, I've still got the medievalist rage. As such, I leave you with the following take-aways:

  1. A generous red wine soak will not make your manuscript better, tastier, nicer to look at. 
  2. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that you don't use your priceless manuscript as a bullet-proof vest. Sure, the British Library don't expressly forbid it, but I am 78% sure it is implicit in their code of conduct.
  3. If you want to go glove-free - as well you should when touching priceless manuscripts - please ensure your hands are clean, dry, and free of the cloying schmutz of painful exposition. 
  4. In conclusion, white gloves are a land of contrasts.

Soothe Your Millenial Despair with 10 Hours of Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows

The Guardian, bless their liberal cotton socks, are currently doing a series on the problems besieging my generation (i.e.us lucky sods born between 1980 and 1995ish). Hello, my name is Alicia. I'm a Millenial, and that means I am fucked: 

A combination of debt, joblessness, globalisation, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations. [from here]

This is the story of basically everyone I know.  Honestly, it's a relief that somebody is starting to pay attention, and show how really very bad it has been, it is, and will likely be for a whole generation of us. I pray to the gods, goddesses, pixies of national zeitgeist that every single person who espouses unhelpful, paternalistic, bootstrapping "advice" about jobs, careers, mortgages, savings, Millenial self-indulgence, etc will read these articles and now knock it the fuck off.  But it is damn hard reading, particularly if you're oh-so intimately aware of this stuff already. I literally scrunched up my eyes when reading the Guardian's coverage, a sour lemon stuck in my craw, even as I nodded my head in solidarity. Yes, this is true, and this is urgent. The models of adulthood, career progression, social status that were proffered for older generations no longer exist for us.  Show some empathy. And use your greater portion of - well, mostly everything - to help us out. We'll be running the retirement homes, you know? I sure needed a palate cleanser after wading through my existential Millenial despair. So, I self-medicated with my usual drug of choice, "shit on the internet" (TM). May I present to you a deluxe find: ten full psychedelic hours of pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows. Make sure to turn your volume up to full, your housemates will need to listen in too I imagine. This might not make you feel better directly, but it will distract you and/or trigger underlying medical conditions. You're welcome! Come the ensuing generational war, I vote for this as our anthem.

 

Robyn - "Who's That Girl"

Ladies! Today is our special day! Don your brightest pinnies and rejoice! OK, I'm snarking, I admit it. It's 8th March, which makes it International Women's Day (IWD), a day to '[c]elebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women'. Bringing women's vast contributions to every human sphere out of the enforced closet of patriarchal neglect is important, even essential. I am 100% in. But, I have to snark - because otherwise I might weep and wail - about the necessity of a special day in which to warehouse this undertaking. If we recognised, valued, glorified women's achievements as standard, then every day would be "International Women's Day", and the acknowledgement of women as equal partners in humanity would be woven into the fabric of our society. Frankly, it'd be a bit banal: women are often awesome too, duh. In all fairness, the IWD website does flag the point that things are not all rosy and a-glow for women worldwide, noting that 'progress has slowed in many places across the world, so urgent action is needed to accelerate gender parity.' Perhaps it's just that I feel a bit weary. That 'urgent action' occupies the 364 patriarchal days of the rest of our year.

Anyway, IWD always makes me think about the definition of the terms "woman", and "women". There's no one way to do "woman-ing" right, despite what the media might tell us. And women from different classes, races, geographical locations, levels of ability, sexualities - you name it - all have significantly different experiences of what this state of "woman" is. Above all, "woman" is not monolithic. This is in direct opposition, I think, to the advertised roles enforced by the patriarchy. So in this vein, I appreciate the proclamation of rebellion issued by Swedish singer Robyn, the song "Who's That Girl".  Sample lyrics:

Good girls are pretty like all the time
I'm just pretty some of the time
Good girls are happy and satisfied
I won't stop asking until I die
I just can't deal with the rules
I can't take the pressure
It's got me saying ooh, yeah...
Who's that girl that you dream of?
Who's that girl that you think you love?
Who's that girl, well I'm nothing like her
I know there's no such girl
I swear I can't take the pressure
Who's that girl?

Robyn's had enough of this shit. She's calling out the fantasy of a singular acceptable womanhood: the pretty, good girl that covers the media landscape like a particularly pernicious mould. I love how the video intersperses images of Robyn doing her thing, her way, with stock footage of models, seamstresses, women in bathing suits. There's more than one way to be a woman; women are pressurised to conform to more than one alienating paradigms of acceptable womanhood and/or femininity. Also, I really like Robyn's eye make-up in the video. Dismantling the patriarchy is hard. Personally, I find on-point make-up fierceness helps gird my loins. I also think "who's that girl?" can be a fairly useful tool for evaluating one's life and life choices. From time to time, I ask it of myself, drawing out why I'm doing what I'm doing, choosing what I'm choosing. Am I trying to conform to some mythic (and perfectionist) fantasy? Or, am I responding to my own desires, thoughts, caprices? It can be an eye-opening reality check, let me tell you. So this IWD, I wish all of you, dearest readers, the time and (head) space to ask yourself that same question. Substitute preferred identity markers in place of "girl" as necessary, and Bob's your uncle. Happy questioning to one and all.

Mary J Blige - "No More Drama" (Live, 2002)

Only a few scant words from me for this FYVP. Below is one of the most powerful, moving live performances I've ever seen, as Mary J Blige performs her anthem "No More Drama" on TV music showcase Live...with Jools Holland back in April of 2002. Absorb the lyrics, the emotion, the journey. Exquisite. Trevor Nelson, BBC Radio 1 DJ, explains the significance of the song and the performance at the start of the video - so there's nothing else left for me to do apart from wish you happy listening! 

Internet Bibliography #5

Talking yesterday with a dear friend, I compared Doing Academia (TM) as fighting with a ravenous dragon. Only, you don't see the dragon - you see a cute little gecko, that you mostly adore, called Colin. You sort of forget what you're up against. I feel compelled by a current bout of "never-enough-ness" to apologise once more - as ever - for the temporal chasm between the last Internet Bibliography and this one. But, you know what? I see today that Colin-the-gecko is actually Ranulph-the-Dragon. I am fighting back against Ranulph, that damn productivity beast. [Imagine I'm now speaking in hushed tones replete with self-import] And so, I herewith foreswear such apologies and instead affirm my staunch intent to Do My Thing (TM) and keep on rolling. [Return to normal speech patterns.] Anyhoo, with that mission statement out of the way, I present to you a nice little library of interesting stuff to read. Enjoy!

-          On the meaning of colour:

1971 Ad, Wyten Dental Cosmetic Enamel, with Free 10-Day Trial Coupon. Published in For Teens Only magazine, September 1971 - Vol. 8 No. 3; posted by Classic Film. Via Flickr.

1971 Ad, Wyten Dental Cosmetic Enamel, with Free 10-Day Trial Coupon. Published in For Teens Only magazine, September 1971 - Vol. 8 No. 3; posted by Classic Film. Via Flickr.

o   In a piece for Nautilus, Courtney Humphries disentangles the various cultural significations of the colour white. She hangs her analyses on the phenomenon of teeth-whitening, deftly reaching out to discuss hygiene more generally, class, racism, and the gap between scientific findings and personal behaviours. It’s the kind of essay that makes you reconsider quotidian ephemera – teeth-whitening toothpaste, white panties in tampon ads, the aisle of anti-baterial products in the supermarket – and your own unique construction of whiteness itself. Opening one’s eyes to the insistent underlying symbolism of that which we consider happenstance is an exciting, important affair.

-          On modern saints:

o   On 13 September, Benedict Daswa was beatified – the first South African to ever be recognised officially by the Church for his extraordinary piety. Daswa is acknowledged as a martyr, murdered due to his staunch opposition to witchcraft. IOL Online, a South African news outlet, covered Daswa’s story in January. The Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale, explained the immense significance of the event for South African Catholics:

“This is the first South African saint. We have been waiting to have our own saint for years. Having our own saint means having our own spokesman in heaven – a model of someone who believes and dies for his faith.
Most of the time we hear about this – but it happens in other places and other times. This time, we have our own martyr who lived in the same time and country as ourselves. It is most striking and inspiring. […]”

As ever, authentic representation is shown to be crucial, whether in media, culture, or authorised religious role-models. To read more about Daswa, see also the “official” beatification website, and the “official” website dedicated to him.

o   A recent article by Elisabetta Povoledo for The New York Times offers a counterpoint to Daswa’s ecclesiastical approbation. She explores the circumstances of a popular Bosnian shrine, famous for its Marian apparitions. The shrine has recently been investigated by the Vatican in terms of authenticity, with the results yet to be made public. If the Vatican rejects the shrine’s status as a holy locale, it would pit the popular devotion of locals and pilgrims against official doctrine proffered by the clergy. As Povoledo points out, the potential fall-out is not just cultural/religious – but also financial, given that the shrine attracts many spiritual tourists and boosts the local economy. An interesting window into the intersection of economic and spiritual potency, an issue which has been evident for as long as saints have been in existence. 

-          On the power of pop culture and representation:

"RAP MUSIC / state of texas" by ellyjonez. Via Flickr

"RAP MUSIC / state of texas" by ellyjonez. Via Flickr

o   In 2014, psychologist Cendrine Robinson-Head published an account of her experiences incorporating rap music into her sessions with troubled black youths. She found that the rap music frequently listened to by her patients, such as tracks by Meek Mill and Chief Keef, articulated many of the struggles her patients faced. Using rap lyrics and the songs themselves, Robinson-Head discovered a mode for her patients to articulate their own suffering. In an interview with Matthew Trammell for The Fader in August, the psychologist explains and meditates on the utility of using rap as a therapeutic tool:

“One day, I heard a song that my husband was playing from his computer, [Meek Mill's] “Traumatized.” I was like, “Man, that reminds me of my kid." So I go and play the song for him, and he knows every word. He’s basically like, “That’s my life.” That was the first time that he opened up to talk to me. I started listening to Meek's music more. There’s so much emotional content there. He talks about his life so much, which was obviously very difficult. That’s relatable for a lot of those kids."

Robinson-Head underscores that stories have power, and relatable stories – those that seem to represent the experiences of a given individual – can be a compelling tool for difficult psychological work. Crucially, then, it’s not that her patients respond to all rap music, nor can you force “relatability” on a given story:

“If they’re listening to Meek Mill, and I’m like, “Come on, let’s listen to this Talib Kweli,” they’re going to look at me like, “What? What’s wrong with you? You’re again forcing something on me that I don’t want.” Which is the whole construction of them receiving therapy in the first place. Something is being forced on them.”

Pop culture has power; authentic representation in pop culture is breathtakingly important.

-          On the business of academia:

"St Mildred's Beach [Thanet; September 2011]" by Max Montagut. Via Flickr

"St Mildred's Beach [Thanet; September 2011]" by Max Montagut. Via Flickr

"St Mildred's Bay [Thanet] 1950s" by Max Montagut. Via Flickr

"St Mildred's Bay [Thanet] 1950s" by Max Montagut. Via Flickr

o   The Clerk of Oxford (AKA Eleanor Parker) blog is highly recommended. Blogging since 2008, the Clerk posts accessible, interesting stuff about medieval English literature and history, and a whole host of other topics. In a beautiful and thoughtful piece from July, she sketches out her intimate personal relationship to one of the Anglo-Saxon saints she studies, Mildred. I love the fact that she recognises the impossibility of discerning clear boundaries between personal and professional interests, and argues for the productivity of this intertwining. She discusses her own deep connection to Mildred’s home, Thanet, and considers the ways in which modern life – where people routinely move around – differs from medieval rooted-ness. Also excellent is her framing of “public academia”, and her vivid dissection of the problems of lack of diversity in academia:

“The more academia becomes the preserve of people who are able - financially, practically or emotionally - to move countries every few years and to support themselves through extended periods of part-time work, the more socially and psychologically narrow a world it will become, the more detached from the wide range of human experience it claims to be able to classify and explain.”

o   Over at The Atlantic, Andrew Giambrone offers a frustrating, heart-breaking look into the ways in which prestigious institutions of higher education fail students with mental illness. He concentrates on the suicide of Yale student Luchang Wang in January 2015, highlighting Yale’s withdrawal and readmission policies which work to obstruct students needing time off to deal with mental health problems from actually taking that time. Yale is clearly the principal target of investigation here, but Giambrone sheds light on an issue which can and does affect many institutions. Much food for thought on the ways we, as academics, can support students in need.

o   Apparently, there’s this email you can send that makes people reply – even if they’ve been actively avoiding responding to you. I haven’t tried it yet, but I figured I’d share the love: see The Magic Email. Apols in advance if you get a copy from me in your inbox…

o   Jennifer Polk and Derek Attig recently co-hosted a Twitter discussion focussing on goal-setting in academia. Participants shared their current goals, and strategies for achieving them. It’s a nice window into what other academics are up to, and offers inspiration on how to get your own things done. Full disclosure: I waded in myself, albeit briefly.

Bingo Players - "Knock You Out": Electro-House and Domestic Violence

I do not got to a fancy gym. If my gym were an airline, it would be EasyJet. It costs £30 to check in your first bag for an EasyJet flight. Everything is virulently, vehemently orange. I assume management is going for "cheap and cheerful"; in my family, the airline is known as "SleazyJet". There is a website dedicated to customer venting of EasyJet rage, including a shared safe space of forums to tell your story. Like an online support group. One is not an EasyJet customer, one is an EasyJet survivor. But, the problem remains that we all go back, because EasyJet does enough - it gets us cheaply (sometimes suspiciously cheaply) out of our Fair Isles and off to sunny lands afar. And so it is with my gym, cheap as chips with loads of cardio machines and tons of free weights, seemingly open forever and providing fresh water from the taps in the loo. I am particularly fond of the fact that the taps are mismatched, at least in the ladies' bathroom. "What more do you want, people? We fixed the sodding tap, now you want it to match the others? Spoiled urban hipster types, jog on. You don't even know you were born."

      Obviously, my gym does not pay for premium entertainment services in the facility. There are a couple of LCD screens in each room which show a mish-mash of ads, tube service updates, and music videos that are usually either a) minimally 7 years old; b) featuring nobody you've ever heard of before. So it was the other day, when I looked up from the elliptical (low impact cardio for the win!) and feasted my eyes on the video below, "Knock You Out" by Bingo Players.. No-frills music-tainment is sometimes most useful! You find stuff you'd never see before! As you're a captive audience until you finish your work-out, the mind tends to over analysis of the video imagery and tropes!  Before I launch into the fruits of such over-analyses, I must offer a trigger warning: the video contains scenes of domestic violence, so please bear this in mind before you choose to view it. 

     What intrigued me about the video was how it upturned my expectations pretty effectively. At the beginning, we see a lone pretty waifish woman, sporting injuries to her face typical of a beating. She looks both deeply pensive, and - frankly - somewhat broken inside. I literally sighed out loud when I first saw the opening. Great, more woman-as-victim imagery. She just needs to listen to an upbeat empowerment electro song and she will reclaim her subjectivity and escape her violent partner! The woman passes some older men loitering by a doorway, and one in particular lasciviously eats an orange: the stage is set for creepy male objectification. Again, I sighed. But then: we see the woman without her facial injuries, in a changing room, with a serious "I've had e-fucking-nough" face filled with weary despair. A man with a red cap, out of focus, hovers in the margins of several shots. Remember him, he's important. Cutting again to the exterior, the woman shakes hands with Creepy-Orange-Man, and pow - evidence of her beating is back. Later in the video, though, it turns out this dude is not-super-creep. He is, in fact, a boxing trainer, and trains her in the ring so she develops her own pugilistic skills.

      Distaste for and fear of the Creepy-Orange-Man is initially guided more or less explicitly by the video, and then an alternate perspective on him is provided. To me, this initial fear/suspicious response to him mirrors the standard operating procedure many women must take when inhabiting public spaces. Male violence against women is a fact of life in patriarchal society, and women must deal with this reality, often safeguarding themselves with practices and modes of behaviour to avoid becoming victimised. The safest course of action is to interpret Creepy-Orange-Man as, well, creepy. The reveal later in the video, though, that he is a somewhat paternal, supportive coach figure muddies the waters. The 2012-2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that 45% of female murder victims in the UK are killed by their partners or ex-partners. That is to say: creepy male strangers are certainly not the only or primary threat to women's safety. Intimate partners can also be significantly dangerous, as the video demonstrates with the woman's abusive partner, revealed as Red-Cap-Man. So, does the viewer need to rethink their negative judgment of Creepy-Orange-Man, and focus our contempt on the woman's abusive partner? I don't think so. For me, the two characterisations of the man uncomfortably co-exist side by side: he is both creepy and potentially dangerous in the one instance, and then warm and supportive in the other. He is not a caricature of masculine evil, a black-and-white case of Abusive Man. Instead, we see his potential for taking up - and acting on - this abusive identity. And then we see his potential for behaving with compassion and respect towards a woman. The problem is in judging - accurately - which identity this man is inhabiting in a particular moment for the woman with whom he makes contact. This is a problem a woman may face in almost all environments, and in all areas of their life - not just out in public, but potentially at home too. 

      The interleaving of images of the woman with and without injuries continues throughout the video. It subverts linear narrative, and challenges the reader to unravel the woman's circumstances. What happened to her? What is her story? Are we seeing three periods of her life: 1) pre-beating (no injuries); 2) immediate aftermath of beating (injuries); 3) after injuries have healed, in next phase of her life? Or just 1) and 2)? Such interleaving also leads the viewer - or at least this viewer - down several different narrative alleys. For example, we see the woman (not injured) running on a treadmill, posters of boxing stars pasted all over her walls. So: the injuries on her face are from the ring, right? Her facial wounds are a sign of her reclamation of (female) power, not victimisation from a partner. Yet, no. Next, we see the woman (uninjured) fighting with Red-Cap-Man (the one hovering in the margins earlier), who is now revealed as her abusive partner. His vicious beating is inter-cut with images of her training in the boxing ring, where Creepy-Orange-Man is shown as a supportive and encouraging figure. She strides out of the gym to meet a long-haired man, Jason, who carries her bag for her - a sign of his respect for her, and general nice-ness. As the pair walk down the street, she pointedly stares at Red-Cap-Man who looms hazily in the right of the shot. He fades away: he is a specter of her psyche, one who she defeats by assuming her own power both in the ring and out of it. With this final image of Red-Cap-Man, we can perhaps re-read his appearances earlier on in the video: abusive partners do not just inflict visible wounds with beatings, but colonise the internal landscape of those whom they terrorise, becoming ever-present ghostly figures of control and oppression in the women's lives. Emotional abuse is a component of domestic violence, and is equally damaging. (For an excellent accessible overview of domestic violence patterns, see the first chapter of Harne and Radford's 2008 Tackling Domestic Violence, available as a .pdf here.) Ultimately, the video does not provide the viewer with an easy-to-grasp and coherent conclusion. Yes, the long-haired Jason is shown to be thoughtful and nice, but...so what? If Creepy-Orange-Man could turn into Supportive-Coach, what's to say that Jason doesn't end up as another abusive partner? The fact that the woman can now box? Hmmm. Why does her "happy ending" have to feature another romantic partner? Can't she just be kick-ass and strong in her own right?

       Looking at the circumstances of the song's creation does not offer up any definitive reading of the song either. Bingo Players are  a Dutch electro house / dance DJ outfit, going since 2006, and with a bona fide #1 UK single in 2012 with "Get Up (Rattle)" (feat. Far East Movement). The band started out as a two piece, with Maarten Hoogstraten and Paul Bäumer collaborating on tracks. After Bäumer died from cancer in 2013, Hoogstraten decided to keep going with the project solo, a proposition Bäumer actively advocated prior to his death . I mention this not to inject some tragedy rubbernecking into this post, but because Hoogstraten himself characterises "Knock You Down" as a song which conveys his own struggle with grief:  

“It’s all about overcoming struggles and emotional challenges, it really reflects [where I am] right now,” he says. “When I play it, it’s spot on. I could write those lyrics myself.”

It was the last song the pair worked on together, and operates in some ways as a means for Hoogstraten to preserve an emotional link with his dear friend, particularly through witnessing the fan's enthusiastic reaction to the track the duo crafted together. Hoogstraten is clear that the lyrics to "Knock You Out" can "be interpreted in many ways". Indeed, the music press lights on the song's lyrics as a metaphor for Bäumer's struggle with cancer (see, e.g. this article in Dance Music Northwest).

      The track's success is arguably due to this plethora of possible interpretations offered in the allusive lyrics. They speak elliptically to a kind of personal empowerment and triumph against adversity that listeners can apply to almost any situation(s):

My fight is won / Who needs a gun / Boom boom knock you out / You knocked me down / But who's laughing now / Boom boom knock you out / [...] /
You pick on the weak / Your twisted tongue speaks / All the fears you hide / The fear inside / You think I don't see / You're not talking to me / I'm the mirror, the knife / The fear inside /
But I get stronger everyday / One wrong will be all it takes / My power's fed by your hate / One wrong will be all it takes / [...] /
And the bully's best friend / Is the poison pen / But you can't touch me / While you sit at home / Plan attacks all alone / You try to phase me / [...]

The lyrics were penned by a woman, Australian singer-songwriter Sia. Produced in advance of the rest of the track, they formed the kernel around which Bingo Players created the soundscape. The song's power is at least in part due to the great vocal performance of female singer Kim Viera, who is not credited overtly (i.e. in the official artist slot) and does not feature in the video.  I'm not sure what to make of all this. It feels as if there is both female erasure and over-emphasis going on here.  The male DJ behind the song, under whose moniker it officially circulates, views the track as offering a generalist empowerment message, and for him speaks to grieving over the loss of a male friend. The song's video directly spotlights violence against women, but the track-as-media-artefact renders Sia and Kim Viera basically invisible. Sure, Sia is credited on liner notes and receives royalties for the song - but the average radio listener or YouTube viewer does not know that. Same again for Kim Viera. Why the choice to depict gendered violence? Did Bingo Players consult with Sia on this choice? Does the video then reflect her intended lyrical thrust? Is it conscious-raising for some viewers - an important move to show the horrific realities that many women experience? Or does it slimily trade in such intimate violence, using it as a quasi-titillating hook to attract attention? I am undecided personally. It is an imperfect narrative, as all narratives are wont to be. The woman overcomes her abuser and stakes out her own claim to power through boxing. But why should she have to take up boxing in order to do this? Why does she have to find another - nicer - man to partner up with at the end? Why does her trainer have to be a previously-creepy-dude, and not, say another woman with no baggage attached? All these questions and more remain unanswered. 

 

Ke$ha, James van der Beek, and Unicorns

This is definitely one for the "Old News" tag. In February 2011, Ke$ha released the track "Blow" from her Cannibal (2010) album. It's a classic Ke$ha tune, including namedrops for glitter, dirt, and dancing manically till you drop. (A+ would recommend for running playlists the world over.) However much the song conforms to the Ke$ha oeuvre overall, the video is something special. Here, we have:

  1. Laser guns

  2. Unicorn-douchey rich people hybrids

  3. A cameo by D̶a̶w̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶L̶e̶e̶r̶y̶ James van der Beek, heart-throb star of ye olde teen drama Dawson's Creek (RIP 1998-2003)

  4. James van der Beek and Ke$ha (newly crowned President of Uzbekistan, apparently) engaged in an all-out laser gun war for supremacy

  5. Rainbow rays "bleeding" out of wounded unicorn-douchey rich people hybrids

Seriously, what more could you want? At about 2:41, Ke$ha and van der Beek have a beautifully odd face-off:

K: Well, well, well, if it isn't James van der Douche
v d B: I don't appreciate you slanderBeeking my name, Kah-dollarsign-ha.

They then go on to discuss the deliciousness of Munster cheese, termed "edible lactose gold" by van der Beek. Apart from its exigent and awesome surrealism, I love this interchange as it draws attention to the constructed-ness of both stars' public personas. Ke$ha has long been known in my house as "Kay-dollarsign-ha", as we joyously milk the "silent" dollar sign for all its worth. To feature this so prominently in one of Ke$has's own videos reads like unabashed and most likeable self-deprecation on the singer's part. Yup, she inserted the dollar sign. Nope, that's not what her birth certificate says, let's all move along. As for van der Beek, he's not appearing as himself per se - it's another occurrence of a star playing a version of themselves, so here it's James van der Beek acting as "James van der Beek".

      Just a year after "Blow"'s release, the actor stars in a similar role (sans lasers / unicorn hybrids, sadly) in the TV comedy "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23".  It's rare that Wikipedia get's something so right when it describes Fake James as "arrogant, self-centered, and shamelessly self-promoting as he takes on increasingly bizarre roles to revitalize his career". Frankly, his performance as, well, "James van der Douche" - complete with episodes littered with "Dawson's Creek" references - were the best bit of the show. (For other actors-playing-versions-of-themselves TV, see Matt LeBlanc in the phenomenally good Episodes, also starring Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig.) 

      By ramping up the surrealism to mammoth proportions, the video to "Blow" reveals, I think, a truth about both van der Beek and Ke$ha's existence in the public eye. As they are playing "themselves" in the video, so too are they playing a role for - or being forced to play a role by - a gossip-hungry audience. It's interesting to note that after the "Blow" singer received treatment for eating disorders this year, she decided to ditch the dollar sign from her name - she now goes by Kesha, her birth name. I have no idea what motivated her decision precisely, nor is it my business to know really. But, from the outside looking in, it appears to be a shift away from an uber-constructed popstar identity to one that more closely resembles her inner life.

 

CfP: "Nonhumans & Politics" - International Conference on Non-Anthropocentric Perspectives on Politics (Hannover, Germany; 22-23 January 2016)

With apologies for cross-posting! Please feel free to share this CfP with all relevant parties.

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (v² ! g)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (v² ! g)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

In the last two decades non-anthropocentric theories – whether posthumanist, neo-materialist or transhumanist – have attracted growing attention from scholars in a wide range of fields. Despite their interdisciplinary output, the question of the relation between non- anthropocentric theories and the concept of politics has been to a large extent evaded. This is somewhat understandable considering that the concept of politics is a highly anthropocentric term that sits uneasily with non-anthropocentric ontologies.

The conference’s aim is to investigate the juncture of nonhumans and politics:

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

  • What does it mean to talk about politics in respect to nonhumans?
  • Who/what is the ‘subject’ of posthumanism, of animal rights, of environmental politics, of technological advancement (particularly in case of Artificial Intelligence)?
  • If the path in thinking ‘nonhuman politics’ through ‘subject’ and thus through ‘political subject’ is counterproductive then what are the alternatives?
"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

"étude des 10-proportions de l'esprit humain . . (z¹ / p)" by Jef Safi. Via Flickr

One of the key interests of this conference is then to investigate if the notion of 'nonhuman politics’ – whether viewed from ecological, animal studies, neo-materialist, transhumanist or posthumanist perspective – is conceptually possible and what would this imply on a practical level:

  • What would the conditions of possibility of such ‘nonhuman politics’ be?
  • What theoretical requirements would need to be fulfilled in order to be able to propose such a concept and fully explore its potential?
  • Perhaps a certain amount of anthropocentrism is in this case unavoidable. And if that is the case then the question to be posed is to what extent are we willing to accept a limited form of anthropocentrism and basing on what grounds? 

This conference does not expect to come up with definitive answers to these questions but rather explore these issues in more detail.

That is also why the conference welcomes contributions from scholars working in various fields of non-anthropocentric theories that wish to engage with the juncture of politics and nonhumans: Ecology, Environmental Studies, Animal Studies, Transhumanism, Posthumanism, Neo-materialism, Philosophy of Technology, Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, Literary Theory, Literature, Visual and Performative Arts etc. It wishes to consider how ‘politics’ and ‘political subjects’ are conceptualized across different non-anthropocentric fields. The main purpose of this conference is then to bring together scholars interested in investigating the diverse ways of conceptualizing politics.

The conference will take place on 22–23 January 2016 at the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie in Hannover, Germany.

Please send your proposals (of no more than 500 words) as well as a brief biographical note (100 words) to Dr. Iwona Janicka at iwona.janicka[at]cantab.net by 15th October 2015 with the subject line: Nonhumans and Politics_Abstract_Your Name. Notifications will be sent out by 1st November 2015. Papers should not exceed 20 minutes in length and should be held in English.

"Bloodline", Doughnuts, and Muffins

Things that "Bloodline" has taught me about Florida:

  1. Internecine family drama is de rigueur
  2. Humidity rests at about 100% at all times
  3. Wearing linen is obligatory
  4. Wearing sunglasses on a lanyard around your neck is obligatory
  5. Murders - not OK; also obligatory

No, "Bloodline" is - funnily enough - not an advertorial put out by the Florida Tourist Board. (Sad face.) It's a super-moody family crime drama produced by Netflix. As is Netflix's style, God love 'em, all episodes of a series are released simultaneously, so you too can fall down the rabbit hole of suspense and thrill for hours/days on end binge-watching this top show. Profit from my troubling experience, though: do not mainline "Bloodline" whilst watching "Friday Night Lights"... For a while there, I got pretty confused at the lack of (American) football spirit in the former, and seemingly landlocked "Floridian" landscape in the latter. Don't judge me, it was - always, all the time - about 3am and Kyle Chandler acts in both series. Though you should, immediately, block out large swathes of your schedule to watch both shows all the way through. So. Worth. It.

      Mentioning Chandler's omnipresence permits me a pastry-themed tangent. (Honestly, guv'nor, it does.) In her 2002 novel, Faking It, Jennifer Crusie (one of my all-time favourite authors) sets out what I like to call "The Doughnut vs. Muffin Grand Theory of Men".  This is not a gross generalisation, obvs, but a consistent and coherent taxonomy for all menfolk everywhere. As one character, Nadine, puts it: 

Doughnuts are the guys that make you drool. They're gorgeous and crispy and covered with chocolate icing and you see one and you have to have it, and if you don't get it, you think about it all day and then you go back for it anyways because it's a doughnut. [...] But then the next morning, they're not crisp anymore, and the icing is all stuck to the bag, and they have watery stuff all over them, and they're icky and awful. You can't keep a doughnut overnight. [...] Muffins are for the long haul and they always taste good. They don't have that oh-my-God-I-have-to-have-that thing that the doughnuts have going for them, but you still want them the next morning. (pp. 161-63 from 2004 Pan Books edition)

In both "Bloodline" and "Friday Night Lights", Chandler clearly plays a Muffin. And, I think, much of the conflict in both series can be viewed through the lens of Doughnut vs. Muffin conceptions of masculinity, if we expand the categories a little. Beyond the framework of female desire Nadine explicitly sketches out to define the two types of man-pastry, I think that other ingredients come to light, amongst which: 

  • Muffin = a stayer; a family man; holds your hair when you puke over the toilet; reliable; respectful; a good sport, who plays for the game not the win; values his roots; expresses emotion, or at least tries to
  • Doughnut = a booty-call guest star; an adventurer who prioritises his own life story, needs and desires; won't buy you tampons; plays to win at any cost; probably not respectful of women, at least not all the time; a bro; potentially violent and/or sexually aggressive; emotionally detached

Basically, I view the Doughnut as more immersed in the foul soup of toxic masculinity (thanks, Patriarchy!), whilst the Muffin has been able to negotiate his role within patriarchal culture a little more. Personally, I think that makes Muffins entirely preferable to Doughnuts - and much more drool-worthy too. Anyway. Not all Muffins (or Doughnuts) are the same. In "Friday Night Lights", Chandler's Coach Taylor operates as a valorised blueprint for other men - he is at the vanguard of progression of masculine identity for his young male team-players and other men in the community. Whereas, in "Bloodline", being a Muffin ain't easy - nor is it necessarily idealised. In this show, we see the push-pull between the brothers Rayburn, John (played by Chandler; Muffin) and Danny (played by Ben Mendelsohn; Doughnut, albeit self-avowed Doughnut). What makes a Muffin frost himself up, thereby sliding into Doughnut category? Can a Doughnut ever be redeemed, packed full of oatmeal and delicious for days, not just a juicy one-night-bite? In "Bloodline", all is shades of grey - and there are no easy outs or stable identities, no matter how hard a Muffin might try.

       With all this in mind, I present to you below the opening credits of "Bloodline". For interested parties: the music is "The Water Lets You In" by Book of Fears. These are perhaps my favourite TV opening credits of all time. Foreboding, menacing, and evocative, they capture the overarching themes of the show, and the central concerns of the characters, without any simplistic fading in/out of an actor's face or scenes from the show itself. Grab yourself a pastry - muffin or doughnut, I throw no shade on whichever type you choose - and enjoy 74 majestic seconds of emotive imagery.

Internet Bibliography #4

Frankly, I don't have much to report this week. Or, I have lots to report and not the energy to do the reporting. You know those times of your life when you are so busy busy busy, but at the end of the day you can't really remember what's gone on, or where you are? Yeah, hello from that land. Land, I dub thee "Frenzilandia". Apparently, this is the (parallel universe) land where I have not foresworn kale or green smoothies. That feels like a confession I should have saved for an actual, proper, literal confessional booth. Anyway, think of me in the rolling green-smoothie-filled lands of Frenzilandia whilst you pore over the topnotch internet artefacts below. Enjoy!

- On medieval peen:

From Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526. Via Lucy Allen's blog post.

From Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526. Via Lucy Allen's blog post.

o   Just to be clear, by “peen”, yes, I do mean “penis”. Yes, medieval people had genitals too! Thanks to the glory of Twitter, and medievalist Gillian Kenny, I can present to you the medieval, wearable and whimsical version of modern-day dick pics. How about a fourteenth or fifteenth-century lead badge showing three humanoid phalluses carrying a vulva on a litter? Or a mid-fourteenth-century lead badge featuring a peen-on-legs bowing to a noble vulva-on-legs? Or – hold the phone! – an illustration of a fierce nun HARVESTING PEEN from a PEEN TREE, from a fourteenth-century French manuscript? Yup, that's the image above. Fabulous. If you fancy learning a bit more about the image, its female illustrator and the manuscript its in, check out a blog post by Lucy Allen.

 

- On images (not just of cute animals, promise):

o   On a particularly stressful day, I vented my tormented spleen to my dearest friend, a sterling and stalwart companion who I’ll call Mo. As ever, she was brilliant, providing sympathetic listening (i.e .agreeing wholeheartedly with my nebulous rant), a pep talk, and a link to some soothing and cute internet animals. Everybody needs a Mo on their speed dial. I’m passing on the love by sharing a link to Sheldon the Tiny Dinosaur, a web-comic about a tiny dinosaur who thinks he’s a turtle. Joy!

o   In the Guardian, Jess Cartner-Morley writes about the evolution of the Pirelli calendar since its beginning in 1964. The pin-up calendar, packed full of women half-naked to promote tyres (at least in theory), – has become a lauded artistic artefact, attracting top-flight models and photographers. Cartner-Morley sketches out the power dynamics (and negotiations) between ostensibly down-market low-class brand (Pirelli make tyres, after all) and goddesses of the runway, noting that:

Pirelli’s triumph is a masterclass in image management, one that leverages basic instincts in a sophisticated marketplace. Its power lies in the fact that being acknowledged as sexually attractive is a valuable asset to women in the public eye, whereas being seen as sexually available is demeaning. So the deal Pirelli strikes with photographers and models is that they get to be sexy, and Pirelli gets to be classy. 

. 5.19 tue "Sandbag" . 「今日はボクシングの日だジョー!」 .

A photo posted by Tatsuya Tanaka (@tanaka_tatsuya) on

o   Since 2011, Japanese artist-photographer Tatsuya Tanaka has posted a picture of miniature tableaux daily, featuring tiny human figures posed with banal household objects. (You can buy Tanaka’s coffee table book here.) The pictures are clean, witty, and intelligent – making the viewer rethink their relationship to the quotidian objects pictured, and recontextualise the objects themselves, teasing out alternate values for this regular stuff we all take for granted as “not-art”. I adore Tanaka’s mission statement, on the “About” page:

Everyone must have had similar thoughts at least once.
Broccoli and parsley might sometimes look like a forest, or the tree leaves floating on the surface of the water might sometimes look like little boats. Everyday occurrences seen from a pygmy’s perspective can bring us lots of fun thoughts.
I wanted to take this way of thinking and express it through photographs, so I started to put together a “MINIATURE CALENDAR” These photographs primarily depict diorama-style figures surrounded by daily necessaries.
Just like a standard daily calendar, the photos are updated daily on my website and SNS page, earning it the name of “MINIATURE CALENDAR”
It would be great if you could use it to add a little enjoyment to your everyday life.

- On women kicking ass and/or navigating life:

Jess Zimmerman postit.jpg

o   I shared a piece by Jess Zimmerman in my last Internet Bibliography, and am happy to have another incandescent article to share this time around. On Hazlitt, Zimmerman details her decision to leave her husband in 2012. It is - as we have come to expect from Zimmerman - an elegant, insightful and incisive piece, a meditation about what it is to be a woman in our society as much as it is about one specific woman’s hard and necessary choices. She writes:

It felt inexplicable. Sometimes I called it “my early midlife crisis.” Other times I called it “my nervous breakdown,” but in a tone that made it clear I was joking even though I also wasn’t. I often thought of those fungi that infest ants, take over their bodies, and make them march from the nest to wherever the fungus wants to go. Zombie ants.
But it wasn’t really inexplicable. It was, in fact, fairly mundane. What had happened was this: I realized that, like many women, I had made all the  decisions of my life on someone else’s behalf. I knew how to figure out other people’s expectations, and how to try to dodge their disappointment, and how to stay out of the way and not nag and not need things. I didn’t know what I actually wanted, at all.

In small, tidy caps, I’ve scrawled out my favourite line on a purple post-it put it up on  my wall (see the picture that above): ‘…nobody tells you the phoenix is born as a tender, featherless baby bird.’ Something to keep in mind when we go about this terrifying business of life.

o   Over at Metafilter, user dublin asks what she – as an established female engineer – should say to new female engineering students at university. Mefites, as ever, chime in with an array of useful content, and share some personal stories about navigating a traditionally male field. Useful and engaging resource for all female academics and all of us who interact with students.

o   In New York Magazine, Kerry Howley profiles female big-game hunter Rebecca Francis, shamed on Twitter by Ricky Gervais for happily posing with her latest kill, a magnificent giraffe. The story was published – somewhat unfortunately – shortly before reports emerged that American hunter-dentist Walter Palmer had shot and killed beloved Zimbabwean lion Cecil. This scheduling near-miss, however, doesn’t detract from the verve of the article, which teases out the various discomforts people have with Francis, the ways in which she herself views hunting, and the potential dichotomy of Francis’ approach to femininity. As an important bonus, read a series of tweets by Ijeoma Oluo unpacking the horrific absurdity of mass mourning for Cecil, swift justice planned for his killer compared to apathy and nonchalance in response to American people of colour. For example:

o   This month, Captain Kristen Griest and first lieutenant Shaye Have have become the first female army rangers in US military history. The testing to become a ranger is beyond brutal: Griest and Have deserve the highest respect, irrelevant of gender, for attaining ranger status. Nick Palmisciano – a West Point grad who went through Ranger School himself – presents his response to the Grist and Have’s achievement. It’s an interesting viewpoint into the way in which negative/misogynist views can and do shift when an individual is exposed to the reality of women in their (working) life. Whilst Palmisciano initially considered female soldiers weaker, less than their male counterparts at West Point, he quickly discovered that this is just not the case. Now, he trumpets his pride for the first female rangers, and concedes that they are, quite simply, tougher than him.

o   I am so jealous of Lacey Donohue. She had a killer idea for a reflective article for Jezebel: reviewing the story of her 20s life through the prism of Amazon purchases. Fantastic idea, really brilliant. Sigh. Anyway, Donohue remarks:

"Meet Danbo!" by Sally Crossthwaite. Via Flickr

"Meet Danbo!" by Sally Crossthwaite. Via Flickr

Our Amazon order histories are not versions of ourselves we share often, but they offer a rare glimpse into our gloriously messy and occasionally embarrassing life stories. In these orders, it’s easy to track life’s twists and turns: presents sent to names long deleted from our phones, boxes shipped to houses we’ll never see again, books sent to friends who have since passed away. A glance at all our purchases—every single one—tells a far more compelling story than any Facebook feed ever could.

I’m compelled to wander through my own Amazon order history, and see what it throws up about the past iterations of me. I suggest you do the same, so we can swap notes over a cheeky daiquiri (straight up, no ice).


- On trigger warnings:

o   In response to a series of articles by Kate Nonesuch discussing the use of trigger warnings in classrooms (1, 2), Mefite conspire offers an excellent, insightful piece of critique. They elucidate the misogyny inherent so frequently in push-back against trigger warnings, and analyse the rejection of such warnings more generally. For example:

One thing I've observed about the development of trigger warnings in the mainstream consciousness, is how much of it is wrapped up in misogyny and rape culture. Historically, the push for trigger warnings really originated with war veterans experiencing PTSD. As someone who frequently consults on accessibility, when I introduce trigger warnings in this context to people, no one really has any real objections to warning people that there might be gunshots or war scenes or blood - because hey, nationalism, we need to respect the folks who served our country. But veterans are not the only people who suffer from PTSD - the other really big demographic is women who have experienced rape or domestic violence. Yet, when we shift the dialogue from veterans to women, somehow trigger warnings become much more controversial.


- On disability issues:

"Portrait of a young boy holding a walking stick/cane (undated)" from pellethepoet. Via Flickr. I searched Flickr for "fashion walking stick" and this was the second result. Hahahahahaaaa

"Portrait of a young boy holding a walking stick/cane (undated)" from pellethepoet. Via Flickr. I searched Flickr for "fashion walking stick" and this was the second result. Hahahahahaaaa

o   Liz Jackson blogs at The Girl with the Purple Cane about her life as a cane-user, designing for disability with fashionable and functional styles, and experiences from her life. I whole-heartedly support her campaign to make US retailer J. Crew sell a fashionable cane in their stores, thereby destigmatising mobility devices in the public imagination and providing those who use canes with more decent, fun, stylish choices. I’m working through her archive, but my favourite post of hers, so far, is a breakdown of the real phenomenon of “Post-Traumatic Growth” – the positive (yes, really) consequence that can flow from traumatic life experiences.

o   As a sort of counterpoint, over on This Body is Not an Apology, Cara Liebowitz explains – with wit and verve – the massive problem of “inspiration porn” for those with disabilities. In essence, “inspiration porn” objectifies individuals with disabilities – they are viewed solely as a means for inspiring those without disabilities, who often coo and oooh over memes and images of the disabled “beating the odds”. Ick. Read Liebowitz’s piece and act accordingly please people.

Hours and Hours of Calming Bison (Honestly)

Public service announcement: do not take selfies with wild animals! Really, no! I'm a little surprised that there needs to be a PSA for this - but after all, I am a solid urbanite, and the kind of wildlife I see mostly amounts to yappy dogs in designer coats. In July, a woman was attacked by a bison at Yellowstone National Park in the States as she turned her back on the massive (horned) animal to pose for a selfie with it. Violent altercations between wild animals and human interlopers seeking Instagrammable selfies seems to be on the up, at least according to anecdata. If you want to take a nonchalant selfie with a bison - without the spectre of death unhelpfully moistening your selfie stick - why not play the video below, and pose in front of your laptop screen? It's almost like you are really there with the bison! Yeah, OK, I really am putting my personal stamp of recommendation onto a three-hour-plus video of bison grazing at Yellowstone. Nothing notable happens. There's no plot, no drama. It is utterly transfixing with its mesmeric power. Seriously, I have now seen this video a few times through - the whole way through. (Somebody might need to save me and charitably donate me a life one of these days, but hey.) The video works well as a soothing background to life, work, meditation, yoga, you name it. Also, you get to name all the special bison in your own little herd, and figure out which one you identify with most. Important stuff, to be sure. 

Em Ford - "You Look Disgusting"

Beauty blogger Em Ford has created one of the most effective videos on the horrors of body policing and noxious beauty standards that I've ever seen. Ford's short video amply demonstrates: 1) the power of make-up to shape others' opinions of you, and your own self esteem; 2) the overwhelming devastation possible through nonsensically pejorative online comments; 3) the inability to ever "win" in terms of female self-presentation. This is not just a great video, but a necessary one too.  Bonus: read insightful discussion of the video over on Metafilter - see in particular the heart-rending first-person testimonials from people who have acne and have faced a variety of public censure because of their skin.

Modern and Medieval Catholicism, Our Lady of Ta'Pinu and Santa Muerte

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

A focus point of devotion in the Lady of Ta'Pinu Shrine: the altar, and the Shrine's famous Marian image. Visiting shrines like this are the one and only kind of tourism I enjoy on holiday...

I am not good at tourism. Correction: I actively abhor tourism. I’m just not a fan of sweatily traipsing around over-crowded places, craning my neck to see “erudite stuff” obscured from view by crowds of eye-rollingly bored schoolchildren, getting lost in labyrinthine public institutions most likely haunted by a neo-Minotaur docent, and shoving over-priced stale sandwiches down my throat like a starved gannet for “lunch” on the go. Maybe I just do tourism wrong: this is probably true. Also, the bulk of my working life is spent reading, learning, thinking as precisely as possible about complex theories and problematics. Going to exhibitions and art showings and interesting film screenings is part of my research life, part of excavating cultural artefacts all around me to find their resonances with my specific research frameworks. So, on holiday, all I want to do is to channel my energies into actively not thinking: I want to kick back and go to the beach - I am very good at beaching - with a stack of really very silly books. My top recommendation for the latter is what are known in my house as the “sexy horsey books”, a series of well-written romance books by Bev Pettersen. No, “sexy horsey” does not point to any elegantly phrased tales of, shall we say, somewhat euphemistically, “paraphilic desire”. Pettersen immerses the reader into the world of serious horse training and jockey life, with well-drawn and thoughtful protagonists who have superb chemistry, propelling the romance plot along in fine style. Very much recommend, even if you aren’t very keen on horses. Horses as a species seem to have had a council meeting and decided unilaterally that they do not want me to be a rider…

      Anyway. Today’s post is not actually about tourism/holidays/horses, or not entirely. The only type of tourism that I enjoy is visiting religious institutions and saints’ shrines in lands afar, witnessing modern devotional practice and culture that so clearly relates to the medieval saints I have spent years working on and have come to love. In September 2011, I went on holiday to the Maltese island of Gozo, a sun-drenched rock which does a fine line in fish dinners, sandy beaches and Catholic basilicas. St. George’s Basilica in Victoria is a beautiful parish church, originally dating to at least the fifteenth century. It’s the kind of place that is so resplendent you sort of worry if you should be let in or not, yet it is still a hub of regular popular worship, as testified by their YouTube channel filled with videos of services. The juxtaposition of features I superficially ascribe in my imagination to medieval worship spaces evoked in hagiographic narratives – including intensely rich decorations and a tangible aura of sacrality– with modern worshippers going about their business, as they do on any given day of the week, really astounded me. This is the medieval/modern religiosity connection writ large. It also serves as an effective reminder that medieval churches were communal, public spaces – there to be filled with the flock, spaces of dynamic interchanges – just as in St. George’s today. This is something I tend to forget, or let fall by the wayside, as I consider the descriptions of churches and religious services in narratives I study, as it is so different to my own reality. 

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr. No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"Dome of St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr. No, I can't believe I didn't take my own pictures of the Basilica either.

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr

"St George's Basilica" by Michael Caroe Andersen. Via Flickr

      Though St. George’s was utterly lovely, I was most excited about visiting another basilica on the island, the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’Pinu in Għarb, given my immense interest in pre-modern female devotion. My holiday-mates were very gracious, and let me do my “medieval-religious-detective” thing for a few glorious hours. The gallery below features some of the many, many, (perhaps too many) photographs I took during my visit. The exact origins of the Shrine are unknown, but it is first described in writing in the sixteenth century. (For a potted history of the site, see the relevant page on the Shrine’s website. See also Mrg. Nicholas J Cauchi's slim volume, Ta'Pinu Shrine: The Pilgrims' Haven, published by the Shrine in 2008.) Though the Shrine had a long history as a site of Marian devotion, events in the summer of 1883 ultimately increased its fame as a particularly holy site. Two villagers, Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli, frequently heard the voice of the Virgin Mary calling them into the chapel to pray in separate mystical incidents. Further, Portelli's mother was afflicted by a deleterious illness at the time, but achieved a miraculous cure after her sons (Franġisk and Nikol) paid special reverence to Our Lady of Ta'Pinu, and kept a lamp lit in front of her altar at all times. These events established the Ta'Pinu Mary as a potent miracle-worker and very effective intercessor with the divine. Throughout this post, I'll use "Ta'Pinu" to refer to the specific construction of the Virgin Mary worshipped at the Shrine.

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

Offerings for Ta'Pinu cover every inch of space in a side-room off the chapel

      The basilica (including a chapel, newer sanctuary, and museum) is, as you might imagine, fantastically opulent, crammed with beautiful stained glass, images, niches, candles and on and on. What grabbed me the most, though, were the countless modern artefacts and letters given up to Ta’Pinu as votive tokens (ex-votos), either in the hopes of receiving healing miracles or as a form of payment for the reception of Ta’Pinu’s grace. These objects cover the walls in a kind of hopeful collage of piety in rooms adjacent to the chapel itself. Walking through these spaces feels a bit like going to a bric-a-brac table sale, but with each offering – however innocuous or banal – imbued with profound personal and spiritual meaning. Plaster casts, browned Polaroids, orthopaedic screws, baby blankets, scrawled notes, chopped-off hair braids, bent bicycle wheels, typed letters, dented crash helmets, rosaries, crisp white Christening gowns. Perhaps the meaning or such mementos is not just personal and spiritual, but rather personal-spiritual. These are tangible objects which relate directly to a given believer’s highly specific experiences: subject-specific vessels of faith. The orthopaedic screws, for example, are spiritual for one believer as they come from their own body, a difficult surgery with a successful outcome thanks to prayers delivered to Ta’Pinu. Such screws would mean nothing to the believer petitioning Ta’Pinu for the successful delivery of a baby. Instead, she offers up a Christening gown, a tangible manifestation that the holy virgin came through for her and allowed her baby to thrive.  A sample of photographs capturing the mementos are below - for more, and for the gallery showing my trip to Ta'Pinu, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

      Browsing through the halls of such personal-spiritual tokens, you’re struck by the evidence of Ta’Pinu’s efficacy in responding with grace to her devotees’ calls. This is substantiated further as visitors to the basilica are invited to offer up a specific prayer to Ta’Pinu, which is printed in various languages in framed prints near the altar. Visitors are also invited to petition Ta’Pinu by writing their prayers in a sort of “prayer pro-forma”, to be sealed in the supplied envelope, and deposited in baskets by the altar. You can also submit petitions to the holy woman online, via a web form. The Shrine also offers webcams for attendance at Mass and visiting the chapel from the comfort of your own home, though I couldn’t make either stream play when I last tried. Nevertheless, I’m delighted by the Shrine’s conscious interfacing with the digital world. It represents, to me, a means of expanding the intercessory capacity of Ta’Pinu ever onwards, and suggests an (anticipated) popularity for her cult. Moreover, leaning into the digital world suggests a response to the evolving lifestyles and associated needs of believers. Rather than excluding those who might wish to visit or call upon Ta’Pinu, the Shrine has developed its offering of rites and rituals to speak to the needs of a geographically dislocated – or simply busy – flock.

      In 1998 a church dedicated to Ta’Pinu was opened in Bacchus Marsh, a site about 50km outside Melbourne, Australia, with the chapel being a replica of the original chapel in Gozo. For a brief history of devotion to Ta’Pinu in Australia, see here. See also Paul Harris’ short documentary film about the Australian site, below. As with the Gozitan Ta’Pinu Shrine, the Australian Shrine allows individuals to engage with the holy virgin online: by submitting prayers, requesting masses, and requesting candles be lit. It’s hard to avoid noticing, though, that the Australian site suggests monetary donations when you submit your prayer or mass requests and a flat-fee of $7 for lighting a candle. The prominence of such financial requests reflects, perhaps, the Australian church’s status as a relatively newly founded institution, in need of all the support it can get to equip its building and develop its ministry. In any case, the institution of the Australian Shrine, and its digital offerings, speak once more to an attempt to respond actively to the emerging needs of believers. It is an “All Nations Marian Centre”, and used by a variety of community groups from different ethnic backgrounds as a hub for Marian devotion, of which reverence of Ta’Pinu is just one form. In her Australian incarnation, then, Ta’Pinu represents the multiplicity of ways a believer can access the Virgin Mary, and relate to Her in ways that a believer feels fits their personal outlook and cultural heritage.

      Why do I love visiting places of worship like Ta’Pinu? Why have I shared the pictures here? I think the photographed artefacts are, above all, interesting, and resonate with a kind of beauty inspired by the fervent hopes and faith that believers have poured into these tangible vessels of the banal horrors of everyday life. Additionally, I offer the pictures as a window into modern Catholic worship culture. By gazing through this window, I believe medievalists can better do the work of investigating medieval religion. I’m a scholar of medieval religious culture, but I work in a predominantly – almost entirely – secular environment. Exposing myself to modern Catholic praxes can be eye-opening. Rites and rituals that sometimes feel overwhelmingly distanced, that could somehow only take place in medieval hagiographies or religious narratives, can and do exist in various forms in modern Catholic worship, re-modulated to greater and lesser degrees to fit contemporary worship preferences, doctrines, and styles. And so, as I wend my way around modern spaces of devotion, my eyes grow ever wider and my mind becomes ever more blown.

      The medieval saints and worship praxes I study are relics of the most potent kind: productive and animated artefacts which continue to exert power in the world, though they may be – technically, superficially – dead and gone. I’m not saying that there is a singular form of worship which exists, unchanged, from the medieval to the modern period. Rather, that there are demonstrable similarities between medieval and modern worship forms. Instead of bracketing of the modern from the medieval, I think looking at the modern iterations of worship can allow us to better understand and contextualise pre-modern religion, and the pre-modern era more generally. How did medieval believers react in this or that way to a given social/political/geographical/ideological event horizon? Moreover, I believe that we can better unpack the ways in which medieval believers responded to the Church – by reshaping their practices, exerting their own choices for where to put their faith in holy individuals – if we look at the ways in which modern believers do the same.

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via Flickr. A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

"Dia de los Muertes" - Jesse Means. Via Flickr. A large Santa Muerte atop the public altar on the Day of the Dead in Seattle, 2010

     Undoubtedly, specific circumstances mould religious praxes, be they social, political, geographical or so on. Catholicism, medieval and modern, is not monolithic. Frankly, I wish I could speak Maltese so I could dig into sources on Ta'Pinu which reveal the significance of this representation of the Virgin Mary to the people of Gozo, and Malta more generally. Another example will have to suffice for now: the rise of devotion to Santa Muerte (“Saint Death” in Spanish) in Mexico, parts of the USA, Central America and further afield. Over the past few years, a stream of articles have been published shedding light on this “new” saint: see Antonia Blumberg for The Huffington Post online; Steven Gray for TIME online; Evgeny Lebedev for GQ online; Carmin Sessin for NBC News online. In 2012, Oxford University Press released R. Andrew Chesnut’s Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint, the first academic depth study of the saint. (My summary of Santa Muerte, below, is taken from these sources.)

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via Flickr. A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

"Santa Muerte 20100601 002" by Jim Hobbs. Via Flickr. A "backyard shrine" to Santa Muerte in the photographer's neighbourhood

      Santa Muerte is a female personification of death, a Mexican folk saint with her roots in ancient beliefs about and reverence for death. Though denounced by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte clearly encapsulates identifiable elements of Catholic practice– e.g. as a saintly intercessory figure with shrines as epicentres of worship, identifiable by specific iconography. Santa Muerte has been taken up, in particular, by people to whom the Church has not, or cannot, adequately cater: the poor, criminals, and the LGBT community. The Church has not fought to tackle poverty with enough vigour; cannot answer criminals’ prayers which relate to illegal and immoral behaviours; and has excluded LGBT believers from fellowship and sacraments. What’s more, for people living in communities torn apart by drug and gang violence, Santa Muerte seems to be the ideal choice. As Lebedev remarks: “Because people might die at any moment, they have begun to worship Death, since they believe this might at least give them some protection.”

      Whilst there is only one pontiff and a series of authorised ecclesiastical precepts, believers still customise their own religious experiences in various ways. Doctrine, after all, has always been questioned, debated, reformulated. The laity has always managed to express their religiosity in views not necessarily fully palatable to the Church. Santa Muerte is a modern iteration of this phenomenon, but the medieval era is full of religious narratives in which believers try to figure out their religion on their own terms. I’m thinking, here, particularly of the ways in which many medieval holy men and women we study now a “saints” were never actually canonised – but rather, they were taken up as sacred figures by devotees in their locale and beyond. This was the case for the corpus of extraordinarily pious thirteenth-century women I analysed for my PhD: none of the “Holy Women of Liège” ever received the official approbation from the Church in the form of canonisation, but were certainly held up as saints in various ways by their communities. No religion is made up solely of official doctrine: lay believers also play a highly significant role in constructing specific iterations of their own religion, which may just skirt the transgressive bounds of outright heterodoxy. What I’m interested in then, is recognising – and ultimately disentangling – the power dynamics at play in religious worship between the constellation of the Church (officialdom), God (that in which we have faith), and the believer herself. We can best do this work, I think, by casting our eye at both ends of the temporal divide: by recognising that worship forms are in the process of continual renegotiation in a given moment and across time. 

 

Gallery of Images from Visit to Ta'Pinu Shrine, Gozo - September 2011

NB Images are in order of my travel "through" the Shrine: exterior gardens and statuary (including statues of Karmni Grima and Franġisk Portelli); Shrine exterior; ornamentation and religious artefacts inside the Shrine; tokens left for Ta'Pinu by those seeking intercession