Medieval Saints and Modern Screens - Out this October

The Amsterdam University Press (AUP) catalogue has just arrived, featuring books that will appear this autumn, Most thrillingly, my book (mah booke) is nestled in the catalogue pages - just check out p. 12, I write nonchalantly. The catalogue is stuffed with so many gems, it's rather dizzying to be in such fine company.  And it's immensely satisfying to see that my first book is not just a figment of my fevered imagination, but is in fact really real and will be a tangible (stroke-able) book object in just a few months' time. This October, then, will be the end of an era. I first started work on stuff that's ended up in the book way back in 2010, at the start of my PhD. Seven years' thinking, give or take, have coalesced into the niftily portable format of an academic monograph. At some point, I will probably post a precis of the book, a summary of my key arguments or such like. But until then, I am basking in the glorious fact of its done-ness, and simply sharing the first proof of the endeavour with the AUP catalogue below. Enjoy!

Resource of the Week: "Visualizing Chaucer"

It me. Finishing mah booke. 

It me. Finishing mah booke. 

I've meant to write about this for a while, but time's short and so forth. Plus I'm in the final stages of getting my book out (or mah booke as it's known in my house), so this will have to be short and sweet.  You, and everyone you know, should head on over to "Visualizing Chaucer", a digital project by the Robbins Library (University of Rochester, New York), created and developed by Kara L McShane. It's a repository of images used to illustrate Chaucer over the years, ranging from the seventeenth- to the twenty-first century. The image collection is accompanied by an extensive (and often hyperlinked) bibliography of illustrated editions of Chaucer. By clicking on a hyperlinked entry, of which there are many, you can jump straight to the given work and browse through its visual content, if available. Nice. 

Animated gif, feat Paul Bettany as Chaucer, in A Knight's Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

Animated gif, feat Paul Bettany as Chaucer, in A Knight's Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

I blogged recently with breathless exultation about Michael John Goodman's "Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive", and the way in which the database enables us to discern the ways in which the Victorians (re)interpreted Shakespeare, his work, and indeed the entire early modern period itself. "Visualizing Chaucer" operates in much the same way, but with a broader historical stroke and literary focus: as a means to identify the different ways in which postmedieval readers were presented with Chaucer's works, thus allowing us to deduce the ways in which the canonical medieval texts have been (re)imagined throughout the centuries. This lets us make out the ways in which the notion of the "medieval" itself has been processed and refashioned in different temporal eras, as the illustrations reflect a popularly circulating image of medieval characters, objects, and motifs. Somewhat predictably, I'm glad that filmic depictions of Chaucer are also included in the database, notably stills from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 film I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales). More cinematic entries would certainly be welcome, but there is an annotated Chaucer filmography on offer if you dig around. 

The database is not the most user-friendly to navigate, sadly. I can't find a chronological filter, for example, which would help sort images based on when they were produced. And some areas need more work, which I assume is in progress. For instance, the filter for "images and motifs" currently only returns one: pilgrimage. But the character-level search is much more filled out, and searching via "artists and images" produces tons of results. These are the two query frameworks I suggest you consult first. ( "Authors and texts" confuses me, I admit: it seems to link to pages in which a given work has been transcribed online (great!) but doesn't return image-specific stuff?) I'd also like some explicit guidance regarding the copyright status of the images in the repository. Can they be re-used, re-blogged, or inserted in papers without issue? Are they governed by a Creative Commons license? Enquiring minds want to know! Nevertheless, "Visualizing Chaucer" is most definitely worth your perusal, and a useful addition to the teaching and learning arsenal.  

Video Resuscitates the Manuscript Star: Medieval Literary Texts in Performance

There are some things that bond people together, that create a feeling of intense camaraderie. Surviving a trauma together knits invisible strands between individuals, a web of kinship that promises to endure. I am not talking about war, no siree. I am talking about the trauma of shared and acute awkwardness. This is the kind of social discomfort in which you have to brainwash yourself that this is all an elaborate dream from which you will awake. Or the floor will definitely be caving in, any minute now, so you can disappear without a trace. This, my friend, is the horror of being a shy lit student and having to perform - in front of other people! - the text which you thought, naively, you'd just be sitting around and discussing with other reticent book nerds. The only upside is that snaking bond fabricated by shared horror that now, suddenly, binds you to your fellow reticent actors. You are, if only for a moment, Team Awkward.

OK, so perhaps this is not actually a universal experience. But it is one I have gone through a few times, from A-level English lit to undergrad medieval French. Flashback: declaiming Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' whilst everyone in the class avoids eye contact. Flashback: desperately trying to make it through a seminar read-along of the filthy fabliaux without melting into a puddle of shame giggles. As you might have gathered, I'm a fan of reading by nature, and not of performing per se. It's like all my cultural Britishness - that stereotype of being shy, retiring, polite - is channelled into this one area. But these kinds of performances are actually really important, and very useful teaching moments - and not as some kind of medievalist hazing ritual. Rather, they shake up the way we, as citizens of the modern era, approach medieval narratives, and open the texts themselves up for greater contextual understanding. The overwhelming awkwardness I (used to) feel in performing medieval works lies in the disjuncture between how I expected to be interacting with the texts (safe, silent, solo reading) and how I was compelled to interact with them in a more authentic medieval context. 

The thing is, our convention of identifying "literary texts" as predominantly "things to be read (silently alone)" - as opposed to say, "plays" which are principally "to be performed as a group, to an audience of some kind" - is just that, a convention. J. A. Burrow sketches the very different medieval convention(s): 

People in the Middle Ages commonly treated books rather as musical scores are treated today. The normal thing to do with a written literary text, that is, was to perform it, by reading or chanting it aloud. Reading was a kind of performance. Even solitary readers, especially when confronted with unfamiliar or difficult forms of script, will often have needed to spell words out in an undertone – performing texts to themselves, as it were – and reading was not solitary. The performance of a text was most often a social occasion. (Medieval Writers, p. 49)

Of course, there's lots of granularity possible here - different kinds of medieval reading possible according to different factors, including who is doing the reading - but Burrow captures the gist of the situation.* Burrow is also on point when they note that

Undoubtedly the best way to realize almost any medieval text, prose or especially verse, is to read it aloud or hear it read. […] [Medieval] writers composed most often for the performing voice – speaking, intoning, chanting, or singing - and the expressive effects which they contrived tended in consequence to be boldly and emphatically shaped for the voice to convey to the ear. (ibid., pp. 49-50)

So what I'm saying is, being on Team Awkward is actually a sign of being on Team More Authentically Medieval, and thus - obviously - Team Awesome. 

But, wait! You don't necessarily have to endure the embarrassment-fuelled self-immolation of public performance to join Team Awesome! Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University) is the leading force behind a whole suite of resources to enable students, scholars, and all interested parties to get to grips with the performative nature of medieval texts. Thanks to Vitz and various collaborators, we now have:

Each site hosts nicely produced videos of dramatic performances of medieval literary works, whether in English translation or original medieval language. Below, I've worked up an overview of each resource - and embedded or linked to my current top pick from their video offerings - to give a (useful) feel of how each might be used in teaching and research. 

The videos on the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel have a very 1990s Calvin Klein-ad vibe, albeit with more modestly clothed actors. They're all shot in dramatic black and white, and run mostly to around 2 minutes. The short run times means they can be easily inserted at relevant points in lectures and so forth without taking up too much space, but also mean the ground the videos cover is understandably limited. All performances seem to be from modern translations, which means they are very accessible and showcase the dramatic potency of the texts, or a specific plot point you might want students to really take on board. On the other hand, they don't convey the linguistic and sonic richness of the original works. My favourite clip, so far, is James Swanson's rendition of an excerpt from Margery Kempe's Book which really highlights the tension between Margery's roles of dutiful, obedient wife and pious holy woman.  

James Swanson performing an excerpt from chapter 11 of The Book of Margery Kempe, from the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel.

The Arthurian Legend in Performance Vimeo channel does exactly what is says on the tin. Here, you'll find 20 videos of performances of material relating to King Arthur, his kingdom, and his knights. The production is a bit rougher for these clips, but that doesn't cause any significant issues. Overall, the videos are a bit longer than for the Medieval Tales in Performance series, running from about a minute to fifteen minutes in length. What I adore about this channel, though, is that there are a fair few in original languages, including Middle English (e.g.), Hebrew (e.g.). Byzantine Greek (e.g.), and Medieval Latin (e.g.). Shout-outs also go to videos which feature performances in modern English with medieval language subtitles, and vice versa:

These subtitled videos are incredibly helpful tools to allow students to engage with the "scary" and "difficult" linguistic forms of the Middle Ages, whilst also developing knowledge of plot, and the nature of medieval textual performance itself. Have a look, for instance, at the Lanval video, which I particularly like because a harpist chimes in on the performance, amplifying the fairy-supernatural ambiance of the selected excerpt. For videos which really demonstrate the social, joyful, performative character of medieval works, though, I have to recommend the performances by Linda Marie Zaerr, in which she - for want of a better phrase - works it, and works it hard, with her full-body multi-modal representation of the story, accompanied by music she plays on a vielle:

Due to the privacy settings of the videos, hosted on Vimeo, I can't embed any directly here, which is not an obstacle to their usage but something worth noting. 

I have saved the best for last. Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase is truly wondrous. The Showcase's mission statement cuts to the heart of the significance of performance in the medieval textual context:

This site focuses exclusively on the performance of narrative, as broadly defined. While many recordings and websites are devoted to medieval music and drama, the performance of medieval narrative is now beginning to be appreciated as an important fact. Modern performers and scholars have long recognized that medieval plays were intended to be played and lyric poems were meant to be sung. Yet medieval epics were likewise typically sung with instrumental accompaniment, verse romances were often recited and even acted out from memory, and fabliaux and other tales were performed by minstrels and other entertainers. Public reading of stories to assembled audiences also became an important performance mode. But private, silent reading, which is the norm today, was extremely rare in the Middle Ages. In short, medieval narratives were created and intended to be performed. Their “performability” was, and remains, part of their fundamental character, affecting in significant ways audience response. This site aims to make these works live again in performance.

From my point of view, the site succeeds. Video resuscitates the manuscript star.** For example, in a clip from the end of Chaucer's Wife of Bath - performed in Middle English - the performer, student Evan Wilson, voices all characters, gleefully switching between roles (and tones) with agility. The scene is enhanced by the audible laughter of the audience, reminding the viewer once more of the social nature of reading, and bringing to the fore the humour of the piece.  Each video also works as a springboard for students to learn more, due to a comprehensive yet concise aparatus.

Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of mednar.org, 17 February 2017.

Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of mednar.org, 17 February 2017.

The Showcase's linguistic strength is definitely in modern English translations, currently with 223 videos, whilst only a light smattering of stuff performed in the original language (e.g. the next most plentiful linguistic groups are Middle English (8 clips) and Old French (5 clips)). Nevertheless, what the Showcase lacks in original language performance, it makes up for in the huge amount of texts which are represented - over fifty works, including many of the mainstays of generalist European medieval studies courses - and the fact that they are so very easy to find. One of the site's real assets is the fact that it is incredibly well organised, with a very intuitive and user-friendly "find performances" function (see Fig 1). You can drill down either in terms of the performances themselves - e.g. by type of performance, kind of musical instrument, or location - or by the type of original work you want to see performed, including searching by genre, period, and language. Also available on the website is a generous bibliography of scholarship on medieval text and performance. This is a boon for those wanting to put the modern productions into historical context, not to mention a good primer for undergrads and/or those of us writing syllabi for undergrads...  

I also appreciate the "teaching tips" section, which emphasises the ways in which incorporating performance into studies of medieval literature enhances the learning experience and contributes to better learning outcomes. Basically, being forced to perform literary medieval texts makes students much more intimately engaged with the material. They read the texts more attentively, they become more passionate about them, and they appreciate with far greater insight the context in which medieval texts were produced and consumed. The suggestions for using the Showcase itself as a productive teaching tool is great, guiding teachers away from chucking in video clips to add a bit of audiovisual sexiness, but not really profiting fully from what such clips can teach us about medieval literary culture. I'll be taking the advice very much to heart for my own teaching, I must say. 

I started this post whining overly dramatically about my unease at being tasked with performing medieval texts during my studies. It would be nifty, I guess, if I wrapped up by proclaiming some major internal shift on performance and attendant perceived awkwardness on my part. Alas, no: the thought still provokes a shuddering eye roll, if not filling me with dread exactly. But learning more about performance is a really important aspect of getting to grips with medieval literature, and understanding the context in which works were written and consumed.

So, I dedicate this post to my fellow awkward book nerds. We too can be part of Team More Authentically Medieval (AKA Team Awesome), and encourage our students to join the party too, by watching videos of the kind described above, and incorporating them whenever possible into our teaching. Pay homage to the brave and enthusiastic performers who have sacrificed their social comfort on the glorious altar of medieval studies! Respect the fact that for many performing is just fun and exciting. (I know, unfathomable to me in many ways too, but it is true.) And by making performance a part of our teaching programme, we will get to witness our students inhabit with gusto the narratives to which we direct their scant attention. Maybe, just maybe, we'll join in too? Hmmm.

 

* For a rapid, accessible overview of various modes of reading in the Middle Ages, see these webpages by Dr Dianne Tillotson. The standard guide to historically shifting reading conventions is Alberto Manguel's History of Reading. Manguel's chapter on silent reading in the pre-modern era is transcribed online here ('The Silent Readers', pp.42-53 of the 1996 edition published by Viking in New York).

** If you don't get the dated reference to a 1970s synth-pop band's cult one-hit wonder here and in the post title, please see here and get comprehensively educated. I am sorry for the earworm, so very sorry. 

 

Hardcopy references

Burrow, J. A., Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008) (Google books)

Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1996)

Playing All, Or Not, As The Case May Be: DVD Boxsets, Irrational Rage, and the "Play All" Function

I did not have a good birthday. The lurghy got me, and it got me bad. I started to refer to myself as "The Plague Ship". I wore the same comfort kaftan for a disturbingly long time. And I had a shawl perma-swaddled around me to stave off assorted noxious "draughts". This was not a drill. This was action stations for comfort and cheer. So I did what anyone would do in such a situation: I ordered myself over a metre of audio-visual content on Black Friday. Yep, I measured the fruits of my feverish, and clearly productive, stabs at the Amazon webpage not in terms of total cost -- alarmingly cheap! thanks neo-liberal capitalism! -- but in the total length of DVD Boxsets I had procured, when laying them side by side. It was glorious. So. Much. To. Watch. I could sit down, and just "play all" to my heart's content, or so I thought. 

Bear with me, this context is important. Because it turns out that I have basically seen All Of The Televisual Things, I ended up buying stuff that was a bit older than my usual fare or a bit left of centre to my usual viewing tastes. Some of it I'd watched at least partially in its original run: Frasier (1993-2004); Murder One (1995-1997); Ally McBeal (1997-2002). Others looked gung-ho silly enough (JAG, 1995-2005), whimsical enough (Northern Exposure, 1990-1995), or were eminently consumable procedurals to have on in the background whilst actually attending to the business of life (NCIS, 2003-present).  First, some viewer notes:

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. (Frasier)

Niles Crane, applauding like a pro: it's all about the mixture of contempt, envy, and judgement. (Frasier)

  • Frasier - clearly inaccurately titled. Should obviously be called Niles, who is the best thing ever. Yes, I am glazing over consciously how deeply creepy his "love" for Daphne is for many seasons before they hook up. Also, deep dislike for Daphne's terrible fatty storyline. Props for showing that older people have relationships - and sex! - too. My hat is off to Martin, I would have thrown myself off the balcony instead of living with odious Frasier. 
  • Murder One - I remember watching snatches of this whilst pretending to sleep when my Mum was watching it. It seemed Very Serious and Dramatic. It is deliciously 90s, and pretty solid (at least season 1). Picture boxy suits and hair scrunchies. 
Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. (Ally McBeal)

Ling Woo being, well, Ling Woo. (Ally McBeal)

  • Ally McBeal - this was iconic in my youth. One girl I knew at school changed the way she parted her hair to look more like Ally. This was a big decision and life choice at the time. Do not return to things that were iconic in your youth if they are called Ally McBeal. Ye gods. Apart from Lucy Liu as Ling, who gets a pass as she is clearly amazing.
  • JAG - created explicitly as a mash-up of Top Gun and A Few Good Men, so obviously rife with homoerotic possibilities. Dripping with Rah Rah Americah! sentiment, and embedded in a framework created by the Cold War and first Gulf War, it is camp as all get out. Like Navy MacGyver.  Completely throw-away, but fine. 
  • NCIS (box-set of seasons 1-5 only) - spin-off of JAG. I hate every character. Every single one. Mostly because I think they are all completely two-dimensional, e.g. Gibbs (stone); DiNozzo (misogynist pig); Ducky (English); Abby (imprisoned in a lab for crimes against goth); McGee (milquetoast). Do not get me started on Todd. Todd is played by Sasha Alexander. Why is Maura Isles lowering herself to consort with these Navy nobodies??? Where is Rizzoli??? What is happening??
  • Northern Exposure - my sister had the soundtrack back in the day. It's set in Alaska. I have watched all of Ice Road Truckers, so I have already bought into the snow-drama concept. However, I have as yet only seen two episodes of Northern Exposure, as the "plot" is thus far so slow moving that I always fall asleep. Needs more trucks and logistical crises?

Clearly I had a lot of #feelings about all these shows, and a lot of varied #feelings at that. But one thing united them all: their DVD format inspired a bone-deep excoriating irritation in me. Why? None possessed a "play all" episodes feature. Whilst I've obviously still got some way to go to work through my rage productively, I'm far enough past my flaming zenith to notice the wider signification of that. In a weird way, these boxsets - and the flaws I perceive in their feature set-ups - offer an implicit, capsule history of both technological development and the evolution in audience preferences and spectatorship styles.

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled: "Projet 365 - 054/365. Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

A VHS cassette, with internal magnetic tape unfurled: "Projet 365 - 054/365. Old tape" - Nicolas Buffler. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

I grew up with the VHS format, a now obsolete format using cassettes of magnetic tape for storing films and taping stuff of the TV. It took forever to interact with the cassette itself - make it fast forward, or rewind, say. And "rewind" was literal - the tape had to be physically re-spooled by your VHS machine to get it back to a desired point. This was a pain. So much so that the now-defunct video rental chain Blockbuster emblazoned their cassettes with the phrase "Be kind rewind". This maxim urged renters to do the annoying work of hitting "rewind" on their machines before returning the tape to the store. Otherwise, store-workers or new renters would have to do it themselves, because the tape did not automatically start at the beginning whenever you put it into the machine. 

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

"Blockbuster Video" - Thomas Hawk. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0

It caused a kind of splinter-like annoyance, an obviously first-world problem that nevertheless highlights some of the frustrations associated with the VHS format. You excitedly rent a new VHS from Blockbuster, sit down to watch it, and press play - only to find that the last viewers left it right at the end, so the credits are scrolling, and it'll take you (what feels like) an inordinate amount of time to rewind the damn thing to the start of the movie. Or the last guys wanted to re-watch a pivotal scene, so when you hit play you're stuck half-way through the film, spoilers a-go-go. The lumbering VHS format meant that the technology itself predisposed you to "play all" - to let the cassette do it's thing, rather than flip between sections of a film or TV show. 

"DVD" - papanooms. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

"DVD" - papanooms. Via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Then comes DVDs in the late 1990s, wheeeee! These shiny little discs are amazing, not just because they're so much smaller than VHS cassettes. Interacting with the film - fast-forwarding or (now non-literal) rewinding - is so much easier. And you don't even have to "rewind" a DVD when you finish the movie: it just automatically re-starts at the beginning. Film "chapters" are introduced too, which splits up the film into easily-navigable chunks of narrative action. Now, viewers no longer have to "play all" - put up with a clunky viewing mode or deal with the hassles of trying to make VHS do what you want. Instead, the DVD format offers more spectatorial power, as viewers can flit about the DVD content as much as they'd like. This is a positive thing, right? Absolutely for film viewing. And the ability for viewers to easily select different units of content - episodes - meant DVDs seemed extraordinarily suited to distributing TV shows, given DVDs could hold multiple episodes of a given series. And perhaps that was indeed true for a while, and still is for a few people. But the potential of the DVD format provoked a new kind of engagement with TV: binge-watching. (The eagle-eyed amongst you will already have cottoned on to the fact that my preponderous usage of gifs - endlessly looping video clips - to illustrate this post is a conscious decision to reflect the binge-watching format and experience. Also, I <3 gifs.)

Nehahalol Animated GIF. Dimensions: 640x640. Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Nehahalol Animated GIF. Dimensions: 640x640. Size: 553KB. Frames: 61

Dafydd Wood summarises the impact of the introduction of the DVD format:

This technological development literally changed the way we watch television, weakening the importance of airing in a particular spot on a particular day. The DVD could contain multiple episodes and could be set to play all episodes in quick succession. This facilitated a radical change in the consumption of television, the most significant development in the history of the medium. Viewers could now sit down and consume a vast amount of a show over an extended period and on their own terms not according to real-time scheduling. The emergence of streaming services which could make multiple seasons of a series available instantaneously only solidified marathon viewing as a common cultural experience: Netflix and Hulu now release entire seasons of their own programming at the same time. ('Flies', p. 13)

Playing episodes sequentially by navigating through DVD menus introduces the viewer to the delights of binge-watching, creating a new kind of independent - and hungry - TV audience. With the introduction of the slick "play all" feature, binge-watching becomes de rigueur, normalised further by the DVD feature-set itself. The "play all" feature delivers on the smooth effortless binge-watching experience with which earlier DVDs tantalised the audience. The latter were stuffed with TV episodes, but provided only a staccato spectatorial experience, punctuated by viewer navigation through DVD menu hierarchies.  

Vidme Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270 Size: 2198KB. Frames: 84.

Vidme Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270
Size: 2198KB. Frames: 84.

There's a certain nostalgia for the dear, departed VHS format here, and a shadow of the pre-digital TV broadcast landscape too. One of the chief characteristics of the VHS is its rigidity, a compulsion to linearity: you put the tape in the machine, press play, and let it play itself out. With early TV, you had a very limited array of channels, from which you got served whatever they wanted to serve you, at whatever time the TV execs decided. An analogous experience is offered by the DVD "play all" - you make the initial selection of a given TV series or specific DVD, and "playing all" lets you slip back under the comfortable blanket of spectatorial passivity. It's just better than before: now you get to choose from a far wider array of audiovisual content the stuff that gets served at your eyeballs seemingly "outside of your control".  

In a thread on the online DVDTalk forum devoted to a discussion of the "play all" function, and why it's not present on all DVDs, one user, "120inna55", comments: 

I admit that I love the 'play all' function. I like to go to sleep to TV shows on DVD. (i.e. Simpsons, Seinfeld, Family Guy, even episodes of Homicide that I've seen several times before). Be it a good habit or not, I grew up with a televison playing constantly in my bedroom, even while I was sleeping. When VHS came along, I had tapes crammed with 6-8 hrs of favorite movies and television shows to which I could go to sleep. There was (is) something comforting about waking in the middle of the night to a familiar televison show. The 'play all' function is a must for such practice. [...]

The DVD "play all" feature is cast here not as as facilitating a decisive break from past viewing habits, as media chatter about the binge-watching "shift" - or Wood's "radical shift" quoted above - would suggest. Instead, the "play all" innovation acts as a means by which the viewer re-positions herself in the soothing embrace of a consciously passive viewing position, otherwise disrupted by choppy DVD menus.  

The first DVD TV boxsets were released in 2000, with the release of the first series of popular shows The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Sex and the City. 120inna55's comment quoted above was posted in 2005 (14/03/05 to be precise), shortly after the thread itself was started. In other words, DVD producers had not yet cottoned on to the ongoing shift in audience viewing habits. It had not yet become utterly standard for TV boxsets to have a "play all" feature. And what we witness in the DVDTalk forum is viewers negotiating the mismatch of audience expectation with DVD function. This is precisely what I am experiencing when I shake my fist in impotent and irrational anger at the foreclosed option of "playing all" which all these DVD boxsets deny me.

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270. Size: 2398KB. Frames: 219

Ana Pérez López Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x270. Size: 2398KB. Frames: 219

Given that the series themselves are of older pedigree, from the 1990s to early 2000s, then it makes sense that the boxsets were produced according to the expectations that initially governed DVD production. My inchoate grah at the DVD's set up lies in the collision of one spectatorial paradigm with another, how the DVD says I should watch and how I want to watch. Producers and distributors certainly do re-release DVDs, after adding extra special features including the trusty "play all" button (see e.g.) But re-releasing the shows which I purchased would likely be a waste of money. They're notable, but not cult, and so have relatively poor marketability. They're historically popular too, with the emphasis on historical:  popular with people who likely are less rankled by the lack of "play all" as they're more used to pre-streaming and pre-binging consumption forms. Really, they might even prefer the single-serve option. I'm so entrenched in my devotion to "play all" I cannot fathom that, but I write in good faith and with an open mind.  

The initial DVDTalk thread peters out after only two days of light posting (13-14/03/05). Somewhat bizarrely, it is then revived in 2011 by user "Judgeraye" (04/06/11):

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x480. Size: 2129KB. Frames: 32

GIPHY Studios Originals Animated GIF. Dimensions: 480x480. Size: 2129KB. Frames: 32

Ive wanted to know who the morons are that decide this for years. why in H--L
can't the buffoons who churn out theses things (DVD's) understand that like a poster earlier said, sometimes you want to lull yourself to sleep watching a few eps of TV shows you like. WHO is the person that has that say so and WHY when they are asked would they say "No" to a Play All feature on a disc with 6 or so episodes on it? it makes no sense. Does it cost more? how could it? it seems like a programming thing. I recently bought "Car 54 where are you?" season one on DVD. it was a 4 disc set of a tv show from 1961 about two cops in NY. mellow stuff and very funny and fun to watch. The company that produced the DVD was named Shlenechtidy or Shanastedy or some such odd name and they were very proud to bring us the set complete with special features. when i put the disc in it showed a menu of 7 episodes listed with a button next to each one but NO Play All Feature. I was P-ssed Off. i was gonna write a letter to em when i noticed that after the first episode ended, it went right in to the next show. There was an invisible "Play All" button i guess but thats the way it should be standard

How comforting it can be to find you're probably not the least rational person on the internet, eh? And frankly, though it might seem like it, I don't think I'm tilting at "play all" windmills, at least not entirely. If I hadn't been blazingly annoyed, then I probably wouldn't be thinking as much about DVD features and prompts to spectatorial consumption. It's interesting to me that this issue so bedevils me, beyond all reasonable proportion. Paying close attention to the grah lets me look more closely, more curiously about how and why I watch in the way that I watch. In short, I get to consider the conditions of my media consumption. And I get to commune with earlier incarnations of myself as a spectator - see how I too have evolved as a viewer. God I loved Blockbuster. God, what I wouldn't have given to have access to the variety of TV and film that I do now. Like "120inna55", I too had a few much beloved VHS mixtapes, filled with as many favourite TV shows or reassuringly trashy TV movies the cassette could physically hold. I still do have them actually, in a memory box somewhere. Why would I ever get rid of such dear friends? We live in the "Golden Age" of TV. I can watch it all, back to back, again and again. I can watch it on my phone, tablet, smartphone, TV, home projector screen. I never need to rewind the tape. "Play all" problems aside, ain't televisual life grand?

 

Hardcopy references:

Wood, Dafydd, ‘Flies and One-eyed Bears: The Maturation of a Genre’, in The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character and Ethics, ed. by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), pp. 11-25 (Google books)

Mapping Margery Kempe

Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage (cropped), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh. Top tip: to skip directly to the Margery Kempe animations, click on the third green arrow on the bottom control bar.

Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage (cropped), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh. Top tip: to skip directly to the Margery Kempe animations, click on the third green arrow on the bottom control bar.

I was clicking through the cornucopia that is Google Image Search the other day and stumbled across a Most Excellent Thing. Behold: an animated map of Margery Kempe's three principal pilgrimages! This nifty online resource clearly shows the Englishwoman's movements in three tranches:

  • First Great Pilgrimage, 1413-1415
  • Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, 1417-1418
  • Pilgrimage to Prussia, 1433-1434

It's a really great way to visualise how very far Margery travels, and just how dynamic she is in her lifetime in the pursuit of her spiritual goals. If you'd prefer a static series of snapshots, you're covered by a basic webpage too. Before I found the eminently useful static maps, I actually extracted the Margery maps myself via screenshot, to use as visual aids in a talk on Margery. The fruits of my labour are below as Figs 1-3 - if you use these, please remember to include the appropriate copyright and credit details

The animations are part of the "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" digital map project, produced by the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. More specifically, the animation credits reads: "Produced by IS Apps Division and the School of Divinity, CHSS for PELF funded grant. Dr K Murray, Dr P Parvis, Dr S Parvis, Dr J Paterson, A Robertson, S Virdi. Copyright The University of Edinburgh." Good work, folks! I really don't know why more people don't know about this excellent teaching resource. Wait, do you know about it? Why didn't I know about it? Sigh. There are so many high-quality innovative digital projects going on right now, but there seems to be a significant problem connecting enthusiastic eye-balls to the actual outputs. There are far too many "hidden gems" that should be front and centre on lists of teaching resources. But anyway, let's get back to the excellent work from Edinburgh. 

On top of providing maps showing Margery's travels, the project site also offers further animated maps of:

  • the primary routes taken in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Crusade [static images here] 
  • the vigorous expansion of Cistercian monasteries across Europe, from the Order's inception and Cîteaux Abbey's founding in 1098 to the twelfth century.  [static images here]

The primary utility of these visualisations is that they allow the viewer to grasp just how much terrain is covered by the various actors, and in how (relatively) fast a time such coverage was achieved. It offers a nifty way to debunk some common misperceptions of the Middle Ages held by students and non-specialists, e.g. nobody did anything interesting or travelled anywhere further than the next village. 

A word of caution, though. To make the most of these, you really need to come at them equipped with supplementary information: mainly specific dates for when stuff happens and context for the little zippy coloured lines between cities and countries. The text version of the cartographic animation supplies useful nuggets to ground appropriate interpretation of the maps, but it's laconic to say the least.  

Sometimes, though, precision is not needed. For instance, this past month I gave a public talk to a women's social group in Kent introducing attendees to the majesty, importance, and downright weirdness of Margery Kempe. The maps of Margery's pilgrimages formed a useful talking point. Attendees, who had never heard of Margery before, felt immediately connected with her - and thus more interested in her - when they saw that she visited Kentish towns of Canterbury and Dover in her 1433-1434 excursion(s) (Fig 3) . And seeing that Margery travelled so far and wide across Europe immediately impressed upon listeners that this woman led an incredibly vibrant life, with a devotion to God so great she was willing to risk it all. Not a bad primer at all for diving into Margery's biography, and understanding some of the fascination it exerts upon researchers and readers alike. Digital cartography for the win. 

 

Fig 1. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 1. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 2. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 2. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 3. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 3. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Plentiful Pretties: The Met Goes (Partially) Open Access

Sound the alarm! Correction: sound the Open Access alarm! The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA), a bastion of art and collecting since its foundation in 1870, has made all photographs of its public-domain works completely open access (i.e. licensed under CC0 1.0). This means that we "now have more than 375,000 images of artworks from [the Met's] collection to use, share, and remix—without restriction." The culturally-and-aesthetically-important-photograph-free-sharing-dance-party commences in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

The Met's Collections database is easy to navigate, too. What I really like is the ability to search only for images in the public domain - a limiting criterion which still throws up over 200,000 juicy results as of today. You can also get granular, and filter according to various things, including geographical location, era in which the item was produced, and type of object.

Screenshot of The Met's Collection database, 15 February 2017. 

Screenshot of The Met's Collection database, 15 February 2017. 

Have I said I love it yet? Well, I love it. And not just because it provides endless hours of procrastinating-educational entertainment as I search random terms. (Completely unrelatedly, I can now reliably inform you, dear reader(s), that there are 121 results for "unicorn", 90 results for "shiny", and 77 results for "pretty".) By making a significant amount of their collection fully (and gloriously) Open Access, the Met allows for researchers working on them to use them with somewhat wild abandon - be that in blogposts, conference presentations, publications, or teaching. This means, at least in theory, that artefacts held by the Met will be studied more and more intensively, and ultimately reach a broader audience. That audience is not limited to academics or those working directly on the Met's stuff.

Going Open Access in this manner, with such a high volume of material, sends a clear signal - these items, and the photographs taken of them, are not "owned" exclusively by the museum. Sure, the Met houses these objects and took on the job of photographing, catologing, preserving them. But, the Met's purpose is not (or should not be) to "possess" the collections - greedily hoarde history's most important bits and bobs, shielding them when necessary from the public's overly vulgar view. Rather, the museum must open itself up fully to the public gaze, whenever possible.

The collections are "collectible" precisely because they are of wide socio-cultural significance, and thus they "belong" to everyone. This is emphatically the case when the photographed objects themselves are already in the public domain. (Frankly, I'm pro Open Access for everything, all the time - but that's a topic for another time.) Although I'm not an expert in museum studies or the politics of collecting, I am aware that museums are certainly not apolitical spaces.* Museums are powerful ideological machines, telling us, for example, what is worthy of display and study, what is "OK" to appropriate and from which cultures. So, my high-pitched excitement for the Met's decision is tempered by this context, which makes me somewhat wary to applaud an institution for doing something they should really have already been doing. But it is, nevertheless, nice to see an institution really thinking through the way they live up to their overarching mission effectively in the current digital age. In 2015, the Met's Trustees updated their mission statement to include the following proclamation:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.

By going Open Access, the Met are certainly making strides to facilitate ever more fertile "connections" between their collections and the public. 

What have I felt the most connected to during my preliminary dive into the database? Jewellery. Big, shiny, old jewellery. This probably comes as no surprise to those of you who've met me and my ever-expanding collection of ginormous costume necklaces. And so, as a palate cleanser after that rapid foray into museum ethics -- and just because I CAN, now that the photographs of the following pretties are available to me -- I present to you, in no particular order, my top five pieces of Open Access jewellery the Met has to offer: 

Necklace. Details as at 1. License: CC0 1.0 

Necklace. Details as at 1. License: CC0 1.0 

1. Necklace

  • Date: 1840s
  • Culture: European
  • Medium: gold, emeralds, diamonds
  • Credit Line: Gift of Polaire Weissman, 1986
  • Accession Number: 1986.331.3a, b

 

 

 

 

Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature. Details as at 2. License: CC0 1.0

Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature. Details as at 2. License: CC0 1.0

2. Pendant with a Triton Riding a Unicorn-like Sea Creature

  • Designer: Reinhold Vasters (German, Erkelenz 1827–1909 Aachen)
  • Date: ca. 1870–95
  • Culture: probably German or French
  • Medium: Baroque pearl mounted with enameled gold set with pearls, emeralds and rubies and with pendent pearls
  • Dimensions: Height: 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold and Platinum
  • Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
  • Accession Number: 1982.60.382

 

 

.Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair) Details as at 3. License: CC0 1.0

.Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair) Details as at 3. License: CC0 1.0

3. Jeweled Bracelet (one of pair)

  • Date: 500–700
  • Geography: Made in probably Constantinople
  • Culture: Byzantine
  • Medium: Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz
  • Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/2 x 3 1/4 in. (3.8 x 8.2 cm) strap: 7/8 x 7 11/16 in. (2.3 x 19.5 cm) bezel: 1 5/16 in. (3.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold
  • Credit Line: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
  • Accession Number: 17.190.1671

 

Pendant in the form of a hand. Details as at 4. License: CC0 1.0

Pendant in the form of a hand. Details as at 4. License: CC0 1.0

4. Pendant in the form of a hand

  • Date: first half 17th century
  • Culture: possibly Spanish
  • Medium: Rock crystal, with enameled gold mount set with emeralds
  • Dimensions: Height: 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold and Platinum
  • Credit Line: The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
  • Accession Number: 1982.60.394
     

 

 

Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor". Details as at 5. License: CC0 1.0

Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor". Details as at 5. License: CC0 1.0

5. Cluster Brooch with Letters Spelling "Amor"

  • Date: mid-15th century
  • Culture: French
  • Medium: Gold, pearl, emerald, silver pin
  • Dimensions: Overall: 1 1/8 x 15/16 x 9/16 in. (2.9 x 2.4 x 1.4 cm)
  • Classification: Metalwork-Gold
  • Credit Line: The Cloisters Collection, 1957
  • Accession Number: 57.26.1

 

 

 

* If you're interested in the politics of museums, collecting, and exhibiting, see for starters:

Karp, Ivan, and Stephen Lavine (eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington, USA: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991) (Google books; the essay 'Culture and Representation' by Karp available as a pdf here)

Macdonald, Sharon (ed.), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) (Google books; chapter 1 by Macdonald, 'Exhibitions of Power and Powers of Exhibition: An Introduction to the Politics of Display' available as a pdf here )

Hero Researcher of the Week: Michael John Goodman & the "Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive"

Michael John Goodman is my hero researcher of the week. Why? I have just discovered Goodman's Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive (VISA), created during his time as an English Lit PhD at Cardiff University. Launched in 2016, the VISA is an open access digital repository of illustrations accompanying the four most important Victorian editions of Shakespeare's Complete Works

Bust of William Shakespeare (Parian porcelain, 1830–70). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 47.90.154. License: CC0 1.0.

Bust of William Shakespeare (Parian porcelain, 1830–70). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 47.90.154. License: CC0 1.0.

  • The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere / Edited by Charles Knight. Published: London: Virtue & Co., [1839–42?]

  • The Works of Shakspere / Revised from the best Authorities / With a Memoir, and Essay on his Genius / By Barry Cornwall / Also Annotations and Introductory Remarks on the Plays by Many Distinguished Writers / Illustrated with Engravings on Wood, From Designs / By Kenny Meadows. Published: London: William S. Orr and Co, 1846.

  • The Works of Shakespeare / Edited by Howard Staunton / The Illustrations by John Gilbert / Engraved by the Dalziel Brothers. Published: London: George Routledge and Sons, 1865-67. 3 Volumes.

  • The Plays of William Shakespeare / Edited and Annotated by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke / Illustrated by H. C. Selous / With Thirty-five Full Page Wood Engravings after Frank Dicksee, RA., H. M. Paget, A. Hopkins, R. W.S., and others / And Thirty-five Photogravure Plates / Special Edition. Published: London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell & Company, Limited [1864–68?]. 35 Parts.

I am also awarding the project this month's "Amazing Research That I'm Really Glad I Didn't Have to Physically Do" trophy too. As per Cardiff University's coverage of the project:

Using Photoshop to isolate the illustrations, Michael single-handedly scanned more than 3,000 illustrations from hard copies of the play collections, thoroughly tagging each image, making the archive a long and labour-intensive project.

The hard work paid off, given that one of the brilliant things about the archive is its' supremely thorough be-taggedness. That is: Goodman has meticulously tagged each image, so you can productively search using various categories -- motif tags, specific plays, characters, genre, and illustrator/edition. In other words, it is consciously designed to be a useful resource for other researchers and Shakespeare enthusiasts, rather than a digital output that is more or less useful only for the researcher's own work or as a CV bolt-on. 

"tangent mill" - Bruce Fingerhood. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0.

"tangent mill" - Bruce Fingerhood. Via Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0.

Tangentially, if you have a small pot of cash and/or the coding skills to get my exhaustive database of narrative motifs and textual inter-connections in the Holy Women of Liège corpus, get in touch! It saddens me deeply that the database, a product of months of work and submitted as an appendix to my PhD thesis, languishes as an Excel file visible only to me and my PhD examiners.

 

 

Anyhow, back to Shakespearean Victoriana. Why create an archive of these illustrations? Well, they shed light on the way in which Victorian readers of Shakespeare were encouraged to visualise elements of the plays. In this way, they allow us a glimpse of popularly circulating "visions" of Shakespearean works, i.e. a kind of specifically Victorian re-imagining of plays' fixtures without changing the source text itself. Further, the VISA lets us see how coherent the Shakespearean corpus is in terms of a set of ever-recurring concepts and narrative constructs. As Goodman notes

The database emphasizes that there really is a ‘Shakespeare Universe’ where different motifs, ideas and themes recur. [...] By being able to visualize Shakespeare’s plays in this way, we can appreciate how the plays are like a hall of mirrors — they reflect certain ideas back to each other.

For instance, the "clowns and jesters" tag is associated with 110 illustrations, reflecting the importance of the fool character in Shakespeare's plays. (For a brief overview of Shakespeare's most famous fools, see this sketch from the Oxford University Press blog.)

"On the bat's back", illustrated by William Harvey. From The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere / Edited by Charles Knight / Comedies, Vol. II. Published: London: Virtue & Co., [1839–42?]. Available online at the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, curated by Michael John Goodman.

"On the bat's back", illustrated by William Harvey. From The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere / Edited by Charles Knight / Comedies, Vol. II. Published: London: Virtue & Co., [1839–42?]. Available online at the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, curated by Michael John Goodman.

But I'm not overly keen on clowns, myself, so I haven't drilled down into those illustrations too deeply. Instead, I clicked enthusiastically on the "bats" tag, and so I leave you with my favourite "bat"-ty illustration, which is a depiction of the sprite Ariel "on the bat's back" by William Harvey, affixed above the "Introductory notice" in the Knight edition of The Tempest.

The image is drawn from Ariel's song in Act V, sc. 1 (ll. 98-104), when the sprite sings in anticipation of his liberation from servitude to his master, the sorcerer Prospero: 

Where the bee sucks, there suck I.
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bow.
 

May we all have such liberating flights towards joy, eh? With or without the bat. 

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.