Researcher’s Notebook: The Dying Philosopher and Me

Portrait of Richard Rorty (n.d.). Attribution: ‘Richard Rorty from Philosophers, a gallery exhibition by Steve Pyke, 2011. Photo published in The Guardian, ‘Philosophers by Steve Pyke, Friday, September 2, 2011.

Have you ever read something for a specific research purpose, in the routine of study, which suddenly carved you up and reordered your entire being? That happened to me around December 2007. I remember the evening vividly, because my reading was interrupted a few times by my walk to and from the laundry room, as though it were calculated to give me ten minutes of gloomy quiet to absorb it all. I disagreed profoundly, but the way it teased my core beliefs was compelling. And, over time, I came under the spell of the American philosopher Richard Rorty.

I found out much later that he had died from pancreatic cancer, aged 75, only a few months before my first encounter, just over ten years ago today – a trivial coincidence that I’ve dressed in significance. I was unaccountably sad at the thought of that particular brain turning cold. Shortly before his death he wrote an essay about his diagnosis and disease (‘The Fire of Life’), in which he admitted that ‘neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation’. These words gave me pause, as I had been deeply affected by his philosophical writings on life and death. This last characteristic shrug of indifference toward his own thought left me unsettled – he had given me some comfort, at least. Continue reading

Disasters #2: Lessons for Modern Day Disaster Planning: The Nuclear Bombing of Hiroshima

‘Hiroshima’, by John Hersey (Book Cover), 2002 ed., Penguin Modern Classics. Photo Attribution: Mother and Child in Hiroshima, Japan, December 1945, by Alfred Eisenstaedt – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

‘Little Boy’, the first atomic bomb to be used against civilians, exploded 1900 feet above Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. Carrying a yield powerful enough to kill almost everyone within a 2.2 miles diameter, over 100,000 people died: approximately 25% from the blast 20% from dissipated radiation, and 50% from explosion-related injuries. Three-quarters of the homes were destroyed. The population believed they had experienced the first use of an atom-splitting bomb and locals nicknamed it the genshi bakudan (Original Child Bomb).

In a series of articles written in 1946 for the New Yorker, the war correspondent John Hersey detailed the experience of the Hibakusha (explosion-affected people), providing insight into the public’s behaviour in the wake of a nuclear emergency. Hersey was both criticised and applauded for documenting the humanity of survivors, who had received little to no attention in media reports. These articles, compiled into one book and titled Hiroshima, retains its power to shock readers for its graphic, but still humanistic, descriptions of an event unimaginable in its scale of disaster and suffering. And yet, the threat of nuclear war (or the use of a nuclear device by terrorists) continue to hang over us today — possibly to an even greater extent than any other time in history. Continue reading

Disasters #1: From Disorderly to Dead: The St Martin’s Roundhouse Massacre of 1742

View of the St. Martin’s Round-House after attack by a mob, enraged by the death of several persons in the dungeon. 1742 Etching. Attribution: The Trustees of the British Museum.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is partly because humans have a huge influence on the global climate, but we also have another, more sinister, kind of agency: what actually happens when a building collapses, a hurricane hits, or the rain stops falling, is entirely up to us. To put it bluntly, the privileged tend to get out alive. Disasters confront us with brutal proof of structural inequality; problems that have been steaming under the surface bubble up and become impossible to ignore. In 2005, Rev. Jesse Jackson summed up what Katrina told us about the modern United States in a succinct and simple statement: ‘we have an amazing tolerance for black pain’.

A few hundred years ago in London, an even less natural disaster crystallised social attitudes to a different marginalised group. England in the eighteenth century was a difficult place to be for a single woman. Since patriarchal ideology dictated that women should always be under supervision by fathers or husbands, those who were not were automatically suspicious. A woman alone in the street after dark was usually assumed to be a prostitute. Drunken men would proposition her, or insist she go for a drink with them. If she refused to have sex, they might turn violent or call in a constable to accuse her of picking their pockets. Those same constables and their teams of watchmen systematically stopped and searched lone women, arrested them, and held them overnight to go before a magistrate the following day. Continue reading

Researcher’s Notebook: On Making Discoveries

The printer’s mark of William Caxton. Late 15th century. Reading University Special Collections JGL 1/2/3. Attribution: By BabelStone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
When historical humanities research makes the news, it is often because a document or object has been ‘discovered’.  To take one very recent example: fifteenth-century English book publishing made a rare excursion into the headlines of late, thanks to the work of Erika Delbecque, a librarian at the University of Reading.  She has made the remarkable discovery of a rare set of pages believed to have been published in the 1470s by William Caxton, the man who brought book printing to England for the first time.  Part of me was delighted to see this story in the news, not least because it put a spotlight on the brilliant but all-too-often overlooked work of the librarians and archivists on whom we rely so much.  

But part of me was a little uneasy too.  The interest in these stories, it seems to me, lies in two rather old-fashioned preconceptions of what humanities research should look like.  Firstly, there is the fetishization of the dusty archive as somehow essential to ‘real’ research, with the scholar as a pioneer who brings back new objects for our communal collectors’ cabinet of cultural and historical goods (a narrative palpably brimming with potential colonialist subtext).  Secondly, there is the notion that progress in research happens in bite-sized eureka moments of brilliant individuals (Archimedes’ bathtub, Newton’s apple) as opposed to the less romantic, but probably more realistic picture of a slow slog of collective effort over a number of years.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the ‘discovery’ stories can do much to make research accessible to a wider audience, the example of the Caxton print being a case in point.  But is there also a danger that these narratives might hinder more effective communication of what humanities researchers actually do and why it matters?  It is with these anxieties in mind that I want to talk about my own experience of making a small ‘discovery’ of sorts. Continue reading

Diversions #4: Subversive Pastimes: Constructing and Cultivating a Floating Allotment

The outbreak of social protest in 1830 has been recognised by a number of scholars as the spark for the national movement for allotments. Embittered and hungry labourers destroyed agricultural machinery and set fire to haystacks in what is known as the Swing riots and links the organised allotment movement to political protest. The allocation of allotments (strips of land rented to labourers at market rates year-round) was not simply an attempt by elite landowners to buy off labourers and avert further rioting, it was also hoped that the commitment required to develop a flourishing allotment would instil several favourable virtues in the rural poor including self-respect, independence, industriousness, sobriety, thrift, and honesty. Continue reading

Diversions #3: On the Dialectics of a Victoria Sponge

As might be expected from a blog post entitled “Diversions”, written for an online journal aimed primarily at PhD students, this one starts by stirring up images of articles left half-finished and monographs lying shut upon a desk, their unturned pages crying softly through their unbent spines to be read. Pressing as it may be for the contents of these no doubt worthy sources to be imbibed by their, you guessed it, distracted reader, he has far more diverting things with which to occupy his time than concerning himself with reading a Marxist critique of this, a Freudian analysis of that. From a dust jacket, a certain pessimistic German theorist from the last century stares out towards the unoccupied chair in which a diligent young researcher should be sitting, his disapproving gaze threatening to burn a hole in the upholstery. But enough context, it’s time to come to the point of this post. Continue reading

Still Point Blog Theme #4: Disasters – Call for Submissions

Individuals who seem fated with misfortune are sometimes described as “star-crossed.” This idiom comes from the belief that earthly phenomena are governed by the positions of celestial objects. The etymology of disaster – a negative position, “dis”, from a star, “astre” – can be traced to this belief. The notion that disasters are unavoidable plays an interesting role in the world today. No longer does the disaster remain limited to the purview of earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods – those things which we have called ‘acts of God’ – but disasters of our own making – nuclear, economic, and environmental. In this upcoming theme, we at Still Point are seeking contributions from masters, doctoral and early career researchers that tackle the topic of DISASTERS, be it political, personal, or academic. Do you reflect on disaster as part of your work? Have you ever had a ‘research disaster’? How does disaster shape the world we live in today?

Ideally submissions will be:

  • between 500-750 words with original or high quality images (but we may accept longer pieces)
  • for visual and multimedia artists, send us high quality images of your artwork or embed links to sound, video work, or gifs, accompanied by up to 300 words.

We welcome creative responses, and inventiveness and flexibility are encouraged both in response to the theme and in terms of the form which entries take.

The Still Point Journal is a literary journal for Arts and Humanities researchers in London, funded by the LAHP (London Arts & Humanities Partnership) and the AHRC. Our particular focus is on non-fiction writing related to the process and the experience of conducting research, and on creative articulations of and responses to this experience.

Please send submissions to blog@thestillpointjournal.com.

Still Point Blog Theme: ‘Open Mic’ Undergraduate Research – Special Call for Submissions

As a special project in July 2017, the theme for the Still Point blog will be an ‘Open Mic’ dedicated entirely to Undergraduate Research. We are seeking blog posts from Arts and Humanities undergraduate students from London universities that directly engage with research they have conducted – particularly final year students who have undertaken dissertations – in order to actively promote and celebrate the work of undergraduates and aspiring academics. We also welcome submissions from undergraduates based on the experience and process of conducting their research, which can take a variety of forms; including, but not limited to, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and visual art.

Ideally submissions will be:

  • Between 500-750 words with original or high quality images; but we may accept longer feature pieces.
  • For visual and multimedia artists, send us high quality images of your artwork or embed links to sound, video work, or gifs, accompanied by up to 300 words.

The Still Point Blog encourages creative and innovative responses both to the theme and the presentation of posts. As such, this is both a unique opportunity to proactively promote your research on an academic platform and creatively respond to your research experiences.

Deadline: Please send any questions or submissions to blog@thestillpointjournal.com by the 29 May 2017.

Diversions #2: Running and Research: Finding Solutions through Body and Mind

For the last six months, I’ve been training for the London Marathon. I am not what you might call a “natural runner”; running, for me, basically consists of trudging round London at a pace slightly quicker than walking. I might not be that speedy, but I do seem to be able to keep going somehow, and I managed to get around the course on 23rd April in 5:41:21.

What I have loved/hated about training for the marathon is the mental resilience it takes. What is primarily difficult about running 26.2 miles is not so much the physical element – although don’t get me wrong, I am writing this the day after the race and fear getting up from the sofa knowing my joints appear to have gone on strike. Instead, it is a question of what to think about for all that time, and what to tell myself when I want to stop but need to push on a bit further. That being said, there is such a deep satisfaction that comes from finishing a long run, knowing that I persevered and managed to meet my goal; crossing the finish line yesterday was such a phenomenal moment. Continue reading

Diversions #1: Words and Sounds to Accompany a PhD Crisis

This letter is a reproduction of faded scribblings found penciled on a study carrel in the clock tower at Maughan Library.

 Words don’t come easy, especially when you are writing a 90 000-word thesis. Ambiguous arguments, obscure references, and above all else, REPETITION, repetition, repetition…, are your worst enemies. ‘This sounds familiar, have I written the same paragraph before?’ you wonder as you scroll down the endless river of words.

 You wish someone would stop you, and just take over: a ctrl-X here, a ctrl-V there – life’s problems solved in a few simple keystrokes. But you know this is not happening. You must stop wasting time and keep writing, keep feeding the word count. Continue reading