Research Diaries #1: Stats and Stories, or, the Alchemy of Quantification

Unlike many people working in the humanities, I have never suffered from physics envy. I don’t yearn for concreteness, for the apparently undeniable power of proof by numbers. Deniability and argument are, the way I see it, part of the fun and part of what makes the humanities useful – we relentlessly interrogate, rethink, criticise.

My PhD is an attempt to do at least some of those things. It focuses on the everyday experience of state power in early modern England, which in practical terms means reading lots of legal documents – especially witness statements – to find out what happened when, say, a constable turned up at the door with a search warrant. These are sources full of stories – all unreliable, some patently false.

But PhDs lead down unexpected paths. This summer, in an attempt to figure out what kind of people usually wielded state power (who was the constable?), I spent a lot of time counting. First names: who held what office, when, and for how long? Then dates: when were they born, when did they marry, did they have children? And then money: how much tax did they pay – were they rich or poor? Continue reading

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The Still Point Journal: Seeking a Designer for Upcoming Issue III

The Still Point journal is seeking a designer for its third issue. We are a London-based literary journal for Arts and Humanities researchers, and this new issue will feature creative and critical writing on the theme of ‘Borders’.

The work will cover around 50 pages in a B5 format, and will be recompensed by a fixed fee of £250, £150 of which will be paid upfront. You will be required to work with the Still Point team, liaising with the Editor in Chief, and will be responsible for text and image layout, cover design, and creating images to be used in the journal.

Applicants should send a covering letter, a portfolio of previous design and/or illustration work, and a CV, to stillpointjournal@gmail.com by 2 October. Personal access to InDesign, Photoshop, or Illustrator is desirable, and you should be readily available throughout February 2018 for the final few weeks before the journal’s launch. Previous issues of the journal are available to browse here and here.

Upcoming Theme: Research Diaries

With new term starting shortly, Still Point is excited to begin posting regular content on the blog as of Friday, September 22. For the next few weeks, our series: Research Diaries, offers some short reflections on the individual research members of the team have been doing over the summer. We are also hard at work editing the selected materials for Issue III of the journal and have some other projects we look forward to sharing with you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll be in touch!

Nicholas Rheubottom, Editor of The Still Point Blog

Researcher’s Notebook: Constructing Fairy Tales: Architecture for a Magical Realist World

Athens is a city where, according to Eugene Trivizas, ‘Myth precedes, reality follows, and imagination is not only infinite, it is also cheap’. Crisis has devastated the capital on multiple levels and two types of spaces that spread throughout its centre have the qualities and potential for a radical change: the Polykatoikia, which is the multi-storey apartment building and the Akalyptoi, which are the uncovered spaces in between the polykatoikias, which, in most cases, are left unused. Dr Trivizas, has been responsible for the teaching of criminology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Reading since 1978, as well as a visiting Professor of Social and Political Sciences at the Panteion University of Athens since 1992. Having created more than 150 worlds of the imagination, he is the father figure of the Greek children’s book. Tales such as ‘The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig’, ‘The Last Black Cat’, and the first Greek comic-strip and televised puppet show ‘Fruitopia’, (first published in 1983, illustrated by Nikos Maroulakis), each tackle ideas of social and political injustice. In his tales, through the use of allegory and tropes, imagination is always the antidote to a crisis.

I have started my design research by writing and illustrating a magical realist fairy tale, implying that our supposedly normal and normative world is itself a fantastical, magical realist dream. The tale is weaving subtle references to ancient and contemporary myths and the characters are at times becoming part of the spaces that surround them, alluding to an architecture that unfolds and is at the same time both figurative as well as immaterial. The tale is written in Greek and I am in the process of translating it to English.

Research Drawing 1

Continue reading

Special Feature: Searching for Stories: Pride in London 2017

Pride has many stories to tell: some celebratory, some tragic, some past, some present, and some that remain incomplete as their narrative continues to unfold. As is typical to any professional task that is part of my Monday work schedule, I began my morning routine reliving the weekend through photos on my mobile. As I aimlessly swiped my thumb across the screen, I justified my idleness as, in fact, being ‘research’ for writing my own submission on the topic of London Pride, something that incidentally turned out to be true.

As a Canadian from a small city, Pride in London seemed overwhelming in comparison. In the weeks leading up to the parade, however, I encountered disillusionment from my queer colleagues towards the event. Where I am from, the parade is confined to fifty floats and another fifty LGBTQ groups; it is the coming together of a queer and queer-allied community that, in truth, already knows one another. For that reason, Pride has always felt like home to me. Sharing these sentiments with friends, and hearing their own in return, reminded me that not all aspects of Pride come from the most altruistic of motivations – for example, Tom Daley in a tight-fitting tee and angel wings on top of the Barclays float – and that perhaps even my own perspectives at home were a bit naive. Fear not: the remainder of this article is not to exemplify why London Pride has become irrelevant; instead, I made it my mission to uncover those moments that continued to demonstrate Pride as spirit over spectacle. Continue reading

Researchers Notebook: Queer Cases: The ‘He-She’ Ladies and Mother Clap’s Molly House

Fanny and Stella, photographed in Chelmsford by Fred Spalding, c.1870 (D/F 269/1/3712)

One of the most notorious yet historically significant scandals of Victorian England was the curious case of two young men in their early twenties: Frederick Park, a law student and Ernest Boulton, or Fanny and Stella (their female names). On the night of 28 April 1870, Park and Boulton were arrested outside the Strand Theatre for outraging public decency. Both were dressed in extravagant women’s clothing: Fanny wore a ‘dark-green satin crinoline trimmed’ gown; Stella, by contrast was dressed in a ‘scarlet silk evening dress’ trimmed in ‘white lace and draped with a white muslin shawl’. Boulton and Park were frequent visitors at theatres and several public events including the Oxford and Cambridge boat race and Burlington Arcade. The police had been closely monitoring the pair’s activities since 1869. They had been known to repeatedly wear make-up while dressed in men’s clothing, and were seen flirting and winking at gentlemen on the streets and at public gatherings.

Several newspapers printed their own version of what they referred to as the ‘he-she’ ladies. The Illustrated Police News recorded that upon searching the pair’s apartments, the police had found an elaborate wardrobe of female attire: ‘thirty to forty silk and other dresses, lace trimmings, half a dozen bodices, bonnets and hats, stockings, gloves, violet powder,’ along with letters and photographs from Bolton’s apartment. Continue reading

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