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

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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

Absent Voices #4: Giving Voice to the Dead and the Non-living: Music and Collaboration on the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France. Designed by Walter Seymour. Completed in 1936.

In early April, Canada will mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge: a seminal conflict in the First World War, relying on the successful collaboration of British and Canadian forces on the French battleground, and which was to be the first true moment of nationhood for the infant Canada. Indeed, the battle was hugely successful in military terms, which saw the soldiers retake the ridge from German forces in three days. But lest we forget, such success also inevitably relies on the deaths of thousands.

To that end, let us also consider the Vimy Memorial: a monolithic, modernist construction unveiled in 1936, comprised of two stone pillars jutting up from the battleground at Vimy. It is grand, imposing; the structure dominates the ridge and peers over the picturesque French landscape below. Around the base of the structure, some 11,000 names are engraved: the dead Canadian soldiers whose locations remain unknown. However, in a startling juxtaposition of style and form, the pillars are inlaid with twenty neoclassical statues, each variously personifying virtues, symbols, people, and tableaux. At the base of the memorial, Mother Canada (both a personification of the nation and a symbolic Mater Dolorosa), looks despondently upon the now-peaceful ridge, still scarred by this century-old battle. Continue reading

Celebrating Stories: The Still Point Issue II Launch Event

dsc02438Coming across the second print issue of the Still Point Journal is a bit like sitting down with a book of fairy tales. The cover reminds one of the edge of a forest, its branches beckoning the traveler to partake in stories of wonder – some dark, some delightful, and some delightfully dark. For this wanderer, the experience derived from the conveyance of stories through spoken word is one that sharpens the senses. These feelings move beyond introspection into a space of deep empathy, as we collectively share in the emotional responses of others. It is for these reasons that I think, above all else, the motivation behind the Still Point launch event is about extending the artistic process. The journal does not simply showcase creativity, but encapsulates creative engagement. Continue reading

Issue 2 Launch Party: Saturday 25th February

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The Still Point Journal is celebrating the launch of Issue 2: The Researcher’s Notebook.

Join us for an evening of live readings and music at The Gallery Café, Bethnal Green, and pick up your free copy of the print edition.

Saturday 25th February

7:30-10:30pm

The Gallery Cafe, 21 Old Ford Road, London E2 9PJ

Join our Facebook event here for updates about the evening.

For Issue 2 of The Still Point Journal, we asked contributors to imagine that their submissions are part of a collective Researcher’s Notebook in both a literal, and a broader, metaphorical sense. The issue explores the idea of the journal as a space for spontaneous discovery or self-creation.

To whet your aesthetic appetite:

The Researchers Notebook includes contributions from Bihter Almac, Isobel Atacus, Liz Bahs, Leonid Bilmes, Tianmei Chen, Chiara Raffaella Ciampa, George Clayton, Oline Eaton, Daniyal Farhani, Armenoui Kasparian Saraidari, Annegret Marten, Penny Newell, Charlotte Northall, Romy Nuttall, Jon Paterson, Stuart Ruel, Matthew Shaw, Lavinia Singer, and Ruth Tullis, and is designed by Becky Healey.

We have a limited number of copies to gift to our launch party attendees, so come along to adopt your own.

The Still Point is a literary journal for Arts and Humanities researchers from institutions across London: featuring poetry, prose and visual artwork, it is a space for storytelling about the research process. Generously supported by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP)/ Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Poetry of Place: an interview with ourselves

Poetry of Place took place on 17th May at Enitharmon Press in Bloomsbury. The event brought three poets into conversation about how place and poetry intersects in their work. Fran and I had met for the first time in March, after answering a call put out by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership for two PhD students to run a poetry event. We had a couple of months to get to know each other, plan, meet the poets, and figure out how to bring our own research interests into dialogue, and with the poetry. A real challenge, not least because we’re from very different disciplines  – or so we thought!

Right! I’m studying for a PhD based in the English department at KCL, situated between Old English and Performance studies. My research looks at Sutton Hoo, a seventh century medieval burial ground, and Old English poetry. I’m interested in how poetry and place come together at this site to (re)create history. I’m very much picking up on medievalists Gillian Overing and Marijane Osborn’s ‘conviction – or fiction – of the past as being located through or as place’ (Overing and Osborn, 1989).

Whilst I’m at UCL working across the fields of Architectural History & Theory, and Music, looking at the work of  the architect and composer Iannis Xenakis.    Continue reading

Three Hundred Years of Birdsong: Sound and Nature

Jess hamstead heath

Last Monday it rained, and on Hampstead Heath a record of birdsong included greenfinch, goldfinch, coot, long tailed tit, song thrush, chaffinch, stock-dove, jay, green woodpecker, crows and rose-winged parakeets (not to forget a pond-life of tufted duck, shoveler, cormorant, gadwall, mute swans and a great crested grebe).

In 1728, after a spring shower, the poet James Thomson listed the sounds of the cuckoo, blackbird, wood-lark, song thrush, nightingale, linnet, bullfinch, stock-dove, rook, crow and jackdaw. He then used this to map human intrusion into a non-human world, to explain the intangibility of the spaces we inhabit, even in our desire to quantify them.

Thomson’s poem is peppered with an incompatibility of natural world and human understanding; a boy disturbing a trout and shattering the water surface, a plough breaking the earth and the toil of the ox pulling it, the corrupt lovers tainting the woods. Faced with this, Thomson tends to look back, desiring an inaccessible arcadia.

Our time is characterised by understanding the natural world through a language of loss and crisis, and, even three hundred years later, it is tempting to view nature through painful nostalgia. A golden age now closed to us.

Searching for nature in his own time, Thomson transposes the non-human into currents of sound, wind and water. His is a poem of noise and light, of elements, breezes, clouds and vapours, filled with mingling winds, ‘rustling deer’ and birdsong. He uses observation of noise to create verse, and places ideas over this, a transparency secondary to the world they exist within.

On Hampstead Heath today, the birdsong is joined by shouting, by flight-paths, sirens, traffic, music, dogs barking [1]. A post-pastoral understanding of the natural world creates space to understand the necessary journey away from Thomson’s golden age. The task now is to understand a natural world free from nostalgia, to accept the mixture of sounds, of nature and of intrusion, and to look at what is left, and what can be done.


Jessica Frith is a PhD candidate in the English Department at King’s College London. She is interested in taking the study of literature closer to the physicality of nature, in reconstructing the eighteenth century poet-naturalist in a modern age, and in the importance of words within the environment. Follow Jessica @lutra__

[1] Audio from the London Sound Survey, Highgate Cemetery, recorded by Chris/dashanna and available at ‘Hampstead Health, Highgate, Archway’ on the sound map.  Listen to and contribute sounds from all around the city via their website.

On Lists & List-Making

a list is a numbered thing, a conversion of thought to action, but in the future, always in the future

I shall read this and this and this and this and this

a list is a projected image of a future, all-knowing self, smiling in the knowledge of all that is behind her (does she have a list?)

listless (adj.) mid-15c., from Middle English liste “pleasure, joy, delight”

reading list, to-do list, packing list, christmas list, shortlist, new year’s resolutions, blacklist, hit list, 50 ways to leave your lover, 19 Cats in Exactly The Wrong Place

the Ten Commandments

list of words about lists: distil, mundane, meaningful, ordered, timetable, uncertainty, final, purpose, idealism, consolidation, stability, confusion, resolution, ownership, compulsive

Susan: List of things I like, List of things I dislike, list of where I’ve been, list of books to read, list of words, music heard, records to buy, Hindu gods, list of best films 1-228 (trails off)

Susan announces she does not believe in god or life after death in point a) of a list

lists are a form of therapy, of self-awareness, of self-definition

writing something just so you can cross it out makes you feel good about yourself

in Susan’s journals, littered with lists, she says that she “creates herself”

we want things we cannot have

control, immortality, knowledge, neatness, tidiness [classification]

finity

the list goes on

we seek to control the wild and writhing monster of all of the world, try to wrench its irrepressible body into a box, by writing bits down in numbered bullet points

I want to know all of it, I want to understand all of it

“the vertigo of lists” “the giddiness of lists” “poetics of catalogues” (Eco)

the list is hand wringing, anxious, desperate but it is also intellectual ambition, it is drive, it is purpose, it is hopeful. Resolutions, plans, the mundane mixed with the magnificent, with the seedlings of a thought or idea, a twinkle in the eye of a life. Blinking and dropping and formulating and classifying and ordering. Step by step by step a small thing becomes something larger. Step one step two step three

mind-wandering magic, a trigger to the unconscious, fruitful associations

concrete poetry

“dredged out of the lopside of your brain”                         “a fabulous mulch”

the list as delusion

we seek to capture our thoughts, to preserve a flash of juicy and crackling inspiration; we fear the loss of the mind should we neglect to write it down next to numbers or black spots

is not a great thinker merely one more…

  • able
    • practiced
      • inclined to organise a particular aspect of the world into numbered bullet points? This means this leads to this means this leads to this therefore this?

everything changes; thoughts are not immutable, they are unfixable like the world

a list is memory, trying (pointlessly?) to hold on to something fleeting

bullet point – snap(shot), the shutter clicks down and we try to freeze a fleeting instant, all around the frame disappears, it is not fixed, it looks different each time we look; unattainable, naïve, illogical, brilliant, pathetic, surreal, nonsensical, pointless, fascinating

I look wistfully at my lists


Clare Robson completed her Masters in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford last year. She now works and writes lists in London. She writes about art at clare-robson.co.uk and tweets @clargrob

The Secret Autobiography of my PhD #3

Sound has always filled my house.

charbookcasesmallWind whistles through the old doors and windows, stairs creak  and floorboards groan. Every genre of music has issued from multiple instruments and iPods. My house has never been silent.

I am a dreamer for what could be and what might have been. I am a lover of fantasy. Find me a literature student my age who didn’t grow up with Harry Potter? I read my horoscope. I am interested in the nature of dreams. I am absorbed by a good story.

Medieval literature, particularly the dream visions, ticks all my boxes.


Charlotte Rudman is a second year PhD student in the Department of English at King’s College London, researching sound and sound representations in medieval dream vision poetry, @charrud.

Valentine

Gertrude Stein didn’t write her poem ‘Idem the Same: A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’ for Valentine’s Day. She wrote it in the winter of 1922. I have always liked this fact. Valentines don’t have to only be given in February. Nor was Sherwood Anderson Stein’s beloved. He was her friend and the author of the introduction to her collection Geography and Plays.

I love the recording (below) of Stein reading ‘A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’. Listening to Stein read the poem you can feel the weight and texture of the words, which she speaks in a strong and clear voice as the poem changes rhythm – back and forth.

Continue reading