Waves of Difference // Trendspotting

I realise that it has been almost a year since I last updated this blog, so in the spirit of getting things going again, I thought I’d share with you some musings on an event I attended at the Goethe Institut last night.

As part of a series of events to mark ten years of the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations, based at Queen Mary, University of London, I found myself sat in a room in the London outpost of the Goethe Institut, listening to five award-winning authors read from their work. Each of them had previously spent time in London as Queen Mary’s writer-in-residence, and the works they read were either produced in, or resulted from, the time that they had spent in the British capital.

The results of the General Election and what this will mean for Britain and Germany hung heavy in the air as journalist Rosie Goldsmith, hosting the evening, spoke in her introduction of “fragile European times.” Despite sharing knowing glances, my colleagues and I seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when we moved on; we’ve all had enough despair. We were there to listen to literature, and to think about literature. We welcomed the opportunity to listen to Terézia Mora, Michael Wildenhain, Angela Krauß, Matthias Politycki, David Wagner and Gregor Sander read from their works. If we, as Brits, have previously looked to Germany as a “shining example to follow” in the production, consumption and promotion of literature, Goldsmith asked, was this still the case? The answer, from last night’s experience, is neither black nor white. But what is certain, is that Germany continues to produce world-class literature.

The readings and their content were varied and lively. Hungarian-born Mora took us into the world of an old man wandering the boiling-hot streets of Budapest, looking for a place to inter his wife’s ashes, yet simultaneously not wanting to let her go. Michael Wildenhain painted the picture of love blossoming amongst the stench of Brixton market; as he spoke of congealed blood, fish guts and rooster crests, the sights and smells that I have experienced in person came flooding back to me, and questioned how powerful love must be to overcome such an experience. The third prose reading, by Berlin-based David Wagner, spoke of a man traveling to Berlin’s Charité hospital: violently vomiting blood and on the brink of death, we journeyed into space with the city beneath our feet, spread out before us as though we were in a spaceship.

For me, though, it was the poets Krauß and Politycki who brought the room to life. The latter read from his poem London für Helden, based on a tour taken around 24 pubs in London’s East End. Spattered with tasting notes from British breweries, responses and retorts, as he read the room filled with laughter (thought it was unclear who was laughing at whom), even as Politycki quoted the advertisements of Kent’s ‘Spitfire’ ale (‘downed all over Kent, just like the Luftwaffe’). And whilst Krauß offered a counterpoint to the boisterous southerner with her delicate and fragile musings on love, life and loss, it was her description of her creative process that intrigued me the most.

On arrival in London in Spring 2009, Krauß spent five days holed up in her hotel room: as she explained to the audience, “das was wir wissen über eine Stadt … icht wollte das alles vergessen.” Denying her senses the world, she sought to experience London not only with fresh eyes, but also fresh ears, a fresh nose, fresh touch. And this city that she experienced was like a man, “ein äusserst stark struktuierter Mann.” Through which, and through whom, the people flooded, dominated and subdued.

As we ‘flooded’ back out into the city, I thought about Krauß trying to deprive her senses and experience the city as though for the first time, completely unaffected by senses and memories, experiences and past movements. I’m doubtful whether this is possible, whether one can actually rid oneself of the world through which one has already passed, be that in body or in mind. However, one thing is certain: I’ll remember her poem Ich muß mein Herz üben, in which humanity is in tacit agreement that the world does exist, for a long time.

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The staged screen or the screened stage?

I’ve been taking somewhat of a break from hardcore studying for the last few weeks. After an inspiring week in Manchester at the DAAD conference in July, I’ve been taking things (perhaps too) easily, spending my time doing some leisurely reading, taking some notes, editing a chapter etc. The usual things doctoral students do instead of going on holiday (but in 30.c and with trips to the lido). Today I read a piece in The Guardian about Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet next year at the Barbican, and the extremely intense reaction of his fans to his role. It made me think about reports of fans applauding at inappropriate times during Cumberbatch’s co-star Martin Freeman’s appearance as Richard III this Summer, of the differences between watching something in the theatre, in the same space as the actor, or watching something on the screen, and, the ways in which the simulcast disturbs any divisions we may feel exist between the two.

The co-presence of the actor and the spectator is one aspect of the theatre that really interests me. Whilst my research doesn’t focus on this aspect of the theatrical event per se, there are many commonalities between my thesis and this issue. One of the topics I do touch on in my thesis is the issue of ‘liveness’ and the extent to which theatre and performance are art-forms defined by the fact that they take place in the here-and-now, and whether or not recording them in any way is to alter their intrinsic essence. Related to this, albeit tangentially, is the co-presence of the actor and the spectator, who occupy not only the same time, but also the same space during a performance.

The rise of simulcasts, however, add an alternative aspect to these debates. When one watches a simulcast, does it still count as theatre? Watching a production on a screen that has probably been developed in and for a specific space changes it exponentially. Without being in the same space, one cannot experience the full force of the production. Furthermore, the deferral of the actor’s body that is engendered in this act means that one engages with something different through the simulcast than one would if one were in the theatre.

Whilst I like the idea behind broadcasting live performances to those who aren’t lucky enough to have geographical proximity to a theatre (though the cynic in me questions the need to charge quite so much for a ticket), the simulcast can never come close to delivering the theatrical event in its totality. Despite the simulcast maintaining the shared experience of the audience, the co-presence of the actor and the spectator is lost. For me, this means that some of the electricity of the theatre is discharged; the feeling of being there in the same moment and in the same space as the performance is denied, and for me these are two sides of the same coin. One cannot experience one without the other; without co-presence, the theatre is not the theatre

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Some thoughts on ethics and research

This time last year I was gearing myself up for three weeks of research at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel; despite being keen to conduct interviews with anyone who would talk to me, this meant that I had adhere to my university’s stringent policies and be granted ethical approval before I could so much as howl “Grüezi!” to passers-by on the street. It is unsurpising, then, that this week’s revelation that facebook had secretly conducted research on its users and subsequently published the finidings, has brought the tedium of filling in forms, having them rejected because of a small slip-up, filling them in again, translating them into German and finally having them approved, back into my mind.

Fortunately, my research is low-risk, ethically. The individuals I interviews do not face intimidation, torture or death for their willingness to assist me; it doesn’t involve any experimentation on human tissues or fluids; nor does it manipulate emotions or deliberately alter the information and individual receives about a certain event. All of which my university’s ethical approval process was designed to address. However, my thesis will still be submitted with an appendix including full transcripts of all interviews, the recordings of which were destroyed subsequent to being transcribed; and copies of consent forms have been kept in a secure location, should I need to show them at any point.

The author of the research paper produced as a result of his findings has apologised but, paradoxically, defended his research. I have a Facebook profile, and I ticked the terms of service box when I signed up (albeit eight years ago). For Facebook, this was my granting consent for them to manipulate my feed and analyse my oblivious responses. I signed no forms, ticked no boxes, and did not have the research explained to me in both written and oral form. As such, I have no idea whether or not I was one of the roughly 700,000 people involved. Whilst I’m not surprised that this has happened at all, I will be following the debate with some interest.

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“So what is it you’re doing, again?”

I got an email from my father on Saturday morning. Along with the usual information about home, my grandparents’ health and the weather on the North Sea coast, it included two sentences that, whilst familiar, made me sigh: “[your mother] said you were doing research this week and had a few good days at it. Keep it going not long now”. Now, I know my father, and I know that this was meant with the best of intentions. Indeed, I’m glad that little titbits about my academic work filter down through my immediate family, and of course, it’s nice that they’re paying attention.

However, reading these sentences made me groan slightly because they reminded me of countless other conversations that I and my peers have had with those outside of academia. This being the case, I turned to my online support group (aka my friends list on facebook) to see if they had had any similar experiences that they would like to share. One friend shared a questions-and-answers style dialogue that usually takes place at family gatherings (given here in a modified form):

– So what are you doing now?
Writing a PhD.
– Oh wow, what’s your subject?
*insert subject here* 
[awkward pause no. 1]
– But… what are you going to DO with this? You want to be a translator/teacher/filmmaker/candlestick-maker, right?
No… I want to write about *my subject*
[awkward pause no. 2]
like, as a lecturer at a university.
– Oh, OK.
[awkward pause no. 3]
… So, are you still with your boyfriend/girlfriend?

A second friend told me that their father “is utterly convinced that if I did a proper Gantt style project plan with measurable KPIs for my PhD, outsourced or cut all unnecessary tasks like teaching, attending conferences, travel, etc. I could get it done in a year…”

I think that both of these responses, as well as those of my own family, reflect the fact that people are genuinely interested in what we do as doctoral students, but they just don’t get it. On a good working day I can spend four or five hours reading (in total, alongside the faffing and making coffee) and note-taking, too long dealing with admin, and then some writing if things are going well and perhaps, if I’m lucky, some editing. Most of the time this doesn’t happen, though: brain-block, writer’s-block, planning for teaching, embarking on a wild goose chase after an obscure source and battling with powerpoint all take more time than they should.

Whilst the second friend above acknowledges that archival research is often easier for people to see as ‘work’ than other aspects of research (and I’m inclined to agree with her on this), she raised two other points that I’d also like to share:

1. Research isn’t a rigid process, but is highly flexible.
People find this hard to comprehend. If they’re used to a 9-5 desk-job, working towards a set of objectives, or do something physical and have a set process to go through to reach a certain end, that I spent the first nine months of my doctorate reading and trying to come up with an issue that inspired me enough to write 80,000 or so words on it is completely insane (and part of me is inclined to agree with this, too…)

However, her second point is much more important to keep in mind:
2. There’s nothing mysterious or special about research, it’s a project/process just like everything else.
I think it’s extremely easy to get wrapped up in the idea that what we do as researchers is special, particularly when we’re enamored with a text, production or film, working out in the field conducting interviews, or even when we’re in an archive and finally find that elusive something we’ve been hunting for for hours, days, weeks… Yet when it boils down to it, we’re not doing anything special, we’re just getting on with things like everyone does.

Whilst comments made with the best of intentions cause me to sigh because it means explaining everything again, I should start to see them not as a nuisance, but for what they are: a reminder that people are genuinely intrigued by what we do. And I should follow their lead and ask about what they’re doing for a change, no matter how alien orthodontics, nuclear power or milking a cow are to me…

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Sajid Javid, cultural funding and opening up the arts

Last week the recently-appointed culture secretary, Sajid Javid, gave a speech in Bristol to mark his new role in the cabinet. As the son of immigrants, Javid stated that culture was something to which he didn’t always have access. In an interview in The Guardian, he elaborated on his comments, stating: “I didn’t grow up in the kind of family that went to the Donmar Warehouse […] To be frank, it was a treat to get out to the cinema to see a movie”. This is a situation he believes should change.

The town I grew up is not famous for its cultural attractions. In fact, it isn’t famous for much. Aside from the odd pantomime, I didn’t go to the theatre as a child. Like Javid, going to the pictures was a special treat, which, until I was in the final year of primary school, required a 30-mile round-trip to Teesside; the first film I saw in the cinema was Disney’s The Lion King, aged six.  The first time I remember attending the theatre was on a school trip to see a RSC touring production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, somewhere north of the Tyne, in 2002. I was 15. Whilst I’m not saying that my upbringing is identical to that of Javid (I’m not the son of immigrants, after all, and in fact I came of age at the opposite end of the country, in a county that is home to the whitest town in England), but his experience is one to which I can relate.

However, I do think that Javid raises a valid point: culture does need to be more accessible, and it needs to involve the individuals and communities that have thus far been excluded from participation in the arts. Of course, in his discussion and in his speech, Javid is decidedly vague about how this is to be achieved, but does state his belief that it isn’t the government’s job to tell the cultural sector what to do: “Throughout my career [Javid previously worked in finance] I’ve always been clear that the job of government isn’t to tell people and organisations what to do. It’s to create an environment in which they can thrive.”

However, it makes me uneasy to think of this final sentence in light of the fact that  a portrait of Margaret Thatcher adorns Javid’s office wall, ostensibly as proof that it is “possible to rise from humble beginnings and reach the top”. It is highly likely that it is not merely Thatcher’s triumph over adversity that Javid finds commendable, but her politics, too.

Free markets, restrained government spending and tax cuts are the hallmarks of Thatcherism, yet these three ideals are incongruous with the call to open up culture to the masses. To adopt a free-market approach to culture would invariably favour those productions which currently dominate London’s West End and draw in the biggest crowds: big-budget, internationally popular musicals, and/or productions with a famed celebrity in the leading role. Arguably, these productions are popular because they’re “easy” to view; you can settle into your seat and glotz romantisch whilst singing along to songs you know and love. There’s money behind the glossy sets and big-numbers of musicals with staying power. Likewise, the productions which are able to attract the biggest names have money behind them; popular players will not perform for pennies, after all. The West End is able to attract audiences in spite of the amounts they demand for tickets, precisely because the money they make enables them to put on productions which people will pay to see.

Yet outside of the West End and popular theatre in general, there is a multitude of smaller companies and theatres that aim to produce invigorating and experimental theatre that challenges its audiences. These groups are often reliant on government and private subsidies to get productions off the ground, or to afford to take their productions to festivals around the country in order to attract a wider audience and have their work seen. It is these groups which push forward the cultural boundaries and effect the creativity and innovation within our cultural tradition. And, owing to their smaller sizes and lower production costs, it is these groups that are able to take theatre into unusual spaces and facilitate encounters with audiences, like myself and Javid in our younger forms, who are not usually exposed to culture of this kind.

As cultural secretary, Javid needs to do something more than merely provide an environment in which culture can thrive; he needs to do adopt a more proactive attitude to facilitating the development of culture in Britain for the benefit of all. And therein lies the paradox at the heart of his speech.

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German in the World

Yesterday I attended a workshop on the changing role of German Studies as a discipline. It sought to take into account not only the negative and stifling neoliberalisation of the university, but also the positive aspects of fruitful collaboration which can take place with partners outside of academia, and the need to re-align the discipline from a non-Eurocentric perspective. It was fascinating and invigorating, and, constantly presented as a “Nachfolger”  to those established in their careers, I came away feeling inspired about the future of the discipline and the role that I could, potentially, play within it.

The most inspiring talk was given by Mike Neary, a professor of sociology at the University of Lincoln. Speaking in the panel “Curriculum and Pedagogy”, he presented The Student as Producer, a radical and self-consciously political alternative to the current academic system; a direct challenge to the strata of mangement which govern the contemporary British university. The system, which has been developed at Lincoln in the past four years, draws on Marxist theory and seeks to reconnect research and teaching and posit the student not as a consumer of knowledge, but as a producer of knowledge from the undergraduate level on. Neary was an inspiring speaker, and despite the challenges his talk raised (issues such as student receptivity to the system and the problems of implementing a radically new system in the academy), his presentation was met not only with applause, but with cheers from the audience.

A further project which I found interesting, but of which I and other members of the audience were thoroughly ignorant, was the Think German campaign, a joint German, Austrian and Swiss venture which aims to encourage more young British people to learn German. The goal of the campaign is to collaborate between language teachers, universities and businesses, and to show youngsters that you can learn languages not just in the classroom of a college or university, but alongside apprenticeships and other training schemes. Unfortunately, the planned launch of the ten regional networks has been delayed until the autumn because only two are currently in a state to enter the wider world. Furthermore, there wasn’t any discussion of how the scheme is funded, nor in which areas it is being launched. It felt as though the opportunity to do something was slipping away.

However, I couldn’t help but think of ways I could do something more to react to all of the exciting projects I was hearing about, but soon realised how difficult this could be. In the last year as a PhD student, I have spent the majority of my time engaged in three main activities: my own research, teaching, and bureaucracy. I believe that this is pretty representative of my peers. On top of this I am plagued by the constant thought of “publish or perish,” in order to make myself a more viable potential employee; proposing, editing and re-editing articles and chapters is not only extremely time-consuming, but can also be soul destroying. Furthermore, that many of the projects presented at the workshop were not REF-able (and this was addressed as a problem during the workshop itself), means that it is increasingly unlikely that I will attempt something similar whilst still working on my PhD.

But I don’t want to end on a down-note: over the course of the day various projects and ideas were shared, those that have been carried out successfully in both Britain and internationally were presented, and overall I got the feeling that German Studies as a discipline is not only dynamic, but multifarious and able to initiate reverberations beyond the confines of the academy.

As a “Nachfolger”, I look forward to playing a bigger part.

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Is this the real life?

Late last week, and again over the weekend, I stumbled across several articles online and in print about Bear Gryll’s latest survival show: The Island. This is the programme in which 13 British men have been abandoned on a pacific island for a month, the goal being to stay alive without the “luxuries and conveniences of modern living”. I didn’t watch the programme; seeing whether or not we retain prehistoric man’s ability to survive against all odds isn’t top of my list. Ain’t nobody got time for that. 

But as it turns out, The Island might have more to do with my research than I thought. Or at least an issue I’m currently grappling with: the nature of modern reality and the extent to which it isn’t real at all. For on the island, not everything is as it seems: the men’s water source was rubber-lined so it didn’t evaporate during filming; several of the “ordinary men” on the island have actually worked in survivalist-situations previously, two with Grylls himself; even the two crocodiles encountered by the men were shipped in. Grylls has, of course, addressed these issues in person. 

From the outset it was clear that someone, somewhere, was monitoring the island to make sure nothing too bad happened: Channel 4 could not allow contestants to die. Or at least not afford to. Yet the heart of the criticism stems not from the fact that the environment of the island has been altered, but that the island has been altered surreptitiously. It was the same feelings that were behind the criticism leveled previously at the BBC for “faking” the birth of a polar bear in its 2011 programme Frozen Planet; the cubs had been born in a Dutch zoo, not in the Arctic. This was not fair.

It seems that the British viewing public don’t like to be mislead about what is real and what is not real without knowing it. The glut of semi-scripted “reality” programming that fills our screens, such as Big Brother, TOWIE, and Made in Chelsea proves that people like to watch programming that purports to be real but is, obviously, highly edited. Yet this version of reality extends beyond our leisure hours and has entered into our everyday lives. Our presence on social media is highly edited and choreographed, and this is set to increase as it becomes more integrated into our everyday lives. 

Yet all of the above programmes show much more than the dire state of British television. Rather, it shows our readiness to enter into a fantasy-world filled by glitz and glamour (or snakes and crocodiles). Yet what I find most interesting is that this world purports to be real, and by presenting it as such we are given a message that this is something we can all aspire to. We are shown that by endorsing these lifestyles, by buying champagne on the King’s Road or whatever they drink out in Essex, we can buy into this fantasy and live better, more interesting, lives. Better lives which don’t exist. 

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