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Sound thinking: podcasts of current research

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Pod Academy

Latest release on Apr 09, 2020

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

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Rank #1: Nocturne

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This is a podcast about music.  A podcast about Nocturne.  A podcast of a Nocturne inspired by the BBC’s nightly Shipping Forecast.  Produced and presented by composer, Arthur Keegan-Bole

A K-B:  Oh dear, I crashed the pips. In the world of radio, crashing the pips – that is, talking over the six sine tone beeps that mark the hour on BBC radio – is a serious faux pas. So, please, let me start again.

Hello you are listening to Nocturne, a podcast about music, its relationship with the night. My name is Arthur Keegan-Bole and I’m a composer. The music you’re hearing is a piece I finished at the start of this year. It is called Nocturne and Nocturne is what this podcast is about. In it you will hear about the music’s materials and meaning, especially the role of radio extracts in the sound-world of the music which includes the BBC pips and, everyone’s favourite sedative, the Shipping Forecast. The piece was written and premiered in America so we will also discover how a non-U.K. audience without knowledge of these niche British sounds might understand this music. Let’s start by thinking about what a nocturne is. This is musicologist David Fay

David Fay:  As you can probably tell from the words relationship with the English adjective ‘nocturnal’ a nocturne is a piece of music suggestive of the night. Although the Italian form of the word ‘notturno’ had been used frequently in the 18th Century as a name for pieces that were designed to be performed at night, it was Irishman John Field who first coined the French word ‘nocturne’ to describe a particular musical genre in a set of piano pieces published in 1815. Thereafter the Nocturne became a popular genre of composition for romantic pianist-composers most famously Frederick Chopin whose twenty-one Nocturnes remain the pinnacle of the genre. Field’s Nocturnes and many of those composed by others subsequently are lyrical in nature, with the pianist’s right hand playing a graceful, singing melody over broken chords in the left. The relationship with the night in these piano Nocturnes is usually in their evocation of a tranquil atmosphere which can be associated with the nocturnal ambience of a calm, still night… presumably in the countryside. However, despite the quietly lyrical, pianistic connotations of the word ‘Nocturne’ it has been used as a title for pieces written for other instruments and ensembles particularly from the Twentieth Century onwards. Some of these explore other aspects of the nocturnal environment – whether the natural sounds we hear at night or the world of dreams, or, perhaps, nightmares to which we succumb nightly.

A K-B  I hope my piece simply has the sound of a nocturne – unspecifically yet unequivocally conjuring night-time. However, we all like a story to guide us, and a narrative of some kind helps the composing process a great deal. So, let me ask you… have you ever fallen asleep to the sound of the Shipping Forecast? Between 12:40 and 1:00am a magical series of sounds are broadcast on BBC Radio 4. This is Closedown. A tune called Sailing By kicks it off, this is what is known in the trade as an ‘identifier’ so those trying to tune in can easily find the station, it is also a ‘buffer’ filling time so that the Shipping Forecast (which follows) starts exactly the scheduled time. I’ve always wondered why they use Ronald Binge’s light orchestral tune. Would it not be clearer to continually repeat the name of the station? Perhaps, but that is certainly not good radio. So, to an extent at least it’s an aesthetic choice. For a long time I struggled to sleep, from time-to-time I still do but I can always count on this bit of radio to help me drift. It is about drifting between one state and another all sorts of strange, ‘in-between’ landscapes and seascapes. This is the narrative behind the first half of this music. It is a strange lullaby, drifting between the real and the unconscious, lingering in a penumbral state.

Folk singer Lisa Knapp has recently produced a brilliant radio documentary about artistic responses to the Shipping Forecast so I need not explore that aspect of this music any further. What has less attention than the Shipping Forecast is the poor old pips (those six beeps that mark the hour). A perfunctory acoustic signal…

I love the pips. Have a listen… They are great aren’t they? ! I’ve always heard a latent activity sitting between the pips, a restlessness as they try to break out of their crucial, chronological confines. Can you hear it? No? What about now? A-ha! There you gonow you are getting it!

Many of the British listeners to both the piece and this podcast will, hopefully, share a familiarity with the sounds I draw on in the tape part of Nocturne. A familiarity gained through experiencing the pips and the Shipping Forecast frequently over the airwaves of BBC radio. But what about those who haven’t had this pleasure? What about those who, through indifference, inaccessibility or pure radio phobia have no knowledge of the sonic signals that sculpt the dreamy narrative of Nocturne? The residents of Rochester, New York state for example, where this piece was written and received its premiere? What did the pips and the ships mean to them? Here’s David Fay again whose research into semiotics tackles the tricky tangle that is musical meaning.

D.F.   Meanings are generated in peoples minds as they perceive and interpret signs whilst experiencing music. Which trigger related thoughts and feelings drawn from the listener’s memory. The resulting mental web of what I call meaning-relations – the signs, thoughts and feelings that are brought into contact with one-another whilst listening – draws on the listener’s relevant previous experiences. These are integrated with the signs that are being experienced in the musical situation and a mental concept of the piece’s meaning is built up in the listener’s mind. Meanings stem from the combination of a wealth of different signs from many different media, whether music, words, sights or smells.

A K-B   So, whilst an American audience wouldn’t have previous experience of the Shipping Forecast upon which to draw in their construction of meaning, they would be reminded of radio in general, by the specific grain of sound and the nature of the extracts of spoken material.

D.F.  Moreover [oh, he’s back!] in this particular case, ideas of Britishness would be integrated into their webs of meaning as they recognise the presenter’s BBC accents. And, even though they lack the knowledge of the specific nocturnal signifiers that insomniac British listeners might bring to their understanding of the piece, the title at least would direct American listeners toward a nocturnal interpretation of the piece.

A K-B   Clearly, the meaning of the piece will differ between those who have previous experience of the material referenced in the tape part and those who don’t.

D.F.  However, a core of meanings would probably be shared between listeners either side of the pond given their shared experience of the English language, the medium of radio and also, of course, a common cultural understanding of the Western harmonic tradition that Nocturne exploits to generate it’s hazy, happy sense of tucked up tranquility.

A K-B   Okay. We are winding down now, sleep should soon be upon us. We’ve thought long and hard about it so let’s take a moment to just listen… for a short while at least.

This is the end of this nocturne about Nocturne and Nocturnes. To hear the music in full go to My thanks goes to Tom Torrisi, the guitarist you have been hearing, David Fay, Pod Academy and to you, for listening. Good night.

This is the first of a series on podcasts of New Music by Arthur Keegan-Bole, to be broadcast on Pod Academy in the New Year.

Picture:  Sunset off Portland by Deck Accessory.  Portland is one of the places mentioned in the Shipping Forecast.

If you are an insomniac or a night person, you might also like our podcast Night Walking.

Dec 20 2015



Rank #2: ‘It’s a war zone now, here’

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The films of truly outstanding director Spike Lee take a special niche in American cinema. More than that, they especially enrich so-called Black cinema. Lee’s oeuvre includes a great number of films. To mention just some of them: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), Love & Basketball (2000), Bamboozled (2000), Red Hook Summer (2012), finally, his recently released Chi-Raq (2015).

This podcast is presented and produced by Tatiana Prorokova a Doctoral Candidate in American Studies at Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany.

Lee’s works have received a lot of acclaim from their audience as well as from film critics due to the issues raised by the director and the way these problems are formulated and presented to us. African American director Spike Lee manages to present to America racial problems the country has wallowed in in the most authentic and explicit way. Houston A. Baker, Jr., comments: “Lee’s first films are low-budget, minor masterpieces of cultural undercover work. They find the sleeping or silenced subject and deftly awaken him or her to consciousness of currents that run deep and signify expensively in Black America” (166). The scholar continues, shrewdly pinpointing the peculiarity of Spike Lee’s cinema: “Now, it is not that Lee’s films are devastatingly original, telling us always things we do not know. What is striking about his work is that it is, in fact, so thoroughly grounded in what we all know, but refuse to acknowledge, speak, regret, or change” (167, author’s emphasis). Dan Flory contends that the main goal of Lee’s works is “to make the experience of racism understandable to white audience members who ‘cross over’ and view his films” (40). In this respect, one can even talk about particular types of characters or images created by this director, like, for example, “‘sympathetic racists,’” defined as “[white] characters with whom mainstream audiences readily ally themselves but who embrace racist beliefs and commit racist acts”; or “unsympathetic black characters with whom many audience members might feel little or nothing in common” (40-41). At the same time, Baker singles out another aim that Lee seeks to fulfill in his films: “His [Lee’s] mission is freedom – that monumental and elusive ‘it’ that Black folks have always realized they gotta have” (175).

Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, however, stands out of the long row of Lee’s previous works due to the problems raised as well as the projected urgency of doing something about these issues. The director starts his film reporting shocking details about the death rate in one of America’s largest cities – Chicago. While in its most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has lost 2,349 and 4,424 Americans respectively, during the same period, 7, 356 people were murdered in Chicago, which, shockingly displays that it has been safer for Americans in war-torn countries in the Middle East rather than in this American city. Thus, calling Chicago Chi-Raq, Lee claims that it is America’s second Iraq. The film later criticizes U.S. foreign and domestic policy that arguably led to the criminal activity in Chicago. For example, when a priest, being overwhelmed by the numbers and age of the recently killed people, exclaims: “Where was their freedom? Where was their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?” He overtly refers to America’s mission in the Middle East to liberate the oppressed; however, he implicitly argues that while fighting far away, the United States does not notice the growing problems on its own territory, among its own citizens, specifically among “young black males”. The issue is later touched upon again by one of the heroines (Angela Bassett) who openly blames America for what is happening in Chicago: “The U.S. spends money on the Iraqi people – to train them, govern them, help them build an economy. Billions and billions of dollars! The Afghan people too. They don’t do economic development like that here on the South Side. See, Americans like war. They like guns.” Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) blames the government for not doing anything against poverty and not investing into education, thus, creating a situation when a huge number of Americans “go from third rate schools to first class high-tech prisons.” Finally, the main heroine – Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) – calls Barack Obama “President Hussein-Obama,” which is a very strong metaphor for the inaction or wrong actions of the U.S. Administration that have made Chicago what it is now.

Apart from revealing the terrifying criminal activity in Chicago (which, as Lee makes it explicit, is the problem of other big cities, too), where children and young men and women get shot every day on busy streets and nobody can do anything, the film also displays positive images of Chicago – its tall buildings, clean streets, and majestic monuments. Working with the contrast, Lee apparently does not give up hope for a better future that the city might have once the government starts paying more attention to the problems of African Americans and young African Americans choose another life for themselves and their future children.

The film turns into a speculation on what could happen when somebody eventually decided to stop violence on the streets of Chi-Raq. And here Lee’s work echoes ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata whose plot is based on a rather comic story: women make men stop the war by means of denying any sexual privileges. This is exactly what the main heroine of Chi-Raq, named Lysistrata, persuades the women of Chi-Raq to do in order to stop violence. Having sworn not to have sex with any men unless peace is negotiated, women go on a strike. It is, however, interesting that these are women who rise up to end up this war. The reason for it can be easily explained by the fact that women suffer most of all from violence organized by men who kill their children, lovers, and husbands. A woman is therefore celebrated in its most conventional role of a mother.

While first taken as a silly joke, the strike eventually becomes even a bigger problem for the local men than shootings. And here, I claim, Spike Lee skillfully turns the focus of his film from the problem of guns to the overt problem of sexism that exists in the community. The only effective measure that can be taken in order to stop the war is to deprive men of their access to women, which they have always been taking for granted. Whereas women also seem to suffer from this new rule and, at first, even express their dissatisfaction, these are men who eventually get angry about women for not obeying them, thus, refusing to be men’s sexual objects. And while in the original play such an attitude toward women may be treated by the audience rather neutrally, the fact that the situation repeats in the twenty-first century is outrageous.

Having put on the most revealing clothes, exposing their bodies, wearing a red lipstick while on a strike, women both provoke and mock men who treat a woman as nothing more than a pretty doll who is good only at satisfying man’s needs. In turn, a man is the one who governs the city. Women of Chi-Raq disagree, claiming, “saving lives – that’s our job”. While Lysistrata proclaims that women’s mission is to “giv[e] the hood the true meaning of life,” one of the men asks: “What is the true meaning of life?” Lysistrata obviously becomes confused with this reaction; yet, now she realizes that all that power that men seem to have accumulated in their hands, making the community overtly patriarchal, is fake.

Women realize that only they have enough power to change their life in the city – to transform Chi-Raq back into Chicago. And the key to this transformation, according to the film, is respect. In one of the scenes, Lysistrata claims, “we deserve respect” and I argue this is the main message of the film. Citizens deserve respect from their government; people deserve to live respecting each other; women deserve to be respected by men. Once people start to respect each other, there will be no shootings, no innocent deaths, no racism, and no sexism.

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq therefore becomes an urgent message to, first of all, millions of Americans. Lee openly demonstrates that while the United States has deserved a reputation of one of the most democratic and economically stable states, the country remains blind to its most pressing domestic problems. It comes as no surprise that the director starts his film with the words “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY”, desperately hoping to attract attention of as many viewers as possible.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr. “Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture.” Black American Cinema. Ed. Manthia Diawara. New York: Routledge, 1993. 154-76. Print.

Chi-Raq. Dir. Spike Lee. Perfs. Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, and Angela Bassett. Roadside Attractions, 2015. DVD.

Flory, Dan. Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2008. Print.

Feb 28 2016



Rank #3: Mindwise – can we ever understand what others think, believe or feel?

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How good are we at understanding each other?

Other people are complicated,  so when we try to guess what they’re thinking we often get it wrong.  Even with our partners!  Research suggests that partners are hardly any better (and sometimes worse) at guessing what each other believe or feel than a stranger.

In this wide ranging conversation with Professor Nicholas Epley from Booth School of Business at Chicago University, and author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and WantPod Academy’s Craig Barfoot finds out about empathy, anthropomorphism, hubris and egocentricity.

One thing they discuss is how our egocentricity makes us feel far more noticeable than we are.  As David Foster Wallace said, in Infinite Jest,

“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

This was confirmed in what Professor Epley describes as ‘the most liberating experiment in the entire field of psychology’. Research by Kenneth Savitsky; Thomas Gilovich; Gail Berger and Victoria Medvec found that no one in a room remembered the person wearing a Barry Manilow teeshirt, whereas the wearer of the teeshirt, embarrassed to be seen in this way, thought 50% of the room would remember!

Other issues covered are: do we know what it is like to be tortured? or what it is like to be poor? and how modern warfare has distanced us from death (because if we are too close it is difficult to kill someone).

This is a fascinating exploration of what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make.

Feb 12 2014



Rank #4: The East India Company and its legacy

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The East India Company was in existence for over 250 years –  from 1600-1858.  It was the biggest corporation in world history.

Largely forgotten in the UK, it was responsible for the opium wars with China, it contributed to devastating famines in India,  and was a perpetrator of cruel employment practices in Bangladesh and other British colonies.

Not suprising then, that the memory of the East India Company is very much alive throughout India and the far east, where it is a byword for exploitation and oppression. Its story holds important lessons about the dangers of the overweening power of large corporations.

In this podcast, Nick Robins, author of The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational talks to Jane Trowell of Platform, an organisation that uses art, activism,  education and research to work for social and ecological justice.  They have  been working together on projects around the legacy of empire for Britain in the 21st century.

They  met up in the National Maritime Museum in London, where the Trader’s gallery focuses on the history of the East India Company.  Jane started by asking Nick to describe how he first came to take an interest in the East India company.

Nick Robins:  It is an interesting journey. I have been working in India and Bangladesh, working on issues around fair trade and ethical trade in the textile industry and coming to learn there about the impact of the East India Company particularly on Bengal’s textile industry.

I subsequently came to work in the City[of London], working in socially responsible investment.  And I went to find the location of the headquarters of the East India Company on Leadenhall Street.  That is where the Lloyd’s Building is now, the glamorous steel and glass building.  I was expecting to see some form of plaque saying ‘Here was the site of the East India Company, 1600-1858’.   But there was nothing there.   We have so many plaques around the city, such an emphasis on heritage for very minor things. In fact, on the site there was a plaque to a postage stamp. And it just struck me as something odd, that there is the biggest corporation in world history, and it has somehow disappeared.  So I started doing some research into it, particularly looking at how it was seen at the time, and from that the book came along.

Jane Trowell:  For those who do not know that much about the East India Company, why is it such an extremely important fact of life – such an extremely important piece of our business history?

NR:  It was founded in 1600. It was a company with shareholders, which had a charter for all the trade between England and Asia.  At that time England, in particular, was very much the poor cousin compared with Asia. Traditionally, wealth has flown from west to east in the global economy.  Even in the Roman Empire, there were complaints of the flood of bullion to pay for peppers and textiles from the East.   Britain was in a very, very poor place and the reason the East India Company was set up was to gain access for this very marginal maritime kingdom of England into the luxury markets of Asia, to get access to spices in particular. So it was very much the supplicant. Very, very small, struggling to get into these big markets, particularly the Moghul empire of India.

And then, gradually over the years, particularly over the eighteenth century through the use of its private armies, it started actually taking control of key parts of India, particularly Bengal. It became a power behind the throne and was not just trading but was engaged in real conquest, in battles.  It started with dominating the markets in India, got involved in the opium trade, smuggling opium into China in the first half of the nineteenth century.

It became more and more of a ‘public-private partnership’.  It was still a private operation, it still had shareholders, was still paying dividends to its shareholders but was increasingly doing the job of the British state who were standing behind it.  Eventually it was wound up in 1858 after what was called the ‘Indian Mutiny’ or the ‘Great Rebellion against the East India Company’.

But one of the things that is interesting about the company is that it continued to pay out dividends for another twenty years or so. So, its actual corporate form extended much longer than its operational life. It paid its last dividend, drawing on the taxes in India, in April 1874.

So it had a very, very long existence from 1600 to 1874, and many incarnations along the route. But  probably all the way through its primary purpose was to generate profits for its shareholders and executives.

In that picture it seems like – or could come across as – a great English or British success story. But in fact your book ‘The Corporation that Changed the World’ is a brutal dissection of the company, looking at it from an ethical standpoint, looking at it from a human rights standpoint, and looking at how its own private army was used in the absolute suppression of local democratic control.

NR:  If you look back at the company’s record, there are some examples of some really outrageous negligence and oppression, particularly once it had gained a real foothold in India, dominating markets and driving prices down for its goods.

For example, when it controlled Bengal, there was a drought and the company did not intervene. In fact its executives intervened to buy the grain that remained on the market, so driving up the prices. Drought led to famine.  It was probably one of the biggest corporate disasters in world history, anything up to seven million people died in that famine.

The Opium War we’ve touched on. The company was the monopoly administrator of opium production in India and smuggled that deliberately, against Chinese laws, into China. So, there’s some fairly extreme examples of corporate malpractice.

As I was writing the book I was conscious and wary of implying twenty-first century values – saying, ‘they do look outrageous to us, but maybe they were not seen as as bad at the time, because of different values and so on’.  But what really impelled me to write the book was how contemporaries, particularly back here in England, saw the company’s behaviour and actually did react with outrage and in many ways in disgust to some of the company’s behaviour. So in the book, I try and draw on that, in terms of the poems and the plays and the caricatures that were generated by the culture at the time, in reaction to the company’s behaviour. So, while the company was certainly powerful and a part of the establishment,  it was also the subject of cultural criticism at the time.  This gave me the confidence to look into it. It was not just looking back at this historical object through twenty-first century eyes but actually drawing on the critique at the time – when some people were saying ‘In future times, people will look back in horror at the East India Company’.

JT:  There is, in this country, wilful ignorance about the legacy of that particular company. Unlike some of the slave trade companies, which have been held up for scrutiny in much more rigorous manner. But of course in your travels in China and in India and Bangladesh, you came across a very different story. Because in effect, this is a corporation that ended up ruling a large chunk of the Indian sub-continent.

NR:  In India, I think you talk to pretty much anyone about the East India Company’s role   –  coming to trade but eventually conquering – and it is part of standard education. So everybody will know about it. And when I was talking to textile workers in Bangladesh and mentioned the East India Company,  people would say ‘Oh yes, yes. These are the people who chopped off our weavers’ thumbs.’  There was immediately a recognition of the company after they had taken over control of Bengal, and that they were so oppressive, that they chopped off the weavers’ thumbs.  I could not find evidence of that in my research, but I found evidence of something probably even more horrific – the weavers chopped off their own thumbs, so they would not actually be forced to weave under the company’s orders.

So this is very close to the surface in India.  This year, in 2012, India has passed new laws liberalising the retail sector to allow multinational companies to come in and take majority stakes in retail companies. And immediately, the gut reaction in Indian society is that people were opposing at is to say it is the return of the East India Company. So, it is the motif for talking about companies, the wrong companies.

And in China, in the opium museum in modern Guandong you have the East India Company portrayed  there, very powerfully. They have these fantastic full-life tableaux of the company, these opium chests, its logo or chop-mark there, and it is seen that is was the institution which was the driving force behind the opium trade which resulted in the humiliation and the loss of power, the secession of Hong Kong, it is seen that that went on for essentially a hundred years until 1949. So again, when I talked to most people in China about the East India Company and immediately there would be some reaction. Whereas I think in Britain it will be somewhat fuzzy. And if at all, it will probably be linked to consumer articles, to some nice set of teas or whatever.

JT:  If you go to the very touristy Twining’s shop on the Strand, which is the original Twining’s tea building, with a very, very small frontage, it is only about three meters across, it is not a wide building, with two, in inverted commas, ‘Chinamen’, reclining on the pediment as if in total happiness with the tea trade, with Britain. These representations, like thousands of others, dominate the landscape. Before we even get into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and look at the marvellous painting, that you describe in the book, of Britannia receiving riches… what is the exact title of ‘Britannia receiving the riches of the East’

Britannia receiving the riches of the East

NR: Yes, what a picture. Britannia very much in a position of hierarchy and receiving essentially tribute from Indians and Chinese and so on.

JT: And certainly in the context of England and Britain the amnesia about the company is  well observed.

Except…. when we were doing our walks and talks and things in Tower Hamlets in East London, where there is a predominantly Bangladeshi community. Because of course, when we talk about Britain we have to talk about who in Britain is conveniently forgetting. And we had some extremely interesting encounters with young people and older people in Tower Hamlets, whose political understanding of their current situation and the situation in Bangladesh was deeply informed by an understanding of what had happened in Bengal, the bread basket of the world at that time under the East India Company.

So again, it is a question, it is a very interesting question, of who we are talking to about this company. Because I remember one young man, I’m not sure I was with you on that occasion, who was thumping the table with grim delight that anybody was trying to talk about this in a political way that was relevant to now.   He was an eighteen or nineteen year old, dealing with racism, dealing with unequal opportunity, dealing with family back in Sylhet.  It is an interesting contrast between museological world, the white-dominated world of museums, the heritage world that wants to shut it down; and the business world, which may want to shut it down – and on the other hand other communities, for whom it is a vital part of reclaiming their history.

NR: Yes, and I think it is one of the interesting things which has happened over the last five years. The history of the East India Company has not changed, it is in the past, it is there. But I think what has changed, certainly in Britain, is the ways in which different communities have encountered that legacy. So, there is a very interesting community organisation in East London, the Brick Lane Circle,  which has been working to get young people of all communities and backgrounds and races to actually think about what this legacy of the East India Company means. And actually, in many ways, how you can through encountering it, through confronting it and challenging it, you can actually maybe develop a sense of a shared culture, that is not exclusive. Its not about people with a Bangladesh background having to be interested or share a certain view. But it is a way of saying that because of this company we have a lot of things in common which we have not quite explored. So that is a very interesting thing, a very live thing. A current project of the Brick Lane circle is about how Bengal dressed Britain through it textiles . o again, very good ways of bringing this history to life and showing how these historical connections formed the way we are today.

JT: It has been very interesting, hasn’t it, over the past twelve years or so that we have been working on this on and off together and sometimes separately, to see how different museums and galleries, let’s say in London, have changed or have struggled with how to interpret these histories of trade in Asia – and we could even talk about slavery, even if it is a different subject it is a related subject because those two things are very interwoven economically. Is there anything new –  particular moments, particular exhibitions you have seen or have been involved with – where you have seen a shift in thinking?

NR:  Yes,  certainly in a cultural sense.  There have been three exhibitions over the last decade which I think, do pinpoint three different moments for how British society is trying to come to terms with this.

The first was an exhibition in the British Library back in 2000 for the 400th anniversary  of the Company. It was a very romanticised view and in fact, had totally omitted any reference to the opium trade. So you had community protest from the Chinese community here in Britain, very strong, to introduce a proper explanation of the company’s role in the opium trade.

Secondly, the Encounters Exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I think that had the beginnings of a recognition of the balance of the story.

And now finally here, in the National Maritime Museum, the new permanent exhibition on the East India Company which, I think, is a very good attempt to explain in a popular way the full account of the East India Company – to explain that it was a company and certain parts of it appear properly, maybe for the first hundred years, to be trading and  bringing benefit. That it was bringing the benefit of stimulating demand for goods in India, bringing in tax revenues in Britain and so forth. But there was another big part of the story, which was bringing oppression and domination. And I think that the gallery here has attempted ato bring that richness without being too didactic. Hopefully, it leaves the viewer to make up their own mind. But I think it lays out this was a very complex story and the company had strengths in parts of the earlier period, where it did not have this overweening power, but then began overturning existing cultures and really changing the course of economic history so that wealth would flow from East to West, changing that historical flow from West to East.

So I think those are interesting moments, and within only a decade. They show the assertiveness of once immigrant communities now playing their part in the shaping of the public memory of Britain as a whole, particularly the Bangladeshi and Chinese community. It means we have a much richer, more honest, representation of this peculiar institution.

JT: So, we have talked a bit about different communities’ memories.

Now let’s think about business. You know, one of the things about capitalism is it likes to forget (there is some very interesting writing about that in terms of capitalism). But you have deliberately subtitled your book ‘How the East India Company shapes the modern multinational’. Working in the City [of London], you understand the forces at work. How has this book gone down in business communities?

NR: One of the things again I did as I was going into the heart of the matter, was to look at the characters of that time and whose learnings and teachings we still draw on –  people like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, very different people.  Adam Smith was seen as the father of liberal economics, Edmund Burke as the father of political conservatism, Karl Marx leading the communist movement.  All, in very different way,s encounter the company in a period from, let’s say, 1770 to 1858/1860.  And all are critical, from quite different perspectives.

Adam Smith, was a supporter of free trade but very critical of corporations, particular their monopoly power –  both because of the scale issue (he was interested in open markets, so he was obviously against that) but also he was particularly concerned about the shareholder listing point of that, and the tendency towards speculation and abuse.  It is interesting going back through  Adam Smith’s work and realising that when he wrote his third edition of the Wealth of Nations, he actually went back to his editor and said ‘Look, I want to add another section to the book about the behaviour of corporations because we have this egregious example of the East India Company.’

I suppose when you are talking to a modern business audience, drawing on the reality of Adam Smith and actually placing his views in his time, pointing out that this was one of the big things he was struggling with, then I think you get a more honest response.

Edmund Burk again, a conservative.   His reaction to the East India Company, particularly  the way it destabilised –  threw into turmoil –  Bengal society, was similar to his reaction to the French Revolution.  He opposed the East India Company  because it was revolutionary. It was this revolutionary power, going into India, overturning all the  established relations and leading to oppression as a result.

So you have a conservative critique as well as a liberal-economic critique.  And then there is Karl Marx. For his purposes the East India Company was an agent or a tool of the British ruling class, which had turned from being the trading class to what he called the ‘moneyocracy’.

So all very different perspectives but all ones that have resonance today.  And it helps us to when we are looking at those figures and their ideas, to root them in their realities so they are not abstract.

JT: At the end of the second edition of the book, you itemise, like a manifesto,  what could be done or what should be done in light of what we have learned from the East India Company. You give an analysis of what you call a ‘trilogy of design flaws’ – speculative temptations of executives and investors, the drive for monopoly control and absence of automatic calamity for corporate abuse.

You then make a series of recommendations and you talk about some progress one can see in the UK 2006 Companies Act. Can you talk a bit more about how you think those recommendations might play out?

NR:  Yes, I think we are looking at the company and what it teaches us about the modern corporation.  I looked at four factors.

Firstly, the company as an economic agent. How the financing of the corporation is a powerful factor in determining its behaviour.  As we discussed with Adam Smith we need to be very careful about the dynamics of the stock market listing. It is not necessarily intrinsically a bad idea, but we do need to recognise that there are inherent problems about stock market listing and the tendency towards speculation.

Second is the issue of scale – again something brought up by Adam Smith.  We have seen recently, in the discussion of too big to fail issues,  the problem of the larger the organisation, when things go wrong, the more magnified the problems are.

The third, which we have not really discussed,  is technology.  How the company deployed its technology – in its case, the technology was particularly its military technology and shipping technology.

And a fourth is regulation. There was a collusion of state power and corporate power in the company’s case.  So how can we avoid that, and  how can regulation be used to ensure public accountability.

So  the recommendations are really around mechanisms through which you can ensure that both shareholders and company management must have the public interest as part of their mandate. So it is not purely the seeking of private good.

You do then have the critical issue of company scale and company size, and a recognition that economic diversity is a value in itself – diversity of size, but also of form.   When we look back at the history, Adam Smith was recognising that certain economic forms are useful for certain things. You can have the joint stock company, and there are also partnerships, co-operatives, state companies and so on. And they can all play different roles –  so diversity of form and size is important.

And then  finally, regulation. We have had a reform in the last few years of the Company Act. In a very British way, the focus of a company is to promote the interest of its members, its shareholders. But, in a reformist measure company directors were asked to consider to take into account the interests of employees and suppliers and communities and the wider environment. To consider but not act.  And there, I suppose we have seen it is important that there is more of a recognition that companies need to have that positive requirement to act in the wider interest as well. Those would be three, I suppose, big recommendations around the business side in our times.

So there are many examples, I suppose, where the company was doing the first in so many of these failings of corporate form which for me again, thinking of the history of it, is that the issues that we are facing today are not accidents of circumstances I suppose. That they are things that are more structural and do have patterns through history, which I think means we can address them today with more confidence really.

So moving from the imperial gene to the ethical gene?

That’s right, that’s right. And some people call it the ‘civil corporation’. The company corporation can be a very useful institution, but we really need to think about its design so that it does serve the interest of society.

With thanks to Dianne Prosser at the National Maritime Museum for hosting this discussion.

The podcast was produced by Matthew Flatman and the transcript was prepared by Maarten van Schaik

Jan 13 2013



Rank #5: Prison – Does it work? Can it work?

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‘Lock them up and throw away the key!’ is something that is often heard.  But does locking someone up for committing a crime really work to punish an individual? What about having them come back into society a changed person, asks presenter and producer Lee Millam in this podcast.

Prisons, why do we send people there?  Does it work?  Should it work?  This was the subject of a recent lecture at Gresham College in the City of London.  It is one lecture from a series on Law and Lawyers at Gresham College, presented by Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC.  He explains why we lock up criminals…..

Geoffrey Nice:  …..for a range of reasons, many of them not fully articulated.  You could look back and say thata there are some coherent lines of justification – deterrence, retribution, rehabilitation (those are the standard ones).  But does it really explain our attitude towards imprisonment.  I rather doubt it.

Not only are people complex, but our reactions to people are complex too.  Take those who, on some objective calculation, would be less culpable but get more opprobrium and heavier sentences than those who are in one sense guiltier but get lesser sentences.  The most obvious examples are those who really cannot control themselves because of their upbringing – such as sex offenders who have themselves been formed by childhood, have been victims of sex offences and may become sex offenders themselves. They draw the maximum opprobrium from society, and not the understanding that they themselves are victims.

So we are complicated in the way we respond to crime. There is no great political dividend in rehabilitating people, at least there doesn’t seem to be in our country.

Interestingly there are changes around the world. Norway is rather leading the way.  Its prisons are so shockingly liberal that people from America and England can’t probably recognise them as prisons at all!  Their purpose is to enable people to rejoin society.  And these prisons have a recidivist rate of 20% whereas the US and England have recidivism rates of about 70%.  Why aren’t we spending more time looking at that/

Lee Millam: If other countries are more successful at rehabilitating prisoners, then there must be lessons to learn from other systems in other parts of the world.  But there are some crimes where prison is the only answer.

GN: There are some people who are so dangerous they do have to be restricted so that is one justifiable expense – though whether it has to be done in this way, given modern technology, is another issue.

I think it is really a desire to punish people that justifies what we do.  I may not be on that wing of public opinion, but what is clear is that you have to carry public opinion with youon an issue like this.  Change from where we are to something more humane, or rather more liberal (as it would now be described) is going to take some time.

It is also going to be more difficult to do that in a society where so many of the other structures, in their own way, almost require punishment and offenders.  The rich need the poor, the good need the bad, the apparently lawful need criminals.

You could argue, in a rather nasty way, we don’t actually want to live in a crime free society.  So if you’ve got an aggressively capitalist society with great divergence of wealth, it is probably inevitable that you are going to want to punish, or will punish, those who offend the implied values of such a society.  Maybe as long as you’ve got a society that , since the 1960s has believed in all aspects of sexual liberalism, it is in some curious and perverse way particularly hard on those who transgress what is left of the law on sexual control.  Mary Whitehouse may well be shown, in due course, to have been right.  More and more people may be thinking it wasn’t quite so good to create a sexually liberal society, one of the consequences of which is that people had to do more thing to temper it.

LM: Many voters want criminals punished for their crimes, but perhaps there are other wasy of asking those who have committed a crime to  pay back to society.

GN: Politicians only get elected if they promise more prison, and everyone starts ratcheting each other up.  That is why the US has such a huge prison population – larger than anyone else’s.

LM: Many would argue that sending someone to prison doesn’t always work.  If prison isn’t the answer, what is?]

GN: Prison isn’t the right way forward.  There has to be not only a recognition of the utilitarian advantages of a more liberal system as in Norway.  But there also has to be an acceptance (which will be much harder) that it isn’t always necessary to punish people, however bad are the things they have done.

Our system [here in the UK] is not that different from China, North America, Australia.  You have to achieve recognition that other systems work according to the parameters you set, which would be utilitarian as opposed to retributive parameters.  And then you have got to get people to be willing to do without that element of condign punishment that is perhaps part of our national psyche, and part of the psyche of lots of other countries.  So it is a big shift and it would be a daring politician who let it!

The full lecture and transcript of Geoffrey Nice’s lecture can be found here.


  • ‘Good enough’ – CuzOH
  • ‘Cold Noise’ – time

Photo: Still Burning

Jan 03 2016



Rank #6: A Demanding Job: youth unemployment in the UK

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Youth unemployment frequently makes it into the headlines.  It is an issue that many young people here in the UK – and elsewhere in Europe – have been struggling with ever since the 2008 financial crisis, and even before then.

Maarten van Schaik is joined by Callum Biggins, author of A Demanding Job. Finding sustainable employment for Britain’s youth for the London-based liberal think tank CentreForum.  As an institution trying to promote liberal thinking in the UK, CentreForum works on four different themes – Education and Social Policy, Globalisation, Economics and Liberalism.

Maarten started by asking Callum about his personal motivations for picking a topic like youth unemployment to write a research paper on.

Callum Biggins: Youth unemployment is a very topical issue, and one that is quite politically sensitive. While I was writing the report, the level of youth unemployment (ie those not in education, employment or training) went over the psychologically important one million threshold. So, it was a topical issue and we at CentreForum thought we should write our response to it, our critique of it, saying why youth unemployment was at such high levels. And, more importantly, suggesting what the government could do to tackle this growing problem.

MvS: You just mentioned there are over a million young people unemployed. What kind of people are we talking about here?

CB: Well yes, that was one of the central contentions of the report. We found that the reporting of youth unemployment tended to describe unemployed young people, that is those aged sixteen to twenty-five, as one homogeneous group. However we found that, somewhat unsurprisingly, youths in this range vary quite substantially in terms of their characteristics. For instance, we found that youth unemployment has been relatively static for those aged sixteen and seventeen between 1993-2011 – hovering round about ten per cent. This said, unemployment has been rising steadily for this group since the financial crisis, so since 2008.

We also found that unemployment varied significantly by education level as well as by age. So, those with low skills or a low qualification are far most likely to be unemployed.  We also found, and this was the most pressing concern,  that twenty per cent of those over 18  who are unemployed are skilled to a very low level and this has not increased at all since 1992. So that suggests education is failing some young people.

MvS: In your report there is a fairly substantial section about the scarring effects of unemployment for the youth. Could you expand  a little bit more what you exactly mean by scarring and what different types of scarring there might be?

CB: Obviously, no matter when you get unemployed during your economically active life you are going to be scarred as a consequence of it. We found that these effects are particularly severe during your youth.

Research has shown that, during sustained periods of youth unemployment, you are more likely to have lower future wage earnings later on in your economically active life, as well as an increased probability of future periods of unemployment. More specifically, research by Gregg and Tominey show that a wage scar between twelve and fifteen per cent occurs following a period of youth unemployment . Further still, the scarring effects are evident up to twenty years after the initial period of unemployment. So, if you put that in some sort of context, you have got someone who is unemployed at the age of seventeen,  but by the age of thirty-seven, they are earning twelve to fifteen percent less than their peers,  just because they were unemployed at the age of seventeen. So obviously youth unemployment, as well as having consequences here and now for the Exchequer and the tax payer, also has significant consequences for the person involved.

Secondly, the scarring following youth unemployment is the social and emotional consequences. So this means the impact of youth unemployment transcends the economic sphere. Research suggests health and social issues following a period of youth unemployment are commonplace. So a sustained period of youth unemployment is widely believed to have a significant impact on the future – on the individual’s future happiness, job satisfaction and personal health.

MvS: So those with limited education and low initial work skills are the ones hardest hit by youth unemployment. Do you think the changing make-up of economies in Western Europe, and the UK especially, over let’s say the course of the last decades, with more and more companies choosing to set up shop elsewhere in the world, might play a role here? To some it may seem that with the changing economy there is just less of a demand for lower skilled labour here in the UK, and they would see the rise of the levels of those in higher education as a sign of that. Do you think the idea of the UK moving towards a society where there is more of a demand for higher skilled labour is a correct one?

CB: I would not say it is more to do with a higher education. I still believe there is a place in the modern economy for those people who decide not to go into higher education or further education. The point of the report, a large part of the report even,  was to dispel many of the common myths. So for instance, if you pick up a standard paper, you may happen to read an article about EU migration having a negative effect on the ability for young people to find jobs because EU migrants are taking those jobs. Our research found that was not the case. Our research found it was the lack of demand by employers for low-skilled jobs in the manufacturing industry that was contributing to the high levels of youth unemployment. There was also quite a large rhetoric concerning the employability of young people and whether or not the school curriculum accurately reflects the needs for employers.

MvS: Another thing that seems to pop up when people are debating or discussing youth unemployment, and it does not really matter whether you read about it in a newspaper or are discussing it with friends in a pub, is the idea of some sort of ‘free rider’ effect i.e the idea of having young people in unemployment as a result of the welfare system in place in the UK. It is an argument I hear in the Netherlands often as well.  It is the assumption that social benefits have a negative impact on youth unemployment, that they take away the incentive for you people to look for jobs. Do you think these assumptions have any truth to them?

CB: For a large majority of the population in the sixteen to twenty-four age bracket it doesn’t apply. I think the major problem is, is that in the past thirty years or so there has been an increasing shift towards kids staying at home with their parents post sixteen education. So this, in effect, disincentivises them to look for work immediately and stay on in higher education or whatever when it may not be the right thing for them to do. It was also currently against them not getting practical work experience because their parents can give them pocket money where in bygone generations you might have been on a paper round at six-thirty every morning before school.

MvS: In 2012 we reached the staggering number of over one million young people in unemployment right now.  Could you expand a little bit about what kind of impact that has on the UK’s economy?

CB: Well, we calculated that in total it costs the Exchequer five billion in terms of welfare payments but also it costs the economy ten billion pounds in lost economic output through these people being economically inactive or underemployed.

MvS: So clearly we are dealing here with a problem with not just direct costs but also we see loads of missed income out of taxation, as a result of wages…

CB: Aside from the direct economic costs of it there is also a large societal cost in terms of scarring for the young people.

MsS: I was wondering whether you could explain some of the attempts undertaken in the recent years to tackle youth unemployment and why you think these attempts might or might not have had the desired effects?

CB: Obviously, youth unemployment is hardly a new phenomenon. The Labour government made persistent efforts to tackle it – their first initiative was the New Deal for Young People and the second one was the Future Jobs Fund. We believe that both of these initiatives failed to accurately target the problem.  To an extent they were kicking the can down the road. They weren’t providing long-term sustainable opportunities for young people to find employment.

MvS: A very considerable section of your report is a comparative study of the approaches undertaken here in the UK in Manchester and the system used in the Netherlands. Could you explain what kind of measures were put in place and why you think these were more successful than the way it is usually approached in the UK at present?

CB: Firstly taking the Manchester example. The case study we looked at was under the Labour government where the Future Jobs Fund was in place. And we found that in the Manchester  there was a greater involvement of all stakeholders within the process. So rather than it just being a government-led initiative, they also actively engaged with local employers to ensure that they were able to establish a wide range of public, voluntary and community sector partners to provide employment opportunities for unemployed young people in Manchester. So, under this initiative fifty-five per cent of the participants under the Manchester scheme were either in employment including apprenticeships, in education or volunteering. So in practical terms this means over eight hundred people become re-engaged with the labour market. Contrast this with the outcomes for Greater Manchester (39%) and nationally (43%).  So the 55% in the Manchester case study represents a  big increase, fifty-five per cent against forty-three per cent nationally. It demonstrates that if everybody comes together, starts pulling in the same direction, there is not an overlap of efforts. It is a more an effective and efficient way of tackling youth unemployment. Results could be improved considerably.

MvS:  And would this be the same back in the Netherlands?

CB: We choose that case study firstly because the Dutch economy is quite similar to that of the UK in terms of the way you break it down between, industry, agriculture, financial services, etc. But in the Netherlands, there is a quite significant incentive on local authorities and principalities to tackle youth unemployment themselves rather than waiting for the top-down approach that is adopted in the UK. So they favour a much more local approach. Through favouring this approach, local Dutch governments are better able to tailor youth unemployment initiatives to their own individual economy, depending on what their local economy needs rather than what the national economy needs.

MvS: So, looking at the people that are in youth unemployment, and after having looked at the two case studies about Manchester and the Netherlands, could you list a couple of the recommendations you make in your research paper?

CB: In general, the report concludes that, using the case studies we just talked about, both Manchester and the Netherlands, if you have a more proactive approach on the local level, that can have significant improvements on the national level. So, that means you can tailor initiatives to suit the local economy. One of the examples we used in the report suggested that what may work well in Newbury won’t work out in Newcastle because the two economies are totally different. The two economies have totally different needs. Also the characteristics of the young unemployed in those two areas  are remarkably different. So, initiatives need to be tailored towards the local situation. There is no point having an initiative that works well in one area but won’t work well in the other.

Everything has to be tailored to suit the local economy, so with this in mind the report calls for greater autonomy for local authorities to determine their own youth unemployment initiatives rather than a central government diktat which may or may not work for that particular region. Using the Dutch example, again we call for a tailoring of initiatives for local economy needs.

Also, both case studies proved that intervention needs to begin much sooner than the currently determined by the Youth Contract. Somewhat perversely, it dictates that intervention begins earlier for those unemployed people aged over twenty-four than those aged under twenty-four – even though those aged under twenty-four often have a greater impact of scarring from being unemployed. As the Dutch case study illustrates providing young people with access to support is critical, given their relatively poor knowledge of the labour market and the risk of extended unemployment. So, we recommend that intervention begins much sooner to minimise detachment of the labour market and dependency on the welfare state.

Also, a critical part of what we found doing our research, was that employment initiatives have to comprise a real job element.   Now this is not so much about the youth contracts or youth employment initiatives being real jobs. It was more so to do with participants receiving a wage in return of their labour. To incentivise them to think ‘Hold on, the world of work is better than the world of benefits. I want to go out and work rather than stay in bed.’ Or those other stereotypes people have of the youth unemployed.

As both case studies illustrate, in this way they not only will gain experience that is essential for improving their employability (and thereby enhance their long-term employment prospects), but they will also experience the financial benefits of being employed.

MvS: One final question.  If you were in control of government, let’s say you are prime minister, what kind of changes would you try to put in place? What concrete changes would you want to see in order to solve this problem or minimise the effects of youth unemployment?

CB: There is no silver bullet. I do not think you can just solve youth unemployment like that. It is clearly, as the data illustrates, a structural problem which may have been exacerbated by the financial crisis. So for that reason it has to be quite a multi-lateral approach. You cannot just target one specific area, because ultimately that will not solve the problem with youth unemployment.  I would encourage, as the Manchester case study suggests, greater involvement of local authorities to pump up local youth employment in their area.

I would also encourage that companies which bid for public sector contracts should have youth employment sustainability clauses in those contracts. So to get a large public sector contract for building a new hospital (or whatever), then, as part of them being awarded that contract they should be taking on unemployed youths and giving them practical work experience to help them increase their employability for future jobs which may come their way.

MvS: Thank you very much, Callum Biggins.

This podcast was made for Pod Academy by Maarten van Schaik. For more information about Pod Academy, the research we have dealt with in our podcasts and other interesting news on podcasting, please visit us at, or go to our Facebook or Twitter pages. For more information about CentreForum, please visit, where you can also download your own copy of Callum’s research paper on youth unemployment.

Jan 27 2013



Rank #7: Improving children’s mental health

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Where once public health was about clean water supplies and infectious diseases it is now mental health – and in particular depression, stress  and anxiety amongst children –  that has become the defining public health issue.  This is not surprising when we see that 1 child in 10 in the UK suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder, and the numbers are rising

So we have been speaking to contributors to a publication from the Faculty of Public Health, The Way Ahead: Why We Need to Improve Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing (2011).

It seems that the more we find out about brain development, the more pressing this issue becomes.  Early intervention is crucial.

Each of our contributors looks at a different aspect of children’s mental health.

  • Prof Alan Maryon Davis provides an overview of the importance of parenting in the early  years
  • Dr Philip Wilson – looks at how doctors and health visitors need to look out for language delay  in young children as a predictor of possible long term mental health problems
  • Dr William Bird – Explores the role of the natural environment in children’s wellbeing, how having access to green space builds mental resilience.

Prof Alan Maryon Davis:  Unless children have an upbringing which is positive and presses the right buttons, which provides them with emotional wellbeing, unless they feel happy and secure in their early years, they go on to have all sorts of problems later on – conduct disorders (that is, challenging behaviour), emotional problems such as anxiety, perhaps depression, problems with their self image, their self confidence.  This affects their learning, they have problems assimilating knowledge.  They can have all sorts of behavioural problems and it tracks on up as they go through childhood.  So as young people they reflect those early problems, perhaps in anti social behaviour.  This then affects their chances of employment – getting a job – it affects their whole life really.

Then, in turn, when they themselves become parents, it affects what sort of parents they become.  So there is a cycle, an intergenerational cycle.   It is very important.  It is a chicken and egg thing, you have to catch this as early as possible and do something about it – encouraging really positive parenting and a positive environment in the very earliest days of somebody’s life.

Dr Philip Wilson:  Language delay can be caused by a range of factors.  It can be caused by genetic factors eg autism spectrum disorders.    But it can also be caused by neglect.  We know, for example, that the vast majority of children in the care system have language delay, and the vast majority of prisoners have communication difficulties.  Had we been able to go back and assess their language as young children we would almost certainly have found significant abnormalities in their communication abilities.

We know that language delay is associated with a range of problems.  For example, the vast majority of children excluded from school have communication difficulties.  If a child arrives at school unable to understand what the teacher is saying their behaviour is likely to be perceived as disruptive to the class and that is likely to lead to a range of negative consequences that can be very difficult to put right by the time they are 5, or 6, or 7.  It can be virtually impossible to put it right.  If language is an important issue, then the time to get things right is before the child reaches that age.

There is a growing body of evidence of types of intervention that can support families to develop the language of their child.  In Glasgow now we are just starting a universal contact between health visitors and families when children are 30 months of age.  Health visitors are using a very simple tool to assess children’s language development.  In fact we think the tool could be as simple as asking the parents whether the child has a vocabulary of 50 words and whether they are able to put 2 words together to make a meaning. If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, then that is worthy of further investigation and a likely need for help.  30 months is a good age, when there are some relatively simple things we can do to identify vulnerability.

The point of early intervention is that it produces more benefits than late intervention.  The case for investing in the early years is about getting a bigger bang for your buck.

At a universal level there are messages we can promote to improve the quality of interaction between parents and their children, improve their sensitivity, improve the enjoyment parents have in being parents!   For example, encouraging parents to talk with their babies, to use backward facing buggies.  There are also policy issues that can impact on the environment children are brought up in, – the obvious one being maternity leave and paternity leave.

We have produced a fair bit of evidence that GPs and health visitors in general are not very well trained in the issues surrounding early brain development, for example knowing about the importance of the identification of language delay, so it is clear that there is a fair bit of scope for further education.

Prof Alan Maryon Davis  Training is vital,  not only for parents and children themselves,  but also for the professionals that come into contact with them.  They need training in how parenting works, how that early environment works, what the influences are – all that is very important.

I also think we need much more research, particularly in the whole business of promoting mental health in children and young people – that whole positive side of things, promoting positive health and well being.  Wellbeing is not a word we often use, but it is coming into the parlance now.  What do we mean by wellbeing?  Particularly as applied to children.  Let’s understand that, let’s do more research into what wellbeing is, what the factors are.  If we can get that right, we might be making real inroads into this.

Dr William Bird   There are 2 effects [of not having access to green space] – both immediate and long term.  The first one is physical inactivity, children are much less active than they used to be and that has a direct impact on their development – on balance, on bone structure, on their muscles and on their ability to do physical activity as an adult – that is all determined by their  level of activity as a child.  And the reason they are not doing activity is that there is a direct correlation between being physically active and being outdoors.  For children it’s a straight line, the more they are indoors, the less activity they do.  What we say as adults is ‘they’ve got sport’.  But sport tends to be in a short, sharp period for an hour or so, it’s highly structured and for the rest of the time they don’t do very much.  Sport is good, and we want to encourage more of it, but it doesn’t appeal to all children.  So we need to encourage both sport and playing in the natural environment where children of every ability are far more active.

A lot can take place in an inner city park.  There is no doubt that if you introduce a child to a park, and give them a football or give them just time to run around – and if there is some kind of vegetation, perhaps a tree that has fallen down, that’s where they’ll go.   They have an inquisitive nature,   they want to catch the bug, they want to catch the beetle.  Even a small patch of green space in an inner city area is enough to get a child excited – a window box, just turning over a stone,   So children have a natural relationship with nature.

So there are inactivity problems, and also mental health problems.  The mental health problems perhaps being the most important.

Children living in inner cities have incredible mental stress, they’ve got problems in their environment, they can have problems with their family which may be falling apart, they may even be being abused, they have crime around the corner, they are surrounded by concrete, a school which may not be very supportive.  They are having to cope with a huge amount of stress.  Coping with that stress depends on people helping them, but it also depends on the place.  If they have a natural environment – green space – around them, they can cope with more stress than children who just have concrete around where they live.

There were a series of studies in Chicago where there were 13 miles of concrete blocks, where thousands of African Caribbean children and adults lived.  There were some blocks that had trees and grass around them, and other blocks where the trees and grass died and were concreted over.  Families were allocated a flat randomly, so you have a perfectly randomised control trial.  Domestic violence, violence of all types was greater in the flats surrounded by concrete and no trees, and children could cope with stress better when they lived in the flats with trees and grass, compared with the children in the flats surrounded by concrete.  Academic achievement too was better in the flats with the trees and grass.

What are the longer term implications?

Firstly, children who have mental health problems under the age of 16 are far more likely to have mental health problems as an adult – so anything that can help offset that creates much better prospects for long term mental health.

Then, inactive children are likely to become inactive adults.

So you have this foundation of mental health and physical activity which is so important.  Thirdly, there is the relationship with the natural environment.  This sounds almost spiritual, but it’s not, it’s about learning how to use the resource of the natural environment.  It’s a resource like many other resources, and if they don’t understand it by the time they are 12 the evidence shows that they won’t understand it as an adult.  The consequences of that for the environment are that  you are creating a whole new generation that doesn’t understand why it should be saved – but more than that, for the human – for children becoming adults, the inability to connect with the natural environment is an opportunity lost of being able to create that resilience for your health,  of being able to be out doors, use it to handle stress when things are difficult, basically being able to use it as a buffer against the stresses of an urban area.  So if you don’t understand it, you can still do it, but it doesn’t have the strength.  So there is a generation for whom activity, mental health and the environment are all being lost.

What can be done to ensure people feel part of their environment

You create a modern city, an exciting city.  I’ve been to Shanghai helping them to create their new city – and green space is going to become a huge part of it.  They know, and New York likewise (where green space is going to have the highest priority), Bogota have done it already – cities have to be for all life, not just people, but the greater the connection the better for the life of the people.  The mayors of these cities aren’t doing it for sentimental reasons, or because it looks pretty, they are doing it because they know it will make for a more vibrant and healthy city for the people.

More information:


Phil Wilson is a GP and senior lecturer in infant mental health at the University of Glasgow. He trained in medicine after completing a research doctorate in neurochemistry. He became a partner in a general practice in south-east Glasgow in 1988, where he continues to work part-time. He was appointed to his research post in 1995 where his work has focused on the development and evaluation of a range of interventions in primary care. His current research deals with the role of the primary care services in improving infant mental health. He contributed to the Scottish Needs Assessment Programme on Child and Adolescent Mental Health and the HeadsUpScotland Infant Mental Health report, and has published numerous academic papers on early childhood mental health. He is currently involved in evaluating the parenting support strategy for Glasgow and in research designed to improve early identification and treatment of psychological and psychiatric problems in infancy.

Alan Maryon-Davis FFPH FRCP HonFRCGP is honorary professor of public health at Kings College London. He was the former head of health sciences at the Health Education Council (later Authority) and worked on a number of health promotion programmes aimed at parents, teachers and children. More recently he has focused on reviewing evidence for health improvement and preventive interventions focused on disadvantaged communities. Alan currently chairs the NICE Public Health Topic Consideration Panel and is a trustee of Alcohol Research UK. He is also vice-chair of the National Heart Forum and immediate-past President of the UK Faculty of Public Health. He has worked closely with the media for over 35 years with extensive experience in writing and broadcasting on health matters.

William Bird is a strategic health advisor to Natural England and a GP. He is also the founder of Intelligent Health. William has pioneered the research and promotion of physical activity, the natural environment and sustainability as a health benefit for over 15 years.  Author of several research papers which have influenced current thinking on the benefits of outdoor physical activity, William currently advises the UK Government through the Department of Health and Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) on the financial and health benefits of exercising in the natural environment.

This podcast is based on a publication from the Faculty of Public Health edited by Rachael Jolley:  Thinking Ahead – why we need to improve children’s mental health and wellbeing

  1. Why invest in the pre-school years?
  2. Family culture and its impact on childhood wellbeing
  3. Why parenting support matters
  4. Improving mental health and wellbeing through schools
  5. Building a better environment for children’s wellbeing
  6. The natural environment and its impact on children’s mental wellbeing
  7. The impact of the media and advertising on children and their mental health
  8. Further related reading
  9. Useful organisations


Jul 25 2011



Rank #8: Hannah Arendt – Truth and Politics

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“No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I. know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.

Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade.

Why is that so? And what does it mean for the nature and the dignity of the political realm, on one side, and for the nature and the dignity of  truth and truthfulness, on the other?”

From Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought

So says political philosopher Hannah Arendt, the subject of this lecture which is part of the IF Project’s lecture series, Thinking between the Lines: Truth, Lies and Fiction in an age of populism.

Dr Dan Taylor of Goldsmiths, University of London, takes the title Truth and Politics (the title of Arendt’s essay quoted above), to explore the testy and troublesome relationship between truth and politics.

Are all politicians just liars?  asks Dr Taylor.  No, but some lie a lot more than others.  Why? he asks.  Is there something about being powerful and wealthy that makes you lie to mystify the conditions of your own power to suggest that your position is well earned, natural?

And why do we place such a premium on the truth, anyway, when we are so cynical about it?

Dr Taylor uses Arendt’s work as a tool to consider Donald Trump’s ‘alternative facts’, Ivanka Trump, Extinction Rebellion and climate deniers, the Pentagon Papers, Rudy Giuliani (who said the truth is not the truth), and the ‘spin’ of Tony Blair.

Facts are just facts, says Dr Taylor, but lies create an alternative reality and undermine our faith in democracy.  Totalitarianism relies on a network of lies, that reinforce each other and create an alternative reality.

Hannah Aarendt is perhaps best known for writing about “the banality of evil” in connection with the trial of Adolf Eichmann 1961-63.

Nov 12 2019



Rank #9: Making things up: what does it mean to ‘make things up’ in literature?

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Who is allowed to make things up?   What does fiction writing have to do with life? Is a novel a document? This is the second lecture in the If Project series, Thinking Between the Lines: truth, lies and fiction in an age of populism.  Dr Katie da Cunha Lewin (@kdc_lewin) explores what it means to ‘make things up’ in literature, especially looking at writing by women.

“I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to imagine anything. It’s in the living room with me. – Sheila Heti

The quote above from Sheila Heti, a Canadian writer whose recent work Motherhood (2018), dealt with the many questions that underpin the idea of mothering and child-rearing, helps us think about the central idea of this lecture: what does it mean to ‘make things up’ in literature? Who is allowed to make things up? And what happens if writing avoids doing that all together?

In my argument for this lecture, I want to unpack some of these questions, but I also want to suggest something about the politics of making things up.

This lecture will be split into two sections: in the first, I’ll be talking about writing and its relationship to life; that is, writing and our idea of its relation to truth. In the second section, I want to discuss the relationship between writing, invention and reality in contemporary American writing by women. I want to think about how this relation to truth changes according to who is doing the writing, and importantly how that truth is perceived by the wider reading public. In this, we find lots of issues to do with authority, agency, and labour – but there is also a wider question about why we want our fiction to be ‘made up’ and what it is that our fiction looks like. And also want to look ahead slightly to (perhaps the not so distant future) about the effect on technology and our ‘truth.’

This theme has come from my own research on the idea of the genius and who is allowed to ‘be’ a genius. I don’t particularly like the term, but the way it is used, thrown around in reviews, or used as selling points for exhibitions interests me. Much of what comes to define a genius is, I suggest, that we know what the genius looks like: a single, solitary man, brooding somewhere remote: like THIS [SLIDE – Image 1] or THIS [SLIDE – Image 2]. The first image shows us the isolated romantic hero, surveying the land and looking out at the contrasts and beauties of nature, isolated in a wild landscape beyond human reckoning. In the other we have the idealised image of solitude, the man alone in his room, thinking deeply and engaging with the world from within his own domain. This image of the solitary genius is defined the space in which the genius lives: this space, the ‘writing room’ as we may think of it, is quiet, owned by them in some capacity, out of way enough to allow them to work undisturbed, and often full of particular possessions, books, posters, artwork, comfy chairs, writing equipment, and a desk.

I’ll be looking at some extracts from novels, and some short stories, but I’ll also be including some extracts from interviews and also reviews. In this way, we can see not only what women were writing about but also the reception of the work. This is how the lines of culture are drawn: it is not only through readers that authors meet their fate; it is also through the tastemakers, those who help facilitate the production of culture, publishers, editors, cultural critics, magazine editors, radio programmers etc. etc. It’s important to remember that by the time a book is published it has gone through many hands already; once is out there in the world it also has to be sorted, assigned a genre, a place on the bookshelf, the sort of home it goes to – pre/post. In today’s world of publication – which, we mustn’t forget is also a business – there are certain trends and certain styles of writing which are of interest. So, in the book industry, we now have an interesting tension between writing that dubs itself autofiction (or other versions of this genre) and the people who stand to make money from it. This is another problem that underscores my argument here: between what lives matter, who can make things up, AND what people are willing to publish and disseminate into the world. We can no longer pretend that writing is produced in a direct link from the writer to the reader in an unfettered way. It makes its way through channels that also obfuscate themselves – if you’ve been taught by me before, you’ll have heard me say this a lot! But any idea of what is natural or normal needs unpacking – the journey of fiction is by no means a straight or simple path.

Section 1

 So, in this section, I want to tease out the central problem of writing and reality, or, more specifically, think of the way that writers have always considered this problem.

I want to start off with some questions that could form the basis of our discussions in seminars:

  • What does fiction writing have to do with life?
  • Is a novel a document?
  • Is any writing a document?
  • Can fiction represent life?
  • What does it mean for writing to be representative?
  • ‘Where are we when we write?’

I think it’s probably obvious to say but fiction has tried to deal with some of these problems for a long time: regardless of the genre in which someone may work or we may read, the idea of the ‘truth’ of reading comes in many forms, and many guises. It may be that true comes to mean a way that a text can make itself recognisable as a world we live in – [recognition]; it may refer to a truthful ‘idea’, that is an idea about life that resonates with us, which is a form of [universalising] human experience. It may simply be that it recounts ‘true’ stories, its historical, its political, its engaging with things we know to be true.

But there is another question that underscores this which is about our relation to and expectation to fiction, as if fiction owes us certain kinds of experiences, thoughts or after-effects. This is perhaps a question which leads us down an interesting route, often down the same route which comes from people wondering about the use of fiction, which is a separate but related question. Affective response: how do we want to feel, what do we want to know?

It seems often that this expectation is drawn from the genre of realism, the origins we find in the 19th century novel. A wonderful quote I always like to use to think about this is from write George Eliot:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.

So in this opening gambit, Eliot talks of pens, of ink, of writing and of history. But she also talks about sorcery, and rituals. Though the relationship between her and writing is presented in a fairly straightforward way in the second sentence, the first sentence in its visions sits in rather strange contrast. Eliot sets out not only the world but her relationship to it – she will conjure, like the sorcerer she mentions, the ‘far reaching vision of the past.’ She names the ‘reader’ to whom this image is directed, and she names the specifics of what she depicts. Her pen and ink are her tools to render the scene. The second sentence aims to ground it in a further specific reality but the opening sentence not only renders a locale outside of Eliot’s immediate moment, but through a ritual that calls for us ‘far-reaching visions of the past.’ So, does Eliot ‘reveal’ a ‘vision’ or does she ‘show’ us reality? She’s playing a kind of trick.

D.H. Lawrence sought to write of the importance of the novel in his essay ‘Why the Novel Matters’ and interestingly chose the same object, the pen, but put it more readily into the hand:

‘My hand, as it writes these words, slips gaily along, jumps like a grasshopper to dot an i, feels the table rather cold, gets a little bored if I write too long, has its own rudiments of thought, and is just as much me as is my brain, my mind, or my soul. Why should I imagine that there is a me which is more me than my hand is? Since my hand is absolutely alive, me alive.

Whereas, of course, as far as I am concerned, my pen isn’t alive at all. My pen isn’t me alive. Me alive ends at my finger-tips.’

Lawrence dwells on the image of the writing hand, this feverishly alive image, as it darts about ‘slips gaily along’ and generally lives, but this life stop shorts of the pen. The pen is distinctly not alive, it records the vivacious life that fills the hand. Later he writes of the novel:

‘The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do.’

In the essay, he asserts the higher status of the writer over all other disciplines because they can see a wholeness which other disciplines just cannot. In books being the ‘bright book of life’ but not ‘life’ itself Lawrence makes a careful distinction it the relationship between the composer and what is composed. It is a ‘tremulation on the ether,’ a kind of wave that communicates. But, as he says, ‘books are not life’, they cannot be made into a replica of life, they are an illuminated version of that life.

Throughout the essay, Lawrence writes often of the experience of writing the book, bringing it back to himself in the role of the writer. This role of the writer becomes extremely complex when thought of in line with the questions I posed above: it is a question of the author as mediator, as the boundary between the world and the text produced. This is another idea that I want to address in my lecture here: that question of authority, and what it means for a writer to have or be an authority on the world.

In modernist art, and particularly writing, writerly authority did not quite function in the same way as it had done in earlier novels; that is, the idea of the writer asserting themselves as a confident, assertive ‘I’ was troubled, as events such as WW1/WW2 had profound impacts on the idea of subjectivity, and psychology and psychoanalysis gave new insights into the workings of the mind. We can think of the writing of Samuel Beckett and of Franz Kafka who gave extraordinary new insights into the possibility that lies behind the ‘I’, the speaking subject who no longer knows how it is that they can speak, and if they can speak at all.

In 1967, this idea of authority, or indeed the lack of it, was taken a step further, through one of the most important writers of the second half of the 20th century Roland Barthes, who wrote several influential works, but probably none so influential as his essay ‘The Death of the Author’. In this famous work, Barthes maintained that the ‘death of the author gives birth to the reader’, meaning that the authority of the author to be able to determine the meaning of his own work (and I say his deliberately) was no longer feasible in culture. Instead, in giving birth to the reader, Barthes was essentially promoting a new readership, one that no longer had to believe in that direct relationship, the ink, the pen and the hand in the author.

However, this is all well and good, but unfortunately Barthes failed to take into account that for some writers, being able to speak with some form of authority was crucial! This is not to say that the feats of modernism are to be discounted, – which I would never say! – but that, for some contemporary writers, including women writers, it is not possible to dismiss the ‘I’, nor is it possible to relinquish an idea of authority.

In Barthes claiming the death of the author, he was doing nothing to the history of the canon, which was determined by a very particular set of writers, viewpoints and languages. In fact, one critic Marjorie Perloff notes, going back to my earlier idea of genius, that in some ways, he was in fact reaffirming the idea of the canon – he wasn’t saying, what had come before needed to be ignored and that those canonical texts were no longer relevant, but that they could be studied in new ways. Essentially he opened up their possibility, and this was concurrent with the rise of reader-response theory which specifically looked at the reader as a new area of study, whilst minimising the importance of authority for others.

At this point, I’d like to think about something Will Davies said in his lecture, about our knowledge, in terms of what we want it to do. As he was talking, I was also thinking about other questions: what do we want our knowledge to do? What do we want our knowledge to show us? Where should it be going?

There is also a question here of the aim of writing, or should I say, particularly lofy or high aims of writing – writing is metaphysical, writing exists on another plain, or writing is escapist. Reading about cooking, or travelling to work on the tube or buying toothpaste does not seem to allow for any lofty ideas. But I think in keeping writing in this sort of ‘elevated position’ we do many lives, experiences, ideas a disservice. This is part of the problem of thinking about writing of the public/private life as somehow separate to the rest of our lives – it means that we continue to demarcate different areas that are and are not for art.

How can women have authority? How can people of colour have authority? What does this mean?

The self-regarding woman

 So now my lecture comes to its second half, in which I think more explicitly about the idea of women and the way that writing ‘truth’ becomes a lot trickier in a world that privileges certain experiences over others. Now in my argument, I am not pitching men and women’s writing necessarily against each other, or suggesting that men’s writing does one thing and women’s writing does another, as there will also be times when this is not the case or more likely to be the case etc etc. However, there may well be a tendency towards a gendered reading of particular styles or content choices in the work of women than of men and I want to explore this tendency.

To return to Sheila Heti, in the same interview from which the above quote is taken, she responds to the interviews ideas about writing about the self when one is a woman and narcissism and she answers in this way:

“I once interviewed Elena Ferrante and asked her about that narcissistic question,” says Heti. “And her answer, I can’t remember it verbatim, was that women have always been surveilled by their husbands and their fathers and their brothers, and the beginning of being an independent woman is to surveil yourself. And I just loved that. You can call that narcissistic if you want, but it just seems like it’s a way of preventing women from thinking about their own lives.”

In Sheila Heti’s eye, this ‘surveying’ culture has had a remarkable effect on the way we see ourselves – hardly a surprising idea! – that we cannot help but turn on ourselves. But that though there may be something too close, too icky about this, it may help women develop another sense of agency and about their own control. Now, though Heti puts this in fairly simple terms, I think what she describes her is extraordinarily and fundamentally a challenge to the way that anyone wants to think of themselves. To turn the penetrative gaze of misogyny onto oneself is an extraordinary ask of any fiction but its an important starting point for any discussion about the gendering of the truth because it means that the ‘truth’ we are being told is a very definitively from one perspective – perhaps this gaze, turning it back on ourselves, reveals that process to us.

So, I want now to talk a bit about a genre of fiction which might fit into what Heti is talking about above and what some are describing as a contemporary trend. This is the genre of autofiction. ‘Autofiction’ is a rather slippery idea, and one I’m not even sure we can define as very different to the normal novel, however, it is used at the moment to describe fiction that basically fulfils three ideas: Main character shares the same name as author; Roughly mappable onto the author’s life; Written in an ‘I. Basically, its thought of as a ‘thinly veiled’ version of the author. Recent examples include Chris Kraus’s famous example I Love Dick, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me Be Lonely and Citizen, Siri Hustvedt’s recent novel Memories of the Future – and this is just a few. It’s interesting to note that it is seemingly favoured by women – a certain kind of middle class, privileged woman mind you. Now this is where we might want to ask why? Why do women want to write in a way that fictionalises their life or that contains details that might signal out there life? This led critic Alex Clark to suggest that perhaps people had stopped ‘making things up’ as it were because:

‘In the perpetual present of social media, when personal presentation, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, is everything, these autofictions offer an alternative, experimental narrative of self. They are attempts to reshape and repurpose a literary form, and their sudden popularity speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

Now I want to come back to this idea. But before I do, I want to look at a case study of what happens when a woman may write in this way – in a memoir form that could also be potentially fictional. There is a very interesting parallel to be found between two different writers, British-Canadian writer Rachel Cusk and Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard which gives an interesting insight into the perils and pitfalls of autofiction or life-writing for women in comparison to men.

So both authors have written books which document their life looking after children, the mundanity of domestic life, and then subsequently documented their divorce. Knausgaard’s book My Struggle (provactively named and done on purpose) is a project of 6 parts that tries to document absolutely everything that has happened to the writer throughout his whole life. Cusk’s book A Life’s Work documents the birth of her two children born 15 months apart, whilst Aftermath, traces the disintegration of her marriage to the children’s father. Both books for Cusk and the book series for K have been called controversial – and both authors are now labelled that often. The critical responses to these texts are extraordinarily telling about some of the things this lecture has already touched on – what art should so us, gender imbalance, authority – and some of them are rather staggering. I won’t dwell too long on lots and lots of reviews, but the difference between critics responses to either of these projects are amazing.

Knausgaard’s project is met with (not universally!) rapturous applause – it is Proustian, it is Joycean, it is staggeringly detailed.

The language praises the style, how mesmerising it is to read details of a man’s life, his opinions etc., the size, the gargantuan scope yadda yadda yadda!

Now let’s turn to Cusk. The responses to her work are extraordinary. Here is a particularly choice one from Camilla Long which covers both books.

Cusk actually wrote a response in The Guardian – which I’d like to look at in our seminar – in which she outlines the criticism she received about her skills as a mother, a wife, a human, in response to this text. What we can see here is what I was lining up earlier, the policing of what kinds of knowledge we want, where we want our art to take us. We could possible define this as a tendency to describe women giving intimate details of their life as a form of ‘oversharing’ – a term critic Rachel Sykes has discussed in relation to its use as a way of defining work by other women writers who are seen to share ‘too much.’ As she notes…

When we consider that oversharing is the disclosure of personal information inappropri- ate to a given context, it further emerges as a term loaded against women, who do not set the cultural context in which others share, receive, and judge their disclosures. In an extensive analysis of just one article on oversharing published in Women’s Health magazine, Jessica Butler suggests that criticisms of oversharing tend to center on “traditionally female realms—children, food/cooking, the body, etc.—in a manner that upholds conservative ideals of femininity and disallows discussion of these arenas by suggesting that they are trivial and inconsequential” (2013, 14)

To write about oneself as a woman is seen as deeply embarrassing, revealing, trivial, and above all, narcissistic. Because underpinning this is a problem of labour: what we count as the truly hefty labour of writing. This goes back to the images I showed you – in those images, there are no children, there are no cookbooks, and there are no piles of laundry. There are men alone. But behind this solitary man there lies many people allowing him that privilege.

Truth and disclosure

 Autofiction is also about the need to tell and disclose – we wouldn’t know if the book was based in the author unless interviews, reviews, Wikipedia tells us so. Elena Ferrante has largely escaped this fact-finding mission because she refused (until she was outed) to name herself or give details about her life – Olivia Laing, on the other hand, did not meet that fate, because she was so visible on Twitter, and people knew who her husband was, what flowers she liked, where she went on holiday.

There seems to be another problem here about technology, social media and the compulsion to give ‘truths’ about ourselves. Sykes sees this problem of the overshare of coming from the internet: ‘Oversharing has also become shorthand for a kind of narcissism and moral decay widely associated with social media. Articles diagnosing the contemporary culture of oversharing proliferate.’  So there is a problem here – between what social media may allow us to do, the currency of its creation, and the problem of what literature should do – it seems that some readers, cultural critics at least, want to keep literature in a bygone form – but is this not a dangerous kind of nostalgia – novels used to be better! Novels used to be proper!

Rather than Clark seeing this an ‘alternative version’ of ourselves, I think we can more easily read this trend as simply ‘another’ version of the self and I think the term ‘autofiction’ may be a kind of protection for women writing about themselves – the word fiction in the title, as if to say, don’t worry this is indeed made up, through its drawn from my life! The assurance of its veracity, without the possibility of the attack.

I think the kind of writing I am interested in, is one that takes this central problem of truth and uses it as a means of proliferating more possibility. Writer Lucia Berlin, whose work is sometimes seen as a precursor to the contemporary autofiction movement writes:

‘Somehow there must occur the most imperceptible alteration of reality. A transformation, not a distortion of the truth. The story itself becomes the truth, not just for the writer but for the reader. In any good piece of writing it is not an identification with a situation, but this recognition of truth that is thrilling.

Oct 15 2019



Rank #10: Nervous States

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“We need to get away from the idea that knowledge, expertise and truth are obvious and given.”

This first lecture in the IF Project lecture series 2019, Thinking Between the Lines: Truth, lies and fiction in an age of populism is given by Professor Will Davies of Goldsmith’s, University of London.

Professor Davies’s powerpoint can be found here.

What does it mean to know the world?  Why can’t we agree on what is true anymore?  Why do many people no longer trust experts?

Professor Davies sets out to fathom what is driving the conflicts and fragmentations in the infrastructure underpinning our understanding of the world.   Using his most recent book, Nervous States, as a jumping off point he analyses the the disintegration of consensus, identifying the roles played by the ubiquity and speed of technology as well as economics and psychology.

Importantly he asks, what is a fact?  And in answer looks back in history, drawing on the work of Mary Poovey (A History of the Modern Fact ) who traced the origins of ‘accepted facts’ to the development of accountancy conventions in the 17th century for merchants in Amsterdam who needed to have a commonly understood, accepted, shared and trusted basis for commercial transactions.

He considers why facts that describe the world in this ‘neutral’ way, independent of political, moral and theological argument (such as where civil servants collect data on births, marriages, deaths, road and rail use, levels of immigration, home ownership etc and on which they then base policy recommendations) seem to be less and less persuasive.  He suggests that this is because establishing these neutral facts takes time – in a world guided by feelings and emotions, where we have to be constantly adaptive and alert, decisions are often gut reactions, taken fast.

He ends with a plea for time – time for research, time for reflection.  But concedes that this is swimming against the current tide.

Main picture:”Day 15 #Truth” by mishey_mouse, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Oct 08 2019



Rank #11: Divided Kingdom

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Pat Thane, Research Professor at King’s College, London and Professor Emerita, University of London, explores the social and political history of Britain over the past 100+ years with Pod Academy’s Lee Millam, as they discuss her latest book, Divided Kingdom.

This podcast is a tour de force as Professor Thane takes us from the founding of the Labour Party in 1900 in response to low wages and poor working conditions, through 2 world wars and the arrival of globalisation with its attendant precarity and poverty wages.  Highlighting changing living standards and expectations and inequalities of class, income, wealth, race, gender and sexuality,  she reveals what has (and has not) changed in the UK since 1900, explaining how our contemporary society, including its divisions and inequalities, was formed.

Over the years there are recurring themes such as housing shortages and women’s campaigns for equality, and there are some surprises – the much derided 1970s were actually the time of the greatest equality!

Divided Kingdom, a history of Britain 1900 to the present by Professor Pat Thane is published by Cambridge University Press.

Dec 12 2018



Rank #12: The Real Cost of IVF

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What is the real cost of IVF?  As Louise Brown the world’s first “test tube” baby celebrates her 40th birthday – this seminar organised by the Progress Educational Trust  explores not just the economic cost, but also the emotional and psychological costs.  Worldwide there have been 60 million live births as a result of IVF, but it is still the case that over 60% of IVF cycles don’t work.

Does receiving fertility treatment confer any benefit to patients, even if there is no baby to take home at the end? Is unsuccessful fertility treatment more devastating than no treatment at all, or is it better to at least have had the chance to try?

The event was held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). You may be interested to read the RCOG scientific impact paper on multiple pregnancies following assisted conception, referred to in the seminar

Chaired by Sally Cheshire, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority


Dr Rebecca Brown Jacky Boivin
Professor of Health Psychology and Chartered Health Psychologist at Cardiff University‘s School of Psychology

Research Fellow at the University of Oxford‘s Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

Jessica Hepburn
Author of the books The Pursuit of Motherhood and 21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood

Professor Lesley Regan
President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Photo:  Test tube baby by Brendan Dolan-Gavitt

Jul 25 2018



Rank #13: Putting our genome to work

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This podcast is drawn from a Progress Educational Trust (PET) event called Putting Your Genome to Work: For the NHS, for Industry, for the UK Post-Brexit

Chair:  Sarah Norcross, Director of PET


We are at the beginning of a biomedical revolution built on the promise of genomics. The British government has put this at the heart of its post-Brexit industrial strategy.  So what is the potential of genomics, what is the journey we are setting out on, and what are the pitfalls?

The British Government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper Building a Britain Fit for the Future sets out an ambition for the UK to ‘be the world’s most innovative economy’ and play a leading role in a ‘fourth industrial revolution… characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds’.

The White Paper argues that ‘the government, the NHS and charities can all contribute to make the UK an attractive location for businesses to invest and for patients to benefit’. According to the first in a series of Sector Deals published in the wake of the White Paper, the Life Sciences Sector Deal, ‘a new genomics industry is beginning to emerge… with UK companies like AstraZenecaCambridge EpigenetixGenomics plc and Congenica working with Genomics England‘.

The Sector Deal discusses investments from and agreements with a variety of companies, involving the whole genomes of around 70,000 participants in the 100,000 Genomes Project and around half a million participants in UK BiobankGSK and others have committed to sequencing the whole genomes of the latter, while a separate consortium coordinated by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals will sequence the exomes (partial genomes) of these same participants in the shorter term.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says the Sector Deal ‘proves that life science organisations of all sizes will continue to grow and thrive in the coming years, which means NHS patients will continue to be at the front of the queue for new treatments’.

However, there remains a degree of public unease about the involvement of commercial interests in health. This unease may be intensified at a time when how best to fund and manage the NHS, how best to approach Brexitand who can be trusted with health-related data are all matters of ongoing concern.

Issues discussed at the event included:

What are the benefits of genomics for patients?

How can we ensure that the NHS, and its patients, derive reciprocal benefit from scientific and medical advances that involve people’s genomic data?

How can we address the view that there is, or should be, a clear partition between public and private involvement in health, when the development of medicines and diagnostics has always been led by the private sector (and now the Industrial Strategy involves closer collaboration)?

What can we learn from the world of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, where consumers often consent to their data being used in research (to the commercial benefit of the testing company)?

Finally, can we learn anything from proposals by a US company to treat members of the public neither as patients nor as consumers but rather as ‘data owners’, who will use blockchain technology to make their genomic data accessible (or inaccessible) to whomever they wish?

Photo:  PLOS One Pyhlogeny Comparative genomic DNA hybridization and in silico comparison of gene content within mobile elements of bovine and human SA isolates

Jun 21 2018



Rank #14: The Alt-Right – a journey into mainstream politics?

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Maxwell Ward talks to Dr Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Centre for Right-Wing Studies, about the Alt-Right’s unlikely journey into the mainstream of US politics and their more recent struggles. What are their ambitions? What do they really think of Donald Trump? And where do they go from here?

But the first thing Maxwell wanted to know… who and what are the Alt-Right?

Dr Lawrence Rosenthal: The Alt-Right represents what has long been called in the USA the fringe of American politics. What made them the fringe, or the very definition of the fringe, is that they are outside of the mainstream and do not have particularly a role in national politics. The kinds of ideology that we’re talking about are things that have characterised the Klu Klux Klan in this country and Neo-Nazi organisations in this country. They have not had a role in American Politics nationally since the 1920s and 1930s. But, they continued to exist and they existed in atomised corners. There would be groups in rural Ohio or rural Michigan. There would be numbers of them. But, comes the internet age, and above all social media, they networked. So that’s step one. These guys networked.

Two, there were events that made these people come together beyond simply politics. That has to do with what is better understood as culture. Above all, there was a thing called Gamergate. To some extent, the base of the Alt-Right online consists of what used to be called in Social Science “alienated young men” and they were gamers online. A controversy arose around the place of women in the gamer world. It provoked an immense backlash against feminism itself. Very anti-women. That consolidated this element of what would constitute the Alt-Right. Donald Trump famously said, “Well, these online things aren’t necessarily from Russia. They could have been from some 400-pound kid lying on his mother’s bed somewhere.” The point being that there are these unhappy young men who are engaged more culturally than politically. So, you get the rise of this essentially nihilistic internet culture in which things like Pepe the frog become symbolic and there is a vast array of these symbols. Basically, the thrill of it is it’s edgy and anti-establishment and it’s anti all establishments. Left, right, etc. So you have those guys, the alienated young men and you have the formerly atomised neo-Nazi and KKK groups who have discovered social media and are now not atomised anymore but are a social network or networking on social media.

Finally, you get step three which is the candidacy of Donald Trump. What happens in the world of what would become the Alt-Right is they are electrified. They are electrified because suddenly, at the level of presidential politics in the USA, somebody is talking their language. So, the experience, the decades long political experience of being marginalised, of being the fringe, has suddenly changed. Somebody who is running for president is talking about immigrants the way they talk about them, the very premise of whose campaign is anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist… well, let me be clear about that, anti- “political correctness”. Donald Trump would say things like, “the biggest problem in this country is political correctness.” That, above all, had two constituent elements for the Alt-Right. One was feminism and the other was multi-culturalism. Both of which seem forced down their throats by elites and in these two, in particular, the liberal elites. Donald Trump was like a siren call from the thoroughly unexpected province of not only national politics but presidential politics. So, the Alt-Right became mobilised and a participant in the election of 2016 in a way that that kind of ideological warrior had not participated in American elections since the 1920s and 1930s.

MW: You talk about these disparate groups that have come together. Would you say that, apart from that kind of combative element, that there is a thread, some sort of key beliefs that they share?

LR: Yes! The key belief is that the centre of their politics is white identity. They are self-conscious of what has gone by the name of “identity politics” in this country. Which is to say, the politics of groups like women, like Blacks, like Hispanics, like gay people, increasingly transsexuals, etc. That’s understood as identity politics. Their premise is, “well, this is the identity politics of white people, or European people or European men” and you get variations on that. One is white separatism, white supremacy or white nationalism. In the centre of the consciousness of the Alt-Right is “we are white and we are being displaced.”  Probably the most prominent manifestation of Alt-Right politics in this country was Charlottesville in Virginia where there was a “Unite the Right” rally. In the evening, on the University of Virginia campus (University of Virginia is a venerable institution in this country, founded by Thomas Jefferson) they marched through with torches which were kind of tiki torches. But what are you going to do?! It’s just not an easy country to find several hundred torches available. And they chanted and some of the chants were old Nazi chants, like “Blood and Soil”, which is a remarkable thing to chant in the USA where the country has developed through immigration. It’s not as though “Blood and Soil”, which is to conjure up the kinds of racial tropes of the Nazis, which says, “We are the people who were born here, on this soil, ‘Blood and Soil’”. It’s kind of an irrational thing in the USA.

Okay, that’s one. Another was “Jews will not replace us”. One of the elements in the Alt-Right has been the rise of political anti-Semitism in a way that has been completely out of bounds in the USA in my lifetime and I’m no spring chicken. Perhaps the most revealing of the chants was, simply, “You will not replace us”. That chant goes to the heart of what the white nationalism of the Alt-Right was about and is about. It is the conviction that white America is being displaced and is being displaced by newcomers – and they are largely people of colour – and that traditions are being displaced. The premise of the “Unite the Right” was about replacing statues or defending statues that celebrate civil war heroes in the USA. This was in particular about Robert E. Lee, who was the chief general of the American confederacy. So, if you take seriously, and I do, that chant “You will not replace us”, it is the death of what white nationalist identity politics is about.

Using the words identity politics, you have to understand that this is a different kind of identity politics than Black identity politics, female identity politics, Hispanic, gay, let’s call them “classical identity politics” which is essentially a politics which argues, “We do not have a seat at the table and our politics is about demanding a seat at the table.” White identity politics is, “We are being cast out of the table. Other people are taking our place.”. The first one is about being deprived of rights and being deprived of justice. The other is about a sense of being dispossessed from what you have.

MW: While white identity links the Alt-Right together, a populist fury at the political elite fuelled Donald Trump’s election campaign. I asked Dr Rosenthal to explain how important economic issues had been in that and in the Alt-Right’s rise to prominence.

LR: People tend to divide up about whether they explain it from the cultural point of view or whether they explain it from the economic point of view. Basically, those two things went hand-in-hand and they are both true. The American economy has become deindustrialised. The kinds of expectations that white, non-college-educated males, above all… the kinds of expectations that the generations of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them, which had to do with, we’re talking in stereotypes here, the availability of reasonably well-paid jobs in things like factories have gone away. The cities and towns that characterise those places have become well-characterised as the “Rust Belt” in America. So, what are their life expectations? Their life expectations are things like being security guards in Walmart or unemployment. They are poorly paid jobs which are a step down from what their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had. So, you get a kind of deterioration of life chances among a big portion of the American white working class and you get enormous dysfunction along with that. This dysfunction is characterised by things like diminished life spans. Life spans have gone down among this class of people. Perhaps even more notable is the rise of drug addiction, above all heroin and opioids. So, you have the dislocation, the end of the industrial system. To the extent to which there is manufacturing in this country, and there is, it tends to be computer driven at this point. So, you need to be educated even to work in the factories these days. What happens to those people?

From about 1973 to 2008 the dispossession of the American working class was like a wave that was rolling in very slowly. The wave broke in 2008, with the financial crisis. The last thing to break was that the housing market which collapsed. The way a lot of people had been sustaining themselves went like this, “We have this house. Yesterday it was worth $100,000 and, look at this, today it’s worth $150,000. We’re going to refinance it. We’ll get that $50,000 and we’ll put it in our pockets and wait for it to turn to $200,000 and then we’ll renegotiate the mortgage again.” So, there was a kind of buffer and that buffer disappeared in 2008.

MW: Donald Trump may have been a catalyst for the Alt-Right’s growth but what do key figures in the movement, like Richard Spencer, the person credited with creating the term Alt-Right, really think of the president?

LR: Well, people like Spencer, the ideologically committed leadership of the Alt-Right, for them Trump was a vehicle rather than their ultimate goal. Trump put them on the map because they coincided around immigrants and political correctness etc. But there was no expectation that he was going to be the historic leader who would lead to a white nationalist triumph in this country.

Let’s take Steve Bannon. He went to the White House and was, it was a strange phrase, the CEO of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign in its last two-and-a-half months. There are things that Bannon liked about Trump and things where they didn’t match. For example, the great triumph of the Republicans in power, and promoted by Republican party and people like Paul Ryan, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, were tax cuts. That is the single noteworthy legislative achievement. It’s a very regressive tax package which reduced the top-rates for income earners from 39% to 35%. Steve Bannon wanted the rate to go up from 39% to 44%. So, Alt-Right politics at the level of the economy was not in lock-step with the Trump administration. The Trump economic advisors were very much along the lines of this kind of free-market conservatism as opposed to what Steve Bannon used to call “populist nationalism” or “economic nationalism”. Where that economic nationalism has sustained itself so far in the Trump administration is around trade. So, there are people like Peter Navarro, who is a kind of one-off economist, there were not a lot of economists in this country like Peter Navarro, he and a guy called Steve Miller are running the trade and immigration policies in the Trump administration. Those are good from the point of view of the Alt-Right. Whereas things around taxes and the presence of so many people, so many veterans of things like Goldman Sachs, do not follow from the projected policies of the Alt-Right.

MW: You’ve talked quite a bit about the difference already but I’m quite intrigued by what the Alt-Right vision would be for America versus a more traditional Republican vision for America as it stands right now.

LR: The outstanding things are economics and free-trade, foreign policy based on the settlements emerging from World War Two (such as The United Nations, The European Union, trade agreements, international trade agreements which the Republican Party has always stood for) – that would go.

And the Republican Party has been very much against the welfare state in this country. The strongest advocates of “free-market economics” in the Republican Party aim at getting rid of things like social security and Medicare (social security goes back to the 1930s in this country).  However, the Alt-Right, the rank and file, are not particularly interested in all that.  That’s another place economically they are very different than orthodox Republicanism and even extreme free-market conservatism, such as the politics associated with the Koch brothers, who are big financiers of right-wing politics. But it’s a very different right-wing politics eg on foreign policy, no entanglements particularly interested in America being the policemen of the world, things like the United Nations are regarded as assaults on American sovereignty. So, on both foreign policy grounds and economic grounds they are very different.

On the cultural issues, the Alt-Right takes Republican orthodoxy to an extreme, and it’s a racial extreme which the Republican party has been at pains to have, at least, deniability on race questions. One can argue that Republican politics have had racial bias threaded through them for decades but in terms of the rhetoric you will not get it. The head of the Republicans in the Senate for many years was a guy called Trent Lott from Mississippi. He lost his leadership because he talked about  an old Senator from the segregation days called Strom Thurmond who was in the Senate until he was about 100. When he died, Trent Lott said things like, “Well, if we had listened to Strom Thurmond we wouldn’t be here today.” And that was enough to get him bounced from his leadership. Contrast that to the explicit white politics of the Alt-Right and you have a difference. Many would argue that the Republican party has a mask over the racism but at least there was a mask. Now there is no more mask.

Maxwell Ward: If Trump failed to deliver on some of those key ideals that you’ve mentioned, is there a plausible liberal, democratic campaign that could be run to appeal to these fringe groups, do you believe?

Dr Lawrence Rosenthal: You’re raising the question of what happens when it turns out that Donald Trump does not bring the jobs back and Obamacare gave them something which now is being taken away. What happens when those scales come down? One question is whether the cultural half of support for Donald Trump is sufficient? One bellwether of that is the astounding continued support of American evangelical Christians for Donald Trump.           They have been a significant force in American politics at least since the 1990s and their politics is in part is holier than thou. Democrats are libertines and so forth. But here you’ve got Donald Trump, the pussy-grabber, the Stormy Daniels guy – and he doesn’t lose support among evangelical Christians. There have been almost theological explanations of, “This is who God delivered to take us to the promised land. Sometimes God sends the strangest messengers”. So, you get kinds of things like that. But what happens when the rank-and-file of the Alt-Right says, “We’re not getting what this guy wanted to give us”. It’s not a given that Evangelicals are going to abandon Trump, the very premises for their politics going back to the evolution trials, The Scopes trials, of the 1920s. Their response is to find a way to continue to accommodate Trump in spite of his transgressions.

So, you’re asking if the kind of wonderful, fantastical ideal of the Democratic left, the left of the Democratic Party, a version of left-wing populism a la Bernie Sanders will be the thing that will appeal to these people once they’ve been disillusioned by Trump politics.  To that I say, well, maybe! I don’t see any basis on which to say that’s what’s going to happen. It is plausible. There’s no doubt that it’s plausible. It would be a change, in the sense of moving from a kind of expressive politics on the part of the Alt-Right, where we get to say, “Up Yours!” to every establishment to a more interest-based, rational-based politics. And that might happen. But we know very well that the expressive politics has an enormous power and that’s what happened in 2016. Can there be that transformation? Sure, it’s possible.

What would have to happen in order for that to take place would be, I assume, more than anything else, a combination of Democratic organising at the very lowest levels, what we call the “grassroots” here, things like schoolboards, running for schoolboards; running for local judgeships and things like that.  Winning at that level.  And at the national level the emergence of a leader who can capture the imagination of these people, which Hillary Clinton most certainly was not.

MW: Are there any things that you think American politics has learnt, or anything that, looking forward, we could predict about the Alt-Right?

LR: The Alt-Right isn’t doing well. Post Charlottesville is has run aground and, to some extent, what that suggests is the racial quality of Alt-Right politics, the spectacle of Charlottesville, has alienated a great deal of the American population. Also, the idea that it was called the “Unite the Right” rally. And it also had this quality of… let’s call it the militias of the various groups that came together. In part, it was about uniting the militias and that has all fallen apart. That didn’t work. There was a hope, and the strategy of the Alt-Right was there would be, in effect, fighting on the streets in the U.S. That image which is taken from the 20s and 30s and Weimar and things of that nature, explicitly on the part of people like Richard Spencer… I’m not putting those words in his mouth, those are his words. That hasn’t panned out as they thought it would so what might resurrect their fortunes depends on racial politics in this country and also depends on things like war, declaring a new national enemy and going to war, which would energise these people and so forth.

So I would say the hard Alt-right alternative has run aground. But whether the sort of Steve Bannon based Alt-Right, what he calls “populist nationalism”, which is basically that his strategy of an electoral coalition of the type that that succeeded in the Trump 2016 election becomes a kind of permanent electoral force in American politics, the successor to the American Tea Party, is another question. He perceives himself as the leader of that, so will he succeed at holding it together, because it, also, is running into hard times based on the Democratic party’s performance in all of the elections since November 2016. In the elections of November 2018, which are called the Mid-terms, every member of the House of Representatives has to run (it is every two years) and a large number of Senators will be elected in 2018. If there is a strong Democratic wave, that will be a significant defeat for things like Steve Bannon politics and Alt-Right politics.

MW: Could it be the end of the Alt-Right, do you think?

LR: The Alt-Right is never going to go away. Think about the fact that KKK, neo-Nazi politics have managed to exist and be passed down for decades in an atomised way. So, the glory of 2016 might go away, it might diminish, but the Alt-Right is not going away. The real question is, does it go away from the mainstream? Does it cease to be a force in national elections. For it to go away is going to be difficult because it has established itself in media. It has established itself in things like Breitbart news. It has established itself in television, internet, radio. Because of that we will never return to pre-2016. The Alt-Right will continue in its dedicated media.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please also try Kill All Normies. Angela Nagle talks to Alex Burd about how the Alt-Right, a movement rooted in online and video game culture, came to be so influential.

Photo by Anthony Crider “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville August 2017. Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate Battle, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me,” Southern Nationalist, and Thor’s Hammer flags.

To listen to further podcasts please subscribe on itunes and check out our website

May 11 2018



Rank #15: Beauty and the Beast

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Hello, this is Pod Academy. 

Of late, there has been much talk of sexism, in particular sexual harassment, behind the scenes in the film industry.  But what about the films themselves?  Pod Academy’s Tatiana Prorokova took a look at the hit movie Beauty and the Beast.  One of the highest grossing films this year, it has taken over $1bn worldwide.

The recent adaptation of the famous Disney cartoon – Beauty and the Beast – is the film that through a children’s story raises the profound questions of female oppression and sexism that have existed in our society for centuries.

The story focuses on the girl Belle (played by Emma Watson) who lives with her father in a small village in France. Belle is considered weird by most of the villagers and the reason for that is her love for books. The girl is frequently portrayed with a book in her hands; such an image, however, provokes rather negative responses from the people around her primarily because they believe that education, which, in this context, is access to books that Belle has, is not for women. The scene that illustrates this idea even more vividly takes place later in the film when Belle is teaching a small girl how to read. The crowd largely disapproves of that. Sexism thus manifests itself not only through the reactions to the girl who likes reading but also, and perhaps even more crucially, through the idea that men and women have different privileges. This foregrounds gender inequality and reminds the audience about the perverse norms that were generated and sustained by patriarchy.

Belle later finds herself in the castle, where she came to save her father (played by Kevin Kline). She chooses to stay there instead of him, sacrificing herself for the well-being of her parent. Her stay in the castle supports the ideas of sexism and female inequality in multiple ways. First and foremost, being the Beast’s (played by Dan Stevens) prisoner, she is literally locked in the castle. Yet one can interpret this imprisonment from a different angle and argue that it figuratively embodies the existing gender inequality. The visibly subordinate relationship between Belle and the Beast metaphorically visualizes patriarchy in the family life or perhaps even stands for family tyranny. In this respect, the image of the Beast only intensifies the power and cruelty of the oppressor. The castle becomes Belle’s cage where she is both literally and symbolically locked. The girl can only wait for someone from the outside to come and save her. That savior, as the audience can easily guess, could be Gaston (played by Luke Evans) – the former soldier who wants to marry Belle. Belle is thus portrayed as a fragile girl who is oppressed by a male and who can be ultimately saved only by another male.

In the castle, the enchanted servants forcefully redress Belle so that she can look like a real lady – again, the image that is constructed by patriarchy as the only right one and imposed on women. Belle is portrayed in a pompous dress, she is wearing a wig, and her face is richly covered with vulgar makeup. The girl ultimately rejects these clothes, preferring to stay in her old ones.

While the castle symbolizes Belle’s cage, it is pivotal that this is the only place where she is not laughed at for her love for books. The Beast shows her his large library and Belle’s heart seems to melt, for she now has something that she wanted to have so much – access to education. Nevertheless, Belle remains a prisoner; thus while she gets something what she likes, she is still under full control of the Beast.

Apart from Belle, there is another important female character in the film that is introduced to support the issue of sexism provoked by patriarchy. This is Agathe (played by Hattie Morahan). Agathe is first introduced to the audience as a beggar who saves the life of Belle’s father but later turns out to be the enchantress. There are several scenes in the film with Agathe and Gaston that reinforce the issue of sexism. First, Gaston generally thinks that Agathe is crazy because she is not married; thus an unmarried woman, i.e., a woman without a man cannot exist in a patriarchal society without being considered even more inferior than she already is. Second, when Belle’s father tells everyone that Gaston tried to kill him, and Agathe confirms that this is true, everyone still believes Gaston. This arguably happens not only because Agathe is an outcast due to her poor social and financial status but also because she is a woman: the word of a man appears to be more trustworthy than that of a woman.

The film’s final attempt to recover the image of a woman and balance the roles of women and men takes place in the end. Both Belle and Agathe are depicted as saviors: Belle, because she falls in love with the Beast despite his appearance, and Agathe, because she removes the spell from the castle and thus saves lives of its inhabitants and the villagers who came to fight against the enchanted creatures. Yet even in this, as one might argue, triumphant and powerful images of the two heroines, the film discriminates against women. Belle falls in love with the man whose prisoner she was. If she had been free to choose, she might have simply run away from him. She is thus forced to live the life that he imposes on her, including the ultimate marriage. In turn, Agathe appears to be a witch – the image even more dehumanizing than that of a crazy beggar.

Beauty and the Beast is thus a powerful story that raises the acute issues of female oppression and sexism that women continue fighting against even in the twenty-first century. The genre of the film helps deal with these serious socio-political and cultural issues in a rather careful way, despite their far-from-being-fairy-tale nature.

Dec 21 2017



Rank #16: Arts policy – a new approach

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A radical vision for arts policy should be at the heart of any progressive government argue Professor Rod Stoneman and Adam Stoneman.

Note: This is not a transcript of the podcast interview with Rod and Adam, but rather the text of a paper by them on arts policy.

Restoring financial support for the arts would hardly amount to a radical transformative vision for the arts.  The major proposals in a recent document from the Labour party, for example, were entirely defensive: ‘reinstate arts funding’, ‘safeguard our galleries and museums’, ‘protect the BBC’.

It does not have to be like this; in 1965, Government Minister Jennie Lee published Britain’s first cultural white paper, ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’, in which she addressed uneven regional distribution and unequal access to the arts and committed state support for infrastructure. The paper led to the creation of countless museums, galleries and concert halls across the country and completely transformed Britain’s cultural landscape. Rather than attempting to merely return to this post-war model of funding however, we should apply its principles to the challenges of the present.

Access and involvement.

Research shows that well-educated middle-class professionals are most likely to be drawn to the areas of the cultural sector that are dependent on public funding such as opera and theatre, with those on less well-educated unskilled and semi-skilled workers tending to be more involved in the commercial culture industry. Instead of restoring a subsidy model that entrenches this division, we should seize the opportunity to change the funding system in a way that broadens and deepens the audiences that engage with publicly funded arts.

The prevalence of unpaid internships and unpaid labour in the arts presents a major financial barrier to access for those who do not come from privileged backgrounds. Discussion of a ‘real living wage’ to protect arts workers is a good start but there should be a root and branch approach to tackling the lack of diversity in arts organisations, from the shop floor to upper management – of the directors of our ten most popular museums, all are white and only one is a woman.

Renewed and dynamic versions of culture need to be brought out of the institutions into the widest public sphere; for large sections of the population there are invisible barriers to entering galleries, arts centres and concert halls – we can unconsciously assume “those places are not for me”. We should be looking to bring art activities beyond existent facilities to intervene directly in public spaces and within communities. Theatre groups working on civic initiatives, artists’ placements, musical ensembles from housing estates, filmmakers in workplaces and writers conducting workshops in local libraries enable myriad forms of individual and group self-activation. A focus should be placed on facilitating and empowering marginalised communities to speak without constant mediation; this would include the funding of workshops, training and skills-based initiatives, enabling communities to shape discourse about themselves from the very beginning. Importantly this should not be sidelined into ‘community art’ as once-off, philanthropic gestures but should be a guiding principle of national arts policy.

Public art can renew the sense that urban space belongs to all of us. The success of the Fourth plinth project in Trafalgar square, or the use of billboards to display modern painting in Tehran demonstrates this well. Too much of our visual environment is dominated by commercial marketing; companies operating billboards on public land could be required to periodically devote space to classical or contemporary art.

Regional access should be inclusive, localised and democratic; London, and to a lesser extent, the other select urban centres benefit disproportionately from arts funding. Publicly funded theatre, dance, music or art exhibitions must achieve wider geographical coverage, engaging with parts of the country that have tended to miss out. In delivering all this, we should prioritise support for democratic initiatives emanating from practitioners, with artist-led galleries in the visual arts, film workshops, musicians’ and writers’ associations.


The British government has dropped art history from its rosta of A-levels, but it is crucial to remove barriers to arts education, possibly using a new pupil premium. This should be undertaken as part of a wider strategy to reinstate the arts at all levels of the educational system.

We must encourage creativity throughout national curricula; excelling at the natural sciences and mathematics requires the kind of creativity and invention that the arts develop. The teaching of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects should include Art to make ‘STEAM’. This approach draws on the interconnectedness of these disciplines and leads to productive interactions. Students should be encouraged to discover the science of art and vice-versa.

Broadcasting and arts institutions.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to take on the complex question of public service broadcasting but suffice to say a radical arts policy must go beyond defending BBC funding and look to transform it into a more transparent, accountable and open institution. The BBC must serve to challenge the market logic and commercial instincts of private media.

Quangos like the Arts Council and the British Film Institute that fund and administer arts bodies are dangerously opaque and unaccountable. While the ‘arms length’ principle separating government from actual funding decisions is still correct, it is untenable that these organisations’ workings are hidden from the public and that their CEOs can enjoy inflated six figure salaries.

Leisure for all.

In 1894, alongside the call for an eight hour working day, William Morris proposed the slogan “leisure for all”, underlining the importance of the arts to his socialist vision of the future. In a post-industrial age in which our jobs are increasingly automated, the arts can take a more central role in our lives, replacing the ‘prosaic’ with the ‘poetic’ and providing the catalyst for new ideas and for change. Art is communal and active; it is the emotional and intellectual air we breathe and it can play a key role in the construction of different kind of society.

The positive economic and employment effects of the arts sector are relevant but not the only motivation for the creative industries; cost benefit analysis and key performance indicators should not be the primary criteria for developing and assessing policies. Arguments for the arts should not be so habitually defensive and hide behind voodoo economics.

As Gaston Kaboré, a West African filmmaker, suggested: “Culture is not as short-term an issue as the politicians think. In a deep sense it is the route to the future, a projection of how we understand our future.” A radical vision for the arts is essential.

Adam Stoneman works in heritage education in North London, Rod Stoneman works in television and cinema. Both have written extensively on arts, culture and politics.

Picture: mural by Banksy on the wall of the Baribcan Centre in London, to mark an exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Extracts at start of interview:

  • Kate Tempest ‘People’s Faces’
  • Kenneth Brannagh reading from The Tempest at the opening of the 2012 Olympics
  • A beat box with people dancing at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival
  • Pavarotti – Turandot

Nov 02 2017



Rank #17: The ethics of space exploration

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When you use a SatNav, or check a modern weather forecast, you’re using technology made possible by space exploration. Emerging space industries include tourism, and some tentative plans to mine asteroids, or the Moon, for rare materials. Space now has its lawyers, its policymakers, and even its ethicists. Robert Seddon went to King’s College, London, to meet Tony Milligan, a moral philosopher who has worked extensively on the ethics of space exploration.

Robert Seddon:  So, how did that begin?

Tony Milligan:  Well, that’s a piece of guidance from my students, in fact. There was a student who wanted to work on the issue of terraforming—which is one of the big, sexy issues in space ethics—and I thought, hmmm, does the world really need this to be done? And then I looked into it, and he produced the work, and it was a good piece of work. So I thought, this bears looking into a little bit closer; so I did a short course, and the blurb advertising the course was picked up by Space Policy, the journal: they invited me to write an article. And then from the article other people wanted other things, so it sort of snowballed into a new research direction for me, which was good, because it’s a fresh area, and it’s interesting stuff, and you’re also dealing with things that matter. And that’s always a nice added bonus.

RS: Do you see much engagement from people involved in space industries in practical terms?

TM: Well… up to a point. I think there are people who want to have a story about the importance of space. Elon Musk wants to have a story about backing up the biosphere and the ethical significance of what they’re doing, and he’s got shareholders that he has to keep happy, and so on. So there is that high level interest, and the stories aren’t particularly convincing ones from an academic ethicist’s point of view, but they’re interesting stories. And then you’ve got the wilder reaches of the ethics of space, which is all about really big questions, and it doesn’t connect up with the agencies.

And then you’ve got stuff that’s done by people like myself, Jacques Arnould… And we try, in our own modest ways, to be embedded, not… We would like, ideally, more of a dialogue, I think, with the players within industry, but you already have the agencies, you have NASA, you have the European Space Agency, and we connect up at that level.

And so at the moment, for example, there’s a white paper getting put together—I’m meant to be doing editing; I’ll diligently do that tomorrow—and that’s for the establishing of a European institute for astrobiology, and the role of the key people that you would want across Europe, with some feed-in from NASA people and elsewhere, to the rationale to get that off the ground and funded. And one of the things that we say in the white paper is that we need to get, to move, beyond that level of academics talking to the institutions. We also need much more of a dialogue with people from industry.

RS: Do you think Musk and co. will get what they want, or will they have to make do with something else?

TM: Well, nobody ever gets quite what they want… or if they do then they’re never quite sure that it’s what they wanted. When you’ve got investors, when it’s a big money game, when there’s a lot on the line, you have to sell things quite hard. So it’s difficult to understand, or difficult to separate out, what’s the image, what’s the sales patter, from what he realistically expects will be realised. One of the things that usually is over-optimistic is time scales. So there are people: Mars One and so on… (That’s not Elon Musk; Musk’s much more… He’s got the technology to do stuff. Mars One doesn’t.) But they’ll talk about: well, we’re going to put somebody on Mars within a couple of years—and that’s ridiculous: there’s nothing… There’s no way you’re getting there. So they’ll change their time scales, and so on, and you get the same thing up to a point with Musk, and you get the same thing up to a point with Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

So there they have this plane which will take you up into space, and just the very tip of it, just the very edge of it. And they’ve a small-scale model, and it’s going to be simple to scale it up… Ten years later, and the scaling up process looks like it might finally be heading somewhere. So it happens. Progress gets made in terms of the achievement of the goals which are being set by the big financial players, but the progress doesn’t necessarily get made within the time scales that they initially envisage, or even within the time scales that they generally revise a couple of years down the line.

RS: And does that also apply to the ethics of space exploration?

TM: Yes… Where are we in terms of the development of the ethics? Well, we’re in a better situation than we were ten or fifteen years ago, because we have more of a couple of things. We have more of a serious literature, good scholars who’ve done their work and are familiar with the various ethical theories, and who’re not just… They don’t just sit down and say, well, we have three ethical theories, we have deontology and we have consequentialism and we have virtue ethics, and what I’m going to do is, I’m going to write a paper which applies each of these to this particular problem in space ethics. That’s not kind of ideal because the appreciation of the ethical theories doesn’t go through every line that they have, so it’s kind of forced. So we have a better literature.

But we also have an emerging international community of scholars who are much more connected up to one another, and are much more familiar with each other’s work. We go to the same conferences, we sit on the same panels, we publish in the same journals and edited volumes, and that’s crucial in terms of separating out what’s realistic space ethics from what’s a more speculative thing. Because nobody does it all on their own. You have to have that disciplining element of an emerging and expanding and well informed community of fellow scholars too… Well, I need that to make sure that I don’t say quite as many crazy things as I might otherwise say. I mean, I still say crazy things, obviously—but not so many as I would.

RS: I suppose the sceptical position would be something like: look, this is perfect virgin territory. It’s all empty space, it’s rocks… These are resources free for the taking by the first people able to get to them. How could there possibly be a moral concern here?

TM: Well, I think there’s a certain number of reasons why there can be moral concern. First of all, you could run those arguments with the Grand Canyon. You could run them with Ayer’s Rock. But nobody’s about to go mine Ayer’s Rock for driveway chips. There would be objections. Nobody’s about to say, look, we have this big, big space in the United States, we have got some serious problems in terms of agricultural waste—let’s dump all the agricultural waste into the Grand Canyon. Technically feasible but nobody’s going to buy it. And that’s because places sometimes are deemed to have a certain kind of significance. And you can run the arguments about why that is the case: some of them appeal to the significance that these places have in terms of history and culture and the ways that we’ve interacted with them, and that’s certainly the case with Ayer’s Rock. Ayer’s Rock is this sacred site, so you don’t get to muck about with that, any more than you get to muck about with Stonehenge. And if somebody says, you know, it’s just a rock, or if somebody says, these are just bluestones at Stonehenge, so I’m going to take them and use them in a nearby building, nobody’s going to buy that.

TM: So when you get into the detail, if somebody asks you to… If somebody’s asked, what is your ethical theory, then you’ll probably reply in terms that make it seem that humans—or perhaps, on an extended account, humans and other sentient creatures—are the only things that you can have ethical concern about. But then when you look at the way in which they actually respond and the way in which people lead their lives, then you see a much broader patterning. A wider range of things turn out to be ethically significant to beings of our sort.

So when it comes to the Moon, for example, you’re talking about something that’s been culturally significant for a very long period of time. But you’re also talking about one of the few places within the Solar System where we could actually go. A limited number of planets: one of them is just too close to the Sun, you’d just… It’s a nice way to get cremated. If you go outwards to the further reaches of the Solar System then you’re reaching gas giants. Now we don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to do anything even with the gas giants. And the reason for that is that you start to get to… Because they’re enormously big compared to the Earth, you start to get really big gravitation problems. These are big gravitational wells that, if you fall into them, it’s going to take a lot of energy to get back out.

So that means places like Mars and the Moon… These are the big candidates for other large-scale bodies within the Solar System that we could actually envisage human beings settling on. So we don’t necessarily want to turn them into quarries. Or we don’t want to use all of them as quarries, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of future humans.

Now there’s a thought there that, well, that’s just limiting ourselves to thinking about the Solar System. When we get out and beyond that, as Star Trek so repeatedly informs us we will, then it’ll be hunky dory. There’ll be all of these worlds for us to explore, and complete with Arabesque civilisations and things like that. But the reality is we don’t know that we’re ever going to be in a position to get beyond the Solar System. And therefore, even in terms of what is of value for humans, in terms of our human future, in terms of what there will be for future generations of humans to enjoy and to utilise and to live as part of, you’re talking about a very, very small, limited resource, and limited resources of a valuable sort, of the kinds of things that you cherish.

So I’m going to kick the argument that, well, these are just rocks—I’m going to kick that into the long grass, and say, that doesn’t understand… It’s just a lack of understanding of what we are and a lack of understanding of what’s available to us.

RS: Say, damaging the Moon… The way the Moon looks—the culturally significant way the Moon looks—there’s a plausible case for thinking, it’s already been damaged and defaced, hasn’t it? What more could a quarry do?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting question… Suppose we take an ethical concept is sometimes applied to the Moon, and that’s the concept of integrity. Now, if you look at Futurama: they turn the Moon, I think, into a golf course. And it’s the incongruity of the Moon just being used as this mundane object, as a lunar golf course… Or is it Mars they do that with? They do something. It’s a theme park in the Moon… Anyway, it’s inappropriate uses, and it’s the way in which the comic utilisation is so out of keeping with the character of the of the place which makes it a kind of funny thing.

But does that mean that, even if we think that certain kinds of uses of the Moon, or of Mars, would be, as it were, not just change but damage—in some way violate the integrity of these places—that doesn’t mean to say that all change is wrong. Nor could all change be ruled out, for the reasons that you’ve mentioned. Even though the lunar surface is to a large extent, as it were, four-and-a-bit billion years ago, there’s impacts upon the Moon all the time. So then we have to develop some kind of ethical theory about the kinds of changes that would seem reasonable, that would be permissible. And the kinds of changes which would rob future generations of the opportunity to experience the Moon in particular ways: to rob them of that opportunity to have, as it were, wilderness experiences.

RS: Are there any changes that could be seen as positive? I’m thinking of the idea—which perhaps you’d want to reject—that someday we might terraform Mars and make it more Earth-like: turn a dead world into a living one.

TM: I’m not sure if it’s a dead world… We tend to use terminology that loads the bases. So if it’s ‘dead’, then obviously, if we reanimate then that’s a wonderful thing. But we don’t know if there was ever life there, and if there wasn’t life there it doesn’t make that much sense to speak of it as a dead world. Another one that’s used is ‘barren world’.

TM: But there are different ways of speaking about these places. To say ‘dead’ and to say ‘barren’ suggests one thing; to point out that the biggest volcano in the Solar System is on Mars: you’ve got Olympus Mons… To point out that you have the Valles Marineris, which would have… You could fit the Grand Canyon into the Valles multiple times. You have the unique geology. You have the awesome landscape of the place: features that, for example, would be as significant, perhaps, to humans who settle upon Mars at some point in the future, as, say, Ayer’s Rock or Stonehenge are to us. Now, do we want to rob them of that kind of opportunity? Do we want to preserve the opportunities of encountering the most striking environmental features of Mars, which are features nowhere reproduced within the Solar System? They’re unique.

RS: Some of the biased language we use, even in relation to wilderness on Earth… We call it pristine, untouched, unspoilt. It seems to be quite sceptical about human involvement. And I think there’s something similar, sometimes, in relation to space: the idea that we haven’t always been responsible stewards of our own Earth, that we’d better get it right this time, that we might risk polluting space… that we already are, perhaps?

TM: Well, we already have done. We’ve got all of those… to improve telecommunications, back in the Sixties, all of those millions of little dipole antennae. They blasted them out into space with the notion that it helps to bump the signals back. But of course they’re an absolute menace out there now, and all the space junk that we’re developing industries to try and cope with. Of course space seemed really open and really free at first, but when you get to cislunar space, when you get to just beyond the medium atmosphere of the Earth, things can get really pretty crowded pretty quickly when you’re continuously firing things up there.

But when you go beyond that, there are reasons why we don’t want to contaminate. One is the science: so you don’t want forward contamination, because we want to know what we can about life, and we would like to detect rudimentary forms of current or historic life somewhere else. But in order to be sure of the results we have to make sure that we didn’t bring it there—and we have done that kind of thing before. Somebody sneezed on one of the camera lenses of the Apollo mission—the Moon landing missions—and on a different world that could have had very different consequences. That stuff wouldn’t happen now; but we want to protect these places for the science.

And we want to make sure that certain kinds of irreversible changes are done in the right way. So for example, you speak about terraforming. Now, if you’re going to terraform Mars, then you have to melt some of that water and carbon dioxide ice at the polar caps. That’s a one-shot deal: if you do that the wrong way, then you just end up with a more-or-less evenly, or unevenly, distributed package of ice round the rest of the planet. So if we go in gung-ho, and mess it up, then the possibilities of a successful, viable process of terraforming might be compromised for hundreds of years, perhaps even permanently.

So we’ve got an ethical responsibility to make sure that if we’re doing these things, then we’re doing them in a reasonable manner: that we’re not just guilty of impatience; that we actually have the technologies to succeed in reasonable projects. Now, I’ve spoken about the nature of these environments—something that merits ethical consideration and certain kinds of protection—and of course the same is true of the Earth. But what’s interesting in relation to—one of the many interesting things in relation to—discourse of protection down here is that the more Nineteenth Century ideas that wilderness means complete virgin territory, never touched by human hand, never impacted upon by humanity: that doesn’t work for anywhere on the Earth now, because of the way in which humans have impacted upon the atmosphere. There aren’t places that are free of the human stain, as it were, or the human impact. And that’s not necessarily, in all cases, a bad thing.

So we have a more modest conception of what wilderness is, which is that there are certain kinds of impact that are not allowed. So if something’s wilderness, then, yes, people are allowed to visit, with certain constraints. Yes, we accept that the volumes of carbon locked into the rocks will be impacted by industry elsewhere. But it’s wilderness by virtue of the fact that we’re not allowed to use it as an industrial resource, for example. Wilderness in that sense. And that’s much more modest. So when we translate that much more modest conception of wilderness to the Moon, or to Mars, again, it doesn’t exclude all human activity. It doesn’t exclude all human industrial activity. But it does mean that there are ethical constraints upon the ways in which that can legitimately be done.

And there has to be discussion about how much impact we can have and where that impact should be. Obviously there’s a strong case for keeping impact away from the most distinctive areas of the Moon or Mars. If one wants a complete protection, a hands-off attitude, I don’t think that’s a viable ethic, given the nature of our society, in that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. I don’t think we can protect these places in those ways, even if we wished to do so.

RS: A lot of what you’re saying sounds like environmental ethics; but the way environmentalism’s developed on Earth, generally, is that it’s basically summed up in the one word ‘green’. It’s about ecosystems, organic life. The green movement. And obviously space is, among other things, not at all green. (Until terraformed.)

TM:  So here we make a distinction between ecology and environments. Ecology’s about systems that contain living things and how they function as integrated wholes. Environments are just the surroundings; and sometimes the surroundings have life in them, sometimes the surroundings don’t. You can go places in the Earth, and on the Earth, where you don’t get life, but you still have environments.

So the thought then is that we need an expanded conception. And many environmental ethicists already have that kind of conception. They think of, say, rivers ethically considerable in various respects. Now of course rivers have life forms within them, but even if they didn’t, then you’d have environmental ethicists who would say that the Colorado River has to be… we have to think about it in particular ways.

RS: The commercial exploitation of space: I’ve seen particular concerns about the possibility that this is basically just going to benefit rich people, big companies… everyone else gets left out. Is that a moral problem or just a political concern?

TM: Well, that’s an interesting concern. It’s the concern that you get, sometimes in environmental ethics and sometimes in science fiction. Which is… I’m going to pitch my science fiction screenplay to you. I personally have one but I’m going to invent one to yourself. So, this is copyright: if anyone hears this…

RS: I hope some people will hear it!

TM: If Spielberg’s out there he could get in touch with me, definitely: we have something to talk about… But: here is the rogue individual who finds themselves caught up in a mining operation which is run by The Company. The Company is so large that they wield vast political influence as well as having economic power both in space and back on Earth. This is a model we’ve iterated numerous times. How likely is that in relation to space?

Well, if the only place where you’re getting development is going to be on the Moon or on Mars, then monopoly-type systems might operate. But if you start talking about the asteroid belt, which is really where you want to go if you’re going to build large-scale structures off planets—and there’s no reason why, because of the small number of planets and moons that you can work with, there’s no reason why you would want to simply restrict yourself to that—plus there’s all those metal resources which are out there in the asteroid belt… It’s really, really big. Asteroids are very far apart from one another. Space is a big place. It’s not a place which lends itself particularly well to monopolies. Quite apart from the political ramifications and repercussions of having power concentrated in a small number of hands. You certainly wouldn’t want that.

If you’re talking about settlements, you have to remember that authoritarianism generates its own counter-culture, and monopoly systems are inherently authoritarian. And counter-cultures, beyond a certain point, in space can be quite… It’s quite dangerous: what do you do? Do you stop producing oxygen? There’s a whole range of things that you can do, that you’re at liberty to do in terms of protest here on Earth, that would just be absolutely lethal if you tried them in space. So the kinds of settlement, political structures that you need to evolve into, I think have to be ones that are non-authoritarian, where you have redundancy built into the system. You can’t have one oxygen supplier. This is crazy: that’s just giving your lives over to the boardroom. You have to have redundancy; you have to have multiple suppliers; you have to have multiple sources coming in.

Now I’m not denying that the first settlements that we have, if we manage to get to the point of settlement, will almost certainly inherit the command systems that they went with. So you have that initial element of authoritarianism there.

A great many things really militate against anyone being allowed to monopolise. Yes, in the early stages, big players will merge, and they will be SpaceXes, just better: bigger, better, more efficient than anyone else that’s around. And they’re likely to be bigger, better, and so on, for quite a while to come. So lots of smaller players will lose the shirts off their backs. There will be big players, as there are in these emerging sectors. But once you develop the technology it’s very, very difficult to stop people from piggy-backing off that and developing rival commercial interests.

NASA Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory satellite orbitting the planet earth.

So if The Company story is true then our future in space is just going to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. But if you can get beyond that, to multiple players, multiple stakeholders, then you are much more in a position to have a sustainable process of development. And you’re also in a much better position to have a viable dialogue and practical impact in terms of the environmental ethics of space. If you go up against one big player it’s really, really tough: we’ll tend to think it’s a tough opponent to go up against. If you’ve got multiple players bidding for the ways in which they would carry out processes, then you get move leverage.

RS: We’ve been talking largely about ethics as a source of constraints: it tells us what not to do, what we mustn’t do. But I wonder whether you think ethics might also play a positive role, give us things to aim for in space?

TM: I think so. I’m not wildly convinced of a whole heap of arguments about why we should go: we should go because there is a biological imperative to explore and to move into new frontiers… I’m not sure that there is. Maybe that’s a species trait; it doesn’t look to be an individual trait. People will stay at home until you kick them out. That’s pretty much the human history: you don’t think, hmmm, well, I’ve got enough to eat here, and we’re well catered, for, and so on; I think I’ll go over there, where there’s a reasonable chance of me starving and dying a horrible and gruesome and protracted death. Humans don’t do that, but as a species we have tended to expand: not always a good thing.

But I guess I’m going to say that I quite like the intuition—and it is an intuition; I’m not sure how I would begin to build a rigorous ethical argument for it—I quite like the intuition that perhaps we do have a duty to extend either human life or life as such. I think that the presence of life is by and large a good thing. And that doesn’t mean to say that you have to have life everywhere. It does mean that, for example, we don’t know how much life there is out there; we don’t know, really, if there is life out there… We would like to believe that there is; we have some reasons to believe that there is; on balance there probably is—but we don’t know that. And through our neglect and negligence of possibilities for extending life: it would be a bad thing, it would be a dereliction with that kind of duty if we allowed life to die out through that kind of failure. So there is the expansion of presence of life, or possibly of human life, to other worlds.

Plus there is the growing sense that we’re running out of terrestrial resources. That does seem to be happening: you can see it in terms of the metals. Now the Earth’s got a dirty big metallic inner bit—but, but, but we can hardly haul out there… The metals that we can extract: a limited resource, many of them due to run out over the next few hundred years. Yes, we will have new technologies; yes, we will be better at extracting; and that will extend the time span a little bit. Yes, we will have new materials and so on, but it’s difficult seeing us doing without metals. So I think there’s a good case for having a graduated shift to a more balanced system which is not restricted to one planet which we happen to have messed up in some quite severe ways. That’s a decent picture of the future to me.

RS: A sentiment I sometimes see is: we’ve already got as far as the Moon, and then we’ve currently stopped sending human beings there; wouldn’t it be a huge disappointment for our entire species if we never went back?

TM: Well… It’s disappointing, maybe not for the entire species… Maybe for me, maybe for you, maybe for a lot of people. I’m guessing a lot of people have more immediate, pressing things on their plate. I guess it’s what we do: we can go and do things badly. We can go and do the same, make the same mistakes. I don’t think that’s necessarily the outcome that will happen, because we’re starting in a different way, and the dynamics of living in space impose restrictions and constraints upon us which we cannot ignore. I don’t mean to say that they’re morally inescapable; I mean to say that they’re physically inescapable, that there are certain aspects of the sheer nature of space that impose certain ways of doing things and certain needs for humans to work with one another to get different kinds of jobs done.

RS: Thank you for talking to Pod Academy.

Main photo: NASA Goddard space flight

Sep 28 2017



Rank #18: Journalism – the first draft of history?

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Journalism has been called ‘the first draft of history’, and as a first draft it may be written over, forgotten, ignored.  In this podcast, journalist Martin Bright (@martinbright) considers one tiny strand of the story of the Iraq war. It illustrates truth and fake news, things that are very much on our minds at the moment.  It is taken from a lecture Martin gave for IF, the free university in London, in its series ‘Thinking Without Borders’  in 2017.

Martin Bright:  Let’s begin with the rules of journalism – never befriend a politician, never befriend a PR, never betray a source and never use PowerPoint (though that one I am ignoring….)

I’m going to look at one story that plays its part in the history of the lead up to the Iraq war which you may or may not have heard about. It is a story in which I as a journalist felt I was writing the first draft of history. It’s a story I wrote while working on The Observer [a UK Sunday newspaper] in early 2003. It is a story left out of the reports on the Iraq war (it was not in either the Chilcot or the Hutton reports).  It is just a footnote in history, maybe less than a footnote.

It is the story of Katharine Gun, who,in 2003, was working at GCHQ. GCHQ is the third arm of British Intelligence – there is MI6 (foreign intelligence), MI5 (domestic intelligence) and GCHQ (surveillance).

Katharine was born in Taiwan, is a fluent Mandarin speaker, and she spent her days at GCHQ listening to China and deciding what was interesting – Chinese broadcasts, bugged conversations etc.  She enjoyed her job, she considered herself a patriot, she didn’t see anything wrong with spying, she felt she was working in the British national interest, for the good of the country.

But she became increasingly concerned about the build up to war in Iraq, she was sceptical, she didn’t think the British intelligence service should be used to further the war aim of the Government.

One day she was working, translating, when she received a memo from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US.  Subsequently, the NSA and GCHQ have become much more high profile institutions since the Edward Snowden leaks (we know a lot more about what they can tap into) but there has always been a close relationship between the two agencies.

In January 2003, we were being told that war was not a forgone conclusion, there were still negotiations going on in the UN and Tony Blair and George Bush were saing that should Saddam Hussein give up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) there would be no need to go to war.  But it was a period of high tension.

There were inspectors in Iraq looking for WMD and having difficulty finding them.

Such was the tension within GCHQ itself that on 24 January 2003, a memo was sent to all GCHQ staff reassuring them that they would not be asked to do anything unlawful (which is interesting in itself since you might expect that to be the case anyway!).

At the same time what is happening in the US is a continuing hardening up of the documents being fed to the US government as to what is going on in Iraq and the weapons Saddam is supposed to have.  Then, rather inconveniently, on 27 January 2003, Hans Blix (one of the main weapons inspectors) and his team state that Iraq has no nuclear capacity and has been cooperative.  The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, states that France won’t go to war while inspections continue.  So it is getting tricky for those who want to go to war.  We also know that there will be a presentation to the UN by Colin Powell to argue that Iraq is in breach of its international commitments.

And while all this is happening, this memo from Frank Koza arrives in Katharine Gun’s inbox, just after midnight on January 31st:

To: [Recipients withheld]
From: FRANK KOZA, Def Chief of Staff (Regional Targets)
Sent on Jan 31 2003 0:16
Subject: Reflections of Iraq Debate/Votes at UN-RT Actions + Potential for Related Contributions
Importance: HIGH
Top Secret//COMINT//X1


As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council [UNSC] members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc – the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.

In RT [Regional Targets], that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.

We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s [Targets of Particular Interest]to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.

We’d appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines. I suspect that you’ll be hearing more along these lines in formal channels – especially as this effort will probably peak (at least for this specific focus) in the middle of next week, following the SecState Colin Powell’s presentation to the UNSC.

Thanks for your help

It is worth trying to imagine what effect this must have had on Katharine as she read it.

Some of it is quite technical, and there is lots of jargon (eg ‘product lines’ – that’s intelligence). But the meaning is clear – the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council ……  the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals.

You could argue (as some on the right in the US did) that this is perfectly normal.  But my job as a journalist is to ask, if people think something always happens – is it right? who benefits?

What offended Katharine Gun is that our intelligence services were being asked to do this on behalf of America.  Particularly to gain an edge for the attainment of US goals – there was no talk of British goals.  And what were those goals – Peace? Or the rush to war?

A lot of people within GCHQ received this memo and Katharine assumed they would be outraged, especially since they had earlier been assured they would not have to do anything illegal (and it is illegal to spy on the UN). She told me that when she received the memo,  she felt sick and had to immediately leave her desk. She felt she was being asked to help fix the vote in the Security Council.

At the time all the talk was about Tony Blair and George Bush attempting to get a second resolution in the UN Security Council in order to authorise war in Iraq and only then would they go to war.  So to Katharine it looked like fixing the vote, undermining the democratic processes in the UN.  So she assumed there would be a rush of outrage in GCHQ. In fact no one said anything, there was a normalisation of it, a feeling that ‘this is what we do – we work hand in hand with the Americans, they are our allies, so we do what the NSA tells us to do”.

Katharine was so appalled that she took the memo, printed it off, put it in her pocked and took it home.

At this point, this is the story of the undermining of two institutions – the UN and GCHQ. Indeed, as this story goes on it is increasingly the story of institutional collapse.

At the time we were being told the aim was not to invade Iraq but to disarm Saddam Hussein.  What our intelligence services were supposed to be doing was safeguarding British interests. What the government might have argued at the time was that being hand in glove with the Americans was in the British interest.  However, we were being told that whatever it cost, however difficult to do, we were trying to verify if Saddam Hussein was really a danger to Britain (not the US).

The problem with Katharine’s argument is that there are signed international agreements that lock GCHQ and NSA into a partnership on these matters, so it may be the case that we are locked into doing this, but the difficulty is that we, the British public, have no way of accessing that – they are secret agreements.

More to follow.

Picture: Iraq Pre-War Protest 2003 by Senor Codo

Music: Suspense#2 by Peritune(Royalty free music) 

Jul 10 2017



Rank #19: “Kill all Normies”: the rise of the alt-right

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Following the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right has come to play a significant role in American political discourse. They are an upstart political movement that rejects traditional conservatism and championed Trump and his opposition to political correctness.

But how did a movement rooted in online and video game culture come to be so influential? Angela Nagle (@angnagle) is an Irish writer and academic who has written extensively on the rise of anti-feminism and the revitalised culture wars. She’s recently written a new book called Kill All Normies, in it she documents how fringe online politics and discussion boards have become mainstream.

Alex Burd spoke to Angela to discuss the book. He started by asking when the alt-right became a mainstream force.

Angela Nagle: It has to be the election of Donald Trump. I know that’s very recent. Maybe you could say something like Gamergate brought a lot of different right leaning movements and forums and things that weren’t very overtly political ended up much more closely mingling over Gamergate. Those are the younger ones. The more serious people like American Renaissance and Richard Spencer and people like that, they’re a bit older and have been around for years. They’ve been taking things much more seriously and have been for a long time. But it’s only when all these geeky online sub cultures started to come together that it started to be more legitimate to call them the Alt-Right rather than just the far right.

Alex Burd You reference the Gamergate movement. How is that it went from something that was about ‘ethics in games journalism’ to a political ideology built around the twin pillars of misogyny and white supremacy?

AN: Well essentially, depending on who you ask. Gamergate – the gamers say it’s about ‘ethics in games journalism’, the people on the other side say they were merely pointing out sexism in gaming and ended up getting viciously attacked. The people involved in it love endlessly having these competing stories about the precise details of particular attacks which I don’t find remotely interesting. Even if you take the most conservative estimate of the levels of attack that were going on they were really bad. Even the ones that are out there for the public to see. And you know a critic should be able to argue that gaming is dominated by sexist attitudes, but essentially it was viewed by gamers – where they got the ‘ethics in games journalism’ line from is a very long, boring story – essentially it was over political correctness. What they perceived to be feminists and anti-racists and liberals trying to change the culture and take away their fun hobby and destroy everything through liberal censorship. One of the reasons I’m not very sympathetic to that is I just think that, as in film, there’s room for different viewpoints. These people were not saying games containing sexism should be banned. They were just saying that the kind of style that dominates has an attitude towards women that they had an issue with. It became basically, for whatever reason, it brought together all these different groups from the Daily Stormer, which is a Nazi website, through to apolitical vaguely sort of pro-free speech types. It brought together a whole range of people that saw themselves in different ways as opposing political correctness.

AB: And they were politicised by the fact that a largely white male space was becoming invaded leftist politics and women in particular?

AN: Yeah, definitely. Leftist cultural politics, yeah.

AB: How did it go from a misogynist reaction to that to something that has become heavily based around white supremacy and racial politics?

AN: Well when I started looking at reactionary forums of different types, I started my PHD about seven years ago, I finished about two years ago, I was looking at anti-feminist forums and at that time opposition to feminism was the main issue that really animated these kind of forums. And they really saw feminism as emasculating western men, destroying western civilisation, and the race stuff came later. In a way the arc of it made a certain kind of sense, so white western men are emasculated and then you have the ‘invasion’, as they would see it, of non-white men, and particular of Islam, and then western men are too emasculated to defend their civilisation, that’s how it became about civilisation and feminists are seen as the weakening force.

AB: So if we fast forward, to 2017, are we now seeing the alt-right movement splinter into two kind of sides. There’s the more respectable side which you’ve termed the alt-light, and the other side which is starting to have dangerous manifestations such as the attacks in Portland which left two men dead after a defended a Muslim teenager against a racially motivated attack?

Yeah, I mean the violent stuff.. so they’re all kind of mixed in together. This is the problem. So you’ll have these rallies, I remember one particular one where depending on where you saw it reported and depending on whose twitter you were following, it was called either the ‘Patriots Day rally’ or the ‘Free Speech rally’ and the people who were on the speaking list were a real mixture of alt-right people who think foreigners are invading the West and they need to be deported to alt-light people who want free speech and civic nationalism. So they’re all mixed in together. They’re all just about being held together by their mutual hatred of the ‘campus left’, the online left, the cultural left, that whole aspect of the left, the anti-fascists, and stuff like that.

AB: So at this point they’re more defined by what they oppose than what they support?

AN: Kind of. If you get into the details of it, they distinguish themselves in a very particular way. They get totally outraged if you don’t recognise the different gradations and different sub-cultures within the whole thing. But they all go to the same protests and they all retweet each other, they all go on each others shows, and then they laugh at journalists who think that they’re all the same. But they are, they all have somewhat similar views. I’m only very pedantic about it because I know that they will dismiss me as someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about if I don’t spell it out every time. So you have the alt-right who are explicitly about race, the alt-light who are more of the civic nationalists and pro-free speech types, some of them call themselves ‘cultural libertarians’, that kind of thing. But the violence? – they watched in rage  for a long time all the campus wars and the violence, like the one at Berkeley, which was supposed to be Milo’s [Yiannopolis] last talk, and things like that. They think this is civilisation on the brink of collapse and they think it’s worth fighting over.

AB: You mentioned a guy – Milo, Milo Yiannopoulos – who started out in the UK as a tech journalist and somehow became one of the leading faces of the alt-right in the US. He was briefly shunted to the side earlier following some comments he made about pederasty. How does that fit with a movement based around transgression, and saying whatever you want, and everything being a joke – at least to them?

AN: It’s funny. That was their style. But the transgressive style of the movement comes from 4Chan and other forums, and by the time Milo got to that point 4Chan had moved much further right of him and were no longer sympathetic to him. The alt-right in the strictest sense was never really that sympathetic to him and was certainly no longer sympathetic at this point. Because he’s flamboyant, and he’s gay and he’s very pro-American, and he believes in American exceptionalism – which they loathe – and so by the time this happened he’d alienated a lot of people and he’d also kind of served his purpose for those to the right of him. Because he moved the ‘Overton window’ to the right, he broke all the taboos, and once he’d served his purpose, they were happy to get rid of him I think.

AB: Milo is from Kent in the UK, he’s British.  Then we have people like Paul Joseph Watson, another fine British export. Why is it that they’ve found a bigger audience in the US than here in the UK?

AN: Well this is a very American movement. It makes sense in America more than anywhere else. It’s often said that the left won the culture war and lost the economic war. America is the place where that is most evident. There is a kind of cultural liberalism but people have not seen the benefit of the left in economic policies. So identity politics is very strong, and obviously there are more long running racial tensions there. But also the alt-right’s main idea, if you could put it down to one thing, and this is the alt-right in the strict sense, is that equality is lie. The idea that all men are created equal is a lie, and that America is based on a lie because it is based on the idea that America is based on abstract ideas like liberty when in fact they would say it was about race. It was founded by Dutch and British WASPs and the character of America is what it is because of the racial component of its founders. So the essential idea of America, American exceptionalism, the idea that the state is not an ethno-state but a state founded on abstract ideas is really what they’re targeting. And so that doesn’t really apply elsewhere to the same extent so it’s a very American phenomenon. It’s also an American phenomenon because it’s a product of a very deep longing for identity. In America obviously if you are an ethnic minority you have an identity. And up until recently if you were white you had an identity by being able to say ‘I’m Irish-American’ or ‘I’m Italian-American’ but at this point that kind of Ellis Island wave is so many generations on that you’re just a white person at this point. So those people, particularly young men, young white men in America, feel that they have no identity. The only identity that they’re allowed to have is one of feeling shame for their own heritage. So then the alt-right comes along and says your heritage is brilliant, and white people achieved more than anyone else, and you should be proud and your heritage goes back to Rome and it’s very powerful for them to hear that you know.

AB: Just to tie into Donald Trump, as you said – really the coming out party for the alt-right – what do they see in him as a leader? Is he just part of the joke? An ironic championing of this ridiculous man?

AN: No, there’s definitely something they identify with. They don’t like him as much now because he hasn’t done as much on immigration as they would like and the airstrikes in Syria and other things. He’s become a lot closer to the standard American president. He’s not doing as much crazy stuff as people thought or as much as in the early days of his presidency. But, they like the fact that he’s taboo breaking and anti-PC because they understand that a lot of how a pluralistic society holds things together is through a system of etiquette and manners which some people call political correctness which allows people with different religions and world views to live together. And they want to smash those. They know he is doing that  – and there is absolutely no doubt that he has done that. The conversations that are going on now around race would have been inconceivable months ago. They like that he has been very open about anti-immigration. For them the first steps is deporting illegal immigrants but that’s just the first step, but he would be willing to do that. The funny thing is that they see Islam, and Islamism, as the main enemy. But Donald Trump is sword dancing with the Saudi monarchy while people on the left, like Jeremy Corbyn, have proposed banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So one thing I find frustrating about them is that they only want to address issues when they can attack people with absolutely no power, so they want to attack refugees on boats who are drowning in the sea, but they won’t support a political leader who might actually target much more significant figures in the rise of the ultra-reactionary Islamist movement. That’s why we have to say that this isn’t about challenging these people but only about attacking those who have no power.

AB: In the book you cite a lot of political thinkers who form the basis of the Alt-Right, there is also the treatise written by Milo Yiannopolis and others. Richard Spencer, whenever he’s interviewed, has always got a long list of political thinkers. I guess Richard Spencer may be different because he’s doing it for so long, but for the majority of the alt-right is there a political spine or is it just dress-up as the latest political fad or political phase that’s most objectionable to the PC culture they’re opposed to?

AN: It’s just such a mess of all these different cross-pollinating groups and forums that it’s not a coherent movement. It is therefore hard to refer to a ‘they’ when talking about them. There are definitely people, especially young men, who haven’t really thought through the gravity of what they’re saying. For example, the actual stated goals of someone like Richard Spencer would involve genocide. There’s simply no way you could achieve them without war and almost certainly genocide. He wants America to be white again, he wants a white ethno-state in America, he wants Europe to be white again and to have a white empire that goes from America to Russia to Europe. If you think of any conflict where there was an attempt to move a minority off their land they tend go on for a very long time and be very bloody even when the piece of land is the size of a small town. So the idea that you could do this on a continental basis.. well it’s not ridiculous because you could do it through sheer force, but it would require war and genocide. And the people who are serious must know this. But I think the average teenage boy who has a Pepe avatar and a fake name on twitter and hates feminists and is a troll, I don’t think someone like that has thought through the stated goals of the senior figures of the alt-right. And the alt-right is constantly growing. And the broader milieu of the Pepes and the alt-light is growing, because they’re constantly responding to what they see as a takeover by the left in the cultural realm and on campuses.

AB: As you say, one of their stated goals is to return to a patriarchal society where women are homemakers and there to provide and look after the family, but there’s no real thought as to how this would affect the workforce or would happen in reality at all.

AN: Yes, they would have to shrink the workforce by half and then the West would decline as a geo-political force immediately, so how would they do that? Second-wave feminism is a mass movement; feminism has come before but wasn’t a mass movement until there was an economic drive behind it which was the massive economic expansion after World War II in the mid twentieth century. How do you just shrink the economy back down to pre-WWII levels? But they’re never asked questions like that unfortunately. They hate traditional establishment conservatives because they have this libertine streak which is contradictory to the traditionalist stuff. But I don’t really see that they have a way of doing it, it doesn’t make any sense economically, how would they ever get women to go along with it, it’s just not something that they’ve thought through, but it’s a desire that they have. They want it both way. They want to be able to be on 4Chan and not have feminists take away their porn, but they also say they want a traditional marriage. They would have to have a very different online life if they were to create the traditional life they claim to want.

AB: Do you think the idea of wanting something without having to give anything feeds into a generation on both sides, on the left and the right, that wants to have the benefits without giving anything in return? So the liberals want the benefits of globalism and multiculturalism without having to think about the consequences of these policies, and the alt-right wants to have all the good things about the kind of volkisch lifestyle without having to give up any responsibility and having to spend less time on the internet?

AN: It makes sense in a certain kind of way. We are in a strange moment. It is why people in this world reacted so badly to Hilary. She is the 60s person who was involved in the feminist movement and stuff like that. And she is now part of the establishment and a lot of young people no longer see the benefits of the cultural freedom that was won in the sixties.

And there are other things. They know they’ll never own a house, they’ll never be in a stable lifelong relationship, they’ll never have any of these tings. You can have as much freedom as you want in a way, but you don’t really benefit from any of it. So I can see why there has been a right wing turn. In a weird way this is the generation that has come after the Iraq War and all the subsequent different invasions in the Middle East. This may seem like a tangent but I think it’s significant, I think those military adventures made it seem like the world is just too complicated and it’s not possible. You have the Utopian and universalist ideas that the Christopher Hitchens types had, their articulate advocacy of military invasions, the universalism, the internationalism they got from their Marxist background. The disaster of that, the repeated disaster after disaster of that, and the development of ISIS and the whole thing made younger people think that the exporting of democracy is a sham, the idea that there is some human desire for the things that a democracy would bring is a lie, and the idea that different people around the world could be united in a common purpose is just impossible. The world is a dark place, full of strange people that you can’t really understand. This is a feeling that the younger generation has, as a result of – among many other things –  this generation is a product of that kind of death of a whole generation of cosmopolitan and internationalist sort of intellectuals. ON the right you had the neo-cons, on the left you had the Hitchens export democracy to the world people.

AB: It’s the idea that cynicism and nihilism has overtaken grand ideas, especially on the left and crushed the life out of them. No-one really trusts in any kind of positive ideas, not that there seems to be many of them around at the moment.

AN: It’s so true, it’s real bunker politics. Everything will end in disaster, all we can do is close down everything. Close down the borders, bring in all these isolationist policies, and just hope that things get better. Because I don’t see how when they’re trying to spin their ambitions as a positive thing I don’t really believe the Alt-Right talk about their ambitions that they have any positive vision of the future. But as you say, there’s not much of that around anyway. In many ways the emergence of the Alt-Right is due to an absence of anything else. There’s a total absence of the vision of the future, now that that whole internationalist, cosmopolitan, intellectual milieu was disgraced in a way and their whole view of the world was made to look absurd and nightmarish, that there’s nothing that’s really replaced them. If you want to make the argument for continued immigration levels that we currently have, I mean who’s really making that argument. The only thing holding it together it the idea that you should have these views because it’s polite or something like that. There’s no-one making a positive case other than a kind of bunker politics, like close the borders, close everything down, try and avoid disaster.

AB: Do you think that’s why the culture war has become so important? Because politics is unable to deal with anything of significance, it’s become bogged down in who can use what bathroom, and interpretations of Julius Caesar?

AN: Absolutely, cultural politics has become everything. It’s in part because we’ve been in long economic decline, wages have been stagnating for decades, everything seems to be declining and declining, younger people are less likely to be upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents. So everything is in decline but no one seems to be able to stop it. And we have this vast network of experts and economists but no-one seems to be able to stop this. And I think the hopelessness in the economic and hopelessness in the political realm, in the sense of ideas can reshape society has led to a retreat into purely cultural politics. Which is very individualistic, very self-absorbed, very much about my feelings and my self-expression and that’s definitely evident on both sides for sure.

AB: What do you think, as you said it’s hard to speak about the Alt-Right movement, but it largely seems to be a younger movement than is generally active in politics? What do you think happens to them when they grow up? Will they become like Donald Trump, in that they become more moderate and more by the book republicans, or is this the new face of the republican party in America?
AN: It’s very hard to say, but I will say that a bit of age does change people’s politics. The cultural politics are very prominent but age tends to beat that out of you a little bit because you start having to pay taxes and pay rent and the material day to day stuff starts to matter an awful lot more. So it’s at that point that they won’t care exclusively about cultural politics. So if Donald Trump can’t give them what they want economically they may look elsewhere you know. And it looks like he’s going to be a pretty typical president in that way. He was supposed to be someone who would invigorate infrastructure, he was supposed to be ripping up all the international trade deals, he was supposed to be reinvigorating the industrial economy, but I don’t really see that panning out. On healthcare he’s taken the standard Republican line on that so I don’t know. I think time will change the priorities of all these young men. The single biggest achievement of the alt-right and the very broad milieu around them, going all the way over to Donald Trump, is that they have moved the Overton window, they have moved acceptable speech way, way, way to the right of what it was a year ago.

AB: Just to finish, I think it was Slavoj Zizek who supported, who, as a Marxist, put himself behind Donald Trump as a way of forcing a reaction out of a pretty moribund left, to force them out of their complacency. Do you think that now with the alt-right becoming, if not a major player, then a significant movement, and now with Donald Trump in the White House, do you think this will force more intellectual rigour out of the Left?

AN: Yes, I think the way the Left has to approach this is not just to dismiss these right-wing movements but to see them as a sign of things to come if you don’t find a way to really provide a convincing alternative. I have been excited to see people like Sanders and Corbyn but I think we haven’t really worked out how we’re going to deal with the fact that there is a lot of anti-immigration sentiment out there, people like Le Pen doing very well, there is a desire for change, and it could go in a lot of different directions. The kind of stagnant decline that we’re in now can’t just continue and people are going to look in all different directions to blame someone for that or to try and fix it. So the Left has to rise to that challenge and it’s going to be very difficult and it’s going to involve rethinking itself and having an internal culture of robust debate where ideas are not shut down, because that’s what we have had and it’s produced a Left that has been very unable to respond to the challenge to the Right.

Kill All Normies is published by Zero Books and is available from June 30th.

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Jun 29 2017



Rank #20: Murder by women in eighteenth century London and Paris

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We appear fascinated with the phenomenon of the woman who kills. In the last year alone in the UK, both ITV and channel 4 have launched popular documentary series chronicling the shocking lives and crimes of women who commit murder. But what is it about the murderess that renders her so interesting? To social historian Dr Anna Jenkin (@acjenkin), it is her ability to offer unique insight into the gender dynamics, and broader cultural climate, of the society in which she lives. Anna’s PhD thesis explores female perpetrated homicide in eighteenth-century London and Paris.

Dr Sarah Burdett caught up with Anna to discuss the findings of her research.She began by asking what it was that inspired her to investigate the topic.

Anna Jenkin: I started as an undergraduate studying eighteenth-century London, and in the second year of my undergraduate I looked specifically at the case of Sarah Malcolm, who is a serial killer, mass murderess, in 1730s London. I found the case a really interesting insight into an aspect of life in London, and women’s lives specifically, that often you don’t get a lot of detail about. So although it was quite an extreme example of a woman who killed her employer and two other maids in the household that she was working, in telling her story you actually get much more about the intricacies of everyday life in London at this time. So I thought this was a really interesting way of thinking about how men and women were living in these cities, but also, of much broader dynamics of power. Because female murder is such a rare act, and was such a rare act, it was particularly distressing to the society in which it took place, particularly in these very close urban areas, so you find a lot of much broader dynamics of power projected onto these cases. So that is why I decided on the question of female murder. I wanted to look specifically at eighteenth-century London and Paris because it was a time when both cities were undergoing very major paths of modernisation and growth. There were great deals of similarities between these two cities which were undergoing huge amounts of population expansion as well as economic booms, which were leading to the growth of a bourgeoisie, or middling sort, but on the other hand, politically, there were these huge differences between London post-Glorious Revolution, and France before the French Revolution, which meant that there are some really interesting similarities and differences that can be unpicked between these two cities. Female homicide is such a rare crime, that contemporary commentators don’t have the general narratives of criminality or of violence to project onto them, so when trying to understand and unravel these crimes people drew from much more complicated, or perhaps more run of the mill everyday narratives in seeking to explain and understand what was going on. So I used this very small lens to understand much bigger narratives of change that these two cities were going under, at the same time but also in quite different ways.

Sarah Burdett: I asked Anna to elaborate on the proportion of female perpetrated murder, to male perpetrated murder.

AJ: Female homicide in the eighteenth century, particularly in London and Paris, was about 10 percent of male homicide. I found about 2000 cases of male perpetrated homicide in London in the period 1715-1789, and for that same period about 200 cases of female perpetrated homicide, and the same in Paris. The Parisian court is much larger so I found about  500 cases of female perpetrated homicide and 5000 cases of male homicide. So in both cities it’s about a tenth, which interestingly is the same proportion as today. So it is a much rarer crime. But I think what is interesting about the urban context is that you often find in historiography and in writing about female homicide in this period quite a lot of stereotypes of female homicide as being something that is very polarised. When women are treated in the court, historians have argued, women are either completely innocent or entirely guilty, whereas for men there is this much stronger category of men who are found guilty of manslaughter. This, the argument goes, is because men were in spaces like pubs and drinking houses where they were more likely to get into drunken brawls. The statistics show that more women were acquitted of murder than men, but actually the conviction rates are almost exactly the same, in both cities, and for men and women: about 20 percent of cases led to an execution in the two cities, so the number of women actually being executed for murder, although it’s smaller, the proportion is the same for men and women. And although there are fewer women being found guilty of manslaughter, the kinds of cases that we would associate with male murder, so drunken brawls and people grabbing the nearest instruments and smacking each other over the heads with them, you do find with women as well in both cities. I think that’s particularly interesting. It says something about the kinds of lives that women were living at this time. You tend to think that they were becoming cloistered and that everything was becoming much more domestic, and women weren’t having the opportunities to go out and get into these very tense situations. But that doesn’t appear to have been the case. I should say actually that homicide statistics are a very difficult thing to deal with, because although it is likely that when a murder is committed it would have led to a prosecution, we can’t know that, and there could be a huge number of murders that took place in the eighteenth century that didn’t end up in the courts. It’s unlikely that there would have been a great deal because there were quite strong judicial infrastructures by the eighteenth century, but we don’t know. So it could be that women were committing a lot more murders somewhere else that they weren’t being prosecuted for. I don’t think that was probably the case, but you never know.

SB: Anna’s comments regarding the difficulties in measuring homicide statistics led me to enquire as to how she had gone about conducing her research. I wanted to know which databases she had used, and whether she had found these to be particularly effective, or whether there had been limitations.

AJ: For London I used the Old Bailey Online, which is a fantastic resource of digitised transcripts of all of the Old Bailey proceedings, which were the published accounts of trials that took place in London from 1674-1913. We don’t have exhaustive accounts of the period before 1715 so we can’t get a mass total of that period, but after then we have a pretty good idea of all the cases that were prosecuted in London. The Old Bailey proceedings is a wonderful resource in terms of the information and detail that it gives. Increasingly in the eighteenth century cases were more and more supposedly reported verbatim, which means you get these very long transcripts of conversations about exactly how people understood the intricacies of motivation and what kind of evidence might be used to prosecute or to create a defence. There are some limitations with the London cases: particularly, often fewer details are given for defence pleas than we might hope for, and if a case was reported to be ignoramus and was thrown out, those aren’t always reported, so there are some limitations there. For the Parisian records I used a record called catalogue 450 which is a record of the Parisian court of the Parlement. The Parisian judicial system was incredibly complicated at the time but basically you went through all these lesser courts and then if you had been accused of a crime that carried the death penalty, like murder, you were sent to the court of the Parlement for an appeal, and this happened whether you were found guilty or not guilty or somewhere in the huge range of sentences that the Parisian court had in between. Catalogue 450 was assembled in the 1780s and it was supposedly a register of all of the cases that had been tried at the Parisian Parlement since 1700. Actually there’s lots and lots of holes in the data: some of the records probably were lost in the French Revolution and there’s lots of difficulties in working out exactly where the cases came from because the judicial stretch of the Parlement was very large and covered about 100 miles, so it wasn’t just Paris. Sometimes you can work out which cases came from Paris, and sometimes you can’t. So there’s some difficulty knowing which were specific urban crimes, and which weren’t. The Parisian cases are also written in French legal shorthand, which is pretty interesting to uncover. There’s some tiny minute differences in some of the symbols which are the difference between somebody just having undergone torture, and somebody having been executed, so actually the tiniest flick of a pen could have led to something very different, so that is also challenging. I think the biggest challenge was that in both sets of cases gender is not actually recorded. In London that’s alright because male and female names were different, but in Paris there are a lot of names that both men and women had: so names like Claude, Stefan,  Dominique, and even Anne actually was a male and a female name, so working out who was a man and who was a woman was pretty difficult. There’s some punishments in France that were only given to men, like being broken on the wheel, or being sent off to row in the galleys, like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, so if someone was sentenced to that I could work out they were a man. But I did end up with about a hundred cases of people called Claude, and I thought that perhaps there was a particular study that I could have done just of murders committed by people called Claude! But in the end I just left them out of my survey. So there were some gaps here and there but it gives you a sort of overall understanding of how gender might have been perceived.

SB: Intrigued by some of the different kinds of punishments to which Anna had alluded, I next wanted to know whether the treatments dealt to male and female murders differed routinely, and whether this was the case in both London and Paris.

AJ: There are differences in the ways the courts treated men and women. In London the most striking one is the sentence of petty treason. This was a specific sentence in London which was given for murders which were seen to have some sort of aspect that meant that there was a subversion of power within them. So the idea was that they were a miniature treason. This was metered out for women who killed their husbands; it was also metered out much less for servants who killed their masters; or for curates, who murdered their Bishops. So wives who killed their husbands were sentenced to petty treason, for which the sentence was burning. The last burning for this in London, although there were ones elsewhere in the country, was the trial of Catherine Hayes in 1726. So this was the main way in which women were treated differently. Men could be sentenced to petty treason and for that they were hung in chains, and in fact one of Catherine Hayes’s associates, who was her lover and also her son (it’s a very complicated case!), he was hung in chains alongside her, and his body was exhibited on a gibbet afterwards. But that was the key difference. Aside from that men and women were usually hung in London. In Paris it was much more complicated. The system of punishment in Paris was much more complicated in general. In London if you were found guilty of manslaughter you’d either be fined or you’d be branded or you’d be hung and that was the end of it. In Paris there wasn’t quite this clear connection between certain crimes leading to certain sentences. Often because this was looked over by a judge – they didn’t have juries in eighteenth-century Paris, it was an absolutist system of justice that was intentionally kept very mysterious – it meant that for every single crime you could have a vast array of different kinds of sentences and different kinds of mutilation in particular. Mutilation was quite a popular aspect of eighteenth-century Parisian justice. Men were much more likely to be found guilty, and were in fact exclusively found guilty of being broken on the wheel, which was an awful punishment, where you had each of your limbs broken with an iron bar and you were left stretched out on this wheel to die, it’s very gruesome. And also men were sent to the galleys. Women were often imprisoned. In Paris they had a large punitive infrastructure for imprisonment: they had the prison of Bicêtre which was for men, and Salpêtrière which was for women, and women were often sent to prison for lesser crimes and actually throughout the entire trial period. Women were also burned in France more often. The crime of poison carried burning in France – that was for both men and women actually in France. France was generally more complicated, and a little bit more violent in what they decided to meter out to you. You might have your hand cut off before you were executed depending on what you had done and there were all kinds of codifications and symbolisms of murder. There are lots of expectations that people were more squeamish about doing that to female bodies but actually they weren’t really, with the exception of being executed on a wheel: women were often mutilated and had bits of them cut off and things before they were executed as well.

SB: I was now keen to know more about the most common relationship between the murderess and her victim. I also wanted to gain some insight into the different methods of murder employed by men and women.

AJ: This is a really interesting question because often female homicide, particularly in the eighteenth century, is categorised as something quite passive and quite planned. Often people talk about things like poison as being the classic female weapon: women couldn’t kill their chosen victims with their hands so they used all these underhand methods. And this isn’t really the case. For both men and women the most common forms of homicide were stabbing. We can’t get such complicated statistics for Paris unfortunately, but for London both men and women were most likely to kill their victims by stabbing, and then by hitting them with an object. One of the interesting gender dimensions seems to be that men were more likely to hit their victims over the head, while women beat them around the body. I don’t know if this is just a language difference, or whether it’s because men are taller. In both cases they’re often using the weapons that are at hand, so for women this is often things like pokers, and quart-pots. A lot of women, about 20 percent of women who were accused of murder, were inn-keepers, and it was during some sort of dispute in an inn. So often it was things like quart-pots and things to hand that were used by women, where men were more likely to hit each other with things from their workplace, so tools and spanners and rods and that sort of thing. Men were more likely to use pistols. Women often didn’t have access to pistols. And women did use poisoning in London more often than men. There’s only one or two cases of male poisoning, but actually there’s only about 12 cases of female poisoning in London. In Paris it’s slightly different. Poisoning was much more common in Paris and particularly for women. About 20 percent of female murders were committed by poisoning in France, and for men, although it was only about 3 percent of male murder in Paris, that accounted for about 112 cases, so it was much more common in France. I haven’t quite got my head around why this might be. I think potentially it might just be because poison was more common in France. Although there is also a real obsession in Paris with poisoning, and this started in the early part of my period. In 1680 there was a huge scandal in Paris known as L’affaire des poisons, where a huge web of poisoning and witchcraft was uncovered at the court of Louis XIV. It was led by a woman called Catherine Monvoisin who was a sort of sorceress, wise women.  But it went right up the echelons to Louis’s head mistress, Athénaïs de Montespan, and it was an incredibly secret case. Louis burned a lot of the records by hand at the end of it, which makes it quite hard to study. But it was all over the papers as well, as one would expect, even though it was meant to be something hush hush, and it led to a real obsession with poisoning in France. I also have a theory, although there’s no way that I can really prove it, that there’s something to do here with the fact that there were common food shortages in France. By this period food supply in London was a bit more stable, whereas in Paris famine was still an element, so there’s still an increasing obsession with food in France. The other thing is that there is a judicial infrastructure in Paris that there wasn’t in London to investigate these cases. If somebody died of something mysterious, where they had a stomach complaint before they died in France, it was investigated and there was an autopsy, whereas in London they didn’t have that kind of infrastructure. So poisoning was a women’s weapon in France in a way that it wasn’t in England. In terms of the victims relationships, husbands were the most common victims of female homicide, where we can know victims, which is only possible in a certain amount of cases. In both cities husbands are the most common victims, but in London, where we can get more information on victims, it does seem that actually there was a much more varied array of victims. As I said women were sometimes victuallers, so you’ve got things like tenants, servants, people that they knew who they were drinking with or working with. And it’s interesting that although female homicide is often characterised as something that was taking place in the home, about 42 percent of London homicides were taking place in public yards, or taverns, or the street even. So female homicide involved an array of acquaintances within the household or within a close community where tension was more likely to build up. You see this also in the age of murderesses. In London , women who were accused of murder were usually about 36 or 37 which is much older than the average age of an Old Bailey defendant, which was about 24. So these are women who are living in a community where clearly tensions have built up over time. For male homicide also, wife murder is quite common. It’s a smaller proportion, it’s only about 5 or 6 percent of male homicides in both cities, but what’s particularly interesting about marital homicide is that we generally think, when we talk about things like petty treason, that there was this obsession with women killing their husbands, because it was seen as a kind of subverted treason: your husband should be your King. But actually when we look at conviction rates it is men killing their wives which had the much higher conviction rates. About 50 percent of men who were accused of killing their wives were executed in both cities. Perhaps it is cases where men killed their wives in particularly violent ways which were the ones that were prosecuted, so it could be that there were far more cases of men killing their wives that didn’t ever make it to trial, and it was only the extreme ones which led to this pattern of execution. Or it could be that there was this increasing concern with domestic violence perpetrated by men in the household, which historians such as Joanne Bailey and Garthine Walker have already started to trace. It’s also interesting to note that male defences for manslaughter can’t be used against women really because women were perceived as being weaker. So when men killed women they were much more likely to be convicted, whereas with women the gender of the victim doesn’t seem to make that much difference at all. Male or female, it’s much more about the circumstance and the method of murder. Cases where there’s more violence, so cases where women hack at each other with axes, or things like shooting, or stabbing, tend to have the more likely guilty verdict, where things like kicking and hitting, where it could be manslaughter, seem to lead more to a not guilty verdict. So for women it’s very much based on the method that they use. But for men, the gender of the victim, and the circumstances of the victim, do seem to have played more of a role in determining whether a man was convicted or not.

SB: Anna had explained that male perpetrated homicides took place in taverns and in the streets. I wondered what she felt this said about urban living as a whole, in eighteenth-century London and Paris.

AJ: I think what you see from these cases is that urban life was tense; that there was a lot of difficulty and violence; and that often, certainly the people you find in murder trials, lived together in very close conditions where tensions and difficulties could grow. It’s interesting that a higher than average proportion of women in both cities who were accused of murder were single women. I think they were particularly vulnerable both to accusation, but also perhaps to living in situations where tensions could overflow into murder. The idea that all female murder was plotted and premeditated is really not the case in eighteenth-century London and Paris. It does seem to be much more about the tensions and difficulties of living in often very confined spaces, where there was a high turnover of people. You were living among strangers and getting to know people very quickly, often in places where the stakes for survival were also quite high, in terms of getting your rent, or being paid for things, so it’s often when there’s a perceived sleight in terms of money that things can fall to blows. You also see that a lot of women accused of murder in London were midwives. About 20 percent of women accused of murder in London were midwives. So there you see things about the night time economy I think, and the movement of women around the streets. When you look at homicide you’re looking partially at social actuality, at how people live, but also at sites of fear. People have to make the decision to prosecute a homicide, and also as a jury to then decide who’s likely to be guilty, so you do get these broader sites of concern in female behaviour. Those commonly accused are people like midwives, women running taverns, and then also servants, who are particularly common in Paris. There’s a much higher proportion of servants accused of murder in Paris, and this, I think, is because the female servant was actually a slightly newer phenomenon in Paris than it was in London in the eighteenth century. This concept of single women living in fairly intimate and close connections to their employers was clearly something that was quite a site of concern in Paris. In London I think that had already happened in the seventeenth century. Service had become feminised a little bit earlier, and perhaps employers were a little bit better at controlling their servants, so you have fewer servants being accused of murder than things like midwives and landladies in eighteenth-century London.

SB: Finally, I asked Anna how her research might interact with modern day assumptions about male and female violence.

AJ: The question of how far it connects to today is a really interesting one. There’s a lot of work and scholarship that argues for a sea-change in the way that homicide, and understandings of gender and homicide, happened in the early nineteenth century. This is something that I haven’t done enough research on to agree with, or disagree with necessarily, but the argument goes that with the rise of criminology and sexology and all these Foucauldian ideas in the early nineteenth century, the idea of women as being passive becomes much stronger. So actually the dynamics that you see in eighteenth-century murder don’t necessarily travel through to today. There are perhaps arguments that eighteenth-century London and Paris were very different societies than today. But what I’m particularly interested in, and what my thesis more generally deals with, is the idea of how female homicide is perceived. I think you see today, as in the eighteenth century, that as female homicide is a rarer crime than male homicide, that means that when it happens, and when commentators and the media and the judiciary are trying to understand what has led to this homicide – trying to explain it and perhaps normalise it – they’re looking to much broader narratives of change. Sometimes these are things like extreme sexual activity, or stereotypes of murderesses as being debauched, or on the other hand being totally passive and committing something almost entirely against their will. But I think it is slightly more complicated than that. The general narrative is that female homicide is just not understood because you have all these stereotypes that come into it. But I think that you see in the eighteenth century and you do see it today that actually there’s more complex dynamics going on. When you look at a female homicide often what we’re talking about is much broader concerns about the lives of women in a particular area or a particular space, and the sites of power within that. But it is true that within female homicide, and I think you do still see it today, it’s much harder to think specifically about this as a crime committed by a person, because we are often too busy thinking about the implications of it being a crime committed by a woman.

Sarah Burdett is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, and a member of The Staging Napoleonic Theatre Team (School of Modern Languages and Cultures).

Music by Tom James Parmiter

Main picture: Elizabeth Brownrigg

May 27 2017