Thursday, July 30, 2009

Blogging against racism

This week is International Blog Against Racism Week. I'd first like to point to a couple of sensible and interesting posts that I've seen. Mary Robinette Kowal makes some salient points about why we should all care. The History News Network has a post about how the Obama administration is overlooking issues of race, and pointing out that Obama's election does not mean, as some commentators said at the time, that Martin Luther King's dream has been fulfilled, and racism is a thing of the past (which I never believed in the first place). And there's an excellent post by Ika Willis at Now and Rome. I don't want to address Ika's post directly - you should go and read it instead - but it inspired the following.

In the early part of this year, there was a great debate in the science fiction fan/online community, which has gained the name of RaceFail 09. I didn't get involved, as I was busy with other things, and by the time I became aware of it, there was a great deal of discussion, and I felt unable to comment fairly. I'm not really going to engage with the core argument here either (there's a starting point with links here if you want to find out more). What I want to write about, at the risk of starting up an emotive debate that has gone quiet, is what I learnt from RaceFail, how I have changed my way of thinking as a result.

I was brought up in a liberal tradition, one of the core values of which is that one has to be fair to everyone. If one sees someone being attacked unfairly, especially if it is a friend, one wants to defend them - indeed, one can sometimes feel obliged to do so. What I now understand better is how that approach can look to someone from an oppressed minority (and whilst this post is about racism, much of what I say applies equally in terms of sexism). If I leap in to defend a white friend from what I perceive to be an attack made by a person of colour, untempered by any awareness of my own white (and male) privilege, it looks like the whites closing ranks. Suggesting that a polite and respectful tone be employed looks like white folks finding ways of shutting up uppity POCs. [Edit, 03/08/09: Ika Willis points out below that this looks like white folks finding ways of shutting up uppity POCs because it is white folks finding ways of shutting up uppity POCs.]

It's that lack of awareness of privilege which is the problem. A lot of the problem of RaceFail (and I may be wrong here, and if so, I apologize) seemed to be people getting very upset about having their behaviour described as racist. The response (and I may be caricaturing here, so again I apologize) was often "I am not and never have been a racist, and how dare you call me one!" What has happened here, I think, is the polarization of the term "racist", such that it is assumed to refer only to hooded KKK types with burning crosses and lynchings. Most white people reject that position, and are proud of dealing with people in a wholly colourblind fashion. Before RaceFail, this a view I'd have signed up to myself.

Which is all well and to the good, at least on the surface. But dig a little deeper, and I think that it's a bit naive and self-deluding. Sure, we may not go along with the British National Party's wearisome nonsense about English whites being discriminated against in their own country. But that doesn't mean that we're not capable of unthinking racism. Indeed, given that we whites (especially educated elite whites) are brought up in an implicitly racist society, whose wealth is at least partially based on profits made out of the eighteenth-century slave trade, it would be a miracle if any one of us were wholly devoid of some racist attitudes.

Here are three examples. When watching the 2006 television adaptation of Ruby in the Smoke, I remember being surprised that one role, apparently of a Victorian gentleman, was played by a black actor. My natural assumption was that Victorian gentlemen were white. I don't think that's based on exhaustive research into the period, but on the way the period has been portrayed in the culture to which I've been exposed. It is therefore a racist assumption.

Second example - my first reaction on hearing the rumour that Patterson Joseph would be the next Doctor was to think that there was something not right about that. Fortunately, I rapidly changed my mind, and realized that there was no good (i.e. non-racist) reason to object to this casting, and indeed that it was an idea whose time had more than come (and I now think it's a shame that this isn't what actually happened). But my first response was a racist one.

Finally, by coincidence, yesterday I read the section of Farah Mendlesohn & Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy, that deals with Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea novels, where the point is made that the central character, Ged, is a person of colour, but that readers hardly ever notice this. I am among those readers. Intellectually I know better, and have for some years, but this is not what I saw in my mind when I first read the novel (influenced by various covers, and illustrations for a reading of the story on Jackanory, none of which made Ged's skin colour clear), and even now it is hard for me to imagine Ged as non-white.

Now, I don't think it makes me an evil person that I have these responses. I think it just means that I'm a product of my environment. And I think it's a good thing that I recognize these responses for what they are, and reject them as guidance for my conscious actions. But it does mean that I cannot claim that I am entirely devoid of racism, and I would be a fool if I asserted that there are not responses that I do not recognize as such.

It is only through awareness, acknowledgment and addressing of our own failings in this respect that we can progress. Of course, behaving in a colourblind fashion is an ideal to which we should all aspire. But behaving in a colourblind fashion in a society which is not itself colourblind can contribute to the problem as much as to the solution. It encourages the notion that racism is in the past, and that we no longer need anti-racist legal measures (an argument often put forward by those who wish to reassert white privilege). But whilst Obama in the White House shows that things have improved, it does not demonstrate that there is no further room for improvement. This is a process that I don't expect to be completed in my lifetime, or for that matter, in the millennium.

So where does that leave the liberal concept of being fair to everyone? Still there, but slightly modified. I'm certainly not advocating placing POCs on a pedestal where their colour makes them immune from criticism. If anti-racism is about anything, it is about trying where possible to disregard race and treat someone as a human being.* (This is the mistake the Republicans made when appointing Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate - they assumed that feminists would support her because she was a woman, whereas what feminism is about, in my view at least, is disregarding the fact that someone is a woman, and assessing them as a person, on which assessment Palin came up short for many.) Human beings are sometimes wrong and sometimes unfair, and it is legitimate to call them out for it when they are. But if one is engaging as a privileged white with a POC on these grounds, one must be aware of one's own privilege. Because if one isn't, then the fairness one aspires to is spurious, because it doesn't take the full picture into account.

* And I know I've said that's not always possible, and sometimes counter-productive. Life is complicated. Get over it. [Edit, 03/08/09: an anonymous commentator rightly points out that talking about 'disregarding' race is not actually helpful. Given what I said about the colourblind approach, I should have seen this myself.]

Friday, July 24, 2009

Further things I've seen

Carnivalesque, the pre-modern history carnival, is searching for a host for August (ancient/mediaeval). Contact carnivalesque AT earlymodernweb DOT org DOT uk if you're interested. Now sorted.

Also, I saw another CFP on Wormtalk and Slugspeed:

We are issuing a call for papers for a proposed volume of scholarly essays on J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Papers should address any aspect of the work, but the editors are especially interested in works which make connections among disciplines, demonstrating the richness of the trilogy as well as its continuing widespread appeal.
Papers should be between 20 - 30 pages, note key words, and include a 250 word abstract.

The deadline for papers is 15 September 2009; decisions will be announced by 1 November 2009.

Papers should be submitted to
Prof. Kathleen Dubs
Angol Intézet
Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem
2087 Piliscsaba
Egyetem utca 1.
kedubs AT axelero DOT hu

Dr. Janka Kaščáková
Katedra Anglického Jayzka A Literatury
Katolícka Univerzita v Ružomberku
Hrabovská cesta 1
023 01 Ružomberok
janka.kascakova AT fphil DOT ku DOT sk

CFP: Antiquity in Film – Gender on Screen

The following just popped into my inbox. Unfortunately, I'm trying to shed projects at the moment rather than add new ones, and I don't think I can afford the time or money to go to Berlin, so I shan't be doing an abstract myself; but it looks very interesting, and there might be people reading this who would want to be aware of it.


Call for Papers

Conference: “Antiquity in Film – Gender on Screen”
December 10-12 2009 at the Freie Universitaet, Berlin, Germany

Contact: AntikfilmGender AT gmx DOT de

Prof. Dr. Almut-Barbara Renger
Department of History and Cultural Sciences
Institute for Religious Studies
Chair in Ancient Religion, Culture and the History of their Reception
Gosslerstr. 2-4, 14195 Berlin

This conference shall explore reception(s) of antiquity in film – from the silent era through to sound film and to present-day blockbusters. Film adaptations of ancient figures and material and what they have to say about the present, about culture and society will be examined in light of the specific significance of gender. Aside from the return of antiquity in cinema, we can also see an increasing interest in antiquity on television, in the form of miniseries or fantasy series.
“Gender” here is an analytic category that will serve as our methodological basis. This thus assumes that “femininity” and “masculinity” are not biologically determined, transhistorical constants. As this project is based primarily on the body and sexuality and their representations and reproductions in film, they will be examined as parts of gender constructs in the sense of nature as cultural text.
Approaches in recent film and gender theory look at the performance and negotiation not only of gender, but also of cultural background and national identities, using concepts such as “bricolage” to bring their various facets in contemporary film into sharper focus. The body’s boundaries and the transgression of these boundaries, e.g. in scenes of excessive violence, are often dominant motifs. In the last few years, the literature of antiquity has been adapted to film and turned into blockbuster Hollywood films, yet this has rarely been discussed. It is therefore all the more important to examine the significance of these films and their socio-political function, and thus develop interpretations that reach beyond what has been considered analytical common sense for the past several years.
To date, a few Classics scholars have written articles dealing with this topic area. These have touched on the historical figure of Cleopatra as film heroine and symbol of oriental culture, and the mythical figure of Helen in film history, as well as the connection between gender on one hand and domination, barbarism and slavery on the other. With this in mind, we will also look at gendered codes of representations of state sovereignty, (post-) colonial power relations and expressions of cultural superiority.
The goal of this conference is to attract papers that demonstrate to what degree the representations – constructions, destructions and reconstructions – of gender and gender roles have changed along with the changes in film (and societal structures).

We particularly welcome projects from the following fields:
– History, Classics and Modern Languages and Literature
– Cultural Studies, Religious Studies
– Theatre, Film and Media Studies, Art History
– Philosophy, Theology and Political Science

In addition to issues in gender theory, we also want to address:
– analyses of films based on media theories
– the Production Code, a mode of self-censorship current in film studios as a response to pressures from social and religious lobbyists
– the effects of the Cold War and the end of it on antiquity in film
– new approaches in Gender Studies such as Postcolonial Theory, Critical Orientalism and Critical Racism

We aim to publish representative results of the conference’s profile in an anthology.
Abstracts should not exceed 1 page and should be submitted together with a short biography of a few lines by 1 August 2009.

We are looking forward to an inspiring conference and lively discussion!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Predictive dreams, or why many historical novels are science fiction really

This is the first of a couple of planned blog posts that fall out of the Asterisks and Obelisks conference I went to earlier this month, and that got me all enthused for writing blog posts again (and maybe even, God help you all, fiction).

Anyway, one of the invited speakers at the conference was Caroline Lawrence, author of the Roman Mysteries series (I confess to being not too familiar with her books, though I've seen a couple of the tv adaptations). In her talk, she mentioned that in one of the later novels, a character dreams of his future. This got the interest of Juliette Harrisson*, as she's interested in dreams (I think it's her thesis topic, though I'm sure she'll put me straight on that). Which in turn led to a conversation about how prophetic dreams and other sorts of accurate prophecy still occur in historical novels set in the ancient world.

Dreams are, of course, an important feature in ancient literature. Zeus sends a lying dream to Agamemnon in Book 2 of the Iliad. In Aeschylus' Persians, Atossa, Queen of Persia, has a symbolic dream demonstrating that Asia and Greece can never be joined together in one empire. And, of course, Cassandra is the ultimate prophetess, always right, but never believed (I always wondered about that - you'd have thought that someone might notice her 100% accuracy rate ...). There are dreams to be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Accurate predictive dreams are also found in historiography. Herodotus has them (note the symbolic dreams in Book 1 predicting Cyrus the Great's conquest of Asia). This continues into Roman and Romano-Christian writings; in particular, Lactantius' account of a dream that instructs Constantine to fight under the sign of Jesus Christ (presumably promising victory, though Lactantius is not explicit). The Old and New Testaments also have prophetic and symbolic dreams (e.g. the vision of Jacob's ladder in Genesis, or Peter's dream encouraging him to preach to the Gentiles in Acts).

This, however, is not the place for a study of dreams in Graeco-Roman literature, of which there is at least one book-length study, and no doubt more. What I'm interested in here is the persistence of the prophetic dream, and other forms of accurate prophecy, in modern historical novels.

On one level, it seems slightly odd. Post-Enlightenment, 'realism' has become the dominant mode of the novel, and accurate prophetic dreams fall very much into the mode of the fantastic. Yet they are still to be found. Robert Graves' I, Claudius, for instance, begins with a sybilline prophecy, which not only predicts the length of the reign of Claudius, but also in which century his autobiography shall be rediscovered and published. This is picked up in the television version, where, in the final episode, Claudius has a turn in the Senate and allusively names both Graves and Jack Pullman, the adapter of the novel for the screen. A similarly prophetic Sybil is to be found in Sophia McDougall's alternate history novel Romanitas.

Why is this? It's one thing to have characters in a novel who, because of the religious and cultural background, believe in the power of prophecy and dreams. It would be perfectly within the parameters of a realist novel for Claudius to report a prophecy of events from a perspective of writing after the prophesied events have taken place (Claudius is, after all, not necessarily a wholly reliable narrator). It's quite another for the reported prophecy to relate to events that the novel's readership know, because they have happened, but which happen millennia after Claudius' death.

I wonder if it is because the notion of prophecy is hardwired into the ancient-set novel right from its origins in the Roman imperial period. Of course, the best-known of the Greek and Latin novels, Apuleius' Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), is very much in the fantastic mode. But prophecy is also found elsewhere in the ancient novel. The troubles ahead for the lead characters in the Ephesiaka of Xenophon are accurately predicted by a soothsayer, and predictive dreams feature in Achilles Tatius.

A special case for the modern ancient historical novel are those works dealing with the Trojan War. As has been observed by many, modern retellings of the matter of Troy tend to eliminate most elements of the fantastic, removing the gods from the field of play, and turning the mythological narrative of Homer into a historical novel. But one element of the fantastic often still survives; Cassandra's predictions of the fall of Troy, either through dreams or another method of prophecy. This is the case for David Gemmell's Troy trilogy. It is also the case for Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, and also for the Doctor Who story The Myth Makers, where otherwise the only fantastic element is the TARDIS crew.

What I don't know about is prophetic dreams in other historical novels. I don't remember anything, for instance, in the mediaeval novels of Jean Plaidy, which I read a lot of in my youth. Are there, indeed, prophetic dreams in mediaeval historiography? Or what about the novels of Dickens, a man certainly open to the possibilities of the fantastic (e.g. A Christmas Carol)? Are there dreams in any of the other novels.

Please leave any further examples you can think of in comments, and I will add them in edits.

* Yes, that is how she spells her name. I've been misspelling more traditional Harrisons for the past couple of weeks.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The end of the school visit? Hardly.

Today there has been a lot of discussion in the papers about authors declaring that they will boycott school visits if new regulations are brought in. You can read it about it in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent. What the authors, who include the likes of Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, say, is that the new Vetting and Barring Scheme will require them to pay £64 to register themselves on a database and undergo a check that they are not a danger to children, should they want to do any school visit. This is, apparently, demeaning, and why should authors have to prove that they are not paedophiles?

There's a lot of hyperbolic outrage here. One is tempted to suggest that some people should get over themselves. What, after all, is more important - protecting an author from being affronted that somebody might want to check that they are not a danger to children before allowing them to work closely with them, or protecting children from people who might be a threat? Pullman mentions authors who depend on the income from school visits, who would now lose that money - but if the income is that important, I'd expect them to stump up the £64. Anthony Browne's views seem rather less hysterical.

However, there are implications here, not just for writers, but for people like me. Last October I gave a talk to my niece's primary school about Romans. In November I gave a talk in a school in Oxford. I was scheduled to do another schools conference in May (though that fell through), and have an invitation to go to another school sometime in the autumn. At no point did anyone mention that I might need a Criminal Records Bureau check before doing that. Today's stories would suggest that this is no longer the case, which has implications not just for me, but for any university doing Outreach activities in schools.

The thing is, the story's broadly not true. Because I'm the sort of person who likes to back his opinions up with evidence, I went on to the website of the Independent Safeguard Authority. Several pages have interesting things to say. This page, for instance, says "In England and Wales, the requirement to refer and criteria for referrals remain the same from 20 January 2009. From 13 March 2009, the requirement to refer and the criteria for referral are unchanged in Northern Ireland." To me, that implies that no-one who didn't need registering before will need registering now. This page talks about what constitutes regulated or controlled activity, and talks a lot about frequent or intensive activity. I wouldn't immediately interpret that as applying to a single visit into a school supervised by a teacher.

Finally, the BBC story carries an official refutation of the authors' position. It's a bit buried, and the story gives more weight to the authors' point of view. But the Department of Children, Schools and Families say that the regulations have been misinterpreted. They only apply to someone who goes into schools more than once a month (the official definition of 'frequent'). Moreover, they say, "visitors to schools, even if they are supervised by a teacher at all times, are being placed in a unique position of trust where they can easily become deeply liked and trusted by pupils. We therefore need to be sure that this trust is well placed in case pupils bump into them out of school where a teacher is not present." From which I infer that the intention of the regulations is that only people who go more than once a month into the same school need register. That, to me, would eliminate most authors from needing to register, and it certainly means I don't need to worry. Some Outreach programmes may have to be careful, but even then, it is also the case that if someone isn't being paid for the visit, then, whilst they need to be registered, they don't have to pay for it.

So in the end, this story appears to be a bunch of authors getting the wrong end of the stick and then getting rather overly upset about it, exacerbated by journalism that could have been rather more through. None of the newspaper sites mention what is on the ISA's website. Instead, they chose to print what the authors said without question. Because that makes a better story ...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Random playing of the Classical Receptions card

Just watching the end of Fire Down Below (Robert Parrish, 1957), and I note that the ship that Jack Lemmon gets trapped in towards the end is called the Ulysses. Not sure that this is particularly significant ...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Readers (if there are any left) forgive me, for I have sinned ...

... it has been nearly four months since I last posted anything here. As ever, in the middle of the year, other things appear which are more urgent, like teaching, and trying to finish research papers, and my spare time for anything else decreases dramatically. So apologies if I have not given full coverage to everything I should have this year. In particular, I owe an apology to Hugh Viney, director of this year's UCL Classics Play, who was expecting a review to appear here sometime. A full review, I am afraid, is not going to happen now. Which I do feel bad about, as it was an excellent production, with exactly the right level of irreverence towards text and audience. In particular, the use of music meant that this was one of the most imaginative Frog choruses that I've seen. I really enjoyed it, and I should have said so before now.

However, my blog has now been mentioned in CA News, in relation to my taking over as editor of that publication. So I probably need to provide some content again.

Right now I'm taking advantage of the Internet facilities at the University of Wales, Lampeter, where I'm attending a convention of Classical receptions in Children's literature. It's been an interesting conference so far - I particularly enjoyed a session this morning on fiction set in Roman Britain, which will help me finesse my own views on the tensions inherent in writing about the Roman occupation (basically, which side is the reader on, the Britons or the Romans?). My own paper went okay. I was talking about the Roman empire in the boys' adventure comic. I hadn't had time to do all the research I wanted to, but when I came to write the piece I realized that anything more than a short introduction to the subject wasn't possible in twenty minutes anyway. I may report again after the end of the conference.