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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

This is not about sympathy. It is not about sob stories. Like my last post on disability (inspired by Dorothy Kim writing for ITM), it is about counting. It is about raising awareness. To use the terminology of multimodality, it is about acknowledging the cultural practices of our times – and changing them. It is about discourse, for the current prevalent societal discourse – the sugar-coated poison which infuses popular culture with impossible ideals – does not recognise that here, now, everywhere, human beings are being abused. We probably always have been, but that doesn’t make it acceptable, anywhen.

One day I hope we will see a society where there is no such thing as ‘coming out’. A society where everyone, regardless of their position on the various spectra of gender, sexuality, disability, colour, class, can just be. And will be respected and loved for who they are. Idealist? Guilty. Inherent believer in the ultimate goodness of humanity? Ditto – despite the evidence, despite past experiences. (Could I say that even if someone had hurt my child? I would like to think that, eventually, I could. I pray I will never have to find out. And if it were your child, and you couldn’t, then I would not judge you. I would support you, give you all the time you needed, but I would not seek revenge on your behalf.)

One form of ‘coming out’ which is growing in importance is the coming out as a survivor of abuse. Putting that another way: all sorts of people in different walks of life are pointing out just how many abusers there are in the world. This, in turn, is making us count. As a woman with a happy home in one of the safest countries in the world I gaze in horror at the tales I know, the tales I have heard. Nowhere is safe. At this time of year people, particularly young people in education, are at the beginning of new journeys, new challenges. Are there predators circling, waiting to pounce on these vulnerable potential victims? Of course there are, but they are in the minority. Probably the most numerous potential abusers are themselves victims. Maybe they are also on a new journey. Many surely don’t realise how much they have to learn. It takes a brave and wise heart indeed to be able to recognise that one’s own bad experiences can generate more of the same. When your own personal boundaries have themselves been breached, how hard it may be to see that acquiescence out of fear is not the same as consent – particularly in the bold ignorance of youth. The victim of bullying is expected to resist becoming a bully when things don’t turn out like the books with happy endings promised. The child of an over-strict parent is expected to know that that is no way to treat romantic partners when they don’t submit as they do in cheesy films. The victim of assault is expected to not turn violent when they (rightly or wrongly) believe themselves threatened again. The survivor of depression and self-harm is expected to not be jealous of those who struggle to comprehend what they cannot understand.

Many years ago, a young man I used to know who had been a victim of all of the above went from friend to lover to prolonged systematic abuser of someone who had only ever wanted to help him. There, I said it. Looking back, it didn’t take my heart long to forgive him, once I had escaped to a better place. It has taken a long time for my soul to heal enough to be able to come out and be counted.

The heroes, you see, are those who break the mould. Those who channel their negative experiences into a force for change. It won’t happen the next day. It may not happen for years. But those who can suffer harm without doing harm, those who can love freely without wanting more, those who can live through incomprehensible sadness yet maintain an openness for the beauty of life; they are the survivors we should admire while we mourn, love, and respect those who, for whatever reason, could not complete the journey.

Anyone following #mybodymyhome (website here) will know that one of the world’s most talented writers, Shailja Patel (website here), has come out as having been recently sexually assaulted just days after her return to Kenya, and that campaigners all over the world have come together to support her. Anyone with a social media account, let alone half an eye on current affairs, will know that a young man miles away on the same continent is awaiting sentencing for killing someone he says he loved. One of these tales is in the full media glare. The other may not be in the spotlight, but its diffuse and disturbing light can be glimpsed virtually everywhere.

Oscar Pistorius is portrayed by said media as a villain and a victim, as a rags-to-riches playboy and a vulnerable traumatised soul, as a heroic world-class athlete and a bad liar out to save what he can of his skin. The same outlets can portray him as different versions of these extremes from one day to the next – indeed, in the same day. Due to his celebrated and celebrity status, suddenly Web 2.0 knows better than the judge what she should decide. While a detailed multimodal analysis of the media portrayals of the trial would be fascinating (anyone looking for a PhD topic in multimodalality / African studies / disability studies – if you’ve already got a supervisor in mind you can thank me in your acknowledgments), what I am focusing on here are the cultural practices involved. South Africa as a nation has been the focus of external media gaze for longer than I have been alive. First, those of us on the outside boycotted its produce. Then we watched as Mandela walked to freedom. We sang along with Jim Kerr and Simple Minds. We cheered the rise of the ANC, the elections, the presidencies, the mixed sports teams. The fractured society and rampant gun culture which simmer underneath do not fit into this fairytale. Nor does the fact that it might be OK to shoot someone if they are an intruder – because everyone knows that intruders are not human beings, are not innocent until proven guilty; more to the point, because everyone knows that any intruder is likely to be armed and will shoot to kill if not shot first.

In the same way, everybody knows that women’s bodies are public property. They sell cars and motorbikes. Open a certain UK newspaper apparently like any other and you will see full-frontal top-half female nudity (which, naturally, you won’t find on facebook, even with a baby’s head covering more than any clothing could). You won’t find women’s football reported in that newspaper, of course, or indeed in many others (Norwegian newspapers, I salute you). Women’s words are spun around their clothing and hairstyle, around someone else’s opinion of their looks. Threats can be made with impunity. Microagressions, everyday sexism, mansplaining, the works. Women are, after all, bodies with holes in. And human beings notice bodies. We are programmed to. I’m no biologist but I wouldn’t be surprised if we evolved to assess faces and bodies as part of the subconscious evolutionary drive which powers all species, not just ours. But what sets homo sapiens apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is that very ‘sapiens’ – the conscious thought. The ability to override our instincts, and to train others (and other species) to do so. We can train a dog, a horse, mebbie not a cat I grant you, but seals, bears, ferrets, ourselves. A leopard can change his shorts – if he wants to. It is a much harder task to change a society’s cultural practices.

Yet it can happen. It has to. Psychologists, sociologists, historians, and anyone who has read any Orwell knows that what stands between research and government policy to drive change is the people, the sheep. The masses are made up of individuals. Indeed, because of this linking position, there is great power in the hands of those seeking change. Campaigning works. (Eventually.) You see, cultural practices are not, thank all you consider holy, set in stone. Every single one of us can be a hero and change things for the better, whatever our status, background, or culture. Every victim you believe. Every judgment you don’t make. Every gentle gesture. Every time you double-check ‘is this OK for you?’. Every time you ask a child’s permission for a hug. Every time you use your own hurt to help someone else.

This post is dedicated to the heroes. You know who you are.

Which part of a (Norwegian) job application do I fear the most?

The cover letter? – Nah, bring it on! I’m interdisciplinary; that means I can do ANYTHING, right?

The full academic CV? – Easy! Which version would you like? I have a choice of three, at least.

The accompanying materials? – Hah, just look at all the peer-reviewed articles/compositions I have to choose from these days!

The obligatory gender declaration? – I’m pleased that Norway is (apparently) taking the trouble to count.

Do you fulfill the requirements for special consideration as an applicant with an immigrant background? – No, because coming from the EU is not classed as ‘immigrant’ in this sense (and rightly so).

Do you fulfill the requirements for special consideration as an applicant with a disability? If so, please give details below. – Uh, um, well. Er, do I have to?

 

No, I don’t have to; it is a choice. And do you know what? For the last three years – and sometimes before then – I have chosen not to declare, even though I could (should) have done. Even though I do require some adjustments to a work environment. Even though, clear on my face for all to see, is the very fact that I have a disability (well, either that or a pretty bold sense of style and/or a love of the colour pink which makes my five-year-old daughter’s how-many-shades-can-I-possibly-wear-today? attitude seem positively reasonable).

I suspect that many people reading this would not believe the number of times I’ve had to say, ‘actually, I don’t wear these glasses for fun.’ I may well have said it to you. You probably replied (as most do), with a surprised, ‘really? I thought they were just really cool!’ And yes, they are pretty funky. And yes, I do dress to match. And yes, I have a (public) personality that sits well (I hope!) with bright colours. And no, I was not offended by your comment. It takes more than that to offend me, I assure you. In turn, I did not wish to cause you offence with my well-rehearsed answer: sometimes delivered in a mock whisper; sometimes with a slight downward glance (or long blink), descending voice pitch, and shake of the head; sometimes with a jokey raising of the eyebrows, tilt of the head, and maybe the ghost of a wink; only occasionally with a warning tone.

'I don't wear these for fun, you know.'

‘I don’t wear these for fun, you know.’

I am spurred to write today by Dorothy Kim’s (@dorothyk98) excellent post on the (equally excellent) medievalist blog In the Middle, entitled ‘Divergent Bodies and Medieval Studies‘. I don’t know or mind whether Kim counted mine as a ‘non-normative’ body at IMC Leeds – it makes no difference whatsoever to her argument, which contains three points bordering on the genius. (I don’t remember whether or not we discussed The Glasses, but we certainly righted the world over a glass – hmm come to think of it bottle – of wine, as you do, regarding issues of diversity in academia more broadly.) My three takeaway points from Kim’s piece are these:

 

1. She made me realise how #Ferguson is relevant to all walks of life.

2. If anyone expresses surprise at my (or anyone’s) ability to do research then I will sock it to them – hopefully gently, firmly, and politely, but if otherwise then too bad.

3. I will tick that box on application forms from now on.

 

Let’s take each of those points in turn, in a little more detail.

1. Institutionalised discrimination is everywhere. It is not enough to treat everyone equally regardless of looks, background, ability, gender, mental and physical health, beliefs, and all the other things which make us unique; no, we have to be more proactive than that. We actually have to speak out, point out, and stamp out what Kim and others term the ‘microaggressions’ that take place on every level. It must start today. It must (re-)start every day. This is something concrete, real, and effective that we can all do in our workplaces, in our communities, in our centres of education, and in our families. Silence is not an option.

2. My grandmother always used to say to me, ‘if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all’, because: ‘If you write something, you can erase it. But if you say something, it stays said.’ That was good advice for a loudmouthed child with a gob too often engaged before brain. But to my grandmother’s advice I will now add the following: ‘If your silence would be more hurtful to a victim of abuse than your less-than-carefully planned response, then speak up regardless.’ Silence is not an option.

3. Here’s why I stopped ticking the declaration box on application forms. In 2011 I was called to an interview for a job because my declaration meant that by law they had no choice but to interview me. What the job advertisement failed to say was that the interdisciplinary candidate they claimed to want actually had to be able to offer teaching in a certain department, one to which it was clear from my CV that I had very little to offer. That I found out at interview. An interview which was very short. An interview which cost the hiring department (in a country significantly more cash-strapped than Norway) a fair amount of money to ship me over to attend. An interview which I and one of the panel members made the best of by getting to know each other and having as in-depth a discussion about our research as we could, but which the other panel member (and department head) clearly regarded as an utter waste of time. Instead of blaming the inevitable discomfort on a poorly written job advert and a surly cash/time-strapped HoD, I blamed myself for ticking the box which forced them to call me for interview. Since then, I have not ticked the box. From now on, I will. Silence is not an option.

(As an aside: the interview I just described had a happy ending. Thanks to being called to that interview I was sent various materials beforehand, including a copy of a successful bid to a research funding body. Before I even attended the interview I had already amended the structure of that research proposal to fit one I was writing for a call for postdoctoral proposals in multimodality at the University of Agder. Of course, I was not awarded my current postdoc on the structure of my proposal alone. But I was praised for my proposal, which did everything it needed to do and more. I am always happy to send the official proposal for my postdoctoral project to anyone who may find it useful – just ask me. It is not a public or published document so I can’t just slap it on the internet, but it is by no means an official secret so I am more than happy to share it.)

 

So, back to Norway and its job policies (which I have already written about here). As I enter the last quarter of my postdoc I am on the job hunt again. I have already not ticked the disability declaration a few times. Why? Well, as I have said, I don’t want to relive the experience of that interview (and in Norwegian to boot). After all, there are people much less able-bodied than I am – this box is for ‘them’, not me, right? To tick it when I don’t desperately ‘need’ it would be morally wrong, because my application might be promoted in favour of that of someone else, which would be unfair.

That logic is well-meaning, but ultimately drivel and nonsense (and other words that I don’t want to use on my blog). First, by not ticking that box, I am disallowing – or, worse, distorting – the ‘counting’ which the Norwegian state is implementing, and which Kim points out is so important to do. Second, I am certainly not ashamed to be one of ‘them’, and this system is in place to help ‘us’ – that is, everyone; but by not ticking the box, I am not acting on my own beliefs. To counter workplace discrimination of all kinds we need to build diverse workplaces. The fact that I am more than happy to disclose my gender shows that I am well aware that positive discrimination works: the gender rule for potential employees of the Norwegian state is that if two (or more) candidates are deemed to be equal, then preference must be given to females. (For more experience and expertise on this than I am qualified to give, you can read Curt Rice’s website and follow @curtrice; Rice works tirelessly for gender equality in Norway and elsewhere, particularly in universities.) That brings me to the question of ‘need’, which is where the St-Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus-style (or, in internet speak, #facepalm) revelation comes in: this is not about my needs, it is about society’s needs and the needs of others. To tick or not to tick is my choice, but it is a choice that is not actually about me.

 

Colleagues, forgive me for my silence and inertia up to now. Dorothy, thank you for your activism and for moving me to action. Curt (and others too numerous to name), thank you for all your hard work. Everyone, listen well and speak out: silence is not an option.

 

 

Passions, post-its, pictures, presentations, problems, personalities, paintings, projects, people. This post on the Idélab is brought to you by the letter P…

Idélab 6

P is for people. Photo: Forskningsrådet

In the last week of January I dipped below the radar somewhat; for I was part of Norway’s first ‘Idélab’. North American readers may recognise the term (idea lab); UK readers may know it as a ‘sandpit’. Whatever its name, it was an idea-generation event which was intended to produce innovative research projects seeking to pave the way for a zero-emissions society.

Twenty-seven delegates, six mentors, and representatives from Forskningsrådet (Norway’s national research council, who were behind the event) were led on a journey by Liz and Tim from the UK company Know Innovation (with help from Scotty and Paula). And what a journey it was.

Five days. Two days of defining and brainstorming the problem: what might a zero-emission society look like, and how might we achieve it? Two days of hashing out projects which could take us there. One day of presenting those projects to the panel and hearing their thoughts. Sounds simple?

Idélab 5

P is for posters

Idélab 3

P is for painting. A relaxing way to spend an evening getting creative juices flowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In some ways it was. Looking back, all we delegates had to do was relax and let ourselves go with the flow. That is not as easy as it sounds, for we had to place all of our trust in the leaders and mentors. Forskningsrådet, too, had to relax and let the week unfold at its pace. If that pace seemed gentle on the first day, by the Thursday the hours were flying by.

The week was a success. I say that unequivocally for one simple reason: we all cared. Leaders, mentors, delegates, organisers: we all worked together, warmly (sounds obvious? Then you’ve never lived in Scandi-land), respectfully, on equal terms.

Idélab 7

P is for personalities – questionnaire responses showed that more delegates were creative thinkers than any other category.

There was a cloud on the horizon, however. Following two days of encouraging all of us – perhaps particularly the so-called ‘hard’ scientists – to fully engage the social scientists and humanities in ideas for projects, then one day of thrashing out possible projects, the clanger was dropped: to be successful of funding in this round, projects had to advance research in two of the three areas funding the event – nanotechnology, biotechnology, ICT. This was, after all, what we had all signed up to some three months previously. It was not ‘news’ per se. But it had gone against the intense working we had been doing thus far. In short, the reminder, while not unnecessary, came too late in the game. Hopes for 50/50 social/hard science collaborations were dashed. Projects had to be abandoned, as those who (for whatever reason) needed funding had to divert their energies elsewhere.

One delegate from the social sciences summed up the frustration brilliantly: in Norway, all subjects are well funded by the research council. The ‘soft’ sciences don’t have to go cap in hand to team up with the ‘hard’ sciences in order to get funding for research. This could have been a real platform for engaging across the disciplines on equal terms, but instead – more importantly, at the last minute – the hard sciences were promoted. In practice, with soft-science-heavy projects abandoned, there were ‘floating’ delegates who found the remaining projects too far advanced to be able to accommodate them. The sage advice of the mentors (whom I do not think were entirely happy with the development, even if their professionalism gave nothing away) was to enjoy the last evening of working with wonderful people. But that is hard to do when just a few hours ago you thought you could save the world.

However, Forskningsrådet had two rabbits in their hat, and the first was pulled out at the end of day four: they would fund a ‘networking project’ to keep the contacts going from the idélab and to assess the projects and they unfold. This project had to have a PI from the social sciences or arts and humanities.

Day five was the big presentation day, and the presentations were fantastic. There were five projects which went to the final round. Of these, four received funding, for Forskningsrådet pulled their final bunny out of their hat – they’d found another 10M nok behind the sofa cushions. (As you do.)

Idélab 1

P is for projects. Delegates listening to the blurb from the leader as he prepares to announce which projects will receive financing from Forskningsrådet. (Comedy caption: ‘Get on with it, James!’)

So idélab had its ups and a down, and then more ups. The journey is not over. As a volunteer to co-PI the networking project it has not escaped my notice that we have gone entirely unmentioned by Forskningsrådet (and thus by the press) in their reports on the event. That is not to say that it is a dirty secret; indeed, for some of us it is the most important outcome of the event. Not because of the money, but because our research may show what so many delegates and mentors felt so strongly: that for real collaboration, and real change, support is needed from across the spectrum of disciplines.

Forskningsrådet, the leaders and mentors, not to mention the delegates, can congratulate themselves on a phenomenal week, and on some excellent projects. There is no shame whatsoever in seeking to improve on this success, and I hope the so-called ‘networking project’ can contribute to that, despite Forskninsrådet’s silence on it thus far. As well as excellent technological projects, what idélab showed is that Norwegian-based researchers are keen to work across disciplinary boundaries, that they understand that technology is meaningless without social change, and that they are keen to put this into practice. It is my hope that the ‘networking project’ can help to drive this change, already in the hearts of researchers, into the practice of research policy and funding.

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Footnote: This review has taken me longer to write than any blogpost so far. I think this is partly because the roller-coaster journey is so difficult to capture in words. A pathetic excuse, but it is the truth. If you ever get the chance to attend one of these events, then grab it. It might just change your life.

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*Update: I have now seen the following pages from the Norwegian Research Council, which clearly mentions the networking project: click here for English; click here for Norwegian (contains more details). And thanks to all for the emails sent – most reassuring. Let the change begin.

Two more blogs on Idélab (both in Norwegian):

Anja Røyne – Fysikk og Fascinasjon

André Fossen Mlonyeni on Forskningsrådet’s Idélab-blogg

Any others out there, then let me know!

Idélab 2

P is for post-its. Oh yes it is. Perhaps Idélab should have been entitled ‘101 ways to inspire ideas with post-its’. I jest, of course, but those things were useful…

I have had quite a few people ask me recently for key texts to get them started on multimodality, so I decided that it’s high time to share a few favourites. This list is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive – and please use the comments to post works I’ve missed out. I have taken two big eliminating decisions with the list: to only list books (though there are plenty of edited volumes here), and only those works in English. (Perhaps another day I’ll add a top ten of journal articles, but most of my favourite shorter pieces are chapters in the edited collections mentioned here. In the meantime, check through the contents pages of the journal Visual Communication, since that often contains articles on multimodality). It is also centred on Kress, Van Leeuwen and those working in their wake because that’s the path I took into multimodality – but there are other thinkers out there as well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

First though: if you read nothing else on the topic, then read these three. It was very hard picking just three, believe me.

1. Jewitt, Carey, ed. 2009 The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. London: Routledge.

Why? It’s a go-to guide for a selection of articles on multimodality in a variety of disciplines. If you’re not sure whether multimodality will work for you, start your process of discovery here to see how broad the spectrum can be. I will never forget the article on gay dating sites, or on facebook. The introduction is also my absolute go-to for an overview of the topic.

2. Kress, Gunther, and Van Leeuven, Theo, 2006 (2nd ed.). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. New York: Routledge.

Why? Well, the 1996 first edition was the one that really started the whole thing off in the mainstream – academic and (to some extent) non-academic. It’s clearly written, it has examples from a wide range of images (a broad term which encompasses all visual ‘texts’), and it has easy-to-follow and easy-to-remember techniques which really do work for the majority of images. The particular genius of this book – and of multimodality in general – lies in identifying trends that hold true across times and cultures (and in specifying where and why they don’t, e.g. in cultures that write/read right to left).

3. Kress, Gunther and Van Leeuwen, Theo, 2001. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.

Why? I like the way this book divides the process of a multimodal analysis into discourse, design, production, and distribution. Of course that is not the only way, and there is more to think about than those four things, but it is an excellent starting point. Yes, that is still the way I do my analyses – or at least how I begin them.

 

The not-quite-top three

4. Kress, Gunther, 2010. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Communication. London: Routledge Falmer.

Why? A narrow miss of the top three, this one. It contains the best definition of ‘mode’ that I’ve seen (spoiler alert – it’s hard to define). More importantly, it unlocked for me the ‘secrets’ of social semiotics, a concept of which, until reading this, I harboured an inexplicable fear.

5. Norris, Sigrid, ed., 2012. Multimodality in Practice: Investigating Theory-in-practice-through-methodology. (New York: Routledge)

Why? This was one of the first texts I read on multimodality, and I was hooked. What could an exploding billboard possibly have in common with my work on medieval manuscripts? (Paul White’s contribution is on the billboard; I found striking resonances to my own work.) Carey Jewitt’s introductory chapter is another of her clear, helpful outlines of the topic. My only quibble with this volume in the title – surely they could have thought of something easier to remember (and to capitalise correctly!).

6. O’Hallaran, Kay L. and Smith, Bradley A., eds, 2011. Multimodal Studies: Exploring Issues and Domains. New York: Routledge.

Why? This is another broad-ranging collection of essays. More than that, reading them created echoes in my mind. Watch this space for a blog post on manuscript marginalia based on Van Leeuwen’s assessment of patterns in this volume. Lim, Nekmat, and Nahar offer a striking take on multimodality and media literacy. And there are other, equally exciting chapters here, including theoretical.

 

And finally: four specialist works

7. Jewitt, Carey, and Kress, Gunther, 2003. Multimodal Literacy. New York: Peter Lang.

Why? Education, teaching, and learning is one of the major players in multimodality. This book is an excellent introduction to the topic. If I have a criticism of it, that would be its focus on children. Of course much is also applicable to adult learners. There is a further reading list on multimodal literacy to be found at the project website here.

8. Page, Ruth, ed., 2010. New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality. Routledge: New York.

Why? Two main reasons. First, the mode of ‘written language’ is too easily dismissed (and I myself am guilty of doing so). Of course, ‘written language’ is a mode made up of many other modes, and this book gets into some of these. Second, there are contributions which cover opera, Safran Foer, metaphor, gesture, and more. I love a wide-ranging yet coherent and inspiring collection (as this list shows).

9. Van Leeuwen, Theo, 2008. Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Why? I know this list is a little Van Leeuwen heavy, but he deserves it. Like the Page volume, this one is helpful for getting into the nitty gritty of the multimodality of written language. However, it does so from a very different viewpoint – that of linguistics. I have always been scared of linguistics, yet I understood and even enjoyed this book. So I can’t help but recommend it.

10. Van Leeuwen, Theo, 1999. Speech, Music, Sound. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Why? This is to music what Reading Images is to visual studies. In general, music is still somewhat under-represented in multimodal studies (though things are improving there, and not just because of me, obviously). Read this and be inspired.

 

But don’t forget…

There are works which didn’t make this list for not being strictly on ‘multimodality’, yet which deserve a mention at least. Barthes, oh Barthes, the first French philosopher I ever made sense of. Barthes speaks volumes of use to multimodalists (even when they disagree). Derrida (yes, I know, just go out and read the whole lot, eh?) has a lot to say about writing. Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateux (OK, the translation, but only because my library doesn’t have the French) is permanently on my desk and travels with me just about everywhere – I can dip in and out and always find something inspiring. Remediation (Bolter & Grusin) and Moving Media Studies: Remediation Revisited (eds Philipsen and Qvortrup work as a good pair. We also mustn’t forget the grandfathers McLuhan and Halliday. And if you can read any of the Scandinavian languages, then there is a wealth of scholarship, particularly from Denmark and Norway, a tradition of which I’m now proud to be a (minor) part.

Right, reader, what have I missed that just has to be included here?

Exile is never far from the news. It is never far from the scholarly press, either. Exiles, immigrants, refugees – call us what you will, we are everywhere. We always have been.

Recently, a poignant, multimodal depiction of the fate of exiles has been doing the rounds on social media. Because it is set in Norway, the country in which I am also an exile, it is particularly relevant. Somalis in Norway wants us to think it a true story, ‘told to journalist Benjamin Dix and drawn by artist Lindsay Pollock’, as stated by the BBC on the link. It may well have its origins in truth – that I do not dispute. But how true is a story told to one person and drawn by another? Told in cartoon form – that medium more often associated with Tom and Jerry or Garfield, the medium in which characters pop back into life no matter what happens – the appearance is more of a fable. We, the readers, are distanced from the characters; we do not engage with them in their two-dimentional, colourless form. That is not to say it is not based on reality, or that is not believable. Rather, that through her choice of medium, the artist has chosen to distance readers from the realities of the situation. We do not dwell on the horrors of war, we scorn the brat-like children without emphasising with them, we expect the happy ending. Any details we wish to add – the feelings of the mother, the colour of the family’s skin – we have to imagine. With reader imagination providing so many of the details, then, how can the story be ‘true’? What is ‘truth’ in an age of photoshop and spin?

The border between fact and fiction is permeable; it always has been. Not long ago I copy-edited a fantastic book on exile in twentieth-century literature: Languages of Exile, eds Axel Englund and Anders Olsson. (You can view its contents and purchase it here.) A scholarly book, yes, but a very accessible one. Some of its contributors are exiles, and all discuss the experience of writing in exile. Sometimes that exile is voluntary, sometimes it is forced. Sometimes it is a mixture of the two – a choice not to return home. The power of Nelly Sachs’ poetry (A. Olsson) or W.G. Sebald’s pictorial prose (A. Englund, K. Båth) is precisely its believability; the emotions conveyed are real beyond doubt, at least in this reader. The editors were not adverse to contributors’ own opinions creeping in, bringing the scholarly prose to life. Let me give just one example. I do not know, but I suspect that L. Miočević’s description of the BCMS region may be based on personal experience. What leads me to this suspicion? A vivid description with few references. The author’s name and ability in the language(s). Does it matter to the merit of her work? Not at all. Does it influence her work? Perhaps. It is tempting to see, or to look for, passion behind the professional, academic prose. Certainly, her prose, like much of that in the volume, is suffused with an energy that is rarely found in scholarly writing, and this without doubt contributes to reader enjoyment of the whole book.

Exile is not new, nor is it going away. As borders become ever-more ephemeral, as Romantic notions of nationhood become ever more outmoded, exile will continue. The notion of the ‘other’ is as old as humanity itself, indeed it is much older, even if it has taken homo sapiens to give it a name (think of the geological term ‘erratic boulders’, for example). The literature on the monstrous in medieval art and literature, for example, is vast and growing. The monster can signify internal or external struggle (Beowulf, Crusades, knights’ quests). The other is not always debarred, but the visionary, the saint, treads a difficult path and is often misunderstood.

Hildegard receives and dictates a vision. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Hildegard receives and dictates a vision. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

When we left the UK in 2007, we intended to return. We left because we could; because there was an opportunity to do so, and we wanted to taste life outside of ‘home’ before we became so tied to ‘home’ that we would never leave. Putting that another way, we saw disgruntled Glaswegians (principally – we were in Glasgow, after all) grumbling, and we decided to see life elsewhere before settling down, before our careers took off. We were not unhappy in Glasgow – far from it! – and it remains one of our favourite places. But I don’t know if we could ever live there again.

So much is learnt about a place only by living there. Did you know that Swedes don’t hold doors open, and will only rarely offer to help a person struggling with a large bag? And do you know why? (Clue: the Jante law.) Did you know that in Paris you will receive abuse if your dog does his business on the pavement even if you have a bag in your hand ready to clean it up? Did you know that Norway displays original art in high schools because of the belief that doing so inspires young minds to learn, and teaches them to interpret the world around them?

Shall I say that last one again? Original art, in schools. On the walls, unprotected, undamaged. For the benefit of young minds. In Norway. A recent article in leading newspaper Aftenposten called for more.

Jay Defeo: The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Kristiansand Katedralskolen

Jay Defeo: The Wise and Foolish Virgins. Kristiansand Katedralskolen

 The photo above is of two items in the collection of Beat art paintings donated to Kristiansand Katedralskole, and the neighbouring university, by the collector (and alumnus) Reidar Wennesland. While such generousity is relatively rare, the culture that fosters it, and still encourages it, is all around.

This week, Norway was ranked as number 1 in the world, for the fifth year in a row, in the Legatum Prosperity Index. Coincidence? Maybe. This week I, a junior academic, have been invited to take part in a national meeting for postdocs in Oslo (I hope to attend), and invited to apply for 30,000 kroner from the research council in order to attend an ’emerging leaders’ seminar (which sadly I have to let pass for family reasons).

Meanwhile, the country where I was born, whose passport I hold, and in whose general elections I can vote, brings in bedroom tax and dubious education policies, and tries to run on everything on a business model at a time when the dangerous self-seeking incompetence of big business has brought so much of the world to its knees.

Yet I was born and educated in the United Kingdom. My MA and PhD were state-funded. Do I not owe it to my country – and my fellow citizens – to give something back? Believe me, I have asked myself that question repeatedly. In my time living in the UK I did give quite a lot back. I worked throughout my MA to support myself, since ‘state funded’ meant simply ‘no fees, crippling loans’. As of this year, 16 years on, I am now finally earning enough to be paying back those five crippling loans, which are from the ‘old scheme’ (that is, the one without any tax benefits and where repayment is at a set rate) and have thus accumulated plenty of interest for whomever now owns them. During my self-funded MPhil I worked no fewer than four jobs concurrently, mostly in order to pay the council tax which, for a north-facing pokey flat in the East End of Glasgow occupied by two part-time students, was more than a family member paid for a four-bedroom detached house on the banks of the Thames. I spent a year as a professional musician in the armed forces, and though it was not for me, I have the deepest respect for those who choose such service as part of their career. I have now worn the poppy in remembrance day concerts in four countries.

At the start of this post I spoke about the exilic status using the first-person plural. That was deliberate. I do not feel that I am able to return to my ‘home’ country. I was not forced to leave, nor am I debarred from returning. But, having viewed that land from abroad, and experienced how things can be otherwise in societies which reap the fruits of fair taxes, I have no desire to return. This ‘voluntary exile’ status is very different from that of those who have had no choice but to leave their homelands. In many ways, it is a question of principle. In others, it is a question of doing what is best for my children – something to which most exiles can relate. I bear no ill-will towards the UK, and I will always be grateful for all that it has done for me, and to all those who made it the country it should be.

But right now, and for the foreseeable future, the United Kingdom is not a place that I could call home. That means that my Swedish-born children will likely grow up ‘Norwegian’, but I don’t see what is wrong with that. We fly the saltire, we celebrate Christmas on the 25th December and Rabbie Burns a month later. But we also fly the Norwegian flag on the 17th May and we speak four languages at home. Let the children make of that what they will.

Norwegian vimpel

Norwegian vimpel

Raising the Scottish vimpel

Raising the Scottish vimpel

There’s one thing I regret about my PhD: handing in the day after my first baby’s due date. (Baby was conveniently late.) The fact that things worked out that way due to circumstances beyond my control – together with my determination to get one baby out of the way before the other one arrived – does not help. It was stupid to risk my (and potentially the baby’s) physical and mental health in such a way, and I suffered as a result.

This is not intended to sound negative. There is a happy ending. The baby was fine, the PhD was fine, and I recovered. But I view it now as a harsh introduction to, and as a symbol of, the struggle faced by so many academic parents, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, partnership situation, background, disability status, and all of the other factors which make up a person. How on earth is it possible to combine the demands of a life with children with the demands of an academic life, particularly in the delicate post-PhD stages?

Obviously, there is no simple answer. Every situation is different, and I am sure that a great deal depends on the age of the child(ren) at the time of hand-in (though they do say that the grass is always greener…). Yet one thing I do know: becoming a parent changes your view of life.

The ‘baby’ metaphor was no joke. I really did think of my PhD – and my dog, for that matter – as my ‘baby’. Then I became a parent, and realised that such metaphors are comical not just because they are amusing, but because they are so woefully inaccurate. I do not wish to wax lyrical about the joys and tribulations of parenthood, for there are plenty of other blogs for that I’m sure. No, what struck me was this: having become a parent, my family became more than the most important thing in my life. They became my life. The PhD, the research, the professional life that had mattered so much to me became just a job. A job I loved, that’s true, but nevertheless just a job. It was a radical shift of perspective, and one that didn’t happen immediately. After the arrival of my first child (though for many parents they don’t come one by one), the first weeks (months, even) were consumed first by the needs of the child, and then of the parents. Basic needs: health, nourishment, sleep, fresh air, and, where possible, sanity. At some point during that time I had my viva. It took place the morning after a night of very little sleep (babies have an instinct for these things), and I remember frantically re-reading bits of my thesis on the train as I made my way to the university. What on earth had I written about? Two hours of intellectual discourse later, I realised that it was not only perfectly possible to switch mental gears, but that I really did know my stuff. Later, lunching and chatting with colleagues while breastfeeding, I felt everything was possible.

Indeed, most things are possible, though they might take longer than they would for non-parents post-PhD. My PhD corrections only took a week, but that week had to be booked in advance in order to ensure childcare with breastfeeding breaks. After weaning (and graduation) I took up a part-time teaching fellowship. While switching the brain back into ‘work mode’ was easy enough, it took me much longer to learn to quickly return to ‘parenting mode’, to move from intellectual debates back to spending a day with someone whose only word was ‘buh’ (and enjoy it too). Then baby no. 2 came along, and we did several conferences together: baby in the sling, grinning, sleeping, feeding (even while I gave a paper). I kept up the part-time work, researched alongside, and made ends meet.

There are, however, only so many hours in a day. I did not have the time (or, truth be told, the inclination) to bombard the job market as a working parent to two young children. Any jobseeker will tell you that jobhunting is in itself (virtually) a full-time job; any parent will say the same. So I took my time, and I became extremely picky about what I applied for. After all, being part of my children’s early years seemed far more important than jumping straight onto the academic job ladder and all it entails, despite the hopes, ambitions, and expectations I’d harboured as a student. Whereas I once would have taken virtually anything and made it work, I took an honest look at myself so that I didn’t waste my efforts on jobs that were either above or below my skills and needs. I only applied for those for which I had a reasonable chance of success and were close enough to perfect to justify the effort and potential upheaval. My patience paid off: when my children were four and two I began my dream post-doc, returning to full-time research with eyes very much open both to life outside the academy and within a family. The fact that it is a two-year contract is actually an advantage: it gives everyone involved a chance to assess how things are and work out what will happen next.

Throughout those years ‘on the sidelines’ I continued reading, got some publications, attended carefully selected conferences, and kept an eye on job listings. I also spoke to other academics who were parents, particularly those who had been parents for longer than me. Their advice was unanimous: take your time, things will work out in the end. They were right. The journey of parenthood is long, and learning to balance everyone’s needs takes time. So I shall finish by repeating and reiterating the advice I heard: let the rat race rush by you for a while, put aside the anxiety, and try to embrace any uncertainty as life’s way of telling you to enjoy your kids.

The future is theirs

The future is theirs

This is a post I wrote for the RMA (Royal Musical Association) blog, which you can view here (without the photo): http://www.rma.ac.uk/students/?p=1152 (published 1st October 2013).

Today is an important day for me. It marks the end of my postdoc’s six-month ‘probation’ period at the University of Agder, Norway. In other words, it is now quite difficult for my employer to get rid of me before the end of my contract. It is also harder for me to leave them until that date. Until today, either of the parties named on the contract – that is, me or them – could break the contract without giving reasons and with (more-or-less) immediate effect. As of today, much more stringent rules apply.

Berry mars

Les Très riches heures du duc de Berry – mars. Used with creative commons lisence. View here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Très_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry_mars.jpg

Let’s look at the positives first, for there are many, though I will name only a few here. First of all, it is a vote of confidence in me, and in the project. Secondly, it gives me a chance to really knuckle down and plan for the rest of my postdoc term, without the nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I might have to terminate after six months. (More on those plans in another post soon.) Thirdly, it puts me in a stronger bargaining position. I don’t feel I have a lot that I need to bargain for with my university, for they are very supportive, but it means that, should I wish to do so, I have a firmer ground on which to stand.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that I am on a limited-duration contract. This project is for two years, then that’s it. I can either apply for external funding to continue the project for one year (another short-term contract), I can look for another job, or I can return to running my own business (skatemaxwell.net). All three options have their ups and downs. My business was successful, and I have had to turn away (pass on) quite a bit of work since starting my postdoc. There is a lot of talk about alternative academic (‘altac’) careers at the moment, and I am one who moved from one such career back into academia. (Again, more on that in another post.) The applying for money for another short-term contract would have the advantage of maintaining the status quo, and giving me time to finish up anything that I don’t get done before January 2015, but it does mean (yet) another limited-time contract, and thus continues the uncertainty (or perhaps prolongs the agony, if we want to add a little melodrama).

Of course, the permanent academic post is the holy grail. Particularly one which is in the same country (yes, you read that right) as my partner and co-parent. Right now I have an 1800km commute, each way. I do it fortnightly. Two flights each way. It costs around 20% of my take-home salary for the flights alone, and even more when accommodation and other travel costs are taken into account. I’m happy with this for now. For the first time we are working for employers in the same country (believe me, this commute is far better than my international commute was, and to be paid in the same currency and taxed by the same system is a big improvement). I am a full-time researcher and part of an exciting project at a supportive institution, and, crucially, I can work from home one week in two. But were I to take on a position, anywhere, with a teaching component, working from home such a large amount of the time would be much more difficult, indeed, almost certainly untenable.

I live in Norway. Here, the academic hiring process is quite different from many other countries (see my post for The Professor Is In here, and the response from Jill Walker Rettberg, a professor at the University of Bergen, here). It is far from unusual for the Norwegian hiring process, with its independent committees and large applications, to take over a year. This puts me in a tricky position. On the one hand, from timing alone, I should be looking for post-postdoc jobs now. On the other hand, after only six months, my postdoc hasn’t (yet) produced the publication fruits I will need to display in the applications for jobs on the next stage of the ladder. Those fruits are ripening – I’ve been to conferences, I’ve started working on articles, I have a clear plan of outputs – but they are not yet at a stage where I can bundle them up and say ‘here you are, that’s what I did during my postdoc’. Of course they’re not, I’m only a quarter of the way through. Yet the hiring process takes a year… Yes, it’s a difficult circle.

It’s a circle that is somewhat different from that faced by many which I consider to be my peers on the early career research ladder. One very timely blog post from someone at the other end of the postdoc contract appeared just this week: Katie Wheat is contemplating her next move with six months left to run on her postdoc – Katie’s countdown. The fortnightly ECR chats on twitter regularly discuss life after the short-term contract, and feature participants who have already leapt over that precipice. Blogs such as Leaving Academia and Thesis Whisperer give a no-nonsense view of Life As It Is. I know both from sources such as these, and from my own experiences in other countries, that Scandinavia is a very good place to live and work as an academic. But that does not mean it is easy. However, I didn’t sign up for easy.

My postdoc ‘Multimodal Machaut’ is now six months in, and secure for the next eighteen, which will fly by. In that time I have to justify my institution’s faith in me, my own faith in my project, and decide what to do next and put it into action, all while maintaining that balance between work and family which is so perilous. The probation period may be over, but so too is the honeymoon. Now, back to work – for somewhere a clock is ticking (I could do most anything…).

ssm

KMH logo 2011

 

Musikforskning idag 2013, Kungliga Musikhögskolan, Stockholm, 12-14 June

It is four years now since I first attended the annual conference of the Swedish Musicological Society, ‘Musikforskning idag’. (Four years is not long compared to the track records of some of the delegates, I must add, but then, I only arrived in Sweden in 2008, leaving for Norway in 2012.) Nevertheless, this is the first time I have decided to write a review of the conference.*

The conference is a relatively close-knit affair, with most of the delegates already known to each other. It has two keynote speakers, usually one from abroad (nevertheless with some connection to Sweden) and one from ‘home’. It does not particularly aim to attract international delegates (though they are of course welcome); rather it is a chance for Swedish-speaking musicologists to gather together to discuss their year’s work, to share ideas, and, importantly for some, to be able to present and talk about their research in their mother tongue. For while there are isolated papers in English, which is the conference’s second language, the principal language of the conference is of course Swedish.

So much for the background; what about Musikforskning idag 2013? Well, for a start it was the smallest of these conferences which I have attended, despite being held in the capital. Nevertheless, the conference was still large enough to require parallel sessions, so of course I was not able to attend every paper. This, then, is a personal overview of the sessions I attended, with the papers which stood out as being particularly inspiring.

It was a delight that the first paper I heard in full was actually about multimodality. Annika Falthin’s ‘Musikens mening i ständig förändring’ succeeded in being itself a multimodal presentation, with thoughtful and affective use of sound and image within her twenty-minute slot. She discussed the musical meaning in a performance by a group of high-school students. Highlights for me included the idea of youtube as a meaning-maker in itself, the idea of a ‘pojk’ (young male) community on display, that their choice of music might actually have been irritating for the audience, and the social semiotic meaning of body language, song, and music in school.

The session in which I took part was the characteristic mish-mash of ‘old stuff’ in a conference with lots of – to be similarly generalising – ‘new stuff’. Mattias Lundberg was inspiring as ever, with an intelligent and sensitive analysis of recurring melodies in Swedish church music from printed books over three centuries (‘Accentus-sången i den svenska högmässan under 300 år: två av de mest frekvent melodierna i Sverige någonsin’). Johanna Ethernersson Pontara spoke in the same session about the ‘Neobarack i Lars Johan Werles tidliga operor’, in an interesting paper which the discussion showed I was not alone in thinking would benefit from some acknowledgement of the multimodality of opera.

There were two medieval papers in the session. Karin Stronnholm Lagergren introduced us to the manuscript which is the object of her research at KU Leuven: the Torstunamissalet (‘Missalet från Torstuna: En fransk medeltids.handskrifts väg till och användning i en uppländsk sockenkyrka’). She brought to life the use of this medium-sized missal with music, which contains some 150 songs in the Dominican tradition. The other medieval paper was my own, which predictably focused on the multimodality of the manuscripts of Guillaume de Machaut, and I was thankful for the interest shown in the discussion afterwards. It is always a challenge to present the medieval period to those immersed in music of other times, and I was sorry that the lack of internet access meant that I was unable to actually play any music. (Serves me right for relying on youtube, I admit.)

The ‘efter-lunsj koma’, as session chair Karin Eriksson so aptly described it, was saved by Toivo Burlin’s paper ‘Tukkipoika: Some Comments on Recordings of North Swedish Folk Music’. In it, he played us a magical array of recordings, and opened up a world previously unknown to me, but one which I would now like to explore further. Some session-hopping took place for me in the last session of the day, since I was keen to hear Mårten Nerhfors again, and he didn’t disappoint. His paper ‘Shaping the Community Through Song – Idealogy in the Song Collections of Johann Friedrich Reichardt’ was a fascinating overview of Reichardt’s aims with his compositions aimed at breastfeeding mothers, their babies, and at children. Coupled with the ideals of the Enlightenment – Reichardt was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution – the re-reading of his works in the light of his ideology was fascinating indeed. The day ended with Erik Wallrup’s sage discussion on ‘Lyssningsakten i stämdhetens historia’, a philosophical paper which combined Heidegger, Stimmung, mood, and Wallrup’s own term ‘attunement’.

The final day opened with a paper from Lars Berglund which offered an overview of ‘Musikvetenskap och cultural history’. In it, he combined the Anglophone, Francophone and Germanic approaches to ‘cultural history’, and applied them to musicology, particularly as it is practised in Sweden. Following him was Christina Tobeck, whose paper traced the lives and work of two female Swedish pioneers in music and in medicine: Helena Munktell and Karolina Widerström. The final keynote by Cecilia K. Hultberg was symptomatic of one of the strengths in Swedish music research, that of music pedagogy. In her presentation ‘Musikalisk kunskapsbildning ur ett övergripande kulturpsykologiskt perspektiv’ she combined pedagogical, psychological and cultural theories to analyse specific cases of musical learning.

This has been a necessarily brief and personal overview of a conference rich in ideas and fellowship, where works-in-progress stood alongside work of international quality. As one who has not ‘grown up’ in the Swedish system, I am always entranced at how the so-called ‘Jantelov’ works in society, here to good effect. Even more so than in other conferences, there is a strong emphasis on open discussion, with strict timekeeping in order to respect the sanctity of the discussion period. It is a small community in which scholars of all levels are equally welcome, and which seeks to advance knowledge and encourage scholarship at all career stages. I’m looking forward to next year already.

* I would have also live tweeted the conference, were it not for the fact that the internet access for delegates at the venue just did not work. Such is (smartphone-less) life.

The miracle is not that we are here, it is that we are here together.
That the seasons turn about us, and we watch it all.
That the moon waxes and wanes but love endures,
That life springs eternal, when death is but a breath away.

I come to you with unseeing eyes, broken bones, wounds of pride.
I come to you with hope and dread, fear and pain, guilt and prayer.
You come to me with commanding presence, broken shackles, assured faith:
Lay your hands on me, remove my bonds, let me be free.

They are the wanderers, the lost, the forgetful,
They need your power, your storm-fraught words, your lust for grace
Your certainty sweeps me in its wake. We must not fail them.
They believe so hard, their blindness leaves no room for doubt.

Written in response to Tope Folarin’s short story ‘Miracle’, nominated for the Caine Prize and available for download here.

This post is part of the Caine prize carnival, organised by Aaron Bady at the New Inquiry. It’s not Machaut, it’s not medieval, it’s only vaguely multimodal (so far), so why am I writing about it?

St Francis

St Francis receiving the stemmata. Found through a creative commons search (Wikimedia commons).

One of my goals this summer is to develop my creative side. Back in my undergraduate days I specialised in composition and dreamed of having my work performed at the Proms (who says I don’t still? Doesn’t everyone?). I’ve had the occasional piece published or professionally performed, but most are sitting in a rather battered file by my desk, trying their best to keep out of the way of small, clumsy feet. I have always enjoyed creative writing and have great plans which may or may not ever be realised. So far, so banal.

If you’re still reading, then you can be let into a realisation that I am still coming to terms with. I intend to write a monograph. An academic one about my research, aye, but not an inaccessible one. (Impenetrability is not my style.) It has a plan, it has support from my institution, and senior colleagues are all encouragement. All it requires is for me to sit down and do the dirty. And that is daunting. Very daunting. This summer, then, is my preparation time. The more I write, the more I will be able to write. The more confident I feel in my output, the better the product will be. The more at home I am with my creative leanings, the more multimodal my finished book. The more peaceful my soul.

One of the biggest things my journey into multimodality so far has taught me is the limits of my knowledge. I might be pretty hot on Machaut and medieval stuff, but multimodality spans such a broad range of topics that I am in awe of my colleagues who are able to meaningfully link them together. And so I am Branching Out. For the next few weeks, as part of the Caine prize carnival for which I have volunteered myself, I am going to let the stories take me on a journey to – broadly speaking – Africa. A continent I have never visited. Every week until July I will read a short-listed story, and blog my response. (For a list of the co-participants, see below.)

The first story in fact takes Nigeria to the United States. Already I can hear resonances in my readings. I am lucky enough to be working with the editors of a collected edition of essays on exile literature (Axel Englund and Anders Olsson), and thus have recently been on two journeys from Algeria to France (through the contribution by Gabriela Seccardini), as well as one from the New World ‘back’ to the Old, via north Africa (that of William Bamberger). There are, of course, more contributions which deal with exile writers (or those writing about exiles) in the United States. (I think I will have to devote a blog post to this entire fascinating volume in due course.) At the recent Multimodal Research Seminar in Lesbos (which I blogged about here) Tormod W. Anundsen gave a presentation on his work with expatriot musicians (the group ‘Afrisa’) from the Côte d’Ivoire presenting ‘Africa’ to schoolchildren in Norway. Interestingly, Anundsen questioned whether postcolonialism is a wholly useful way of thinking when professionals choose to exploit their ‘otherness’, whether for educational, profitable, or other purposes.

And so postcolonialism raises its head. I might as well deal with it now, lay my cards on the table, and admit that one of the reasons why I have never studied non-European literature at a professional level is because I have no inclination to delve any deeper into postcolonialism than I need to. Perhaps, when faced with this huge mound of critical thought, I feel the fear of the unknown, the other – yes, I am well aware of the paradox, thank you. But, for me, what my feelings boil down to is this: people are people, whoever they are, whenever they are, wherever they are. They are capable of supreme wit, of bringing great joy and sadness, of moving me to tears through their works, their images, their stories, their arts. People are also capable of unspeakable cruelty to their fellows and to the world around them, and the world is just as capable of inducing suffering on its occupants. ‘Twas ever thus, as a delve into history (or, for that matter, the Bible) confirms.

Let me put that another way: the fact that the Caine prize is for African literature, and is immersed in and surrounded by the politics of that fascinating and vast space, is not what I will focus on in my contribution to the carnival. Others, vastly more knowledgeable and capable than me, are already doing that. What I hope to offer is a series of personal responses, as a human being, a reader, a writer. If I hadn’t already been enriched by the first offering I wouldn’t be writing this; it is my hope that I may pass on some of that richness in my turn. That is all.

List of other participants in the Caine prize carnival, with links to their responses:

This blog post has been a long time coming as I had to write a paper for a super-exciting conference at the University of Virginia which I will be attending next week. (For details see here.) As part of this paper I revisit the familiar medieval figure of Fortune, particularly her wheel.

BnF fr. 9221 (E), fol. 206v

BnF fr. 9221 (E), fol. 206v

Throughout Machaut’s seminal Voir dit Fortune’s wheel turns, first raising then lowering the lovers’ fates. (This is argued by Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet in her book Guillaume de Machaut et l’écriture au XIVe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1985), if anyone wishes to pursue it further.)

In my paper next week I will argue that the placing of the final group of Machaut items in the Pennsylvania Chansonnier (UPenn 902, viewable here) in fact reverses this wheel by re-using images from the Voir dit and representing them in the new format, often using different lyric items, and in reverse order, thus returning the lovers to their state of anticipation at the start of the tale. This whole thought process, then, is the background to this short reflection on circles and cycles.

N21 coverFor now, however, a step back (or ahead, since we are briefly leaving the Middle Ages). In 2009, the remarkable anthology Notations 21 was published by Mark Batty publishers. It is a collection of graphic scores in honour of the legendary John Cage, specifically marking the 40th anniversary of his own collection entitled ‘Notations’. (The project is ongoing: see notations21.net for more details.) It is, in some ways, a chansonnier, since it contains musical compositions (and additionally works of art inspired by the music), however, all of the works are presented with their creator’s name attached. Interestingly, though, the cover does clearly state ‘By Theresa Sauer’, clearly giving her authority over the collection. Naturally, she is listed as ‘author’ in many of the catalogues in which this book appears. Yet, although being the driving force behind the collection, she is but one of many creative artists whose work it portrays. In scholarly terms, she is closer to an editor, or to a director, than to a book’s ‘author’ in the traditional sense. Yet her name, placed as the highest textual item on the cover, is a striking witness to her involvement in the collection, and not at all unlike the rubric which we saw in the last blog post here invoking Machaut’s authority over one of the manuscripts transmitting his works.

Nevertheless, in this book there is one work in particular which draws its inspiration from the form of the circle, or, perhaps more accurately, the cycle. It is entitled ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, and is found on p. 147.Maxwell Performing Notation, Notation Performing 1b
Many medievalists will recognise the similarities between the visual presentation of this piece and one of those by Baude Cordier in the celebrated Chantilly codex (Musée Condé ms 564).
CND131271

Both have the structure of one large circle surrounded by four smaller ones. In the Notations 21 piece the principal circle is broken, rolling off into the difference. Cordier’s work is well behaved, enclosed within its page. Both works feature music in the central circle and text in the outer circles, though the piece in Notations 21 has a lengthy prose text within its principal circle. Of the outer circles, those in the Notations 21 piece offer quotations on music – including one from John Cage himself – whereas the small circles in the Cordier piece provide instructions for performance and additional verses. Both pieces make use of a limited colour palette, and present the composer’s name: Cordier’s at the head of the piece, that of ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ somewhat more modestly, yet nevertheless unashamedly, across the bottom of the page.

Both works are entirely hand drawn, one on parchment, the other on paper. Now, both are only available to view via the transcoded means of the computer screen or the book page: Notations 21 contains a high-quality reproduction, the Chantilly codex is kept under strict lock and key but is available in facsimile. Indeed, while the ‘original’ codex is indeed still in existence for the Chantilly codex, the French postal system saw to it that Notations 21 is, in fact, the ‘original’ for ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, since the precious piece of paper itself never made it home.

Unlike many of the items in Notations 21, ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ contains no explanation, no instructions. This was a deliberate decision, since I preferred to leave any interpretation to performers/readers. What I have said so far in this post is merely what someone with some knowledge of medieval music would be able to infer without too much forethought, and I do not wish to speak as the work’s composer. What follows, then, is written not from the point of view or the composer, but as an interpreter, looking at the work in the light of my current multimodal project. Imagine, then, if you will, a line across the page: any composer’s insider knowledge that may have been present stops here.

In the seminal Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996, 2nd ed. 2006), they offer the following analysis of the forms of the circle:

‘Circles and curved forms generally are the elements we associate with an organic and natural order, with the world of organic nature – and such mystical meanings as may be associated with them derive from this. Angularity we associate with the inorganic, crystalline world, or with the world of technology, which is a world we have made ourselves, and therefore a world we can, at least in principle, understand fully and rationally. The world of organic nature is not of our making, and will always retain an element of mystery. Curved forms are therefore the dominant choice of people who think in terms of organic growth rather than mechanical construction, in terms of what is natural rather than in terms of what is artificial.’ (p. 55)

It is not a great leap of deduction, then, to posit that the use of circles here to present visual music is a nod to music’s natural qualities, that is to say that music is a function of humankind that is not of our making and not entirely of our knowing. Both pieces bend the staves into a circular shape, thus transmorphing that which seeks to contain music to let it speak a new shape, a natural shape. In ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ the broken circle can be seen both as a distortion and an escape: the music escapes from the staves and, indeed, from the page. The notation starts which neumes and moves chronologically through various versions until it can no longer be contained on paper: in the eleven centuries following the invention of musical notation in the West only a minority of music has ever been written down, and collections such as Notations 21 only go to show that the boundaries of the stave are as fragile now as they ever were.

Additionally, both pieces make extended use of the areas of ‘centre’ and ‘margin’ on the page, and Kress and van Leeuwen can help us with that, too:

‘[I]f a visual composition makes significant use of the Centre, placing one element in the middle and the other elements around it, we will refer to the central element and Centre and to the elements around it as Margins. For something to be presented as Centre means that it is presented as the nucleus of the information to which all the other elements are in some sense subservient. The Margins are these ancillary, dependent elements. In many cases the Margins are identical or at least very similar to each other, so that there is no sense of a division between Given and New and/or Ideal and Real elements among them. In other cases … Centre and Margin combine with Given and New and/or Ideal and Real.’ (p. 197. Explanations of the horizontal ‘given’ and ‘new’ and vertical ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ can be found on pp. 181 and p. 186 respectively.)

But what of the reading path of such images? ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ invites a reading path whereby the more accessible text, that is the text in the margins, is read first, since this does not require turning an unwieldy book or screen (particularly a screen which ‘helpfully’ keeps images the ‘right’ way up when turned). Thus the marginal texts enter the reader’s mind first, and it is having read them – and probably the composer’s name – that the reader will turn to the words which are at the centre of both the page and importance. Finally, the reader may begin to decipher the notation, and decide whether and how the elements of the page should be rendered together, and what to do about the palindromic title.

Cordier’s ‘Tout par compas’, on the other hand, invites a reading which begins with the words under the musical notation, and then, for this reader at least, a preliminary look at the notation itself. Before proceeding too far with this challenging task (and it is challenging, even more so today than for those who grown up seeped its conventions), however, I look to the marginal texts for instructions, for clues. Once these have been assimilated, my attention returns to the musical notation. There are enough ‘clues’ provided that a coherent performance can be obtained from the manuscript; indeed, here is one now, courtesy of youtube and, more specifically, Ensemble Organum (it’s high time we heard some more music on this blog):

Tout par compas

This brief survey of two works has indeed been brief. It has not attempted a detailed analysis of either, merely drawn some links between them and offered some thoughts on circles and cycles. But one of the most intriguing things to have emerged from it, for me, is the link between both the graphic compositions and Fortune’s wheel. Look again at the miniature from BnF fr. 9221 (Machaut manuscript E) up at the top of the page. See those four circles within the wheel? Yeah, so do I. It seems that Katelijne Schiltz has had something to say about ‘Tout par compas’ and Fortune’s wheel, though I have not yet been able to consult a copy of her article ‘Visual Pictorialism in Renaissance Musical Riddles.’ in Journal of the Alamire Foundation 4:2 (2012), pp. 204–21. I very much doubt that she considers Notations 21 or, indeed, multimodality in the article, however. Nevertheless, if I can undraw that line I put in earlier and speak for a moment as the composer – I did not think of Fortune’s wheel. That is not to say that we can’t see it in there, of course. For that is one of the great delights of multimodal thinking: the onus is put on the reader to re-create the text. In other words, if you want to read ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ as an allegory of Fortune, then that’s fine by me. Or, in a more scholarly working, the background of the reader of any textual being will impose itself on that reader’s re-interpretation of the text, and this does not invalidate that reading. A multimodal reading is not about uncovering hidden (or unhidden) codes sent from creator to receiver; rather, it is about the reader creating the text anew. Like the music escaping from the page in ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, a multimodal interpretation is free from the constraints of author intention or, indeed, faithfulness to authority. In the context of Machaut studies especially, that is a breath of fresh air. L’auteur est mort; vive le lecteur.