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Thursday, 31 August 2017

Reading Geography


Jane Austen thought those who didn’t read were stupid. More precisely, that ‘the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’. My 13-year-old sister would beg to differ. She thinks reading is stupid – because, and I quote, it’s boring. I’ve always been a reader, and a pretentious one at that (think the precocious figure of Roald Dahl’s Matilda), so have never shared my sister’s sentiments. What I did think stupid once upon a time, however, is Geography. The hydrological cycle and demographics of one population or other were in fact ‘intolerably stupid’ in all their bore. If this was Geography, I’d have nothing to do with it, thank you very much. Not even Austen’s ‘what are men to rocks and mountains?’ could convince me otherwise. Yet, beyond the rigidity of a GCSE exam syllabus, geography is perhaps more than anything else about reading. (And I don’t think it intolerably stupid anymore, in case you wondered – even if it retains the trope of a doss degree).

Plato believed reading gave soul to the universe and wings to the mind. A pretentious reference, yes, but also an effective capture of geography’s relation to reading. The etymology of geography grounds the concept, with Greek roots, in writing: gē-graphie, earth-writing. If the verb is writing the earth, its noun is reading this writing and, by extension, the earth. So in reading, I am at core engaging with geography. Take Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s writing is geographical for through it Austen explores, translates and comments on the world, whether this be a construction of the rolling rocks and mountains of Derbyshire or a commentary on the patriarchal social conventions of the time. Its reading is equally geographical, for through the novel I engage with the world in particular ways and shape my understanding of it. The same can be said of most writing, almost all of which functions as an engagement with the earth and hence can be analysed for its geographical function.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Placing Art

"How different Sibyl was! She lived her finest tragedy. She was always a heroine. The last night she played - the night you saw her - she acted badly because she had known the reality of love. When she knew its unreality, she died, as Juliet might have died. She passed again into the sphere of art." 
-Dorian Gray to Basil Hallward, Ch. IX, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I spent my first year of English A-level debating, amongst other less pretentious study, whether Oscar Wilde subscribed to the hedonism and aestheticism of Lord Henry and Dorian Gray and if, as was used to testify against him in his trial and subsequent conviction for gross indecency, the novel these two characters situate, 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', was in some way a reflection of Wilde himself. Contrary to Wilde's dubious preface outline that 'it is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors' and 'all art is quite useless', the fate of Dorian and his portrait almost perfectly mirrors that of Wilde and his novel; a perfect thematic and contextual parallel for a literature student to note in an exam, but also interesting from a semantic perspective.   

In 1907 Alfred Lichtwark, a German art historian, mused that 'in our age there is no work of art that is looked at so closely as a photograph of oneself, one's closest relatives and friends, one's sweetheart'. Theorists like Walter Benjamin and John Berger alike have essayed around Lichtwark's muse by questioning the understanding of photography and art through inquiry of aesthetic distinctions and social functions (see: 'A Small History of Photography' (1931, Benjamin) and 'Understanding a Photograph' (2013, Berger)). The argument that photography might itself constitute a form of art has been enumerated by proponents for almost a century, at its heart lying the question of art and purpose posed rather fatefully by Wilde. But whilst the medium has been thus explored, its location is oft left implicitly static. Photography: art. Art: gallery (primarily). Gallery: exclusivity. We've recognised the self-expressionism of art, and eventually expanded its tool from brush and paint to camera (etc.), yet it remains a term of exclusive connotation. I don't want to debase the concept of art - its very core dependent upon an aspect of creativity, peculiarity, and representation rather than pure being such that it cannot, surely, be the everyday - but I do think that art can be found in the everyday, beyond the canvas and outside of the gallery.

Might not your social media page be a site, or at a greater stretch form, of art? Queue Lord Henry dropping his glass of gin and shuddering upright in the study of his West London apartment at the very thought.      

Friday, 14 July 2017

Sir! To the ghetto and then to Auschwitz for only €99 - with return!

To remember and not only to commemorate - Irene Eber, Holocaust survivor

I'm in Krakow, Poland. I've been here for two weeks to conduct research for my dissertation (gulp), and I've tried to embody, as much as is possible in the frame of research, the foreign, keen-to-see-everything and ask-a-million-questions Tourist. At the same time, I'm completely aware of the weight of the time that I tour and the history it holds; that my imposition as a tourist is by necessity in dialogue with this.

Staircase and courtyard in Kazimierz, Krakow made famous by Spielberg's 1993 film, Schindler's List. 
Wherever you look there are signs advertising an excursion to Auschwitz at various prices, nay 'bargains'. Guides stop you at every corner asking if you'd like a tour of the old Jewish quarter or a trip to the sites of the ghetto. Students earning summer pay try to hand you flyers about Schindler's Factory and the local concentration camps. One tourist I spoke to exclaimed how it was all so much less Disneyfied than they were expecting. 

You can get to Auschwitz via bus, train or taxi. We get the train. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Forgetting to Remember

'For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.' - Elie Wiesel
'Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself.' - Jean Baudrillard

It’s a common incantation that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana, 1906); it comes out with the familiar litany of prosaic quotes to mark historic anniversaries and commemorations, it prefaces innumerable texts, and it serves as an effective justification for any historical analysis. I’ve even written it on the inside cover of my dissertation notebook. And yet, whilst we remember this incantation, do we always remember to remember the past?

Tomorrow, January 27 2017, marks international Holocaust Memorial Day: a day completely and totally dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, to remembering not to forget it.

Iconic scene from Spielberg's (1993) 'Schindler's List'. Source: photo by Allstar/Cinetext/Universal - © Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar from

I’ve struggled with the idea of having a defined temporal bracket set aside for the purpose of memorial for a while, traceable, I think, to when I sat cross-legged on the floor of a classroom, listening to my primary-school teacher translating the news of some bombings in London and asking us all to be quiet for a minute to remember the victims. Amidst several other fidgeting, cross-legged kids, I scrunched my eyes together and tried to will myself into remembering. Every few seconds I’d soften the scrunch in one eye to a split vision, quickly checking that everyone else was still remembering. I’d then resume my scrunch and focus on my own remembering. I don’t think I ever thought about the victims for more than a few negligible seconds; what really occupied my minute of remembering were tangential thought processes about the act of remembering, about why on earth I was being told to sit in silence and remember something that no one I knew had experienced and I certainly hadn’t experienced, or about what other people were thinking about and, oh dear! I wasn’t actually remembering what I was supposed to remember! I kept forgetting to remember it! I’ve observed countless minutes of silence since my cross-legged, scrunched-eyes experience, and I always find myself coming back to this circular questioning of performing commemoration of particular memories within a defined, imposed minute of silence – or, by extension, a universally dedicated day.

From the outset, I want to be clear that I do not dispute the dedication of minutes of silence or days of dedicated memorial to remembering particular events/victims. What I seek to question is the everyday alternative – are, the everyday alternatives, I should say – to these normalised forms of ritualised commemoration.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

In critique of critique

At Cambridge, critique is something constantly drilled into you, thrown at you and encouraged from you. And I've noticed in my everyday life that I'm much more critical of things, I'm 'very much more political', as my mom would have it. It's something I'm grateful to have gained from my time at Cambridge, so far, and an aspect of my course that keeps me going when I've got sixty dense pages of reading notes to get through in one afternoon for the umpteenth supervision essay of the term and I'd really rather not read about the historiography of milk consumption. Genuinely.

Critique to me is a form of analysis, engagement, a means of reading and interpreting the world that expands upon the black and white frame given to you. But I think there's a limit to critique, and a backbone to it. Critique is an Achilles heel. It's necessary, but it's often essentialist, and I think there's a point to be made about critiquing critique: its application, its point and its context. 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Let Others cycle in Cambridge

Turn right away from the track, down the road of tennis courts and cottages dressed in autumn, heading towards the traffic lights; the turning I took after my first training session with CUAC, whence I spent an hour and a half transgressing a ten minute journey back to college. Head straight on at the traffic lights, over the wooden xylophonetic bridge and up around the lefthand corner; dodge the cyclists racing back from the UL and walk the steps where I discussed intersectional feminism and setting up societies with friends. Cross the lights I've run a thousand times in makeshift interval sessions clothed in the escape from work, and walk up over the bridge past Trinity and Tit Hall, on which I scattered sequins and stars as I ran over it and back to pose for pictures with friends before King's Affair. Turn right past chalked signs pointing To The River and over cobbled stones, past the room in which I discussed postmodernism over tea and red wine in the early hours of the morning and the gateway in front of which I posed in tacky Christmas jumpers, turning left again and then right. Trinity Lane and King's Parade: the heart of Cambridge. Walk past the spires of King's chapel, the wall I jumped off at 6am in a white ball gown and stupid-inch heels after a ball, where I sat eating sushi with friends and past which I loudly speculated to tour-guides trying to sell me punting trips that I was neither here nor there. Past the haunt of coffee shops and unproductive dates, the bookstores I've convinced myself another two, or three, or five, books can do no harm, and the route I walked whilst trying to convince a guy I wasn't his soul mate, or whatever. Past Catz, the college in which I first encountered the prospect of studying in Cambridge. Past the sandwich shop that sells over-priced ice creams but is the only place that stocks them in January so I buy them anyway. Keep walking. That's how I constitute my geography of Cambridge. Flâner; wander, aimlessly, solitary. The world is yours for the making, as they say. 

Except maybe it's not.