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Thursday, 4 January 2018

What is time?

I don’t think we actually know. That’s not to say that we haven’t tried to define it, containing it within the parameters of what we (think) we know. I could answer with the numbers consigned to the movement of the sun and the gradient of its light that the hands of my clock now point to: 20:23. Or the number of planetary resolutions around the Sun since the death of Christ: 2018. I could answer with a cultural polemic describing the shape of contemporary society and its difference from earlier societies. Or I could quote Shakespeare and suggest that “we are time’s subject, and time bids be gone”. I could answer that time flies; that it is lost, irretrievable, wasted. That it is short and that it is endless. That is, we can describe time and we use time itself to describe all manner of things. We cannot, however, define it. And I think that’s because we don’t, really, understand it. None of those answers are wrong, but not one of them looks you in the eye and, unflinchingly, absolves that this is all and everything that time is. 

Time at Murray Edwards College. In the changing colour of the leaves; in the fact that I am stood here where so many previous female scholars stood and future female scholars will stand, and narrate it from this particular point within the lineage of continuity; in the movement from a lecture to a supervision, their schedule interrupted by the taking of this picture.

Noun: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. 

Verb: to plan, schedule or arrange when (something) should happen or be done.  

Does time even exist? As a noun or a verb, time confounds simple ontological description. Whilst the progression of existence and events and the act of scheduling both suggest an ontology (‘progression’ or a ‘schedule’), neither are really so tangible nor definite as to refute the question of time’s existence in a satisfactory, end-of-argument way. Yet time, or whatever it is that we have so called ‘time’, irrefutably exists. It’s in the wrinkles that gradually write themselves across foreheads and the grey that slowly tinges the colour from hair. It’s in the consciousness that delineates a present from a yesterday and a tomorrow. It’s in the knowledge that two people will show up at the same place simultaneously (or, depending on punctuality, thereabouts) when they agree upon a ‘time’ to do so. In all this evidence, however, it differs. They all describe ‘time’, but the concept of a simultaneous meeting is not the same as an agent of age, nor is the concept of changing from young to old the same as understanding the distinction between what one has experienced and still hopes to experience. The differences are not to be understood as dichotomous: they overlap, blur into multiplicity, trap each other in intertextuality. 

“Intertextuality” is the theoretical term used to describe the relationships between texts – that is, their references, connections and reflections. When T.S. Eliot writes how “[t]he Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, glowed on the marble…” in The Waste Land, his poem engages in an intertextual relationship with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, reflecting Enobarbus’ poetic description of Antony’s first vision of Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, burned on the water…” Intertextuality is generally more implicit than this example, and its recognition often changes the meaning of a particular text in significant ways. It might sound like a catachresis to relate intertextuality to the question of time, but I think the two terms are fundamental to one another. 

At base, both are constative. A text is intertextual because it refers to another text; time is intertextual because it refers to (an)other time. More significantly, comprehending how a text makes reference to other texts in its own construction shifts how we understand the final construct (the text in question). In a comparable way, time is something constructed through reference to a myriad of concepts, written and read. Comprehending these myriad concepts and the nature of their reference will fundamentally shift how we understand time. Time as an independent unknowable, or time as a negotiated entity always in a state of becoming.              

Whatever it is, time is central to the modernist condition. It’s inescapable. The stream of consciousness in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway takes time as its central referent. Mrs Dalloway’s narrative subjectivity, typical of many modernist novels, forces the reader into a dialogical relation with time as Clarissa Dalloway moves through London preparing for her party that evening, whilst time, simultaneously, sutures the narrative. The first time I read Woolf’s novel I breathed a prayer that I wouldn’t end up with it as one of my AS set-texts, turned back to page 1, and tried to make sense of the textual haze from which I’d emerged. Time had passed, and the novel showed that. But that’s all that I was sure of. Time is more intelligible in its embodiment as Death in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Death knows all, has seen all, awaits us at our beginning and holds us at our end. Death watches the colours of the sun, noting the time of day, not the loss of life. In Zusak’s novel, Death tells the story of one of his favourite lives, narrating time as an occupied experience. Time is thus simultaneously read and narrated. This simultaneity reflects perhaps our most pertinent condition of time: memory. 

Implicit to the narrative of both Woolf and Zusak, memory is unique in its capacity to engage the intertextual nature of time in one concept. Memory is of something past, remembered, constructed, represented or forgotten: time been and occupied. Memory is of this something past considered in the present, eternal: time considered and lived. Memory of this something past considered in the present has the ability to shape the future: time subjective and comprehended. The three are interdependent and mutually constitutive. One cannot exist without the other two, or it is not memory. 

And yet memory, whilst easily delineated into such a triad of being, is far from simple. It is instead inherently unreliable: the subject of misuse, fabrication, and loss, amongst other things. This unreliability in turn stems from its conditioning of time, given that time, as we have established, is itself largely unknown and generally complex. I think that’s why we’re so obsessed with both concepts, and goes someway to explaining the extent of their influence in and on our everyday. We tune our lives to the concept of time, from the waking and rest of our bodies to the very notion of life itself. We obsess over memory, from the use of past knowledge to facilitate our present capability (for example: I know how to speak from the example of my parents, first, and my encounters with all kind of mediums, from texts to people, second) to an innate compulsion to record the any and the every in digital pictures or written sentences that testify to our being in an imagined future. In both, we actively, if subconsciously, contribute to the on-going creation and negotiation of time. 

Parmenides considered time an illusion with no real existence. Plato, on the other hand, thought it an eternity independent of anything happening. Despite their difference, both philosophers point to the difficulty of defining exactly what time is and, unanimously, grant it ontology as an abstract continuity. That is, they take time as something that always has been, is, and always will be, no matter what happens, but something that, because of this innate pervasiveness (read: timelessness), can never be known in the definite sense. Time is therefore unknown. By implication, however, time is therefore known in the plural, ad infinitum. Time is a concept we will continue to wrestle, live and construct, not least in the complexity of memory. Time is ultimately, therefore, timeless.      

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Visualising Space as Place: The Invention of Oxbridge


1209. A few students leave the stuffy spires of The Other Place and decamp to The Bridge, a land of denser castle-colleges sitting on the edge of the river Cam with similar traditions and a lighter blue sky. Or so the legend goes. The all-knowing, ever-present, fancy-punting-today-ladies tour guides will tell you something along those lines as they push you along the Cam, woven into soliloquies about Prince Charles failing his exams whilst his body-guard passed, cheeky Clare students scaring tourists into the water with a polystyrene ball, and John’s architecture snubbing Trinity with its eagle, et cetera ad infinitum.

Dusk in Clare College.
You know the tropes: New York, the city that never sleeps; Rome, the city of love; London, the city of fog. Oxford, the city of dreaming spires. Cambridge. The city of sleep-depriving, caffeine-fuelled essay-crises? Anonymous crushbridge stanzas? Generally mild weather with winter fog you can catch if you row or, more keenly, wake up before 8am? Turrets, bridges and a dome to boot?

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography, wrote John Berger. Every space, I would add, has a multitude of identities (‘places’) that have very little to do with its physical reality. That is, place is by its very nature intertextual and subjective; the idea of the ‘city’ is hence one interpretation of a particular space. Is Cambridge a tweed-coated, middle-aged male, a musky masculine hermit static in his study since the traverse from Oxford? Or perhaps a girl in her twenties, weaving between tourists over curved bridges and dropping library reservations as she goes? Or, perhaps, both. Or neither.

Joseph Mallord William Turner pictures Cambridge, quite literally, as a quiet, hazy arcadia, an Eden before Adam and Eve with docile college buildings and drooping trees, in his Romantic watercolour, ‘Clare Hall and King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, from the banks of the River Cam’ (1793). A.E. Houseman paints a similar idea of Cambridge as ‘an asylum, in every sense of the world’. This sense of timelessness and displacement from reality also pervades Stephen Fry’s admission that he ‘went to Cambridge and thought [he] would say there’: ‘I thought I would quietly grow tweed in a corner somewhere and become a Don or something’. Sylvia Plath, on the contrary, sees in Cambridge ‘particularly among the women dons, a series of such grotesques! It is almost like a caricature series from Dickens to see our head table at Newnham’.

Virginia Woolf is the only one who really gets it right. ‘Oxbridge is an invention’, she concludes.

We partake in this invention everyday: filtering and cropping it in the pictures we Instagram of a melancholy Clare bridge surrounded by golding foliage or flickering candles surrounded by crested cutlery and half-empty wine glasses at formal; thickening its plot in the stories we tell to those outside the bubble of eccentric supervisors in medieval rooms and piles of essays in corners of musty libraries; performing its myth in the traditions we profess a desire to elide but secretly, really, enjoy. Far from the rather empty existentialist conclusion that everything is a social construct and that’s the end of it, this invention of the physical space(s) collectively termed ‘Oxbridge’ speaks to the life of space as something never-static but ever-changing. Significantly, this, by extension, hints that we can change it. For better or worse.

One of Henri Lefebvre’s most significant philosophical contributions to the study of urban theory is his idea of the production of space (see: ‘The Production of Space’, 1991). Lefebvre analyses three modes of spatialization, from natural, ‘absolute’ space to more complex spatialities whose significance is socially produced, as a dialectic between le perçu (everyday practices and perceptions), le conçu (representations or theories of space) and le vécu (the spatial imaginary of time). Using his framework, the construction of place interposed upon space (the invented idea of Oxbridge interposed on the physical cities of Cambridge and Oxford) can be understood to perform active work as, in Lefevbre’s terms, a means of production. For Oxbridge, this could translate into questions of access, or subjective future opportunity, or social change.

Whatever the (very real) implications of the social production of space, the intertextual subjectivity of place and the invention of Oxbridge, it is at least undeniable that place, distinguished from space, is at base an imaginative identity. Whether the tweed-coated middle-aged masculine hermit or fresh-faced, library-hopping girl, what you understand Cambridge to be is largely unique to you. Cambridge is thus not one place, but many understandings of place, some more pervasive and active than others yet never solitary, situated in the space(s) collectively termed ‘Cambridge’.

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.