Exposing a Dark Work: Literature after 9/11

By Katy Shaw

In September 2011, the twenty-first century world temporarily turned its attention away from the olympic fascination of 2012 and back to the start of the new millennium and the influential events of 2001. With the recent tenth anniversary of 9/11, questions regarding the role of literature in understanding contemporary events arose again. In the immediate days and weeks after 9/11, a widespread panic grew about the purpose of literature – and the author – in a new world of danger and uncertainty. Martin Amis famously claimed that ‘after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation’. While it is probably fairer to say ‘some’ not ‘all’ writers experienced this doubt, the role of the writer and particularly of fiction was the subject of much debate in the post-9/11 world. Writers were asking whether they had indeed found themselves living in ‘the age of horrorism’ Amis knee-jerkingly predicted or whether they had instead been thrust into a new international game of heroes and villains.

The ten years following the attacks have produced a range of fictional responses to 9/11. Some have forced us to reconsider not only the terrible events of that day but the weeks, months and years before it, to use a tragedy as a way of accessing a wider comprehension of other peoples, beliefs and ways of understanding the world. Others have chosen to focus on a sense of nostalgia for a time before the towers, a utopian vision of the past that we must fight to reclaim.

As Eisenberg wrote in the short story ‘Twilight of the Superheroes’, ‘The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it’. Shaken from a state of perceived innocence, the events of 9/11 compelled – rather than forced – writers to reconsider the function of their work. While Amis speculated that ‘a feeling of gangrenous futility had effected the whole corpus’ of literary output, Ian McEwan felt it ‘wearisome’ to consider inventing fiction when so much remained to be learned about current events. His desire to use post-9/11 literature to educate, to use fiction as an informing force, has proved influential in literary responses produced in the face of a new and unknown world of danger.

Focusing on literature – and especially the novel – the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen authors attempt to understand both the events of 9/11 and the altered landscapes left in its wake. But the coming generation will have to look much further back, not only to understand the events of 9/11 but how they came about, why they reached such a demonstrative pinnacle of terror and the effect of their reverberations on the post 9/11 world. For twenty-first century readers, this new generation of literature has the potential to offer a valuable and focalising source of understanding for our present and future. In exposing a dark world, the events of 9/11 changed not only the course of international history, but the path of literature in the twenty-first century.

Dr Katy Shaw is a leading authority on the literature of the 1984-85 UK miners’ strike and twenty-first century literatures. Her research interests include contemporary writings, especially working class literature, literatures of post-industrial regeneration and the languages of comedy. She is editor of C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings and director of C21: Centre for research in twenty-first century writings at the University of Brighton. C21 Centre for Twenty First Century Writings aims to create a critical, discursive space for the promotion and exploration of these writings as well as new creative work.

Linking Research into Science and the Arts

By Helen Kara

On the 12th October, I attended the first meeting of a new research and arts forum at CRASSH aka the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University.  The new forum doesn’t yet have a name, and was first advertised less than two months before the meeting – but it has already attracted interest from over 150 people worldwide, some of whom are listed as members here.

The driving force behind the forum is Associate Professor Charlotte Tulinius from the University of Copenhagen.  She, like me and several others in the forum, had formerly attended the International Qualitative Research Conference in Bournemouth, which always had a strong emphasis on the use of arts-based and performative approaches to research.  The new forum seems well positioned to fill the gap left by this conference’s apparent demise.

There were around 30 people present from several European countries, and another 14 attending via Skype – or trying to; sadly, the technology let us down on the day.  Most of those present were salaried academics, but the forum is open to all interested parties; I’m an independent researcher, and I was welcomed from the start.  The meeting was live-tweeted by yours truly, using the hashtag #ArtScience, and those tweets have been Storified here.

From the start, the mood of the meeting was interested, engaged, and enthusiastic. Charlotte Tulinius gave an introductory presentation, then we were due to hear from Professor Nicky Clayton about her fascinating work on the development and evolution of cognition in birds and young children, but sadly she was unwell and couldn’t attend.  We did receive a thought-provoking and entertaining presentation from Dr Arno Boehler and Professor Susanne Granzer who are based in Vienna.  Arno is a philosophy lecturer, and Susanne is a professor of acting with a philosophy PhD. They regularly work together across the boundary between philosophy and acting, finding their thoughts enriched by the contrast between the cerebral art of philosophy and the embodied art of acting. Their presentation was also filmed and will be on the forum’s website in due course.

After lunch we broke into small groups to discuss current projects, challenges to working across disciplinary boundaries, and how the forum might be able to help. The meeting concluded with a resounding mandate for the forum to increase its membership, develop its identity, and apply for funding.  (If anyone would like to join, please email Charlotte and she will add you to the list.  Our next meetings are on 22 February and 17 May 2013.)

Around a dozen forum members headed off to continue our discussions over a meal, but I wasn’t one of them.  However, I can say that it was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating days I’ve spent in a long time.  The focus was on promoting creativity, working across boundaries, and generally reshaping academic space.  Altogether it was a delightfully refreshing experience.

Dr Helen Kara has been an independent researcher for 13 years, working in health and social care. She is also an Associate Research Fellow of the Third Sector Research Centre at Birmingham University and author of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide. She is currently working on a book about creative research methods. For more information on Helen’s work, please visit her website.

Identity Politics and the Art of Belonging

By Gwyneth Sutherlin

Mon neg and Khuya are terms of community which mean my brother or my friend.  They signal inclusion although they can be extended to members outside the community who exhibit qualities of brotherhood or friendship.  The markers of identity, whether cohesive or divisive are complex and certainly the source of intense feelings. In a recent post, Visualizing Violence, I contemplated why I have seen more and more crossover between the fields of art and conflict studies.  What is it in our current geo-political environment that is driving this trend of creative, emotionally centered approaches to understanding and even bettering conflict? I believe our concept of identity feels under-threat, and we look to art and literature to satiate where political redress has left us wanting.

My recent interest in art and identity was sparked by an exchange on an academic listserv this month on the topic of  ‘Who is an African writer?’, a discussion that provoked comments which one member suggested were “transgressing boundaries of politeness.” I couldn’t remember another thread which had stirred up such intensity or conviction for differing opinions. Who has the right to define an individual’s identity? Is it our passport, citizenship, family, religion, culture, or in the case of writers does it change with the themes and contents of their work?

One post quoted the poet Seamus Heaney’s objection to being included in the British Anthology of Poetry:

Be advised, my passport’s green

No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.

This reminded of a piece I had read a month ago in the Guardian that traced the dichotomy of Scottish and British literature.  Can these boundaries exist in a global society?  Have they become meaningless, or fluid, or political playing cards we show as we choose, then hide, and change when it suits us?

Asserting identity through art, literature, and/or language is crucial for undefined or coalescing regions. Yasir Suleiman’s history of the political use of the Arabic language has a lot of insights into this process. He argues the process of producing narratives and literature serves both the goal of fostering domestic cohesion as well as extending an organized international message.

Throughout the recent political upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East, the digitally engaged world has witnessed this process of self-defining.  I listened to many interviews during 2011 in which reporters tried to give the audience insight into the feelings of the people participating in the uprisings. The words shared by a Libyan man during a BBC interview capture the sentiment I heard over and over:

We’ve been fighting for our identity for so many years, as well as to know who we are, to tell people who we are.

But art and literature are not just leveraged by emerging identities to assure their presence is measurable, visible, defined, named, gathering momentum and political weight sustained by culture.  These are the reservoirs of our collective memory, the history we’ve felt beyond statistics and dates. Francois Hollande took the opportunity to talk about Islam’s role in French society when he unveiled the new wing of the Louvre.  He used art to define what it means to be French, a political maneuver to address the missteps of predecessors who advocated a narrow definition incompatible with contemporary reality.  Apparently, French identity has historically been congruent with being Muslim. (photo from Al Arabiya)

Identity can be used to divide, and to name enemies.  In a series of recent interviews for his new book, Salman Rushdie uses the phrase ‘organized outrage’ to describe the state sponsored mobs in Pakistan fueled by an insult to part of their identity, their religion.  Political elites have figured out that targeting identity is a very effective way to amplify fear and hate. My research looks at how people participate with ICTs in describing and collecting information about conflict, hopefully to resolve it. Earlier this year, after restrictions on the Internet were slightly relaxed in Burma, some analysts were surprised by a flood of online hate speech that targeted minority groups. After not being able to participate in the online discourse, the first thing many citizens wanted to voice was an affirmation of their own identity through a condemnation of a minority group. As with the events in Pakistan, or the disputed island between China and Japan (that led to banners with the slogan “All Japanese Must Be Killed“), the conflagrations did not erupt out of thin air, but were the result of long hostilities and complex events.  However, the intensity of nationalist or anti-(pick a country) feeling seems anachronistic in our global time of international business, travel, and particularly language barrier-crossing arts.  In the case of China vs. Japan, a famous film star is calling for civility (yes, an adult video star, but still the two nations have found common ground somewhere).

In my past work as an intercultural mediator, one of the first things I would ask hostile groups to do is list the most important characteristics of their identity. Then I would find a way to put each of those characteristics under pressure. The reflection on your own identity and where you are most sensitive to personal attack can help build empathy and understanding for how others feel when one piece of their whole is put in the spotlight. Reflection is often facilitated through art, music, and literature and while Identity can be the source of conflict, it can also be the starting point for reconciliation. This is why the expanding digital space for narrative and self-expression demands more than the mono-culturally designed avenue of participation we have at the moment.

In our post-nation-state era, members of the intelligence community are searching for enemies called ‘non-state actors’, a term that couldn’t be more vague or hopelessly uncertain in its aim.   The enemy is the idea. Combatants are identified as adherents to that idea. And this takes be back to the discussion of ‘Who is an African writer?’  Who is a non-state actor or an adherent? This seems an equally existential question, one that can only be answered by the individual.  But clearly, identifying combatants in this respect is an incredibly serious matter, although the complexities are perhaps part of what make contemporary security such a challenge.

And this comes back to who defines the identity.  Does it come from within the community or from the individual, or is it projected, labeled, stereotyped?  In a piece called, The fallacy of the phrase, ‘the Muslim world’, Sarah Kendzior wrote about the persistent problem in the media of describing Muslims as a monolithic group. I am guilty of the sin of generalization when I refer to ‘the west’ for expediency. The west is an odd region made-up of two continents and straddling an ocean. Am I allowed to do this if I consider myself a member of the group? During the ‘Who is an African writer’ thread, the most vehement comments were about imposed identity. Do problems start when one group tries to control the definition for another? (While this may seem obvious, I assure you it was not among the group of very intelligent contributors from all over the globe). Perhaps we don’t feel in control of our own identities. They are in flux; they are fluid. They are being challenged and manipulated for political gain by many more actors than in the past. This is why narrative, brushstroke, song, and design which can make us feel connected to our humanity appears as more powerful and, perhaps, more appropriate antidotes to the violence in the world today. And why the digital portals we use for this purpose should aim higher to capture our intentions, rather than define us by scripted formats fixed to one culture’s narrative logic.

Gwyneth Sutherlin is a doctoral candidate in conflict resolution at the University of Bradford. Her research examines the impact of cultural bias in ICT design on identity, participation, and information access.  She writes and speaks frequently about the political implications surrounding the invisible dimension of cultural translation.  Her research draws from experiences working as an intercultural mediator as well as directing projects which use ICT to promote peace and democracy in Burma, Kenya, DRCongo, Haiti, and Morocco.  Ms. Sutherlin has a degree in political science from Indiana University and speaks seven languages.  Read more on her blog, theseem.blogspot.co.uk

Object Lessons – Curating in the Twenty First Century

By Katy Barrett

The idea of ‘curation’ seems to have become all the rage at the moment. Everything is being ‘curated’, from the Olympics opening ceremony, to Blackpool Illuminations, to lecture series and event programmes. This has recently sparked a number of conversations on Twitter, and various blog posts have been written on the subject, most notably a whole Tumblr site. We have questioned again and again what does and doesn’t make the actions being so called the act of ‘curating.’

I don’t think any of us involved in these conversations has a problem with the act of curating becoming more popular, or with the word being more commonly used. It means, I hope, that curators are shaking off the stereotype of sensible shoes, twinsets and pearls. But, equally is this change productive if it merely re-defines curating to become synonymous with directing, arranging, or selecting (all words more suited to the activities above)? Indiscriminate word use not only makes the assumption that anyone can ‘curate’ any kind of loosely-defined cultural event, but also devalues the careful work that is done by curators.

Curation, of course, does involve acts of direction, arrangement and selection in the processes of choosing objects to acquire for museum collections and then putting these on display in temporary exhibitions and permanent galleries. It also, increasingly, requires the management/arrangement/direction both of people to communicate these displays, and of the visitors to whom they are communicated. But, ‘curation’ at base means the care or custody of objects, and this is what sets it apart from the many activities being so designated. Curators have specialist knowledge of the historic artefacts in their care, the means to preserve their material qualities for future generations, and then, but only as the product of this care, the role of interpreting/explaining/selecting the objects, in more obvious parallel with film directors or events organisers.

So, if curating is all about material objects, what does this mean for curators in our ever-more digital age? Fragile collections are being digitised on high-quality online databases in order to reduce the need to handle them. The objects are being cared for by essentially replacing the material object with the digital for the average visitor. Museum-goers now increasingly investigate museums, galleries and collections online before visiting, accessing high-definition images of objects, and much more varied information than can be squeezed into a gallery. Collections online also means many objects otherwise hidden in store can now be accessed by virtual visitors, who can then select, arrange and direct these objects into their own personal collections. Does this make visitors curators? Are ‘curators’ still fulfilling their traditional function in the age of crowd-sourcing and digital scanning?

These questions seem particularly pertinent to me in connection with an initiative currently underway at the Saatchi Gallery in London, or rather on Saatchi Online. 100 Curators 100 Days aims to create ‘the largest online art exhibition’ with curators from museums and galleries all over the world having 1 day each to present a selection of their favourite works. Each curator has selected 10 images for their ‘collection.’ Clicking on the artist’s name will take you to a page that collects all of their pieces and gives you biographical information. There is space for visitors to comment on collections and to become ‘friends’ with artists, as well as interacting through Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc. The site is engaging and seems to have a thriving audience of commentators and viewers.

Yet, the works chosen are not from their curator’s ‘home’ institution, and most seem to be available for purchase. Many collections have no description or explanation, and the idea seems to be for viewers to form their own idea of the reason behind each selection. Many also seem to be prints or photographs that exist as endlessly replicable digital images rather than a material object. I don’t doubt that all the participating curators care for and interpret material objects in the ‘real’ world of their museum or gallery, but this online version seems to me to prioritise precisely the kinds of activities which allow the word ‘curate’ to be so fashionably and widely applied at the moment. Whether or not this is in the end a good or a bad development for the arts is a question about which I remain unsure.

Special thanks to Rebekah Higgitt, Ellie Miles, Dominic Berry and others for conversations that helped me think through these ideas.

Katy Barrett is a PhD Student on the AHRC-funded project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World’ hosted by the University of Cambridge and National Maritime Museum Greenwich. She has worked in a number of national museums and now writes a blog to keep her hand in, as well as running a seminar on material culture at Cambridge. Read more by Katy at www.spoonsontrays.com.

Comics Scholarship in the Digital Age: Towards Media-Specific Research

By Ernesto Priego

An important part of my academic career has focused on the study of the changing nature of comics and comic books in a digital age. Also known as “graphic narrative” or “graphic storytelling,” “comics” has traditionally been used as shorthand for “comic books”, but these terms are not necessarily equivalent, especially as different and newer types of publication have become available. In spite of its plural ending, the term “comics” is used with a singular verb as an umbrella concept covering different manifestations sharing common traits.

Comics is to individual comic books what film or animation are to individual movies. Though “comics” is accepted and used in different languages (for example, in Spanish as “cómics”), it is sometimes used to refer specifically to products made in the United States, but bande dessinée or bédé in French, fumetto in Italian, tebeo or historieta in Spanish, manga in Japanese, quadrinhos in Portuguese, etc. are some of the terms still used to refer to a common expression, sometimes regardless of geographical or linguistic origin. On the other hand, the phrase “comic book”, more often than not, denotes the printed, stapled, soft-spine codex periodical magazine format standardised after 1975 in the United States as 17 x 26 cm (6 ⅝” × 10 ¼”).  Nevertheless, printed publications containing comics vary in format depending on aspects such as publisher, genre, country of origin, etc.

Unless stated otherwise, my own work refers to “comic book(s)” flexibly to refer to any printed periodical publication of different physical formats or countries of origin (magazines about comics are not included in this category).  As Charles Hatfield argues in his entry for ‘comic books’ in The Oxford Companion to the Book, since the mid-1990s cross-pollination among American, European, and increasingly, Japanese traditions has blurred the definition of  ‘comic book’, to the point that readers are now likely to find the term applied to publications far removed from the model of American periodicals” (Hatfield 2010:627).

In recent times, “comics” also evokes the term “graphic novel,” and it can still be the source of some confusion. An increasingly popular term referring to square-bound volumes containing longer unified narratives, (hence the term “novel”), sometimes it is used incorrectly to define square-bound volumes containing compilations of periodical comic books or short stories originally published elsewhere.

Hatfield’s entry for the Oxford Companion is a sign that the debate about the relevance of these terminological distinctions and their effect on different aspects of culture and scholarship is still ongoing, and it reflects one of problems that motivated this article. As Nelson Goodman phrased it, “while a good definition always unequivocally determines what objects conform to it, a definition is seldom in turn uniquely determined by each of its instances” (1976:129). What is at stake then whenever we write the phrases “comics” and “comic books” today?

Goodman wrote that “textual scholars study process (the historical stages in the production, transmission and reception of texts), not just product (the text resulting from such production, transmission and reception” (1976: 2; his emphasis) and though one motivation for my own work was to enquire about the relationship between process and product in comics, it is perhaps equally important to examine the complexities of distinguishing between one and the other.

I suggest that an awareness of the relationship between process and product, and therefore between methods of production and types of publication, can be developed through an understanding of their history. It can be said then that my approach to comics has a historical bias, since it seeks to provide insights into the nature of comics based on the previous history of comics and comics scholarship and placing it in the context of analogue and digital creation and dissemination technologies. This explains partly why I found shelter within the UCL Department of Information Studies. These are ample interdisciplinary fields, historically wired to Textual Scholarship and the History of the Book, and therefore to Humanities Computing or Digital Humanities. The general disciplinary umbrella, though, remains Comics Studies or Comics Scholarship, since its specialised object of study are indeed comics.

So part of my academic work is concerned around comics understood as an artistic form that historically developed with technologies belonging to print culture as a key expression of the age of mechanical reproduction. This fact is both reflected and challenged by the digitisation of printed comics, digital comics (comics created with computers that can be read on different platforms, either networked or not) and webcomics (comics made mainly to be read on computers online). Though it can be said the general academic study of comics is still in a developmental stage, the informal discussion of digital comics, in and out of academia, has increased significantly, gradually reaching the mainstream as a relevant topic.

I believe that it is important that as scholars we are transparent about the transitional, always-changing settings of the phenomena we study. Particularly when writing about technology, it is very likely that our ideas will seem intuitive (or completely wrong) in the not so distant future. One can aspire to offer the conditions for an educated discussion of some of the key issues around our objects of study (say, digital publishing) in the awareness of their historical and therefore contingent context.

The awareness of the speed with which the cultural landscape has changed in the last few years has two-fold consequences. On the one hand it is tempting to quickly reach conclusions in an attempt to pin down a phenomenon before it changes or completely disappears; on the other hand it forces scholarship to be extremely careful of prescriptive conclusions that are likely to be highly debatable. Declaring this historical awareness is a way of positioning an approach and the claims made, and hopefully will also declare a theoretical strategy belonging to the new paradigms being defined by digital technologies, where notions of authority, centrality, relevance and hierarchy amongst others are in the process of being radically transformed.

This transformation, as a complex transition towards a different cultural mindset, can be understood as what Michael Joyce called “othermindedness” or “network culture”. Joyce was not afraid of metaphors when he wrote (2000:1):

Network culture is an othermindedness, a murky sense of a newly evolving consciousness and cognition alike, lingering like a fog on the low-lands after the sweep of light has cleared the higher prospects. The same or a like fog increasingly seems to cling in the folds of the brain. We ache with it, almost as if we could feel the evolution of consciousness in the same way a sleeping adolescent feels the bone ache of growing pains as if in a dream.

Joyce’s passage evokes the painful, border-bending process of cultural shift involved in any metamorphosis. Network culture creates an increasingly fragmented sense of self, which according to Joyce has the effect of making us “less likely to think that a given text could migrate comfortably among occasions or shift perspectives” (2000:3).  In as much as my work is a product of current network culture, it is in this spirit that it wishes to participate in an interrogation of linear understandings of history and “progress” in which technologies and artefacts supplant each other in uncomplicated fashion.

But the conception of this history of transformations should not be evolutionary but relational. In the words of Walter Ong:

[M]ajor developments, and very likely even all major developments, in culture and consciousness, are related, often in unexpected intimacy, to the evolution of the word from primary orality to its present state. But the relationships are varied and complex, with cause and effect often difficult to distinguish (1977: 9-10).

A combination of the perceived speed with which developments in technology seem to influence everyday communication and the often overwhelming interconnectedness of different phenomena poses interesting problems to the scholar trying to make sense of it all on more-or-less fixed platforms (articles; dissertations) in an ever-fleeting present. Melissa Terras points out the challenges and dilemmas faced by media scholars and digital humanists attempting to understand accommodate and facilitate “the rapid developments in technology and corresponding changes in society” (2008:11). Terras quotes a paragraph from Jonathan Lipkin’s book on digital photography that sums this up perfectly well:

Technology today does not evolve in a clear linear pattern. It shifts and mutates in great leaps and bounds, and often in unexpected directions. Because of this, the future holds more questions than answers […] The only things we can be sure of is that the human desire to understand the world through representation will propel the process of making images through greater and greater changes in the years to come (Lipkin 2005:10).

As an alternative to discourses that conform to an idea of the history of technology as a “clear linear” evolution, I have proposed that the new media landscape is composed of a complex integration of analogue and digital texts (Gitelman 2006), where comics play a unique role. To paraphrase Geoffrey Nunberg (1996), a digital revolution is indeed taking place, and comic books in printed and digital formats will be an important part of it. In his somewhat early “Farewell to the Information Age,” Nunberg (1996) had rejected technologically deterministic views that presumed digital texts would replace printed ones altogether. This is not to deny there are significant differences between printed and digital media, on the contrary: their differences and interconnections create new phenomena which include new ways of consuming, creating, distributing, and thinking about different media. When philosopher Pierre Lévy described it thirteen years ago, the Internet was ‘a new medium of communication, thought, and work’ (Lévy, 1997).

The Internet is not a new phenomenon anymore, but Levy’s description remains relevant because it emphasised its triple role, still relevant today: besides a means to stay in touch and carry out specific functions, the Internet imposes and enables a specific way of thinking. Academic work is no stranger to this; the technologies used to conduct research, and importantly said tools as objects of study, create new ways of thinking and organising thought.

Comics scholarship used to be dedicated to the study of what used to be essentially printed publications, and the scholarly work itself used to be created within and for the parameters of printed publications. The rise of digital and online publishing means that scholarship can be both created and presented in both digital and printed forms, and this scholarship is presenting research about comics that are also created and presented in both digital and printed forms. It’s only a question of time before the media-specificity of research and object of study stops being a strange state of “othermindedness” and  becomes second nature through the unavoidable critical awareness that any technology, like academic work itself, is never truly neutral.

Ernesto Priego is currently affiliated as a freelance researcher to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. He is the coordinating editor of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship http://www.comicsgrid.com/ and an international correspondent for 4Humanities http://humanistica.ualberta.ca/. You can find more about him at http://epriego.wordpress.com/ and follow him on Twitter @ernestopriego. 


Goodman, N. (1976). The Languages of Art. An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing.

Hatfield, C. (2010). ‘Comic Book’, in Suarez, M. and Woudhuysen, H.W., The Oxford Companion to the Book. 626-627. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joyce, M. (2000). Othermindedness. The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Lévy, P. (1997). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging Worm in Cyberspace. Plenum Press: New York.

Lipkin, J. (2005). Photography Reborn, Image Making in the Digital Era. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Nunberg, G. (ed.) (1996). The Future of the Book. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ong, W.J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Smith, M.R. and Marx, L. (eds.) (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Terras, M.S. (2008). Digital Images for the Information Professional. Aldershot: Ashgate.

The Digital Revolution(?): Music, Musicology, and Social Networking.

By Kieran Fenby-Hulse

It is has become a commonplace to refer to the development of the internet and more recently Web 2.0 technologies as a digital revolution. But if revolution is defined as period that results in a sharp break with the old order, I’m not convinced this quite rings true, at least in the case of our relationship with music. In my opinion, whilst the development of digital technologies has provided us with new ways of listening to and engaging with music, I don’t think the nature of our relationship with music has undergone a radical change.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the impact the iPod and mobile music platforms have had on our relationship with music and would say that one of the most profound effects that the so-called digital revolution has had on this relationship is the increased ease with which we can listen to almost whatever music we want, when we want, no matter where we are. While listening to music on the move isn’t actually that new (after all, there were Walkmans in the 1980s, transistor radios in the 1950s, and music could be listened to in cars as early as the 1930s), the ability of accessing a huge library of music in a range of remote locations at the click of a button does mean music is now pretty much available on-demand. In short, digital media enables listeners to personalise and aestheticise almost any geographical location.

So what does this revolution mean for music listeners and musicologists? Well, firstly, I think it begs some interesting questions about the relationship between the music we listen to and our understanding of place. The ability for us to listen to music almost anywhere means that music can be heard in an endless array of different contexts, with each context potentially affecting the way in which the work is understood and perceived. For instance, what does it mean if we listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a work intended for a concert hall, while sitting by a brook in the middle of the countryside? And, how does listening to a rural folk song while travelling on the London underground differ form listening to the track from the comfort of our home? These are interesting questions that ask us to think about music in terms of personal experience and place.

Secondly, I think the development of web 2.0 technologies provides scholars with a plethora of digital data for exploring music and understandings of music. The use of hashtags to describe activities on Twitter, for example, allows for searches to be conducted that explore what people are listening to at different moments in time, and whether musical listening is connected to time, events, and working schedules. (This search could then be refined by plotting user locations and identifying possible geographical trends).

The creation of user playlists on Spotify is another fantastic resource, and something I am particularly interested in at the moment. These homemade compilations provide a fascinating insight into how people are listening to and categorising music. Playlist titles (Music for the Gym, Wake-up Music, Sunday Morning Chillout) are particularly interesting to explore, as they often provide contextual information on how the musical tracks are grouped, thus providing the playlist with an overarching narrative and in some cases a specific function. Music, it seems, is being used increasingly to accompany specific daily routines, events, and tasks. The titles given to shared playlists also have the potential to affect how we hear and understand a track, the narrative of the playlist becoming entwined with the narrative of the musical track, allowing listeners to reimagine and rethink familiar songs in a new ways.

YouTube is also a fantastic place to explore how people are engaging with music. The comments provided by users on music videos can help us to understand people’s reactions to a particular track or piece and, perhaps, the role interaction and dialogue plays in people’s relationship to digital music and media. The homemade music videos and the various cover versions of songs hosted on YouTube can also help us to understand how people consume and experience music. The potential for future research is great.

To sum up, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that digital media has revolutionised our relationship with music, as many of the ways in which we listen to and engage with music still hold sway. Indeed, radio, television, records, gigs, stadium concerts, and amateur performances are remain important. I do think, though, that the developments in digital media have provided us with a new way to listen to music and some new tools with which we can explore music.

Kieran Fenby-Hulse works at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton as a Research Officer. His principal research interest lies with understanding the relationship between music and narrative and he is currently exploring the impact digital media has had on how we listen to and understand music. To read more from Kieran, visit his blog here.

An Exploration of the Idea and Importance of Practice-Led Research in the Current Climate

By Lauren Redhead

Practice-Led Research, although in many ways a new concept in the history of University-based research, is by now a familiar part of what takes place in most university creative arts departments. Depending on the department, and the researchers themselves, it might be described as Practice-Based Research, Practice as Research, or Creative Arts Research. There are subtle differences between some of these labels: ‘Practice as Research’ most often implies that the researchers see little or no need for any written exegesis, or for other components such as written statements of research questions, believing that the practice should speak for itself; ‘Practice-Based Research’ usually implies a fixity of methodology meaning that all of the knowledge and understanding generated by the project arises from the practice itself (rather than, for example, an evaluation afterwards); ‘Creative Arts Research’ usually implies that the objects created by the research should themselves be considered art. All of these labels contain important assumptions about Practice-Led Research in universities: that artistic practice can speak for itself, without the need for the addition of language (Practice as Research); that practice is a way of generating knowledge and not simply something one knows about (Practice-Based Research); that the objects created by research have intrinsic artistic value, that is not necessarily connected with their research questions or outcomes (Creative Arts Research). Personally, I prefer ‘Practice-Led Research’ as a label for what I do. This is not because there is anything deficient about any of the other labels, but because I believe that they are all encompassed under ‘Practice-Led Research’. The extra assumption that this label makes, as well as those already described, is that practice can occur at any point during the research process, the most important part of the process being that the practice that is done by the research plays a crucial role in generating knowledge and understanding. But why do we need this type of research at all, particularly at a time when universities are re-evaluating their activities due to funding cuts?

Why is Practice-Led Research important at all?

Some of the reasons why Practice-Led Research is important are not linked to specific projects that have been undertaken, but the implications made by undertaking and supporting this type of research in universities.

  • Practice-Led Research values different kinds of knowledge than just the linguistic. Of course, other researchers can rightly claim that they also value extra-linguistic kinds of knowledge, but the value of the objects and outcomes of Practice-Led Research that are themselves extra-linguistic helps to communicate that this type of knowledge is of equal importance in research today.
  • Practice-Led Research can also help to establish and explain links between disciplines. For example, in my own discipline (music) there is an accepted link between music and philosophy that is often studied in the context of Wagner’s link with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. This is an interesting line of enquiry, but establishing that link between music and philosophy is only sensible when researchers consider the value and existence of similar links in the present (e.g. between contemporary philosophical thought and contemporary music).
  • Practice-Led Research allows all researchers to understand the nature of what is studied in and by arts disciplines. The results of Practice-Led Research projects reveal artworks not to be discrete, fixed, objects but dynamic systems that relate to themselves, each other, and society in a number of fluid and changing ways.
  • Finally, Practice-Led Research projects enable researchers to understand the performative nature of research itself. This kind of meta-understanding of the situations in which research is undertaken allows for consideration of the nature and purpose of research by universities as well as individuals.

What are the problems that face Practice-Led Research and researchers in the current climate?

It seems to me that many of the problems faced by Practice-Led Researchers today are linked to poor communication and understanding of the assumptions made by this type of research.

  • Researchers might not state their research questions clearly or provide sufficient exegesis for non-practitioners to understand its nature and purpose. Whilst I mentioned that one of the assumptions of Practice as Research was that the practice should be able to speak for itself, this also assumes that it can be universally understood by even others outside of the practitioner’s discipline. This is not something that is assumed readily in other types of inquiry, and even when researchers do not consider communicating research questions or evaluations to add to the value of the research, it could be argued that this does add to the value of its dissemination.
  • Some outcomes might be misunderstood as not being research due to poor communication of their value: researchers might assume that others in their discipline will value the creation of art due to their shared area of study. This may not always be the case, and there is room for criticism and suspicion of Practice-Led Research as simply a cover for artists to undertake their practice on university time and money. The discussion of the value and appropriateness of Practice-Led methodologies needs to be more foregrounded to prevent this from being the case.
  • Practice-Led Researchers may struggle to find funding opportunities in the current climate as universities prefer to fund ‘traditional’ research with linguistic or numerical data outcomes, considering it a ‘safe’ option.
  • Research councils and bodies also do not extensively fund Practice-Led Research, perhaps for the reason given above, and perhaps also because Practice-Led Research can be more expensive than other types of research (for example: funding a year’s research leave to write a book might be cheaper than funding a year’s Practice-Led Research with its implications in terms of costs of space, materials, performers and production).
  • As a result of the limited funding opportunities available from universities and research councils, Practice-Led Researchers may be pushed towards creative arts funding which is interested in the outcomes of their work and not in their research, and which is also diminishing in the face of government cuts.

What kinds of contemporary issues can Practice-Led Research address?

Despite the problems encountered by some researchers, it makes little sense to value Practice-Led Research simply by the funding available for it, or its relative costs. If this were the case across the board, few science or technology projects would be funded. If Practice-Led Research is important, it is because of the kinds of issues it can address successfully.

  • Almost in spite of the problems I have listed above, Practice-Led Research communicates the value of the arts, and of funding for the arts. By presenting Creative Arts Practice as both a methodology and a valid form of knowledge, Practice-Led Research explains the value of such practice outside of commercial entertainment industries, and the personal enjoyment of connoisseurs.
  • That art ‘enriches the soul’ is considered a poor argument in favour of the value of creating new artworks in times of austerity. Practice-Led Research can help to explain the mechanisms by which we gain knowledge from artworks and through artistic practice. Thus, it actively argues for the creation of new artworks in order to allow for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.
  • Practice-Led Research is uniquely placed to address the issue of contemporary consciousness: not only can and do artworks address contemporary situations, an understanding of the practice and processes involved in their creation can shed light upon the consciousness that brings about those situations and the reactions to them (just as much good work is being done by researchers understanding past artworks in exactly the same way).
  • In addition, and linked, to the previous point, Practice-Led Research also allows researchers to understand interaction of individuals and groups with society, or each other, not through analysing the outcomes of these interactions after the fact but by actively manipulating their form and structure. This gives Practice-Led Research a privileged interior perspective on these interactions.

So, why is Practice-Led Research important in the current climate? And why should institutions support it?

The suggestion of the issues Practice-Led Research can address well is one thing, but reconciling the value of these issues with the problems and costs of this research in the current climate of austerity is also necessary. I would argue that the value of Practice-Led Research to universities is greater than the sum of the values of the individual projects undertaken by researchers.

Practice-Led Research projects are frequently exploratory, open-ended, and often seen as specialised. They are the kinds of projects that are set to decline in all areas of research as access to funding is tightened. Added to the fact that they often produce the kind of extra-linguistic knowledge that it is difficult to include in reports, such projects look to be some of the most precarious in the current climate. And yet most university departments continue to support this research. Why?

I believe that the answer is that support for Practice-Led Research is, in kind, support for all research. When universities support these projects, they are sending the message that they don’t believe that knowledge and research are uniform, that sometimes research doesn’t have outcomes that are clearly defined in advance (and, let’s be honest, if it always did we wouldn’t be learning much), and that research agendas must be set by researchers and not external bodies. In addition, continuing support for Practice-Led Research sends the message that universities understand research in the arts as a contemporary concern rather than one that is only concerned with historical theories and objects; this doesn’t mean that research in the history of the arts or historical art works aren’t important, it means that this research, too, is understood as being relevant in contemporary society.

Therefore, Practice-Led Research is important in the current climate, precisely because when this type of research is valued by universities, by implication other types of project must also be valued for their inherent research-value rather than their ability to gain funding, or produce knowledge that fits a specific template.

Lauren Redhead (@laurenredhead) is a composer from the North of England. Her work has been recognised internationally and performed by, amongst others, BL!NDMAN, Ian Pace, Rhodri Davies, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas and Edges ensemble, and rarescale. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England, and she has been commissioned by Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Yorkshire Forward, and Making Music. Lauren is also a performer of British experimental music for the organ and has premiered works by many composers including Chris Newman, Caroline Lucas, and Nick Williams, a performer with the experimental vocal group Vocal Contructivists, and a musicologist writing on the aesthetics of contemporary music. 

Call for Posts

To start this blog going, it would be great to get a range of contributions to ensure that posts are regular and that discussion and dialogue can continue.

To start the ball rolling, as well having some general posts, it would be interesting to have a few introductory posts that look at why research in and around the arts is important and perhaps also introductions to what you are doing in your area and what’s currently going on in your field.

More information on the aims of the blog can be found on the About this Blog page.

If you would be interested in submitting something to the Arts Pages, please get in touch: artspages@outlook.com

This website is managed by Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse