2016 Late Summer Lectures

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Starting at 5.30 promptly in Alington House, Durham, we are excited to welcome you to this year’s Late Summer Lectures. Run by Durham University but welcoming speakers from across the North East and beyond, we’ve got some real treats in store this year:

Lecture 1 (17 August): ‘“I don’t believe in the future. I think we’re all doomed”: The Contemporary Apocalyptic Imagination’

– Dr Diletta De Cristofaro, University of Nottingham

The lack of belief in the future, the idea that, as Douglas Coupland’s JPod (2006) puts it, “we’re all doomed”, is central to contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction. This lecture explores the contemporary apocalyptic imagination, its difference from the traditional apocalyptic paradigm, its relationship with concepts like the “Anthropocene” and the “risk society”, as well as its fundamental concern with time.

I begin by outlining a brief history of the apocalyptic imagination. Whilst we generally think of the apocalypse as a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions and consequences, something which brings about a dystopian post-apocalyptic scenario, apocalypse etymologically denotes the revelation of a utopian teleology in history. Religious apocalyptic writings, such as the Book of Revelation, flourish at a time of crisis because their narratives seek to make sense of troubled periods by revealing that history is tending towards a final resolution which paves the way for a utopian renewal. This apocalyptic conception of history as tending towards utopia founds one of the key notions of western modernity: progress. Yet the doomed futures of contemporary post-apocalyptic fictions suggest that western civilization has abandoned the modern faith in progress.

Considering novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014), Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007), and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013), I then explore how the contemporary apocalyptic imagination responds to the present conjuncture. To this end, I draw on the notions of Anthropocene – the geological era in which humans have significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystem – and risk society – a society preoccupied with managing and preventing risks it has itself produced. It is not merely that post-apocalyptic dystopian scenarios implicate progress in anthropogenic climate change and other proliferating risks, but that progress itself is a product of the apocalyptic temporal imagination. I therefore discuss how contemporary post-apocalyptic fictions are essentially concerned with the critique of the apocalyptic conception of time.

Lecture 2 (24 August): ‘Cuthbert: A Not So Benevolent Saint’

– Abigail Steed, Durham University

From the time that St Cuthbert’s relics were translated into the newly built cathedral in 1104, the monastic community sought to construct a narrative which established the holy Cuthbert as vengeful protector of the community’s interests. Examples of saints wreaking miracles of vengeance on those who insulted their authority, doubted their power, or threatened the interests of the community to which they were attached, are fairly commonplace in medieval texts. Symeon of Durham’s history of the church of Durham, however, is interesting for the number and harshness of miracles wrought against women who dared to approach Cuthbert’s tomb in the early twelfth century, women to all intents posed no overt threat to the interests of Cuthbert or his community, who admired, loved and wished to honour the saint. The reasoning Symeon gives for women being barred from Cuthbert’s tomb is that centuries earlier, when the monks and nuns of Cuthbert’s community lived together in a double community, the nuns led the monks astray into immoral behaviour, and ever since, no woman had been permitted to approach the saint’s relics. In this lecture I seek to explore the deeper significance of these vengeance miracles described by Symeon, which to a modern reader seem entirely gratuitous, by setting them in the context of the moral ideology and purpose of the author, and the need to establish the legitimacy of the new cathedral community, in which the old Anglo-Saxon members had largely been replaced by Norman newcomers. I will also show how the character of a saint and particular aspects of a cult could be exploited to promote certain discourses in different times and contexts.

Lecture 3 (31 August): CANCELLEDThe Minimalist Literary Aesthetic and Current Forms of Communication’

–  James Gilbert, University of Edinburgh

Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control we have had to cancel this lecture at short notice. We apologise sincerely for any inconvenience caused. We will be back with Arthur Rose’s Lecture on ‘Breathing in Science Fiction’ Weds 7th September. 

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been a significant authorial interest in English literature in minimalism, both in poetry and in prose. Emerging in the poetry of Ezra Pound and the prose of Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, the minimalist literary aesthetic has carved a unique vein through the twentieth and twenty-first century cannons.

This minimalist aesthetic can arguably be seen as a narration of repression, in which narrators and characters express themselves by chronicling seemingly banal physical action and description in order to keep at bay an awareness of a deeper existential anguish that they are unwilling to address, as it would require a re-evaluation of value systems and convenient sources of self-preservation.

This is not a medium that exists solely within the realm of literature however; as early as the invention of the telegraph (a use of language that in Hemingway’s time was often referred to as ‘cablese’), we have sought to economize our use of words and language in expressing instruction, intention and even emotion.

Arguably the most utilized forms of communication in the digital age; text messages, e-mails and tweets all hinge upon a similar economy of words in order to convey a message. What effect has this had on both English literature and our day-to- day utilization of the English language?

If a rapid adoption of minimalism is occurring in both oral and written communication in the English language, it is crucial to consider how this will affect the future of human speech and writing. To consider minimalist language as simply calm and declarative is to undermine the urgency which it implies by its very succinctness. Could we not in fact view its usage as an expression of uncertainty and anxiety? If we can, we must reevaluate its collective employment in communication as belying a period of significant trauma and duress. It may well be the case that we are living in an age of disorientation and disenfranchisement similar in some ways to that experienced by those at the start of the twentieth century during which this minimalist aesthetic emerged.

It will be the purpose of this lecture to explore how we define this current moment and both the literary and communicative minimalism it has cultivated, and how we can understand this further through consideration of historical influence in both of these realms.

Lecture 4 (7 September): ‘Breathing in Science Fiction’

– Dr Arthur Rose, Durham University – http://www.lifeofbreath.org

Some of us only think of our breath when we’ve short of it, whether we are reminded of it while running, or just walking up to Palace Green. Others, those we might call aware breathers, spend much more time thinking of their breath, for reasons that include highly focused activities, like sports, yoga, or music, and movement in everyday life, as for the sufferers of chronic breath conditions. The aim of my lecture is to focus on breath in the cultural industry, with a particular focus on Science Fiction. Breath has a realist function in most artistic media. It serves to remind the reader, the viewer or the spectator of the exigencies of the body. Science Fiction literature and film is no exception. Often tied to particularly scientific discourses, it is often a plot device for human encounters with otherness, either with alien peoples, who may not breathe oxygen, or environments, where there may not be oxygen to breathe. But this technoscientific use-value also has its limits. It forgets the affective, non-scientific qualities of breath as a metonym for life and a metaphor for anticipation. Through an engagement with diverse examples from Sci Fi literature and film, my lecture will consider the tension between technoscientific and affective responses to breath in order to demonstrate the co-determinacy of breath in scientific and artistic discourses. Drawing on Sci Fi favourites, that range from Fahrenheit 451 to Darth Vader, this multimedia presentation explores the various ways in which writers and directors show that most ephemeral of creaturely essentials: the breath.

Lecture 5 (14 September): ‘“After that Summer, Nothing Would be the Same Again”: Sex, Death, and Nostalgia at the Seaside’ 

– Dr Rebecca Mills, University of Exeter

The ocean has been figured as a site of deathly transformations since before Shakespeare’s Ariel sang “Full fathom five, thy father lies”; seaside culture has encouraged sexual transgression since before Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet went to Brighton with the Captain’s wife and eloped from Brighton with Mr Wickham. With an emphasis on the themes of transformation and transgression, I map the liminal topography of the literary seashore, focusing on narratives of sexuality and mortality framed within the nostalgia associated with holidays at the seaside. I illustrate these narratives with texts from a variety of genres and modes, including D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow  (1915), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1935), and Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1941), and refer to the seaside poetry of Sylvia Plath, Thomas Hardy, and others. Drawing on the work of cultural geographers and historians of the seaside, I discuss not only the sense of loss evoked by the ending of the holiday, but also the sense of unreality often evident in representations of its duration. “Please do not use the phrase “Riviera” […] not only does it sound like the triviality of which I am so often accused, but also […] its very mention invokes a feeling of unreality and unsubstantiality”, wrote Fitzgerald of Tender is the Night to his publisher, for example. The temporary abandonment of everyday life and responsibilities, in an atmosphere of leisure and hedonism, results in new patterns of behaviour and the performance of new identities; in these texts, this freedom encourages behaviour ranging from romantic and sexual experimentation to murder.

Lecture 6 (21 September): ‘Sacred Monster: The Gothic Theology of Frankenstein

– Jon Greenaway, Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) has become deeply embedded in the textual canon of the Gothic, yet for a text that deals so closely with the ‘theological consequences of creation’ (as Mark Knight puts it), criticism on the theological elements of the text is distinctly lacking. Criticism generally falls into two separate spheres — the assessment of the creature in a social or political context or, alternatively, the creature as an embodiment of concerns around gender or the body. The aim for this lecture will be to argue for the necessity and primacy of a theological understanding of Shelley’s text. Through a theologically inflected reading of the novel, the link between ontological status, morality and aesthetics can be decentred and the vital role of community and mutual recognition in the formation of subjectivity re-emphasized. Shelley’s representation of Victor Frankenstein and his creature serves to present a supremely practical theology of person-hood and Being, and shows that, for all of the Romantic era interest in the transcendent and poetic potential of creativity, that alone will have disastrous consequences. In short, whilst the Romantics may have co-opted Milton they fatally misunderstood the vision of creativity he espoused. In the run up to the bicentenary of its writing at the Villa Diodati Frankenstein and thus the Gothic novel more generally can and must be rethought as not just a means of provoking horror or ‘the trash of the circulating libraries’ but as theological significant writing. Thus, the Gothic novel will be re-triangulated as a vital form of theologically influenced writing that provides an engagement with Christian thought that Romanticism itself cannot ultimately provide.

Lecture 7 (28 September): ‘Alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Holy Grail’

– Curtis Runstedler, Durham University

The Philosopher’s Stone and the Holy Grail are both legendary yet elusive objects in late medieval literature. This lecture examines the nature of their roles in three medieval texts, including Chaucer’s The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, John Lydgate’s The Churl and the Bird, and Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur. While the Stone and the Grail share affinities as metaphors in terms of their power and potential, they are not the same. There are, however, clear parallels between them. In these examples, I will examine their similar metaphorical function, addressing human fallibility, moral blindness, and the desire to attain the impossible.

This lecture takes an interdisciplinary approach, using film to explore these key themes, namely Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), in which the Stone is not only a force of creation but also one of destruction, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), where the power of the Holy Grail can be either everlasting or corruptive. This duality is further explored in The Dark Crystal, where the Skeksis exist as a decaying, corrupt race as opposed to the enlightened and benevolent Gelflings. In further consideration of Malory’s Grail quest, I will also examine Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1976), which parodies the failure to attain the Grail, and its implication for Arthur and his knights.

This lecture reassesses the role of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Holy Grail in medieval literature as well as its depictions in contemporary film. Moreover, it reconsiders the relationship between the occult, literature, and film. In examining the relationship between medieval and contemporary ideals, it encourages us to think about our own ideals, imperfections, and quests for the impossible.

Lecture 8 (5 October): ‘Whisht! Lads”: The Lambton Worm, Medievalism(s) and Radical Jack the Earl of Durham’

– Jamie Beckett, Durham University

Folk tales are slippery narratives, subject to changes in style, form, and sometimes even subject. In this lecture, I’d like to consider a folk tale which, although swathed a pseudo-medieval past, still bears great relevance today when considering the popular narratives and identity of the North East of England: the ‘Lambton Worm’.

The story tells of a young squire named Sir John Lambton who, whilst spending the Holy Sabbath fishing on the River Wear, catches a hideous worm. Hastily discarding the creature down a nearby well, the boy reforms his sinful behaviour. He returns as a hero from the Crusades, only to find that the little worm (another word for ‘dragon’) has grown to a monumental size, terrorizing the neighbourhood. Following a complex storyline including a local witch, razor blades, and a mix-up with a hunting horn, Lambton prevails and the day is saved.

Beginning as a story passed down only orally, the obscure narrative was supposedly only contained within ‘the memories of old women’ (Hutchinson, 1785). Yet throughout the nineteenth century, the ‘Lambton Worm’ became a household name.

But what made the ‘Lambton Worm’ so popular? And why, unlike many other similar ‘dragon stories’ in the North East, is the story still popular today?

In this lecture I’ll be considering the link between regional folktales and Romantic-Victorian era medievalism(s), alongside the rise of the ‘Lambton Worm’ and the ascendance of the real-life Lambton Family of Co. Durham.

The charismatic figure John George Lambton – heir to the family’s estates, colliery owner, popular radical and earnest reformer – is central to the ‘Lambton Worm’ story. Through regional histories and popular chapbooks, pantomimes and plays, ‘Gentlemen’s’ periodicals and children’s books, as well as satirical cartoons, I’ll explore the ways in which a political figure known as ‘Radical Jack’ and a folk story of the North East negotiated an often-conflicting cavalcade of personal, regional, and national identities.

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