Tag Archives: OCLW

‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity’ 19 September 2015 Oxford Conference Summary

The fields of life-writing and celebrity studies have separately gained traction in academia in recent years, but have seldom been explored together. With help from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities and King’s College London, we organized a one-day conference exploring the intersections between these two fields. The conference, entitled ‘After-Image: Life-writing & Celebrity’, was held in Oxford on 19 September 2015, and organized by Oline Eaton (PhD candidate, King’s College London) and Nanette O’Brien (DPhil candidate, Wolfson College, Oxford).

Russell Brand

As essential preparation for the conference, we spent a morning walking the hallowed halls of Madame Tussauds wax museum. We were initially disturbed by the uncanny representations of contemporary celebrities like Russell Brand and Kim Kardashian. We laughed in disbelief at how badly Emma Watson, Colin Firth, and George Clooney were captured. Among the bodies in the rooms of figures past and present, the evanescent and emotional quality of celebrity became a material reality for us.

We were also amazed by how hardy a material wax is and to see that Tussaud’s original 18th century figures of Voltaire and the French royal family survive today. Certain life stories endure like that, and life-writing plays a key role in their preservation. And yet, the connection between celebrity and life-writing has been under-explored. In celebrity studies, celebrities are more often considered as texts. And in life-writing the phenomenon of celebrity is often portrayed as an event rather than as an on-going part of an individual’s life-experience. Our aim in organizing ‘After-Image’ was to begin a dialogue exploring the deep connections between these two subjects, and stimulate discussion of them across a range of approaches, periods, and genres.

As Richard Dyer has suggested, celebrities become a part of ‘the coinage of everyday speech’. Historically, writing has been the primary means of this transfer, and it is through stories from the celebrity’s life that the celebrity becomes familiar to us. Below, we’ve loosely summarized and reflected on the papers from the conference. We hope this is just the beginning of the critical conversations about the intersection of life-writing and celebrity.

Celebrated and/or Reviled: Politics and Power

In his paper on Charles I, Benjamin Woolley suggested celebrity is a useful lens for thinking about biography, a genre that sits—sometimes quite uncomfortably— at the intersection of theory and life. Emily Bowles elaborated upon these tensions in her analysis of the changing rhetorical concept of ‘the Dickensian’, looking at how the name of Charles Dickens became a part of everyday speech and the various meanings his name has assumed in the 20th and 21st centuries. As both papers reveal, celebrities played an integral role in the everyday life of earlier centuries, exerting a power that inspired the way people thought and which moved them to act—whether by writing letters of admiration or founding a society in a celebrity’s name.

Woolley Bowles

Authorial Voice and Aesthetic Creation

In a panel that examined the surface aesthetics of intimacy, clothing, image and self-fashioning, the speakers explored the effects of 20th century technologies—including photography, blogging and social media forms—on celebrity image. Christine Fouirnaies examined the authenticity of Gertrude Stein’s self-presentation through photographs, sculpture and paintings, comparing the ‘weightiness’ of the modernist celebrity with the concept of Stein as ‘a consumable avant-gardist’. Rod Rosenquist also explored the relationship between images of modernist writers, asking whether we should interpret their self-presentation in various states of undress as an authorial posture of self-fashioning. These themes intersected in Nicola Sayers’ talk about the celebrity image of contemporary style blogger Tavi Gevinson. Across the panel, it became clear that intimacy, imagination, image and vulnerability are significant aspects of contemporary celebrity and our idea of the normal.

Rod Nicky Christine

Crafting the Narrative, Contesting the Narrative

Self-fashioning was a crucial theme for the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), explored by Deborah Longworth, as a literary family defined by fantasy, invention, decoration and a hatred of doctrine. This anti-doctrinal feeling resurfaced in Nanette O’Brien’s paper, which considered foreshadowed doom and neuroses in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Following from this, focusing on ‘the Cult of Iris Murdoch’, Lucy Bolton explored the ways in which famous authors’ voices are appropriated in contemporary representations from biopics to Pinterest pages. The panel made a compelling case overall for the importance of self-fashioning to authors and how later generations appropriate these images and narratives.

 Longworth-Bolton-OBrien

National Paradox: Exceptionalism versus Decline

This panel explored the new heroic icons being projected in 20th century life and the role of the mass media in this projection. Tom Ellis’ paper considered Life magazine’s portrayals of Russian cosmonauts, Max Jones looked at accounts of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and Oline Eaton contextualized Norman Mailer’s 1973 depiction of Marilyn Monroe. Despite what might appear to be a topical disconnect between the papers, all three were engaged in interrogations of the contemporary culture’s impact on the stories we tell and each examined how this shapes the telling. It’s a preoccupation that suggests the level of manufacture involved in celebrity stories but also the cultural usefulness of such tales, particularly in the 20th century and at the national level.

Jones-Ellis-Eaton

Roundtable: ‘Historical Re-evaluations of Celebrity in the 18th and 19th Centuries’

Sandra Mayer and Ruth Scobie chaired a lively roundtable on the historical origins of celebrity. The featured speakers were Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Jessica Goodman, Tom Mole, and Simon Morgan and they engaged in spirited debate about the definition of celebrity and its date of origin. Specifically, the roundtable considered what differentiates ‘fame’ from ‘celebrity’, and at what point did this differentiation begin. Ultimately, there wasn’t agreement on a specific starting date, but there was a consensus that the modern concept of ‘celebrity’ and a ‘culture of celebrity’ could not have existed prior to the rise of print media. Certain elements of celebrity were present in prior centuries, but they did not coalesce until the 18th century, as actresses and public figures increasingly became known for their personalities rather than the positions they held.

roundtable pic 1 from ruth

Andrew O’Hagan’s mid-day keynote, ‘Stealing Lives: Does Your Story Belong to You’, weighed some of the ethical questions surrounding writing the lives of famous people either as fiction or in profile. As O’Hagan noted, ‘life-writing starts from the assumption that lives are free to write about’. But a life being ‘free’ to write about is a difficult concept to quantify when it effects the living family and possibly also a living subject. Ultimately, however, O’Hagan emphasized that because the boundaries of life-writing and fiction are porous, the best life-writing depends on a kind of novelistic brio.

Rather than deferring to other people’s demands, O’Hagan argued, the writer must write the story that presents itself. As a coda, O’Hagan reflected that the writer pays a price for the lives he steals. Life-writers don’t just steal stories from other people; they steal time, energy and life from themselves by writing: the writing diminishes the writer over time.

In her evening keynote, entitled ‘Ghosting’, Sarah Churchwell suggested that the two fields are so connected that celebrity life-writing is a tautology. Because well-knownness is precondition of almost all biography, Churchwell persuasively argued, all life-writing is, by necessity, about celebrities. Churchwell sounded a call to arms for the restoration of pleasure to academic criticism, insisting on the necessity for creating different acts of homage and restoring the open relationship between biography and poetics as we think critically through pleasure.

Churchwell likened the biographer to a ghost-writer hunting for details in the archives. And in an example from her own research on F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Churchwell introduced us to the term pentimento: ‘a sign or trace of alteration in a literary or artistic work’. Churchwell walked us through a scenario in her own work in which a discovery of a ghostly trace in a notebook dramatically changed the story. The search for truth in the archives isn’t always going to pay off like this but, as Churchwell argued, biographical enterprise is about catching the ghosts of history.

Poster Draft 1

 

The ‘After-Image’ conference was a part of our on-going collaboration and seminar series, Life-Writers of London, held at KCL. The conversations begun at the conference, particularly regarding the lenses of image, story-telling, mythology and legend, have continued in our ‘Season of Celebrity’. This term has featured talks by Deborah Jermyn (Roehampton), Tom F. Wright (Sussex), and our final seminar is with Josh Cohen (Goldsmiths) on 7 December. For more information, please join the Life-Writers of London Facebook Group.

This blog post was written by Nanette O’Brien and Oline Eaton.

 

 

Guest post: Exploring “The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli” Symposium Report

Below we have a summary of the Disraeli symposium at Oxford on 24 March 2015, organized by Sandra Mayer and Megan Kearney. The symposium was funded by TORCH Celebrity Research Network and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. We hope you enjoy their conference report.

Exploring “The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli”: Symposium Report

It was a crisp morning in early spring when a group of Disraeli enthusiasts gathered at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities to take a fresh look at the many parallel (after)lives and personae of one of the most intriguing Victorian public figures. A set of brightly coloured primulas had been duly arranged on the speakers’ table as a suitable (even if over-optimistically spring-like) floral tribute to the symposium’s subject, whose life Oscar Wilde once described as “the most brilliant of paradoxes.” What Wilde appears to have had in mind were the myriad contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities of Disraeli’s life and work, many of them arising from the ‘strange mingling’ of novelist and politician, Byronic socialite and Jewish-born prophet-hero, pragmatist and visionary. The vast and multifarious panorama of Disraelian identities highlights the need for cross-disciplinary scholarly dialogue – a desideratum that was fully met by this workshop, which had started out as a research ‘blind date’ between the conference organisers, Sandra Mayer and Megan Kearney, at the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections. The initial onset of paranoia, born of an irrational fear of accidentally trespassing on someone else’s ‘research territory,’ quickly dissolved and developed into a mutually enriching dialogue and friendship between a literary scholar and an ecclesiastical historian.

flowers

Kindly supported by the TORCH Celebrity Research Network and The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the symposium boasted an exciting programme. The three panels featured an impressive line-up of eminent Disraeli scholars with diverse disciplinary backgrounds in English Literature, History, Theology, Politics, and Art History. Their innovative and thought-provoking papers – some of which will shortly be available as podcasts – outlined new approaches to Disraeli’s life and work, adding yet another set of facets to his mercurial reputation. In their reassessment of his reception, fame, and legacy from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives, they allowed for further illuminating glimpses into Disraeli’s many lives.

The first panel was dedicated to the theme of “(Self-)Representations & Reception.” The papers that followed reflected on nuanced religious and political themes in Disraeli’s fiction, as well as how those themes have been read in the thorny historiography of Disraeli. Michael Flavin opened with a discussion of one of Disraeli’s least-known novels, Venetia (1837), and considered the manner in which the novel illuminates Disraeli’s position on class when read in the context of urban working class political organisation in the 1830s. Flavin also suggested that in Venetia, for the first time in Disraeli’s novel writing career, the narrative sympathy is weighted toward the expedient at the expense of the visionary. Flavin interpreted this as an interesting mood change in Disraeli’s thought, which rather suitably coincided with his first election to Parliament in 1837. Overall, Flavin showed that Venetia can be understood as useful political fable in dissecting the formation of Disraeli’s political ideology.

Jonathan Parry then led his audience into the next decade of Disraeli’s career when he considered “Tancred in Context.” Parry complicated the existing interpretations of Tancred (1847) as either a chaotic and confused novel, as an imperial novel that comprised fantasies of Eastern conquest, or as a novel indicative of Disraeli’s Jewish identity. Instead, Parry suggested that when placed in the context of the British political and religious activity in the Middle East in the 1840s, Tancred reveals Disraeli’s nuanced perception of religious multiplicity and his critique of the hubris of British evangelicals whose efforts at conversion in the Holy Land disregarded Jewish antiquity. Rather than a novel that imagines the triumphant union of East and West, Parry showed that through Tancred, Disraeli actually points to the impossibility of such a fusion.

Megan Kearney finished the session by delving into the many interpretations of Disraeli’s Judaism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She argued that whilst twentieth-century historians regarded Disraeli’s Jewish expression as merely an expedient manoeuvre of self-fashioning, or as simply the belief that the Jews had exceptional racial qualities, Disraeli’s earliest historians – who were complicated Victorian religious figures themselves – were aware of the salience of Judaism to Disraeli. Kearney claimed that twentieth-century historical priorities allowed for the disappearance of Disraeli’s Judaism, but that Victorian attitudes to his religious position are instructive to our own understanding of how Disraeli can be situated in the religious and intellectual landscape of his time. This led to a dynamic discussion about the intellectual or religious connections that might be drawn between Disraeli and Carlyle, especially considering Carlyle’s classification of Islam and Judaism in On Heroes.

Megan

Megan Kearney

Fortified by an early sandwich lunch, speakers and audience reconvened for the afternoon’s first panel, dealing with the theme of Disraeli’s “Fame and Reputation.” All of the three papers cast a spotlight on three different aspects that shaped and fuelled Disraeli’s celebrity status: his unconventional marriage, his dual public persona of statesman-cum-novelist, and the performance of sexual ambiguity that informed the long tradition of caricature representations of Disraeli. Daisy Hay opened the session with some reflections on the process of working on her double biography Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, recently published to great critical acclaim. In her talk, she drew attention to the remarkable ‘hidden histories’ of silent and forgotten female lives yielded by Mary Anne Disraeli’s phenomenally rich personal papers. Hay’s references to the tragic fate of social disgrace and ostracism suffered by some of these women served to throw into sharp relief the successful self-fashioning undertaken by the Disraelis, two seemingly ill-matched social outsiders of questionable respectability who repeatedly found themselves on the brink of financial disaster.

Sandra Mayer then explored Disraeli’s pre-eminence in Victorian public life from the perspective of Celebrity Studies, arguing that his position crucially relied on his deft and life-long migration between the literary and the political field as equally significant and interconnected arenas of self-fashioning and self-projection. She demonstrated how to his contemporaries the alliance of ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Carthorse,’ creative artist and pragmatic politician, represented a puzzling blurring of boundaries that contributed to the mercurial quality of his public image and thus fed processes of myth-making and celebrification. Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870) and the contexts of its production and reception were presented as a case study highlighting the convertibility of the author’s ‘celebrity capital’ and his shrewd reaction to the growing pervasiveness of celebrity culture.

Sandra Mayer

Sandra Mayer

Early-nineteenth-century celebrity culture, as Dominic Janes subsequently showed in his intriguing paper, both encouraged and was fed by the performance of effeminate Byronic dandyism. He stressed the need to re-examine Punch’s feminised cartoon representations of Disraeli, which reused earlier stereotypical images of him as effete dandy and literary lion and often established a direct connection between effeminacy, social climbing, and radical social and moral transgressions. The panel subsequently gave rise to a vivid discussion about the use of concepts and categories such as ‘queerness’ and ‘celebrity’ in a historical context; the striking parallels between Disraeli and Oscar Wilde; and about how to resolve the tension between emphasising the idiosyncrasies of Disraeli’s career and connecting him to the broader political and socio-cultural currents and conventions of his day.

The day’s third and final panel, “Afterlives and Legacy,” was dedicated to the ‘practitioners’ voices.’ It provided fascinating insights into the questions and challenges faced by editors, archivists, and museum curators in their work of mediating Disraeli’s life and work to the general public and assisting scholars in their research. Michel Pharand – who had travelled from Kingston, Ontario, to attend the symposium – in his paper reflected on the process of collecting and annotating the excellent volumes of the Benjamin Disraeli Letters, a long-standing project of which he is now General Editor. In addition to describing the laborious and adventurous procedure of discovering new correspondence and letters over the years, Pharand’s account provided fascinating insights into how information about each letter was gathered and the minutiae of Disraeli’s daily life could be pieced together through his letter writing. It was noted how Pharand’s perspective differs from that of most Disraeli scholars: while they construct large, sweeping narratives of Disraeli’s thought, Pharand’s task is to reconstruct and understand Disraeli’s minute-by-minute life.

Helen Langley, formerly Modern Political Manuscripts curator at the Bodleian Library and now a historical consultant, expanded on this theme as she outlined the processes, considerations, and challenges involved in creating a major exhibition on Disraeli’s life and work. The Bodleian Library’s “Scenes from an Extraordinary Life,” its accompanying book, and an expanded online exhibition marked the bicentenary of Disraeli’s birth in 2004. Langley spoke of the curatorial challenges posed by what turned out to be a ‘snapshot approach’ to presenting Disraeli’s multifaceted life, primarily dictated by the availability of objects and materials as well as spatial limitations.

Finally, Robert Bandy, National Trust heritage manager at Disraeli’s former country estate, Hughenden Manor, in Buckinghamshire spoke about the challenges and rewards of presenting Disraeli’s complex life and political work to an interested public. He was joined by Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at TORCH and director of the Thames Valley Country House Partnership, who worked with Bandy and other Oxford researchers to refashion the ‘Congress of Berlin’ room at Hughenden in the summer of 2014. Bandy and Cox pointed out the vast potential of partnerships between historical sites like Hughenden, and academic researchers who can help bring spaces to life and invigorate them in the minds of the public. Theirs was an interesting new perspective on how Disraeli’s life remains relevant in the society and political imagination of today.

At the end of a long ‘Disraeli Day,’ speakers and audience had a chance to revisit some of the key themes and dominant questions that had emerged from the papers in a vivid closing discussion that might well have continued into the evening hours. One issue that kept haunting papers and conversations was the tension between principle and expediency, romance and realism, the spiritual and the secular in Disraeli’s life and career. The question was raised whether by constructing Disraeli as visionary, or, conversely, as arch-pragmatist, scholars are at risk of underrating the complexity not only of Disraeli’s own personality but also of the interplay between individual agency and structural framework. Other commentators noted that Disraeli’s parallel lives were shaped by his attempt to reach different audiences and that the phases of his celebrity are closely related to the momentous changes in the political system in the 1860s and 70s, brought about by the expansion of the electorate. Following on from this observation, it was also remarked that scholarship on Disraeli requires a greater sensitivity to the political, religious, intellectual, and socio-cultural contexts in which he moved and operated. As the conversation was eventually continued over a well-deserved conference dinner, it was agreed that the symposium had provided a crucial impetus to Disraeli scholarship across disciplines that will hopefully result in a large-scale follow-up event.

Sandra Mayer & Megan Kearney

Sandra Mayer is an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty and Wolfson College. She is currently working on a post-doc project that focuses on the intersections of literary and political fame in the career of Benjamin Disraeli. http://www.sandramayer.org/

Megan Kearney is a DPhil Candidate in Ecclesiastical History at Keble College. Her research interests lie in the changes in faith, liturgy, and literature in Victorian Britain. Her doctoral work is on Benjamin Disraeli’s religious thought.

Conference Website: http://oxfordcelebritynetwork.com/2015/01/26/the-many-lives-of-benjamin-disraeli/

Hilary Term 2015 Events

OCLW is starting 2015 with a term full of exciting events, including the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing!

Please find all details below.

All events are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required, with the exception of the Life-Writing lunch at the end of term when you will need to book ahead.

Hope to see many of you there!

Bárbara

Oxford Centre for Life-Writing: Events: Hilary Term 2015

www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing

 

The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Political History and Life-Writing’

Tuesday 27 January (Week 2), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Roy Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, Oxford, will speak on ‘The Making of Saints: Politics, Biography and Hagiography in Modern Irish History.’ Professor Foster is one of Britain’s most eminent historians; he is also a world-renowned biographer and an accomplished and prolific critic, reviewer, and broadcaster. His books include Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man and His Family (1976); Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life (1981); Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988); The Irish Story:  Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (2001), which won the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism; W.B. Yeats, A Life. I:  The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 (1997), which won the 1998 James Tait Black Prize for biography, and Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939 (2003); and Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances, derived from his Clark Lectures at the University of Cambridge.

Tuesday 3 February (Week 3), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield and Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, will give a lecture entitled ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’. Lord Hennessy is the country’s foremost historian of government, a regular contributor to the press, and the award-winning author of books including Never Again: Britain 1945-51 (1992); The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution (1995);Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One’s Own Times (2012); Cabinets and the Bomb (2007); Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties (2006); The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War (2002); and Establishment and Meritocracy(2014).

Tuesday 10 February (Week 4), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Anne Deighton is a fellow of Wolfson College, and Professor of European International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Professor Deighton will speak about her latest research project, a political biography of Ernest Bevin, who was British Foreign Secretary in the 1940s and a central figure in the creation of many of the international institutions which shape our world today. Her talk is called ‘The Value-Added of Political Life-Writing: Ernest Bevin (1881-1951)’. Professor Deighton is a renowned historian who has published important works on themes ranging from the contemporary history and political integration of Europe, European security institutions, the genesis of human rights issues, and the use, and abuse, of military force in the contemporary world.

Tuesday 17 February (Week 5), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Margaret MacMillan will give a talk entitled ‘Sometimes It Matters Who is in Power.’ Professor MacMillan is a world-renowned historian and an eminent public intellectual. Her books include Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India (2007) and Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to Make Peace (2009). The latter was published in North America as Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, and won the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (the first woman to do so), the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, the Silver Medal for the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award, and the Governor-General’s prize for non-fiction in 2003. She is also the author of Nixon in China: The Week That Changed the World (entitled Nixon and Mao in the US) (2006), which was nominated in January 2007 for a Gelber Prize, awarded annually to the best book on international affairs published in English, and The Uses and Abuses of History (2008). Her most recent book is The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War (2013). Professor MacMillan comments frequently in the media on historical issues and current affairs.

 

Other Events

24 February, 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

‘The Suspicions of Mrs Gaskell’: Award-winning biographer and critic Claire Harman, whose biography of Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë is forthcoming in 2015, will speak about the composition and reception of the controversial first biography of the subject, published in 1857.

Tuesday 10 March (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room,

Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: Frances Larson. Anthropologist and writer Frances Larson will speak from her biographical work on Henry Wellcome (An Infinity of Things, 2009) a book published to critical acclaim and which was shortlisted for the MJA Awards and chosen as a Sunday Times Book of The Year and as a New Scientist Best Book of 2009. This event is free of charge and open to all: places are limited, and because we provide a sandwich lunch, you must register in advance. To register online, please follow the link on www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/lwlunch

 

 

Guest post: Procrastination Conference at OCLW

For your those of you supposed to be working right now, but are reading this blog instead, conference organizers Liz Chatterjee and Danielle Yardy share their  illustrated and humorous summary of the ‘Procrastination: Cultural Explorations’ conference at OCLW in July. This conference was the winner of the OCLW-TORCH postgraduate conference award, and the competition will be repeated this year. Stay tuned for further details!

———

Procrastination: Cultural Explorations
2 July 2014
Wolfson College, Oxford
http://procrastinationoxford.org

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas de Quincey claimed it was worse than murder. Krishna declared it a sign of a degenerate soul. For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. Estimates suggest that 80-95% of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. Even the Ancient Egyptians bitched about it in hieroglyphics.

Lollygagging, swithering, dithering, dillydallying, shillyshallying. Procrastination is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and writers. Yet it remains curiously understudied. It is a dirty word.

One balmy July morning at the very unprocrastinatory hour of 8.30am, we set about rectifying the deficit. A host of bleary-eyed scholars, students, journalists and miscellaneous others straggled in with a variety of excuses. Our favourite: ‘Sorry, I accidentally came yesterday.’

A mere two months later, we’ve finally got around to summarizing the day.

 

The economic approach

Though the humanities haven’t got round to saying much about procrastination, other disciplines have. Economic historian Avner Offer opened by summarizing the state of the field. Rational choice theory can tell us how long we ought to delay. Behavioural economics can explain why we delay. But the humanities can tell us what procrastination feels like: ‘indecision is destiny’. As one participant later suggested, it is only through such cultural explorations—from Hamlet to Homer—that we can understand ‘the phenomenology of procrastination’ in all its richness.

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avner concluded with some helpful advice about being more decisive. When to stop dating and put a ring on it? The optimal number of prospective mates to ‘sample’ is 37 (!!!)—or if you have lower standards, 12.

 

Procrastination, creativity, and form

Albert Einstein famously played the violin, while Keith Vaughan, mid-century British painter, prolific diarist and the subject of Alex Belsey’s presentation, was a prolific masturbator. The first panel tackled the fraught relationship between procrastination and creativity, the spectrum between Einstein’s creative ‘play’ and Vaughan’s self-loathing. Will May discussed poetry as product of and prompter toward procrastination, part of his broader project on the cultural history of poetry and whimsy. Rebecca Birrell later expanded this theme, with a sensitive exploration of contemporary poets Rachael Allen and Sam Riviere.

In his paper on The Tempest, Johannes Schlegel explored the possibility that procrastination describes the theatre, where the deceleration of real time to absorb theatrical time creates a meaningful stasis. Conversely, the modernist novel captures the flux of capital and commodity culture, argued Oliver Neto. Stephen Daedalus’s flânerie and the hybrid prose-poetry of Ulysses together evoke the widespread boredom of capitalist Dublin.

A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)

A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)

 

Resisting demonization

Ulysses thus offered an emancipatory opening in the face of colonialism and alienation. Later speakers took up this theme: the revalorization of procrastination as possibly positive.

Papers by Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles and Mrinalini Greedharry presented alternative subjectivities of procrastination. Lilith offered a theoretically robust ‘queering’ of mainstream conceptions of time, while Mrinalini considered procrastination as ‘an epistemological condition situated somewhere between awareness, habit, and unknowing’. Reading together postcolonial theory with Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, she called for alternative—and more humble—forms of knowledge.

Two papers on francophone authors, by Anna Della Subin and Kamel Boudjemil, opened up more revolutionary alternatives. If procrastination depends on internalizing clock time, Anna Della argued, the debonair Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery lived and wrote a radical idleness entirely outside this model. The Marxist theorist Guy Debord chalked Ne travaillez jamais on a Parisian wall, Kamel noted; the booze-fuelled wanderings of his Situationist International attempted to subvert not only the notion of work but the bourgeois city itself.

 

Historically specific or human universal?

This raises the question of whether procrastination is a universal—all those hieroglyphic rebukes—or whether it is inextricably linked to a very specific ‘modernity’. Is procrastination a product of factory time and the Protestant work ethic, spread about the world via colonialism and the inexorable spread of capitalism?

Our speakers broadly agreed that perceptions and manifestations of procrastination are historically variable and culturally conditioned, from James Joyce’s Dublin to Cossery’s Egypt and the contested coffee houses of early-twentieth-century Baghdad (Pelle Valentin Olsen). Susanne Bayerlipp even uncovered procrastination in early modern letters. Young English travellers in Italy were chastised by their elders for sidelining their academic pursuits in favour of pleasure. The Erasmus program, she seemed to suggest, is named for the humanist scholar with good reason.

 

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

 

Self-Help

Nowhere is this cultural contingency more apparent than in the flowering of self-help literature, explored by our three final speakers. Susan Machum provided a devastating summary of the endless lists of advice in twenty contemporary self-help books, noting the message of individual responsibility they propagate. In contrast to the fluffiness of this literature, Barbara Leckie offered a witty reading of Middlemarch as an exploration of procrastination—with Casaubon as the everyman academic.

The closing keynote, by OCLW visiting scholar Tracey Potts, presented a genealogy of procrastination. The work forms part of Tracey’s Leverhulme-funded research project for her forthcoming book, Neither Use Nor Ornament: Friction and Flow in the Information Age.

Tracey argued that the demonization of procrastination is a form of biopower, achieved through the factory, the military, and the clinic. Attendees were alarmed to hear that ‘procrastination’ appeared (alongside ‘pouting’ and ‘stubbornness’) in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—as a direct import from the US military.

Swiftly procrastination became reconfigured not as a behaviour, but as a symptom of a pathological personality. This theme is continued in contemporary self-help books, more and more colonized by cod-neurobiology.

Tracey concluded the conference with a rousing call to resist moralization and medicalization. ‘The maths simply doesn’t stack up,’ she argued. Not all causes of delay are down to individuals ‘choosing’ failure. And, following Zygmunt Bauman, ‘indolent people are only a problem in a society of producers.’

 

Mañanarama

After a stimulating communal discussion—covering everything from zero-hours contracts to the masochistic writers’ aid ‘Write or Die?’ (link: http://writeordie.com/)—participants headed to the Mañanarama exhibition for some much-needed drinks.

The exhibition displayed a host of procrastinatory artefacts, including an Ostrich pillow (link: http://www.ostrichpillow.com/), a 91-year-old magazine advertising wacky invention ‘The Sleep Eliminator’, original documents from the Situationist International, and Tracey’s very own Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter—made, of course, while avoiding work.

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter - Tracey Potts

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter – Tracey Potts

 

The Cunctator Prize for the best graduate paper (sponsored by the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust) was awarded to Frank Hangler of the Oxford Internet Institute. His lively paper, ‘Cutting the Cord’, assessed technology as both the source of and solution to procrastination.

You can see the full paper, along with other exhibits, on our website (link: http://procrastinationoxford.org/2014/07/25/cutting-the-cord/).

‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014

‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014

 

 

Questions left to ponder

After the conference we were still left wondering: what exactly is procrastination? If we’re not happy with the economists’ model, how can we begin to define it? What is its relationship with cousin concepts, like idleness and boredom?

More terrifying was the realisation that maybe we academics are the peculiar ones. As Jane Shilling summarized for The Telegraph:

It was during a paper on Procrastinating Abroad that the God in the machine made an unexpected appearance. We were considering Hieronymus Turler’s 1585 warning to the concerned relations of 16th-century gap-year travellers: (‘Three things come out of Italy: a naughty conscience, an empty purse and a weak stomach’) when from somewhere in the roof came the clarion sound of a duo of distinctly unacademic voices engaged in an animated discussion of air vents. Above the sussuration of ruffled scholarly feathers, a quick-witted attendee remarked, ‘I hate to tell you, but they’re probably working!’

Interested? We’ll be debating all these questions and more next term at the Procrastination Seminar, on Wednesdays at 5.30pm at All Souls College.

Further details…are coming soon.

The Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference was generously supported by OCLW, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and All Souls College.

 

 

OCLW lecture by Paul Strohm: ‘Was there Life-Writing in the Middle Ages?’ on 6th March 2014

Hello there, life-writers, it’s Nanette again with a report on Paul Strohm’s lecture last week. To answer the question in the title of his lecture, Paul Strohm began with a qualified ‘yes’. He introduced us to the idea that some of the more obvious locations for life-writing in the Middle Ages are not necessarily the most productive. The early biographies tend to be classically inspired, accentuating respect for prior models and decorum over factual accuracy of the individual at hand. There was a strong desire that the biography be exemplary, with the didactic purpose of providing an example or model for its readers. Strohm called out Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne as a biography that emphasises the dignity of the monarch over the more humanizing details. Hagiography, or the lives of saints, is another specifically exemplary genre of narrative that follows very particular conventions of the life of the saint. Hagiography establishes each saint’s position in the community of saints: the life and passion of the saint, the life and miracles of the saint, the trials of the person on their way to sainthood. Eventually the lives of saints became free-standing vernacular narratives, but, Strohm argued, there remained a frame of expectations and the problem of generic decorum on medieval hagiographical and biographical writing that influenced what might be called the factual accuracy of the works.

The places to look, then, Strohm pointed out, are not hagiography or biography, but other genres in medieval culture. Documents of practice, record keeping about promotions, rank, payment stubs all offer titbits of life narratives. Historians may look at these documents as kernels of evidence, but they are still texts and objects which can be analysed in a literary way. Isolated facts can become narrative, and Strohm gave the example that in writing his biography of Chaucer he learned from documents like these that Chaucer was a customs officer on the waterfront, and was given a jug of wine daily on a Royal grant with the expectation that he would show up to work daily. These facts helped him to form a picture of Chaucer’s life: like many writers, he held down a day job and thus must have done his writing on his off hours.

Legal documents may present opportunities to find details and life narratives. Strohm told us the Latin ‘narratio’ (which only entered vernacular in the 16th century) belongs to the legal profession, as part of the art of persuasion in pleading a case. Medieval case histories are an interesting place to look for narrative, or for specific life details that could be more likely to be true than not. Strohm covered a few examples of these historical cases involving prostitution and deception. The philosophical treatise is another genre where life details and bits of narrative may be slipped in, as is the case with Thomas Usk’s Testment of Love. More relevantly to the literature-specialists and literary biographers, Strohm also argued that there were some life facts to be found in the literary work of John Gower, Robert Greene and Chaucer, providing Strohm with some fodder for his Chaucer biography. The problem with the literary ‘I’ in these works is that it is an amalgam of life and art, crossing ‘the bounds of making and making-up’. But if elements of a life represented to us in a literary work can also be corroborated by legal documents, it would be possible to construct a plausible narrative from the combination. Strohm’s thoughts here about the literary ‘I’ struck me as one of the best articulations of the problem readers encounter with literary memoir or any category of autobiographical fiction. One of the easiest traps a reader can fall into is that of assuming the literary ‘I’ equates with a personal, biographical ‘I’. But if we read carefully, we may find elements of factual ‘truth’ and certainly kinds of emotional, human truths in these literary representations of authors.

The questions and answer section covered a variety of topics from the assertion that there were no diaries per se in medieval England and that it would be extremely unusual to see a medieval biography that didn’t emphasise continuity of the subject’s life with past lives. An audience member raised the point that in Italy, however, things were different. Dante falls between the tendency towards writing within a tradition and expressing individuality with the lyric ‘I’. Strohm agreed, joking that there was probably a hundred year lag between medieval England and Italy. Another question raised the idea of changing notions of conscience, moving from a sense of communal conscience to individual conscience. Strohm replied that until the 14th century, the phrase ‘my conscience’ is never used in English and the word has a capital ‘C’, meaning it is common to all. From the 16th century, you get a sense of distinctive individual conscience. This tied in with another audience comment about the practice and influence of confession on life narrative, which Strohm agreed could be considered a generative form for life narrative as it would be created or shaped for the confessional. Strohm concluded by reiterating his argument that medieval writers often opened up with less self-consciousness about their lives when they were writing in alternative genres (which is why the legal framework becomes revelatory).

OCLW lecture by Tom Couser: ‘The Work of Memoir, or Why Memoir Matters’ on 4th March 2014

Nanette here with a report for you on Tom Couser’s lecture last week, which surveyed the recent history of memoir and the implications of the genre in our culture. This was our second lecture on the memoir form at OCLW this term (see here for Blake Morrison’s perspective on the genre); and I think we learned very different things about memoir as a genre. It was great to have an American perspective on memoir’s place in literature and culture as a form that celebrates identity. Couser opened his lecture by describing the cover design of his book, Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford, 2012). The cover represents a fingerprint on a page divided by black and white blocks of colour. It was, he explained, a visual key to understanding memoir: ‘identity (the fingerprint) in black and white’. Couser’s argument, as indicated by his title, was that memoir does matter, but that it matters more collectively, as a genre, than individually.

Much of Couser’s talk explored the inclusiveness of memoir, and he emphasised that memoir is in fact the most democratic of prose forms: there has been a boom in the genre which reaches audiences and writers both high and low. The form encompasses both ‘somebody’ memoirs (those written by the already famous) and ‘nobody’ memoirs (who might become famous because of their memoir). Somewhere in between these two categories falls the ‘literary’ memoir, which might be written by a nobody or a somebody.

But the backlash to the twentieth century boom of the memoir industry (‘industry’ was not Couser’s word, but one that might be applicable) brought charges of narcissism from novelists. In Couser’s view some of the only other genres to be denounced in their entirety like memoir are pornography and rap music. Narcissism is not the only charge against memoir; it is also accused of inaccuracy (a theme that was later explored by the audience’s questions). From the mid twentieth-century memoir became so popular as a genre that at least initially it seemed there was little fact checking done by agents or publishers, discrediting the genre.

The egalitarian element of memoir has also been noted in early versions of the genre, particularly in the nineteenth century. Defining the category of ‘nobody’ memoirs had me thinking about Emily Dickinson’s famous lines, ‘I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?’, arguably an early version of literary, lyric ‘nobody’ memoir. Dickinson’s poetic speaker shuns the appearance of being a ‘frog’-like ‘public’ somebody, while in nineteenth century New England, celebrities both literary and political were certainly trumpeting their names to admiring audiences. I think Dickinson speaks to some of our suspicion of celebrity memoirs in general, and certainly to the claim of narcissism. Tom Couser cited a review by William Dean Howells, an American author and a friend of Mark Twain’s, in which Howells called memoir ‘the most democratic province of the republic of letters’. While reiterating that memoir matters because it is democratizing, Couser pointed out that this is also why some disdain it. And yet, memoir is a threshold genre, a gateway to the literary, straddling the border between literary, non-literary and sub-literary. It is also a potentially literary form as part of the wider genre of life-writing, which Couser understands as a term that explains how much of our lives is caught up in telling our lives. To Couser, life-writing takes the form of, among other things, the scrapbook, celebrity gossip magazines, reality TV, email, social media networks and gossip.

Recalling that early versions of the novel form involved works of fiction that portrayed themselves as truthful narratives, such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Couser noted that the novel and the memoir developed symbiotically in the eighteenth century. Using first person narrative, diaries and epistolary forms, the classic early British novel didn’t so much imitate life as it imitated life-writing. Couser explained that across the Atlantic, early American life-writing appeared in the form of spiritual conversion narratives by Puritan writers, and later in slave-narratives, many beginning with the same five words: ‘I was born a slave’. Later versions of American memoir broached themes of immigration/assimilation, the civil rights movement, and memoirs on rights movements in general. Couser’s personal experience of the life-writing in the 1960’s was that he couldn’t think of another time when so many people were reading the same books. The experience of these populations has successively become part of the public record through the genre of memoir. Memoir has served as the threshold through which ordinary citizens make their claim for equal rights.

The question and answer section was lively and full of debate about the different ways we read memoirs, how much we can trust them, for their accuracy and truthfulness, as historical sources and as literary works. A historian argued that letters tend to be more accurate as records of historical events because they are written more recently than memoirs, which tend to look back with hindsight on events. Couser replied that all memory is inherently unreliable and that hindsight also brings unconscious or conscious justification of one’s actions. And letters do prove useful as evidence of a relationship or emotional life. Further questions continued to elaborate on this theme, reflecting on whether readers expect memoir to be true. Couser answered that readers do expect truthfulness, or they become angry and feel betrayed by a made-up memoir, particularly in the case of recovery narratives, where a reader has an emotional investment in the example of the author’s recovery.

And by email the discussion on this subject continued with audience member Jeremy Wilson’s thoughts:

“A historian questioned the merit of memoir compared to contemporary letters. I saw his point (as both a biographer and editor of letters) but don’t entirely agree. Letters – provided they are not “written for publication” – can give a valuable immediate account of, and reaction to, historical events. But they may be knee-jerk reaction rather than considered opinion, and they may be slanted to accommodate (at least) the opinions of the recipient.

In different memoir accounts (to avoid the plural “memoirs”) of the same historical event, you can get a selection of personal views that may give a far more accurate overall impression (Example? Maybe the assassination of President Kennedy?). Yes, there’ll always be some way-out contributions; but an intelligent reader should be able to question those.”

Jeremy’s thoughts here on memoirs providing different impressions of a single event, which might give more comprehensive view of the event as a whole, ties in with Couser’s argument that memoirs are particularly important collectively rather than individually.

Further questions explored the boom of memoir in the publishing business and the peak of the boom, and the difference between autobiography and memoir. Couser’s take on the two genres was that they’re both difficult to define, but that autobiography implies the full life will be explored, whereas memoir foregrounds memory itself and could focus on an aspect or specific relationship within a life. Final questions centred around memoir’s status as a democratic genre, and whether literary memoirs could still be considered democratic, and on the similarities in English and French between the French terms les mémoires d’ (meaning the memoirs of) and  le mémoire (meaning the memoir). The concept of the plural ‘memoirs’ evokes a more comprehensive work, more like autobiography. Couser’s talk provoked many questions and discussions, which were continued over a drinks reception in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium Foyer.

Podcasts from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing!

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing has a treat for you to enjoy, just in time for the weekend: podcasts of our events!

 Please visit www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/podcasts for a wonderful sound archive of many of our lectures, seminars and conferences since our foundation in October 2011. Among the audio gems in this archive, are:
  • Keynote speeches by Edmund De Waal and Neil MacGregor at the Lives of Objects Conference in September 2013
  • The complete run of Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing, featuring Alan Hollinghurst and Stella Tillyard among many others
  • Lectures by Kathryn Hughes, Adam Phillips, Michael Woods, Michael Burden and Hugh Haughton
  • 14 papers from the Lives of Objects Conference, on subjects as diverse as ‘Gnomes Behaving Badly’ and Benjamin Disraeli’s locks of hair
Don’t forget to bookmark/favourite this page: in the next few weeks I’ll be uploading podcasts of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing 2014 (featuring Blake Morrison, Edward St Aubyn, Richard Holmes and Marina Warner), as well as lectures by David Amigoni (Keele) on Victorian life-writing and Tom Couser (Hofstra) on ‘The Work of Memoir’.
All these podcasts will also shortly be made available on the blog too.
Enjoy!
Rachel Hewitt (OCLW’s Research Fellow)

Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing: Edward St Aubyn in Conversation with Hermione Lee

Matthew Sellers here for the OCLW publicity team.  Last Thursday, 13 February, I had the pleasure of listening to novelist Edward St Aubyn discuss his writing process with Hermione Lee as part of the Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing.  Edward St Aubyn is the author of seven novels, five of which were collected in 2012 as The Patrick Melrose Novels.  This year’s theme, ‘Voicing the Self’, is especially apt for a writer as adept as St Aubyn at revealing his characters’ inner lives. 

With his witty, stylish prose, St Aubyn accesses fully realized characters and a range of human experience, from the hilarious to the truly tragic.  His novels, at turns sharp, humorous, and poignant, satirize the English upper class with pointed sophistication.  Yet in The Patrick Melrose Novels St Aubyn grapples with traumatic events of his own life, and his works never lose their awareness of this deep pathos.  Brutally honest in his prose, St Aubyn was equally forthcoming with the large audience gathered to see him on subjects from the inexpressible to the experience of making personal trauma public in autobiographical fiction.

Lee opened the talk with a question about the plan of The Melrose Novels, which St Aubyn confessed he initially intended as a trilogy before he reconceived the series to include two additional novels, including the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Mother’s Milk.  The five novels follow a protagonist, Patrick Melrose, who endures a traumatic childhood and copes in adulthood with a combination of booze and drugs.

Though all five novels center on Patrick, Lee noted that they are all written in third person.  St Aubyn replied that he felt “attracted to the freedom” of third person, that third person helped avoid confession and establish distance.  Establishing a core dramatic truth was more important to his autobiographical project than a faithful representation of the facts.  With that, St Aubyn set the scene for a rich discussion of his authorial relationship with his fictive protagonist, the function of his pithy style and cutting irony, and influences on his writing.

St Aubyn was frank about the difficulty of writing his first novel, Never Mind, which features a graphic rape scene; he recounted how he wrote longhand before handing the leaves off to be typed, how the sound of typing took on a reassuring constancy that enabled St Aubyn to continue.  Crucial to his writing experience, and indeed to the novels’ handling of trauma, are the moments when language runs up against the inexpressible.  Lee noted that Patrick Melrose is a vocal, witty protagonist, but he often longs for silence, and St Aubyn noted that Patrick’s efforts to articulate cause confusion.  Indeed, his drive drive as a novelist often seems an effort to evoke an unsayable moment of experience.

The redeeming qualities of silence may seem odd given St Aubyn’s elegant style—he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde.  Lee gave an exemplar of his epigrammatic wit from At Last: ‘As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions’.  St Aubyn replied that the compression of epigram, of wit, provides a strong structure for the inner drama of the novels, a horrifying contrast of perfect control, balance, and brevity against uncontrolled violence and uncontrollable inner emotion.  And it is in that balance of polished irony and violence that St Aubyn’s novels voice a self at once dazzlingly witty and painfully troubled.

Blake Morrison launches The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Voicing the Self’

Blake Morrison, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’

Hi there, Nanette here for OCLW publicity, and I’ll be summarizing for you the first of the OCLW Weinrebe Lectures, given by Blake Morrison on Tuesday 4th February in the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Blake Morrison began his lecture last Tuesday by revealing that his lecture title, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’, was the original title for his 1997 book about the James Bulger murder case.  The story of the two ten-year-old boys who tortured and murdered the two-year-old James Bulger is examined in conjunction with Morrison’s own life, and in the end he titled his book, As If. Asking us to think about private and public deaths and the bad things we do in our own childhoods, Morrison explained As If was an attempt to ‘reclaim’ for humanity the children who do bad things.

Morrison went on to explore things that bother us about memoir as a genre. Confessional memoir, and talking about yourself have something ‘indecent’ about them, he said. The intimacy and painful truths of the form lead us to think about mortality: life-writing often turns into death writing.

The connection between this opening and the remainder of Morrison’s lecture was the theme of ‘motive’: we question the motives of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger; perhaps they are impossible to know or understand because children do not have a fully developed moral sense. The motives for confession and memoir are manifold, and can be difficult to discern because a certain amount of strategy and calculation are required to structure a narrative. Morrison described the following as some of the motives for confessional literature:

  • Shock value / sensationalism: attempts to redefine what is shocking by exposing lies and secrets
  • Performance / showmanship: writers who bear witness versus confessional writers who dare readers to judge them, and self-dramatization or the pleasure of constructing the narrator’s persona
  • To set the record straight: incorporating elements of ‘objectivity’ and journalistic witness, but intimacy sets this writing apart from reportage
  • Catharsis / cleansing: writing as therapy and memoir as a form for airing grievances and for grieving

Blake Morrison concluded his lecture by reading Sharon Olds’ “First”, a poem from her 2010 collection, The Wellspring, that describes a scene of sexual abuse to the young speaker. Morrison explained that the poem employs the confessional mode to transform a memory of abuse into one of empowerment, and this transformational element is one of the most liberating motives of confession.

Questions afterwards ranged from ‘how do we know a confession is true’ to ‘does confessional literature say anything about its audience?’ In addition, a reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as being ‘recollected in tranquillity’ spurred the question of ‘whether there is something to be said for what’s recorded in the heat of the moment and will be shaped later as memoir?’ Final questions considered the stigma in academic writing of using the first person ‘I’, and the importance of understanding any writer’s subjectivity.

OCLW events Hilary Term 2014

We have a great line up this term! OCLW is starting off the term with a special collaborative workshop on ‘Literary Letters’ from the eighteenth century to the present, followed by the Weinrebe Lecture series which occur in conjunction with our other events this term (see our post on the Weinrebe Lectures), and talks from our OCLW scholars, as well as Tom Couser, Paul Strohm, and a lunch seminar with James Hamilton (free, but registration required). Finally, take a look at the conferences we’re hosting in March and April!

Unless otherwise stated, all events are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required.

Tuesday 28 January (Week 2), 5-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

‘An OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters’. This event will focus on literary letters from the 18th century to the present day. Papers will explore aspects of genre, reciprocity, self-presentation, and the material culture of letters. Individual letter-writers to be considered include Samuel Johnson, Keats, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Yeats, and Isaiah Berlin. Convened by Professor Pamela Clemit. Speakers include: John Barnard, Pamela Clemit, Grace Egan, Daniel Hitchens, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, Mark Pottle, Henriette van der Blom, Maria Rita Drumond Viana. This event is free of charge and open to all. For information, please contact pamela.clemit@wolfson.ox.ac.uk

Wednesday 19 February (Week 5), 5.30-7pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College:

‘Work-in-Progress Seminar’: OCLW’s Visiting Scholar, Dr Tracey Potts (Nottingham), and Visiting Doctoral Students, Jeffrey Gutierrez (Brown), Sophie Scott-Brown (ANU) and Maria Rita Drumond Viana (Sao Paolo), will discuss the research they are conducting whilst in residence at OCLW.

Tuesday 4 March (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Lecture: Tom Couser (Hofstra), ‘The Work of Memoir; or, Why Memoir Matters’. This lecture will be followed by a drinks reception in the LWA foyer, to which all are welcome.

Thursday 6 March (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Lecture: Paul Strohm (Columbia), ‘Was there Life-Writing in the Middle Ages?’

Tuesday 11 March (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room,

Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: James Hamilton, ‘Unrolling the tapestry – weaving inter-related lives in books and exhibitions’. This event is free of charge and open to all: places are limited, and because we provide a sandwich lunch, you must register in advance. To register online, please follow the link on www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/lwlunch

Hosted Events Taking Place at OCLW:

20-22 March 2014, Isaiah Berlin’s Enlightenment: a two-day interdisciplinary conference will be held at OCLW to examine Isaiah Berlin’s view of the Enlightenment and the presence of the Enlightenment in his work. For information, please contact Professor Ritchie Robertson, ritchie.robertson@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

15-16 April 2014, The Sixteenth Oxford Dance Symposium: The Dancer in Celebrity Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century: Reputations, Images, Portraits. Building on the success of the 2009 symposium, ‘Dance and Image’, the 16th Oxford Dance Symposium, in association with the Oxford centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, takes as its subject dancer celebrity in all its forms. There will be a particular focus on dancers’ portraits, and also on the wider issues of patronage, practice and philosophy of dance during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For more information, and to register, please visit www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/dance