Archive for the 'Niall Sreenan' Category

Who wants to adopt a parasite? Or, terror and disgust in the Grant Museum. 

By Niall Sreenan, on 12 July 2017

Of all the creatures, critters, beasts, birds, and baleens in UCL’s Grant Museum, few organisms are as ignored and maligned as the parasites. Visitors tend to skirt their north-easterly facing cabinet, either because they have begun their journey around the opposite side of the museum’s horseshoe layout or to bathe in the light of the museum’s “micrarium”; either way, they are not stopping to dwell for long in front of the roundworms, flatworms, or flukes. Likewise, these “helminths” are amongst the least popular candidates for adoption, which allows visitors to have their name displayed beside their specimen of choice in exchange for a contribution to the museum’s conservation, renovation, and documentation projects. There is a gruesome irony here, since tapeworms can also dwell in the gastrointestinal tract of a human museum visitor for two decades completely unnoticed – and grow up to 55 feet long.

This fact might go some way to explaining why visitors seem to prefer more orthodox – and straightforwardly threatening – specimens. They seem to have little problem with, are even fascinated by, lions, sharks, jellyfish, scorpions, and other animals whose attacks can be painfully and violently fatal to humans. But parasites, whose methods are comparatively insidious, seem implicitly to repel. Visitors to the Grant Museum seem to prefer, therefore, threats which are visible and whose assault we can see coming, rather than incursions upon our safety from an invisible and undetectable enemy. They are not alone in this, of course: the fear of that which cannot be seen, or refuses to be revealed, is not merely an expedient workaround for low-budget horror films, but permeates folk-tales, fairy-tales, and mythology, across the world.

Nevertheless, our revulsion of parasites in particular – and not merely of what is invisible – must itself have a less visible cause, because parasites themselves are not always hidden. Organisms like the tick and the leech feed off and derive nutrients at the expense of their host, and are certainly not invisible as they do so. An infamous scene from the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Stand by Me acts as a testament to the terror the latter species seems to evoke.

Perhaps, then, it is less what is invisible or visible and more a political economic fear – a question of ownership. After all, the parasite yields profit from our bodies, without offering anything in exchange, and often without having the good grace to let us know. Can we even claim to own our own bodies, if they are so easily exploited by these organisms? One man, Dimitri Tsafendas, was certain that a parasite had taken ownership not only of his body but his mind when in 1966 he assassinated the prime minister of South Africa, Henrik Verwoerd. Tsafendas was convinced a tapeworm he had as a boy was still present in his system, and was dictating his every action.

This killing represents an uncanny reversal. Verwoerd is known today for his role as the “architect of apartheid” and the discourses and justifications of racism have often drawn upon the notion of “the other” as a parasite, whose incursion on the body politic represents the threat of impurity, disease, and the loss of national ownership. Verwoerd himself became the victim of such a delusion, albeit on the personal, individual scale. Tsafendas, despite his claims, was deemed criminally insane.

Ornithodoros sanguinis-cameli, J135, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Ticks, J135, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Other theories also allow us to speculate why the parasite exerts such a hold upon the human psyche. The French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu argues in his The Skin Ego (Le Moi Peau) that the biological protection offered by the bodily ‘wrapping’ of our skin is doubled by a psychic defense mechanism which guards against penetrations of and assaults upon our identity sense of self-unity. To feel revulsion or horror at the sight of a tick burrowing itself into one’s arm, therefore, is not merely because it represents a threat to our biological well-being; our disproportionate terror is a result of the sense of being attacked on a deeper, existential level, an infiltration of the very boundaries that allow us to constitute ourselves as sovereign, unified psychic beings.

This theory complements another psychoanalytic theory, Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection. She contends in The Powers of Horror that our revulsion at the abject is in fact a way of shoring up the very self-identity, unity, and sense of psychic wholeness that it appears to threaten. This is achieved by “abjection”, the sense of relief and pleasure at ejecting from the body that which is perceived to be impure of dangerous. In this way, she argues, we not only resist assimilating what appears to us as an assault on our being, in doing so ‘I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself.

Parasites, then, for all that we seem to want to ignore, are for that very reason integral to understanding who we believe we are as human beings. They are what we believe we are not. We are honest; we are visible; we do not take without giving back; we own and control ourselves and in turn respect the self-ownership of others, as long as they too remain in control of themselves. But we do not need the exemplar, historical context, and outcome of Dimitri Tsafendas and Henrik Verwoerd to know that these self-descriptions are often self-deceptions. Perhaps it is time to properly regard the parasite.

Of “Poetry” and poetry: Wordsworth’s skates and other objects

By Niall Sreenan, on 1 June 2017

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the encounter with death that visitors to any museum must face. Paintings, sculpture, artefacts from the past, even biological specimens: something living in these things is irretrievably lost as soon as they become museal; that is, framed or mounted, put on display for the consumption or consideration of an audience. In a museum, neither the fullness of an object’s historical life nor the vital potential of an artwork shorn from its context can be communicated, as long as the logics of museum display tend towards, as Adorno puts it, historical ‘reification’ or ‘the neutralisation of culture’.

The Nobel prize winning Irish poet Séamus Heaney seeks to offer a different account of the encounter between a museum visitor and an artefact on display in his poem “Wordsworth’s Skates”. Here, mirroring Adorno, Heaney ruminates briefly on the incapacity of museal objects from the artist’s life – the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s ice skates, in this instance – to call up and materialise the authentic vitality of his life and work.

What could achieve this? Certainly ‘Not his bootless runners’ lying ‘In dust in a display case / Their bindings perished’. For Heaney, these heavy, steel-shod shoes are mere secondary instruments of a poetic life in both its aesthetic and biographical senses; objects that in mediating our relation to Wordsworth’s writing and history obscure the ‘reel of them on frozen Windermere / As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored’.

Wordsworth's Skates - via "Trails of the Unexpected"

Wordsworth’s Skates – via “Trails of the Unexpected”


However, reading this poem in this way has its limits. Even if Heaney is indulging in a critique of dusty museums, their capacity to drain life from the objects they seek to elevate, it is a critique that fails. The poem itself emphasises this artefact’s capacity as a symbolic entity to point to other literary, historical, cultural contexts – sometimes called “indexicality”. In that ‘Not’ which precedes ‘the bootless runners’, Heaney sets up a relation to the object, albeit a negative one, which implies that while this object does not provide us with an authentic experience of Wordsworth’s life or poetry, it does nevertheless relate to or index certain contexts, histories, and texts drawn from the viewer’s own experience or to which one can be guided. Those lines in Heaney’s poem, composed upon the occasion of contemplating a pair of weathered looking skates, guide us back to the stanza in Wordsworth’s monumental Prelude, where the poet describes himself ‘Proud and exulting like an untired horse […] hissed along the polished ice’. So not only does the poem emphasise the museum object’s indexical capacity to point to texts, contexts, histories, or even feelings outside its immediate physical boundaries. This poem is itself a response to that, to the failure of this object in one sense and, in another, an actual example of the productive power of objects on display.

Here then, is a museum object – pathetic in its obsolescence and in comparison with sublimity of the life and poetry it seeks to evoke – that nevertheless points Heaney and us to the material of that very life and instigates the creation of yet more poetic art. This echoes Ben Lerner’s formulation in The Hatred of Poetry, that there are in fact two types of poetry: “Poetry”, the sublime, transcendent aesthetic object, inaccessible (if ever) except in moments of brief and irretrievable illumination; and actually existing poetry, the text or material of the artwork, which always fails us in its attempt to communicate the timeless sublime. For Lerner, this is the source of his (loving) hatred of poetry, as well as poetry’s animating force. We might glimpse the heavenly through poetry, through text, much like a skater uses steel to slide with seemingly impossible ease over ice, but that frictionless grace, that flash of illumination, is either imagined or simply too fleeting to grasp. However, it is the desire for a lasting sublimity which animates this movement and it persists precisely because its object – the finality of the sublime – is unachievable.

Similarly, instead of lamenting the incapacity of the object as a mediator of “the thing in itself”, Heaney’s poem seems unconcerned with inaccessible transcendence and celebrates the existence of object in-between. He has form for this, of course: consider the metaphor of shovel as pen in another of his poems, “Digging”: a quotidian and unwieldy object that nevertheless achieves something significant, breaking the surface of the earth, excavating, making a mark.

That’s poetry, then. But what of museums and museum objects? And what of the objects in UCL’s Museums?

Consider the specimens in the Grant Museum – say, the preserved thylacine, once dissected by a man called “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T.H. Huxley, whose own scientific work and theorising was and still is greatly influential, and whose fame extends to his grandsons, Aldous and Julian Huxley, each of whom respectively made hugely significant contributions to literature and evolutionary science.

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

That the thylacine itself is not merely dead, but its species entirely extinct, emphasises the folly of indicting museum objects on display for being unable to recuperate authentic historical (or any other form of) life. What the thylacine specimen does achieve – the only thing it can achieve – is to point its viewers towards something else, some other context or text or idea. In my experience, this was that Huxleyean lineage of major scientists and authors, whose works on human evolution, the synthesis of Darwinian evolution and genetic science, and Utopian/Dystopian futures, have become central to my research on the relationship between literature and science. For all of its viewers, however, the thylacine points to its own death, brings the question of its own extinction to the foreground. This is encouraged by the Grant Museum, who display beside the thylacine a picture of the last one ever to exist.

Museum objects can never be what Lerner calls “Poetry”, and they will never communicate to us a timeless sublime or authentic historical life. But they can be poetry, in the materialist sense that Heaney’s poem brings to light: for it is precisely in their failure to be fully alive, as opposed to only being dead, that they function as relational objects which point us towards other places, ideas, texts, histories, or feelings and, perhaps, even towards poetic inspiration.

The Museal and the Museum: Two Case Studies in Death

By Niall Sreenan, on 30 March 2017

It will not be lost upon anybody that visits the Grant Museum of Zoology or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL that these are places of death. Both are a kind of necropolis, containing preserved remains. The remains of the biologically dead, in the former; in the latter, the preserved remains – biological and cultural – of the long deceased people of ancient North African civilisations, many of which are themselves vessels or tokens designed to smooth the passage of the dead to another, immaterial realm.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The morbid nature of these museums and the objects they house would not be lost on the 20th Century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. The word “museum” derives from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the muses”, a fact which emphasises the supposedly inspirational nature of these cultural institutions. But for Adorno, the creativity-inspiring significance of the museum had in contemporary Western society been eclipsed by its material and cultural function. In his essay “Valéry Proust Museum”, Adorno dwells upon the macabre nature of the museum, and the art gallery. The German term museal (“museum-like), he tells us, is a suggestively pejorative one used to describe the character of certain artefacts: objects to which the observer or museum-goer ‘no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying’. We come close to this in the English language when, by saying something or someone “belongs in a museum”, we describe people, technologies, institutions, or ideas that have far exceeded their sell-by date and have become decrepit.

Adorno’s observation is literally true in many cases. Walk through the atria of the Science Museum in South Kensington and you will see installed behind glass a host of superannuated but undeniably contemporary artefacts – Bakelite telephones, Atari computers, horsehair toothbrushes, and so forth. We are being told: by virtue of being useless, these objects are displayed in this museum. Or perhaps: by installing these objects in a museum, these objects should now be considered obsolete (even if they are still technically useful).

The same could be said about art. Once installed in a museum or gallery, a painting, print, or sculpture becomes a commodity whose value is defined primarily by its capacity to create profit – for the museum, the artist, the collector, or the dealer. The life of that artwork – its social, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic value outside that of commerce or “cultural capital” – has been destroyed by the same process of display operative in the Science Museum, which by selecting and displaying objects consigns them to the grave. Art is on display because it is monetarily valuable; being in a museum ascribes monetary value to art. Forget the muses, Adorno says: ‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’

This conception of the museum as mausoleum can illuminate two apparently divergent kinds of museum display, both of which can be understood to drain the life from the objects they seek to exhibit. First, any attempt to place works of art in so-called “authentic”, historical settings is not only a shabby form of nostalgia. Such a move, in a desperate attempt to claw back an irretrievable cultural tradition, reduces to a form of historical citation the artwork it seeks to celebrate. This can lead only to melancholy. For such a purely referential and reverential effort to recuperate the past will always fail, leaving us to lament uselessly the passing of historical time. We resign ourselves to the fact that the historical context that gave life to the artwork is lost to us; and that, therefore, the artwork is itself dead.

The seemingly contrasting practice of deliberately wrenching art from its historical and aesthetic context – such as in the contemporary fashion for “white cube” galleries – can be understood as equally unsatisfactory and inauthentic, since this form of exhibition strips art of its history altogether. Historical nostalgia might at lead us, at least, to a despairing and therefore critical conception of the impossibility of grasping the life of art in undistorted historical context. Decontextualisation wears inauthenticity as a badge of honour. The false trappings of tradition and the over-serious officiousness of the desire for authenticity of which it is symptomatic squeezes the life from art entirely. Willing dilettantism denies us the opportunity of understanding the historical nature of art — however incomplete that understanding might be.

This double bind is a useful way of understanding the objects we see in the Grant Museum in UCL. Adorno’s analysis in “Valery Proust Museum” is aimed at art and art museums primarily. But reading in this way, for example, the literally dead animals in a museum of zoology can illuminate how, through being displayed, they have become museal. How does one display a dead animal? In a mock-up of its original habitat – a tawdry and macabre mirror of the attempt to display art in “authentic” context? Or should we simply display it in a glass box, stripped of context – continuing the violent logic of ecological, geographical displacement that resulted in that animal’s death and preservation?

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew (Z2789)

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew, The Grant Museum (Z2789)

The former, at least, by offering us a glimpse into the original habitat of a species might offer us an unintended critique of how in British museums of zoology many of the species on display are relics of a violent colonial past: animals whose death and passage to Britain was made possible by an imperial infrastructure of scientists, surgeons, and interested amateurs, scattered across British dominions. However, even the act of preservation itself is a false kind of de-contextualisation. While the skeletons, preserved, and stuffed species that line the walls of the Grant Museum were intended first for scientific education and research, as a spectacle they take on a distinctly melancholy aspect. This is especially true for the display of extinct species; thylacine parts, dodo bones, a quagga skeleton: these are embodiments of a desire to preserve what is dead, to recuperate – through entirely artificial means – what is irretrievably lost.

Could we not apply a similar logic to the objects in the Petrie Museum? How do we display the remains of a dead civilisation, and in what way a do we render them historically or immediately lifeless? The set of Fayum mummy portraits housed in this museum pose a suggestive example of just such a problem. Excavated by Flinders Petrie in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, these strikingly naturalist portraits were ‘part of the funerary equipment needed for entry into the afterlife’ for elite members of the Fayum people who lived in Egypt under Roman rule. Such information, we might think, animates these portraits; they are a record of the funerary practices of an ancient people, bringing to life the death-rituals of the past. However, the manner in which these portraits are displayed now and were displayed originally suggests something else.

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Today, these panels sit alongside each other in a row: a set of faces painted in Greco-Roman style lined up in sequence, like the photo album of an ancient family. And Petrie himself first displayed these as if they were European art portraits, set upon the walls of a London room in 1889. Crucially, these two forms of display are made possible by the fact that these portraits are torn out from their funerary and material contexts. Each portrait was literally cut from the mummy to which they belonged. These portraits exist in a museum only by virtue of an act of violent de-contextualisation, which no amount of historical or cultural context can reverse or palliate. What was alive for the dead in the past, has been exhumed for the living today and in turn made museal.

Adorno’s reflections on “the museal” raise important questions about how we display objects in museums, the forms of contextualisation and de-contextualisation to which we submit these objects, and the historical and cultural forces their display reflects. It also mirrors long-running debates in the Humanities about how we should interpret all forms of cultural production. Rita Felski puts it this way: ‘Critics […] find themselves zigzagging between dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art.’ Scholars in the humanities simply do not agree about whether we should stick primarily to interpreting the objects themselves, or whether we need to focus on the social, political, linguistic, and historical contexts that gave rise to those objects.

This essay will not attempt to resolve these problems, but instead has attempted to draw attention to the way in which objects in a museum are involved in a seemingly irresolvable tension. What is easy to ignore, however, is how visitors to museums themselves respond to objects in ways that go beyond the pinched contestations of academic critique. Over four years of engaging with visitors across UCL’s three public museums, I have seen people respond the museum collections in ways that categorisation and critique cannot always account for. Visitors to the Grant Museum respond with both intellectual wonder and personal revulsion to the often grotesque preserved remains of 19th century science’s subjects; in the Petrie museum I have talked with people reflecting upon a divided sense of historical vertigo, ruminating upon the impossibility of knowing the lives of Ancient Egyptians, while at the same time marvelling at the uncanny sense of intimacy evoked by one’s proximity to the hair combs, sandals, and kohl pots of ordinary ancients. Responses to objects in UCL’s museums are never absolutely historically critical nor completely naïve. They are complex aggregates of both; mixtures or compounds of thinking, feeling, scepticism, and wonder. If I have learned anything from working in these museums it is that the necessary but sometimes leaden abstractions of academic criticism must always return to the organic complexity of living responses to museum objects.

‘smoke words languishing and melting in the sky’ — Stress: Remembrance, Trauma, Forgetting

By Niall Sreenan, on 23 November 2015

by Niall Sreenan

This talk was delivered on the 11th of November 2015, at the UCL Art Museum, at a public event addressing remembrance and the exhibition “Stress: Approaches to the First World War”. It has been reproduced here largely unedited other than an expanded final paragraph and the addition of bibliographic references.

In the wake of recent events in Paris and Europe, an afterword has been appended by the author.


smoke words languishing and melting in the sky’ — Stress: Remembrance, Trauma, Forgetting

Walk west from where we sit now, past UCL’s Front Lodge, down the Euston Road, past Great Portland Street underground station, and you will come to a location of great historical violence and a site of present remembrance. At 12.55pm on the 20th of July 1982 a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded under a bandstand in Regent’s Park, killing seven members of the British Army. The soldiers, members of the Light Infantry Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets, were playing a scheduled performance of the music of Oliver!

Today, there exists a plaque in the same location that is both dedicated to the lives of the men who perished in that attack and which commemorates this act of brutality. The plaque reads: ‘To the memory of those Bandsmen of the 1st Battalion The Royal Green Jackets who died here as a result of a terrorist attack’. It is both a commemoration of life and a marker of death – one of many waypoints of remembrance that punctuate the public spaces of London. The specific wording of this particular remembrance plaque is significant here for it surely inflamed the righteous anger of the perpetrators of this heinous violence – and perhaps deliberately so. Members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army did not view themselves as “terrorists”, as such, but as members of a legitimate armed force attempting to land a cruel blow against a nation whose armed forces occupied what they considered their sovereign state.

In the wake of the attack, the Provisional IRA took responsibility for their actions and made a proclamation that turned the rhetoric of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher against her own people. They declared: ‘The Irish people have sovereign and national rights which no task or occupational force can put down.’ In asserting this, the IRA insisted they were merely repeating the very same appeal to national sovereignty Thatcher did to justify the British action in the Falklands war. The point of this act of rhetorical ventriloquism, for the IRA, was to legitimate their terror by framing it in terms of the language of international politics, and to muddy the difference between terrorism and any other “legitimate” act of war.

The plaque that adorns the bandstand in Regent’s Park, then, is not merely a marker of remembrance for the violence of that day, but a politically contentious reminder of a controversial war that took place thousands of miles away, of the lives lost there too, and of the way in which remembrance – the way in which we remember death and conflict – is always itself political. Today this plaque stands immovable and dumb, as inanimate as the well-oxidised bronze-roofed bandstand to which it is attached – and yet, it practically hums with the polyphonic dissonance of competing historical and political voices – as well as those of the dead.

Take a seat on a bench nearby in Regent’s Park and another set of voices makes itself heard. These voices are imaginary – but no less real for that – and these too provide an opportunity to remember. One, a soldier, Septimus Warren Smith, decorated for bravery, returned to London from the First World War. The other, Lucrezia Renzi, a 24 year old Italian hatmaker whom Septimus met while billeted in Milan following the armistice in 1918. They married soon after.

And on a bright June day in Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway, Septimus, ‘pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat’, and Lucrezia, ‘a little woman, with large eyes in a sallow pointed face’, sit on a public bench somewhere in Regent’s Park avoiding the bustle and noise of the city. They gaze upwards at the sky where a plane writes messages, white puffs scrawled against the blue tablet of the sky.

‘So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signalling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.’

This moment of sublime happiness is, for Septimus, a momentary consolation for he is a sufferer of what, in the 1920’s, we called shell-shock. He is beset on all sides by perceived threats and visions of horror, and blighted by images of his departed friends and comrades. He talks to himself, talks to the dead, and sees their faces in trees. He threatens to kill himself.

Woolf’s novel, which, among other things, depicts Septimus and Lucrezia’s trip to London to visit a doctor specializing in the treatment of the mentally infirm, acts as yet another form of remembrance. It is a fictional monument to the effects of the war on its survivors – on the soldiers that made it home – as well as on those who lived with these men, those who picked up the fragments of what was left of Europe in the wake of this First World War. What is distinctive about Woolf’s form of remembrance is that, unlike a plaque or cenotaph or another monumental concrete hulk, it is a supple and ambivalent form of remembrance. She neither offers judgement on an enemy or on a victim, and provides a perspective on the suffering of the First World War from within – from the subjective perspective of the sufferer who is also a killer, Septimus, and from the perspective of an innocent who must also bear that suffering, Lucrezia.

Woolf describes one particular moment in which Septimus submits entirely to his delusions:

‘He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself —

“For God’s sake don’t come!” Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.

But the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed. I must tell the whole world, Septimus cried, raising his hand (as the dead man in the grey suit came nearer), raising his hand like some colossal figure who has lamented the fate of man for ages in the desert alone with his hands pressed to his forehead, furrows of despair on his cheeks, and now sees light on the desert’s edge which broadens and strikes the iron-black figure (and Septimus half rose from his chair), and with legions of men prostrate behind him he, the giant mourner, receives for one moment on his face the whole —“But I am so unhappy, Septimus,” said Rezia trying to make him sit down.’

Woolf depicts with terrible alacrity the horror-stricken, jumbled phenomenology of the shell-shocked Septimus, never deigning to explain or make coherent the set of visions and confusions to which he is subject. The scale and intensity of the trauma Septimus re-experiences is made clear: legions of the dead occupy a vast desert, watched over by a giant figure, a mourner of vast and monumental scale. On the other hand, this poetry of grief, its tacit sympathy for the griever, is interrupted and cut short by the rather more prosaic, if no less profound, melancholy of the griever’s wife. Lucrezia, struggling to keep Septimus earthbound, articulates in much more simple terms her fundamental dissatisfaction of life – ‘I am so unhappy’.

The passage, then, allows us to read – to sympathise with –  both sides of a conflict. Not a war, as such, but the tension or opposition between Lucrezia’s profound unhappiness at life lived in constant battle with a shell-shocked war hero, as well as Septimus’s life lived out of joint, haunted by visitations from a traumatic, violent past.

Remembrance – or perhaps more accurately – memorialization, is always polyvalent. Monuments, whether they are dynamic and deliberately ambiguous, as Woolf’s work undoubtedly is, or solid and monolithic, as in the stone monuments dedicated to violence and suffering sitting in public spaces, are traversed by choruses of competing voices – each straining to tell a story that goes beyond our capacity as societies and individuals to remember. Whether we as individuals and a society prefer the monolithic and stoic silence of stone or the ephemeral, ambivalence of poetic discourse, is a question of what we understand by remembrance. That is to say, what is the purpose of remembrance, and what is its value?

At this stage I want to turn to the work of Friedrich Nietzsche whose understanding of history and remembrance is somewhat at odds with that of our own time. In the second of his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche takes the example of the contentment of animals, which live ‘unhistorically’ in a state of constant and pure present, and contrasts this with the tortured uncertainty of humankind whose slavery to history is a crippling encumbrance. We are, he writes, ‘all suffering from a consuming fever of history’ and ought, he believes, at the very least, begin to recognise this.

What happens in the past, Nietzsche believed, constantly and unproductively irrupts into the present, disrupting our lives in ways that are injurious to any possible feeling of contentment. ‘[I]t is a matter for wonder’, he writes, ‘a moment, now here and then gone, nothing before it came, again nothing after it has gone, nonetheless returns as a ghost and disturbs the peace of a later moment.’ However, far from wishing to entirely negate the value of historical knowledge at all, Nietzsche is railing against an obsessive relation to the historical which renders us as societies and individuals incapable of acting – of moving forward. As compulsive rememberers, constantly reflecting and ruminating on what has passed, we are in a state of sleeplessness, incapable of forgetting, and stuck in a state of paralysis.

This paralysis is recognisable in sufferers of PTSD or shell-shock, the primary, and most cruel symptom of which, is an inability to forget. Sufferers are visited and revisited, against their will, by images and memories of traumatic events from their past, forced to relive – over and over – the very events which caused their current paralysis, their submission to the horrors of the past.

Septimus is haunted by the death of his friend and fellow soldier Evans. He sees him in the park; he hears his voice from behind a screen; Evans stands silently outside his bedroom window. Septimus sees in the flowers that line the river banks near Hampton Court a sea of floating lamps. This brings to mind what Edward Grey, former British Foreign Secretary, is said to have remarked on the eve of the First World War: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. But for Septimus, no such extinguishing of memory is available to him. We mark remembrance in Europe with the lighting of candles, the reconstitution of the light that was lost in War, but Septimus is doomed to live in a constant state of remembrance, the constant re-illumination of violence and horror, the only escape from which is the absolute blackness found in death.

There is a tension then in our desire to remember, our obsessive need to commemorate, the deaths of soldiers and the horrors of war. The adage ‘Never forget’ is perhaps the emobdiment of our ideology of remembrance. This takes on a sinister hue in light of what Nietzsche tells us of the dangers of history and what know now about the reality of post-traumatic stress: those afflicted by this awful condition are afflicted by precisely this – they never can forget.[1]

Forgetfulness is precisely what Nietzsche recommends to us as the remedy for obsessive remembrance. ‘To shut the doors and windows of consciousness for a while; not to be bothered by the noise and battle […] a little peace, a little tabula rasa of consciousness to make room for something new […] there could be no happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, immediacy, without forgetfulness.’

How then, as a society, can we avoid consigning ourselves to a state of societal post traumatic stress disorder. How can we remember the dead, commemorate their lives, and manage also to forget – to allow ourselves to move on?

The key, in Nietzsche’s terms, lies in the difference between active forgetting and passive forgetting. To passively forget the past is to submit oneself to it, irrespective of its value to the present. In passively forgetting, we let slide from view – or repress – that which is both difficult to apprehend and which is of value to a society today: complexity, ambivalence, the conflicted multi-perspectival historical dynamics that get lost in the shadow of a monument. We consign ourselves in this passive mode of forgetting to remembering by imitation – by repetition – obsessively recreating and insisiting on the authenticity of our remembrance.

In contrast, to actively forget is to allow the possibility of those ambiguities and complexities obtain in the present and to allow ourselves to stop being haunted by the monolithic, or reified form of history, that simplifies what happened in the past.

Here then, the way in which the monolith functions suddenly becomes clearer. It is a form of passive forgetting – enacted in remembrance. The inscription on the plaque in Regent’s Park, remembering the dead from that awful attack 23 years ago, is passively aggressive – couching its sentiment in remembrance but in reality consolidating an ideological and political statement that, whatever its accuracy, brooks no argument. It is an obsessive remembering of certain details, a refusal to let past conflicts recede from view, making forgiveness impossible in the face of the monolithic reminder of a heinous violence.

And in contrast, the literary word, the shifting meaning of poetic writing, ‘languishing and melting in the sky’, does the opposite. The details it depicts are, of course, selective. But, in contrast with the monolith, the reader’s assimilation, interpretation, and response to the memories it invokes is also selective – one has the option, when reading Woolf’s account of Septimus and Lucrezia, to sympathise with the plight of women, to meditate on the horrors of shell-shock and the inhumane way in which it was treated in the 1920s and beyond; we can, as readers, both marvel in the suppleness and energy of Woolf’s prose while simultaneously recognise the horror of what she describes. Literary language is ephemeral and polysemous – and therefore does not allow itself to become set in stone – it does not dictate its meaning to us or inscribe and official memory but rather invites us to draw on our own memories and create our own meanings.

This is how I conceived, curatorially speaking, of our modest exhibition in UCL’s North Lodge. In creating an exhibition about – or in relation to – the First World War, we are, in effect, creating a form of remembrance. However, the exhibition space, the objects, and the object labels are not there to instruct but to act as a springboard or space for the possibility of discourse and questions. This is why my own choice of objects, Noel’s phrenology heads and Leonard Darwin’s photos of soldiers bequeathed to the Galton Institute, testify to the hidden bio-political valences of imperial warfare. Monolithic statues do not remember the eugenic arguments made by Leonard Darwin, which stated that the wholesale destruction of young men at the front could only be countered by an active campaign to mobilise the reproductive faculties of women on the home front. Remembering the unremembered – stressing the unstressed – allows us, not to replace the prevailing narrative of remembrance, but to add to it a set of voices that are so often quietened amidst the din of trumpets and hooves.

This is also why, when we as a group conceived of the exhibition, we wanted the “public engagement” aspect to be integral to the exhibition itself – and not as an afterthought. The presence of PhD researchers in the space at all times, to engage with the questions of visitors and to describe their own personal and disciplinary approach to curation, allows the space to be filled with a multitude of voices. The objects, the stories behind them, the interdisciplinary approach to understanding the war, and the questions and anecdotes of the visitors; these all work, I hope, to make the exhibition function as a monument in which remembrance can be enacted openly and actively.

 [1] It was pointed out to me afterwards that the adage ‘Lest we forget’ is more usually associated with the First World War (it is lifted from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” published in The Times in 1914) and would thus render my argument here slightly more complicated. The equivocal “lest” registers a sense of trepidation at what might happen should we ever entirely efface the memory of war and its victims. In contrast, “never” is both an appeal to a transcendental or eternal form of remembrance and a super-egoic injunction, something more akin to an order than a form of questioning. That said, the phrase ‘Never forget’ has gained a form of popular currency and is frequently used in conjunction with forms of remembrance in the USA – for 9/11, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor – perhaps deriving from a speech given by Benjamin Franklin in which he urged ‘May we never forget’. That ‘Never forget’ came to mind as I wrote this piece might reflect my lack of erudition in relation to this period of history but equally might also reflect the way in which remembrance today is more often than not undertaken in the spirit of a disciplinary injunction than in the spirit of open inquiry.


Afterword – 19th November, 2015

Since delivering this talk on the Armistice Day, the 11th of November 2015, the atrocities committed in Paris and further abroad have thrown this essay into a new light. I thought carefully about whether it was appropriate or not to post this so close to the traumatic events themselves, when the grief, emotion, and outrage these killings demand has yet to give way to the forms of remembrance I tried to explore and question in my presentation earlier in the month. It is not my desire to undermine the anger, the horror, and the sadness which has characterised the Europe-wide and worldwide response to the attacks in Paris, the attacks in Beirut, and characterises our response to brutally violent terrorist attacks anywhere, at any time, or of any political persuasion. And it was certainly not my intention in this essay to directly address the myriad political issues and the symptoms of trauma and remembrance that blight the Middle East and which periodically irrupt into European society.

 However, if anything, it is now more crucial than ever to remember and to do so actively – to engage in acts of communal commemoration and solidarity – and to do this in the spirit of open, reasoned, and empathic inquiry that such a complex incident requires. The atrocities in Paris are the horrific culmination of a number of different and often conflicting historical, ideological, and civilisational currents – or voices. Let us not, in our desire to remember the dead, drown out the voices of the living and the oppressed and the other.

Armistice Day is celebrated and remembered not to glorify war but to celebrate peace. Let us hope we will have the opportunity to do so again soon.

Works Cited and Consulted: 

Encyclopedia of Terrorism, ed. by Peter Chalk (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations, Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Peter Radamanovic, “From Haunting to Trauma: Nietzsche’s Active Forgetting and Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster” in Postmodern Culture, 01/2001; 11(2).

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Modern Classics, (London: Penguin, 2000).




The Meaning of (Fossilised) Life

By Niall Sreenan, on 3 November 2014

The Meaning of (Fossilised) Life or “If an ammonite swims in the sea and nobody’s there to see it…” 

Amongst the myriad forms of life that line the walls and fill the Victorian cabinets of the Grant Museum of Zoology, there lie a number of specimens that are marked out not by the strangeness of their appearance (for the Grant is a veritable archive of strangeness, from preserved, etiolated lungfish to the infamously taxonomically confusing stuffed platypus) but by their sheer ancientness. Whereas the majority of specimens in the Grant are specimens or skeletons of animals and organisms that still exist, or that existed within recorded historical consciousness (this, this, and this), these enigmatic objects come from a time before anything resembling a human being stepped foot on the Earth. These specimens, as you may have guessed, are fossils.


Fossils at the Grant Museum

Fossils at the Grant Museum

The Grant has a number of fossilised specimens in its collection and a selection of models and casts of famous fossils, the originals of which are stored elsewhere. The stories of fossils, how they come to be preserved over millions of years of geological flux, as well as the unlikely and often serendipitous ways in which they are found by palaeontologists and amateurs alike, are fascinating. Perhaps the most historically significant example is that of Mary Anning, a working-class woman from Dorset who began her fossil-finding career selling fossilized curios to seaside tourists. Over time, her skill and tenacity as fossil finder grew and led to her to the discovery of the Plesiosaurus, the Ichthyosaurus, and a number of other highly significant ancient species. Her work was in turn influential on a number of more canonical figures in the history of science such as the influential geologist William Buckland and the fossil collector Thomas Hawkins. Conversely, the pre-eminent French zoologist of the late 18th and early 19th Century, Georges Cuvier, to the detriment of his legacy, branded her a fraud.

However, there is a different type of story I want to pursue today, and it is one that might seem wilfully obscure to those of us accustomed to considering the scientific and paleontological implications of fossil finds and palaeo-archaeology more generally.

I have asked in a previous post, incited by the literary, philosophical meanderings of Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a question that seems to me to drive right at the core of what the Grant Museum endeavoured to answer in the 19th Century: What can the structure (the anatomy, if you will) of an organism tell us about the organism itself? Robert Grant himself, in a speech delivered to his colleagues at the University of London in 1833, put it simply: ‘Comparative anatomy is that branch of physical science which treats of the structures of animals’. Ishmael, connecting us once more to UCL’s collections, asks this of the skeleton of Jeremy Bentham that now sits in the South Cloisters of the university. Bentham, according to Ishmael, conveys in his very structure the character of the utilitarian thought that he pursued in his philosophical works. For Ishmael this is the one instance in which structure and essence are undifferentiated aspects of the whole. Generally, however, he admits that ‘nothing of this kind could be inferred from any leviathan’s articulated bones’. Robert Grant may have disagreed with Ishmael on this point; but for Melville’s narrator, the question is not so much we can know the whale, but what the limits of this knowing are.

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon - A Utilitarian Anatomy?

Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon – A Utilitarian Anatomy?


Moby-Dick, being as much about the interpretation of literature and the search for truth as it is about the search for an elusive white whale asks us to consider a related question: what can the structure of a text, of a book, tell us about the text or book itself? Are there limits to our knowledge of a book or a novel? Can we ever “know” a book fully, by closely studying its parts?

We can put these questions more succinctly: What can an inanimate part (structure or skeleton) tell us about the living whole (text or organism)? Melville, via Ishmael, is circumspect about our ability to gain an accurate representation of the whole, lamenting that ‘one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like’.

Thus it is that I come finally to the question I want to pursue, a question that has been prompted by the time I spend among inanimate parts and fossilised remains, as it has by my own forays into literature and its interpretation. What does a fossil mean? What can a fossil, a part of the entire, unimaginable span of organic history, tell us about the entirety of life and history? Can it have a meaning at all? Is it the case that, as with Melville’s leviathanic skeleton, the fossil (indeed all fossils) can only tell us a limited story about the history of life on earth? And if so, what does this tell us about “meaning” as such?

Traditionally, fossils (versus the skeletons of living or recently extinct species) have acted as testaments to the vast span of organic history: subterranean monuments to the dead, which nevertheless provide us with the silent testimony of life anterior to the existence of humanity. In the case of Mary Anning, as well as the work of her detractor, Georges Cuvier, the ancient specimens they described, greatly troubled 18th and 19th century biblical accounts of creation which attributed thousands and not millions of years to the age of the earth. Beyond this, of course, a fossil tells us amazing stories about evolutionary and geological history. In the Grant, a large ammonite, a fossilised marine invertebrate similar to the contemporary nautilus genus, sits silently between the skulls of two elephants and model of an elephant’s heart. However, during the Mesozoic era, the ammonite was so abundant, that palaeontologists now can use it as an index fossil, a specimen so ubiquitous that an entire geological epoch can be characterised by its presence in the stratigraphic record. This tells us a tantalising story of a distant and unknowable watery past, an earth populated for thousands of years by invertebrate marine animals, a world that, unless we spend the majority of our time beneath the waves, is incomprehensible to us and was unimaginable without the material existence and fossilisation of the ammonite itself.

Ammonite - Grant Museum

Ammonite – Grant Museum

For some, fossils fill the blanks of our evolutionary past (the ammonite, it would seem, fills a particularly large one). If one is vigilant, one will see the intermittent appearance in the pages of newspapers and popular journals stories of “missing links”. Here, the discovery of ancient proto-human remains provides us with the supposed intermediary between our species, homo sapiens, and our primitive ancestors. Strictly speaking, there is no one missing link – evolutionary history is not linear or progressive in the way we might like to think, but fossils nevertheless are employed to supply us with a meaning that underwrites humanity’s existential legitimacy, a paleontological riposte to the larger metaphysical question: Why Are We Here? Unfortunately, fossils, even ones that seem to supply us with “missing links” to our evolutionary past do not answer this question satisfactorily. Henry Gee, an editor at Nature and the author of The Accidental Species writes witheringly of the temptation to interpret evolutionary history this way: ‘The term missing link, … speaks to an idea in which evolving organisms are following predestined tracks, like trains chugging along a route in an entirely predictable way. It implies that we can discern the pattern of evolution as something entirely in tune with our expectations, such that a newly found fossil fills a gap that we knew was there from the outset. Quite apart from the impossibility of knowing whether any particular fossil we might find is our ancestor or anyone else’s, this is a model of evolution that is at once entirely erroneous, and also rather sad’. What is ‘sad’, for Gee, is the seemingly unassailable arrogance of the human species’s tendency to understand all other evolutionary phenomena in relation to the question of its own existence. After all, we have been on this Earth for a comparatively minuscule period in comparison to the ammonite, and yet, we like to see ourselves as somehow more “evolved” or “superior”, despite the increasing climatic evidence that we are hastening the end of our tenure on this Earth due to the very arrogance that underwrites our anthropocentric view of the world.

This arrogance is perhaps no surprise. We are inescapably human, trapped within our own human minds, and unable to inhabit the minds of other species. It is no surprise then that we tend to view everything through an anthropocentric prism; we are imprisoned by it. The Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy gestured at the possibility of escaping our all-encompassing humanness in his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, in which the fossilised past irrupts into the otherwise serene life of an otherwise confident Victorian man. In a passage supposedly inspired by the mountaineering travails of his intellectual mentor (and father of Virginia Woolf) Leslie Stephen, Hardy describes the mental state of a rich gentleman, Henry Knight, an amateur geologist, as he hangs perilously from the edge of a cliff on the Jurassic Coast in Devon. As he dangles from the cliff face, he sees a trilobite embedded in the rock before him, and his eyes meet those of the ancient crustacean his mind is cast back into deep geological and evolutionary history:

‘Time closed up like a fan before him. He saw himself at one extremity of the years, face to face with the beginning and all the intermediate centuries simultaneously. Fierce men, clothed in the hides of beasts, and carrying, for defence and attack, huge clubs and pointed spears, rose from the rock, like the phantoms before the doomed Macbeth. They lived in hollows, woods, and mud huts—perhaps in caves of the neighbouring rocks. Behind them stood an earlier band. No man was there. Huge elephantine forms, the mastodon, the hippopotamus, the tapir, antelopes of monstrous size, the megatherium, and the myledon—all, for the moment, in juxtaposition. Further back, and overlapped by these, were perched huge-billed birds and swinish creatures as large as horses. Still more shadowy were the sinister crocodilian outlines—alligators and other uncouth shapes, culminating in the colossal lizard, the iguanodon. Folded behind were dragon forms and clouds of flying reptiles: still underneath were fishy beings of lower development’.

Here an encounter with a fossil is the catalyst for a reverie concerning the unbearable morality of all that lives as well as the transience of humanity, its utter insignificance in the face of all that has gone before and all that will follow. And yet again, the fossil remains secondary to our own consideration, our own sense of humanness. In describing ‘an earlier band’ of monstrous animals, Hardy’s narrator does not fail to add ‘No man was there’.  Despite the fossilised animal’s complete indifference to the existence of humanity, we repeatedly project our own existence into the way we understand it. It is a foil against which we understand our own condition.

Returning to the original question, then, what can the fossil – the fragment – tell us about the whole? Not much it seems, as it is impossible to step outside our own anthropocentrism; we are unable to escape the perceptual prison of our own humanity. Thus what the fossil can tell us about the Earth, and the history of life upon that Earth is limited by our inability to be anything but human – and subjective. However, a French philosopher named Quentin Meillasoux would argue differently. For Meillasoux, the fossil is the most revealing artefact one could wish for. Not for what it tells us about the imagined ‘whole’ to which I have referred a number of times. But of what it can tell us about how we might go about knowing the nature of reality.

For Meillasoux, the pre-human fossil has a meaning that has the potential to recalibrate the nature of the philosophy of reality itself. Meillasoux’s philosophical endeavour is dedicated to solving the Gordian knot that he – and the pre-eminent French philosopher, Alan Badiou – believe was most successfully tied by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century. Kant’s philosophy, Badiou states, can be said to have ‘broken the history of thought in two’. Before Kant, Meillasoux tells us, is the period of pre-critical philosophy, and afterwards, the period of critical philosophy. What do these terms mean? [Warning: This is going to get a little technical, but I promise, we’ll get back to fossils!]

A pre-critical stance towards reality, Meillasoux states, is seen today as insupportably naïve, because it requires us to believe that, despite the frailties of human perception and its inescapably subjective character, we can gain access to the very thing in-itself, that is to say, the very thing we are observing, stripped of all subjective appearances and all perceptual distortion and ambiguity. A critical stance, the philosophical stance to which the majority of philosophers adhere today, states the opposite and this – we are told – is Kant’s doing. What did Kant tell us? Meillasoux calls Kant’s central critical thesis ‘correlationism’. Correlationism, he tells us, is ‘the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from each other’. In other words, we can never access a thing, a being, without it being a function of thinking, or our perception. This has big implications, not only in philosophy, but in science too. ‘Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object ‘in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject [us], but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that not would always-already be related to an object’. In short, Meillasoux is saying that, because of this critical stance we 1) can never know anything in itself without the taint of human subjectivity or 2) ever insist that anything exists outside of a person’s ability to perceive it. For many (perhaps those of a more relaxed disposition) this is not a problem; things exist and we don’t need philosophy to tell us otherwise. But for Meillasoux, and the more masochistic of philosophers, this is a big problem. He wants to know if we can know and, if so, how we can know. He is not satisfied with the stasis of contemporary philosophical thought because it tells us, like Ishmael, that anything we know is merely an approximation of the Real. And because of this he’s going to take on Kant, perhaps the single most important figure in Western philosophy of the last 500 years. And he’s going to do it with fossils.

The oldest fossil in the Grant Museum is the Ottoia Prolifica, or as has been called in a previous blog post, the ‘Ancient Penis Worm’, the reason for which will be clear for readers of Classics and Ancient Greek. This particular fossil is inconceivably old. It dates from over 500 millions years ago – a date that for Meillasoux is extremely important. It is so crucially important because it pre-dates the arrival of humankind (Homo habilis) by around 498 millions years. In other words, this unassuming looking fossil existed almost half a billion years before human consciousness was ever even able to cast its observational, subjective eye over the phenomena of the world. Yet, we have already established that the subject-object relation is constitutive of existence itself; without the subject, the object is invisible and thus effectively non-existent. The fossil, what Meillasoux will call, ‘The Arche-Fossil’ is the material evidence to repudiate the critical stance and to make us re-think correlationism: ‘”the arche-fossil” … [represents] not just materials indicating the traces of past life, according to the familiar sense of the term ‘fossil’, but materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality [think of the ammonites’ watery world!] or event; one that is anterior to terrestrial life’.


Ottoia Prolifica

Ottoi Prolifica

The Ottoi Prolifica is a material instance of something – in itself – which existed before man could project its own identity and subjectivity upon all that exists outside itself, when all that existed were things in themselves and no human representations or approximations of these things. Meillasoux will go on to argue in a number of ways how philosophy can work towards understanding the thing in itself, to see the object and not the set of relations that constitute it for us as subjects. However, he admits that the ‘arche-fossil’ is not a solution to the problem of correlationism, but merely the material, factual evidence that correlationism is a problem. His solution to this will entail a number of manoeuvres that include arguing for a relinquishing of the orthodox notion of causality in favour of a purely contingent and chaotic world of events, as well as championing the ability of mathematics (this he gets from his mentor, Badiou) to access the primary qualities of things in themselves.

Henry Knight, the unfortunate aristocrat that Hardy has hanging from the very Devonian cliffs in which Mary Anning discovered so many important fossils could hardly have imagined that his imagined journey into the past would dramatise exactly what Meillasoux tells us could never happen. Knight is a witness to an ancestral time in which no witness existed. And yet, we know, like Ishmael, who laments his inability to know the whale from its structure, that Knight’s understanding of the ancestral past is entirely imaginary. According to correlationist thought, all of the stories we tell about our past, our environment, our evolutionary history are imaginary, in so far as we are caught within our pitifully limited human frames of knowledge, to which the ‘absolute’ or the being of the world and the universe is inaccessible. However, there sits the fossil; the Plesiosaur, the Ichtyosaur, the ammonite, and the Ottoi Prolifica, all silently and humbly acting as physical monuments to the contradiction of strictly correlationist thinking and to the potential to step outside it even if only in a speculative manner, to see, as Ishmael puts it, ‘precisely what the whale really looks like’.

So the next time you step into the Grant Museum and cast your eyes over the fossils, do not just think about our evolutionary past, or about the incredible forms of life that existed in the distant past, about tentacles and exoskeletons, pterosaurs and sea monsters; think about whether what we can ever know anything about these things at all. Think about the way their existence, for us, is defined only by our ability to construct elaborate and ultimately imaginary stories about them (albeit with some pretty great science!). And finally, think about how a 500 million year old worm gave Immanuel Kant, the most influential philosopher since the Ancient Greeks, something to think about himself.


Reading list:

Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes, ed. by Alan Manford, New Edition (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, (London ; New York: Continuum, 2009).

Henry Gee, Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution. ([S.l.]: Univ Of Chicago Press, 2015).

For more information on Meillasoux and the ‘speculative realist’ movement in philosophy, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism is available for free here: http://re-press.org/books/the-speculative-turn-continental-materialism-and-realism/


Taxonomies of Bones and Pots – The Petrie Pops up at the Grant Museum

By Niall Sreenan, on 10 March 2014




On the 13th of February, objects and ideas from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology “popped-up” in the neo-Victorian surrounds of the Grant Museum of Zoology in an event that sought to explore some of the ways in which archaeologists and biologists both engage in the act of classification and taxonomy. I attended this event in the guise of ‘Student Engager’, with the intention of sharing with visitors my own research on Darwinian evolution and literature. More on this later, but for now, it is perhaps a good idea to examine the procedure of taxonomy itself, as it relates specifically to biology and archaeology.

Taxonomy (from the Greek ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order and ‘nomos’ meaning ‘knowledge’) refers broadly to the act of (unsurprisingly) the ordering of knowledge and to the examination of the principles that underlie these logically ordered schemata. It is this process of ordering that the proponents of both ancient Egyptian archaeology and zoology practice – albeit in subtly different ways.

Taxonomy in biology, as we understand it now, is widely considered to derive from the work of the Swedish 18th Century naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. His seminal work in taxonomy, most famously given expression in Systema Naturae (1735), has bequeathed to us a method of biological classification, the finer details of which are now scientifically inaccurate, that to some extent lives on in popular thought (think of the game “Animal, Plant, or Mineral”) and whose basic outline persists in biology to this day. Linnaeus divided the natural world into three distinct types or ‘Kingdoms’, animal, plant, and mineral, and divided each of these into classes, with those categories dividing in turn into orders, familiesgenera, and species.

Regnum Animale – Systema Naturae
Click to zoom

Today, biological classification requires a more complex, nuanced system, in which there are six ‘kingdoms’, subsumed under the category of three ‘domains’ of life and take into account another category of life within this schema, the phylum. Moreover, the Linnaen classificatory system has given way to the Darwinian ‘Tree of Life’ as the dominant visual representation of the natural world, as evidenced by the current exhibition in the British Library that examines the nature of the visual representation of science: one installation in particular allows us to explore with touchscreen techonology, in great detail, the natural world through navigating this ‘Tree of Life’ and has a profoundly disorienting effect on our image of our human selves as the centre or pinnacle of the natural world. Homo sapiens in this model occupy an obscure, diminutive branch amongst the great, entangled, and monstrously abundant foliage of other species.

‘Tree of Life’ – Origin of Species, 1859

Yet despite the insistence of the dynamic, non-hierarchical schema of the Darwinian ‘Tree of Life’, the basic hierarchical ranking of Linnaean taxonomy persists (necessarily) in contemporary biology. Without this “ordering” of knowledge, with its embedded hierarchies and rankings, biological classification would be a disordered chaos. How then does this taxonomic procedure play out in other fields, distinct from biology?

While the significance of taxonomy is evident (and its history well known) in biology, the taxonomic aspects of archaeology are perhaps not as widely appreciated. The case of Flinders Petrie, the founder of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL, provides us with a particularly apposite opportunity to excavate the function and significance of taxonomic classification in archaeology. Amongst Petrie’s most crucial contributions to archaeology are his schematic, chronological sequences of ancient Egyptian pottery. Petrie, faced with an abundance of predynastic pottery, collected along the Nile at various locations, needed a method of placing these pots in chronological order. Unlike the distinctly un-scientific methods of some of Petrie’s predecessors for whom the act of archeology was partially mythic in its reconstruction of the past, Petrie paid specifically close attention to the morphology of the objects with which he was faced and treated these morphologies as, what we call today, data-sets. Based on the assumption that the morphologies of pottery changed over time (in an almost evolutionary fashion), Petrie was able, via a complex mathematical process, to systematize and sequence the chronological order creating, in effect, a taxonomical method of dating pots. Both Petrie’s skill as a mathematician and diligence as an archaeologist is underlined here as, today, this statistical approach is undertaken using computers only – the complex arithmetic required simply taking too long for humans. The consequences of Petrie’s methodology – what is now called seriation – on the discipline of archaeology were and still are profound. The process is an important method in contemporary archeology and, in particular, it revolutionized our understanding of the timeline of Egyptian history, all through his taxonomic analysis of pottery.


It was these very histories and methods of taxonomy in biology and archaeology that provided the crucial link between the Petrie and Grant Museums, and in turn provided the subject matter and theme of the event which I attended. Visitors were invited to engage in a number of taxonomic activities: reconstructing the shattered sequence of Flinders Petrie’s classification of pots, re-connecting and correctly identifying the scattered skeletal remains of a gorilla, and placing ancient Egyptian pots in their correct chronological order. These acts of reconstruction and identification, of the re-assembling of broken sequences and structures, stress the importance of taxonomy and classification in both biology and archaeology – disciplines whose methods, goals, and data-sets overlap in the fields of anthropology and osteo-archaeology. Moreover, it invites the participant to engage in the very ordering of knowledge out of disorder that underlies the procedure of taxonomy (albeit without the complex statistical mathematics). By the same token, taking part in a re-construction allows us to consider the implications of breaking up and disrupting these structure, of the deconstruction of systems of ordered classification.

My own research as a PhD student in UCL explores the way in which reading the work of Charles Darwin can provide us with new critical and theoretical insight into works of literature – and how reading works of literature have a reciprocal effect on our readings of Darwin. I referred to the Darwinian ‘Tree of Life’ earlier in this blog and it is to this I return now. Previously, I suggested that the tree model of life provided us with a more nuanced and dynamic method of ‘ordering’ our knowledge of the natural world than that of the Linnaean classificatory system. This view of the natural world, I stated, was profoundly decentring: homo sapiens are removed from our self-appointed place at the top of the hierarchy of species. And yet, does Linnaeus specifically place humans at the top of a hierarchy? Looking at the table of species published in Systema Naturae, there is a distinct echo of the deliberate subordination of all animals to the supremacy of man that has occurred in older visual and conceptual models of the natural world. Linnaeus’ table puts us (‘anthropomorpha’) at the top of the table, bestowing us with the title of “Number 1”. This repeats the schema that has been passed down through Western thought since Aristotle in the Scala Naturae, or the “Chain of Being” in which humans existed only below God in the grand hierarchy of all species. In this context, Darwin’s arboreal structuring of the natural world, with the human race being afforded no greater a position than a mouse or a mollusc is defiantly radical, shunning the accepted wisdom of all naturalist and biological thought since Ancient Greece. Moreover, the categories in Darwin’s model of life, the taxonomic leaves that sit upon the branches of genetic connection, are themselves unstable and subject to constant change.

Chain of Being – Rhetorica Christiana 1579


Darwin himself, writing in The Origin of Species in 1859 wrote:


“Naturalists try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System. But what is meant by this system? Some authors look at it merely as a scheme for arranging together those living objects which are most alike, and for separating those which are most unlike; or as an artificial means for enunciating, as briefly as possible general propositions …”


Darwin, it seems, wishes to question the very substance and authority of this natural system, inaugurated by Linnaeus. For him, it is a necessary evil – an unwanted and ‘artificial’ ossification of the dynamism and change inherent in biological life that is nevertheless required for order and brevity in biology.


Yet, he goes further in his critique of classificatory systems:


“…we shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations made for convenience. This may not be a cheering prospect; but we shall at least be freed from the vain search for the undiscovered and undiscoverable essence of the term species…”


The term species for Darwin is an arbitrary linguistic imposition on an organic form that by definition is never stable and always in a state of flux. He, like those who criticize the worst vagaries of cultural, linguistic, and philosophical postmodernism, sees in this biological relativism something to be maligned – a state of existential flux that results only in the melancholia of unstable and incomplete knowledge. Yet, in this he sees the prospect of an end to a “vain search”: the search for “essence”, linguistic, philosophical, and biological. Rather, Darwin would assert, we should instead attend to the ‘entangled bank’ of differences, to which he refers towards the end of Origin of Species, that make up the natural world rather than vainly trying to categorise and essentialise all of organic existence.

What if anything, does this literary critical digression of mine have to do with the taxonomical procedures of Flinders Petrie? Or, indeed, with his chronological series of pots? It might be worth asking, instead, what do Petrie’s series of pots tell us about the humans that made them? Or indeed about the relationship these humans had to the form of the pots that they created? It is my job as a literary critic to focus on ‘difference’ in literature and art; to attend in detail to the specific and subjective detail of single works of culture and their relationships with history, with other works of art, with texts, and with the individuals that created them. Taxonomy, the ordering of knowledge, on the other hand has a tendency to subordinate difference at the hands of “order”. On an instrumental level, this ordering process is vital for biology to operate – we could not simply throw our hands up give in to the desire to say that, say, tigers are contingent and temporary balls of matter in a state of constant flux and, therefore, should not be named! Yet, when it comes to the creative products of human hands and minds, there is an ethical dimension that should be attended to: to subordinate difference in art and culture is to subordinate individual difference in human life.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, and a colleague and acquaintance of Petrie, who worked at UCL in the early 20th C saw in the science of taxonomy, underlined by a misreading of Darwinian evolution and heredity, the potential to categorise and order human society according to his terms. He differentiated between the European races and the ‘lower races’ of man, creating, in effect, a taxonomy of human life. Not only is this scientifically incorrect, but the very act of naming and of creating order in doing so does a violence to those whom it names – restricting their existence to a category in which variance and difference within that group cannot be registered and asserting an unquestioned hierarchy of races, similar to that of the Systema Naturae. A distinctive passage from Galton’s work Hereditary Genius elucidates his views on the hierarchies of life:

“The natural ability of which this book mainly treats, is such as a modern European possesses in a much greater average share than men of the lower races. There is nothing either in the history of domestic animals or in that of evolution to make us doubt that a race of sane men may be formed who shall be as much superior mentally and morally to the modern European, as the modern European is to the lowest of the Negro races”

Galton is considered to have inaugurated the pseudo-scientific practice of eugenics, a discipline which espoused the improvement of human ‘stock’, the creation of a ‘race of sane men’, through selective breeding and other methods, the very name of which, today, can only be used in pejorative terms due to its racist foundations and invidious implications in the 20th Century.

These are the dangers of taxonomy when applied, misguidedly and without reflection, to human culture. Certainly, it is not my argument that taxonomy or order is inherently wrong. It was, however, my intention at the event held in the Grant Museum on the 13th of February to try and disrupt and disorder the usual ways in which we think about taxonomy in all fields.

Interestingly, Darwin, a scientist, like Galton, gives us an elegant means of resisting the worst vagaries of taxonomical essentialism. However it is only through a detailed and sensitive reading of Darwin’s writing that this can emerge from his texts. In other words, in order to see Darwin as holding ambivalent and philosophically interesting views on taxonomy and classification, it was necessary to ignore the taxonomical classification of Darwin as “Scientist” and “Biologist” and instead attend to the specific literary detail of his work.

Works cited and further reading (in no particular order):

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ed. by Gillian Beer, New edition (OUP Oxford, 2008).

Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius, (London: Macmillan, 1892).

Debbie Challis, The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie, (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, (London: Routledge, 1989)

Call me Jeremy Bentham: “Moby-Dick”, the Pig-Fish, and UCL Museums

By Niall Sreenan, on 21 November 2013

Niall Sreenan By Niall Sreenan









"The Whiteness of the Whale", Benton Spruance, c1967. Image Courtesy of NGA, Washington DC

“The Whiteness of the Whale”, Benton Spruance, c1967.
Image Courtesy of NGA, Washington DC

In its oceanic bibliographic depth and its densely allusive prose, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is as much a work of academic research as it is a study of obsession. Indeed, its genius is to make the reader enact the academic obsession of the pursuit of truth in its narration of the story of Captain Ahab and his own obsessive, yet doomed, quest for the elusive white whale, Moby-Dick.

Allusion and bibliographic prosthesis, in much academic prose, can attenuate the richness of academic work, as our consciousness flits wearily from footnote to endnote and back to prose, yet much of the joy of reading Moby Dick is in immersing ourselves in the rich set of references with which Melville explicitly and implicitly peppers the novel.

It is often said that the chapters dedicated to the habits, behaviour, anatomy, and folklore of the leviathanic cetaceans that the Nantucketers of the Pequod seek to butcher for their livelihoods are the most boring of Moby-Dick’s chapters. They do not, it is argued, propel the narrative forwards nor do they proffer much insight into the complex psychological processes of the monomaniacal Ahab. Indeed, in much the same way as the densely allusive prose, they act as bulwarks to the general flow of the narrative, cutting it up, and disallowing our abilities as readers to devour the story, as it were.

As a student of literature, whose research explores the complex nexus of cultural linkages between science and literature, both in history and today, I find these passages to be the most fascinating, as they exemplify the very subject of my research, the intersection, or interface, between scientific writing and literary writing. Moreover, unless one is well read in historic whale biology, these sections require one to seek help at the back of one’s well-annotated scholarly edition, or  to fire up Google and hope for the best.

However, there is something of the museum to Moby Dick too…

Each of Melville’s bibliographic allusions, from archaic naturalist studies, taxonomic tomes, and subjective accounts, biblical stories and ancient Greek myth, acts as a monument to a past science, an archaeology of the sperm whale mythos, constructed from scientific and non-scientific texts. Thus, I was not surprised to find that Moby Dick proffered some intriguing connections with UCL’s own museum collections, particularly the Grant Museum, which is itself a monument to a past science.

One such chapter, dedicated to a taxonomic explication of the entire family of cetaceans as understood by the narrator Ishmael, draws a direct parallel between the size and character of certain whales and the materiality and format of books, once again enacting a collision or analogy between the whale and the text:

First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all, both small and large.

Melville begins with the largest specimen, and the subject of his metaphysical hunt:

BOOK I. (FOLIO), CHAPTER I. (SPERM WHALE).—This whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa whale, and the Physeter whale, and the Anvil Headed whale, is the present Cachalot of the French, and the Pottsfich of the Germans, and the Macrocephalus of the Long Words. He is, without doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter; the most majestic in aspect; and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce; he being the only creature from which that valuable substance, spermaceti, is obtained.

Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea-monster Cetus

Yet before embarking on his review of whale taxonomy and etymology, through the index of cetaceans and their now curiously outdated appellations, ‘the grampus’, ‘the blackfish’, ‘the thrasher’, and their correlatives in publishing formats, ‘the folio’, the ‘octavo’, the duodecimo’, Melville draws attention to a contested aspect of the systematic study of whales, referring to what he calls ‘fish hitherto authoritatively regarded as alien’. These fish, the ‘fish style Lamatins and the Dugongs’, for Melville are not a member of the whale species, and we know now that they are in fact members of the order Sirenia, derived from the ancient Greek mythology of sirens, which also is said to refer to the circumstances of their discovery, their being mistaken by sailors for mermaids. The order Cetecea, in which whales belong, literally means ‘large sea animal’ though itself has an ancient Greek mythological origin:  Perseus, a demigod and the killer of Medusa, defeats the sea monster Cetus, and Melville himself refers to Perseus, as ‘the first whale man’.

But Ishmael sees nothing alluring about the supposedly siren like Dugongs and Manatees. Rather, he has disdain for them, writing that ‘these pig-fish are a noisy, contemptible set, mostly lurking in the mouths of rivers, and feeding on wet hay, and especially as they do not spout, I deny their credentials as whales; and have presented them with their passports to quit the Kingdom of Cetology.’

Examining at the skeletal specimen in the Grant Museum, it is not difficult to perceive how a contradictory folkloric narrative was constructed about the Dugong. Its tail is certainly mermaid-like, flowing elegantly, its gently curved spine ending in its compact flipper. Yet, its face is distinctly porcine, its nose ending abruptly, like a snout, and hunched upon its sleek body as if stuck there by an impatient sculptor.

The Dugong at the Grant Museum of Zoology

The Dugong at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Yet, what can we tell about a whale, or a ‘pig fish’ from its skeleton? Or indeed, what can we tell about a book from its structure? Melville writes:

 But it may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all. For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape.

Melville seems circumspect about our ability to tell much about an animal from its skeleton alone, a notion that might give one pause as they browse through the collection of skeletons and fossils in the Grant Museum of Zoology. Yet, for Melville, there is one exception to this rule, and this too can be found in University College London:

 …though Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of his executors, correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian old gentleman, with all Jeremy’s other leading personal characteristics…

Bentham, it seems, clothed as he is and looking ‘burly-browed’ emanates the very essence of his philosophy, the content of his texts and his utilitarian thought being ‘correctly conveyed’ by his skeleton alone. And once again, Melville asks us to make the link between the ‘fleshy covering’ of the whale and the organism and books, texts, and philosophies.

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon in the South Cloister of UCL

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon in the South Cloister of UCL

Indeed reading Moby-Dick, without attending to the thicket of references, allusions, quotations, and citations, is much like reading only the skeleton of the book. The plot is but the skeleton, or the structure, and the flesh, which gives meaning to the bare bones of the story, is what leads us down the avenues of discovery and research and reminds the reader of the sheer joy of education for education’s sake, and the importance and privilege of spending one’s days as PhD student, reading, thinking, writing, and seeking out the White Whale.