Archive for the 'Guest Posts' Category

Intermittent fasting could help tackle diabetes – here’s the science

By Alison Major, on 29 August 2017

Today’s guest post is by Nicholas Lesica, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at UCL and author of A Conversation about Healthy Eating. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.File 20170810 27661 18ax5ba
iordani/shutterstock

Nick Lesica, UCL

Intermittent fasting is currently all the rage. But don’t be fooled: it’s much more than just the latest fad. Recent studies of this kind of fasting – with restricted eating part of the time, but not all of the time – have produced a number of successes, but the latest involving diabetes might be the most impressive yet.

The idea of intermittent fasting arose after scientists were wowed by the effects of constant calorie restriction. A number of studies in many different animals have shown that restricted eating throughout adulthood leads to dramatic improvements in lifespan and general health.

The reasons for these improvements aren’t yet clear. Part of it seems to be that going without food gives cells in the body a much needed break to perform maintenance and repair. But the lack of food also forces cells to resort to alternative sources of energy. Some of these, such as ketones – molecules created in the liver from recycled fat – appear to be beneficial.

‘Fasting’ without fasting

The problem is that constant calorie restriction isn’t practical: it’s easy for scientists to impose upon lab animals, but hard for humans to impose upon themselves in the real world. Fortunately, we’ve learned that constant calorie restriction isn’t really necessary. Intermittent fasting seems to have many of the same benefits.

There are two main types of intermittent fasting. One type, known as “time restricted feeding”, requires eating only during a few hours of the day – say between 10am and 6pm. This approach gives the body a long break from food each night, and also reinforces beneficial circadian rhythms.

The other type of intermittent fasting – made popular by the 5:2 diet – is known as “periodic fasting”. This approach involves alternating between long periods of unrestricted eating and short periods of eating very little (five days of eating normally, two days of eating restricted calories).

It isn’t yet clear whether one type of intermittent fasting is better than the other. But the data so far suggest that both types can work.

Tackling diabetes in mice and men

The recent studies of the effects of intermittent fasting on diabetes have focused on periodic fasting in particular. As a first step, researchers led by Valter Longo at the University of Southern California, began by testing whether periodic fasting could cure diabetes in mice. They used mutant mice that lack the fat hormone leptin to regulate their food intake. These mice constantly overeat and become obese and diabetic in early adulthood.

The researchers found that after just a few months of periodic fasting – alternating seven unrestricted eating days with four restricted days – the diabetes was cured. This is an amazing result. But what’s even more amazing is the reason behind it.

The mice lost weight during the periodic fasting, which helped of course. But that wasn’t the whole story. Periodic fasting actually solved the problem directly at one of its sources: the pancreas.

Diabetes is a disease characterised by excess blood “sugar”, which really means excess blood glucose. It’s largely an insulin problem. Normally, insulin causes cells in the body to take in glucose from the blood. But with diabetes, glucose stays in the blood because cells no longer take it in. This is partly because many cells lose their sensitivity to insulin, but also because the pancreas stops making it.


Glucose meter, healthy lifestyles and nutrition.
ratmaner/shutterstock

It turns out that the periodic fasting made the pancreas start producing insulin again. The days of restricted eating gave the pancreas a break that allowed it to remove and recycle many of its cells. Then, when the mice started eating again, new cells that were capable of producing insulin emerged.

So the pancreas actually shrunk during the four restricted eating days, and regrew during the seven unrestricted eating days. After several such cycles of shrinking, recycling, and regrowing, the pancreas was nearly as good as new.

The big question, of course, it whether intermittent fasting will have the same effects in humans. The answer is not yet clear, but the initial indications from a recently published phase two clinical trial, again led by Longo, are promising.

In this study, 100 people went through a series of 30-day cycles of periodic fasting, each with 25 days of unrestricted eating and five days of restricted eating. After only three cycles, those subjects who started the trial with high blood sugar saw big improvements. And, importantly, none of the subjects in the trial experienced any harmful effects.

So the evidence in support of intermittent fasting keeps growing. Does that mean that we should all be doing it? Not necessarily.

Intermittent fasting seems to be most beneficial for those who are already overweight and unhealthy. While it does also seem to have some benefits for lean and healthy lab animals, it’s not yet clear whether the same is true for humans.

The ConversationA much larger phase three trial of intermittent fasting in humans that will clarify a lot of things is set to begin soon. The results will no doubt be very exciting.

Arcticness as a home

By Alison Major, on 16 August 2017

Today’s excerpt, is from the Editorial Introduction of Arcticness, a multi-contributor volume edited by Ilan Kelman, UCL .

People and communities, lives and livelihoods. These define the Arctic, just as with all other populated areas on the planet. Is there, then, anything special, specific, exceptional or unique about the Arctic? To the peoples in the Arctic, the answer is ‘of course’.

Because it is home.

As Arctic literature is fond of stating, there is no single Arctic. Definitions abound, from being a region or place to being an idea or phenomenon. The Arctic is delineated by latitude, tree lines, national and subnational borders and indigenous territories, among many other suggestions. All these elements vaguely concentrate into the northern areas of Canada, Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden along with all of Alaska, Greenland and Iceland.

This is the Arctic as a place – and the Arctic as place. The Arctic is also characterised, perhaps more so, by its people. Depending on where boundaries are set exactly, the Arctic’s population is anywhere from approximately 4  million to approximately 13  million people. About 10 per cent of Arctic inhabitants are indigenous, belonging to 40 different groups, examples of which are Saami, Inuit, Nenets, Yakuts and Aleuts. In some jurisdictions, such as Nunavut and Greenland, indigenous peoples are the majority. All Arctic areas have comparatively low population density.

Arctic indigenous peoples are partly defined by the way in which they were colonised from the south. Iceland is the only Arctic country without designated indigenous peoples. The other seven countries have never fully addressed their post-colonial legacy which included active suppression of indigenous languages and cultures, forcing nomadic peoples to settle, and taking indigenous children away from their families for the purpose of ‘education’ and ‘acculturation’.

As part of aiming to re-connect Arctic peoples and places, and to redress past mistakes, each post-colonial Arctic country apart from Russia has, to a large degree, settled land claims with Arctic indigenous peoples. The settlements occurred in different ways and in different time periods, with implementation, monitoring and enforcement still not fully functional in many instances.

The generational context adds complexity. The generation of leaders who grew up under colonialism and who negotiated the settlements are now in the process of retiring. They are giving way to a new generation of leaders who did not experience similar difficulties or frontline fights for autonomy and the recognition of indigenous cultures. They face other challenges, such as low educational attainment, high rates of substance use and abuse, and high suicide rates.

They are also looking to connect to the world beyond their (mis) governing state through the internet and social media to define and re-define, and to be proud of, their indigeneity, their peoples and their places; that is, their Arctic. The battles are not over. Greenland’s independence is still a possibility. Racism against indigenous peoples remains. The peoples are not homogeneous groups, such as the Saami who have different livelihoods including reindeer herding, fishing, both and neither.

Non-indigenous Arctic peoples also represent the Arctic, not just Icelanders but also those born and/or living in the north but without an Arctic indigenous heritage. One class of Arctic peoples, most notably in Scandinavia, comprises immigrants from around the world, including refugees, who fully settled in the Arctic and who are now raising first-generation, Arctic-born families with diverse, international heritages.

Within this Arctic rainbow, what is the Arctic? How do Arctic peoples relate to their places? The ways include living, livelihoods, environments and movements. In many locales, movement means the typical commute by private or public transport to a nine-to-five office job. In many locales, it is the typical subsistence hunting, conversing with the wind, feeling the sea, traipsing the land and traversing the ice.

Water (solid and liquid) and wind flow, bringing with them life and death. The Arctic peoples flow with them. Movement, survival and thriving are choreographed within the elements and within the colours of the seasons:  blue, grey and white melding with brown, green and splashes of colour in summer flora and fauna. The ever-changing kaleidoscope of weather and skies, of animals and oceans, of plants and the Earth, creates Arctic flows and ebbs.

Transitions and boundaries are prominent but fuzzy. Snow melds into land shifts to water becomes ice, drifting lazily under the dazzling dome of the summer sun and the scintillating stars of the wild winter. When the ice roads thaw making transport difficult, inland communities are spoken of as being landlocked. When the ocean is too rough for boats and the wind is too dangerous for planes, island communities are seen as being entrapped.

What vocabulary suggests being icelocked? The ice can be too thin on the water or too crevassed on the land, or just too slushy everywhere. The transition between seasons can be harsh when the land ice and sea ice mixtures do not permit safe transport. Then, one’s Arctic place becomes evident, as an islander or not, as someone who enjoys being indoors or not.

Movement and entrapment mean that Arctic placeness is not contentedly fixed. In any case, the glaciers, the ice, the snow, the water and the wind are always in motion. The rivers and the seas emote ripples and waves. The tides breathe for the water and the wind for the air. Coasts erode and accrete – with both ice and sediment.

Arctic changes are expressed in other ways. From colonisation to self-determination, the Saami have created their parliaments, referenda supported autonomy for Greenland and Nunavut, and Russian regions and territories have various levels of self-governance. Exceptionalism identifies many Arctic place traits – including the internationally unique Svalbard Treaty and the central Bering Sea having its ‘donut hole’ which is an enclosed polygon of international waters surrounded by territorial seas.

The scale of Arctic territories is sometimes forgotten. From Murmansk to Chukotka, the time difference across Russia is nine hours. Alaska has only two time zones, an artificial construction, but as the largest American state more than twice the area of its nearest rival, it is almost as wide and as tall as the entire contiguous states. Ottawa– Iqaluit flights travel more than three times as far as the London– Edinburgh route and are still shorter than Greenland’s full north–south distance.

Current national borders across the Arctic are poorly reflective of indigenous cultures. The Saami are partitioned among four countries. Only modern politics draw a line between Alaska and Yukon. The Canada–Denmark dispute over Hans Island is meaningless for peoples who use the land, sea, ice and wind to live.

Many of these Arctic placeness discussions are characterised by islands and archipelagos including the Aleutians, Hans Island, Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. Nunavut’s capital sits on Baffin Island rather than the mainland. Many of Norway’s principal Arctic settlements are on islands including Tromsø, Harstad and Hammerfest.

Island studies has evolved over the past generation, exploring the natures and personalities of islands, island communities and islanders. Much debate and critique has centred around what it means to be an island or an islander, defining and examining the essence of islandness. These and similar questions and explorations have emerged for the Arctic, Arctic communities and Arctic peoples.

Thus, we generate and query the term Arcticness through the chapters in this book.

Losing weight without a diet: manipulating a type of brain cell gets results in mice

By Alison Major, on 2 August 2017

Today’s guest post is by Nicholas Lesica, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at UCL and author of A Conversation about Healthy Eating. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

File 20170727 27682 1wo3mnt
Evidence for a link between obesity and brain inflammation is getting stronger.
Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

Nicholas A Lesica, UCL

A new study has found something remarkable: the activation of a particular type of immune cell in the brain can, on its own, lead to obesity in mice. This striking result provides the strongest demonstration yet that brain inflammation may be a cause, rather than a consequence, of obesity. It also provides promising leads for new anti-obesity therapies.

The evidence linking brain inflammation to obesity has been building for some time. Consistent overeating causes stress and damage to cells in the body and brain. This damage results in a response from the immune system that has a wide range of effects.

Some of these effects help to reduce the problems caused by overeating, but others seem to make things worse. For example, in the hypothalamus – the part of the brain that controls, among other things, eating and activity – inflammation causes problems such as leptin resistance that interfere with the regulation of body weight.

Computer Hope
The hypothalamus controls eating and physical activity.
stefan3andrei/Shutterstock

Leptin is a hormone that is released by fat cells and provides the brain with information about the amount of energy stored as body fat. Normally, neurons in the hypothalamus that are sensitive to leptin will use this information to regulate eating and activity as needed to maintain body fat within some desired range.

In obesity, however, these neurons become insensitive to leptin. As a result, they no longer trigger the decrease in hunger and increase in energy expenditure that are necessary to lose excess weight. This is why the vast majority of attempts by obese people to lose weight fail– inflammation causes the brain to fight against it every step of the way.

So brain inflammation clearly plays an important role in sustaining obesity. But could it also be one of the primary causes of obesity in the first place? The onset of brain inflammation coincides with the other changes that take place in the body and brain as a result of overeating and weight gain. But whether brain inflammation actually causes the development of obesity is not yet clear. The results of the new study, however, demonstrate that the activation of a particular type of brain immune cell, microglia, initiates a cascade of events that do indeed lead directly to obesity.

Manipulating microglia in mice

In the study, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Washington performed experiments on mice. They found that altering the activity of microglia in the hypothalamus allowed them to control the body weight of the mice independent of diet.

The researchers began by testing the effects of reducing either the number of microglia or their level of activity. They found that both manipulations cut the weight gain that resulted from putting the mice on high-fat diet in half.

They then tested the effects of increasing the activity of microglia. They found that this manipulation caused obesity even in mice that were on a normal diet. This latter result is particularly surprising. The fact that obesity can be induced through microglia – rather than directly through neurons themselves – is an indication of how strongly the brain’s supporting cells can exert control over its primary functions.

Computer Hope
Obesity can be induced by manipulating microglia.
Janson George/Shutterstock

So artificial brain inflammation can cause obesity in mice. Of course, that doesn’t mean that natural, diet-induced brain inflammation does cause obesity in humans. But these new results suggest that this idea is worth taking seriously, particularly given that fact that potential solutions to the obesity crisis are in short supply.

The ConversationThis new study alone has already identified several possible targets for anti-obesity drugs. Intriguingly, one of the same drugs that was used in the study to decrease activity in microglia is also being tested in human cancer trials, so initial indications of its effects on body weight should be available soon. But either way, a deeper understanding of the role of brain inflammation will help to clarify the causes of obesity. And hopefully prompt ideas about how it can be avoided in the first place.

Nicholas A Lesica, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reflections on publishing Memorandoms by James Martin

By Alison Major, on 17 July 2017

Today’s Guest Post is by Tim Causer, editor of Memorandoms by James Martin and Senior Research Associate at the Bentham Project.

Memorandoms_of_James_MartinThose of us researching the history of convict transportation to Australia are extraordinarily fortunate in terms of resources, as some of the most important have, for several years, been available digitally on an open-access basis. For instance, we can search colonial-era newspapers in the National Library of Australia’s Trove, or consult the Tasmanian convict records, a body of material unique in its detail about the tens of thousands of ordinary people transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

As a callow undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen, making a first foray into Australian history fourteen years ago, such resources were the stuff of dreams. The university library’s holdings on Australian history were largely limited to landmark secondary texts such as Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) and A. G. L. Shaw’s Convicts and the Colonies (1966). The most recent work we had to hand was almost two decades old: Robert Hughes’s blockbuster, The Fatal Shore (1986). Hughes’s brilliant, terrible book is beautifully written, but is ultimately frequently misleading. But a major strength of The Fatal Shore’s was its use of convict narratives, giving it an immediacy rare in many earlier histories which relied heavily upon parliamentary papers and official correspondence.

Convict narratives fall into two main types. The first, and most common, are those published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during or around the period in which convicts were transported to the Antipodes. For instance, two of the most well-known are Martin Cash’s The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1870) and Mark Jeffrey’s A Burglar’s Life (1893), both of which were ghost-written by the former convict James Lester Burke.

Of course, published narratives such as these present issues of interpretation. How much of Cash’s autobiography is authentically his voice, and how much is that of Burke? Ghost-writers often sanitised their subject’s life into a redemption parable, walking the fine line between titillation while still seeking to attract a respectable audience. Those narratives written by the few transported for political offences—male, middle-class, well-educated authors—are unrepresentative of the experiences of the majority of convicts. There is also a racial and gender imbalance, with the overwhelming majority of narratives dealing with the lives of white convict men—Reverend James Cameron’s partly-fictionalised biography of the Spanish transportee, Adelaide de Thoreza, is a rare exception.

The second type of narrative exists only in manuscript. They are often more exciting to deal with: they were not written for publication, do not have to meet the conventions of any genre, and are often more revealing, explicit, and subversive. For instance, the Irish convict Laurence Frayne’s narrative is a graphic account of his punishment and contains a sustained character assassination of James Morisset, a commandant of the Norfolk Island penal station during the 1830s, which would never have been fit to print.

Memorandoms by James Martin is one such unpublished manuscript which, thanks to UCL Press, is now available in open-access for the first time. The Memorandoms tells the story of the most famous of all escapes from Australia by transported convicts, that led by William and Mary Bryant. On the night 28 March 1791 the Bryants with their two infant children, James Martin, and six other male convicts stole a fishing boat and sailed out of Sydney Harbour and out into the Pacific. They reached Kupang in Timor on 8 June, though were subsequently identified as escaped convicts and the survivors were shipped back to England to face trial—where James Boswell lobbied the government for their release.

The group’s 69-day, 3,000-mile journey has been the subject of two television series, poetry, novels, and innumerable history books, with a focus on Mary Bryant. Yet the modern historical accounts are frequently unsatisfactory and derivative; what then, the reader might wonder, could be said about this story that has not been said so many times before?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Memorandoms by James Martin is the only extant first-hand account of the escape, and it provides a fresh perspective to this often formulaically-told tale. Despite the Memorandoms being spare and prosaic, it provides a sense of the hardship of the journey, the terror of those in the boat as it is pummelled by storms and churning seas, and of the party’s fascination and fear in their encounters with Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. The Memorandoms also strikingly reveals just how far some modern historians have departed from the historical record when telling the story.

Memorandoms by James Martin is also important in a second sense: it is the only known narrative written by a member of the first cohort of convicts sent to New South Wales with the First Fleet 1788. The Memorandoms was acquired at some point by one of Britain’s great philosophers, Jeremy Bentham, one of the first and most influential critics of transportation to Australia. The vast Bentham archive is, of course, held in UCL’s Special Collections, and the Memorandoms is but one of the many jewels in the College’s collections.

Now, thanks to UCL Press, the Memorandoms manuscripts are available for the first time, and for free; readers can now access the original narrative for themselves, rather than mediated by some rather dubious historical accounts. The colour reproductions bring the document to life in a way which would not otherwise be captured by publishing a transcript, and I am inordinately grateful to UCL Press for bringing the Memorandoms out in this way. My younger self in Aberdeen would have been thrilled to have had a resource like this to hand, and I hope that those who today may not have ready access to unpublished narratives like the Memorandoms will be equally pleased.

Why the suburbs are important

By Alison Major, on 4 April 2017

Today’s excerpt, by Mark Clapson of the University of Westminster, is the foreword of Suburban Urbanities, a multi-contributor volume edited by Laura Vaughan, UCL Bartlett.

In recent years there has been much debate within urban studies as to which came first in the evolution of human settlements, the countryside or the city. There was always a third context to this discussion, however, and that was the suburb. Life beyond the city walls was a distinctive feature of ancient urban civilisations from Persia to Minoan Crete, and today in the Anglophone world the suburban population is a majority. How surprising, then, that few scholars have attempted to understand the nature and agency of suburban living as a dominant characteristic of human settlements. This was symptomatic of a wider academic indifference and even hostility towards ‘the suburban’ which has only (ridiculously) recently been challenged by a new generation of scholars who take suburbs seriously.

Suburban Urbanities is a hugely important contribution to understanding our suburban world. Drawing upon scholarship within the now rapidly expanding field of suburban studies, synthesising historical geography with space syntax theories and methods, and the sociology of everyday life, it sheds new light on the historic and spatial evolution of the city. It shows that suburbia is not a synchronic caricature of a life-less-lived, but a dynamic context of metropolitan agency and creativity. As an historic process, suburbanisation is not something that evolved beyond the city to suck the life out of it, but was intertwined with trajectories of growth, with the socioeconomic patterning and structuring of cities large and small. It is impossible to grasp the meaning of class relations, of gendered lifestyles, of ethnic segregation and integration, of urban economies and patterns of mobility and communications, without placing suburbia at the forefront of the analysis. The universality of the themes of Suburban Urbanities is obvious: the dynamics of growth are significant historically because suburbs are starting points in change over time, not the end of the line. Old suburbs were once new, and today’s new suburbs, springing up rapidly across the world, will one day be old. As dynamic environments they continue to act as vectors of social, economic and political development, locally, nationally and globally.

The book is timely in another important sphere, and that is the personal subjectivity of suburbanites. To those who live in them, suburban lives have meaning. Back in 2013, I went for a walk in Fort Totten, an AfricanAmerican suburb of Washington, DC. On a sweltering August lunchtime, as I took photographs of the comfortable suburban homes of middle-class black people in roads that were empty except for flowering trees and parked cars, a woman’s voice called out to me with a gentle but audible ‘good afternoon’. Across her neatly trimmed front lawn I began chatting with a woman in her sixties who was taking tea with a friend on her veranda. She had left downtown DC in 1976 and as she stated with some passion, ‘I couldn’t wait to get out’. Fort Totten had its problems, but it was an attractive and spacious place to raise children, and well connected to the city. Her story is an important one because it is one of millions of inconvenient truths being ushered out of view by the current urban policies that demonise suburbia, and by the retro-fitting of suburbs that were, until very recently, doing just fine. Myriad examples of successful suburban living and suburban happiness and of triumph over social exclusion can be found if academics want to look for them. Suburban Urbanities looks for them, and understands that they are part of an ongoing pattern of human settlement that stretches from the ancient past to the present, and will persist long into the future.

CFP: Radical Americas Journal Special Issue on Radical American Periodicals

By Ian Caswell, on 28 March 2017

Deadline for Proposals: 1 May 2017

The Network of American Periodical Studies, in collaboration with UCL Press journal Radical Americas, invites submissions for a special issue focusing on Radical American periodicals

In an early issue of New Left magazine Radical America, (a product of the campus-based 1960s movement Students for a Democratic Society) the editors outlined their aim to educate readers ‘about the radical traditions of this country’, to provide a ‘forum for students of American radicalism’, and to break down the barriers between the ‘activist’ and the ‘intellectual’. In doing so, Radical America refashioned a blueprint for American periodical radicalism that had been passed down by activists and editors for generations. As oppositional outlets for expressions of political, cultural, or social dissent, radical American periodicals have played a vital role as a forum for radical debate, and a challenge to mainstream understandings of American democracy, citizenship, and community. Yet what makes a periodical ‘radical’? And what makes it ‘American’? How has our understanding of these terms been shaped by the complex and constantly shifting nature of radical protest and the nation-state? And in what ways does this definition change depending on the editorial production, financial composition, geographic distribution or visual aesthetic of each ‘radical’ periodical?

This special issue seeks to address these questions through exploring the role and resonance of radical periodicals in America from the 18th to the 21st century. Bringing together scholars from a range of different disciplines and historical periods, we seek to interrogate how the concept of the ‘radical periodical’ in America has varied across time and place. We are not only interested in well-established oppositional periodicals, but also more transient forms of radical print – the hand-printed, mimeographed, photocopied, short-lived, minority, dissident, or extremist periodicals which have offered radical new perspectives on American culture, values and politics. We are also interested in papers which examine the connections between individual ideology and editorial intent, radical social movements and periodicals, the development and composition of radical audiences, and the challenges and opportunities of preserving radical periodical in the digital age.

Topics for papers may include:

• Dissident or banned periodicals.
• Communist,fascist or anarchist periodicals.
• Minority, feminist and queer radical publications.
• Reactionary radicalism, white nationalist and far-right periodicals.
• Radical American periodicals abroad and the circulation of radical foreign periodicals in America. • The illustration, formatting and design of radical periodicals.
• The relationship between radical periodicals, organisations and networks.
• Radical periodicals, conservation and the archive.
• Radical zines and periodical radicalism in the digital age.

We welcome work in a number of different formats, including photo-essays, book reviews, interviews and archival notes. Articles for peer review should be between 4,000 and 12,000 words including footnotes. Book reviews should be no more than 1,000 words. Other pieces should be between 2,000 and 5,000 words. Please consult the UCL Press house style in advance of submission.

Initial proposals (max 4 pages) should be sent to Dr. Sue Currell (S.CURRELL@SUSSEX.AC.UK) and Dr. James West (E.J.WEST@BHAM.AC.UK) with ‘Radical Americas’ as the subject by May 1st 2017

Completed essays will need to be submitted to the editors, with permissions, by September 30th 2017

Talking to the BBC about social media in China

By Alison Major, on 23 March 2017

Today’s guest blog is by Tom McDonald of Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University. He is author of Social Media in Rural China

Earlier this month, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the BBC on my research onto the use of technology in China. The article that was published as a result of the interview is a good example of ‘public anthropology’,

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

showing how the discipline’s research can made relevant to a wider audience.

This commitment to engaging with the public through anthropology is something that is also mirrored in two books that I published last year: Social Media in Rural China and How the World Changed Social Media (the latter is co-authored with the rest of the Why We Post team). Both of these volumes tried to respond to the immense interest in social media from the general public, by writing in an accessible and open style. We chose to keep all citations and the discussion of wider academic issues to endnotes. Many readers seem to have enjoyed this style of easy-to-understand writing.

A central aim of the book Social Media in Rural China was to try and help non-Chinese audiences, who have limited experience of Chinese social media and find it hard to imagine what they are like, to understand the nature of these platforms and the kind of social effects they are bringing to a small rural community in China.

Given this, it’s also been surprising to see how the book has been received in Hong Kong and Mainland China. I’ve gained a lot from discussing sections of the book with undergraduate and postgraduate students—most of whom are Chinese—in my Local Cultures, Global Markets and New Media and Digital Culture courses. Readers are often interested to understand a “foreigner’s” reflections on contemporary rural China.

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

Photo: Gillian Bolsover

This feedback will be particularly useful as I put together articles for academic journals over the coming months. In this way, I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to balance two quite different forms of writing: academic writing aimed at fellow researchers in universities, and a more accessible writing for a general public which can also inspire articles such as the one that appeared on the BBC.

This post originally appeared on the Global Social Media Impact Study blog. It has been re-posted with permission.

Why commemorate Guido Gezelle?

By Alison Major, on 21 March 2017

Today’s guest post is by Paul Vincent, an award-winning translator and scholar who has published two volumes of translated poetry with UCL Press: Herman Gorter: Poems of 1890, A Selection, which explores the work of seminal Dutch poet Herman Gorter, and, more recently, the multi-translator volume Poems of Guido Gezelle. This excerpt, to celebrate World Poetry Day, is taken from the introduction of  Poems of Guido Gezelle.

Plant
fountain
shoot that roots
jet that spatters
tempest above all deeps
storm across all plains
wild rosetrees blow
stems of alder catkins bare

Deepest distance
farthest depth

calyx that quivers in the cup of both my palms
and darling as the daisy
As the poppy red
O my wild poppy

Paul van Ostaijen (1896–1928), translated by James Holmes

 

This acclamation of Gezelle by an Expressionist of a succeeding generation is typical of the awe with which he has been regarded in his home culture. The writer August Vermeylen sees his significance for Flemish literature in biblical terms – that the poet himself would have no doubt found blasphemous: ‘In the beginning was Gezelle; and Gezelle was the Word …’

However, amid the polemics and recriminations that seem inescapable accompaniments to literary commemorations nowadays, the Flanders-based Dutch writer Benno Barnard recently sparked controversy by suggesting that Gezelle had little to say to him as a reader at the end of the twentieth century.2 Invidious comparisons were made between the official funds being lavished on the Gezelle centenary and the less generous subsidy afforded the twentieth anniversary of the death of the ‘worthier’ irreverent modernist Louis-Paul Boon (1912–79). The puzzled outside observer might wonder why it has to be Gezelle or Boon, and why this tiny corner of Europe that produced two extraordinary originals cannot rejoice in its own cultural richness and diversity.

There are more encouraging signs: it is refreshing to see that the commemorative exhibition organised by the poet’s home town of Bruges celebrates not only the pious regionalist and nationalist icon, but also the polyglot cosmopolitan, as reflected in his extensive library.

The English reader without Dutch has no need to grope for a context for much of Gezelle’s work: his love of regional speech and folklore, and his attraction for the minute details of nature that he shares with Robert Burns (1759–96), like Gezelle a gardener’s son. His Franciscan sense of the brotherhood of Nature sometimes suggests the poetry of John Clare (1793– 1860), while the devotional dimension and formal experiment (for example, onomatopoeia) suggest the sprung rhythms and spiritual questing of fellow priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). The Anglophile Gezelle visited England several times on church duties, and one can only speculate on the impact Hopkins’s work might have had on Gezelle, had it been published during his lifetime. Kindred spirits, and in the case of Burns a possible partial influence – but Gezelle, great writer that he was, is much more than the sum of influences. It is hard to dissent from Jozef Deleu’s comments in a recent anthology:

There is no poet who has made our language sing in such an incomparable way. The wonder of the poet Gezelle is his gift of wonderment. Childlike and naive, he spends his life in the midst of nature. He has no explanation for all the wonders that strike his eye and ear, but throughout his life they move him to praise the Creator. Gezelle is always uninhibited and unrestrained in his rapture. When he is overwhelmed by solitude and sadness, his language is just as musical as when he is in joyful mood. His poetry is carried by a Romantic sense of life, but lucidity and simplicity are its most essential features. Gezelle the poet is both a seeker and a finder. Whatever he touches with his word, regains the purity of the first day. That makes him unique.

In selecting poems for the present anthology, my aim was to give as representative a picture as possible of Gezelle’s large poetic output (based on source-language anthologies, critical views and personal preferences), from devotional, through narrative to celebratory and expressionistic. I also wished to include as wide as possible a spectrum of translators in English. It is particularly gratifying to be able to include a number of expert dialect versions, two in Lowland Scots (‘Twa Aivers’ and ‘To…?’) and one Yorkshire flavoured (‘Farmer Nick’). What this volume cannot, of course, do is do justice to the range and versatility of ‘the at least five Gezelles’ identified by André Lefevere (journalist, linguist, educator, priest, experimental poet). I can only offer a window on the last and, arguably, greatest of these: the lyric poet.

International Women’s Day Excerpt: Women on excavation

By Alison Major, on 8 March 2017

Today’s excerpt, to celebrate International Women’s Day, is from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, edited by Alice Stevenson.

On 10 March 1923, the London Illustrated News ran a double-page spread with the headline ‘Men who perform the “spade work” of history: British names famous in the field of archaeology’. Many familiar faces from Egyptology were featured, including Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, and F. L. Griffith. What this feature completely overlooked, as many histories of ‘Great Discoveries’ have, is the important contribution made by female archaeologists. Indeed, many excavations in Egypt and Sudan were dependent upon them.

During field seasons Hilda Petrie engaged in one of the most important activities on excavation: the recording of finds and the inking onto objects of the record of their findspot. Many objects in the Petrie Museum bear her handwriting and these form indispensable keys that allow us to associate those things with the records, plans and photographs that document the circumstances of their discovery. Throughout her career Hilda additionally undertook the surveying and planning of sites, inked drawings for publication and edited her husband’s text. Hilda was also instrumental in raising funds for expeditions. For these reasons, Petrie dedicated his final memoirs of a life in archaeology ‘to my wife, on whose toil most of my work has depended’.

Many other female pioneers in archaeology also acquired their first experiences of fieldwork on Petrie digs. This included Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who not only made ground-breaking discoveries in Egyptian prehistory, but additionally went on to demonstrate definitively the indigenous African origins of Great Zimbabwe in the face of hostile criticism from the largely male academy. Other regular field collaborators included artists such as Winifred Brunton and Annie Quibell, whose toil on site is often little recognized, but was crucial to the success of field seasons.

An Interview with Robert Biel, author of Sustainable Food Systems: Role of the City

By Alison Major, on 21 February 2017

RBIEL78I’m intrigued about your pathway into this topic.

Well it converged from two directions. I’ve been an allotment holder for 15 years, experimenting with a low-input, high-productivity method where you work alongside natural systems, not against them.  That was a hobby, something I loved doing.  Professionally, I was teaching international relations theory, which is a lot about how order can emerge from within a system itself.

In the debate following my first book, The New Imperialism, I discovered general systems theory, which tries to identify what’s common to all systems: they have a capacity to self-regulate, but they can also go haywire.  So I began to understand that the ecological problem and the threats to human society are not two separate challenges which just happen to face us simultaneously; rather, we can study them – and look for answers – in an integrated way.

I addressed this in my 2012 book The Entropy of Capitalism, but at that more general level it was easier to write convincingly about all the bad stuff that was happening, than about solutions! The only way to get to grips with positive solutions was to take a very concrete topic and run with it.  With Sustainable Food Systems, this all came together.

Please tell us a bit about the process, from initial conception, to publication

Together with my colleague Yves Cabannes I started teaching a Masters module on Urban Agriculture, and there were also a few small community food-related action research projects.  This suggested a lot of ideas which I felt somehow needed to be written down.

But the project implies an unusual form of knowledge, drawing on both natural and social sciences.  While general systems theory was a help, I had to be respectful to the integrity of each specific discipline – soil science, anthropology etc. – even where I don’t have specialist training.  To ensure the research was solid, I embraced the peer-review process at several levels.  I started with a conference paper, delivered in Paris in 2012, and then split it into five journal articles and book chapters, all exploring different aspects of food-systems issues.  While I received much important feedback from the reviews on these papers, I was also myself doing quite a lot of peer-reviewing for journals.  And I could trust the peer-review system for the quality of research in the leading scientific journals which I was citing.

At the same time, the ‘new paradigm’, also implies deeper issues of fundamental world view.  In this sense, knowledge (or maybe we should say wisdom) should not be reduced to academic research.  The traditional/indigenous spirituality doesn’t see a distinction between nature and society anyway, it understands that our minds are part of nature, and correctly sees farming as intrinsically rooted in the wider ecosystemic context.  In this sense, visioning sustainable futures is also a return, to a more authentic way of apprehending the world and our place in it.Sustainable Food cover

Finally, the project implied a different publishing model.  Though there were enquiries from conventional publishing, I quickly rejected this when I realised that the form of publication must reflect the content: the book is about emergent order, self-organisation, commons regimes, peer-to-peer, grassroots research … therefore it had to be open-access.  I was delighted that UCL Press was thinking the same way.

What’s your take on organic food? Are you advocating it?

There are two issues here.  First, from a consumer angle, of course there are dangers from pesticides or loss of nutrients, which are rightly emphasised, but at the end of the day you might just say mainstream agriculture successfully feeds the world and the risk of changing it is too great.  So I would rather approach the question from the production angle: the main thing wrong with conventional farming is that it destroys the complex soil ecosystem and ultimately the soil itself, and therefore the risk of not changing it is too great.  We have a window of opportunity while there’s still enough food around.  That’s why the issue is urgent.

Secondly, ‘organic’ can often seem a negative definition, i.e. we limit ourselves by renouncing chemicals, which makes it seem like we’re farming with one hand tied behind our back.  I’d rather emphasise what we are opting into: a whole new world of biomimicry and self-organisation … that’s why I sometimes prefer a term like Natural Systems Agriculture.  Besides, the problem isn’t just chemicals, but a lot of other stuff: excessive ploughing, monocropping … Much of this is about how we face risk, because natural systems spontaneously evolve in response to shocks, and become stronger in doing so.

Surprise me with something unexpected you encountered in researching this book.

A couple of paradoxes, which are in fact closely linked:

[1] When looking for cutting-edge examples of the new paradigm in action – learning from nature, self-assembly and self-healing, not trying to control systems too much – I found them in areas like industrial design and materials science; farming in contrast, which you might expect to be our interface with nature, is still horribly conservative and stuck in the old ways. Wonderful research is being done, about soil systems for example, but translating this into an innovative, high-productivity, totally biomimicked farming practice: that’s not yet the mainstream, it’s still very peripheral.

[2] The countryside is so heavily depleted by herbicides, pesticides and monocropping, that cities are potentially havens for nature to regenerate itself: this has been beautifully demonstrated by green roofs, for example, and is potentially very encouraging for a programme of greening the city.  We might even pioneer the new paradigm here!

The book has an optimistic vibe, because it’s about solutions, and as you’ve said, some elements of ‘paradigm shift’ already underway.  So what’s blocking it?  And in particular, how do you interpret the recent Right-wing nationalist backlash.

In the book, I paraphrase a quote from Lenin, about the ruling system being dragged against its will into a new social order.  The shift in world politics towards the nationalist Right shows the system digging its heels in, frantically resisting the implications which its very own development has unleashed.  That’s the aspect internal to society.  But then there’s the environmental context: climate – plus soil-degradation and species-loss – forms the backdrop to everything.

So why is the nationalist Right addicted to climate denial? Because if we take climate seriously, we’d have to face up to the social conditions demanded by resilience: decentralised capacity, peer-to-peer networks, modularity, non-monetary exchange, commons regimes.  These are all evident in today’s food-related social movements – seed-sharing for example.  The issue is inevitably political: a new ‘order’ is a self-organised, emergent order.  That’s what scares the ruling interests.

So what about this term ‘food sovereignty’? That sounds nationalistic in a way…

I think it was always more about community autonomy.  But in a deeper sense, I take your point: we must dare to be normative, not just describe a movement like food sovereignty, but discover what it should be.  A lot about the ‘old’ food sovereignty was resisting the extreme neo-liberal agenda of ‘free’ trade and its disastrous implications for food, and that was all very necessary, but it was only a phase.  In the book I try to place this in a much broader historical context. You have millennia of resistance against exploitative agrarian systems, then against colonialism and imperialism, then against the ‘Green Revolution’ of the Cold War; at an English level, there is an unbroken legacy: the peasants’ revolt, the Diggers of 1649, early 19th century Chartists, the Land and Freedom movement of the 1970s, and some inspiring contemporary stuff. If the ruling agenda is today shifting away from ‘free’ trade, the enduring issues of commons and land rights haven’t changed.

At the same time, today’s food sovereignty must also face up to new challenges.  What has gone haywire (in society and its relations with nature) has been a narrowing, homogenisation, simplification.  Physically, this is seen in the shrinking variety of crops being cultivated, in the strains of each crop etc.; socio-politically this is seen in intolerance, xenophopia, the narrowing of discourses.  If that is permitted, we will have a system (in food, in society) which fractures and disintegrates in the face of shocks.

So if we are to respond to this threat, I would say – prolonging the book’s argument – that if political liberalism has in a sense destroyed itself by hitching itself to economic neo-liberalism, then the good things which used to be (very imperfectly) identified with liberalism must be regenerated on a new basis: tolerance, pluralism, what I’d call a ‘new cosmopolitanism’ … in essence a diverse system which can produce innovation from anywhere and which – when it faces shocks – will get stronger.

The movement over land and food can be a flagship for this.  Today, the academic and science community is trying to resist the attacks of obscurantism, but can’t do this alone: it needs mass allies.  This is precisely what the land/food-related struggles – of peasants, indigenous peoples, the urban masses – can supply; the academic world has important knowledge to offer, but it will also be itself transformed by discovering a new social relevance.

In these ways, researching the book, I got some kind of glimpse of a new world coming into being.  It’s exciting to feel part of this.

Sustainable Food Systems: The Role of the City is available to download for free here.