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    UCL Events blog

    By Nick Dawe, on 6 May 2011

    Reviews of UCL public lectures, debates, exhibitions, shows, and more…

    UCL Festival of Culture: Tom McCarthy: Space, Data and the Death Drive

    By Melissa Bradshaw, on 16 June 2016

    UCL’s Festival of Culture concluded with a rare opportunity to hear from twice Booker nominated author Tom McCarthy in a Q&A with Dr Julia Jordan (UCL English) in a stunning and intimate setting.

    Titled ‘Space, Data and the Death Drive’, the session took place at the House of St Barnabas in Soho, a not-for-profit private members club that offers help for the homeless. It was part of One Day in the City.

    Those fast enough to book a seat gained a special insight into the theoretic matrix that lies behind McCarthy’s novels Remainder (2005), Men in Space (2007), C (2010) and Satin Island (2015).

    Space, data and the death drive were all covered separately but it emerged that the three themes were interwoven.

    Beginning with a reading from C McCarthy discussed his engagement with the idea of bodies in space, in part informed by an experience that he doesn’t often talk about: being a life model in Prague aged 22, where the students would grid the paper in order to replicate their subject.

    “All my novels are about failed transcendence,” he said, “when the grid is working its pure violence.” In C, the central character Serge Carrefax, who becomes an observer for the Royal Flying Corps, “always crashes back to earth too early”, said McCarthy.

    Remainder is about a hero who repeats or tries to repeat a primal trauma he cannot name. His most recent novel, Satin Island, starts in an airport, which is literally controlled space. “I’m drawn to the moment of disruption”, he said.

    Of data, McCarthy said “all my characters are nodes within networks, subject to language in history and traumas that they don’t really understand”, referencing “the high modernists, Freud, Lacan and feminists”.

    A more contemporary reference was Edward Snowden, who McCarthy said “makes a political question a literary one: what gets written down and who gets to read it?”


    Image: Vintage Books

    He also presented a view of data flow as the 21st century version of the sacred: “data and the internet is your interface with the absolute”.

    Finishing with the death drive, Dr Jordan brought up McCarthy’s statement that all narrative is about the death drive. Normally, we think of narrative as about pleasure, she pointed out, and so this concept of narrative is a part of McCarthy’s critique of humanism.

    He pointed to Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when Freud’s observance of a child repeating a destructive game (which Freud interpreted as centred on the absence of the child’s mother), him to conclude that there is a drive towards death in the human psyche.

    Freud was a storyteller, said McCarthy, and the death drive is what repetition is about: this is the repetitive compulsion his characters are under.

    McCarthy discussed his literary influences, including Stephané Mallarmé, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett. “It astounds me,” he said, “that so much literature still clings to this silly humanist model.”

    But while McCarthy’s work engages in a kind of repetition with the work of these men, feeding back to the overall themes of One Day in the City, the session was also an insight into the metaphysical shifts literature faces in the digital age.

    UCL Festival of Culture: The ethics of fighting ISIS: Should we do whatever it takes to prevent terrorism?

    By Guest Blogger, on 13 June 2016

    pencil-iconWritten by Sam Stockdale (UCL Arts & Humanities)

    microphoneYou would be hard pushed to find a positive thing to associate with ISIS, but the terrorist group certainly knows how to generate a lot of interest, as we saw at this year’s UCL Festival of Culture session ‘The ethics of fighting ISIS’. Attendees squeezed in next to each other without a seat to spare. It was clear from the start that this would not be a ‘death-by-PowerPoint’ session and the audience were faced with some ethical conundrums.

    Should we torture?

    After immersing the audience in a crash course in consequentialist ethics (through an example of killing one person in order to save five – do the ends justify the means?), Dr Jeff Howard (UCL Political Science) threw down the gauntlet immediately with the first in a series of challenging scenarios:

    You have an Islamic State terrorist in custody who has gleefully admitted to planting a dirty bomb in central London with the prospect of killing hundreds of people within two hours. He of course is not admitting to where it is. Do you torture him?

    The question immediately divided the room.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    UCL Festival of Culture: Long-form Essays in the Digital Age

    By Melissa Bradshaw, on 6 June 2016

    What has the digital age done to writing?

    This year, One Day in the City, a biannual celebration of London and literature, was the grand finale of UCL’s Festival of Culture. This day of panel discussions and other activities set out to explore the role of writing in the digital age.

    With rise of the internet and social media, some predicted the demise of long-form writing and journalism, assuming that people’s attention spans were being irrevocably shortened by screen glare and distractions. The past few years, however, have seen a resurgence in which all the panel members at ‘Long-Form Essays in the Digital Age’ have had a hand.

    Puffins are a clue to the secrets of sharing long-form

    Mary-Kay Wilmers co-founded the London Review of Books (LRB) in 1979 with the late Karl Miller, then head of UCL’s English department, and has been its editor for almost 25 years. Andrew O’Hagan is the LRB’s editor-at-large and his most recent novel, The Illuminations (2015), was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is being turned into a drama serial for the BBC.

    Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review, a magazine on literature and the visual arts. Sarah Howe, a Leverhulme Fellow at UCL, is a poet and academic whose poetry collection Loop of Jade is the first debut to win the T.S. Eliot Prize. Howe also founded co-founded of Prac Crit, an online journal of poetry and criticism and chaired the session. She began by asking the panellists, ‘what is long-form journalism and how does the essay fit in?’

    There was a consensus that ‘long-form’ is in some sense a negative or pejorative term, used as it is to categorise anything on the internet much longer than a couple of thousand words. Reflecting on the history of long-form essays, Andrew O’Hagan insisted that long-form journalism is “the most exciting form because it forces you to place your imagination aside, you can’t get away with making things up.” This was even more the case when you had to go out and find the facts, instead of getting them from the internet.

    Mary-Kay Wilmers had some crucial insights, including that going online has changed what the London Review of Books publishes, but that writing on computers has made writers “less careful and more expansive”; that she does think you can engage properly with long-form on an iPhone; and that the crucial question at the LRB still remains whether you should hyphenate or not. (For the purposes of this article I have stuck to the title and used ‘long-form’ and not ‘longform’.)

    The internet and social media emerged as in some ways restrictive, in some ways expansive. Ben Eastham said that The White Review was founded in part out of frustration after working at the BBC, where the emphasis was all on reducing your copy for social media consumption, which he called a “boring style of writing that confirms prejudice”. He, therefore, closely associates long-form with “digression, and what was lost”.

    Mary-Kay Wilmers said that she finds the internet restrictive because you are constantly being directed by links and other suggestions to what you should read next: you are constantly being “spoonfed”, instead of using your own curiosity and imagination.

    To this, Ben Eastham added that social media, and what it suggests you read, always tends to reflect your own political views back at you, since you tend to friend and follow people who share your interests.

    So you are less likely to read something that challenges or surprises you as you would be if you were looking through physical publications in a shop.

    But the internet also reaches out to new audiences, because of single article reads. This has meant that the LRB has expanded exponentially, pointed out Andrew O’Hagan, and its readership has gone up from 18,000 to 70,000.Cjd_3mqWgAA3l6K

    “There are a lot of single pieces that will be read by hundreds of thousands of people,” he said, such as Seymour Hersh’s ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden’.

    “The paper’s universe has changed enormously in that way. The internet is producing untold numbers of people who think of it as an important resource.”

    Perhaps one of the toughest challenges for long-form in the digital age is competing for attention among all the memes, retweets, loops and animals. There was strong agreement with Mary-Kay Wilmers’ belief that it is important not to think too much about which long-form articles will go viral.

    Nicely demonstrating this point, Ben Eastham told us how the editors of The White Review had been puzzled by the popularity of an essay they’d published by ‘an obscure Icelandic poet’, which was their most read article in three years. Eventually they discovered this was because the author had mentioned eating puffin… and memes of Icelandic people eating puffins had gone viral.

    The session moved on to the role of the author. ‘Confessional criticism’ emerged as somewhat self-indulgent. Mary-Kay Wilmers joked that the ‘death of the author’ was followed quickly by the life of the reviewer.

    Andrew O’Hagan neatly distinguished between narcissistic writing and essays that make their own writing part of the telling: “the neurosis of a writer’s life should be invested in a piece”. He also talked of the excitement of long-form journalism, when you know you have gathered the depth of material to create a scene in a novel  ̶  except that it is all real.

    This prompted a return to Sarah Howe’s crucial opening question as to the definition of long-form. “This might be what long-form is, said Ben Eastham, “applying narrative techniques to essay writing and journalism.”



    UCL Festival of Culture: Galileo: what was his crime?

    By Siobhan Pipa, on 2 June 2016


    Portrait of Galileo Galilei, Justus Sustermans

    Nearly 400 years ago in April 1633 the Italian astronomer, mathematician and natural philosopher, Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Roman Inquisition.

    The main charge against him centred on his support for the Copernican theory, aka the belief that a mobile Earth orbited a stationary sun. The theory was thought to contradict the Bible and Galileo was placed on trial for heresy.

    But what was Galileo’s real crime? Was science really defeated by religion, as legend would have it? These were some of the questions raised by Andrew Campbell from UCL Italian in his lecture Galileo: what was his crime?, organised as part of the UCL Festival of Culture.

    I’ve always found the Galileo Affair fascinating and it’s often used as the leading example of the supposed battle between science and religion. Florence’s Galileo Museum proudly displays his mummified middle finger pointing towards the heavens – a definitive display of science triumphing over the Catholic Church.

    When Galileo is mentioned today it’s often not in recognition of his scientific work but as the poster child for the war between religion and science. However, is it as simple as this – can you separate science and religion from the politics, and personalities, of the day?

    To delve a little deeper into the whole affair Andrew provided a short run through of the events which led up to 1633.

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