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

ucyow3c13 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.

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

Siobhan Pipa2 June 2016

Justus_Sustermans_-_Portrait_of_Galileo_Galilei,_1636

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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UCL Festival of Culture: Me and My Selfie

utnvlru1 June 2016

2015_White_House_Astronomy_Night_by_Harrison_Jones_03_(cropped_to_Ahmed_Mohamed)As part of the UCL Festival of Culture, Professor Lucy O’Brien (UCL Philosophy) delivered a talk entitled ‘Feeling self-conscious: Me and My Selfie’ on Friday 27th May.

The title of the lecture might have implied we were going to take a look at the popular current discourse that our current obsession with taking  ‘selfies’ – using smartphones to take images of ourselves to share online – is a sign that social media is damaging our psyches and turning us all into self-obsessed narcissists.

However, in her talk Professor O’Brien gave an overview of the philosophy of self-consciousness and self-image and tied this in with the implications of our use of smart phones, without making a judgement about whether or not our increasing desire to take and post images of ourselves is necessarily a negative thing.

The lecture gave us definitions of different forms of ‘self-consciousness’, such as ‘ordinary self-consciousness’ – which is being aware of oneself, perhaps if we are giving a talk or speech and people are therefore looking at us, but not necessarily in an uncomfortable or painful way.

“Human beings have different ways of being self-conscious” explained Professor O’Brien. “We can be self-conscious from the inside in an introspective way, or from the outside, aware of ourselves in an ‘objectual’ sense in relation to material things, or experience ‘interpersonal self-consciousness’ in relation to other people”.

People are of course self-conscious to different degrees – some may be more aware of themselves and how they feel others are perceiving them than others. What’s significant about the age we now live in is that “the props that enable us to become self-conscious from the outside have multiplied”.

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Lunch Hour Lecture: Still Lives — Death, Desire and the portrait of the Old Master

Ella Richards4 March 2016

Dr Maria Loh (UCL History of Art) opened her Lunch Hour Lecture on Renaissance self-portraits with a very contemporary comment on self-presentation.

“Hair matters”

Speaking as Hillary Clinton campaigns to be the next President of the United States, Dr Loh quoted Clinton’s Yale University commencement speech from 2001: ”hair matters…Your hair will send significant messages to those around you. What hopes and dreams you have for the world… Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.”

Dr Loh argued that Clinton’s words resonated more widely than we might realise. Showing the theatre the evolution of David Beckham’s hair and reminding us of the message that Britney Spears sent out when she shaved all of her hair off, Loh noted that the hairstyle of a Roman bust is often a key indicator of the period of the sculpture.

Renaissance self-portraits

Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556

Sofonisba Anguissola, 1556
via Wikimedia Commons

With this in mind, Loh presented her first old master: Sofonisba Anguissola.

Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the great portrait artists of the Renaissance period and Dr Loh argued that in an early self-portrait Anguissola sought to make her ambitions clear.

She stands with neatly parted hair holding a shield that declares “The maiden Sofonisba Anguissola, depicted in her own hand, from a mirror, at Cremona”, an explicit act of self-presentation that directs the onlooker’s interpretation of her image.

Anguissola’s desire to control her own image was a lifelong trait. When Anthony Van Dyck painted Anguissola in her 90s, she told him to not position the light in the portrait too high lest the “shadows in the wrinkles of old age should become too strong.” (more…)