Pilgrim Award acceptance speech

Back at the start of July, I was awarded the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Lifetime Achievement Award for Critical Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy (which is its full title, I think). Here is the text of what I said, or what I meant to say, or something like that – it was all a bit blurry. (Also available in the the SFRA Review 317.)

IMG_3301Thank[1] you. I’m astonished, humbled and honoured and, to be honest, a little freaked out.

Cory McAbee is currently touring a show, Small Star Seminar, in which he plays a singing motivational speaker who encourages us to recognise and embrace our limitations.[2] Occasionally, he breaks character to talk about the ‘romantic sciences’,[3] especially transdimensionality, which is concerned with the way we often slip between multiple parallel dimensions without necessarily realising it. He introduces it by asking three simple questions. Have you ever lost something and then later found it in a place where you’ve already looked? Have you ever continued an argument after the other person has left? Have you ever fallen in love with a cartoon character?

Despite answering in the affirmative to all three, I remained sceptical. Until, well, have you ever had an email from Craig Jacobsen saying you’re being given the Pilgrim Award?

When that happens, you become aware of transdimensional slippage, and it is profoundly disorientating, and now I seem to be stuck over here in this weird place with you guys… Don’t get me wrong, y’all are lovely people, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but as I said in my beautifully crafted reply to Craig, it was really quite gracious and elegant: ‘Fuck. Are you sure?’[4]

There are so many people I need to thank who I’ve worked with, and by whom I’ve been influenced, guided, helped and tolerated. So many people, from Patrick Parrinder, who taught me as an undergraduate and then invited me back to do a PhD with him, and foolishly one day entrusted to my care a visiting scholar called Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., through to Gerry Canavan, who recently joined us as an editor of Science Fiction Film and Television, or to Rhys Williams, back then a cocky young postgrad who asked if he could borrow my name to help get funding for a symposium on M. John Harrison symposium – and then discovered large pots of money he could apply for at his university, which enabled us to do the SF/F Now conference, the SF Now issue of Paradoxa, the MJH collection that is currently behind schedule but we’re getting there, honest…

But there are three people, for various reasons not here tonight, who I want to thank in particular – they have been absolutely central to my life and work since that first article fifteen years ago – and then later a fourth person, who is here tonight.

Kathrina Glitre, my friend and colleague in Film Studies at UWE. We’ve worked together for about fifteen years; sometimes I’ve been her boss, sometimes she’s been mine, currently we’re both each others, depending on what we’re doing. Our research is mostly in different fields – she wrote the single best book on classical Hollywood romantic comedy you will ever read[5] – but without her constancy and genuinely terrifying organisational abilities, I would not have survived the day job this long, let alone had time to research or write or edit.

China Miéville, who was my first article editor (narrowly beating my good friend Andrew M Butler to that dubious distinction), and thus the first editor to remonstrate with me over my inability to write conclusions (and thus, albeit inadvertently, the author of the most quoted passage I’ve ever ‘written’). He’s also the first person to recruit me to an editorial board, my first co-editor, my first fiction editor, my mate, my comrade, a constant inspiration, a huge political and critical influence – plus a handy source of the occasional paying gig. He is currently engaged in a nautical adventure so secret that now I’ve told you about it I will have to kill you.

Sherryl Vint, my main collaborator over the years, with whom I’ve co-written and co-edited so much. It’s not all been plain sailing. For example, she led the revolt among my co-editors against the suggestion that we dedicate Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction to ‘all the reviewers incapable of spotting the title doesn’t contain a definite article’. She may have been helping me be my better self, but as anyone who’s read the reviews will agree, I’m the one vindicated by history. None of the work we’ve done together could I have done on my own, and that’s not just about productivity. I have learned so much from her about science studies, animal studies, biopolitics – work that is genuinely reshaping our field. Mostly I think what she has learned from me is to let Mark do the proof-reading, ’cos he gets cranky about that shit. A huge piece of this award really belongs to her.

Just three people out of so many.

But realising that helped me to figure out why this award is freaking me out so much. It’s not about getting old.[6] It’s because the award is presented to an individual.

I cannot begin to calculate how many people have edited my work or written reader’s reports on it or responded to it in some way, or the amount of people I’ve edited, reported on or responded to in some way, let alone identify them. It’s even more impossible to count the work I’ve read or heard delivered, the conversations I’ve had, let alone the acts, large and small, of kindness, generosity, critique, support, care, compassion. Yet all of these things are collaborations. Whatever’s been achieved in the work that has my name on it is a product of these co-operative, collective efforts, of this mutual aid.

So this award is not just for me but for all of us (and that is not the lame platitude it sounds like now I’ve said it aloud).

The neoliberal agenda is destroying universities and learning, turning higher education into a machine for making profit. The UK now has the most costly public universities in the world, funded through a fees system that is more expensive to the tax-payer than free education would be, and that is deliberately creating indebtedness among students, graduates and their families on an industrial – and thus profitable – scale. Academic salaries are worth roughly sixty percent of what they were back when I started, with probably 25,000 academics on zero hours contracts. At the same time, workloads have increased to such an extent that we work on average two extra, unpaid days a week, and there is a massive increase in stress, anxiety, depression and other work-related health problems. There are universities whose workload model assigns a mere handful of weeks for research activity, never mind that it is often impossible actually to find those weeks among increasing teaching and administrative loads; and there are managers who would respond to one of their managees receiving an accolade such as this not with congratulations but with, ‘does it bring any funding with it?’

This is why this award is not for me, but for us.

Not just for the people with whom I’ve worked directly or indirectly, one way or another, but for all of us.

For most of us, most of the time, just as the calculation of labour-power does not care about actual labourers, so the job does not care about the work – whether that work is our students or our research. But here, at moments like this, and whenever our community or parts of it gather together, the job takes the backseat. This is about the work, about our art – about the thing we build together.

And we must make that work count.

It has to matter.

In this field, we know other worlds are possible.

We also know that some worlds are more likely than others: worlds of unchecked anthropogenic climate change; worlds in which a global economic system impoverishes, immiserates and kills people in vast numbers every day; worlds in which new forms of bloody imperialism reign, and in which the right, misogyny, homophobia and racism are resurgent. Unless we work to build better worlds – in our imaginations and our art and our work, and in this our community, and in our jobs, and through our shoddy excuses for democracy, and in the streets, and by whatever means necessary.

China ends his essay in the latest issue of Salvage with these words:

Is it better to hope or to despair? Do you want to create better art, or do you want a better world in which to create? Are you an artist or an activist?

Yes.

[Pause for an even more abrupt change of direction than those which have thus far characterised this speech.]

Finally, I want to thank Andrea Gibbons, author of the best book you will ever read on the ways in which race and segregation continue to shape the ways our cities are developed.[7] For her uncanny knack of picking up books I am trying to work on, thus relieving me of the burden of precise detail. For always being there to point out that once more I forgot to do a conclusion. For persuading me that this is not the place to tear off my shirt and claim I am Chuck Tingle and crowdsurf a Spartacus-like wave of No, I am Chuck Tingles as it sweeps the room.

But mostly for reminding me that there is life outside of the job and even, sometimes, outside of the work, for making me take days off and go out and enjoy the world. And for repeatedly telling me that, as well as being astonished, humbled and honoured to receive the Pilgrim, I should also be happy about it rather than just freaked out.

Which I am.

Finally.

Sort of.

Thank you.

Notes
[1] It was around this point that the recipient began to speak through choked back emotion. [Ed.]
[2] All 17 songs are available here
[3] He also mentions deep astronomy, emotional mathematics and blink time, but you can invent your own romantic sciences. For example, psychogeology, which is a lot like psychogeography, but slower and, well, deeper; or mountain-nearing, which is about getting up real close to sublime objects in order to discover their mundanity, but that’s probably one to talk to M John Harrison about.
[4] At this juncture, the recipient made what was widely considered the best, and certainly the last, of the many Brexit jokes at SFRA 2016. It addressed the insensitivity of serving as dessert another Eton Mess. This joke has proven sufficiently popular to appear in a meme in everyone’s FB feed. But the recipient made it first. [Ed.]
[5] Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union, 1934–1965. Manchester University Press, 2006.
[6] The recipient is, after all, among the youngest twenty per cent of Pilgrim winners. He should know. He did the maths. Twice, just to make sure. [Ed.]
[7] Land, Privilege, Race: something something something. Available from Verso in 2017.

 

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Divergent (Neil Burger 2014)

DivergentFourTrisMoviePosterand so anyway it turns out the best thing about Divergent (2014) is not its role in the mysterious rise of Jai Courtney, easily the very worst of all the very bad actors in the much-loved Spartacus, nor is it the way that it makes you want to watch the much-loved and incredibly silly Equilibrium (Wimmer 2002) again, but the bold formal experiment it conducts by taking the training montage sequence as the basis for its narrative structure but then including two hours of all the tedious stuff you would normally cut out…

The City in Fiction and Film, week six

modern-timesWeek five

This week we watched Modern Times (Chaplin 1936), read a recent article on it by Lawrence Howe (which contains some useful contextualisation for the film, even though I am not wholly convinced by its argument), had a brief introduction to Marxist ideas about capitalism and the class society it produces, and then spent quite a while discussing some basic essay writing skills.

As described by Frederick Engels, in his ‘Preface to the English Edition of 1888 of The Communist Manifesto’, Marx’s ‘fundamental proposition’ concerning history and class is that

the whole history of mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. (in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. by David McLellan (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 48.)

Starting with this broad sweep ties back to the work we did on historical periodisation in week 2 as we started to think about ‘modernity’, but more importantly gave me an opportunity to include a picture of the lovely late Andy Whitfield on the spartacus1powerpoint slide explaining classical slave societies (Feudalism had to make do with a picture of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.)

Capitalism, Marx argued, is defined by the exploitative relationship between the bourgeoisie (or capitalist class), who own and control the means of production (from factories to financial instruments), and the proletariat (or working class), who sell their labour for a wage which is worth less than the value created by their labour. All that extra value they create is used to pay for raw materials, plant, etc; and all that is left over from that – surplus value, in Marx’s term – is taken by the capitalist. Although there might be small individual and partial exceptions, the capitalist will always look to increase production of surplus value – by introducing ‘rationalised’ production processes and increasing automation, by lowering or freezing wages, by extending the working day (including reducing breaks), by offering productivity bonuses, by resisting unionisation of the workforce and health/safety legislation, by casualising the workforce, by not paying the costs of pollution, by relocating to countries with weaker unions/workplace protections/ environmental laws, and by avoiding/evading taxes and manipulating political systems.

Before discussing Modern Times, we took a look at several short sequences from Metropolis (Lang 1927), a film I really wanted to include on the module but which is too long for the screening session (and perhaps in that respect a bit cruel as an introduction to silent cinema – although next week we will be watching Man with a Movie Camera, so I am not sure where the greater cruelty lies).

Lang’s film spatialise class relations in a manner that will become common in dystopian visions, and also in the real world. Here the spatial division is vertical, recalling the literal and figurative descents into poverty in Gaskell’s Mary Barton. The garden in which the city’s wealthy youths play is somewhere high up and pristine. Freder’s father’s office – as controller of the city – is also elevated above all, symbolising his pan optical powers (making him an important figure when we dip our toes into a little de Certeau in a few weeks). Then there is the magnificent metropolis itself, beneath which are the machines which sustain it. And beneath the level even of the machines, as Lang’s opening sequence shows, is the city of the workers.

We also took a look at some of the machinery in the film: the 10-hour shift clock and 24-hour clock over which the shift change is announced (we have already seen Lang’s obsession with clocks in M), the rather abstract machine which overheats and transforms, in Freder’s eyes, into a barbaric ancient idol into whose maw the workers are fed; and the even more abstract clock machine that Freder undertakes to operate so as to free an exhausted worker, only to become a kind of knackered Christ figure himself as he struggles to keep up with its incomprehensible demands for repetitive motion.

Some of this imagery is picked up on directly in Chaplin’s film, which also begins with the image of a clock and workers trudging to the factory like lambs to the slaughter.

Before the screening, I suggested some possible binary oppositions that could be used to try to think through the logic of the film:

capitalist and worker
surveiller and surveilled
employed and unemployed
production and consumption
lack and plenty
work and leisure
human and automaton
conformity and difference
law and lawlessness
order and chaos
authority and resistance
propriety impropriety
male and female
adult and child

As ever, a lot of these terms sort of overlap or seem to be describing the same things from different angles.

The boss using the giant screen in the bathroom to berate Chaplin on his break establishes that the relationship between capitalist and worker is a power relationship (we have already seen the boss goofing off, doing a jigsaw and reading  the funny pages – Flash Gordon, if I am not mistaken, since the visible page is Tarzan?) – and that this power relationship includes bullying and surveillance (which includes workers having to clock-in and clock-out, even for bathroom trips). Furthermore, the fact that the boss even contemplates subjecting his works to the Billows Automatic Feeding Machine so that can they be fed lunch without needing to leave the production line indicates the extent to which he does not think of them as human beings but as mere parts of a technical apparatus, as cogs in a machine. (It is also an example of trying to increase productivity through automation so as to increase surplus value, or profit, at the expense of the worker.)

Such control systems or disciplinary structures as the factory represents also provide most of the other key locations of the film: asylum, prison, orphanage, department store, restaurant.

Talking about the department store – designed to move customers through the space in such a way as to organise and prolong their experience within the retail environment (think about how IKEA has no windows or clocks and only one route through the warehouse – and, at least according to one of the class, blocks cell phone reception) – also facilitated a way to think about the interconnections of production and consumption.

Chaplin and the gamin (Paulette Goddard), of course, are disruptive forces of chaos in all this. Chaplin’s derangement by the repetitive labour of the production line shows how poorly we all, as humans, fit the environments created to maximise the extraction of our labour power for other people’s profit. The gamin’s initial gender-blurring – posing like Peter Pan, providing food for the family when her father is unemployed – and her refusal to be subordinated to state systems (the law around property, the orphanage to which her younger siblings are sent) betoken a similar energy. Both she and Chaplin are often positioned as childlike, and their attempts to find a space in the adult world are endearing parodies of that world: the dream vision of a suburban home Chaplin imagines, the run-down shack the gamin crafts into the image of a suburban idyll, the way they play and dress up in the department store. (And they are not alone in not fitting in this world: the prim and severe vicar’s wife whose stomach nonetheless gurgles when she drinks tea; the scarcely glimpsed ‘gay’ prisoner, who minces out of the dining hall and into his cell; the unemployed men forced to break into the department store because they are starving; and so on.)

Then it was time for a break, for the grand unveiling of the essay questions, for reminders to do the library quiz online within 24 hours, and for essay-writing advice.

The latter is especially tough, I find, to do for a whole group, none of whom have yet submitted any work. Makes it hard to know where to begin, what particular strengths and weaknesses each student has. So we did some very basic stuff.

On stucture, taking Strunk and White’s advice: ‘Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.’ So a brief introduction to what is going to be discussed, probably somewhere between 5 and 8 paragraphs, each devoted to making, developing and supporting a single idea in a chain of ideas/paragraphs, and a short conclusion tying it all together. For a 1200 word essay, the introduction and conclusion should probably need no more than a sentence or two each. Revise the introduction once the essay is completed so as to ensure it describes what the essay actually does, rather than what you intended to do (the initial introduction can also be used to help think through revisions to early drafts). No new ideas to be introduced in the conclusion – and never end with a quotation (it is supposed to be your conclusion).

Using spell-check (make sure it is set to English UK; remember it won’t catch certain kinds of errors, such as typing ‘form’ when you mean ‘from’). Use grammar-check sparingly, as typically you need to understand grammar in order to make sense of its recommendations. Instead, concentrate on becoming a better writer (obligatory plug for the genuinely excellent kids’ book, The English Repair Kit by Angela Burt and William Vandyck).

We covered rules about laying how to quote and paraphrase and reference (MLA-style).

Finally, we thought about writing in a more formal academic style, but how that did not necessarily mean writing in long sentences. Focus on short, clear sentences, and work in length-variety where necessary – focus on the connection between what you want to say and the best way to say it clearly.

And then wrapped it all up with another quotation from Strunk and White:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

week 7

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 2, “Urbanizing Modernity: Utopia/Dystopia and the City of the Future Past.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Jenkins, Henry. “Looking at the City in The Matrix Franchise.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 176–192.
Mellen, Joan. Modern Times. London: BFI, 2006.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.

Recommended reading
By imagining future cities, sf often highlights contemporary concerns about the city. See, for example, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014).

Recommended viewing
The same is true of many sf films, such as Metropolis (Lang 1927), Things to Come (Menzies 1936), Alphaville (Godard 1965), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973), Blade Runner (1982), Akira (Ôtomo 1988), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Minority Report (Spielberg 2002), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), District 13 (Morel 2004), Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), La Antena (Sapir 2007) and In Time (Niccol 2011).

Modern Times was partly inspired by À Nous la Liberté (Clair 1931).