"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Recently Completed Study:
Ph.D thesis: "Mapping Planet Auschwitz: The Non-Mimetic in Anglo-American Fiction of the Holocaust"

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> Non-mimetic depictions of trauma
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> Science Fiction and Alternate History
> 20th and 21st century literature
> Comics
> Paratexts

19 July 2011

Brighton Conference 2011: The Second World War: Popular Culture and Cultural Memory

The eye-catching oddity of Brighton's Royal Pavilion
Last week I gave my third paper in three months at the largest and most intimidating of my three conferences: The Second World War: Popular Culture and Popular Memory at Brighton University.

This was my first trip to Brighton and I was looking forward to the experience. Luckily I was able to get some cheap trains and stay with a cousin when down there else I fear I would  have been priced out of the whole venture. My biggest regret about the whole thing was that I wasn't able to spend a bit more time pottering around the city, what I saw of Brighton was an interesting, quirky place with a lot of character - of course it was also (on the whole) prohibitively expensive for an impoverished student such as myself, used to the cheaper thrills that Liverpool has to offer.

The conference itself ran for three days and covered a wide range of topics, mainly concerning the history and literature of the Second World War. I saw some truly fascinating papers and left with a good few sheets of hastily scribbled notes with names, dates and titles to look up now that I'm back in the solitude of Liverpool PG life. I also left having met some great people. I went to the conference not really knowing anyone (although with the slight advantage of having met or e-mailed a couple of people once or twice before) but I was delighted with how everyone opened up to each other and chatted happily not just about the conference but about all the associated small talk you'd expect. I was genuinely worried I'd get through the whole conference without really getting to know anybody and instead ended up as part of a group of people who came from different disciplines, different generations, different universities, and had a really good time sampling Brighton's ale and the conference's wine in their company.

My own paper ("Branching Paths: Nazi Victories in Alternate Second World Wars") went reasonably well, although I was conscious beforehand that it was the weakest of the three papers I've delivered this year. This was probably because although it is the final paper in a series of three, it was the first abstract to be drawn up and when it came to writing it I found myself constrained by that abstract and forced into writing something which didn't really work as a 20 minute paper as well as I'd like. That said, the reception of the paper was wonderful with several people approaching me afterwards to tell me that they'd found it interesting and informative, and that it raised questions they'd not considered before. Most of the questions asked were by historians who were simply interested in the ideas or texts, although I did get a couple of literature questions as well.

On the whole the conference was a resounding success and I'd like to thank all of the conference organisers for their hard work, and particularly thank whichever of them made the decision to accept my paper - I am immensely grateful for the opportunity. I'd also like to thank everyone I met at the conference for making me feel at ease and for listening to me talk about science fiction and alternate history.

1 July 2011

'Civilisation and Virtual History' by Niall Ferguson

Wednesday 29 June 2011, The British Library Conference Centre.

This lecture was part of the programme of events surrounding the British Library's Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, a superb exhibit which I'll blog about separately soon. If I could I'd attend every one of the events that were organised, they all looked brilliant, but when I saw that Niall Ferguson was giving a talk on counterfactuals I knew I just had to be there.

Some context perhaps. Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard, but is probably best known for his work on several Channel 4 documentaries such as The Ascent of Money and the recent Civilization: Is the West History? Now in all honesty, I've never caught one of these shows, the reason I wanted to attend the lecture was his 1997 book Virtual History.

Virtual History is a collection of essays by historians imagining counterfactual scenarios, essentially engaging with "what might have been" rather than "what was". Given my study of alternate history fiction these "non-fiction" accounts are immensely interesting and the manner of their executions, their reception, and their relationship with the historical narrative are all of massive relevance to my thesis. Given the seeming rarity of academic discussion into alternate history in the UK (by which I mean conferences and lectures) I couldn't very well let this opportunity slide by, especially since it cost me a humble £5 to attend plus my travel (which luckily I pre-booked far enough ahead to get at a bargain rate).

The talk itself was very interesting and superbly well delivered, a masterclass in expressing what were at times pretty complex ideas to an audience of laymen in an engaging manner. It was essentially a summary of the lengthy introduction that Professor Ferguson includes at the beginning of Virtual History, explaining the arguments surrounding the counterfactual examination of history, the theory behind such examinations, and the benefits of counterfactual thought. Given that the original introduction was written for a book published 14 years ago it was interesting to see which elements Professor Ferguson chose to expand upon, leave out, and alter.

I was looking out for was any reference to the fictional renderings of counterfactual history, not least because they are the versions which I am studying, but also because the comments made in the introduction to Virtual History are quite dismissive: "Of course... science fiction [is] not academically respectable" (p.3) and "one thinks, for example, of Robert Harris's recent novel Fatherland, a detective story set in an imaginary Europe twenty years after a Nazi victory. As such books go, it is well researched. But it is irredeemably fictional..." (p. 7). Professor Ferguson is focusing on the historical merits of counterfactuals, as is his want, and therefore is understandably dismissive of the historical value of alternate history fiction. To put it another way, if any other historian were to dismiss historical novels as "irredeemably fictional" we might understand that the historian is arguing that the historical novel cannot imbue a proper understanding of history upon the reader, that it is a pale representation of the past intended primarily for recreation and enjoyment and only secondly (if at all) for instruction. I understand Professor Ferguson's stance in this respect, however to make such a blanketing statement as "science fiction [is] not academically respectable" is a slap in the face to everything I am trying to achieve with my thesis, not to mention the numerous more distinguished scholars who have preceded me in the field of sf.

My ears pricked then when he referred to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and called it "fiction of huge historical merit". I regret that I wasn't selected to give a question in the brief Q+A or I would have requested Professor Ferguson expand upon this comment: what is it about The Plot Against America that gives it "huge historical merit" despite being "irredeemably fictional", is this something unique to Roth's approach on the topic, or does this represent a softening of opinion towards fictional counterfactuals from the standpoint put into print 14 years before, if so I would be interested to learn how and why this softening has occurred (I have since e-mailed my question to Professor Ferguson's Harvard account as the answer to this question could be a massively significant factor in the way in which I think about the relationship between history and fiction).

Overall it was definitely a worthwhile trip, although as ever when I visit London and the sun is shining, I wished I could stay much longer. Even if I receive no reply to my e-mail, the lecture has given me several new leads on historical theory, as well as explained some of the fine points of Virtual History which otherwise I might easily have underestimated or misunderstood.