2017-12 No1 slip-man-black-banana-md

MONTHLY BLOG 84, INVENTING WORDS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Speakers and writers constantly adopt and play with new words and usages, even while the deep grammatical structures of language evolve, if at all, only very slowly. I remember an English class at school when I was aged about twelve or thirteen when we were challenged to invent new words. The winning neologism was ‘puridence’. It meant: by pure coincidence. Hence, one could say ‘I walked along the pavement, puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’. The winner was my class-mate Audrey Turner, who has probably forgotten. (I wonder whether anyone else remembers this moment?)

2017-12 No1 slip-man-black-banana-md

Fig.1 Slip Man Black Banana:
‘Puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’

Another new word, invented by my partner Tony Belton on 26 October 2013, is ‘wrongaplomb’. It refers to someone who is habitually in error but always with total aplomb. It’s a great word, which immediately summons to my mind the person for whom the term was invented. But again, I expect that Tony has also forgotten. (He has). New words arrive and are shed with great ease. This is one which came and went, except for the fact that I noted it down.

No wonder that dictionary compilers find it a struggle to keep abreast. The English language, as a Germanic tongue hybridised by its conjunction with Norman French, already has a huge vocabulary, to which additions are constantly made. One optimistic proposal in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1788 hoped to keep a check upon the process in Britain, by establishing a person or committee to devise new words for every possible contingency.1 But real-life inventions and borrowings in all living languages were (and remain) far too frequent, spontaneous and diffuse for such a system to work. The Académie française (founded 1635), which is France’s official authority on the French language, knows very well the perennial tensions between established norms and innovations.2 The ‘Immortels’, as the 40 academicians are termed, have a tricky task as they try to decide for eternity. Consequently, a prudent convention ensures that the Académie’s rulings are advisory but not binding.

For my part, I love encountering new words and guessing whether they will survive or fail. In that spirit, I have invented three of my own. The first is ‘plurilogue’. I coined this term at an academic seminar in January 2016 and then put it into a BLOG.3 It refers to multi-lateral communications across space (not so difficult in these days of easy international messaging) and through time. In particular, it evokes the way that later generations of historians constantly debate with their precursors. ‘Dialogue’ doesn’t work to explain such communications. Dead historians can’t answer back. But ‘plurilogue’ covers the multiplicity of exchanges, between living historians, and with the legacy of ideas from earlier generations.

Will the term last? I think so. Having invented it, I then decided to google (a recently-arrived verb). To my surprise, I discovered that there already is an on-line international journal of that name. It has been running since 2011. It features reviews in philosophy and political science. My initial response was to find the prior use annoying. On the other hand, that’s a selfish view. No one owns a language. Better to think that ‘plurilogue’ is a word whose time has come. Its multiple coinages are a sign of its relevance. Humans do communicate across time and space; and not just in dialogue. So ‘plurilogue’ has a tolerable chance of lasting, especially as it’s institutionalised in a journal title.

2017-12 No2 plurilogue Vol 1
A second term that I coined and published in 2007 is ‘diachromesh’.4 It defines the way that humans (and everything in the cosmos for good measure) are integrally situated in an unfolding through-Time, also known as the very long term or ‘diachronic’. That latter word is itself relatively unusual. But it has some currency among historians and archaeologists.

The ‘diachronic’ is the alternate pair to the ‘synchronic’ (the immediate fleeting moment). Hence my comment that: ‘the synchronic is always in the diachronic – in that every short-term moment contributes to a much longer term’. Equally, the conjunction operates the other way round. ‘The diachronic is always in the synchronic – in that long-term frameworks always inform the passing moment as well’.5 Therefore it follows that, just as we can refer to synchromesh gear changes, operating together in a single moment of time, so it’s relevant to think of diachromesh, effortlessly meshing each single moment into the very long-term.6

So far so good. Is diachromesh liable to last? I can’t find a journal with that name. However, the word in is circulation. Google it and see. The references are few and far between. But! For example, in an essay on the evolution of the urban high street, architectural analyst Sam Griffiths writes: ‘The spatial configuration of the grid is reticulated in space and time, a materialisation of Corfield’s (2007) “diachromesh”.’7

2017-12 No3 clock in Guildford high street

Fig.3 Guildhall Clock on Guildford High Street, marking each synchronic moment since 1683 in an urban high street, diachromeshed within its own space and time.

Lastly, I also offered the word ‘trialectics’ in 2007. Instead of cosmic history as composed of binary forces, I envisage a dynamic threefold process of continuity (persistence), gradual change (momentum) and macro-change (turbulence).8 For me, these interlocking dimensions are as integral to Time as are the standard three dimensions of Space.

Be that as it may, I was then staggered to find that the term had a pre-history, of which I was hitherto oblivious. Try web searches for trialectics in logic; ecology; and spatial theories, such as Edward Soja’s planning concept of Thirdspace.9 Again, however, it would seem that this is a word whose time has come. The fact that ‘trialectics’ is subject to a range of nuanced meanings is not a particular problem, since that happens to so many words. The core of the idea is to discard the binary of dialectics. Enough of either/or. Of point/counter-point; or thesis/antithesis. Instead, there are triple dimensions in play.

Coining new words is part of the trialectical processes that keep languages going through time. They rely upon deep continuities, whilst experiencing gradual changes – and, at the same time, facing/absorbing/rejecting the shock of the new. Luckily there is already a name for the grand outcome of this temporal mix of continuity/micro-change/macro-change. It’s called History.

1 S.I. Tucker, Protean Shape: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary and Usage (1967), p. 104.

2 http://www.academie-francaise.fr/.

3 P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History “Progress” – and How does Plurilogue Help? BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/.

4 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. xv.

5 Ibid.

6 This assumption differs from that of a small minority of physicists and philosophers who view Time as broken, each moment sundered from the next. See e.g. J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (1999). I might call this interpretation a case of ‘wrongaplomb’.

7 S. Griffiths, ‘The High Street as a Morphological Event’, in L. Vaughan (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street (2015), p. 45.

8 Corfield, Time and Shape of History, pp. 122-3, 211-16, 231, 248, 249. See also idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert/ Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century (Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Sonderheft, 25, Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91; also available on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

9 www.wikipedia.org/Edward_Soja

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2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

MONTHLY BLOG 83, SEX AND THE ACADEMICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Appreciating sex means appreciating the spark of life. Educating numbers of bright, interesting, lively young adults is a sexy occupation. The challenge for academics therefore is to keep the appreciation suitably abstract, so that it doesn’t overwhelm normal University business – and absolutely without permitting it to escalate into sexual harassment of students who are the relatively powerless ones in the educational/power relationship.

It’s long been known that putting admiring young people with admirable academics, as many are, can generate erotic undertones. Having a crush on one’s best teacher is a common youthful experience; and at least a few academics have had secret yearnings to receive a wide-eyed look of rapt attention from some comely youngster.1 There is a spectrum of behaviour at University classes and social events, from banter, stimulating repartee and mild flirtation (ok as long as not misunderstood), all the way across to heavy power-plays and cases of outright harassment (indefensible).
2017-11 No1 Hogarth_lecture_1736

Fig.1 Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture (1736) satirises both don and students, demonstrating that bad teaching can have a positively anti-aphrodisiac effect.

If academics don’t have the glamour, wealth and power of successful film producers, an eminent ‘don’ can still have a potent intellectual authority. I have known cases of charismatic senior authority figures imposing themselves sexually upon the gullible young, although I believe (perhaps mistakenly – am I being too optimistic here?) that such scenarios are less common today. That change has taken place partly because University expansion and grade escalation has created so many professors that they no longer have the same rarity value that once they did. It’s also worth noting that single academics don’t hold supreme power over individual student’s careers. Examination grades, prizes, appointments, and so forth are all dealt with by boards or panels, and vetted by committees.

Moreover, there’s been a social change in the composition of the professoriat itself. It’s no longer exclusively a domain of older heterosexual men (or gay men pretending publicly to be heterosexual, before the law was liberalised). No doubt, the new breed of academics have their own faults. But the transformation of the profession during the past forty years has diluted the old sense of hierarchy and changed the everyday atmosphere.

For example, when I began teaching in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to hear some older male profs (not the junior lecturers) commenting regularly on the physical attributes of the female students, even in business meetings. It was faintly embarrassing, rather than predatory. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned style of senior male bonding. But it was completely inappropriate. Eventually the advent of numerous female and gay academics stopped the practice.

Once in an examination meeting, when I was particularly annoyed by hearing lascivious comments about the ample breasts of a specific female student, I tried a bit of direct action by reversing the process. In a meaningful tone, I offered a frank appreciation of the physique of a handsome young male student, with reference specifically to his taut buttocks. (This comment was made in the era of tight trousers, not as a result of any personal exploration). My words produced a deep, appalled silence. It suggested that the senior male profs had not really thought about what they were saying. They were horrified at hearing such words from a ‘lady’ – words which struck them not as ‘harmless’ good fun (as they viewed their own comments) but as unpleasantly crude.

Needless to say, I don’t claim that my intervention on its own changed the course of history. Nonetheless, today academic meetings are much more businesslike, even more perfunctory. Less time is spent discussing individual students, who are anyway much more numerous – with the result that the passing commentary on students’ physiques seems also to have stopped. (That’s a social gain on the gender frontier; but there have been losses as well, as today’s bureaucratised meetings are – probably unavoidably – rather tedious).

One important reason for the changed atmosphere is that more specific thought has been given these days to the ethical questions raised by physical encounters between staff and students. It’s true that some relationships turn out to be sincere and meaningful. It’s not hard to find cases of colleagues who have embarked upon long, happy marriages with former students. (I know a few). And there is one high-profile example on the international scene today: Brigitte Trogneux, the wife of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, first met her husband, 25 years her junior, when she was a drama teacher and he was her 15-year old student. They later married, despite initial opposition from his parents, and seem happy together.

But ethical issues have to take account of all possible scenarios; and can’t be sidelined by one or two happy outcomes. There’s an obvious risk academic/student sexual relationships (or solicitation for sexual relationships) can lead to harassment, abuse, exploitation and/or favouritism. Such outcomes are usually experienced very negatively by students, and can be positively traumatic. There’s also the possibility of anger and annoyance on the part of other students, who resent the existence of a ‘teacher’s pet’. In particular, if the senior lover is also marking examination papers written by the junior lover, there’s a risk that the impartial integrity of the academic process may be jeopardised and that student confidence in the system be undermined. (Secret lovers generally believe that their trysts remain unknown to those around them; but are often wrong in that belief).

As far as I know, many Universities don’t have official policies on these matters, though I have long thought they should. Now that current events, especially the shaming of Harvey Weinstein, have reopened the public debates, it’s time to institute proper professional protocols. The broad principles should include an absolute ban of all forms of sexual abuse, harassment or pressurising behaviour; plus, equally importantly, fair and robust procedures for dealing with accusations about such abusive behaviour, bearing in mind the possibility of false claims.

There should also be a very strong presumption that academic staff should avoid having consensual affairs with students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) while the students are registered within the same academic institution and particularly within the specific Department, Faculty or teaching unit, where the academic teaches.

Given human frailty, it must be expected that the ban on consensual affairs will sometimes be breached. It’s not feasible to expect all such encounters to be reported within each Department or Faculty (too hard to enforce). But it should become an absolute policy that academics should excuse themselves from examining students with whom they are having affairs. Or undertaking any roles where a secret partisan preference could cause injustice (such as making nominations for prizes). No doubt, Departments/Faculties will have to devise discreet mechanisms to operate such a policy; but so be it.

Since all institutions make great efforts to ensure that their examination processes are fairly and impartially operated, it’s wrong to risk secret sex warping the system. Ok, we are all flawed humans. But over the millennia humanity has learned – and is still learning – how to cope with our flaws. In these post-Weinstein days, all Universities now need a set of clear professional protocols with reference to sex and the academics.
2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

Fig.2 Advertising still for Educating Rita (play 1980; film 1983), which explores how a male don and his female student learn, non-amorously, from one another.

1 Campus novels almost invariably include illicit affairs: two witty exemplars include Alison Lurie’s The War between the Tates (1974) and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Two plays which also explore educational/personal tensions between a male academic and female student are Willy Russell’s wry but gentle Educating Rita (1990) and David Mamet’s darker Oleanna (1992).

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2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

MONTHLY BLOG 82, WRITING PERSONAL REFERENCES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

What do today’s academics spend their time doing? Next to marking essays and planning research applications, one of the most common tasks is writing personal references for past and present students (and sometimes for colleagues too). Happily, such evaluations are not presented anonymously.1 Yet that makes writing them all the more testing.

The aim is to do full justice to the person under consideration, whilst playing fair with the organisation which is receiving the recommendation. Sometimes those aims can be in conflict. Should you recommend someone for a job for which they are not suitable, even if the candidate pleads with you to do so? The answer must be: No.

Actually I can remember one example, some years ago, when an excellent postgraduate wanted to apply for a new post which demanded skills in quantitative economic history. Since she did not have those special skills, I hesitated. She implored me to write on her behalf – it was in an era when new academic posts were rare – and, reluctantly, I did so. However, I told her that my reference would explain that she did not have the required skills, although she would be a great appointment if the University in question decided to waive those preconditions. (It was theoretically possible). In the event, she did not get the job. For the future, I resolved not to waste everyone’s time by writing references in unsuitable cases. A polite refusal does sometimes upset applicants. But it’s best to be frank from the start – and certainly better than writing a thumbs-down reference. (I decline to act if I can’t find anything positive to say).

Truth with tact is the motto. When writing, it’s good to dwell on the candidate’s best qualities, in terms of past attainments and future potential. But it’s seriously unwise to go over the top. Referees who praise everyone unreservedly to the skies quickly lose credibility. What is written should strive to match the best qualities of the person under discussion. Candidates often get called for interview; and it undoubtedly helps interview panels if the candidates broadly resemble their references. (It is ok, by the way, to warn panels in advance in cases of exceptionally nervous interviewees, who may need help to ‘unfreeze’).

Equally, when writing in support of candidates, it’s seriously wrong to go not over but under the top. There used to be an old-fashioned style of wry deprecation. It had a certain period charm. Yet in recent decades there’s been a definite inflation of rhetoric. Wry self-deprecation is still ok, when used in front of those who understand the English art of meiosis or ironic understatement. But deprecatory assessments, or even deprecatory asides, about other people are distinctly unhelpful in today’s competitive climate. Even one passing put-down can harm a candidate, when competing against rivals who are described in completely flattering terms.

Again, I remember a case at my University, where the venerable referee – a punctilious scholar of the old school – was warm but could not resist adding a critical aside. The candidate in question was much the best. Yet she lost out in the final choice, on the grounds that even her friendly referee had doubts about her. Really annoying. She went on to have a distinguished career – but elsewhere. We lost a great colleague.

Some months later I had a chance to talk with the venerable referee, who expressed bafflement that his candidate did not get the job. He was blithely unaware that he had, unintentionally, stabbed her in the back. It was a complete conflict between different generational styles of writing references. Later, I advised the candidate not to press me for further details (since these things are all confidential) but simply to change her referees, which she did. Such stylistic inter-generational contrasts still continue to an extent, although they take a somewhat different form these days. Either way, the moral is that balanced assessments of candidates are fine; shafts of sardonic humour or any form of deprecatory remarks aimed at an absent candidate are not.

Then there’s the question of different international cultures of writing references. Academics in some countries prefer a lyrical rhetoric of flowery but imprecise praise which can be very hard to interpret. (Is it secret humour?) By contrast, other references from a different stylistic culture can be very terse and factual, saying little beyond the public record. (Do they reflect secret boredom or indifference?) My advice in all cases is for candidates to choose referees from their own linguistic/academic/cultural traditions, so that recipients will know how to decode the references. Or, in the case of international applications, then to choose a good range of referees from different countries, hoping to balance the contrasting styles.

So there we are. Refereeing is an art, not a precise science. Truth with tact. Every reference takes thought and time, trying to capture the special qualities of each individual candidate. But, a final thought: there’s always one exception to the rule. The hapless Philip Swallow in David Lodge’s brilliant campus novel Changing Places (1975) encounters this problem, in the form of the former student demanding references – who never goes away. The requests pile up relentlessly. ‘Sometimes he [the former student] aimed absurdly high, sometimes grotesquely low. … If [he] was appointed to any of these posts, he evidently failed to hold them for very long, for the stream of enquiries never ran dry’. Eventually, Swallow realises that he is facing a lifetime commitment. He therefore generates an ‘unblushing all-purpose panegyric’, which is kept on permanent file in the Departmental Office.2 It’s just what every referee secretly craves, for use in emergencies. Just make sure that there are no flowery passages, no hyperbole, no ambiguities, no accidental put-downs, no coded messages, no brusque indifference, no sardonic asides, no joking. Writing personal references, on the record, is utterly serious and time-consuming business. Thank goodness for deadlines.

1 For my comments on writing anonymous assessments, see BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017) and on receiving anonymous assessments of my own work, see BLOG/81 (Sept. 2017).

2 David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), pp. 28-9.

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2017-09 No1 handshake diagram

MONTHLY BLOG 81, RESPONDING TO ANONYMOUS ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG follows its matching BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017)
on ‘Writing Anonymous Academic Assessments’

2017-08 No3 handshake diagram

The first arrival of anonymous assessments of one’s own research is almost invariably annoying. There’s something about the format which gives the author-less verdict a quality of Olympian majesty. And, even if the verdict is favourable, there’s a lurking feeling that one is a mere minnow, being condescended to by a remote and all-wise deity. Ouch!

However, after recovering from one’s initial fury, it’s best to rally and to view the whole exercise as a free consultation. Instead of rushing into print, and getting a stinker of a review, the stinker is delivered in the form of an anonymous assessment before publication. The anonymous critic is, in fact, the best friend, lurking in disguise.

As well as writing constant assessments, academics also read one anothers’ work in typescript. But, as researchers say, ‘good criticism is hard to get’. Many friends just respond loyally: ‘Darling, it’s wonderful; but there’s a typo on page 33’. Such a reaction is not much use. In the case of an anonymous assessment, by contrast, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to identify all your faults. And, what’s more, to give you a chance of remedying them before publication.

On balance, I would say that 80% of all the anonymous advice, which I’ve received over the years, has been invaluable. Another 10% is comparatively trivial, meaning either that the assessor has been sleeping on the job or (rarely) that there’s nothing major to criticise or discuss. But 10% of responses are positively unhelpful, either through being too crushing – or simply irrelevant.

One example of off-the-wall and unusable reflections concerned my editorial introduction to a book of essays entitled: Language, History & Class (1991).1 The anonymous assessor said firmly that I was wrong; and offered, at some length, his/her own philosophical alternative historical/linguistic theory as a variant. In one way, it was a very generous piece of writing. But, on the other hand, it was entirely wasted. I couldn’t use the alternative view, because I disagreed with it – and anyway, it wouldn’t be either right or politic to take someone else’s original thesis as my own, whether I agreed or disagreed. Something in my text had apparently rapped the assessor’s intellectual funny-bone, causing him/her to get distracted into inventing a new theory rather than reviewing a book proposal. The alternative approach was so off-the-wall that I never saw it appear anywhere in print. It was an intellectual kite that never flew.

2017-09 No2 kite in trees

Generally, however, after the first moment of silent fury at reading the anonymous assessor, I buckle down and enjoy the chance to revise in the light of a really in-depth analysis. Often, rewriting helps to strengthen my arguments, giving me a chance to rebut criticisms explicitly. And, simultaneously, the rewrite allows scope for clarification, if ideas were poorly or incompletely expressed first time round. Sometimes points have been made out of their logical order and need reshuffling. And finally, I sometimes (not too often!) change my mind, in the light of criticisms; and the process of rewriting allows me to push my argument into new directions.

In reporting subsequently to the publishers or editors, who have commissioned the anonymous assessment, there is one golden rule. The criticisms do not have to be adopted wholesale. But they must be acknowledged, not simply dismissed. I remember one former PhD student, when editing her first essay for a learned journal, miserably wondering whether she had to ditch her entire argument, in the light of a critical assessment. I was horrified at the prospect. Of course, she had to stand by her new interpretation. (She did). The essay would appear under her name and must therefore represent her considered views. An adverse anonymous assessment does not have the status of a royal command. Instead, the hostile cross-fire gives authors a chance, pre-publication, to decide whether to strengthen or to adapt their arguments.

Then it’s up to editors to decide. Usually they appreciate the chance to get new views into print, with the prospect of opening up further debates. But editors do like to be reassured that the revisionist piece has been submitted knowingly, with a full awareness of the potential controversies to follow, and that the study is well argued and substantiated. In comparatively rare cases, when challenging new views are rejected by one journal, there’s a reasonable chance that the ‘new look’ can find a home elsewhere. Since historical research relies upon debate and disagreement, it’s not such a big deal to find one (temporarily) prevalent view coming up for critique and/or complete refutation.

Only in very rare cases are anonymous assessors unduly harsh or vitriolic. I’ve had plenty of negative responses myself but never anything without some constructive aim or intention. One hostile case, however, occurred in response to a former student of mine who had written an excellent essay on the social history of nineteenth-century Sussex. Some element of the argument had apparently infuriated the anonymous assessor. He/she basically argued that the essay should not have been written. There was nothing constructive upon which the author could build. Fortunately in this case, the journal editor had asked for two anonymous assessments. The second was much more positive, enabling my former student to revise the essay into a stylish contribution. However, I advised her to write to the editor, explaining calmly that she had considered the negative assessment carefully before disregarding it. The fact that the angry assessor’s report had mis-named ‘Sussex’ throughout as ‘Suffolk’ suggested that the tirade was not based upon a very close reading. The editor took this strong hint on board; and the revised essay successfully appeared in print.2

These examples indicate the intricacies of peer review and the publication process. They are socially imbedded – and far from purely impartial. But they strive for an interactive collegial process, which seeks to iron out individual rancour or prejudice. Personally, I take anonymous academic assessments of my embryonic work as seriously as I expect my own anonymous academic assessments to be taken by the anonymous recipients. The veil of secrecy strives to make the exchange of ideas a ‘pure’ intellectual exercise, without the formal courtesies and pleasantries. (Actually, if one wants, it’s usually possible to make a stab at identifying the critics, using one’s research-honed powers. But in my experience, that’s an unproductive distraction).

Scholars who are published in peer-reviewed outlets are thus in constant dialogue (or, preferably, ‘plurilogue’),3 not just generally with their peers, and patchily with their precursors in earlier generations but specifically with their specially recruited anonymised critics. Wrestling with obdurate drafts is often exasperating and lonely work, as Hogarth knew – as seen in a detail from his Distrest Poet (c.1736) below. Yet scholarly authors don’t work in isolation. A tribe of anonymous academic critics, friendly readers, and interventionist editors/publishers are looking over their shoulders. So it’s best to bite the bullet; to revise coolly; and then to publish and be damned/whatever.

2017-09 No3 Hogarth's distressed_poet

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Historians and Language’, in P.J. Corfield (ed.), Language, History and Class (Oxford, 1991), pp. 1-29; slightly amended text also transl. into Greek for publication in Histor, 12 (May 2001), pp. 5-43.

2 A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy: A Case Study of Rural Sussex, 1780-1880’, Southern History, 35 (2013), pp. 98-126.

3 For this usage, see P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History ‘Progress’? And does Plurilogue Help?’ BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), in www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

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2017-08 No1 black mask

MONTHLY BLOG 80, WRITING ANONYMOUS ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG will be partnered
in September 2017 by a matching BLOG
on ‘Responding to Anonymous Academic Assessments’

2017-08 No1 black mask 
Writing anonymously encourages a certain acidity to emerge. Instead of the conventional politeness (‘Does my bum look big in this?’ No … not really’), it seems at first that the unvarnished truth will break through (‘Yes, it does’). In fact, however, there are multiple reservations to be made about that first rush of apparent candour. It’s very like the caveats that need to be made to that drinker’s favourite maxim: ‘in vino veritas’. Well, yes, sometimes. But there is also scope for exaggeration, melodrama, and error, as well as anger, bile, and crudity, within every alcohol-fuelled tirade.

The psychological mechanism of anonymous writing is ‘release’ – release from the conventions of politeness and, especially when writing in a hurry, release from the normal constraints of prudence. It’s like a rush of blood to the head. And it can easily become addictive. Probably a considerable proportion of people who unleash a tide of vitriol anonymously via the new social media surprise even themselves by their ferocity and lack of inhibition. Thus when confronted with the real person behind their on-line target, a number of Twitter trolls have apologised abashedly.1 These anonymous critics have been living in a little bubble of self-created alternative reality. The power of expressing anger-at-a-distance, from a position of apparent immunity, seems hard to resist. It’s as though thousands of previously unknown madcap Mr Hydes have been electronically released from within thousands of normally conventional Dr Jekylls. Yet, as in Stevenson’s fable, the split isn’t real. Jekyll and Hyde are one, each persona having responsibility for the other.2

2017-08 No2 jekyll and hyde

Happily, very few academics have divided personalities that would score very highly on the Jeykll/Hyde range. Or at least they restrain themselves from going ape in their capacity as examiners. That’s no doubt because they are thoroughly trained in a degree of self-control through their regular experience of anonymous assessment. These days, it’s usual for the names of examiners to be anonymised, as are the examination scripts which they mark. That is rightly done in order to avoid cronyism, favouritism, and unconscious biases.

And in cases where the examiners’ identities are known (for example when marking small specialist courses), it’s usual for scripts to be double-marked, before the two examiners meet to decide upon a joint mark – all subject to the controlling overview of a third external examiner (from another academic institution or at least another department), who is available to decide if the examiners can’t agree. Examinations are thus safeguarded against the handiwork of an impetuously unbalanced Mr Hyde.

It’s more tempting to let rip, however, when making individual anonymous assessments, for example when reviewing manuscripts for academic journals, or for publishers, or for the award of academic prizes/grants. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes world of what is known as ‘peer review’. Editors or publishers or prize-givers can make preliminary assessments of work submitted to them. There’s a lot of initial weeding. Yet they need specialist help to assess specialist research, especially in highly technical subjects. That’s where the anonymous assessors come in. Almost all academics spend a considerable amount of time on this sort of technical labour, often without any extra fee. It’s done pro bono, for the wider good of scholarship. Assessors are prodded with a series of questions: is this work original? is it properly substantiated? what changes are needed to make it publishable? But, at the same time, assessors are invited to write with freedom, hence risking a rush of blood to the head.

Interestingly, many early book reviews were written anonymously. The sting of a hostile notice was worsened by the author’s ignorance of the perpetrator of the barb. In the early nineteenth century, for example, when the astringent Edinburgh Review paid very high fees (up to 20 guineas a sheet) for strong opinions, one eminent literary victim characterised the journal’s anonymous reviewers as the ‘bloodhounds of Arthur’s Seat’.3

Since then, the fashion has swung decisively in favour of signed reviews when those appear in public. These days, academic authors who have laboured to draft an earnest encomium or a pointed critique need to get acknowledgment for their work, to show that they are not slacking. For many years, the major redoubt of anonymous reviews was the Times Literary Supplement (launched in 1902). An insider-academic game was trying to guess who had written which waspish put-down. I remember that, whenever anything particularly acerbic appeared, senior Oxford dons would murmur knowingly ‘Ah, Hugh Trevor-Roper again’,4 even if it wasn’t. Students were often impressed, while laughing secretly at all the fuss. In fact, the pages of the TLS were rarely dripping in authorial blood; and, when reviewer anonymity was dropped from 1974 onwards, the journal sailed onwards serenely without much change in tone.

That leaves anonymous assessment as the chief remaining terrain for academics to pontificate without acknowledging their handiwork. Supreme power at last? But no. Behind-the-scenes assessments are delivered within a range of unstated conventions requiring academic fairness and balanced judgment – especially when bearing in mind that all seeking to publish in a peer-reviewed outlet are equally liable themselves to be at the receiving end of one or more anonymous assessments. (See my next BLOG).

For me, writing such verdicts constitutes a specialist form of conversation-at-a-distance. Thus anonymous assessments are usually brisk and direct. There’s no need for the normal interpersonal courtesies of a face-to-face encounter. (Often indeed the original author’s name has also been anonymised). So there is no need for shared enquiries about mutual health and wellbeing. But the one-way conversation still entails the assumption that ideas have to be explained clearly to a willing listener. In the event of disagreement, it’s not enough to write: ‘Rubbish!’ Instead, it’s necessary to spell out why particular arguments and/or evidence fail to convince. Assessors are also invited to correct outright errors; and, if a piece of research is only marginally publishable, to provide suggestions for required revisions.

As those requirements imply, it’s much the easiest and quickest to express total praise. It then takes longer to reject a piece outright, because the reasons for rejection have to be fully elucidated. But the longest and trickiest task is to assess research that’s on the margins of being publishable. It’s helpful to strike an initially positive note, appreciating the choice of topic and the effort undertaken. Yet the negatives have to be explained frankly too, complete with constructive advice on transforming negatives into positives. That’s a challenging task to undertake at a distance, without being able to discuss the details with the recipients. (I knew one hyper-sensitive colleague who was so annoyed by one anonymous critique that she refused to revise and resubmit a potentially important essay, on the grounds that the editors were wasting her time by deferring to such an idiotic and ill-informed assessor.)

Overall, the initial attractions of anonymity quickly disappear. Whatever the medium, communications don’t take place in a vacuum. They have social/legal/cultural contexts and they have consequences. So whenever I tap my keyboard, the best short motto remains the one that I and a group of frank-speaking friends chose for ourselves, one merry evening years ago: truth, yes; but, fundamentally, Truth with Tact. Note: Not tact instead of truth; but both. Fusion rather than Jekyll/Hyde-type fission.

2017-08 No3 handshake diagram

1 For an example, see Daily Mail on-line, ‘Shamed Twitter Troll makes Humbling Apology Live on TV to Professional Boxer he Abused for Eight Months after the Fighter Tracked him Down’, 14 March 2013: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2293235/Curtis-Woodhouse-Shamed-Twitter-troll-James-OBrien-makes-humbling-apology-live-TV-professional-boxer.html

2 R.L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde (1886).

3 R. Watson, The Literature of Scotland, Vol. 1: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke, 2006), p. 253.

4 For H. Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), historian, polemicist and sometime anonymous author, see A. Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (2010).

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2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Youth, youth: ‘it’s wasted on the young’, etc. But not this time. Having in my BLOG/78 (June 2017) chastised the young for not voting,1 it’s only right now to applaud their mass re-entry into electoral politics at the June 2017 General Election. It makes a huge difference across the board. And I’m not writing that purely as a Labour Party grass-root (though the majority of new young voters did vote Labour). I’m writing that because systemic non-participation of those who can potentially play a role is bad for the wider community, generating a simmering mood of distrust, cynicism, negativism and alienation. Are we ready for another summer of love, fifty years after 1967?
2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

Of course, there is an electoral proviso. In 2017, youth turnout was 57 per cent among 18 to 19 year-olds, 59 per cent among 20 to 24 year-olds, and 64 per cent among 25 to 29 year-olds.2 All those figures marked significant increases over comparable levels in 2015, when turnout by those aged 18-24 was somewhere between 43-44 percent.3 Yet there is still room for more. And there was no doubt much regional variation, with especially high youth participation in constituencies with many students on the electoral roll, and lower participation elsewhere. But, hey, no complaints: it is a great development, from the point of view of a properly functioning democracy, full stop. And the return to the language of solidarity and love, after recent atrocities, is a splendid antidote to years of political emphasis upon atomised individuals.

Many of the young electors in their 20s who joined the Labour campaign in Battersea 2017 remind me of my own peer group in our 20s when we joined the Labour Party in the later 1960s.4 We too were full of energy and optimism. Also slightly naïve, in retrospect. But full of collective and individual confidence that we could resolve the problems of the world.5

In sociological terms, there are similarities too: lots of well educated activists, coming from middle-class backgrounds or from rising families, one generation up from the working class. However, one visible difference now, in London at any rate, is a welcome one: the ethnic composition of young Labour activists is much more relaxedly mixed than it was in our youth – reflecting long-term changes in the broader society – and changes among our friends and within our own families too.

What happened to the current of youth optimism and participation in the 1960s? It achieved quite a lot, especially in cultural, gender and ethnic politics. But it got diverted in the 1970s into a rampant individualism in lifestyles (‘tune in, drop out and do your own thing’) which eventually led to a form of anti-politics. Youth protests fizzled out. Moreover, the leftish youth politics of the 1960s triggered a militant counter-cultural resistance from the right, which fostered the successes in the 1980s of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Their hostility to ‘the Sixties’ was, in its way, a compliment to the impact of youth culture. Their successful counter-attack, however, simultaneously revealed how vulnerable, divided, and disorganised the Sixties cultural moment was and remained. It lacked the capacity to organise and survive.

Will the current youth involvement also fade away and eventually become dissipated? It’s an obvious risk. It’s hard for a mass movement to remain radiantly optimistic all the time, especially when encountering defeats as well as victories. On the other hand, there’s no necessity for history to repeat itself. The anti-state, anti-regulation, laissez-faire nostrums of the hard political right are now in trouble. The time is ripe for a Zeitgeist shift, which is already happening.

Furthermore, the young electorate today has a lot of really practical issues upon which to focus: the cost of education; the lack of available housing; the degradation of work conditions in the gig-economy; the need to surmount ethnic, class and religious divisions; and so forth. Such issues should help to keep the political focus strongly upon the immediate and the practical. I hope that lots of youthful activists will stand for office, locally and nationally; and/or work in community and political organisations on the ground, to prevent the current surge of involvement from becoming atomised and dissipated.

Oh yes, and another thing: those who really want to achieve changes have to dig in for the long haul. It means getting into organisations and sticking with them. And that means working with the continuing ‘golden oldies’ from successive generations, who were once themselves optimistic youth. Let everyone, who wishes to be a youthful activist, be allowed to be one, without age discrimination.

Battersea Labour provides a sterling example. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) campaigned for many causes during her long lifetime, after becoming triggered into grass-roots activism at the age of 40. Among other things, she was a suffragette, a founder of Labour in Battersea, and an advocate of non-violent resistance, who influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.6 Charlotte Despard’s last public engagement saw her addressing a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933. She was then a young old lady aged 89. Let’s hope that we all stay as committed and indefatigable as was Despard, so that Solidarity and Love last for more than a summer.

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

Charlotte Despard, at the age of 89, addressing an Anti-Fascist Rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933: photo by James Jarché for the Daily Herald

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Who Cares? Getting People to Vote’, Monthly BLOG/78 (June 2017)

2 Voters by Age from YouGov survey, as reported in The Independent, 14 June 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-labour-youth-vote-under-40s-jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-a7789151.html

3 From Ipsos/MORI survey, as reported by Intergenerational Foundation (2015): http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/How-did-young-people-vote-at-the-2015-general-election.pdf

4 We appear in DVD Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008), directed by M. Marchant; scripted by P.J. Corfield. Available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/ahKt1XoI-II; and also via Battersea Labour Party website: http://www.battersealabour.co.uk/redbattersea

5 A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-74 (Oxford, 1998); T. Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1993); J.S. Baugess and A.A. Debolt (eds), Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture (Oxford, 2012).

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Commemorating Battersea’s Charlotte Despard … in Battersea’, Battersea Matters, ed. J. Sheridan (Autumn, 2016), p. 11; M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

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13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

MONTHLY BLOG 78, WHO CARES? GETTING PEOPLE TO VOTE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Elections again! And public moodiness at being asked to decide on weighty matters once more. The last thing that Britain’s campaigners for a democratic franchise ever imagined was that electors, once enfranchised, would not use their votes. Was it for nothing that the democratic campaigners known as the Chartists in the 1840s were thrown into gaol? or that imprisoned suffragettes in the 1900s were force fed? But it’s turned out that achieving a flourishing democracy, defined as the full participation of all citizens in the political process, requires more than simply legislating to extend the franchise.
2017-06 No1 who-cares-1-620x250
People have to want to use their vote. One immediate possibility is to adopt the Australian system, where since 1924 it been compulsory for all citizens to register for elections and to cast a vote.1 Spoiling the ballot paper, to cast a non-vote, is allowed. It amounts to ‘abstaining in person’, to borrow a resonant phrase from Frank McGuire (an independent Irish Republican MP), when he travelled to the House of Commons from Belfast on 28 March 1979 but declined to vote to save the Callaghan government. It then fell by a margin of one vote, ushering in eleven years of Margaret Thatcher.

I personally hanker after the benefits of compulsory voting, provided that the system always gives scope for returning a blank paper. On the other hand, there are arguments against as well as for this process. Voters don’t always like it – their democratic choice? Hence some countries have switched from compulsory to optional systems. Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 1917, it introduced compulsory voting, along with the advent of a universal adult franchise; but in 1967 it abolished this requirement.

Another complication comes when voters resist compulsion, even while it remains their legal duty. That’s reported as happening in Brazil, which is the world’s largest country to have compulsory voting. Nonetheless, at the presidential election in 2014, over 30 million electors (about 21 percent of all those registered) did not vote. It’s still a good turnout but the sheer number of people flouting the law is very high. In effect, their aggregate non-participation means that compulsory voting has been de facto sidelined.

Anyway, in Britain this option is not on the political agenda. So what else might be done to encourage voting? One answer is instrumentalist. Tell young people in particular that their interests are being overlooked because their percentage participation has fallen steeply from the levels once taken as the norm in the postwar years. In 1992, 66% of young adults aged 18-24 and on the electoral register voted, compared with 38% in 2005 and 44% in 2015.2 And the decline is even larger, if the number of young people who are not on the electoral register is taken into account. No wonder politicians have turned their attention to the older generations and there is talk of ‘intergenerational warfare’.

It’s true that there are no reserved ‘student seats’, so young people’s votes are widely scattered across many constituencies. Hence many say (rather than ask): why bother? Nevertheless, politicians will get their statisticians to pore over survey data to see which demographic groups bothered to vote. So the answer is: you have to bother, to get noticed politically.

Yet it’s clearly not good enough to view the questions in purely instrumentalist terms. Voting means contributing to the full democratic community, not just calculating ‘what’s in it for me?’ So it’s sad and even sinister for the good health of a democracy to have lots of young people who are either apathetic or alienated. Spoiling one’s ballot paper is one thing. Not bothering to turn out to vote is bad news for society as a whole and also for the absentee young voters themselves. They are depriving themselves of constitutional involvement (no matter how dry and dusty) in the world in which they live: as it were, consigning themselves to victimhood.

So what can be done to encourage voting among the won’t-vote brigades of all ages? Some of the answers point to the politicians. Their campaigning styles, for example. Electors are alienated if those seeking their votes appear too robotic, lacking spontaneity and authenticity. Even more depends on politicians’ achievements in office. If they offer high and perform low, then cynicism becomes rife. (A degree of scepticism is good – but not corrosive cynicism).

There’s an additional major problem from the mainstream press, which loves melodrama. It slams politicians as robotic if they conform boringly to the party line but equally attacks them as confused or ignorant or dastardly if they stray the tiniest bit off-message. Let alone the problems generated and multiplied endlessly by the social media, which encourage an unsavoury mix of either undue adulation or venomous personal hostility.3

Another big looming question focuses upon how much governments themselves can buck the big impersonal trends of global history. So many things – like international finance markets, international businesses, international social media, international terrorism, international crime, world-wide climate change, environmental pollution, and so forth – seem to operate beyond the current scope of democratic control and regulation, which is depressing, to say the least.4 If politicians in a national forum seem powerless, then no wonder that individual voters at grass roots level feel even less in control of their own or the nation’s destiny. But, in response to such challenges, the answers have to be more, not less, democratic engagement.

It’s not just the politicians who are responsible. So what about the voting process itself? Can the system be made more user-friendly? In the eighteenth century (in the minority of large constituencies with a wide franchise), voters cast their votes publicly.5 An election was a community occasion, with elements of the carnivalesque. Crowds turned out to hear the candidates speak from the open hustings and to cheer or boo the electors as they voted. Flags were flown and party favours sported. The fact that voters literally stood up to be counted, before all their friends and neighbours, made open voting the purest form of voting, in the opinion of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. It would force citizens to think of the public good, and not just their personal self-interest: ‘The best side of their character is that which people are anxious to show’.6

13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

Fig.2 Rowlandson’s 1808 view of a Westminster parliamentary election, where candidates address the crowds from the specially constructed wooden hustings, erected in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden.

But, ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (1872 in Britain), the process of voting lost its element of community participation. And that’s become even more noticeable since the advent of postal voting on demand (2001 in Britain). The process has become not just secret but utterly individualised and secretive. No doubt that’s one of the reasons that the traditional party posters have virtually disappeared from people’s windows.

There were and are excellent reasons to protect electors from undue pressure. But it’s not good to lose the excitement and community involvement involved in an election, which is a collective event with a collective impact.

Perhaps there might be parties or at least a cup of tea on offer for those who vote in person in polling stations? And/or an on-line App for millions of people to record: ‘I’ve voted! Have you?’ And what about practice elections in schools? And constituency or regional Youth Parliaments? And networks of local societies – and/or student societies – linked for campaigning purposes? Let alone shop-floor democracy at work? And ways for isolated workers in large-scale enterprises to link up into organised networks? Plus, of course, an effective electoral registration system, which encourages rather than discourages people to get into the system.

Political life should never be a simple top-down process. Instead, democracy is an entire lifestyle and lifetime commitment to participation. Voters are invited to insert their own meanings into the processes. All the same, it’s no surprise that the Chartist demand for annual parliamentary elections is the only item of their visionary six-point programme that has not yet been adopted.7 Moreover, voters’ election-fatigue suggests that it is unlikely to gain mass support any time soon. Instead, it’s more important to revise and update the electoral processes to recover full community involvement in a true community event.

1 The information in this and the following two paragraphs comes from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_voting

2 E. Phelps, ‘Young Adults and Electoral Turnout in Britain: Towards a Generational Model of Political Participation’ (University of Sussex European Institute [SEI], Working Paper 92, 2006); ‘Why Aren’t Young People Voting?’ University of Warwick Background Paper’ (c.2006); and http://www.if.org.uk/archives/6576/how-high-was-youth-turnout-at-the-2015-general-election

3 Among a growing literature, see e.g. A. Bruns and others (eds), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (2015); T. Highfield, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, 2016); S. Shaked (ed.), The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action (Oxford, 2017).

4 For a meditation on that theme, see J. Lanchester, ‘Between Vauxhall and Victoria’, in London Review of Books, 39/11 (1 June 2017), pp. 3.6.

5 See variously P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting, Standing Up to be Counted?’ Monthly BLOG/53 (May 2015), in http://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/; and website ‘London Electoral History, 1700-1850’, www.londonelectoralhistory.com.

6 J.S. Mill, Considerations upon Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-64, esp. p. 164.

7 The Chartists’ six demands were: (1) universal adult male franchise (achieved in 1918; and matched by the adult female franchise in 1928); (2) voting by secret ballot (achieved in 1872); (3) equal representation via roughly equal sized-constituencies (implemented by an independent electoral commission from 1885 onwards); (4) no property qualification for candidates to stand as MP (achieved 1858); (5) payment for MPs (achieved 1911); and (6) annual parliamentary elections (not achieved). See M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007); D. Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson, ed. S. Roberts (2015).

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2017-05 No1 Rising phoenix tattoo - Copy

MONTHLY BLOG 77, IDEAS TAKING A WRONG TURN

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-05 No1 Rising phoenix tattoo - CopyMeditating about ideas taking a wrong turn (there are a lot of wrong turns around), I was reminded of the eighteenth-century saga of phlogiston – or the spirit of fire. It was a concept that held sway in scientific circles for many years, before it was found to be wrong. Not fruitfully wrong, stimulating fresh research and new developments. Just simply erroneous – in intellectual terms, a wrong turning.

There may be similarly erroneous ideas around in science today: superstring theories in theoretical physics,1 for example, or ‘dark matter’ in astro-physics (let alone ‘dark energy’ and/or ‘dark electromagnetism’).2 Such big concepts are intriguing ‘fillers’, often triggering intense debates. They fill a gap in knowledge, where there is perceived to be a problem but, as yet, no research-based solution with an accompanying explanatory theory. Sometimes such ideas are later empirically substantiated. Equally, however, sometimes not.

In the case of phlogiston, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientists were keen to understand what happens in the process of combustion. Some large logs are burned – and all that is left is a small pile of ashes. Hence one apparently logical answer was that combustion had released into the atmosphere a fiery element, almost like the spirit of fire itself, which, once freed, was released into the air. Substances that burned easily were full of this ignitable matter. The idea was formulated in 1667 by a German alchemist and physician, Johann Joachim Becher; and developed in 1703 by his former student Georg Ernst Stahl, a professor of medicine and chemistry. He was not the first to coin the term phlogiston, derived from the Greek for ‘inflaming’; but his analysis propelled the term into scientific currency.3

Research doubts, however, began eventually to circulate. Not all physical matter was reduced in weight by combustion. Some metals did the contrary. But somehow the principle of phlogiston as the spirit of fire remained an attractive one. The term remained widely in use among the developing community of researchers in Britain and France. Thus when in 1772 the Scottish chemist and botanist Daniel Rutherford4 managed to isolate and identify nitrogen as a separate gas, he named it ‘phlogisticated air’ (burnt air). The Nonconformist minister-cum-experimental-scientist Joseph Priestley was another who accepted the concept of phlogiston. In his path-breaking explorations of the composition of air, he was one of the first to identify oxygen as a gas. But he stuck with the old vocabulary, calling it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Accordingly, when Priestley was satirised for his radical political ideas, he was shown by the cartoonist as the fiery Dr Phlogiston – trampling underfoot the Bible, whilst simultaneously igniting the laws of England.5
2017-05 No2 priestley phlogiston

Satirical print of Priestley as Dr Phlogiston:
The Priestley Politician or the Political Priestley

However, chemical theories and practice changed fundamentally after 1778. The French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-94) not only identified and named ‘oxygen’ but also showed its key role as an oxidizer during combustion. There was no spirit of fire waiting to be released into the cosmos. References to phlogiston still lingered but were increasingly sidelined. Quietly, the entire theory behind the concept was dropped.6 Lavoisier also identified and named hydrogen (1783).7 The study of chemistry was advanced onto a new footing, aided by the increasingly international pooling of research. Henceforth ‘Air’ was not just air; and ‘Fire’ was not just fire.

Now phlogiston is known in the scientific lexicon as a category error. It commanded belief for a surprising amount of time, despite research doubts. But the concept did not lead to any interesting intellectual outcomes. It held sway and then quietly vanished.

Three morals for later generations. Firstly, there is often a hidden romantic idea (like the spirit of fire) or a cosmic vision behind apparently coldly rationalistic scientific concepts. Secondly, theories, even if very widely and genuinely accepted, remain no more than theories, until they are tested and confirmed empirically. Big organising ideas may become adopted because they are plausible or useful or powerful or attractive. Yet they don’t become world beaters, until they are verified. Thirdly and lastly, wrong turnings make for easy walking, until they suddenly don’t. Maybe that last proposition applies not only in the realm of ideas but in today’s politics too.

1 Compare B.R. Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions,  Theory, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999); and L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Boston, 2006).

2 R.H. Sanders, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective (Cambridge, 2010).

3 J.H. White, The History of Phlogiston Theory (1932).

4 For Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), see wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Rutherford.

5 For Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), see R.E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1733-73 (Philadelphia, 1997); idem, The Enlightened of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1773-1804 (Philadelphia, 2004).

6 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Harvard, Mass., 1950).

7 F.L. Holmes, Antoine Lavoisier – The Next Crucial Year: Or, the Sources of his Quantitative Method in Chemistry (Princeton, 1998); J. Jackson, A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat and the Race to Discover Oxygen (New York, 2005).

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2017-04-No3-White-Queens-in-Looking-Glass

MONTHLY BLOG 76, HUMANS AS COLLECTIVE TIME-TRAVELLERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Particularly in troubled times, it’s enticing to think of escaping not just to another place but to another time: a temporal bridge over troubled waters. In the old folk stories, an individual falls very soundly asleep … and then awakens, to his or her surprise, in another epoch completely. What a relief? Or perhaps not. There’s a myriad of potential destinations both past and future.

Sleeping Beauty, cursed by an evil fairy, lies dormant for one hundred years.1 (Sometimes her hand-maids sleep alongside her too). When she awakes, the Beauty is as young and bonny as ever. The world has grown older but she has not. Moreover, she is being kissed by a young and handsome prince (technically, one hundred years her junior), with whom she falls in love. The story is charming, with many potential meanings, both erotic and otherwise. But what if (a) she recoils from the kiss? or (b) she suddenly shrivels and dies, since she must be well over one hundred years old. That fate befalls ‘She’ in Rider Haggard’s She (1886): the enigmatic and imperious beauty has lived, by dark magic, for endless aeons but, once her real age catches up with her, she ages with extreme rapidity and expires.2 So much for tarrying outside Time.

2017-04 No1 sleeping beauty william breakspeare
In another variant from an American author in 1819, Rip Van Winkle drinks too heavily and falls asleep for over twenty years. (Hangovers sometimes feel like that). But no-one is kissing him welcome. Van Winkle wakes to find that his beard is long and matted, his rifle rusty, his neighbours changed, and his faithful dog disappeared.3 The story is an updating of a very old folk tale, which appears in many variants in different cultures. It makes a personal drama about change over time. Rip falls asleep as a subject of George III but awakes to find that he an American citizen. There is another change too. His ‘nagging’ wife is dead. In the tale, other ‘henpecked’ husbands in the village wish that they had a similar chance to escape. Ho ho (sarcastically): the benefits of time travel.

2017-04 No2 RipvanwinkleInterestingly, however, there are very obvious conceptual limitations within this imaginary process. Time itself hasn’t actually been stopped or reversed or turned into something different. It’s the individual who has, notionally, jumped from one epoch to another. Within the entire time-travel genre, which was greatly boosted by H.G. Wells’s ingenious Time Machine (1895), it’s axiomatic that the travelling is done by humans while Time continues to unfold as a unidirectional force, in its own mysterious but unalterable style. Its trajectory is often referred to as temporal ‘flow’. Or, more poetically, as ‘Time’s arrow’.

That non-stop background quality is needed to make time-travel stories work. The individual time-jumpers arrive in a new temporal location, either in the past or in the future. Generally, they are unharmed, if sometimes shaken or bemused (or naked, as in the husband of The Time Traveller’s Wife).4 Their subsequent encounters with other humans in either earlier or later worlds then lend themselves to comedy, romance, adventure, satire, terror, political philosophy, prophesy, and/or any combination of such reactions.5

Nonetheless, once in the new situation, the time-travellers find that Time is still flowing on equably. The aberrant circumstances which have permitted their personal shift has not stopped or otherwise disrupted the rest of the cosmos.6

One experiment with reversed-time living was imagined enjoyably by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871). The scatty White Chess-Queen experiences some of her life backwards. She cries: ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ first, and then pricks her finger painfully. Yet the White Queen does her time-reversal only fitfully. She doesn’t cry ‘Ho, ho, ho!’, as she would if she were yelling in a completely reversed temporal framework. Instead, she carries on talking to Alice in the normal way – not sdrawkcab.7
2017-04-No3-White-Queens-in-Looking-GlassIt’s virtually impossible to envisage absolutely everything in the world happening in total temporal reversal. When we run films backwards, often to amusing effect, we are still watching a sequence of images appear in the normal ‘onwards’ time-frame. We are not reversing Time or stepping outside our own temporal framework. If we were, then everything would be utterly transformed. Conversations, which unfold ‘onwards’, would be impossible in reverse-Time. We’d be getting younger, as well as speaking in reverse, thinking in reverse … including, no doubt, speaking before we think.8

Indeed, if Time did something totally astonishing, like disappearing down a cosmic black-plug-hole, then Space and everyone within Space-time would go there too. To our collective amazement and, no doubt, total consternation.

There is a cosmic ‘Chronology Protection Agency’, in the words of physicist Stephen Hawking.9 It binds each era into its own time, preventing it from overlapping or tangling with any other. And given that Time and Space constitute an integral continuum, it means that there is simultaneously a ‘Space-Time Protection Agency’ within the cosmos. Different experiences of motion and speed may occur within its ambit. At ultra-supersonic speeds, the process of time dilation will slow things down, affecting relative time measurements.10 None of those conditions, however, occur outside the framework Space-time.

Two observations follow. One is that we are all time-travellers, travelling collectively at the pace of Time, nano-second by nano-second – or, more accurately, at the pace of Space-time. We can’t jump off on our own. But we do have company for the ride.

And secondly, because we live in Space-time, we can study its manifestations. We are synchro-meshed into the immediate moment: the ever-changing Now! And we are also diachro-meshed into the long term, which means that we can think about both past and future.11 Time is our medium, around us, within us: in all our bodies and in our minds.

Sleeping Beauty began as a traditional folk tale, conveyed in classic form by Charles Perrault (1697), adapted by the Brothers Grimm (1812), and much reworked in literature, dance and film: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeping_Beauty.

H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, first published in The Graphic (1886/7).

3 From W. Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819). For antecedents and cultural variants, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rip_Van_Winkle.

4 A. Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife: A Novel (2004; 2014).

5 See A. Roberts, Science Fiction (2000); D. Wittenberg, Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (New York, 2013); J. Gleick, Time Travel: A History (2016).

6 P. Davies, How to Build a Time Machine (2001); J.R. Gott, Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time (2001); E. Everett and T. Roman, Time Travel and Warp Drives: A Scientific Guide to Shortcuts through Time and Space (Chicago, 2012); and M. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFOs and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY., 1988).

7 L. Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass (1871).

8 Incidentally, not all cultural systems describe Time as flowing ‘onwards’ or ‘backwards’. Some reverse those directions, identifying Time as coming from ‘in front’ and disappearing ‘behind’. And others prefer ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’. In all cases, however, there is one prime direction and its reverse.

9 S. Hawking, ‘The Future of the Universe’, in L. Howe and A. Wain (eds), Predicting the Future (Cambridge, 1993), p. 22.

10 P. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (1995), pp. 57-8.

11 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. xiv-xv, 19-25.

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2017-03 No1 wallpaper_stardust3

MONTHLY BLOG 75, HUMANS AS TIME-SPECIFIC STARDUST

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

‘We are stardust’, sang Joni Mitchell in ‘Woodstock’ (1970) soulfully and, as it transpires, presciently.1 Poets, song-lyricists and writers of scifi are often ahead of the scientific curve (as well as sometimes barking completely up the wrong tree). A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad (1896) had voiced a similar starry thought:

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.2

Today scientists confirm that the physical materials, from which humans are composed, ultimately originate from interstellar dust, which swirls throughout the cosmos. As it does so, it transports a range of elements which are the outcomes of distant galactic explosions. These prove to be vital for life on Earth. Our genetic blueprint comes in the form of the slowly evolving human genome. And our parents, whether with or (chiefly) without medical help, are our immediate progenitors. Yet, beyond that, all human bodies contain combinations of six core elements of calcium, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, plus five trace elements of chlorine, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and sulphur. These materials reach earth from outer space, in the form of stardust.

2017-03 No1 wallpaper_stardust3

Illus.1 Stardust Wallpaper
Source: http://wallpaperswide.com/star_dust-wallpapers.html

It’s a stirring thought, whilst simultaneously being rather romantic. This theory (with many rival variants) is known as Panspermia and has been around in scientific communities for some time.3 It seeks to explain the origins of the organic building blocks for all living beings, linking our small segment of the universe with the much, much wider context. ‘The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff’, remarked the American cosmologist Carl Sagan, adding the further striking thought that: ‘We are a way for the universe to know itself’.4 And a recent study extends the analysis to stress that humans are life-long dynamic works-in-progress, absorbing star-sourced organic nutrients from plants and using them constantly in renewing all our bodily cells.5

A summary might state that all living beings exist in Space (defining that phenomenon as stretching from our immediate physical locality into the farthest reaches of Outer Space), whilst Space is simultaneously within all living beings. As George Harrison and the Beatles sang (1967): ‘Life flows on within you and without you’.6 And since the arrow of Time is integrally linked with Space, it’s as true to remark that all living beings exist in Time, just as Time is also within all living beings. No surprises there.

Space as place is the easier phenomenon to understand, as it is visible in all its three-dimensional glory and locally tangible in the form of our immediate environments. Time, by contrast, is famously intangible and invisible. However, since the two are integrally linked, it may be argued that Space/place is actually the physical manifestation of Time/temporality. So a more accurate proposition is that all living creatures exist in Space-time, just as the combined force of Space-Time is simultaneously within all living creatures.7

What does that mean for people-as-stardust? It means that, as packages of living star-dust, we are time-specific. Individuals appear at one date and depart at another. The materials that make and continually remake us come from before our living existences and survive thereafter. But those same elements combine to form specific humans at specific points in Space-time. Incidentally, that proposition remains true even for those who believe that, via reincarnation, we live multiple lives. Each period of existence is still time-specific and sequential, so that any repeated lives are lived successively rather than concurrently.

Immediately, living in Time means that exhortations to positive self-help, which offer to teach Ten Steps to Achieving Anything You Set your Mind To, don’t really mean ‘anything’.8 Humans can’t stop Time or even alter its pace by a fraction. Hence, while people might sincerely want to be younger – or older –they can’t make themselves belong to another era which is not their own.

2017-03 No2a You Can Do Anything2017-03 No2b I want to be younger

Illus.2.1 YouTube and many other variants;
2.2 Muriel’s Good Sense of Humour, from
www.facebook.com/Muriels-Good-Sense-Of-Humour-Quotes-Pics-Sayings-166181823474070/

True, individuals sometimes manage to look younger – or older – than their actual years. They can also act younger – or older. They can try every known biological, medical, sporting and psychological method to modify their age-related physical condition. They can even try to fool the world by doctoring their birth certificates, if they think that would help. Yet people still can’t make themselves to have been born (say) one hundred years earlier than their actual birth-date – or wait to be born one hundred years later – no matter how much they might prefer an epoch change.

That proposition may seem a bit too fatalistic for go-getters in today’s aspirational culture. People can’t inhabit any era in history that they want. But, viewed the other way round, there is a reverse consolation. Each individual occupies his or her own specific slice of Space-time that can be taken by no other person. Twins, triplets or children of multiple births come very close. Yet they are still birthed in sequence and occupy neighbouring spaces. And the many other non-related people, who may be born on the same day at the same split-second, occupy their own specific segments of Space-time and have their own individual destinies. People’s life-chances may fall into broad patterns which can be analysed. Each specific trajectory, however, is individual. Thus (for example) only one of all those born in Ulm (S. Germany) on 14 March 1879 went on to become world-renowned.

Some theoretical physicists argue the opposite. They speculate whether it is possible for the same mix of physical materials to recombine at different times and in different places to form duplicates, not just of the human species, but of specific individuals, as known to history. The argument, put in non-technical terms, states that: ‘In an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen, and happen infinitely often’.9 Of course, there is a large proviso at the start of that sentence. But, given an infinite universe, there’s scope for endless permutations and material duplications.

Hence, it is suggested that at different times and places across the cosmos: ‘There may be a trillion Albert Einsteins’.10 That would mean countless physical replicas of one baby born in Ulm on 14 March 1879. What an apparent bonus for the cosmic stock of genius.

2017-03-No3-Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)

Illus.3 Multiple Images of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) aged 42, in official 1921 portrait as winner of Nobel Prize in Physics.

However, that multiple-beings argument does not take Time seriously, as an integral part of Space-time. It would be a major surprise to identity an identical physical replica of Albert Einstein, to say the least, at some other point in the galaxy … or even down the road, in Basingstoke. Yet there’s a big difference between finding a genetically identical twin and rediscovering a historically identical personage. To find a complete historical duplicate, we would have to go to a duplicate point in Time and Space.

An Einstein physically identical twin, born in another galaxy at another time, would have a different life: he would not have learned the same languages as did the 1879 Einstein, would not have learned the same mathematics and physics, would not have worked as a junior official in the Bern Patent Office, would not have encountered Jost Winteler, the Swiss linguist who wrote on language relativity and was an intellectual mentor, and so on and so forth. In short, it was not just nature but also nurture, as welded into his own lived experience, which made Einstein into the historically pre-eminent Einstein. Equally, in another era the reception of Einstein’s physics of relativity might also be completely different. Perhaps, in another galaxy many light years away, a pronouncement from a proxy-Einstein that E = mc 2 would be greeted with yawns of boredom and the remark: why labour the obvious?

While many things can be replicated within this cosmos, unidirectional Time cannot. So, while we are stardust, we are also, as living beings, time-specific combinations of stardust. Viewed one way, that’s frustrating. Viewed another way, each one has his/her personal slice of Space-time which is shared with no-one else. Optimistic/pessimistic? Either way unavoidable. Yet, in our minds, we can and do travel to different times and places … So we must cultivate our star-dusted brainpower and imaginations instead.

1 J. Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’ (1970): ‘We are stardust./ We are golden./ And we’ve got to get ourselves/ Back to the garden’.

2 A.E. Housman, ‘From Far, from Eve and Morning’, A Shropshire Lad, Poem 32 (first pub. 1896; in Penguin edn. 1956), p. 61.

3 F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (1981).

4 C. Sagan, Cosmos (1980); and see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xaj407ofjNE.

5 K. and I. Schrijver, Living with the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets and the Stars (2015) and interview in http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/150128-big-bang-universe-supernova-astrophysics-health-space-ngbooktalk/.

6 G. Harrison’s song on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), subsequently covered by many other musicians.

7 Again, a minority of analysts, myself included, prefer the formulation of Time-space, rather than Space-time, in recognition of the unidirectional leading power of Time. But the conventional usage is adopted here for the purposes of discussion.

8 See e.g. M. Seetubtim, ‘Ten Steps’, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mo-seetubtim/10-steps-to-conquering-an_b_8101046.html (2015; updated 2016).

9 P. Davies, Are We Alone? Implications of the Discovery of the Extraterrestrial Life (1995), p. 97.

10 Ibid., p. 98.

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