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MONTHLY BLOG 114, SELF-ISOLATION EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Engraving (1808) of Lord Rokeby (1713-1800),
a famous eighteenth-century self-isolator,
who looked like a wise old wizard
but whose actual message was obscure.

It’s not original to note that humans are a highly social species. But it’s only now becoming generally appreciated just how damaging a period of prolonged and enforced isolation from others can be. Basically, it’s bad news for both physical and mental health.1 Of course, some individuals do embrace silence and seek solitude. Maybe for spiritual reasons. Yet such conscious choices, which can be revoked at any time, are very different from enforced solitude, not of an individual’s seeking.

The eighteenth century in Britain provided two quirky individuals who famously created their own isolated lifestyles, cushioned by their private incomes. So what can be learned from their stories? No great revelation of enlightenment emerges. Instead, the two men have been slotted into the history of zany English eccentricity.2 They certainly both fitted into that category plausibly enough. Yet do their lifestyles convey some further message for humanity in the early summer of today’s special virus-avoiding Lockdown?

One of these isolates was the well-connected Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1713-1800). He was a landowner, with legal training and literary interests. In his thirties (1747-61), he became MP for Canterbury. There was nothing to suggest his impending eccentricity. Anyhow, at a certain point, he developed a passion for daily immersion in water for hours on end. At first, he walked from his country estate near Hythe (Kent), on the edge of Romney Marsh, to swim in the sea, bathing for hours until he was exhausted and had to be rescued. Then he constructed a private pool in a glass-house attached to his country mansion, which he refused to heat. Again he stayed for hours in the water, refusing company. He got nourishment chiefly from an infusion of beef tea; refused to see doctors; and claimed that he could best worship naturally, in the water and under the stars. Occasional visitors were treated to readings of his lengthy poems.

When Rokeby (rarely) appeared in public, he was taken for a foreigner, on account of his flowing locks and massive beard. Anecdotes circulated about his lifestyle; and prints were engraved (as shown above), to illustrate his hirsute appearance. His younger sister, the highly sociable literary lady and bluestocking Mrs Montagu, wrote sardonically that her brother had become a modern Diogenes: ‘he flies the life of London, and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom’.3 Ouch. Evidently his nearest and dearest were not impressed. His two younger sisters remained busy and productive: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), later dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’, and Sarah Scott (1723-95), the novelist and translator, whose Millennium Hall (1763) envisaged a harmonious community of women without men.4

For his part, Rokeby wrote and said nothing memorable, despite looking ever more like a wizard in his later years, He did not do anything to foster swimming or sea-bathing. His eccentric pastime remained a purely private matter, which ended only with his peaceful death in bed, unmarried and childless. His estate and the barony passed to a cousin.

What did all it mean? Rokeby’s lifestyle suggests a personal quest for ecological simplicity, before there was an ecological movement to join him or for him to join. He does not seem to have been personally unhappy; or, at any rate, did not announce any disquiet. Yet his story seems at very least to have been one of unrealised talents, particularly when contrasted with his siblings.

A second case of self-isolation was that of John Tallis (1675-1755). As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he stayed in bed for the last 30 years of his life, swathed in coverings and with a peg on his nose, in a darkened, draught-proof room in a country inn at Burcot (Worcestershire).5 He saw no-one but a few occasional visitors, impelled by curiosity – and his servants, who replaced his bed annually.

Insofar as he justified his strange lifestyle choice, Tallis claimed, to general bemusement, that his morbid fear of fresh air was triggered by an old beldame’s curse. Evidently, he had sufficient funds to pay for his lodging and minimal keep. And no family intervened to try to change his mind. Throughout, Tallis declined to seek medical or even spiritual help for what seemed to be a prolonged and debilitating physical and/or psychological malady.

By the end of his life, he was becoming classed among the ranks of great British eccentrics. His sad tale probably provided the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s later ballad The True Story of Goody Blake and Harry Gill (1798). That jingling poem recounted a malediction directed at a wealthy but hard-hearted farmer, who had no compassion for a poor old woman gleaning in his hedgerow.6 His penalty for an icy heart was then to lie abed, forever chilled:

Oh!  what’s the matter?  what’s the matter?
What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?
That evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still.
Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle grey, and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on his back,
And coats enough to smother nine.

Wordsworth’s imaginative evocation was much more vivid than anything communicated by Tallis, who gave no further explanation of his condition. The poet’s moral was that a flinty heart brought its own penalty. Property-owners should not begrudge the poor who gleaned in the fields and hedgerows, Wordsworth concluded pointedly.7

Tallis’s own inert self-isolation baffled everyone during his lifetime. Such a fatalistic belief in a personal curse already seemed like a relic of a bygone age, if that was indeed his motivation. It may simply have been an excuse for doing what he wanted, although his 30 year bed-rest did not seem very enjoyable. Certainly no witnesses to Tallis’s fate made any move to get him exorcised or the notional curse removed.

However, thanks to the transmuting power of poetry, this eccentric case of self-isolation prompted Wordsworth’s appeal for liberal warm-heartedness. ‘A-bed or up, by night or day;/ His teeth they chatter, chatter still,/ Now think, ye farmers all, I pray,/ Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill’. It’s always open to self-isolates to explain themselves to the wider world. But, if they don’t, then others will have a stab at doing so for them. After all, the moral is that isolates are not actually alone. The human community is watching, trying to detect a message.

ENDNOTES:

1 K.T. Rowe (ed.), Social Isolation, Participation and Impact upon Mental Health (New York, 2015); R. Fiorella, R. Morese and S. Palermo, Social Isolation: An Interdisciplinary View (2020).

2 J. Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1875); E. Sitwell, The English Eccentrics (1933); D. Long, English Country House Eccentrics (Stroud, 2012); S.D. Tucker, Great British Eccentrics (Stroud, 2015).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Robinson,_2nd_Baron_Rokeby.

4 J. Busse, Mrs Montagu, Queen of the Blues (1928); S.H. Myers, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1990).

5 Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1753), p. 123.

6 J.A. Sharpe, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), pp. 251-2.

7 W. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (1920), pp. 536-7.

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MONTHLY BLOG 113, LIGHT FROM THE LAMP OF EXPERIENCE

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Fig.1, A hand-held eighteenth-century lantern, its lighted candle providing an immediate pool of light.

‘The Lamp of Experience’ is a marvellous phrase. A lantern throws light. It does not insist dogmatically but instead conveys sufficient illumination for good judgment. ‘Experience’ is also a vital component of the phrase. It implies not just a list of facts from history but also the capacity to cogitate about past events and to learn from them. Moreover, experience can be gleaned not just from each individual’s personal life but from the collective experiences of humanity as a whole.

During the current pandemic, for example, people can learn instructive lessons from comparable past global disasters. Factual histories provide suggestive evidence of what was done, what was not done, and what could have been done better.1 And imaginative literature allows people to share the range of subjective emotions and reactions which may be triggered by great and unexpected disasters.2 It allows for a sort of mental rehearsal. Needless to say, imaginative fiction is not written primarily for utilitarian purposes. And far from all happenings that can be conjectured will actually transpire. (Time Travel provides a pertinent example). Nonetheless, imaginative literature, even when imagining things that are technically impossible, contributes to the stock of human creativity. And thoughts and dreams, as much as deeds and misdeeds, all form part of the human experience.

There is additionally a pleasant irony in on-line references to ‘the Lamp of Experience’. Various web-lists of famous quotations attribute the dictum to Edward Gibbon (1737-94), Britain’s nonpareil historian. The full statement runs as follows: ‘I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past’. But that formulation does not accord with Gibbon’s impersonally magisterial and often ironic style. The words are spikier, and more personalised.

In fact, their true author is also credited on the web; and maybe with time the accurate citations will crowd out the error. True, the general observation does not lose its force by being misattributed. Yet credit should go where credit was due. The reference was first made in a celebrated speech by a Virginian planter-turned-lawyer, named Patrick Henry (1736-99).3 He was an exact contemporary of Gibbon. But they differed in their politics. Henry was an American critic of British rule. In 1765, he used his knowledge of legal precedents to argue that the Westminster government’s attempt at imposing the unpopular Stamp Tax upon the American colonists was unconstitutional.4

Lawyers, like historians, were accustomed to weighing and pondering evidence before making judgments. In this case, Henry was using the ‘lamp’ of past experience for radical purposes. His arguments, while rejected by Britain, were popular in the American colonies; and in 1776 Henry became the first Governor of Virginia post-Independence. Manifestly, his appeal to experience had not produced universal agreement. As already noted, studying history provides options, not a universal blueprint for what it to be done.

Fig.2 Engraved portrait of the intent figure of Patrick Henry (1736-99), his eye-glasses pushed up onto his lawyer’s wig: a Virginia planter who turned to law and politics, Patrick Henry served as first and also sixth post-colonial Governor of the State of Virginia.

What, then, is the appeal and power of the past? The truth is that Henry’s dictum, while evocative, does not go nearly far enough. Experience/history provides much, much more than a pool of light. It provides the entire bedrock of existence. Everything comes from the past. Everyone learns from the past. The cosmos, global biology, languages, thought-systems, the stock of knowledge, diseases, human existence …  arrive in the present from the past.5

All that is because Time is unidirectional. Humans live in the present but have to rely upon the collective databank of past human experience. That great resource is not just a lamp, sending out a single beam. Instead, collective experience provides the entire context and content of surviving successfully in Time. All humans, as living histories, are part of the process, and contribute their personal quota. The better, fuller and more accurate is that collective knowledge, the better the long-term prospects for the species.

Humans in history are restless problem creators. Yet they are also impressive problem solvers. It’s time, not just for renewed human escape from an obvious viral danger, but equally for urgent collective action to halt, and where possible to reverse, the accelerating environmental degradation, which is damaging the global climate and global biodiversity – let alone the global habitat of humans.

Now needed – not just a Lamp but a mental Sunburst, drawing upon experience and transmuting into sustained action. Stirring times! What comes from the past will have a mighty effect on the future. And decisions taken in the present contribute crucially too.
1 See e.g. M. Honigsbaum, A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics: Death, Panic and Hysteria, 1830-1920 (2013; ppbk 2020)..

2 D. Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; and many later edns); A. Camus, La Peste (Paris, 1947), in Eng. transl. by S. Gilbert as The Plague (1960).

3 P. Henry, ‘Speech at 2nd Virginia Convention, 23 March 1775’, in L. Copeland and L.W. Lamm (eds), The World’s Great Speeches (New York, 1999), pp. 232-3; T.S. Kidd, Patrick Henry: First among Patriots (New York, 2011).

4 P.D.G. Thomas, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763-9 (Oxford, 1975); E.S. and H.M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1974; 1995).

5 P.J. Corfield, ‘All People are Living Histories’ (2007), available on PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/essaysonwhatishistory/pdf1

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MONTHLY BLOG 112, ON RECONSIDERING THE (INTERRUPTED) FUTURE

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Fig.1 Silhouettes of grass in fog

It is not possible to learn from the future that has not yet unfolded. The unidirectional nature of Time forbids it. So when people assert airily: ‘We don’t learn from the past’, I am incredulous. What? Of course, humans must learn from the past because they can’t learn from the future – and the unstable present, in which they learn, is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the past.

However, while humans can’t learn from the future, it is certainly pertinent to think again about future expectations, now that routine life has been so suddenly interrupted. Diaries that were full of engagements and plans have suddenly been voided. The clear future has become foggy. It’s disconcerting but educational, particularly for those, like myself, living voluntarily under something near to house-arrest for the duration of the health emergency.

In fact, humans have a lot of advance knowledge about the long-term future. One certainty, confirmed by universal past experience, is that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die. Generally, however, humans manage to live their daily lives without dwelling on that thought. But, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic – a contemporary plague – an awareness of the reality and ubiquity of death is sharpened. It’s a valuable jolt. Remember to finish projects; to express affection; to help others; to enjoy every immediate minute; to make the mental leap into long-term history which will continue whatever; and to breathe deeply.

Then there’s the immediate future. That’s much more under personal control. Coming through the fog more clearly. Living indoors and making minimal trips outside heightens appreciation of the usefulness of daily routines. It helps to have a structure to the day, without over-organising. Remember to exercise; to laugh; to contact friends; to eat healthily; to think about others; to do a daily crossword; to study history; to tend the plants; to listen to music (sometimes to sing); and (vital for me personally) to write.

Yet the most problematic area of the suddenly interrupted future is the uncertainty of the intermediate span of the soon-to-follow weeks, months and years. Very far ahead will look after itself. Close at hand can be managed. But the intermediate future is the foggiest of all. Very disconcerting. For how long will the lockdown continue? Will the containment policy work? For how long will the population consent to the current state of affairs? Will historians judge the government’s efforts kindly or unkindly? Will the laid-back Swedish approach to the health emergency prove to have been the right one? How far will life in Britain be radically changed once the crisis is over? No-one knows.

Informed guesses can be ventured, based upon past experience. One pattern suggests that the people – and particularly those at the ‘foot’ of the social hierarchy – will want major reforms, after the great upheaval and sacrifices of a collectively fought war. Yet the actual outcome is unknown.

The foggy shapelessness of the intermediate future contains threats and promises. Remember to roll with the punches; to keep a measured optimism; to avoid being disconcerted by history’s capacity to spring surprises; to recall also the staying power of history’s deep continuities; to be ready to resume life outdoors and on the move; to enjoy hugging friends and family again; to look for the wood in the trees – the big picture in the daily details – the pattern emerging from the fog; and, above all, to embrace the unknown future, which will become the past from which humans can learn. Unseen, social energies are being recharged. Through the fog,  community options are emerging. Yet only Time will reveal the precise story, as it always does.

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MONTHLY BLOG 111, THREE RULES FOR WRITING A REGULAR BLOG

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

 

Fig.1 After Henry Robert Morland,
Writing by Candlelight (mid-C18)

Firstly and inevitably: have something to say.1 No point in writing just to fill the blank page. And, more particularly, decide on the topic at least two or three days in advance. That system gives a good chance to mull over ideas, phrases, and half sentences, in quiet moments well before writing. (Such cogitations are good subjects to think about while on a long, non-taxing walk, or while swimming up and down in a quiet pool). Lateral thinking and inventiveness is a great prelude to the sequential progression of writing. And the more that ideas have been mulled over beforehand, the easier the writing becomes. It flows as if from inner dictation. A good style should then be conversational, not didactic.

Secondly: dedicate a quiet place and a good slab of unbroken time for the actual writing process. Ban emails, regular mail, phone-calls, texts, real-life visits, and all other distractions for the duration. Press right on to the end. In the event of any necessary stoppage to check sources or for any other reason, keep the break as short as possible – and don’t use it as an excuse to divert into another task, no matter how urgent. Remember the story of Coleridge in 1797, when he had written 54 lines of his enigmatic poem Kubla Khan. He was disrupted by ‘a person on business from Porlock’. When the visitor departed an hour later, Coleridge found, to his mortification, that the muse had left him.2 The poem remained A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment. Whether it would or would not have been an even greater work if twice the length, and/or whether the ‘person’ was a real visitor or a proxy in Coleridge’s mind for his inability to complete, does not matter. ‘Porlock’ is the codeword for an untimely break in literary concentration. So take care to avoid being Porlocked, while in creative flow. (Writing longer works, which cannot be completed in one session, requires a different strategy. Yet the same principle applies: learn to concentrate. It’s a great ability to acquire, in this era of multiple electronic distractions.)

Thirdly: embed the writing in its context, with footnotes or short references in brackets, if appropriate. The point is not to make a show of learning; or, even less, to bore impatient readers. Nonetheless, it’s helpful for them to know when authors are relying on their own invention and when they are using sources or citing information which can be corroborated. (It’s especially important, when fake news and information are proliferating, to know that authors have not simply made up the evidence that they are quoting in support of their case). In other words, citations supply intellectual scaffolding for original thoughts. New insights build upon the existing stocks of knowledge. Retrospectively, indeed literary detectives can unpick the background building blocks of even the most off-the-wall creative works: John Livingston Lowes did just that in inspired style when sleuthing the origins of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.3 Writers of BLOGs are considerably more earthbound than was Coleridge. But all are using words to communicate. All with a mixture of originality and authenticated information. Then end with a ‘snappy dictum’, such as the following (ten words): Regular BLOGS need uninterrupted time to fuse inspiration and information.  

ENDNOTES:

1 Please note that there are plenty of web-BLOGPOSTS on this very theme.

2 As recounted by Coleridge in Preface to 1816 edition of his poems: see E.H. Coleridge (ed.), The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1912; in 1964 reprint), p. 296.

3 J.L. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of Imagination (1927; and many later edns).

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MONTHLY BLOG 110, THE (POLITICAL) RED-GREEN ALLIANCE

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Call it a political RED-GREEN alliance. Call it a loose political RED-GREEN federation. Even a move towards a full-blown RED-GREEN party merger? But enough shilly-shallying. It’s time for action.

The global climate emergency makes that clear enough. If there are any continuing doubters, then mark the words of David Attenborough to the World Economic Forum in January 2019. Or study the data provided in the 2019 State of the Global Climate report by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation, based in Geneva.Or heed calls from Greta Thunberg and many schoolchildren for urgent action, not distant promises. Or view images of exceptional wildfires in Australia and Spain; abnormally extended droughts in Somalia and parts of the USA; unseasonal floods and rainfall in Brazil, India, Thailand and many other countries; and melting glaciers in Antarctica.3

Everyone needs to take action; and political parties should take a lead. Needless to say, organisations in opposition have less power than those in office. But it is simply not true that those outside Westminster/Whitehall are toothless, fangless lap-poodles. Governments respond to public opinion, public pressure, public lobbying, public agitation, public emergencies. Look at the way that green issues are zooming to the forefront of politics, far ahead of the rate at which Green politicians are gaining control of central government power.4

It’s more than time for political parties to move out of their traditional comfort-zones. And the defeat of the Left in the 2019 general election shows that the electorate is also changing – and not in favour of the opposition in its current form.

What should the Labour Party in Britain do? Keep its proud red flag and its commitment to redistribution of power to the people and the ending of vast and unproductive economic inequalities. But simultaneously it should ally itself politically with the Green Party. And that means an active alliance, with electoral agreements, locally, regionally and nationally.

What should the Greens in Britain do? Keep their proud green flag and their commitment to ecological transformation and the ending of vast and unproductive economic inequalities. But simultaneously it should ally itself politically with the Labour Party. And that means an active alliance, with electoral agreements, locally, regionally and nationally.

Both parties share great swathes of common ground, so that an alliance is feasible as well as desirable. Changes should be made with reasonable speed, to show the electorate and the Tory government that the opposition has woken to the need for fundamental transformation. It’s a pledge of sincerity to begin with self-reform at home. And it strengthens campaigns to bring red-green issues together to the political forefront, which can be done firstly from opposition, and later from government.

A PERSONAL NOTE: This BLOG is written by someone who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1959 and remembers the days when the party had millions of card-carrying members. During the years, she has been at times in accord with the Labour leadership; at other times not.    But the point of being a persistent grass-root is not to be perfectly happy at every moment.

Instead, party members make whatever personal contribution they can to a long-term movement, which is bigger and more important than them. Keir Starmer is right that the Labour Party needs to be seen as a continuing force for good. And, in these turbulent times, the big next step is to work hand-in-hand with the Greens. In alliance – in federation – in merger: the details matter less than the urgent need to renovate the Left and cope with the climate emergency.

1 https://www.coolearth.org/2019/01/the-garden-of-eden-is-no-more-sir-david-attenborough.

2 https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/climate/wmo-statement-state-of-global-climate

3 www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/09/glacial-melting-in-antarctica-may-become-irreversible.

4 For a recent overview, see ‘Pathways to Power’, Green European Journal (2020): https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/pathways-to-power-how-green-parties-join-governments/

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MONTHLY BLOG 108, Why must Humans beware the Midas Touch?

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PJC REVIEWS

CHARLES DICKENS

 A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843)

ADAPTED FOR STAGE PERFORMANCE

BY LAURA TURNER (2010; updated 2019)

Viewed at Palace Theatre, Appleton Gate, Newark NG24 1JY

16 November 2019

Cast (alphabetically): The Chapterhouse Touring Company –

Gareth Cary; Matthew Christmas; Eliza Jade; Graham Hill; Alexandra Lansdale;

Amy Llewellyn; Zachery Price

Director: Antony Law


‘Bah! Humbug!’ With those great words, Scrooge launches an evening of festive entertainment and a ripple of appreciation spreads through the audience. The central theme is set. When is it right to be frank, forthright and unsentimental? To speak the truth as one sees it. But when does such behaviour become surly, selfish and inhumane? Dismissing genuine concerns as simply sentimental and confected? There is a special resonance to such questions right now since an election campaign is in train when the Prime Minister seeking re-election has dismissed concerns about personal safety and the coarsened state of public discourse, as emotionally expressed by a female MP, as ‘Humbug!’

On stage, the youthful cast of seven actors throw themselves energetically into recreating the bustling life of mid-nineteenth-century London. All but one play multiple roles, including the ghost of Scrooge’s former partner Jacob Marley. Their parts are rather stereotyped; but they make an effective ensemble, under the skilful stage direction of Antony Law.

One character, however, has to undergo moral growth and change from being an old skinflint into a sentient, feeling human being. He is Ebenezer Scrooge, as played by Matthew Christmas, who is visibly youthful and good-looking. Does that matter? Surely not, Acting is make-believe. If Sarah Bernhardt in her 70s, with a wooden leg, could make audiences cry when she played Hamlet, then a young actor can play an old man, or woman, come to that. Christmas was stern and inflexible enough as Scrooge in the opening scenes; but perhaps he needed to convey a bit more thoroughly that Scrooge had spent an entire, dreary lifetime in amassing money, and in doing nothing but that. His avarice should be imprinted in his visage. Anyhow, once Scrooge began to soften, Christmas played the role very well. His look of initial surprise at himself when returning to the world of emotions was excellent.

The outcome of the story as a whole, as Dickens had intended, is heart-warming. There is a danger that scenes involving ghosts (four appear during the play) can be unintentionally risible. This production avoided that outcome, by playing everything to the hilt, with full intensity. There is another danger that scenes involving youthful death – in this case the demise of the handicapped but perennially cheerful Tiny Tim – can become too sentimentalised and, as a result, also unintentionally comic. No danger in this production. The actors switched immediately into a clear and still rendering of an appropriate Christmas carol, unaccompanied. It was very moving. Indeed, they sang a number of carols throughout the play, underpinning the theme of festive cheer. What a bonus to find a troupe of good actors, all with excellent singing voices.

So what does the story of A Christmas Carol mean? In one sense, Dickens’s moral is clear and simple. People should care for their fellow humans. Heartless austerity is indeed heartless. Individuals should give personal help willingly, not just for the benefit of those in want but also because caring for others is a means of unlocking one’s own heart, which otherwise would remain frozen. To be complete, a human has to be part of society. Not necessarily married or dwelling within a group. But emphatically not living in chill segregation from others.

At the same time, there is a hidden power within the story in the lure of money. Dickens is well aware that it’s not just love which makes the world go round. Money provides the basic means of subsistence but can also effect so much more. It constitutes a great source of social status and esteem, as well as confers the economic power of capital. Scrooge is an old skinflint. But he is also a respectable pillar of society and an employer, with the potential to give great happiness to others. Moreover, Scrooge’s diligence and his application are admirable qualities. Dickens is not encouraging people to live idly or without employment. Nor is he trying to envisage a different structure for society. He campaigned for reforms (for example, to the prison system), not revolutionary change.  Unlike (say) his contemporaries Robert Owen or Karl Marx, Charles Dickens is not a visionary with alternative communitarian economic models in mind.

Instead, his challenge to the world is to re-infuse everyday transactions with moral values. People must work for money but not love it too much. Gold can corrode the heart, as in the classic tale of King Midas. If everything within touching range turns to gold, then nothing is left to eat and drink. Other people too become lifeless, as King Midas killed his little daughter with a touch. Scrooge has, through his lifestyle, destroyed his own heart and feelings. He is outwardly rich and powerful, but innerly tragic.

Capping the accumulation of immense wealth and undertaking a degree of social redistribution can thus be advocated as a moral as well as a political good cause for democratic societies to undertake. The sort of economic policies that the very rich deride as the ‘politics of envy’. They certainly won’t like to hear that they must redeploy some of their wealth for their own good, as well as for the good of others. They will join Scrooge with further reiterations of ‘Bah! Humbug!’ So how are attitudes to change? It’s not enough to rely upon fictional Dickensian ghosts to create a moral awakening across society at large.

Is it being too fanciful to consider that climate change will bring about a fundamental change? In a sense, unprecedented floods, storms, heatwaves, fires and rising seas are signs from Planet Earth that humans are at risk of behaving like a collective King Midas: destroying with their touch the very things that they love the most. These thoughts are perhaps straying too far from the evening of collective good cheer provided by the youthful payers on stage in Newark. They indicate, however, that Dickens’s fable – and Laura Turner’s dramatisation of its scenes of moral redemption – are genuinely thought-provoking. Don’t love money too much! Great wealth is a curse! Make friendships! Save Planet Earth! And enjoy the midwinter festival!

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MONTHLY BLOG 107, Reasons for unrepentant (relative) Optimism about the coming of Green Politics

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Fig.1 Greta Thunberg (b. 2003),
Swedish environmental activist;
author of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019)

In response to my October BLOG about Greener Cities, I got many queries about how I could plausibly state that ‘I am an unrepentant optimist’? In fact, I should have said an ‘unrepentant (relative) optimist’, since it’s clear that not all is currently well with Planet Earth. Things would be better without today’s growing number of major fires, heatwaves, droughts, tempests, floods, icemelts, and rising seas. So I am far from taking the ultra-optimist’s view that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

But, short of adopting a totally Panglossian outlook, it is possible, indeed necessary, to remain optimistic that actions can be taken in time to control the adverse effects of global warming. Humans are not only problem-creators but also problem- solvers. In this case, the challenge is undeniably great. It will require significant changes from not only big business and big politics (using that term for the networks of national and international institutions) but also from individuals. Global patterns of transport, trade, energy generation; and energy consumption will have to be fundamentally adapted. And at an individual level, people will have to think again about their food and drink; their clothing; their systems for warming houses; their transport; their sports; their holidays; and, indeed, everything. It is asking a lot. Especially as remedial actions will need to be adopted at both macro- and micro-levels simultaneously.

Nonetheless, here are four arguments for (relative) optimism. Governments and big businesses have paid attention to scientific warnings in the past, and then taken successful remedial action. In the 1970s, it was first reported that there was a widening gap in the ozone layer, which shields Planet Earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. The culprits were chemicals known familiarly as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators, and blowing agents for foams and packaging materials. An international agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol (1987), then launched decisive change. CFCs were banned.

Over time, all nations around the world have signed up to the Protocol. And in May 2018 a new scientific survey confirmed that the ozone hole has diminished significantly.1 Humans still have to remain vigilant, since the workings of the upper atmosphere are volatile and not easy to study.2 Nonetheless, collective action has been undertaken; and is working.

A second example can be taken from individual actions to renounce a social practice, which was once seen as a great source of personal pleasure. Smoking tobacco in cigars and cigarettes is disappearing. Not at the same rate in all countries around the world. Nor at the same rate among all social classes. Yet, globally, humans are entering into what has been well described as the ‘tobacco-endgame’.3 For example, in the case of Britain, it is hoped that the entire country may become smoke-free by 2030, according to a health report in July 2019.4 Progress in curbing smoking has been triggered by many factors. Medical warnings paved the way from the 1950s onwards, at first cautiously, and then, with more definitive research, more emphatically. Supportive government policies eventually helped too. Above all, however, the slow but eventually decisive shift in individual and communal attitudes was crucial.

Up to and including most of the 1960s, it was considered ‘cool’ to smoke and rude to refuse a friend’s offer of a cigarette. Over time, those attitudes have been completely reversed. Many older people can still remember their personal struggles to quit. Younger people, if they are lucky, never get caught by the habit in the first place. They have no memories of pubs, cinemas, tube trains and other public places being clogged with tobacco fumes – or of their hair and clothes reeking unpleasantly. Again, the battle against smoking is far from won. There are still skirmishes and diversionary tactics (as from e-cigarettes) along the way.5 Yet the trend is becoming clear. As is the crucial role of individual decision-making and active participation in the process.

The story of Prohibition in the USA in 1919 offers an instructive contrast. There the legislative ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was well intentioned. Drinking as such was never made illegal; but aggregate consumption was indeed reduced. However, the policy was introduced too abruptly and without widespread public support. The outcome was evasion on an epic scale, boosting illicit stills and bootlegging gangsters. Other side-effects included a boom in hypocrisy and contempt for the law. Campaigners for a more rational system managed to repeal the ban in 1933, leaving the different US states to adopt their own policies.6 The contrast between alcohol’s survival, despite Prohibition, and nicotine’s slow demise is instructive. Government policies, health advisors and medical practitioners can and do play significant roles. But on big questions which affect people’s intimate personal behaviour on a day-by-day basis, structural policies have to work with, not against, public opinion. Hence the question of how that state-of-many-collective-minds is formed and sustained becomes crucial.

So here is a third reason for (relative) optimism on global warming. Public opinion, fuelled by young people like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is being everywhere encouraged to turn in favour of urgent action. True, the mechanisms for channelling such attitudes into the political system are indirect and slow-working. However, what is happening now seems like part of a Zeitgeist shift of immense significance. The young are numerous, vocal, and willing to campaign. Furthermore, people of all ages know that the human species has no other domicile than Planet Earth. People of many different political persuasions are showing new interest in green policies. And people in all parts of the world are witnessing the increased incidence of freak weather. The voices of sceptics and deniers are waning.7 Getting collective action to harness this rising tide of opinion will depend upon big politics being able and willing to channel the tide successfully – and upon big business becoming aware and either adjusting its actions, or being made to do so. Big demands, which entail challenging big vested interests. Yet these demands are not impossible ones. Vigorous explorations are already being undertaken to find alternative technologies. Such game-changing innovations may alter the nature of the decisions that need to be made. Politicians need to show the same willingness to respond positively, in the face of an accumulating emergency.

And, lastly, a degree of activism (whether driven by pessimism or optimism) is needed from everyone, to add force to the changing Zeitgeist. The alternative is fatalism, which only makes a bad situation worse. True, being optimistic is easier for those with optimistic temperaments. Yet even those who feel nothing but gloom are called upon, in this climate emergency, to transmute their valid anxieties into pressure for change. Relative pessimism can be as great a goad to call for remedial action, as can relative optimism. ‘Climate change constitutes a global emergency!’ ‘Let’s take countervailing action!’ All can lend their voices to swell the tide of public opinion.

ENDNOTES:

1 S. Pereira, report on Ozone Layer dated 1/5/2018 for Newsweek 27 October 2019: https://www.newsweek.com/nasa-hole-earths-ozone-layer-finally-closing-humans-did-something-771922

2 E.A. Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (Oxford, 2003); S.O. Andersen and K.M. Sarma, Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History (2002).

3 [British Medical Journal], India: The Endgame for Tobacco Conference (2013).

4 S. Barr, report dated 23 July 2019 in The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/smoking-ban-uk-end-cigarettes-tobacco-health-green-paper-a9016636.html

5 S. Gabb, Smoking and its Enemies: A Short History of 500 Years of the Use and Prohibition of Tobacco (1990).

6 D. Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2010); J.J. Binder, Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition (Amherst, 2017);

7 G.T. Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis (Dordrecht, 2013); J. Fessmann (ed.), Strategic Climate Change Communications: Effective Approaches to Fighting Climate Change Denial (Wilmington, 2019); S. Maloney, H. Fuenfgeld and M. Gramberg, Local Action on Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints (2017).

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MONTHLY BLOG 106, Cities Greener Still and Greener

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Scrapbook Silhouettes: available EBay (2019)

Towns and cities are wonderful human creations. They allow large numbers of people to live together at high density, reasonably successfully, without spreading all over Planet Earth. The mixture of collective and individual organisation that enables this process to happen and to sustain itself is impressive and admirable.1 And, without concentrated cities and towns as living spaces, it would be extremely difficult to accommodate the Earth’s 7.7 billion humans (at the latest count in September 2019) – a demanding species.

Now, however, it’s time for a major step-change in the characteristics of the prevailing urban environment worldwide. All towns and cities must go greener, much, much greener. It’s true that some urban places are already pleasantly green. And all, even the most concrete-based urban settlements have at least some city parks and green spaces, acting as urban lungs.

Yet a programme of Cities Greener Still and Greener needs a complete urban revamp and restructuring. It is required partly for ecological reasons. The impending crisis of global overheating provides the immediate call to action on behalf of all species world-wide. And human-biological needs give a subsidiary impetus to all urban leaders and planners, now that much more is becoming known about the beneficial effects of greenery (trees, plants, wildlife) upon human health and wellbeing.2

A full programme for profound urban ecological change will require structural changes to transportation systems, domestic and industrial heating systems, and so much else besides. Improvements to air quality must be a priority. This BLOG, however, is not the place for a full manifesto on behalf greenery and sustainable cities, although I have no doubt that green policies will, sooner or later, have to be adopted everywhere.3

These thoughts express some immediate hobby-horses, which a personal BLOG provides a chance to exercise. So here are four imperatives relating to planting urban trees/bushes/greenery; sowing/planting grasses and wild plants; restoring lost urban rivers and streams; and adopting permeable paving wherever possible. The aim is to banish unbroken swathes of concrete. That stern and rigid material has manifold uses; but, as currently adopted, it is stifling the earth, which is too important to be so mistreated. Not only does the making of concrete involve harmful processes which add to global warming, but the greyspread of concrete is destroying the natural infrastructure of the soil and hence seriously damaging processes of fertilisation, pollination, flood control, oxygen production and water purification. Environmentalists as well as architects and planners are beginning to warn that massy developments based upon this rigid and impermeable material are storing up problems for the not-very distant suture. ‘Simply pouring concrete is doing more harm than good’.4

Trees and Bushes: it’s not enough to give urban dwellers more opportunities of going out of town to visit forests; and/or to complain about the destruction of forests in the Amazon, although both of those are worthwhile campaigns. But instead trees and bushes should be planted in the cities – everywhere. In every road and courtyard and backyard and corner. And, if there’s no room in the ground, then the trees and bushes should be in big tubs and planters. Absolutely everywhere. Millions and millions of trees and bushes. Old city centres, with a maze of small streets, are great places to walk around. Greater still with tubs of trees and bushes everywhere. New city avenues, boulevards, urban thoroughfares, bypasses – all need trees and greenery. Precisely which species can survive and thrive in each different town or city environment is a matter for tree specialists and urban landscapers to advise. But greenery is the universal requirement, for better air quality, better visual impact, and better lives for humans plus for all forms of urban wildlife.

Tree-in-a-tub: from www.fromoldbooks.org (2019)

Sowing Grasses and Planting Plants: Suitably hardy plants, wild or cultivated, as well as grasses, which grow well without careful tending should be sown in every bit of earth, including in unused large areas of neglected ground and every small patch at the feet of trees or anywhere else, such as railway sidings. Plants and grasses are environmentally favourable for wildlife and insects, as well as pleasant for humans. And where there are opportunities for community gardening, those options should be embraced as well. Already some people spontaneously grow plants at the foot of trees in the roads where they live. And Lambeth Council in London has already begun a creative Biodiversity Policy across the Borough to the same effect (and more). The programme is bringing huge benefits – ecological, cultural, economic, health, and community – for a comparatively small outlay.

Such initiatives deserve not just congratulations but immediate imitation everywhere. In its support, Lambeth Council cites an eminent and idiosyncratic Victorian who lived in the Borough: John Ruskin, the pioneering critic of untrammelled industrialism and environmental degradation. He praised the restorative power of nature: ‘It is written on the arched sky; it looks out from every star. It is the poetry of nature; it is that which uplifts the spirit within us’.5  Well, it’s not the sort of language which is usually found in official documents; but entirely relevant. Ruskin would be proud.

Wild Flowers © Clipart 2019

Restoring Lost Streams and Rivers: Restoring lost rivers is trickier, since in many cases they flow in culverts under roads and buildings. Nonetheless, they are integral parts of the urban environmental ecology and should be respected, uncovered wherever possible, and enjoyed. It’s an excellent as well as urgent new challenge to the ingenuity of engineers and urban landscape designers. Such rethinking is part of a revised attitude to cities and their terrain, which should not be built over heedlessly.6 London is one of many places which have secret watery undergrounds. Its lost rivers have their own devotees; and people eagerly attend talks and join walks along their courses.7

There are also more ambitious plans for river restoration wherever possible. For example, in Lewisham’s Chinbrook Meadows a section of the River Quaggy (great name) has been uncovered, as something beneficial in itself but also as part of a wider water management project.8 The park has gained in amenities and popularity; wildlife has been assisted; and the wetland serves as an overflow area in time of flooding, protecting local homes and businesses. This creative feat of reverse engineering is an admirable portent for a future that is more nature- and human-friendly, as well as more practically sustainable. Not every urban river and stream will be easily restored; and town dwellers have to resolve not to throw litter into running waterways, once visible again. But these challenges are live ones, here and now!

The unremarked outfall of London’s Fleet River under Blackfriars Bridge: image from website for Paul Talling’s zestful exploration of London’s Lost Rivers (2011),
https://www.londonslostrivers.com/river-fleet.html

Permeable Paving: It’s depressing to realise that a very ingenious invention which uses concrete and still allows cars to park without stifling the earth has long been known but is not used at all widely. There are numerous forms of permeable paving. One takes the form of a concrete lattice, which allows grass to grow within the grid. (And if the climate does not encourage grass, then earth or sand fill the gaps). Water drains simply and naturally into the ground; and excess runoffs at times of heavy rain or flooding are minimised. Needless to say, this system is not suitable for all terrains and climates; and there are practical limits to the quantity of traffic and load that porous paving can bear. Indeed, a number of alternatives are being developed concurrently, using plastic or asphalt.

So porous paving exists;9 but is not (yet) used sufficiently. It seems clear that more urgent effort is needed, to research and development of such systems, and to make them easier and cheaper to use. Builders and engineers who are currently accustomed to schemes for widespread concretisation (yes, the word exists) will have to rethink their ways. But they represent buccaneering professions which are used to facing challenges. The future now requires working with nature, not stifling or attempting to erase it – for the obvious reason that outraged nature has a very determined way of striking back.

Advertisement for Grasscrete ®: Concrete Paver System (2019)

Envoi: Where has this BLOG come from? I am an urban historian who loves towns and cities, and who has long been meditating on these themes. I first saw grass-crete in Switzerland in the mid-1980s and was sure that I had seen the future – only to find that the universal future of porous paving has been somewhat delayed. Today’s debates about the problems of excess water run-off from concreted land as well as the wider context of the accelerating climate emergency have triggered me into writing down my thoughts.

So where is this BLOG going? It’s my way of bearing witness, of joining the tide of protest at the present dire state of Planet Earth. I believe that human beings are noted problem solvers as well as problem creators. It’s true that urgent action on climate change is needed to accompany the fine words from many (not all) of today’s politicians.

Nonetheless, I am an unrepentant optimist that humans will react positively in response to collective danger.10 Today’s warnings from scientists, campaigners, and many thousands of young people globally cannot be ignored for much longer. Transformative action is needed, learning from past experience to new effect. And that includes local initiatives, in every town and city, where many green micro-improvements will together promote greener still macro-change.

ENDNOTES:

1 For a panoptic historical survey, see collectively the essays in P. Clark (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (Oxford, 2013).

2 K. Nilsson and others (eds), Forests, Trees and Human Health (Elsevier, 2006; New York, 2010); [US. Dept. of Agriculture/ Forest Service], Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-Being: A Research Summary (Washington DC, 2018); Q. Li, Into the Forest: How Trees can help you Find Health and Happiness (2019).

3 See e.g. new thinking in T. Elkin, Reviving the City: Towards Sustainable Urban Development (1991); and recent work on ecological cities.

4 From J. Watts, ‘Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth’, The Guardian, 25 Feb. 2019: see https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/25/concrete-the-most-destructive-material-on-earth. See also a kinder but still warning analysis in A. Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material History (2012).

5 See details of Lambeth Biodiversity Action Plan, 2019-24, in https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/lpl-lambeth-biodiversity-action-plan-2019-20.pdf

6 K. Perini and P. Sabbon, Urban Sustainability and River Restoration: Green and Blue Infrastructure (2016); M. Knoll and others (eds), Rivers Lost, Rivers Regained: Rethinking City-River Relations (Pittsburgh, PA, 2017).

7 P. Talling, London’s Lost Rivers (2011) and associated website; T. Bolton, London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide (Devizes, 2014).

8 Case Study: Quaggy Flood Alleviation Scheme (2013) in https://restorerivers.eu/wiki/index.php?title=Case_study%3AQuaggy_Flood_Alleviation_Scheme

9 B.K. Ferguson, Porous Pavements (Boca Raton, FL, 2005).

10 P.J. Corfield, ‘Climate Reds: Responding to Global Warming with Relative Optimism’, (2011) with companion piece by M. Levene, ‘Climate Blues: Or How Awareness of the Human End might Re-instil Ethical Purpose to the Writing of History’: PJC essay available on personal website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/Pdf21.

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MONTHLY BLOG 105, Researchers, Do Your Ideas Have Impact? A Critique of Short-Term Impact Assessments

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Clenched Fist
© Victor-Portal-Fist (2019)

 Researchers, do your ideas have impact? Does your work produce ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’? Since 2014, that question has been addressed to all research-active UK academics during the assessments for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the new ‘improved’ name for the older Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).1

From its first proposal, however, and long before implementation, the Impact Agenda has proved controversial.2 Each academic is asked to produce for assessment, within a specified timespan (usually seven years), four items of published research. These contributions may be long or short, major or minor. But, in the unlovely terminology of the assessment world, each one is termed a ‘Unit of Output’ and is marked separately. Then the results can be tallied for each researcher, for each Department or Faculty, and for each University. The process is mechanistic, putting the delivery of quantity ahead of quality. And now the REF’s whistle demands demonstrable civic ‘impact’ as well.

These changes add to the complexities of an already intricate and unduly time-consuming assessment process. But ‘Impact’ certainly sounds great. It’s punchy, powerful: Pow! When hearing criticisms of this requirement, people are prone to protest: ‘But surely you want your research to have impact?’ To which the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. No-one wants to be irrelevant and ignored.

However, much depends upon the definition of impact – and whether it is appropriate to expect measurable impact from each individual Unit of Output. Counting/assessing each individual tree is a methodology that will serve only to obscure sight of the entire forest. And will hamper its future growth.

In some cases, to be sure, immediate impact can be readily demonstrated. A historian working on a popular topic can display new results in a special exhibition, assuming that provision is made for the time and organisational effort required. Attendance figures can then be tallied and appreciative visitors’ comments logged. (Fortunately, people who make an effort to attend an exhibition usually reply ‘Yes’ when asked ‘Did you learn something new?’). Bingo. The virtuous circle is closed: new research → an innovative exhibition → gratified and informed members of the public → relieved University administrators → happy politicians and voters.

Yet not all research topics are suitable to generate, within the timespan of the research assessment cycle, the exhibitions, TV programmes, radio interviews, Twitterstorms, applied welfare programmes, environmental improvements, or any of the other multifarious means of bringing the subject to public attention and benefit.

The current approach focuses upon the short-term and upon the first applications of knowledge rather than upon the long-term and the often indirect slow-fuse combustion effects of innovative research. It fails to register that new ideas do not automatically have instant success. Some of the greatest innovations take time – sometimes a very long time – to become appreciated even by fellow researchers, let alone by the general public. Moreover, in many research fields, there has to be scope for ‘trial and error’. Short-term failures are part of the price of innovation for ultimate long-term gain. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the history of science and technology contains many examples of wrong turnings and mistakes, along the pathways to improvement.3

An Einstein, challenging the research fundamentals of his subject, would get short shrift in today’s assessment world. It took 15 years between the first publication of his paper on Special Relativity in 1905 and the wider scientific acceptance of his theory, once his predictions were confirmed experimentally. And it has taken another hundred years for the full scientific and cultural applications of the core concept to become both applied and absorbed.4 But even then, some of Einstein’s later ideas, in search of a Unified Field Theory to embrace analytically all the fundamental forces of nature, have not (yet) been accepted by his fellow scientists.5 Even a towering genius can err.

Knowledge is a fluid and ever-debated resource which has many different applications over time. Applied subjects (such as engineering; medicine; architecture; public health) are much more likely to have detectable and direct ‘impact’, although those fields also require time for development. ‘Pure’ or theoretical subjects (like mathematics), meanwhile, are more likely to achieve their effects indirectly. Yet technology and the sciences – let alone many other aspects of life – could not thrive without the calculative powers of mathematics, as the unspoken language of science. Moreover, it is not unknown for advances in ‘pure’ mathematics, which have no apparent immediate use, to become crucial many years subsequently. (An example is the role of abstract Number Theory for the later development of both cryptography and digital computing).6

Hence the Impact Agenda is alarmingly short-termist in its formulation. It is liable to discourage blue skies innovation and originality, in the haste to produce the required volume of output with proven impact.

It is also fundamentally wrong that the assessment formula precludes the contribution of research to teaching and vice versa. Historically, the proud boast of the Universities has been the integral link between both those activities. Academics are not just transmitting current knowhow to the next generation of students but they (with the stimulus and often the direct cooperation of their students) are simultaneously working to expand, refine, debate, develop and apply the entire corpus of knowledge itself. Moreover, they are undertaking these processes within an international framework of shared endeavour. This comment does not imply, by the way, that all knowledge is originally derived from academics. It comes indeed from multiple human resources, the unlearned as well as learned. Yet increasingly it is the research Universities which play a leading role in collecting, systematising, testing, critiquing, applying, developing and advancing the entire corpus of human knowledge, which provides the essential firepower for today’s economies and societies.7

These considerations make the current Impact Agenda all the more disappointing. It ignores the combined impact of research upon teaching, and vice versa. It privileges ‘applied’ over ‘pure’ knowledge. It prefers instant contributions over long-term development. It discourages innovation, sharing and cooperation. And it entirely ignores the international context of knowledge development and its transmission. Instead, it encourages researchers to break down their output into bite-sized chunks; to be risk-averse; to try for crowd-pleasers; and to feel harried and unloved, as all sectors of the educational world are supposed to compete endlessly against one another.

No one gains from warped assessment systems. Instead, everyone loses, as civic trust is eroded. Accountability is an entirely ‘good thing’. But only when done intelligently and without discouraging innovation. ‘Trial and error’ contains the possibility of error, for the greater good. So the quest for instant and local impact should not be overdone. True impact entails a degree of adventure, which should be figured into the system. To repeat a dictum which is commonly attributed to Einstein (because it summarises his known viewpoint), original research requires an element of uncertainty: ‘If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called “research”, would it?’8

ENDNOTES:

1 See The Research Excellence Framework: Diversity, Collaboration, Impact Criteria, and Preparing for Open Access (Westminster, 2019); and historical context in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Assessment_Exercise.

2 See e.g. B.R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the “Impact Agenda”: Are We Creating a Frankenstein Monster?’ Research Evaluation, 20 (Sept. 2011), pp. 247-54; and other contributions in same issue.

3 S. Firestein, Failure: Why Science is So Successful (Oxford, 2015); [History of Science Congress Papers], Failed Innovations: Symposium (1992).

4 See P.C.W. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1995); L.P. Williams (ed.), Relativity Theory: Its Origins and Impact on Modern Thought (Chichester, 1968); C. Christodoulides, The Special Theory of Relativity: Foundations, Theory, Verification, Applications (2016).

5 F. Finster and others (eds), Quantum Field Theory and Gravity: Conceptual and Mathematical Advances in the Search for a Unified Framework (Basel, 2012).

6 M.R. Schroeder, Number Theory in Science and Communications: With Applications in Cryptography, Physics, Biology, Digital Information and Computing (Berlin, 2008).

7 J. Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, 2002); A. Valero and J. van Reenen, ‘The Economic Impact of Universities: Evidence from Across the Globe’ (CEP Discussion Paper No. 1444, 2016), in Vox: https://voxeu.org/article/how-universities-boost-economic-growth

8 For the common attribution and its uncertainty, see [D. Hirshman], ‘Adventures in Fact-Checking: Einstein Quote Edition’, https://asociologist.com/2010/09/04/adventures-in-fact-checking-einstein-quote-edition/

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MONTHLY BLOG 104, Is it Time to Look beyond Separate Identities to Find Personhood?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Collectively, the 15th International Congress on the Enlightenment (ICE), focusing upon Enlightenment Identities, was a huge triumph. For five days in Edinburgh in July 2019 some 2000 international participants rushed from event to event. There were not only 477 learned panel presentations and five great plenaries but also sundry conducted walks, coach tours to special venues, a grand reception, a superb concert, a pub quiz, and an evening of energetic Highland dancing. So much was happening that heads spun, and not just from the jovial Edinburgh hospitality.

By way of introduction, I began the first plenary session, with its global array of speakers, by offering some basic definitions. The grand themes of the Congress were Enlightenment and Identities: Lumières et Identités. Powerful concepts, which are both much contested. Needless to say, the Congress organisers did not insist on single definitions of these grand themes, which were chosen precisely to promote debate.

In that spirit, the Congress logo displayed two iconic figures from the eighteenth century. Both are shown as questioning, as they flank the silhouette of the classic monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to the philosopher Dugald Stewart. These two iconic figures may be considered as the Adam and Eve of the Congress, venturing out into the world to lead the collective intellectual journey.

The young woman was named Dido Belle Lindsay. She was aged 18 at the date in 1778-9, when her portrait was painted alongside her fair-skinned cousin. By heritage, Dido Belle was an illegitimate African-Caribbean-Scot. Yet she was given a resonant first name which evoked the celebrated Queen of Carthage. And by life experiences, Dido Belle Lindsay had a protected and affluent upbringing in the household of her great-uncle, an eminent London lawyer. She later married a Frenchman and lived quietly in England with her family.

Meanwhile, the man, who drew his own brooding self-portrait at the age of 40, was a German Swiss named Heinrich Füssli.3 He had travelled to Italy, where he Italianised his surname to Fuseli and then made a successful career as an artist in London. There he married an Englishwoman. Both these individuals embodied the flexibility and fluidity of eighteenth-century identities. Neither their social milieux nor their individual life-histories were static.

As educated people, the Congress’s Adam and Eve might well have encountered, in their reading and conversations, various catch-phrases like ‘It’s an Age of Light’ or ‘This Age of Reason and Science’. Specifically, too, Fuseli as a German-speaking Swiss could have read in the original Immanuel Kant’s celebrated enquiry, published in 1784, Was Ist Aufklarung? What is Enlightenment?

Moreover, Dido Belle Lindsay, the free daughter of a formerly enslaved African woman, would no doubt have appreciated the public appeal made by the leading African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. He urged that slavery had no place in an age of ‘Light, Liberty, and Science’. He was thereby invoking the sense of a new Zeitgeist and new forms of knowledge. By contrast, the slave traders had custom and practice in their support, as well as financial vested interests. But, tellingly, the slave traders did NOT justify their business by saying ‘It’s an Age of Slave-Trading’, even though that was factually true. On this issue, the abolitionists were ‘seizing the narrative’, to put the point into twenty-first-century terminology.5

Nonetheless, the Congress’s Adam and Eve would not have thought about their era as one of fixity. They both lived long enough to see the emergence of conscious anti-Enlightenment thought, from the later eighteenth century onwards. Fuseli specifically contributed to Romanticism in his art, and expressed scepticism about the claims of cold rationality. So neither figure would have been surprised to learn that the concept of Enlightenment remains contested among historians, political theorists and social philosophers.

Responses today range from appreciation and appropriation through to rejection and outright denial. Scholars analyse national and regional variations; and they debate differences between mainstream and radical Enlightenments. Meanwhile, in the later twentieth century, hostile postmodernist critics attacked appeals to rationalist reforms, which they identified as a single and oppressive ‘Enlightenment Project’.8   Yet rival sceptics denied the existence of any cohesive movement at all. Plenty to debate.

To those complexities, moreover, may be added the further complications of ‘Identities’. The terminology is warm and positive. But its impact is not simple. Viewed schematically, the rise of identity studies in the last thirty years has matched the decline of research interest into historical class, and the rise of ‘identity politics’ in the wider world.10  This fashionable approach is personal, individualistic. It rejects economic determinism. Instead, the factors that influence identity are seen as endlessly fluid and flexible. They may include gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and yes, social class; but they extend to religion, nationality, region, language, politics, culture, brainpower – and the power of physical appearances.

Certainly the Congress’s Adam and Eve would have known about identity issues, although they would not have described them in such terms. Dido Belle Lindsay lived with her great-uncle, the liberal judge William Mansfield. It was he in 1772 who heard the famous test case, when the captive African James Somersett sued for his freedom from the hold of an English ship in an English port. The case was an individual one. But the judge, when granting Somersett’s plea for liberty, pronounced publicly that the state of slavery was ‘odious’.11  Dido Belle Lindsay would surely have approved. As a result, Somersett gained the legal identity of a free man and judicial disapproval was directed at the entire system of personal enslavement. The case became a landmark in the long (and still continuing) struggle to abolish unfree personal servitude in its many different guises.

However, there are criticisms to be made of identity histories, as there are of identity politics. There is a danger that personal classifications may be interpreted too rigidly. In reality, people then and now may have multiple and overlapping identities. They may move between them as they prefer: an eighteenth-century gentleman livening in Northumbria might define himself as an Englishman when teasing a Scot from north of the border; but both might define themselves as Britons when opposing the French.

It’s also vital to recognise that identities are not always soft, liberal and inclusive. Group identities especially can become aggressive, bellicose, and coercive, formed in contra-distinction to ‘other’ groups. So identity politics may lead not to shared pluralism but to harsh conflict and polarisation. In sum, these big organising concepts may contain light – but also darkness.

Today it is surely time to look beyond the sub-divisions, not in blind denial but in awareness that there are also universals alongside diversities. In gender history, there is also a concept of personhood, beyond the rivalries of men and women.12  In terms of polymorphous human sexualities, there’s a potential for agreed boundaries of non-exploitative behaviour, beyond the rhetoric of individual sexual gratification. In the context of historical ‘racism’, there’s also significant movement towards a non-racialised understanding that all people are members of one human race.13  And, legally and politically, there is scope for a renewed endorsement of universalist human rights, as triumphantly if controversially expounded in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, applying not to one section of the globe but to all – and applying in practice as well as in theory.14

These communal issues are becoming especially highlighted in the light of the global climate emergency.15  They make a huge agenda but a very human one, to be pursued with a spirit of unity which underlies diversity: avec l’esprit de l’unité, qui sous-tend la diversité …

ENDNOTES:

1 Edited text of presentation given to Edinburgh Congress Enlightenment Identities, on Monday 15 July 2019, introducing first Global Plenary. My esteemed colleagues on the panel were, in order of speaking, Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne); Sébastien Charles (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada); Tatiana Artemyeva (Herzen State University of Russia); Sutapa Dutta (Gargi College, University of Delhi, India); and Toshio Kusamitsu (University of Tokyo, Japan).

2 For Dido Belle Lindsay (1761-1804), see P. Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014); and an intriguing outreach film Belle (dir. A. Asante, 2018).

3 For Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), see M. Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli Blake and the Romantic Imagination (2016).

4 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: And Other Writings, ed. V. Carretta (1995), p. 233.

5 For a huge literature, follow leads in B. Carey and others (eds), Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Basingstoke, 2004); and R.S. Newman, Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018).

6 See e.g. R. Porter and M. Teich (eds), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

7 See e.g. J.I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001) and ensuing debates.

8 S-E. Liedman, The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment (Amsterdam, 1997); G. Sauer-Thompson and J. Wayne Smith, The Unreasonable Silence of the World: Universal Reason and the Wreck of the Enlightenment Project (2019).

9 G. Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (2004).

10 See e.g. critiques like W. Egginton, The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses (New York, 2018).

11 For the complexities of the case, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_v_Stewart.

12 See e.g. commentary in P.J. Corfield, ‘Enlightenment Womanhood, Manhood, Sexualities and Personhood: Thematic Overview’, in L. Andries and M-A. Bernier (eds), L’Avenir des Lumières: The Future of Enlightenment (Pars, 2019), pp. 89-105; L. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept (Lewiston, 2014).

13 For the shared genetic history of humankind, see L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diaspora: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, MA, 1995).

14 Consult A. Brysk, The Future of Human Rights (Cambridge, 2018).

15 See calls for more urgent responses as in D. Spratt and P. Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Victoria, Australia, 2008); and many other publications.

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