The ghost in the machine

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The ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Story of the Play Concisely Told with 55 Illustrations from the Cinematograph Film (1913). From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

 

‘…profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful…’

When Walter Benjamin decided to start his now-famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with these words from Paul Valéry, his attitude towards the future they envisioned might be described as ambiguous at best. Writing in 1936, in the early years of what would become the golden age of film, Benjamin, like Valéry, recognized the potential for technology to bring the beauty of art to ever-widening audiences. At the same time, he could also foresee the ways in which these same advancements might threaten the very essence of artistic tradition and experience — namely, by chipping away at the uniqueness and materiality of previously hand-crafted, aesthetic objects, and in doing so dampening what he dubbed their ‘aura’.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjaminian aura lately, partly because I’m in the middle of writing an essay about the experience of presence at theatre broadcasts, and partly because I spent the last two weeks of my research trip in the US looking at the ghostly side of technology. Benjamin understood aura as emanating from the unmediated, a-technological artefact — ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ — but the more I look at digitally rich productions of Shakespeare and their historical precursors, the more I find myself thinking about the auratic or spectral potential of technology itself. Take, for instance, the production still above, which comes from a 1913 book about Hamlet based on Jonston Forbes-Robertson’s silent film of the same year. This book, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections, uses images from the film to illustrate a prose version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. What struck me most as I perused its pages were the photographs featuring the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who takes the shape of a bright, ethereal spirit produced by innovations in film technology. To see how the ghost flickers in and out of frame in the movie, have a look at the clip below.

The creative use of technology in the performance of Shakespeare is not unique to film, particularly when it comes to staging the supernatural. John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet on Broadway, starring Richard Burton, featured an audio recording of Old Hamlet’s lines recited by Gielgud himself, accompanied by a looming shadow on the wall, to body forth the ghostly presence of the late king. Long before that, John Pepper created a similarly ethereal ghost of King Hamlet in the nineteenth century by using mirror and light technologies to project the reflection of an actor onto the action of the stage (see the image below for an illustration of this technique, known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’). In both cases, ingenious uses of technology allowed theatre-makers to present a disembodied version of King Hamlet’s ‘aura’, or, to quote from the Oxford English Dictionary, that ‘subtle emanation … viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences’.

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Pepper’s Ghost: A light is shone on an actor performing under the stage, whose image is then reflected into the audience’s view by a hidden mirror.

Even beyond the obviously supernatural figure of the ghost, I’ve increasingly found that Hamlet stands out in the archives as one of the most frequent plays that actors and directors look to when they want to explore what technology might tell us about Shakespeare. Some of the productions I’ve been reading about lately include Robert Wilson’s staging of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1986), Robert Lepage’s one-man show Elsinore (1995), the Wooster Group’s reconstruction of Gielgud and Burton’s Hamlet (2006), Katie Mitchell’s multimedia exploration of Ophelia in Five Truths (2011) and Ophelias Zimmer (2016), and finally Annie Dorsen’s ‘machine-made’, algorithm-based version of the play, A Piece of Work (2013).

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A programme for Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, performed in 1997 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

While all of these productions use technology in different ways, I find it interesting that Hamlet repeatedly proves fertile ground for mechanical, multimedial, and digital experimentation. Perhaps this is due to the sheer fame and monumentality of the play, but I also wonder if there’s something particularly haunted and haunting about Hamlet that continually seems ripe for technological exploration. There is of course the play’s obsession with death and all the ‘things in heaven and earth’ that push beyond the limits of our philosophy, as well as the tragedy’s own gargantuan and even superhuman literary and theatre history, which looms so large in the study and performance of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself has often been memorialized by lines from Hamlet — ‘He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again’ — and perhaps, in a way, all of us who are drawn to Shakespeare’s work find ourselves obsessed and even haunted by Hamlet for at least a time.

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An engraving of the Boydell Shakespeare monument, originally located in Pall Mall in London and now in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Hamlet quote is just visible in the rectangular pediment under Shakespeare. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Hamlet is a play that started out being about death but that has become one of resurrection. It’s not just that it shows us a young man facing the spirit of his dead father — though that of course is significant. It’s also that in its virtually unparalleled cultural legacy, it connects us with a never-ending history of scholars, actors, directors, critics, and thinkers of all kinds who have come before us and pondered this seemingly insurmountable testament to human creativity. When we look on Hamlet, we also look on those who have been there before us. Their ghosts are with us alongside the Old King’s.

Maybe the next thing, then, for theatre-makers to experiment with are hyper-real technologies such as 3-D holograms that have started to appear on other stages in recent years. At Coachella in 2012 the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur astonished audiences when he appeared to take the stage alongside Dr Dre. Imagine Laurence Olivier coming back to give his final turn as Old Hamlet, or Richard Burton, or even Shakespeare himself, given that he too is sometimes said to have played the role. It’s possible that such innovations, with their complicated ethics, are a bridge too far. But even if this is the case, I have no doubt that directors and actors will continue to use new technologies to bring us freshly startling takes on the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and, indeed, on the tragedy of Hamlet itself.

Shakespeare: The Game

This month I’m in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, home to the largest dedicated collection of Shakespeare-related materials in the world. I’m in heaven!

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My focus during my time here is on the pre-history of digital Shakespeares — that is, the kinds of stage technologies that pre-date the proliferation of digital adaptations in the twenty-first century. This means that I’ve been looking at programmes from productions like Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, and also ogling over photos of Richard Burton & co. in their groundbreaking ‘Electronovision’ Hamlet in 1964, which used new film technology to live-record their Broadway production and then show it in cinemas across America. Here’s one explanatory diagram of the technical set-up:

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More than anything, though, I’ve been having lots of fun exploring the collection of interactive Shakespeare games that the Folger holds in its vaults. These games have very little to do with technology per se, but their relevance for my project is in the way they invite their players to be active participants in the making of Shakespeare. For me these board games, card games, and book games herald a form of collaborative and participatory Shakespeare-making that we see today in Shakespeare-themed video games, choose-your-own-adventure books, and immersive, interactive theatre productions. In this sense the games constitute an early history of ‘prosuming‘, a concept developed by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s to refer to ‘production by consumers’. In the world of creativity and culture, the term ‘prosumer’ is often linked to instances in which audiences become creative practitioners themselves, helping produce the artistic world of a theatre production, video game, art installation, etc. by playing an active part in it.

Most of the games in the Folger collection are from the nineteenth century, some with very beautiful illustrations, although a couple come from the more recent past. I thought I’d share a few photographs here with notes about how the games work and what I think is most interesting about them…

First up are versions of familiar games like Checkers, Memory, and Go Fish, which use Shakespeare not as a crucial part of the game mechanism but rather as thematic/decorative content. So, for instance, you get a typical checker board from 1864 (Shakespeare’s 300th birthday!) that you play exactly as you would a normal one, but you also get to look at Shakespeare quotes and trivia as you do so. Ditto for the 19c. ‘Shakespeare Game of Concentration’ that you play like Memory. This seems like a Shakespeare-by-osmosis approach to me: you’re playing a familiar game that doesn’t rely on Shakespeare knowledge or appreciation in and of itself, but by using Shakespeare quotes and images as filler it tries to instill that knowledge in the process.

The Go Fish-style game is slightly more complicated for two reasons: first, because although the game mechanism works as usual for Go Fish, with players aiming to collect sets of cards that they search for in the hands of other plays, the literary trivia is more foregrounded, meaning that quotes and facts will be read aloud with frequency and inevitably play a more central role. Second, this game from c.1887 isn’t actually Shakespeare-specific, even though his face graces the box that the cards come in. Rather, it includes ‘familiar quotations’ from several ‘popular authors’ (Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow), although it must be said that Shakespeare looms large within the deck. Each card contains several quotations in a different order and players work to collect as many complete sets as they can.

Next up are the board games, the earliest of which really only uses Shakespeare in the title: ‘Wallis’s Fashionable Game of the Seven Ages of Human Life’ (c.1814-26). It’s worth mentioning and illustrating though because it is by far the most beautiful of the bunch! Plus I love stage 29 in the timeline: ‘The Bachelor’, entertained by his faithful cat.

The other two board games are the most modern entries in the collection: ‘The Game of Shakespeare’ from 1966, and ‘The Play’s the Thing’ from 2003. Both invite players to collect Shakespeare cards studded with quotes, facts, and illustrations, and to use them to progress towards the finish line.

Related to these modern board games are the trivia-oriented card games that typically focus on Shakespearean quotes and are often explicit in their educational intent. ‘A Study of Shakespeare’ from the Shakespeare Club of Camden, Maine, in 1901 invites players to ask each other trivia questions and to collect the cards that they win. It also includes several endorsements from Shakespeare academics as to its educative value. The Cincinnati Game Company’s 1901 ‘Shakespeare’ seems to work to similar principles, with Shakespeare quotations and illustrations gracing each card in a deck divided into four suits, but, alas, the majority of its game instructions no longer survive (what is left seems to suggest that you can use the deck to play three different games, indicating perhaps that it’s essentially a regular deck of cards that you can use to play rummy, poker, etc.).

But of all these fabulous games, my very favorites are the two that are the most personalized. In ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’, 1892, and ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’, 1866, players select questions relating to their own lives and loves and then choose a number that produces a Shakespeare quote in answer. Both of these are meant to be party games, I believe, with the main thrill being the experience of revealing bits of personal information about oneself in front of a group of excitable and chirpy friends. Many of the questions have to do with the man or woman of your affection: so, for instance, you might choose the question, ‘What are his personal charms?’, and then select the number 3, from which you would get the reply, ‘His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely’. Ouch! While ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’ comes in the format of a series of circular question cards that participants hold, plus the oracle pamphlet from which the most esteemed member of the company reads, ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’ is potentially a more solitary affair, presenting its questions and quotes in book form.

Whatever shape they come in, though, all of these games have been lots of fun to explore and to attempt to unpuzzle. I’ve attracted lots of curious questions from fellow readers in the process–everyone loves a good game, it seems! Perhaps we can convince the Folger to let us throw a games night, with players in archival white gloves. Or, maybe more realistically, one or two of the older games could be digitized for playing online or through an app. Words with Friends Shakespeare-style, anyone?

Why I blog

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I’ve been thinking lately about why I originally set up this blog, and why, more than three years later, I continue to post on it. In the very early days I think I was looking for a place to work through some emerging ideas about digital forms of performance, in particular live broadcasts. I was still in the midst of another research project on a different topic, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to publish any work in this new area for quite some time. The blog seemed like a good way to document ideas as they came up, to get feedback on them, and then one day to put them together into something longer and more detailed–i.e. an academic publication.

The difference now is that ‘one day’ has finally arrived. The older project is finally done and dusted and the monograph out, and now my primary focus is on the publications that will come out of this research into digital technology and Shakespearean performance. At last, I’m able to devote the bulk of my research time to these ideas, and that time has also dramatically expanded, as I’m on study leave for about 7-8 months of this year. Hurrah!

But the thing I didn’t expect is that, now that I have the time and energy to focus solely on this digital research, I’ve actually started to blog less. In fact, I haven’t written a proper post on the subject for more than half a year. Instead, I’ve been writing up this research as a series of journal articles and chapters, and making plans for the book that will eventually come. Every research day has gone to this more publication-oriented mode of writing, and as a result the blog has lingered by the wayside.

So now that I am officially on sabbatical, I thought I’d take some time reflect on what I’ve learned about both my research and myself as a researcher through blogging, and to think about what I hope to get from it in the future…

1) Blogging offers a way of working oneself into a new research area, especially when time is limited and has to be split among many other things.

The biggest difference for me between starting my first book project and my second one has been time. When you’re working on your PhD, at least in the UK, your main focus is your research. After I started my first job I was suddenly responsible for a lot more things and many more people. Extended periods of research time took a particularly painful hit: I went from spending 4-5 days a week on my research to 1 if I was lucky. So this blog became a way of stealing snatches of time in between teaching, meetings, proof checking, and everything else to start working my way into a new topic. I could have done all this privately, keeping my own personal research diary, but to be honest being able to share my ideas with others was more motivating. This might be useful for me to remember in other aspects of my life: if I really want to do something, do it publicly/socially.

2) Blogging has allowed me to work up chunks of writing (and thinking) that can become part of future publications.

This is true, but also a bit trickier than I originally expected. It’s definitely been the case that several of the details I focused on in blogs have become key points in articles that I’ve recently been drafting. But I’ve also found myself a bit unsure about how to draw on this previous writing without duplicating it. For the most part I’ve developed existing points in new terms, but there are instances in which I’m just really happy with the way I originally wrote it. So I’ve actually been thinking about redacting the occasional sentence from some of my posts, should it prove an issue. I’m still not sure about all of this: I think it’s a grey area and that feelings about it can differ depending on who you ask. About 80% of A Year of Shakespeare had been published online before it became a book, for instance, and all that material is still available through www.yearofshakespeare.com. But I know that others are understandably more wary about material previously posted online, and so I’ve started thinking more pragmatically about what can go on the blog as I come closer to getting some of my ideas more officially in print.

3) Blogging has helped me become part of a community of researchers in this field, both directly and indirectly. 

This maybe seems like a no-brainer: blogging is social, responsive, immediate, conversational. You can respond to ideas in a few hours, whereas academic publishing would at best take a few months, and more realistically a few years. This doesn’t necessarily make blogging better than academic publishing–just different. I’ve been able to get talking to others in the field, both directly and indirectly, and to learn from them as I go. This has perhaps been the greatest benefit for me. The flip side is, now that I feel well connected and reasonably well read in the field, I kind of just want to get my head down and write my ideas up the old-fashioned way. Blogging has been a great way of getting started, but, as of yet, not the most natural way of continuing on.

4) Blogging can take a lot of different forms and, presumably, they can change with time. 

This is probably the most important thing for me right now. When I first started blogging, I was careful to post regularly and to make sure that those posts were in-depth pieces of writing that I would be happy to publish in more academic contexts. I still really value those posts, and I must say that they’ve been the most helpful in terms of generating feedback from others and establishing some of the key issues that have turned up again in longer publications. But shorter, more whimsical, more descriptive, and/or more irregular posts have their place too. I suspect that as I get further into the writing of this project, the blogs will become more about the process of writing or the activities that surround and support the writing, rather than the writing itself. We’ll see; I might surprise myself. But given how precious having time to write is, I plan to make the most of it while I have it. This blog–or, who knows, maybe a future one–will always be there when it’s time for something different.

 

Emotion and the arts: CfP and research network

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Dear friends, a post that isn’t explicitly digital, but that certainly doesn’t exclude it either–

Along with Dr Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, I’m hoping to make connections with other researchers interested in the role of the arts and aesthetics in the history of the emotions. In a 2005 essay entitled ‘Is there a cultural history of the emotions?’, Peter Burke made a bold claim: ‘The kinds of document historians use most do not tell us very much about emotions.’ The arts, he and others have suggested, are where past emotions really reside, but figuring out how to study them is tricky business.

In an attempt to start unpicking this question, Dr Herzfeld-Schild (a musicologist) and I (a literary scholar) are organising a panel at the Cultural History conference in Umeå in June 2017 called ‘Emotion and the Arts: An Interdisciplinary History’. The panel is now open for paper proposals, which should be sent to isch2017@culthist.org by 19 December. We’ve copied in the panel abstract below and also linked to the fuller conference programme here – please do think about proposing a paper, and also feel free to contact us with any questions.

In addition to the panel, we’re hoping to develop a research network on emotion and the arts, which ideally would include academics from many different disciplines (literature, music, art history, history, philosophy…) and an equally wide range of historical periods and places. If you might be interested in being part of such a network, please send me an email at e.sullivan@bham.ac.uk. This will no doubt be a slow-burn, but if there’s enough interest then we’d like to work towards a series of workshops on the topic and eventually a joint publication.

Best wishes,
Erin and Marie Louise

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Umeå conference panel (26-29 June 2017) – Emotion and the arts: an interdisciplinary history

What can the arts reveal to us about emotional experience in the past? Can we use music, visual art, literature, theatre, and other aesthetic works to move beyond the more established study of historical discourses and classifications, and towards a deeper understanding of how emotion was felt, shared, and put to use in past times and places? How can we draw historical insights from not only the emotions that aesthetic texts represent and describe, but also from those that they make us, and others, feel?

This panel invites papers from researchers working on history, emotion, and the arts in all their forms. It seeks to explore the extent to which the study of the history of the emotions can in fact be emotional, not only in the object of its research but also in the methodologies that it deploys. Topics for discussion might include how methods from cultural anthropology; formalist criticism; philosophies of mind, body, or aesthetics; phenomenology; archaeology; or audience research might be put into conversation with more traditional approaches in historical emotion studies. Papers might consider how the ‘affective turn’ in critical theory offers new ways of moving beyond language, or how a sharper focus on embodied experience and aesthetics might reveal new insights into emotion, sensation, and cognition over time. Whatever their approach, papers in this panel will help further a discussion about the place and power of artistic evidence in the development of the history of the emotions as a field.

Convenors: Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham e.sullivan@bham.ac.uk
Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild, University of Cologne m.herzfeld-schild@uni-koeln.de

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Guest post – Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

Over the past five weeks I’ve been working with Holly Reaney, as part of the University of Birmingham’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship programme. Holly has just completed the first year of her BA in English at UoB and has been helping me explore the wide and wonderful world of Shakespeare and the internet. Each week I’ve given her a project or prompt to explore and she’s then gone away to see what the world wide web uncovers. Below is a summary of her work in her own words. Thank you Holly for all your help!

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Shakespeare, social media, and everyday creativity

The undergraduate research scholarship is a scheme offered to non-final year undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Law at the University of Birmingham. The scheme aims to immerse and engage students in academia as well as enabling them to gain valuable experience in the undertaking of academic research. It was as part of this scheme that I had the opportunity to carry out research for Erin Sullivan, specifically focusing on the applications of Shakespeare in social media.

The first two weeks of my research focused on two major social media-based performances of Shakespeare’s plays: Such Tweet Sorrow (2010) and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming (2013). Co-produced by the RSC, these adaptations attempted to push the limits of theatrical performance, aiming to make Shakespeare more accessible to the wider public. One of the unique aspects of the social media performances were their ability to occur in real time. Such Tweet Sorrow occurred continuously over five weeks. However, due to the length of the project and the vast amount of content which was produced as a consequence, it was sometimes difficult to follow. This challenge was combatted in A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming as it only ran for seventy-two hours.  Over the course of A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, 3,000 pieces of original content were released by over 30 original characters. This created a diversity of narrative and effectively established a very complete world of auxiliary characters. The vast amount of content showcases the wide range of creative abilities as well as the ingenuity which Shakespeare has inspired. In both of these performances the RSC achieve the aim of making Shakespeare accessible. Both performances serve to bring the play quite literally into the hands of their audiences, enabling them to interact and alter the performances in a way which is impossible on stage.

The second aspect of my research focused on audience-created responses. These responses occupy a wide a range of forms, such as memes and gifs on Tumblr, tweets from ‘Shakespeare’ or community based Twitter pages, and whole narratives in the form of fan fiction. All of these online communities attract similar audiences: young adults and teenagers with a vague interest in Shakespeare and who are active online participants. Tumblr is a primarily visual site, with the most circulated images being pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch in his performance of Hamlet or Richard III, Tom Hiddleston as Henry V and David Tennant as Hamlet or Richard II. These photos (excluding Tom Hiddleston as Henry V) were accessed through the National Theatre live performances, a system which enables select performances to be broadcast by a massive audience. The sharing of the photographs and gifs further increases the audiences for these performances (even if they have not seen the live piece) as the images serve to illustrate the original text in the context of these specific adaptations. However, only those who know the original text can appreciate the images in this way.

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Another element I researched with regards to audience-created responses to Shakespeare was fan fiction. Fan fiction is an interesting and creative way for audiences to respond to the narratives which interest them. It provides a way for audiences to develop a community based around similar interests whilst also offering an extremely versatile creative outlet. The inclusion of ‘comments’ and ‘kudos’ or ‘reviews’ and ‘favourites’, depending on which site, enables interaction between fan fiction author and reader, the opportunity to share criticism and to develop a community of like-minded individuals. Writing in a modern day setting, with the accompanying modern language, proved to be extremely popular on the creative front. There is a trend that these ‘modernisations’ tend to be based upon the plays which revolve around younger characters, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. This could be because their situations are the most romantic or that they hold a level of relatability for the authors (teenagers suffering with love, anger, depression etc.). Prequels and sequels also heavily feature in the works, and these are possibly the works that are the most connected to Shakespeare, with some painstakingly obeying Shakespeare’s original writing style, featuring iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes and verse.

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Another form of audience-created responses are visual adaptations of Shakespeare. Web series hold a much broader appeal as they follow a linear narrative which aids understanding for those unfamiliar with the original play. By reimagining the original scripts in the vernacular the plots are made easier to follow and the occasional yet seamless integration of Shakespeare’s original lines ensures that the connection to the original text is maintained and honoured, whilst also not being inaccessible. Due to the open platform which is YouTube, levels of professionalism varied from the heavily produced and funded Titus and Dronicus to the completely amateur A Document in Madness. As with all modern adaptations, and internet adaptions, the plots are altered. In the case of Monty and Jules, the adoption of a university setting means that the feud is between two rival fraternities as opposed to the families. In this case the adaptation of the plot to the 21st century setting is exceptionally well done. The avoidance of murder and suicide was especially well executed as they still communicated the consequences of what in the play are the murder and suicides but managed to avoid the involvement of the police or similar legal authorities, something which often impedes believability of modernisation of Shakespeare’s plays. The modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays, especially that on the internet platform, is definitely well suited to the video form – especially the mix of vlog style and video calling used Monty and Jules – as it communicates an intimacy and believability which is often lost when productions are attempted on other online platforms.

Overall, Shakespeare and the digital world appears to be based around accessibility and community. Audiences are engaged and interacted with in ways that are impossible on a traditional stage. The online world gives everyone’s voice a chance to be heard and way for their own creativity to be displayed.

Guest post by Holly Reaney, BA English (University of Birmingham).

Shakespeare, Britain, Brexit

Pretty much glued to news sites and social media feeds this morning as this new phase in UK politics unfolds. Three years ago I was writing about how the London Olympics used Shakespeare to celebrate British diversity, and how the politics that followed were failing to live up to those ideals. But now things are looking even worse than I feared. Watching Farage & co. on the news I can’t help but think of this brilliant and now terribly prescient cartoon by Steve Bell that I wrote about in the essay. Shakespeare will of course survive this sinking ship, but I’m honestly not sure what’s going to happen to us.

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Copyright Steve Bell 2013/All Rights Reserved

 

 

Valuing sadness, past and present

March was a big month for me – my first monograph, Beyond Melancholy, came out with Oxford University Press. The book focuses on the different ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood and thought about sadness, and how this influenced explorations of identity and self-experience. While my digital Shakespeare research is in many ways a world apart from this work on the history of emotions, there are some important connections in terms of how new technologies shape how we feel and how we experience our own sense of self. I wrote the short essay below for OUP’s blog last week, and while it’s mostly about Renaissance sadness, you’ll quickly see that 21st century digital technology has made its way in too…

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In September 2013, the American comedian Louis C.K. talked to chat-show host Conan O’Brien about the value of sadness. His comments emerged from a discussion about mobile phones, and the way they may distract us from the reality of our emotions. ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.’

For Louis C.K., a large part of that ‘being there’, of being a person, is about being sad. ‘[S]ometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car … it starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.’ And the best response to this, he suggests, isn’t to dodge the feeling by picking up a mobile phone, but rather to look at it head on, ‘and let it hit you like a truck … Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’

Four hundred or so years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and King James I, people also talked about the meaning of sadness, and whether or not it brought any value to life. While few would have described the experience of sadness as ‘lucky’, many did suggest that, in the right contexts, the emotion could be seen as useful, productive, and even enlightening. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stormy heath, whose extraordinary sorrow helps him see life from a different point of view, to acknowledge the suffering of his impoverished subjects and ‘to feel what wretches feel’.

If we read much of the literature of this time – and perhaps any time – we discover a world of agonizing, and yet somehow also constructive, pain and sorrow. Emotion is repeatedly represented as an extension of the self, meaning that as characters start to know their feelings, they also start to understand themselves and the world that they’re a part of. At the same time, if we read much of the more formal and explanatory writing on emotion from this period, we get a rather different story. Here, writers frequently characterized emotion as a ‘malady’, a ‘perturbation’, and even a ‘disease of the soul.’ For emotion was believed to cause motion in the mind and body, which could destabilize rational thinking and jeopardize the harmony of the self.

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The unruly passions.

This was nowhere truer than in the experience of sadness. Of all the emotions recognized and discussed at this time – or of all ‘the passions’, as they were called then – sadness or ‘grief’ was widely regarded as the most dangerous and damaging. Countless writers emphasized the physical ailments sad feelings could bring. ‘There is nothing more enemie to life, then sorrow’, the humanist and diplomat Thomas Elyot wrote in his best-selling medical regimen The Castell of Health, and the theologian Thomas Wright likewise advised readers in his The Passions of the Minde in Generall to ‘Expell sadnesse farre from thee; For sadnesse hath killed many, neither is there any profite in it.’

Medical physicians agreed, identifying the passions as one of the six ‘non-natural’ factors dramatically influencing health (the other five being diet, sleep, exercise, environment, and, to put it delicately, ‘evacuation’). Linked to the cold, dry humour of melancholy (literally meaning ‘black bile’ in Greek), sadness was seen as the harbinger of numerous bodily troubles, including stomach aches, light-headedness, heart palpitations, and wasting illnesses, which, in their most extreme forms, might even cause death.

Indeed, while we might now think that dying of sorrow is a rather sentimental idea fit only for the stage, in the seventeenth century ‘grief’ was regularly included as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality, which were one of the earliest forms of municipal record keeping. Though many of the Bills no longer survive, if we look through those that do remain, we can see that during the years 1629-1660 more than 350 people in the city of London were believed to have died from extreme sadness. Elyot and Wright’s comments, it seems, were not idle threats.

J. Graunt, Natural an political observations.
11 deaths from grief in 1632.

And yet, despite the palpable dangers posed by sadness at this time, many writers still suggested that it had important benefits, and even a kind of ‘poetry’, to harken back to Louis C.K.’s twenty-first-century observations. First and foremost, these writers insisted that there were different sorts of sadness, which had different effects on the mind, body, and soul. ‘Grief’ was not always identical to ‘melancholy’, which was certainly not the same as ‘godly sorrow’ or ‘despair’ – both of which had much more to do with theology and the immortal soul than physiology and the medical body.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, these different sorrows didn’t mean the same thing irrespective of the sufferer. Even a dangerous grief could be productive if the person experiencing it deemed it so. In the literature and historical records of the period we can find numerous instances of people defying the advice of doctors, priests, family, and friends, and persisting in sorrow due to a belief that it revealed something important to them about their own sense of self.

Many scholars have suggested that culture offers people ‘emotional scripts’ by which to make sense of and act out their feelings, but looking at responses to sadness in Renaissance England we can also see how people engaged in what I call ‘emotive improvisation.’ These wilful, and often defiant, responses took sufferers ‘off book’ and towards new ways of understanding emotional experience and self-discovery. They show us what happened when people ‘put the phone down’, as it were, and let life hit them like a truck.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/06/valuing-sadness-past-present/#sthash.Xas4UAhP.dpuf

 

Big Campus, Big Data

A few reflections on an e-learning conference that I attended and presented at yesterday in Birmingham, hosted by a company named Talis that makes student-oriented learning tools. It was a really interesting programme, and I learned a lot – not just about e-pedagogies and emerging digital tools, but also about how university libraries work and the large-scale planning that goes on behind the scenes.


I’ll come back to that later, but the main thing I wanted to address is the huge conversation that was had throughout the day concerning student data and analytics. I make pretty heavy use of my university’s ‘virtual learning environment (VLE)’, i.e. online teaching platform, so I was already aware of the way these tools gather data on student activity. As an instructor I can readily see when students log into the VLE, how much time they spend on it, how many times they’ve posed in the discussion forums, how much time they spend watching lecture videos, how many of the readings they access…. The list goes on. And while some of this information can be useful, particularly if a student really goes off grid and we’re trying to figure out if s/he is making any contact with the course, for the most part I avoid looking at the data. This is because 1) I typically don’t have a specific question in mind when doing so and 2) I don’t think my students know that I can see this and I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s like looking in on someone through a two-way mirror when they don’t realise they’re being observed.

So the very interesting thing to emerge early in the conference yesterday (the very first session, in fact), and to keep coming up throughout the rest of the panels, was the fact that educators, librarians, HE/FE managers, commercial providers, you name it, are thinking more and more about this data, and how to collect, analyse, and use it. There’s clearly some powerful opportunities here. Student clicks on digitised reading lists can help libraries figure out how often certain books or articles are being accessed, and this in turn can help guide purchasing. Counting swipe card entries at the library can help us figure out periods of peak demand, and then tailor opening hours accordingly. Minutes watched in instructional videos can show us which recordings are finding an audience, and which are being overlooked. Data is of course a form of evidence, and evidence helps create usable knowledge.

So far, so good. All of this is pretty old hat and I hope and assume that we’ve already been doing some of this at my university for quite some time. The thing that caught me a little off guard, though, and that now has me thinking, is the fact that much of the data that people were talking about yesterday is de-aggregated and de-anonymised. It is individual-specific, and one of the many possible visions proposed is that we could call up a student’s record in our system and, alongside his/her photo, get a summary and visualisation of his/her digital learning activity. The fuzzy slide below shows one of a few examples I saw during the day of a single student profile – all the little graphs in it document things like a student’s swipe card usage, log ins to the university student system, log ins to the VLE, books and articles accessed – basically, anything that produces digital analytics.

Now after seeing all this, I realised that I was incredibly naive not to anticipate this sort of data collection and analysis. But, there you have it, I was. And while I do see the possibility for some of this analysis to be of benefit to students, I have reservations about tracking the activity of individuals and building it into their student records. One thing that I found encouraging was the fact that Jisc, the UK organisation dedicated to developing the digital potential of teaching and research in the country, has been consulting with the National Union of Students on an informed consent policy for students (and presumably something like this should be in the works for staff too, especially given the recent news about staff tracking at Univ. of Edinburgh?). But I couldn’t quite get a sense of how robust those conversations have been, or the extent to which they’re genuinely collaborative versus instrumental (my next step will be to find some time to read through Jisc’s code of practice on the topic, kindly tweeted by one of the delegates). I also wasn’t particularly impressed by the slightly flippant attitudes expressed in the more informal bits of some of the presentations, but as they were a bit more off-the-cuff I’ll avoid reading too much into them here.

A couple other observations from the day – first, that academics can be frustrating for library staff to work with, especially when they don’t fully think through the practical circumstances of education. There were several comments suggesting that we often just don’t get it – we assign obscure and difficult to find readings; we are over-precious about our teaching practices, sometimes to the detriment of students; we don’t make the time to work with colleagues in the library to set up a learning environment that benefits everyone. I think these are all fair criticisms, as long as we recognise that they’re not one-size-fits all. A lot of academics – most, even! – do care an awful lot about their students, even if they show it in different and at times inscrutable ways.

Which brings me to my second observation. There was quite a lot of comment about academics assigning readings that are not as accessible/affordable/scalable/popular as others, and some sense of frustration that they don’t take a more practical route. I can understand this, especially in huge lecture classes in which demand for key texts is going to be very high. But I also think it’s important that we remember that books aren’t always easily swappable ‘products’, with one working just as well as another. They are forms of knowledge, and sometimes very unique and inimitable forms at that, and it’s essential that we design our courses in a way that puts that knowledge first. Of course, if we really can’t find a way to create access to that knowledge for our students, then we need to find a different solution, which might mean a different book, or a single (and legally) digitised chapter of that book, or an apologetic notice to students at the start of the course that they’ll have to buy that book themselves. But it’s so important to me that we never start putting knowledge second, and tools and products first. Good news though – I think everyone I met and spoke to yesterday at the conference would agree. The more all parts of the university listen to one another, and work together, the better we’ll get at identifying and achieving our common goals.

Two final points before I finish, both with pictures. First, although I thought the topics and discussions at the conference were great, this event like so many would have really benefited from greater diversity in its plenary speakers. Of the 11 people I saw on the main stage, 10 were men.

And second, the final joy of the day was getting to go searching in the Library of Birmingham for the Shakespeare touchtable that our MAs helped create, and to spend more than a few minutes enjoying its delights. Brilliant work you guys!!

   

Staying focused: streamed theatre and me

I’ve been thinking about attention this week. Not the kind that other people give to you, but the kind you create yourself. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Immersion.

I’ve been thinking about it because sustained, unbroken attention is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, especially when I find myself sitting in the darkness of a theatre after a long day’s work.

This is ironic – and embarrassing – for a Shakespeare scholar to admit. In years past, when I counted myself more a cultural historian and literary critic, I could just about get away with it; theatre was great, but it wasn’t my bread and butter, so it was almost okay if I secretly spaced out or even nodded off for a bit every now and then.

But now that I’m putting theatre at the heart of my next research project, I’m feeling a little more self-aware. And intrigued. To a certain extent I’ve started training myself to be more alert, to see going to theatre more as work (in a good way — usually). At the same time, a significant proportion of the theatre I’m watching is by online streaming, meaning that several of my ‘nights at the theatre’ are actually me, sitting on my bed with headphones, looking at a screen.

This, I’m finding, proves a particularly formidable challenge for someone prone to breaking focus. With no audience around me to enforce a sense of shared theatre etiquette, a number of new and previously impossible styles of theatre-watching start to emerge. Turning to Twitter occasionally to see what other audience members are saying. Multi-tasking to save time and energy on tired evenings – eating dinner while I watch, maybe even making it. Petting the cat when he climbs on my lap, curious what I’m up to. Saying a quick hello to my husband when he comes in from work. And, if the streaming is on-demand rather than live, pausing every now and then to take a break, or maybe even watching the production over a couple of days in chunks.

Although I’m a little embarrassed to fess up to these practices, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one on Twitter after all. Which is why it was all the more surprising, and challenging, and interesting, when online audiences were invited last week by Complicite’s Simon McBurney to turn off our phones.

The show we had tuned in to see was a live performance of The Encounter, streamed online courtesy of Complicite and The Space from the sold-out Barbican Theatre in London (and available on YouTube until the end of today here). This one-man show tells the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey into the Brazilian rain forest, and his consciousness-bending experiences while there. It is told through the use of immersive, ‘binaural’ sound technology, with all members of the audience – in-person and online – wearing headphones throughout the entire performance.

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McBurney started casually, shuffling along the stage and then addressing the audience in his khaki shirt, baseball cap, and jeans. ‘Ladies and gents, um, we’re just still waiting for some people to come in, apparently the bars are more attractive than the theatre. If you could please, while we’re waiting, turn these off [holds up mobile phone]. Tonight is a livestream, so I suggest anybody at home, who’s watching this also turns these off.’ And I did. No live tweeting during the production, no stopping and starting (not really possible in this case), and once things got going I even turned out all the lights. I did still eat dinner while watching it, but I was lucky enough not to have to cook it.

I don’t know if this single focus made the experience better or worse or the same. Though I won’t go into the details here of the production itself, I should say that it was genuinely extraordinary, and I certainly didn’t feel limited or kept at a distance during my encounter with The Encounter. At the same time, I still experienced plenty of moments of mental interruption, not least as I got to thinking about my own sense of sustained attention and what helps and hinders it. But I did really benefit from the challenge of trying to pay attention to a streamed performance at home in a way that was similar to how I might do so in a theatre. I did my best to perform a social code, even when no one was checking up on me (aside from my fellow audience members on Twitter).

So all this was in my head when I made my way down to London for another theatre event at the Barbican last weekend: Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare. This series of 36, one-hour productions saw six actors taking turns as they told the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays using a box of household objects. Beatrice as a bottle of sunscreen, Claudius as a container of flea powder, Hector as a jar of Tabasco sauce, Cleopatra as an old china dish. Look below to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.

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I went down to London to see four of these experiments in storytelling live and in-person, after watching about the same number online last summer when they were broadcast live from the Berliner Festspielen. I remember seeing snippets of a few one day during the work week, then hearing more from a friend a few days later, and finally settling down outside on a sunny, late Saturday afternoon to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I watched, I took notes – not on paper, as I normally would in the theatre, but published online through Twitter, where I also looked out for the comments of others. A couple of examples:

Close to a year later, I’m left wondering what kind of theatrical experience that was. I know for a fact that I was doing lots of other things while watching, though I do think that I was also paying attention, and really focusing, while navigating my way around those other things. And speaking with others online during the performance did, in some ways, make certain moments and insights more memorable for me.

Being physically present, down in the depths of the Barbican Pit on Saturday was a materially more immersive experience, and I did feel like the co-presence of the somewhat surprisingly packed audience around me did focus my mind and senses in ways that I missed last summer. But I’m not going to lie – in hour 3 I moved to a cooler seat at the edge, and I let my mind wander and even drift off for a few drowsy minutes. This had everything to do with stamina rather than interest. And I don’t know what this all adds up to, other than a growing preoccupation with how I watch theatre – whether in an auditorium, a cinema, or at home, sitting on my bed.

How do these different practices affect my appreciation of what’s before me, and my absorption in it? Do we need to develop a shared protocol for at-home viewings if we want streamed theatre to achieve a certain kind of emotional and sensory effect? Should we turn our phones off, or are they doing something new and helpful for us that we should embrace rather than shun? There are over 1,000 comments on the YouTube page for The Encounter, and despite McBurney’s plea I’m sure that a good portion of them bear a time-stamp from the night of the livestream. Is this a sign of our ever distracted, ever fragmented times, or a mark of a new and maybe even enhanced way of watching theatre, or perhaps some combination of both?

Banksy and digital art – making it and saving it

Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.

So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.

Photo: banksy.co.uk
Photo: banksy.co.uk

This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant
Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.


As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.

It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.

Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.