Classically Inclined

November 21, 2017

Why do we need monsters?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:03 am
Tags: , ,

I almost feel I should be apologising for the radio silence over here, but I shan’t – I’m just coming out of a very busy period for my admin job at work, plus I’m teaching and trying to write two thousand words a week on the monster project, and I recently realised that while I am doing very well at not committing to more things than I have promised myself I will this year,  I seem to have agreed to do the vast majority of them this term. This means I can look forward to a summer of lying on the lawn and reading critical theory, but it does mean that my bandwidth for blogging at present is rather limited.

However! One of the things I have done is talk as part of an evening put on by the Institute of Classical Studies about ‘Why Do We Need Monsters?‘ This was great fun for a number of reasons, not least the chance to hear from other people working on monsters in one way or another, and some audience-led experimentation with making our own digital monsters (nothing like seeing where hybrids take people’s fancy). I know that a lot of people were interested in this event but weren’t able to make it, so I’m delighted to say that it was all recorded and is available on Youtube! I link to it here for your delection – enjoy. I start talking at about 40 minutes in, but you should definitely listen to the other talks if you have the time.

Advertisements

September 5, 2017

On my current writing praxis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:45 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve been talking on Twitter recently about my writing practice, and as it seems to be of interest I thought I’d do a blog explaining what I do, why I do it, and a bit about how my practice has changed over time.

The first thing I should say is that by nature, I’m a sprint writer. I have reading phases and writing phases – when my head is down to write, I write, and when I’m gathering material, I read. I put this down to doing my B.A. at Cambridge, where you would have to churn out four sides of single-sided A4 essay in 12pt font each week, and there wasn’t scope to do much in the way of extensive redrafting. During my PhD work, I adapted this into a pretty simple word goal for writing days, which I still use – a 250 word limit (which I can reach even if every word feels like blood from a stone), and a 1,000 word goal, which is the point where I can stop and pat myself on my back if I feel like it, or keep going if I still have things to say.

I observe this limit daily on what I think of my writing days. It’s really important not to confuse generating new words with the process of academic writing, and I don’t; when I’m in this mode, the process of deleting words and rewriting material is classified as an editing day rather than a writing day. Word count is purely for writing days, for the days when I generate the bulk of what I’m going to say.

I’m in the middle of a bit of a change to this at the moment, because of the requirements of the Monster book. I have worked out that in order to get a full-ish draft by Christmas, I need to be writing 2,000 words a week. That’s not impossible – far from it – but it does mean taking a rather different approach to this whole writing thing, and thinking in terms of a few hundred words here and there over a much more sustained period of time rather than a fortnight’s sprint to generate the original rough material. I’m not sure that this suits me particularly, certainly in terms of shorter form work, but it’s what I need to be doing at the moment and so I shall crack on with it. We’ll also see whether this new routine survives the realities of term that are soon going to be bearing down upon it!

Once I have the draft put together, then I get rather old-fashioned. I print out everything, read through it, and mark up edits with a red pen. This might involve crossing out paragraphs, moving them around, inserting arrows with ‘WRITE MORE ABOUT THIS’ in appropriate places… but the draft then becomes my road map for the editing phase as I work through the mark-ups, making the changes as I go. In this phase, rather than judging by words, I judge by pages of edits completed – so three pages, eight pages per day needed to make sure things get tidied up and sorted. Once I’ve done that, I may go through it again, or I may start to work at edits suggested by other people, or I may send the revised version off to someone else for their comments. After that, it’s back to a new copy of the document, a new set of red pen marks, and off we go again around the merrygoround.

I think it’s quite important to note that this really is a process of finding what works for you, and evolving your practice as you go. For instance, I never thought that I’d become a weekly word target writer, or that I’d do research alongside my writing in the way I am doing now, but it’s the only feasible way for me to get this project completed by the deadline. I expect I won’t stick with this way of doing things once that deadline is met, but I’m grateful for the flexibility of mind that made me consider what I might do to make this happen when the thought of doing it my usual way made me despair.

August 10, 2017

On the Monster book and the perils of television

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:57 pm
Tags: ,

We are now in the depths of August, which Andrew Adonis has decided in the spirit of university-bashing is our academic three month holiday. Needless to say, I have spent my last few weeks indulging in the hedonistic pleasures of grant application writing, preparing the next version of the postgraduate student handbook, reading draft work from my masters’ students, wrangling all the postgraduate taught admin, and other well-known indulgences of the academic labouring classes. Somehow, alongside all of that, I’ve also found time to get on with the Monster book, last written about at the end of my sabbatical.

At the end of the sabbatical, I had written two and a half chapters of the book – the first two were the theoretical heavy lifting, and the third was going to be the film chapter. I’d also written a conference paper on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which I thought would be the starter for the fourth chapter on television. I naively assumed that I would be able to finish off the film chapter pretty quickly and move on. It turned out that this was not to be, because as I cracked on with the film chapter, it slowly became clear that this was not one chapter. It was two chapters. So into two chapters it was divided, which for lack of better reasoning I have dubbed the pre-Gladiator and post-Gladiator phase. Oh well, I thought. Surely dealing with television will be easy.

Alas, once more, this is turning out not to be the case. There are a number of problems with writing about television. The first is that you have to watch the dratted stuff. I can’t just sit down and watch selected random episodes of Hercules, as much as I would like to. My partner finds this position profoundly odd, but if I want to be able to write coherently and sensibly about the whole series, then I have to have seen the lot of it. This is doubly true for monsters – an episode recap might tell me if a monster is at the core of an episode, or perhaps even mention subsidiary rent-a-monsters who don’t get much screen-time beyond their obligatory defeat, but they won’t mention the throw-away lines of dialogue which are in and of themselves very revealing about the place that monsters are given in this rich fantasy world. So I have had to find time to watch 111 episodes of Hercules, which is over eighty hours. That’s a lot of time.

The second problem is that, contrary to my blithe and (in retrospect) daft expectations, not a lot has been done by classical reception scholars on television. Amanda Potter has done some fantastic stuff on the relationship between television and audience, but other than that, the pickings are pretty slim. (I haven’t yet looked at the new Wiley Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen, which should help a bit.) What scholarship there is tends to look at the television of the historical – HBO’s Rome, for instance, or the much-loved BBC adaptation of I, Claudius. This is all fine and good until you’re trying to put some production context in place for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and find yourself staring at the wall blankly. Thankfully, Amanda Potter put me onto the trail of Catherine Johnson’s Telefantasy, but it was a close run thing. There’s also a shockingly small amount written about Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, not just by classicists, but in general – there tends to be much more concentration on the companion spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess, mainly because that show created a particularly strong fan-base which caught the attention of nascent fan studies scholars, and has thus cemented it as a community that gets studied. Hercules? Not so much. (Please tell me in the comments if you think there is something I really must read!)

The third problem is that when you start writing about something that’s not been written about before, from a perspective that people don’t tend to think about, you have a lot to say. Which is why I’ve realised that the planned chapter on television is going to be – you guessed it – two chapters. And quite a lot of Hercules. I’ve also realised I’m going to have to be selective about what I watch of Xena, which I’m a bit cross about, but to find the hundred hours required to watch 134 episodes is just not going to happen. Plus I haven’t got the word count, to be honest. (There are also reasons that monsters matter less for Xena than they do for Hercules; I haven’t written that part yet, but trust me, it completely justifies a more selective approach.) Oh, and I want to talk about Doctor Who as well. Definitely two chapters.

In a way, this is good news, in that it’s all words towards the final manuscript total – I’m aiming to write 80% of them in the first draft, which has rubbish reference formatting and will need some tidying up on that front, and then for the remaining 20% to be introduction, prefatory material, bibliography and explanatory edits. On the other hand, it means my cheerful assumption that I knew the shape of the book when I started writing it has been neatly upended, and that the final product won’t look as I expected. Oh, and that I need to be writing about two thousand words a week to have this draft finished by Christmas, to give time for people to give me feedback and for everything to be tidied up before the contracted deadline.

I guess that’s my card marked, then…

April 19, 2017

A tiny victory: Mythical Reimaginings

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:46 pm
Tags: ,

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that over recent months there’s been a fair bit of content essentially saying *plotplotplot* and not much else. That’s because the project I’ve been working on has many moving parts (and keeps on developing more), is very complicated, and hasn’t had anything really concrete to share beyond ‘this is totally cool’. Until today, or, as I am thinking of it, phase one of taking over the world in a small scale sort of way.

One thing that’s been on my mind with writing the Monster Book has been impact. You might remember that I had some thoughts about what impact actually looks like as a result of the work I did on the AHRC-funding family archive project, and those have been bubbling around in my brain ever since. One of the things I did during my sabbatical this autumn was complete the free five week training course offered by Fast Track Impact in order to think through how I might build impact into the foundations of my research rather than having it something that was a bolt-on. (I thoroughly recommend the course, by the way, although it did take me more than five weeks to work through!)  As part of the reflection process, I started to realise that where I thought my research could make the most difference, outside academics who think about this sort of thing, was with creative types of people – people who create classical receptions, like video game designers and film makers and artists. I was particularly inspired by Stephen Hodkinson’s role as historical consultant in the production of the comic book series Three, which is something that seems really fruitful but I’m not aware of anyone else doing.

I thought about this. I talked about this, tentatively and nervously. And then Tony Keen said ‘have you met Howard Hardiman?’ Because Howard, as it turned out, had just had an exhibition at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight about reimagining classical myth, and wanted to carry on working in that direction. So we touched base and had a chat, and discovered that we actually come at some of the approaches to this in very similar ways, particularly some of the political possibilities.

There’s a lot of this that’s still in the works and that may either be revealed in due course or have a veil of modesty drawn over them when they fall over, of course – but today, I am delighted to be able to share we have got some funding from the Royal Holloway Research Strategy Fund to create two new video pieces of performance poetry in British Sign Language along with text based on the stories from classical myth. There are many, many reasons that this is fantastically exciting, the biggest for me being the opportunity to feed into the artistic creation process and try out helping to shape a very new sort of medium. But there’s also the joy of being able to fund artistic creativity ethically (as in, with actual money that represents the amount of work put in), and the possibilities that this piece creates for future work, and the fact this will support Deaf artists using their first language.

Basically, I’m very, very excited. And hopefully this is only phase one – although I’ve quite a lot of work to do before the next stages…

December 7, 2016

Between Scylla and Charybdis – the current outline

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:23 pm
Tags: ,

After all my general potterings about the monster book, I thought you might be interested in hearing a bit more about what it’s going to look like when it’s finished – or, at any rate, what the plan looks like at the moment. I came up with this outline in the original pitching process, but over my research leave I’ve had the pleasant discovery that my vague ‘this’ll work’ idea actually hangs together methodologically much more sensibly than I originally thought it did – one of those pleasant research-in-action surprises you sometimes get as you work on a project. The most sensible way of doing this seemed to be sharing the chapter outlines, so a brief summary of what I hope each chunk will say and do when it’s finished.

The introduction will do the heavy lifting about what classical reception is, where this book fits into it, how I have chosen what I’m going to talk about and so on. It will also note where I’m setting the chronological and geographical limits to my subject, and the limitations that places on what I’m going to say. I’ll also explain that monsters, like everything else, don’t have a single static meaning. At any rate, this is the heavy reception theory bit.

Chapter one gets stuck into the various forms of monster theory available, and looks at how they might or might not help us work through understanding what’s going on with the classical monster in the modern world. At the moment, the reader travels through catalogues, cryptozoology, Cohen and Mittman’s monster theory, the historical trends in what a monster looks like, anthropology, psychoanalysis, Foucault, Haraway and Braidotti, coming out at the end with what I hope is a version of monsterage that makes sense for what I want to do.

Chapter two stays with the theory for a bit longer and thinks about place, space and genre. This chapter looks at the question of where monsters dwell, broadly defined, and how that’s an important difference for the classical monster – I think it’s one of the major differences in what’s going on, a factor that comes from the Greek and Roman sense of a very porous boundary between everyday and divine or otherworldly space. I’m also talking about the difference it makes about whether we meet a monster on the pages of a book or on a screen, drawing on more Benjamin and more Haraway about the effect of vision, along with the rise of CGI technology.

Chapter three follows through this idea that genre-place matters by looking at monsters in the movies, starting with films produced in the sixties, seventies and eighties, with a particular focus on the work of Ray Harryhausen, and then looking at what has come afterwards. I find myself focusing on two strands – what one might call the modern peplum movie (all the Hercules your heart could desire), and what I tentatively call ‘creative interpretations’, where the monsters are taken and reimagined in plots that aren’t necessarily concerned with providing full filmic immersion into the classical world.

Chapter four sticks with the screen, but moves to the small scale to think about television. The conference paper I’m giving next week is the start of this chapter, thinking about the way monsters are used in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; I’m planning to bring in in Xena: Warrior Princess, the appropriate bits of Doctor Who, and quite possibly Ulysses 31 at the very least. My ideas about what’s going on here are still unformed, but I think something about the television series format allows for a different kind of engagement with monsters, both because of the extended time and lower budgets involved.

That’s the first half of the book – the second half will consist of four case study chapters, each focusing on the presentation of a particular monster in popular culture. The monsters I’ve picked are Medusa, the Minotaur, sirens and centaurs, each having their own interesting features and a range of representations in media. I want to give a brief overview of the ancient myth to start each chapter, just to highlight some of the key aspects of each monster, but the main meat is going to be looking at particular instances of reception and seeing where things work and where they don’t. I’m anticipating that these chapters will mainly look at books and comics, with a few other odds and ends thrown in, as most of the film and television stuff should be in earlier chapters in its own right. I’m looking forward to talking about using the sirens to give an anti-porn message in more detail, and I’m sure I’ll find some other fun things to talk about.

So, that’s the plan. I’m hoping to have the first half in very rough draft by the start of term, and then to get on with researching and writing the case study material in the new year. We’ll see how it all goes. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts about examples of classical monsters in popular culture that I simply can’t miss, please do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to chase them up!

October 27, 2016

A monstrous case study: the sirens and porn

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:32 pm
Tags: , ,

One of the pleasures of working on classical reception in popular culture is that every so often, an absolute gem of a case study falls into your lap. Earlier this week on Twitter, Natalie Collins shared this video from the Naked Truth Project, and as you’ll see it’s extremely relevant to my current monstrous interests:

The video uses the myth of the sirens to offer handy tips on how to deal with your porn addiction. Learning from Odysseus putting beeswax in his men’s ears and having himself tied to his ship’s mast, and from Jason getting Orpheus to sing a sweeter, louder song to drown the sirens out, the men (and the target audience is very clearly men) watching this video should avoid what they can; ask others for help; and pursue the better song.

Where to begin.

Let’s start with the underlying premise that the ancient and the modern world have no distance between them. In a line that would generate floods of red ink in any undergraduate essay, the voiceover informs us that “throughout history and the arts, sirens became the personification of sexual temptation” and that “a few thousand years later, and pornography is more accessible than ever, with the same deadly pull of the sirens’ song.” Notice the grand generalisation, the chopping of several millennia of culture, the flattening of the cultural register. Sirens = porn, and from the Greek heroes we can learn how to deal with them. We being we men, and heterosexual men at that – the sirens of the start of the video are echoed by the women on the representative screen, as if they have moved from their rock to the internet, erasing the existence of gay porn. The shallowness of the cultural comparison speaks to a real modern problem in dealing with the classical world – the idea that the Greeks and the Romans were ‘just like us’. If the Argonauts had had to handle pornography, this is what they’d have done. The strangeness and difference and peculiarity of the ancient world disappears.

Yet there is also a strange desire to be authentic in this video, to give an accurate tale about the myths. The fact that the video uses not only the well-known story from Homer’s Odyssey but also the less well-known story from Apollonius’ Argonautica speaks to a wish to engage with the classical sources – or, quite possibly, some intelligent and careful perusal of the Sirens’ Wikipedia page. Either way, the desire to make sirens look ‘real’ gives us the visual representation of the monsters as having the form of women with bird wings – we’ve returned to a ‘classical’ model of what sirens look like rather than the mermaid-like figures who have, in some ways, replaced the sirens in the popular imagination of the last century or so. Again, this could be down to someone on the design team with a bit of classical education under their belt, or some judicious Wikipediaing – but, either way, this desire to be ‘authentic’, tell the real tale, get a bit of legitimising classical reference in there, is in operation. I’d say the same about the video’s observation that the sirens want either to get sailors to drown in shipwrecks or to eat them when they get to the island – including the lesser known fate of the victims adds to the sense of aiming for authenticity and authority, which of course is then used to give the advice in the second half of the video more moral weight.

(more…)

October 12, 2016

On classical monsters, theoretical frameworks and the limits of psychoanalysis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:59 pm
Tags: , ,

This post follows on from my previous thoughts on whether you can have a monster outside a horror movie, and takes a step back from the assumption that ‘monster theory’ automatically works for classical monsters in the modern world. In my earlier post, I mentioned Asa Mittman’s statement that you know a monster not through how it is categorised, but through its effect. There may be some unifying characteristics – monstrous size, deformity, malevolence – but none of those is in and of itself sufficient for the monster to be monstrous.

Mittman’s position draws heavily on ideas of the monstrous created by psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic approaches to culture, as does Jeffrey Cohen in his highly influential seven theses of monster culture. I’ve just skimmed over the monster theses again; while I spot more references in the body of the text to Foucault than Freud, the language of the psychoanalytic is woven through the argument. Certainly, later writers on monster theory engage with this theoretical angle with gusto, quoting Freud and Kristeva and working the notions of the uncanny and the abject into their approach.

(more…)

September 24, 2016

To Cyclops or not to Cyclops?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 pm
Tags: ,

When I first came up with the Monster Book proposal, I decided I wanted to have the first half of the book think about some of the big issues around monsters and dedicate the second half to chapters focusing on individual case studies – the plan is for those to look at Medusa, the Minotaur, centaurs and sirens. As I’ve been starting to get to grips with the project, I’ve had to think about what I want to do about Polyphemus, the Cyclops who first turns up in Homer’s Odyssey. It’s funny, because when I initially thought about classical monsters, Polyphemus simply didn’t come into my mind.

If you read the original text, for me it’s a story not about what makes a monster, but how to be human. Polyphemus is one of a tribe of Cyclopes rather than a one-off beast. Yes, he eats some of Odysseus’ men and has every intention of eating all of them, but he only does so after discovering the company in his cave, rifling through it and breaking all the laws of guest-hospitality that should govern the first encounter between civilised peoples. Odysseus’ decision to rifle through Polyphemus’ possessions, essentially pillaging them, makes it clear he doesn’t think that Polyphemus is worth treating like an equal – so Polyphemus returns the contempt. So there’s appalling interpersonal relationships, but no worse than many of the humans that Odysseus meets on the rest of his travels.

However, although Polyphemus is an exaggerated human rather than a monster for Homer, in his later incarnations the trappings of civilization that surround him get stripped away. Eleanor OKell has written about this in the context of the cyclops created by Ray Harryhausen for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, if you fancy reading more about this (the link goes to a PDF), but the general gist is that the social complexity of Polyphemus’ life, his co-existence with other Cyclopes, his command of language and his obvious competence in the complicated art of shepherding and cheese-making get overwhelmed by the man-eating and the single eye. In the process of transmission, he gets flattened out into a beast.

So I think my initial instinct on this is right, and I’m not going to spend too much of the book talking about Polyphemus or the Cyclops – he’s a special case, in that his monstrosity is imposed on him. It certainly wasn’t the only thing that the ancients associated with him – he fell in love with the sea nymph Galatea, who did not return his affections. Both Theocritus and Ovid wrote about Polyphemus’ unrequited love – not something you find when people are talking about the Chimera or the Minotaur. While it’s understandable that the Cyclops in contemporary popular culture has been trimmed down to a one-dimensional bogeyman, the price that’s paid is the humanity that Homer and other ancient poets saw in him.

September 13, 2016

Can you have a monster outside a horror movie?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:42 pm
Tags: ,

This is what I hope is going to be the first of a series of blog posts exploring some of the central issues that come up as I spend my sabbatical getting to grips with the Monster book. I am currently reading All The Theory – that is, trying to get my head around what it is that makes a monster monstrous, and how a monster manifests. On my reading list, inter alia, sit Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and Freud’s essay on the uncanny or unheimlich, along with a dose of Barthes and Benjamin. I am getting familiar with the stomping grounds of monster theory, delineated by Asa Mittman and Jeffrey Cohen, as well as looking at how various parts of cultural and media studies talk about this stuff. The logic here is that I’d like to draft out my initial two chapters, thinking through what a monster is and where monsters live, and then think about the third chapter, which looks at classical monsters in film (and which will build on the paper I gave at the Celtic Classics Conference this summer, “Release The Kraken? Ancient Monsters In Modern Epic”). So while the hope is that I’ll come up with a framework that’s broad enough to cover all the kinds of popular culture I want to talk about, in terms of examples I’m currently circling around film.

Which has led me to a problem of genre, which I ran up against when writing “Release the Kraken” but didn’t really explore there. Much of the writing about the monstrous, about what causes fear, assumes that for something to be truly monstrous, it has to generate a particular sort of response. That is, as viewers, we must fear it. What makes a monster a monster is terror, the emotion that it evokes in the viewer – the shudder of the horror film. Indeed, Asa Mittman argues that what makes a monster is its impact – by its effect shall ye know it. The cinematic monster, for instance, is often visually horrifying because it is covered in blood, pus, ooze – taking the form of a slimy mess of a blob that pulsates and repulses us. The connection between this and the psychoanalytic approach to horror, that we are terrified by the return of the repressed and the impure (to oversimplify), is clear – bodily fluids are taboo, we shudder and fear them.

(more…)

August 10, 2016

Changing times, changing working practices

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:12 pm
Tags: , , ,

Of all the possible blog posts I could write at the moment, I’m starting with the low-hanging fruit of some reflections on what I’ve learned over the past few months about the reality of being on sabbatical and being a parent. This is partly because Academic Twitter has been talking about working practices a bit more than usual, focusing around Raul Pacheco-Vega’s posts about low-hanging fruit and how to pick it, and another burst of interest in my post about academic otters. But as I mentioned in my last research-focused post, I am moving into a new book-sized project at the same time as having a sabbatical, and I need new strategies for how to organise my time and workflow now I’ve moved to an ideas-generating phase rather than a refining phase. (Jo Van Every has a post that articulates this better in thinking about summer writing plans in general.)

My initial plan was brilliant, simply brilliant, I tell you. I mapped out precisely which chapter and side project I was going to work on for every single week until the end of the calendar year, so that I’d have a full draft of the book by the end of my leave, and would have done All The Things. Marvellous.

Except that by the end of the first fortnight of the new Grand Plan, it wasn’t marvellous at all and I was already very, very behind what I’d hoped to get done. There were a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious of which was that I had assumed I would be able to work on the Monster book and Mazes Intricate, a related but separate chapter manuscript, at the same time. The chapter is due in November, so squeaked priority – and while some of the reading I’d done for it also fed into my thinking about the Monster book, when I got into the writing I wanted to get Mazes Intricate finished rather than spinning off onto other things. So, big lesson one of Being A Researcher With A Small Child – don’t try and do multiple projects at once. Focus on finishing one thing at a time. This is very different to when I was doing my PhD, when I’d have (at least) one other article on the go alongside my current chapter, as something to go to as an intellectual break and refresher. Now my intellectual break is helping infans explore how pouring lentils from one container into another via the medium of a yoghurt pot works. Same intellectual function, different learning outcome, to repurpose some jargon.

(more…)

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.