Classically Inclined

January 6, 2017

Looking back over 2016 and the sabbatical

Filed under: Research,Teaching — lizgloyn @ 1:34 pm
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I’ve decided that I’ve done all the admin that I want to do for today, so am going to spend the rest of my afternoon thinking about research. That means I want to review my sabbatical, and that in turns means having a look at the first part of 2016.

The spring and summer terms involved finishing off teaching Intermediate Latin and Roman Life Stories, and teaching our first year Roman literature survey again. I learned quite a lot in the process, especially about the Roman Life Stories course, which was new on the books and will need a bit of gentle modification before it gets its next run. I also proposed the two courses I will be picking up next term, and dealt with various MA and PhD supervision. I did a couple of school talks in Somerset over the Easter vacation and submitted an overdue book review. My biggest research achievement was sending the full manuscript of the Seneca book to the publishers just before Easter, marking a significant milestone in that particular intellectual journey. Oh, and of course we had the launch of the Women’s Classical Committee!

Then in the summer I got going with the Monsters project, starting with a conference paper in Warsaw in May on the Minotaur in British young adult fiction. I also gave a paper on monsters in modern classical epic films at the Celtic Classics Conference. I helped organise an event with the WCC UK on feminist pedagogy, which was very well received. I made a good start on turning the Minotaur paper into a chapter, and had a good go at planning how I was going to tackle writing the Monster book. I got started on the process of indexing the book manuscript with the invaluable assistance of one of our graduate students.

Then, during the sabbatical term, I managed the following:

  • An awful lot of core reading around monsters, monster theory and the like.
  • Two very rough chapter drafts of the Monster book and a third in progress.
  • A conference paper exploring some of the ideas for the fourth chapter.
  • Some very exciting ideas and actions about monstrous impact.
  • A very, very almost completed version of the Minotaur chapter.
  • All the paperwork, including copy-editing and proofs, around the Seneca book.
  • A full seminar paper on Seneca, fathers and rulers, which will be the basis of an article in due course.
  • A completed and submitted application for an outreach scheme.

When I finished the summer term, I had grand ideas about getting the whole book written before Christmas. This was, in retrospect, utterly implausible, but you have to start somewhere. At the beginning of September, I was aiming to get the first four chapters into draft. I’ve not managed that – but I have done some other things that weren’t in the original plan, and I’m well underway to getting more written.

In retrospect, the most valuable thing about the sabbatical term has been the time to set the stage – to spend a month reading what I picked out as ‘core reading’, get my head around the debates, articulate some of the issues I was running up against, blog and tweet about them, take my time to get organised. I now feel like I know what I want to be doing for finishing off the chapter I’m working on and starting the next ones – the project has become manageable, which it wasn’t at the start of the summer. There’s a lot still to do, of course, not least of all finding more lovely primary sources to talk about and analyse (which, to the untutored eye, may look like watching a lot of silly television). But I now feel like I’ve made a good start. Let’s hope it gives me good foundations for the work of 2017.

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December 7, 2016

Between Scylla and Charybdis – the current outline

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:23 pm
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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!

December 1, 2016

On sabbatical goals and #acwrimo

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:56 am
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I decided this year that I was going to have a go at Academic Writing Month, better known as #acwrimo over on Twitter. Taking its inspiration from National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, it’s basically a way to get an academic writing practice established – whether that’s daily writing, having a project finished by the end of the month, you name it, you can have a go at it. I had a go at this back in 2012, with mixed results – I found it a good way to push myself forward on revisions for the Seneca book, although I didn’t get as much done I as I wanted (plus ça change). AcWriMo isn’t good for everything – its emphasis on counting words, for instance, isn’t always the most helpful thing to do to help move your academic work along. But right now, given the fact I’m trying to get as much of the monster book drafted as possible, I thought that going the AcWriMo route would be sensible to move the sheer generative phase forward.

And so I set myself a very simple goal – to write at least 500 words a day, with Sundays off. And it worked really quite well… until the 22nd of November, when I completely fell off the bandwagon through a combination of full family sickness, travelling to a research seminar and giving a paper, and needing to finish the work of rigorously checking the proofs of the Seneca book by the deadline. So there’s been quite a lot of academic work in the last week or so of AcWriMo, but it’s not really been translating into words. Which is fine, not least because the proofs have been returned, the seminar was successfully given, and generally all the other bits and pieces I needed to do are more or less done – thus again reinforcing the point that word count isn’t always the most important thing.

But on the issue of word count, I don’t think I did too badly – overall, I managed a bit over 14,000 words in those three weeks. This was made quite a bit easier by the fact I’m counting my seminar script and handout translations in those words, and the former certainly pre-existed and just needed to be shaped into a script form. But the other words mean I’ve now got all of chapter two for the monsters book in first draft, and chapter three is under way.

When I applied for this sabbatical, I said that my goals for the term were to complete the majority of the Monster book manuscript, and to complete an article based on the research seminar. A short, sharp encounter with reality meant that I soon revised the first goal to having the first half of the Monster book in first draft, which feels like it should still be doable – not least as I’m due to give a paper at an AHRC conference in a few weeks based on chapter four, which should get that started. I’m not sure about whether the article manuscript will get much further, but at least I know what I want to say and that there is a kernel of an idea there. So it’s all progress – and sometimes, putting the words down onto the paper is what you need to do.

October 27, 2016

A monstrous case study: the sirens and porn

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:32 pm
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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.

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October 12, 2016

On classical monsters, theoretical frameworks and the limits of psychoanalysis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:59 pm
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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.

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September 24, 2016

To Cyclops or not to Cyclops?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 pm
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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
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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.

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September 8, 2016

Sabbatical planning 1 – Shut Up and @britishlibrary

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 9:18 pm
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I’ve been thinking about planning my sabbatical term, and have realised there is a big risk of not seeing a sufficiently high concentration of humans over the next few months, which I know is bad for me. (I suspect it will be even worse than it has been in the past given that a lot of the time when I do see humans, I’m seeing them in the capacity of infans’ mother rather than as an academic.) So I thought I’d see if anybody would be interested in a semi-regular meet-up at the British Library – a version of Shut Up And Write, but a bit more flexible.

It turns out that Clare Vernon is in the market for something like this, so we’re going to meet up on Wednesday 14th September for the first of these sessions. The plan is to meet at 9.30am for a pre-desk cup of tea in the downstairs café; meet up again for lunch; and then perhaps meet up for an afternoon tea and a debrief. We’ll also put dates into the diary for the rest of the term – I’m hoping we’ll go fortnightly, although prior commitments may mean we’re not always on a Wednesday and we might not always be fortnightly.

So if you’re on sabbatical or working on research solo and would like an informal way of keeping in touch with other humans, feel free to come along. One of the reasons for setting dates is so that people who can’t make every session can plan to come along for a day – and if you can just make it for a morning or an afternoon, then you’re welcome too. The point is to create a bit of structure for community and hopefully facilitate some research work – I suspect Clare and I will set it up to suit us, but if you can hack it to suit you, then that’s all to the good. If you’d like to know the dates we come up with, please get in touch and I’ll keep you updated.

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