Remembrance Day Salon

‘The thought of you facing their trauma first-hand is just too much to comprehend. Have you saved lives? Or is it always that little bit too late? Does the smell of blood ever stop making your stomach turn? It must all still chill you to the bone. I hope you can still feel something when you come home to me’ – Emily Duke, ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier’.


A few weeks ago, on November the 11th, the Literature Department held a salon with writers in residence Vanessa Gebbie, Clare Best, and Neil Bartlett, who’s brainchild, the ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier’ project, he had brought to fruition to mark the centenary anniversary of WWI.


The talk started with an introduction by Clare Best, before Neil Bartlett described how he came up with the idea for ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier’. Bartlett was frank and illuminating in his relation of how the project got started, and demystified how the whole funding process works for this type of project; ‘Funding first, ideas come after’. The idea came to Bartlett as he arrived in London for a meeting to discuss his ideas (of which he had none by this point), and on departing the train at Paddington station, saw the ‘Letter to an unknown soldier’ statue, and the project was born then and there. Vanessa Gebbie then read some of her poems that focused on her favourite war memorials across the UK.


One of our third year students, Emily Duke, also read out her poem ‘Letter to an Unknown Soldier’, which was published alongside a selection of other entries in the new book, which you can read here on the blog.


Perhaps surprisingly for someone so involved in the remembrance goings-on, Bartlett raised a few problems he has with the way remembrance is practiced generally in this country. The BBC’s coverage was largely held to account, in its veneration of pomp and ceremony, and its deliberately emotive tactics that seemed to cheapen the whole proceedings, although in my opinion, the BBC’s coverage is more of a symptom than the cause of an increasing glorification of war in general. Somewhere along the line, the panel and the audience seemed to agree, the ‘true’ meaning of remembrance has been lost.


For instance, as Bartlett mentioned, having a 13-year-old boy place the first wreath on the cenotaph – intended no doubt as a tear-jerker – sent out mixed messages about child-warfare, and the close-up of David Cameron shedding a respectful tear seemed staged, and in bad taste.


The disagreements seemed to come when it was asked ‘what should Remembrance Day be about?’ Some seemed to advocate a return to a more traditional, somber, and serious appreciation of those heroic men who ‘died for us’, while others – the large majority it seemed to me – were slightly troubled by this.


Those of the first camp thought that more should be done to honour soldiers from the far-flung reaches of the old Empire who, apparently, threw themselves willingly onto the sacrificial pyre of war so that in the future, women could vote, and we could live in a democratic capitalist society speaking English instead of German (do these things really warrant death on such a scale?). Rather bizarrely to me, this made remembrance day sound like a celebration of modern-day multiculturalism, suggesting that because people from many faiths and cultures all died for this ‘common cause’ (Britain?), that it should be seen as a way of bringing the nation together. A positive spin emphasizing camaraderie and togetherness, perhaps, but one that sounds suspiciously like a return to old Imperialist values to me.


Others questioned the patriotic overtones that remembrance day seems to carry with it, mentioning the Quaker study, which worked out that, had the display at the tower of London included casualties from both ‘sides’, it would cover a much larger area of London. It was also suggested that the remembrance of pacifism and conscientious objectors should take more prominence, and that more effort should be taken to remember our country’s less than humane treatment of those who disagreed with the war, as did this article in the independent.


The talk was lively and thought provoking, and made pertinent just how important Remembrance Day is to British culture and our sense of national identity, but also how divisive and sensitive an issue it can be. In my opinion, to say that the millions who died in the First World War sacrificed themselves in order that we could live as we do today, suggests that sacrifice, and war, are necessary for progress. When I was at school, we were always told that we remember ‘so that it may never happen again’, a phrase which has conveniently fallen away in recent years, no doubt due in part to Britain’s re-boot of Imperialism in the middle-east.

Jack Thurland, Third Year Literature Student.


Doctoral Funding Opportunities in Literature

There are currently funding opportunities for students wishing to pursue PhD studies. These are the Doctoral Training Partnership studentships (TECHNE), which require students to work with partner organisations during the writing of their thesis, and the University of Brighton studentships, which focus students on the thesis alone. Both schemes offer fully-funded doctoral studies (stipend and fee waiver). The deadline for applications to the TECHNE scheme is 23 January 2015 and successful applicants will commence study in October 2015.
For further information on the schemes and details about how to apply see:
The Literature team welcomes applications on a wide range of subjects from the Early Modern period to Twenty-First Century literature. For an outline of the team’s interests, see:
We advise applicants to contact potential supervisors to gain advice on developing the proposal before submission. For a detailed list of staff and areas of expertise, either go to or contact Dr Andrew Hammond at

Applying for Doctoral Study: PhDs and Studentship Opportunities

Thursday 6th November 
11:45-12:45, M2 Grand Parade   
This session is aimed at current MA students, and others, interested to learn more about doctoral study and the opportunities to apply for funded studentships. It will provide a brief introduction to PhDs in the arts and humanities, followed by an outline of current funded opportunities through our Doctoral Training Partnership (TECHNE), The Centre for Doctoral Training in Design (Design Star) and University of Brighton studentships. There will be time for discussion and questions. Led by Prof. Darren Newbury, Director of Postgraduate Studies and Prof. Alan Tomlinson, Head of Doctoral Training.
To find out more about Studying a Doctorate in Literature, see:

Slavoj Zizek’s ‘The Myth of Western Liberty’ at the Southbank Centre

One of the benefits of living and studying in Brighton is that London is only a short train journey away, and so it is easy to take advantage of all the museums, galleries, and events which the city has to offer, without having to put up with actually living there. The Southbank Centre is currently hosting a Literature festival, concentrating on ‘the themes of freedom, justice and democracy’, and aims to be a celebration of ‘the optimism of the human spirit and the ability of the arts to celebrate and transform lives.’ Last week I went along to Slavoj Zizek’s talk, entitled ‘The Myth of Western Liberty’.


The talk began with a short lecture, which was followed up with a Q&A with Paul Mason, and then a few more questions from the audience. Zizek was as entertaining as ever, with the talk flitting from popular culture and current events, to Hegel’s dialectics and the ‘Frankfurt school’ (there was very little Lacan mentioned, to my dismay), and with a generous peppering of his usual jokes.

This was all hurtled through at a heady pace, which for me was at times pretty hard to follow. His Slovenian accent, constant nose-rubbing, shirt pulling, and gesticulating, were all further obstacles to a clear understanding of what was being said, and although the entire talk was being subtitled and shown on a large screen above, this was done with some delay, (and with some hilarious errors – Obama was translated as Owe Balm Ma, etc.). This meant that some of the subtleties of his argument, along with what was as far as I could discern as being (for me at least, having only read a few of his books) new material, was missed.

 The opening lecture was predominantly covering old ground, with a brief reassertion of his philosophical position – presumably intended for those unfamiliar with his work – and steered clear of the nitty-gritty complexities of his books.

Some of the more memorable things discussed were some worrying developments made by scientists in the USA, who have fitted microchips inside the brains of mice which allow their movements to be controlled remotely. According to Zizek, who has spoken with the scientists involved in the research, these experiments have already progressed on to humans. Perhaps even more worrying, is that the control goes completely unnoticed by the test subject. Whilst the chip is active the scientists can control the movements of the subject – make them turn left or right – but when asked afterwards if they felt like they were being controlled in any way, the test subjects responded that it felt like they were making their own decisions. They felt as if they wanted to turn left or right, when really it was the will of the scientist in the room adjacent. Zizek of course then made parallels with the current system of democratic capitalism dominant in the west, in which the big decisions that govern our lives are already made for us in secret, whilst we potter around thinking we are free. 

This is not a particularly new or shocking argument – one is reminded of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (2004), for example – but interestingly, Zizek goes further. Zizek would rather have less, not more, choice, which is one of his gripes with the current liberal attitude that is constantly complaining about capitalism infringing upon their freedoms. According to Zizek, some decisions should be made for us. We shouldn’t have to be burdened with choosing the best schools for our children, what healthcare insurance to have, and so on, these should be decided already.

Here’s where Zizek goes a little, in his own words, ‘Stalinist’. In fact, he excuses his Stalinist leanings quite frequently throughout the talk. Zizek’s alternative model involves the emergence of a benevolent ‘master’ figure, a person who becomes a figurehead for the mobilization of individuals to form a proper community, and is more of a facilitator, than a traditional leader. Someone who inspires rather than decides on the behalf of the public – and this is where I start to lose sight of what he is talking about. The trouble is, we have to just sit tight and wait for one of these ‘masters’ to emerge…

Zizek becomes quite vague when prompted further by a member of the audience to extrapolate on what should, or can be done, to change the current system. ‘We’re running out of time’, he says, with global warming, the current economic crisis. The time for ‘action’ is surely upon us, isn’t it?

Zizek’s answer is ‘no’. The action of the twentieth century which sought to instate an alternative; communism, uprisings, socialism, all essentially failed to alleviate the onset of late capitalism, and were perhaps the very catalyst for the next, more advanced phase of capitalism to emerge. According to Zizek, now is the time for re-thinking. To imagine, rather than re-act, to start Demanding the Impossible. Action now would more than likely be in the same vein as those twentieth century attempts at reformation, and would inevitably produce the same results. Zizek reworks the old Marxist thesis that ‘”philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is to change it”’, instead, ‘we should say, “In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.”’[1] A sentiment that was no doubt comforting to the audience, who had spent their evening sat in the Southbank Centre doing just that.

Jack Thurland, 3rd Year Literature Student.

[1]  Zizek can be seen discussing this idea previously, too:

Story Water

Anna Cole was a Visiting Lecturer with the Literature Team at Brighton University, 2012-2014.  She taught Postcolonial Literature, Travel Writing, and New English Writings and Voices.  The following is an account of her recent trip to Paris as part of her ongoing research.

At the end of the teaching term, Summer 2014 I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Paris on the first half of a Research Fellowship at the Centre de Recherches Interculturelles sur les Domains Anglophones et Francophones at Paris University, 13.  I was invited by the Centre to their inter-disciplinary research ‘lab’ – a lab in the French tradition – combining innovative teaching practice in the humanities and social sciences, with researchers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds including literature, history, sociology, and English and Australian studies. Before heading to Paris for the Fellowship I’d recently collaborated with Vanessa Castejon, an Associate Professor in the lab, and with Oliver Haag from the Austrian Centre for Transcultural Studies on a book called Ngapartji Ngapartji.  Ego-histoire and Indigenous Australia (Australian National University Press, forthcoming, November, 2014).  Ngapartji is a book of life-writing by leading and emerging Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars reflecting on the relationship as Pierre Nora (Foucault’s publisher and renowned French historian) wrote: ‘between the history that you made and the history that made you.’  Building on this collaboration my recent time in Paris forms part of the development phase for a potential collaborative bid for an EU grant, potentially part of ‘Horizon 2020’.

Each of the three principle researchers for this project, Vanessa, Oliver and myself, work in former colonial world powers that now hold often dispersed but rich ethnographic collections of material culture from Britain, France and Germany.  Objects with ritual, religious, social and cultural significance for communities from once colonised countries, including Australia, Africa and the Pacific found their way en masse to European centres during and after the high period of colonialism.  Our large grant proposal seeks to bring together a team that includes academic researchers from comparative literature, historical anthropology and political science with writers, artists and practitioners active in creative cultural heritage such as Shazea Quraishi, Alinah Azedah and Rosanna Raymond.  In essence the project intends to reconnect the makers, the takers, the traders and the holders of the ethnographic objects from around the world to the stories that bring them alive today.

At the heart of the project is story: ‘A story is like water/that you heat for your bath/it takes messages between the fire and your skin.  It lets them meet/and it cleans you!/very few can sit down/in the middle of the fire itself/like a salamander or Abraham/we need intermediaries’(Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, c .1270). Sayantani DasGupta who teaches on the Masters programme in Narrative Medicine at Colombia University says she often reminds students that stories were the first medicine.  Storytelling is the way our families and communities weave threads of interconnection, the way societies and cultures ask the big questions and begin to make meaning from life’s mysteries including death, suffering, illness, birth and historical legacies. The baths that holds the water for our project are the ethnographic museum holdings of the former colonial empires of Britain, France and Germany.

During my trip to Paris I visited the relatively new Cite Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration) in the Palais de la Porte Doree, formerly the home of the Musee National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie and built initially for the first International Colonial Exposition of 1931. A building thus redolent with colonial and ‘post-colonial’ history. Mr Sarkozy, then President, guaranteed the new Immigration museum would make headlines when he conspicuously didn’t show up for its inauguration. The museum has something of ‘the slightly ramshackle, melancholy air of a temporary installation’ as Michael Kimmelman who reviewed the new museum for the New York Times when it first opened put it: ‘it shares an old building with an aquarium that occupies the basement.  Most visitors, when I looked, headed down’ (New York Times, Oct. 17, 2004).


‘Road to Exile, 2008.  Barthelemy Toguo

Entrance to the Cite National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration

I wanted to explore the newest exhibition at the Museum, the ‘Gallery of Gifts’, a new and growing collection of objects and photographs, many passed down from generation to generation, given to the gallery as donations.  Members of the French public are invited to give the museum an object with an accompanying narrative that represents something of their personal history of immigration. ‘Objects that were the keeper only of family memories, or personal identity, such as identity papers, an employment contract expired, swell the ranks of object ‘witnesses’ to immigration history’ (, 17/6/14).  While the permanent exhibition ‘Landmarks’ presents a national or collective history of immigration, the ‘Gallery of Gifts’, foregrounds the personal in the creation of national stories.


Iranian silk scarf, donation, ‘Gallery of Gifts’,Cite National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration


Path to the entrance of Musee du quai Branly

The slightly ramshackle, empty feeling of this museum couldn’t differ more from the second site of my research trip:  The Musee du quai Branly, which opened in 2006.  Built in a state of the art, architecturally innovative building on some of the most expensive real-estate in Paris a block away from the base of the Eiffel Tower, the Musee was the love child of former President Jacques Chirac and art collector Jacques Kerchache.  This museum is a seriously impressive piece of state expenditure, with a lavish gift shop, a roof top restaurant and café with panoramic views up to the Eiffel Tower.  It is a huge site, designed, as the visitor brochure describes it, ‘as a vast territory for visitors to discover’. Chirac and Kerchache envisioned the museum on the quai Branly as the culmination of their long-term dream to attribute non-western cultures their ‘due place’ as the brochure explains, within the National Museum structure in France.  Visiting the museum it seems this ‘due place’ is to be looked down upon by the throngs of tourists who climb the Eiffel Tower and gaze down at the pointillism painted on the roof of the museum by Indigenous Australian artist Lena Nyadbi.  The almost overwhelming collection of ethnographic objects in the Quai Branly is shrouded in high-end art gallery style behind slabs of thick silent glass.  These objects were ‘collected’ in large part from the now Museum for Immigration’s former incarnation – the Museum for African and Oceanic arts.  Divorced from their context and stories, ritual and cultural objects take on an exotic, distancing aura of ‘the other’ and the museum seems to reinforce a disorienting sense of the intransigence of cultural difference of former colonised communities.

My short initial research trip, juxstaposing both museums, points at an intriguing set of directions and questions to be explored as our work progresses.  I’m going to conclude these reflections here with one of those serendipitous research moments from my time in Paris that often uncannily enrich our work.  Tired from hours walking the shrouded circular paths of the Musee du quai Branly I searched for the ‘Kerchache reading room’, a research resource attached to the museum.  As I walked into its hushed interior, a book caught my eye from across the room: Lanterns on the Prairies. The Blackfeet Photographs of Walter McClintock (Western Legacies series, published in co-operatoin with the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 2009).  Darrel Robes Kipp a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe had written an introductory essay ‘Completing the Circle’ and it discussed some of the exploitations involved in the collection of photographs but also the significant reciprocal exchange in this historical collection.  He wrote ‘it is my hope that museums and archive curators will seriously consider disseminating to tribal communities information on collections that originated with those communities…today with a resurgence among tribal members of tribal knowledge, descendants of the original subjects are a ready audience for much of the chroniclers work…McClintock’s study, once it makes the full circle back to the Blackfeet tribe, may in fact serve its greatest purpose (p.100).  Making this kind of full circle, restoring and listening to the stories of these objects and returning them in creative and contemporary ways to the communities in which they originated seems a vital role for research today:

‘water, stories, the body/all the things we do, are mediums/that hide and show what’s hidden/study them/and enjoy this being washed/with a secret we sometimes know/and then not’ (Storywater, Rumi)


Standing in Charles Sandison’s river of words, Musee du quai Branly


Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’

Learning about theoretical discourse has been a large part of my education at the University of Brighton, sadly a path not widely shared by my peers. Often, I am asked, quite bluntly, what is the point of literary theory. And up until now, the chagrin of not being able to give a fully coherent answer has left me appearing to reinforce the ‘plaisir’ of textual consumption; as opposed to advocating ‘active reading’ and the resulting ‘jouissance’, of which theoretical study is integral.[1]


But, now I have my most coherent answer yet, a finite way of explaining the primacy of ‘theory’ in the study of any given text. I introduce to you Terry Gilliam’s cult masterpiece Brazil (1985), a raw and hilarious satirical ‘text’ depicting a dystopian future Britain constrained by a hegemony centred around bureaucratic ‘red tape’ gone awry. For those of you unfamiliar with the piece, the film follows the ineffectual Sam Lowry (Jonathon Pryce) and his ludicrous quest to find the girl of his dreams (very literally), whilst attempting to evade the increasing threat of a broken air-conditioning unit that resides in his flat.


On the surface the film and its message seem very straightforward; an open attack on a totalitarian modern age, mixed with swipes at bourgeoisie ideologies, all placed under the umbrella of absurd hyper-bureaucratic nonsense. However, there are aspects of the film that are enigmatic and ambiguous at first glance, the cultural signification of Michael Palin’s ‘Torture Mask’ exemplifies such a discrepancy in meaning, and still alludes me to this day.


Yet all hope is not lost. It is with the application of theoretical discourse that one can begin to ‘unpack’ the deeper meanings within the architecture of Gilliam’s film, giving meaning and purpose to the more illusive undercurrents of the text. Most importantly, before this essay begins, I am not arguing that everything in Gilliam’s Brazil is to be placed under the microscope; I personally believe that Palin’s ‘Torture Mask’ (ironically) is most effective as a talismanic symbol of Brechtian alienation, one of which begs the engagement of the audience’s critical faculties because of its uncanny presence. However, many of the films more poignant swipes at modern culture can be unlocked through the careful application of literary, philosophical and cultural theory.


To begin, let’s take protagonist Sam Lowry’s reluctant dinner with his pseudo-debutante mother, Mrs Ida Lowry (played by Katherine Helmond). The most striking joke in this whole scene is the food that each of the members of the table order. When it arrives, their ‘orders’ are nothing more than amorphous coloured lumps accompanied by an exquisite picture of the ‘real’ food each person ordered from the menu. As it stands this is a simple joke of misdirection; they have ordered food; they have not received what they thought they would receive; it’s so funny how weird the future is…


Now, when considering Jean Baudrillard’s theory of ‘hyperreality’, in his work The Vital Illusion and The Illusion Of The End the innocuous food blobs take on a much more sinister and satirical meaning.[2] In Brazil’s future dystopian society, the bourgeoisie culture ‘no longer [has] any critical or speculative distance between the real and the rational’, their food is an example of a hyperreality. The blobs ‘abolish the real’ food that has been ordered, ‘not by violent distinction’ but by ‘the strength of the model’ i.e. the picture, the perfect example, of which, can be imbued with the recipient’s emotional resonance. This image or ‘referent’ has penetrated the reality of the culture, becoming an adequate substitute for food and thus we are left with a meal, stripped of its impetus, being and reality.[3] This analysis provides a much darker and more biting satirical commentary (much more in keeping with the tone of the film). Through such an analysis, we are no longer bamboozled by the manifestation of a very queer futuristic looking meal, instead we are enlightened to a much more subtle derisive swipe at bourgeoisie cultural values and its practices.


Next, an analysis of the heroic and hilarious Archibald Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro), a rogue plumber hell-bent on making the world a saner place in the face of Central Services, because, after all, ‘We’re all in this together’. Tuttle’s minor role in the film serves, at first, to reflect how mad a dystopian capitalist Britain has become. The extreme lengths that Tuttle must go to, zip lining around high-rise industrial housing blocks for fear of death, for being an independent plumber convey the capricious behaviours of this fictitious Britain’s institutional state apparatus.


However, the madness of this fictional Britain’s authoritarian ideology runs much deeper than merely Tuttle’s escapades. By drawing on the influential critic Raymond Williams, in his work, Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory, we can see how the character of Tuttle is symptomatic of a proposed future capitalist society that has lost any ability to distinguish between ‘oppositional’ and ‘alternative’ sub-cultures. As a result, the ‘dominant mode’ of the British state is to extirpate all forms of emergent and residual cultures, be they opposing or not.[4] Moreover, this notion presents the argument that capitalism is unstable and detrimental to humanity’s freedom.


Let’s consider the hyper-capitalist Britain that is the background to Brazil to be the ‘dominant mode’ of society. We might then consider Archibald Tuttle to be an example of a ‘residual mode’ of practice, an out-dated idea of capitalist culture (by Brazil’s premonitory standards) that allows for competition to provide the best service for the consumer, i.e. the best and most reliable plumber at the most competitive rate. In its current state, this version of Britain has ‘incorporated’ all competitive plumbing outlets into the dominant mode via the Central Services, in an attempt to maintain the maximum profit. This is where the role of Archibald Tuttle in relation to his society becomes misleading. If Tuttle were gaining any monetary profit, and thus impinging on the dominant mode, he would be considered oppositional and ripe for eradication. However, Tuttle’s reasons for going rogue are put down to simple socialist empathy, ‘We’re all in this together’, and in conjunction a hatred of bureaucracy depicted by the collectively dreaded ‘form 27B/6’. In actuality, Tuttle poses no real threat to the infrastructure of the dominant mode, as Williams states, ‘in capitalist practice, if the thing is not making a profit, or if it is not being widely circulated it can be for some time overlooked’; he is nothing more than a freelance plumber picking up the slack for Central Services, a residual and alternative mode in society.[5] So why is he a person of interest to the Ministry of Information? Well, the very fact that Tuttle has a gun in his tool kit, and works under the cover of darkness, is illustrative of an authoritarian state that is so greedy and power mad that any alternative mode of practiced living to the dominant mode is unacceptable. In Brazil, there is no longer incorporation, only extermination. Thus, Tuttle’s character foregrounds how Britain in this proposed future society has lost all sense of humanity and cultural co-existence because of extreme capitalist endeavour. We might then read that, in the eyes of the text, capitalism can only lead to the eventuality of totalitarianism. This idea is exemplified in the opening of the film when, due to an insect related error, the cobbler Archibald Buttle (as opposed to Tuttle) is removed from his home and sentenced to death by the Ministry of Information.


By extrapolating on the film’s minor characters in conjunction with cultural philosophy, the role of Tuttle and Buttle have become expository in a wider social reading of the film. However, without the use of Raymond Williams’ discourse Tuttle becomes nothing more than a helpful plumber whose primary aim is to fight authoritarian bureaucracy, and Buttle as simply a casualty of that bureaucracy in action. Without theory, Brazil’s wider intimations remain closed off to its audience.


To conclude, I hope this essay has shown that ‘theory’, in its many varied forms, is of the gravest importance. By applying certain theoretical discourses to specific and often enigmatic aspects of a text, one can elucidate meaning more readily; lumps of ‘future food’ reveal themselves to be very intelligent and witty satire; the analysis of minor characters serve to single-handedly illuminate the entire architecture of their text. Now when people ask me, ‘what is the point of theory again?’ I can answer simply, that it makes understanding a text so much ‘easier’. And, wouldn’t it be nice if the world was a little ‘easier’ or ‘clearer’, I mean, ‘We’re all in this together’, aren’t we?

Matt Iredale, 2nd Year Literature Student

[1] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill & Wang 1980)

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell Publishing ltd 2004), pp. 365 -378

[3] Malpass Simon, The Postmodern (Routledge 2005) p. 94-95

[4] Raymond Williams, Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: An Anthology, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (London: Norton 2010), pp. 1432 -1433

[5] ibid. p. 1433

Lacan, ‘The Matrix’, and ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’

The psychoanalyst and philosopher Jaques Lacan is often associated with the post-structuralist school of thought. However, in The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) Slavoj Zizek distances Lacan from ‘the field of “post-structuralism”’ and writes against this ‘distorted picture of Lacan’s obscurantism’. Instead, Zizek locates him within the lineage of rationalism, envisaging him as ‘the most radical contemporary version of the Enlightenment’.[1] Zizek sees a new approach to ideology possible in a ‘return to Hegel’ through a Lacanian reading, which doesn’t fall into any kind of postmodernist ‘traps’, such as ‘the illusion that we live in a “post-ideological” condition’.[2] I thought it would be interesting to discuss the break from post-structuralism Zizek sees with Lacan in relation to The Matrix (1999).


In The Matrix, the ‘matrix’ is effectively an illusion designed to mask the ‘real’ state of the world; that the human race are actually slaves to a robotic superpower created as a product of unethical ecological destruction, and are (somewhat ironically) being harvested in fields for energy which the robots use to sustain themselves. The film has obvious Marxist points to make – that an abstract power (capitalism) is enslaving the human population for energy (money), keeping them in a powerless position by feeding them the illusion that they are in fact free – the matrix (bourgeois democracy), and tapping into millennial fears of global warming (in the matrix the humans ‘scorch’ the sky) and unchecked technological progress.


The matrix functions in some respects like an Althusserian ideology; from birth human beings are unknowingly interpellated, unable to understand the ‘real’ state of affairs, as their perception is intrinsically limited, being filtered through the matrix itself. The matrix is even shown to be ‘readable’ from the outside world like a language, as a stream of hieroglyphic symbols. This is in a sense (a somewhat simplified) post-structuralist view of language; that we live in a world of meaningless signs,[3] or words, which construct our version of reality, whilst having little or no connection to the way the world ‘really’ is. The language of the matrix is entirely anti-descriptive; it inscribes rather than describes. The post-structuralist theorist Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation even makes an appearance in the film (though Baudrillard stated that the film largely misunderstands his work).[4]

the matrix

However, there are various problems with the way the matrix (ideology, language) is portrayed. From the start the protagonist Neo feels that there ‘is something missing’, that in the matrix things don’t seem to add up, and that the world in which he lives is somehow lacking. He begins to live a ‘double life’, by day he works in an office, and by night is a computer-hacker, essentially turning the language of the matrix against itself, in order to find the truth of things (the matrix is envisioned as a futuristic encryption program). The fact that Neo already feels there is something amiss however, implies that this sense of lack is somehow already part of the matrix, that there is a way out already built in to the very language of the matrix. Why is the matrix constructed in such a way that it is possible for people to feel something is missing, and to imagine that the matrix is an illusion?


This is variously explained as a mistake on the part of the robots, who are unable to fully grasp the very human requirements which would make the matrix entirely convincing. And of course, Neo is also ‘the chosen one’ (though he is at the start positioned as an ordinary everyman in order that we as an audience identify with his journey to disillusionment) and is therefore the singular genius who has somehow been endowed with the superpowers which allow him to see beyond the illusion, the world of meaningless signs, and is even able to manipulate the matrix itself in the later movies.


The film generally encourages a cynical perspective of reality, whilst offering some straightforward answers to very difficult and vague questions such as ‘why do I feel that something is lacking from reality?’ This sense of lack is manipulated for the Marxist environmentalist message the film wishes to promulgate, addressing the audience thus: ‘you too feel that there is something wrong, some truth which has been concealed from you’ and that ‘this is because in reality you are a slave to capitalism, you are being exploited and lied to, whilst the environment is being destroyed in your name’. The underlying message of the film is to mistrust modern notions of progress, desiring a return to a simpler, pre-capitalist, ‘golden age’ where humans live in harmony with nature.


The film also offers a ‘safe space’ (an outside to the matrix), a position of distance from which ideologies can be critiqued without prejudice, which seems to be at odds with the post-structuralist elements of the movie. That there is ‘no meta-language’ (an unprejudiced ‘safe’ language with which one can critique other languages) is a commonplace post-structuralist assertion.[5] In post-structuralism the classic opposition between text (the matrix) and its external reading is replaced by one continuous literary text, an infinite intertextuality of which any interpretation is automatically already part of the process (there is no escape from the matrix, nowhere outside the system). The Matrix, from a post-structuralist perspective, falls into the error of attempting to give clear definition to the ‘real’ world, a world beyond the matrix and free of illusions.


In post-structuralist writing, any truth-claim (an attempt to reveal the real world, the true meaning behind the illusion) is deliberately avoided, preferring to reveal the mechanisms which construct a ‘truth’ themselves, and by constantly pointing to the illusory nature of language, which can never say what it ‘really’ means.  However, as Zizek writes:

‘The position from which the deconstructivist can always make sure of the fact that “there is no metalanguage”, that no utterance can say precisely what it intended to say, that the process of enunciation always subverts the utterance, is the position of metalanguage in its purest, most radical form […] That is why post-structualist poeticism is ultimately affected. The whole effort to write ‘poetically’, to make us feel how our own text is already caught in a decentered network of plural processes and how this textual process always subverts what we “intended to say” […] is a clearly defined theoretical position which can be articulated without difficulty in a pure and simple metalanguage.’[6]


There is a third version of reality which The Matrix is in dialogue with; that of the audience, our own version of reality. The film reflects our reality back to us as the matrix, an illusion, revealing the effects of our own interpellation, the way reality is constructed through language, and positions the audience in a space that allows criticism of such ideologies. Is this not the post-structuralist agenda at its most basic, as Zizek writes, to ‘expose the textual mechanisms producing the truth effect’?[7]


The post-structuralist assertion that ‘there is no metalanguage’, according to Zizek, should actually be taken as ‘there is no object-language’ – that there is no transparent means of describing reality (the object) through language. Whereas in Lacan’s teaching, Zizek explains:

‘the proposition “there is no metalanguage” is to be taken literally. It means that all language is in a way an object-language: there is no language without object. Even when the language is apparently caught in a self-referential movement, even when it is apparently speaking about only itself, there is an objective, non-signifying ‘reference’ to this movement. The Lacanian mark is, of course, the objet petit a. The self-referential movement of the signifier is not that of a closed circle, but an elliptical movement around a certain void. And the objet petit a, as the original lost object which in a way coincides with its own loss, is precisely the embodiment of this void.’[8]


The post-structuralist view, therefore, doesn’t account for the way in which the position of metalanguage, a ‘safe-space’, is implied through language itself. Lacanian theory, on the contrary, envisions the flaw of language, the implication that something is ‘beyond’, that something ‘real’ is missing, as in-built and paradoxically, a condition of language – although this real is always fundamentally unattainable in a positive sense. As Zizek writes, ‘the mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.’[9]


The Lacanian Real is a void, an absence, around which all language is structured and yet is impossible to adequately describe. In this way the Real can only be signaled negatively, as a lack. It is perhaps no coincidence then, that the city in the world outside the matrix is named ‘Zion’ (in Judaism often synonymous with Jerusalem, but within the Rastafarian movement represents a utopian place of unity or heaven), an embodiment of all that reality seems to lack. In this way fantasies – such as the utopian ‘real world’ of The Matrix – become necessary illusions; they prop up our version of reality, by filling in these holes, these absences of meaning in the symbolic order, mitigating the trauma of the Real, and in this process become sublime; the ‘sublime object of ideology’.



– Jack Thurland, 2nd Year Literature student


[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, Verso: 2008) p. xxx.

[2] Ibid., p. xxxi.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.


[5] Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 171.

[6] Ibid., p.173.

[7] Ibid., p. 172.

[8] Ibid., P. 177-8.

[9] Ibid., p. 25.

Letter To an Unknown Soldier

unknown soldier

A website set up by Neil Bartlett  and Kate Pullinger, 1418now, is encouraging people to write a letter to someone who fought in World War I to mark its 100th anniversary. Thousands of people have already written to the unknown soldier (based on a commemorative statue in London’s Paddington station), including schoolchildren, pensioners, students, nurses and members of the serving forces, with many well-known writers contributing as well; authors as diverse and distinguished as Stephen Fry, Malorie Blackman, Andrew Motion, Lee Child, Louise Welsh, and Kamila Shamsie. Eventually all of the letters will be archived in the British Library where they will remain permanently accessible online. Emily Duke, a second year Literature student at Brighton, has had her ‘Letter To an Unknown Soldier’ selected to feature in the project. Here it is:

Letter to an Unknown Soldier


Darling Marilyn,


So this is it. We’re finally at the stage where just this paper brings us together. I know we’ve built up to this for weeks, but I never expected to miss your skin. That cluster of freckles behind your ear, the way your eyelashes form fanned shadows on your cheeks.

It’s the little things that make me hurt. And it’s the unknown, the silence of wondering how you’re coping, the silence of praying for all of those poor, poor men. I try to tell myself that they’re all going to be coming home to their loved ones, but I know, you know and they know. We all know the truth.

The thought of you facing their trauma first-hand is just too much to comprehend. Have you saved lives? Or is it always that little bit too late? Does the smell of blood ever stop making your stomach turn? It must all still chill you to the bone. I hope you can still feel something when you come home to me.

But, my love, if you don’t – I want you not to worry. I will warm you up again. I will hold you for as long as you need, and I will remind you that despite everything that’s happened, we live in a beautiful place and it is going to be ok.

Think of that. Think of us. Think of all that you are, that we are and will be. I will get you through this.

I am forever proud of you and forever yours.



Katherine Mansfield and the Bloomsbury Set

Katherine Mansfield’s letters and journals, much like her fiction, read as wonderful, fragmentary little vignettes of life, which find and exult the extraordinary in the everyday. Mansfield is both funny and profound, at times dazzling with her sharp wit as she reviews books and relates (what I suppose could now be called) Bloomsbury gossip, and at other moments, sometimes within the same entry, she is dark and troubled, as she comes to terms with the difficulties of living and dying, struggling with her extrapulmonary tuberculosis, and crippling bouts of self-doubt and depression.

Katherine Mansfield

Her portrait of the novelist D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, in a journal entry entitled ‘Remembrances’, is particularly vivid and touching:

‘Always, when I see foxgloves, I think of the Lawrences.

Again I pass in front of their cottage and in the window – between the daffodil curtains with the green spots – there are the great, sumptuous blooms.

“And how beautiful they are against the whitewash!” cry the Lawrences.

As is their custom, when they love anything they make a sort of Festa. With foxgloves everywhere. And then they sit in the middle of them, like blissful prisoners, dining in an encampment of Indian Braves’.

Their mutual love of nature is something that seems to connect Mansfield with Lawrence, in both their friendship and writing. In her journal she writes that his presence makes her feel ‘green’, and proclaims that she is ‘more like L[awrence] than anybody […] unthinkably alike, in fact.’ Mansfield also remarks in a letter to the painter Dorothy Brett:

‘I Loved him. He was just his old merry, rich self, laughing, describing things, giving you pictures, full of enthusiasm and joy in a future where we all become ‘Vagabonds’ – we simply did not talk about people. We kept to things like nuts and cowslips and fires in the woods and his black self was not. Oh there is something so loveable about him and his eagerness for life – that is what one loves so.’

This ‘black self’ of Lawrence’s, is the stubborn, hostile, violent side of his character. Mansfield notes that, whilst she and her husband J. M. Murry were staying with him and Frieda in Cornwall, he had ‘gone a little out of his mind […] if he is contradicted about anything’ or if anyone says ‘anything which isn’t quite “safe”’, he flies off in one of these rages, and ‘whatever your disagreement is about he says it is because you have gone wrong in your sex and belong to an obscene spirit’. Being with Lawrence in these moods, Mansfield writes, was ‘like sitting on a railway station with Lawrence’s temper like a big black engine puffing and snorting’. However, Mansfield blames these rages, which often turned violent, largely on the antagonistic presence of Frieda (who she found trying at best). She recounts an instance in which, sparked by a disagreement over Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’, Lawrence ‘beat her – he beat her to death – her head and face and breast and pulled out her hair’. ‘I don’t know which disgusts me worse’, she writes, ‘when they are very loving and playing with each other or when they are roaring at each other and he is pulling out Frieda’s hair’.

This ‘black self’ which Mansfield links with imagery of industry, of coal and smoke, is something that often crops up in Lawrence’s fiction; Mansfield herself reads a play of his and finds it ‘black with miners’. But the ‘eagerness for life’ and his ‘joy in a future’ in which we all become ‘Vagabonds’ that Mansfield enjoys and so aptly describes, is also apparent in his writing. Particularly in Women in Love, a novel inspired by the events of this summer in Cornwall, and in which Mansfield is taken as inspiration for the icy, self-destructive character of Gudrun.

Lawrence’s influence seems to spill over into other letters and journal entries of the same period. Three days after Armistice Day, she wrote in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrel on the 13th of November 1918:

‘I opened the window and it really did seem – just in those first few moments that a wonderful change happened – not in human creatures hearts – no – but in the air, there seemed just for a breath of time – a silence, like the silence that comes after the last drop of rain has fallen – you know?

It was so wonderful – and I saw that in our garden a lilac bush had believed the South wind and was covered in buds –‘

But this optimism doesn’t extend to humanity. Mansfield, noting the ‘drunks passing the house on Monday night, singing the good old pre-war drunken rubbish’ made her feel ‘cold with horror’, fearing a continuation of the attitudes of which the First World War was a result, rather than a new beginning. She wishes that nations and individuals would ‘fly at each other, kiss and cry and share everything.’ She wonders why ‘people hide and withdraw and suspect’, feeling, like Lawrence (in a sentence which could almost be from Women in Love), that it is because of a ‘lack of heart: a sort of blight on them which will not let them ever to come to full flower.’

The letters also capture well her relationship with Virginia Woolf,  close friend and chief literary rival, whose short story, Night and Day, Mansfield reviewed for her husband’s literary magazine Athenaeum in November 1919. In a letter to Murry, she admits that she ‘didn’t like it […] My private opinion is that it is a lie on the soul. The war never has been: that is what the message is’. As artists, she declares, ‘we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take into account and find new expressions, new moulds for thoughts and feelings’, something which she believes Woolf has failed to do: a cardinal sin for the modernist writer.

Taking this as an opportunity to distance herself from the Bloomsbury group, Mansfield confesses she inwardly ‘despises’ them as a ‘set of cowards’, finding their ‘intellectual snobbery’, which Woolf’s Night and Day ‘reeks’ of, ‘long and tâhsõme’. She berates Woolf for being old fashioned and out of touch, comparing Night and Day to Jane Austen, and stipulates that ‘What has been stands, but Jane Austen could not write Northanger Abbey now – or if she did, I’d have none of her.’

This review did not go unnoticed by Woolf. As she wrote in her diaries:

‘Katherine Mansfield wrote a review which irritated me – I thought I saw spite in it. A decorous elderly dullard she describes me; Jane Austen up to date. Leonard [Woolf’s husband] supposes that she let her wish for my failure have its way with her pen. But what I perceive in all this is that praise hardly warms; blame stings far more keenly; and both are somehow at arms length.’

Mansfield however, almost immediately regretted what she had written, noting that ‘my review of Virginia haunts me’, feeling she may have ‘missed it’, and calling herself a ‘cursed little creature’. Between October 1919 and January 1920 Mansfield was holed up in a villa near the French-Italian border, suffering badly from her illness. She became lonely and frustrated, her moods tempestuous, and so these harsh reviews, written during this period, may be in part attributed to her illness. Mansfield wrote later to Murry that ‘it is my illness which has made me so bad-tempered at times. Alas! one can’t fight without getting battle stained, and alas! there have been so many occasions when I’ve never had time to wash away the stains or renew myself […] You must forget these melancholy things, my own precious darling.’

It is clear in the Letters and Journals, that life was a constant fight for Mansfield:

‘In the middle of the night I decided I couldn’t stand – not another day – not another hour – but I have decided that so often – In France and in Looe, and have stood it. “So that proves,” as they would say, “it was a false alarm”. It doesn’t. Each time I have decided that, I’ve died again. Talk about a pussy’s nine lives: I must have 900. […] I walk up and down, look at the bed, look at the writing table, look in the glass and am frightened of that girl with burning eyes, think “Will my candle last until it’s light?”’ Though at this stage, recovered from a bout of physical illness, Mansfield is still anxious, and clearly terrified by the ‘idea that one must die, and may be going to die…’ adding that ‘I really have suffered such AGONIES from loneliness and illness combined that I’ll never be quite whole again …’

The struggle to live and the struggle to write, often seem entwined for Mansfield – the creative process both immensely difficult, and her only source of pleasure:

‘I pose myself, yet once more my eternal question. What is it that makes the moment of delivery so difficult for me? If I were to sit down – now – and just write out, plain, some of the stories – all written, all ready, in my mind ‘twould take me days. There are so many of them. I sit and think them out, and if I overcome my lassitude and do take the pen they ought (they are so word perfect) to write themselves […] And don’t I want to write them? Lord! Lord! It’s my only desire – my one happy issue. And only yesterday I was thinking – even in my present state of health is a great gain. It makes things so rich, so important, so longed for … changes one’s focus.’

However, in January 1923 Mansfield finally lost the battle with her illness, dying aged 34. Her life and career, short as they were, left behind a wealth of literature to influence countless generations after her, and if anything, her story serves as a reminder to those who falter and doubt, of the preciousness of time, and of their potential to make a lasting impression.

Woolf gives a heartfelt eulogy, in a diary entry just after her death:

‘When I began to write, it seemed to me there was no point in writing. Katherine won’t read it. Katherine’s my rival no more […] Did she care for me? Sometimes she would say so – would kiss me – would look at me as if (is this sentiment?) her eyes would like always to be faithful. She would promise never to forget. That was what she said at the end of our last talk […] I was jealous of her writing – the only writing I have ever been jealous of […] Probably we had something in common which I shall never find in anyone else’.

Jack  Thurland, 2nd  Year English Literature.

Katherine Mansfield, The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield: A Selection, ed., C. K. Stead, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977).

Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: Selected Diaries, ed., Anne Olivier Bell, (London: Random House, 2008).



How I like to teach

Dr. Jess Moriarty researches in the field of pedagogy in writing practice, especially in auto-ethnographical academic writing and in creative writing with undergraduates. Jess is the Course Leader for English Language and Literature at the University of Brighton, and the co-founder of Work Write Live, which provides a range of writing short courses and volunteering opportunities for students in the Faculty of Arts to develop the vocational and academic skills they are acquiring on their degree program. Here’s her approach to teaching:


How I like to teach

My Dark Material

3:35 York to King’s Cross,
going home to Brighton and you.
I am an alien in the North,
exhausted, sweaty from the effort
of being so cut off.
Heart muscles stretch,
sinew and tendon reaching out,
not quite getting through.
You are everywhere –
your face in the £1.80 cup of tea,
your laugh in the chugging and clacking
of train on track,
racing the wires linking pylon to pylon,
all pointing South, all leading back
cross country to you.
I will the train on, navigating past
Doncaster, Peterborough, Potter’s Bar,
needing the dent of you on my chest,
needing more than just love
to join us through the air.

Moriarty, J. (2014).

Leaving the blood in: Experiences with an autoethnographic doctoral thesis. In N. Short, Zeeman, L., & Grant, A. (Ed.), British Contemporary Autoethnography. Rotterdam, Boston, Taipei: Sense.


The above poem featured in my doctorate, which looked at the triangulation between research, autobiographical experiences and creative outputs. I am interested in academic writing that breaks with tradition and in the teaching that is essential to such practice.

When teaching Creative Writing I use a mixture of writing workshops, master classes with local guest speakers and community projects to help my students develop skills in a variety of genres and to build confidence with their creative processes.

My students are expected to engage in a writing community and to share their ideas and their writing with their peers and with me. It is my job to ensure the workshop space is challenging but that they feel safe and supported when reading their work aloud and discussing any feedback. Working in a range of genres, I ask students to take risks and experiment with prose, poetry, script, autobiography and graphic novel writing so that they understand concepts of ‘good’ storytelling and can apply this to all practices of writing. Students who take part in my modules can expect to work with local school children, residents of a retirement village, professional writers and performance artists in order to enhance their awareness of the craft, apply their writing and creativity to real life scenarios and push themselves academically, vocationally and personally.

I expect my students to read, read, read and write, write, write and in return for their commitment to honing and expanding their practice, I offer them the assurance that they will be better writers by the end of the module. Sometimes students choose to study creative writing because they think it will be the soft option but they soon realise that writing is personal, it is difficult and it is important. By equipping students with the techniques and skills that can help them improve as writers and by engaging them with a creative group, working on community projects and talking to professional writers, students see a noticeable difference in their writing and also feel able to articulate themselves and their discipline in relation to the world beyond the classroom.

Students are expected to attend every workshop and to also share their work on-line via the class blog. This means that students who feel less confident reading aloud have a space to share their work that is potentially less exposing and it also means that they can get in-depth feedback on their writing ad develop and on-line community which can enrich their writing and their experience of the module. workshops are often held in the creativity centre where the students can use the beanbags, write on the walls and own the space in order to feel more empowered in the workshop environment. It means that the tutor is less privileged and this helps to build trust and provides a stimulating place to work in.

I have been nominated by my students for several teaching excellence awards and in 2013 I was commended for being an inspirational teacher although this is a reciprocal process as it is my students who continue to inspire and motivate me.

Related: Richard Jacobs on his approach to teaching literature.