I’m just back from teaching a week-long residential writing course with friend and collaborator Damian Walford Davies at Ty Newydd. Entitled “Writing Beyond the Self”, the course focused on throwing voices, on moving out of the post-Romantic comfort zone that is the confessional poem, and asked participants to adopt various masks of persona. The work produced was extraordinary – innovative, challenging and moving – suggesting there's plenty of life in the old form yet.
The thrown voice is closely associated with Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” are masterpieces of the genre. However, its modern roots can already be discerned in a long verse drama by Keats’s more popular rival, Barry Cornwall. Cornwall's Marcian Colonna (1820) shocked and enthralled Romantic audiences left cold by Keats's own attempts at enthusing the reading public.
Cornwall's poem had been inspired by a grisly short story written in the voice of a murderer, Gosschen's Diary (1818), penned by Keats's reviewing bete noir, J. G. Lockhart. Both Cornwall's verse drama and Lockhart's gothic story in turn became major influences on Browning’s "Porphyria's Lover" – an intriguing “escape route” for an experimental aspect of Romantic aesthetic into the Victorian age.
The week, spent with such a wonderful group of inspiring and talented writers at Ty Newydd – given additional spice by superb readings from the poet Kathryn Simmonds and writer and activist Kevin Powell – sent me back to the Romantics in other ways. Damian and I wished to address the dramatic monologue as a form that takes us “beyond self” to get back to self, an approach that offered a different “take” on the post-Romantic “I” in contemporary poetry, where Romanticism’s self-representation as the only veridical, authentic mode of composition, predicated on the heroic articulation of first-hand experience, still has currency. We wanted our thrown voices to resist the post-Romantic confessional/veridical mode – itself a conceit, as we discussed – in order to arrive at a way of thinking about voice and style as constructed, yet in a sense no less – perhaps more – “personal” than the confessional poem in its full Plathian expression.
Since the “drama” of a dramatic monologue – those tiny tremors of anxiety, and deeper, convective stirrings – usually occur in moments of slippage and elision, where the speaker gives him or herself away, so to speak, we spent a lot of time discussing the timing of the technique. “My Last Duchess” is one of the great examples of self-betrayal: the Duke lets a great deal slip, and not merely his sinister role in stopping his wife’s smiles altogether (here he plays with the extent to which his social power allows him to hint at criminality). Also at stake in the poem is the speaker's sense of his increasingly precarious position in a world where new money was fast eroding the power of a nine-hundred-year-old name (a prospective dowry is one reason why he’s negotiating a new marriage).
It might seem foolish to go mano-a-mano with the Duke, but here’s a link to one of my own dramatic monologues, "Elisions", from my collection Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair (Salt, 2009). In it, a Romantic-period steam engineer, a man not unlike James Boulton, a member of the Lunar Society and as such an abolitionist, tries to elide his complicity in the slave trade while letting his sense of culpability slip precisely at the same time.
I was also returned to the Romantics by the sense of community and coterie that the Ty Newydd setting encourages and fosters. It didn’t take long before, isolated from the world and its things (relatively speaking: there's wifi available), we began reading each other’s work during the composition phase, suggesting changes, phrases or even lines, very much as Keats and Co. did in their own circles. Far from existing as isolated geniuses, wafting above the world, Romantic authors relied on friends to read and revise their poetry, see it into print and puff it when it appeared. Much like the Ty Newydd group, they also researched poems, even if they liked to give the impression they were flashing the contents of their “teeming brains” (see Keats's sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be") onto the page in one, tremendous spontaneous event.
Keats was no different to other writers in his circle in that regard, plundering Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary for Greek mythology, and turning to whatever books were at hand during “research” for even his most personal, ostensibly self-contained works. Take the great odes, written in May 1819. Do we think any less of Keats once we see his (possible) debt to the French philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac? Compare the following lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy” (respectively) to what I think are their immediate sources in Nugent’s English translation of Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Understanding (1756):
Even if Keats's most famous line of poetry, "beauty is truth, truth beauty", is closely inspired by his reading of someone else's work, it doesn't diminish the achievement of the famous ode. We bring ourselves to our poetry – how could we not? – and the “traffic” into a piece of creative writing is organized by that matrix of personality, ambition and foible we think of as the “self”. All the same, the Romantic myth of the autonomous genius is just that. Poetry might be 10% inspiration, but mostly it's hard, if enjoyable, craft.
In Deep State (2012-2014), Karen Mirza's and Brad Butler's mesmerizing video installation meditating on surveillance and mass protest, the voiceover calmly intones that the law is currently being upheld by hired muscle and corporate bully boys, and has nothing to do with justice. Real power, the film suggests, resides in a "shadowy network of special interests", where fundamental decisions are made. Under such conditions, structural political change – which would include a meaningful response to environmental crisis and substantial dismantling of the global surveillance apparatus – is impossible.
Deep State forms part of Science Fiction: New Death, an exhibition in Liverpool's FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). The exhibition as a whole is "based on new writing" by novelist China Miéville, author of The City & the City (2010), a book I admire enormously. Science Fiction: New Death offers a compelling and heartening example of how literary fiction finds new ways to insist on its relevance to wider contemporary engagements.
At last month's Keats Foundation conference at Keats House, Hampstead ("John Keats and his Circle", 2-4 May 2014), I gave a paper on Keats and surveillance, "Keats in Three Crowds". In it, I explored how anxieties about face recognition – about being a face in a (protesting) crowd – worried writers in 1819. I suggested that Keats's ode "To Autumn" has a deep interest in Romantic surveillance ("who hath not seen thee ..."), and responds to a day of mass protest in London on 13 September 1819, six days before the poem's composition, when radical politician Henry "Orator" Hunt paraded through the city, watched by throngs of 300,000 people.
Hunt was on his way to stand trial for high treason for speaking at Peterloo the previous month. His demands then included lower bread prices and more just distribution of the country's wealth and resources – a more sustainable set of social relations, in fact. On Thursday, 29 May, I’ll be speaking on sustainability at the Telegraph Hay Festival with Jayne Archer, Jane Davidson, Adeline Putra-Johns and Richard Kerridge. My interest in sustainability derives from a collaborative project on literature and food with literary scholar Jayne Archer and plant scientist Howard “Sid” Thomas. I'm pleased to report our project has just reached a new milestone with the delivery to the publishers of our co-authored book, Food and the Literary Imagination.
The aim of the book is to show how literature of the past connected bodily with the materiality of agricultural process, with food supply, security and contamination. What might look to us now like sentimental portrayals of worked land and water – in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s King Lear, John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” and Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss – actually encode a nexus of economic and social conditions with much to tell us about our own relation to resources and sustainable practice. In other words, a deep, collaborative engagement between the arts and sciences focused on historical literature can help us to (re-)imagine and cultivate precisely those “other forms of living” explored in Science Fiction: A New Death.
In Liverpool yesterday, as I moved through the strange chambers and futuristic corridors constructed for Science Fiction: New Death, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the synergies between current work on sustainability and surveillance. The connections were perhaps most apparent in Jae Rhim Lee’s astonishing installation Infinity Burial Suit, which imagines future burial suits laced with a new strain of mushroom that decomposes and mediates the toxins found in human tissue. In the context of the presiding role of China Miéville's fiction at the FACT exhibition, Lee's work was further confirmation of how art in conjunction with technology retains its unique capacity to “cultivate other forms of living” through oblique, imaginative interventions. Contemporary literature of all ages has always claimed for itself a shaping, consolidating role in responding to the most pressing, seemingly intractable, challenges of the day. More of this in Hay on Thursday …
It’s almost a year since Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA and GCHQ spying made world headlines, and showed us that even the most tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorists hadn’t gone far enough in imagining the true extent of electronic surveillance. In the Romantic period, letter-opening, spies slouching on street corners under greasy beaver hats, and the government's network of informers were significant obstacles to political organization and open discourse. It seemed that anything, however apparently innocent, could be politicized. Today, our emails are scanned and stored for retroactive mining on networked algorithmic databases, our movement through public space is tracked and analysed using CCTV and face recognition software, our car journeys are logged and stored for two years with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, and data from our mobiles – tracking devices that can make phone calls – is routinely harvested. As Bentham predicted in the 1790s and Foucault theorized in the 1970s, such inspective force has the effect of encouraging us to modify and flatten our behaviour.
It's true that many of us seem to have shrugged and simply accepted that post-privacy is an inevitable stage in social evolution and societal change. But apathy and fear can be hard to distinguish at times. In The Spirit of Despotism (1795), reissued by radical bookseller William Hone in 1822, Vicesimus Knox lamented how ordinary people had been "terrified" into a state of "tame and silent acquiescence ... learn[ing] to consider politics as a dangerous subject, not to be touched without hazard of liberty or life." The insidious effects of creeping surveillance were not to be underestimated, though – Knox believed that his age's system of "spies and informers" had corrupted the "sequestered walks of private life", and "destroy[ed] at once [its] confidential comforts and most valuable virtues".
I'm honoured to be giving a keynote at the "John Keats and his Circle" conference at the Keats House, Hampstead, 2-4 May 2014. My talk at 7.30 pm on Friday 2 May is entitled "Keats in Three Crowds" – though it could just as easily have been called "Keats post-Snowden" – and explores Keats's anxieties about preserving privacy and anonymity in public spaces. It's been opened up as a free public lecture, and everyone's very welcome to attend. If you're interested in registering for the rest of the conference, the day rates (with concessions) are very reasonable, and many of the world's most eminent Keatsians will be giving papers (conference programme).
The mood is happy – "too happy in [its] happiness"? – yet also dark. A bright canvas full of shadows and suspicions. Professional actors have been employed to mingle with the crowd, their task to attempt to enlist visitors to state-sponsored surveillance programmes; the aim is to gauge loyalty – those that fail the test are invited to look within themselves, with scant regard, perhaps, to the psychological effects. These are polarizing times.
Actual government infiltrators also move among the assembly of over 9,000 – given the radical, in some cases fugitive, status of several of the event's key speakers, it would be naive to assume otherwise. One of the orators is already imprisoned, able to address the crowd only through the means of technology; others live as exiles, their movements logged, their apartments surveilled. At packed press conferences, agents for major newspapers are filing copy on the contents of these speeches. Some of the world's best-known companies are being forced to issue formal responses to technical documents revealed at the assembly.
But this is not England in 1819 – though the historian E. P. Thompson's comment that the year was "within an ace of a revolution" might seem to some here apposite enough. Not Romantic England, then, but an international technology, ethics and politics conference in Germany: the Chaos Computer Club's 30th Congress (30c3), held in Hamburg 27-30 December 2013.
From its beginnings in 1984 as a meeting place for hackers and geeks, the Congress has grown into perhaps the most significant venue worldwide for discussing the relation of technology to political structures. The keynote this year was delivered by journalist Glen Greenwald – via Skype, since Greenwald has been advised not to travel to Europe. Julian Assange (also speaking via Skype) "appeared" on stage with two other key figures from the "Summer of Snowden", lawyer Sarah Harrison and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum.
Appelbaum's own talk on the scale of NSA and GCHQ access to, and manipulation of, everyday electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers and routers has garnered more than 300,000 views on YouTube in just 2 days; astonishing, given the talk's level of technical detail. While hackers used to be on the periphery, the world has folded round them so they now find themselves at the centre, as Quinn Norton and Ella Saita pointed out in their presentation, "No neutral ground in a burning world". Another way of putting it is to say that our technologies not only facilitate, but articulate and determine an important part of what our society has become.
Politically urgent talks such as these, to which should be added Trevor Paglen's astonishing "Six landscapes", in the Congress programme sit alongside presentations on building "hillbilly" satellite dishes and reverse-engineering Tamagotchis – no less enthusiastically received. The Congress's tradition of encouraging people to look at things in ways most of us don't, can't or won't is what makes attending the Chaos Computer Club's annual meeting such an unpredictable, astonishing, resonant experience.
But it's the politics of surveillance and privacy – post-privacy, some significant voices at the Congress insist – that has dominated discussion at 30c3. Similarly, international coverage in Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Guardian, Forbes, Boing Boing, and other news outlets has also focused on the use and misuse of technology to capture, store and retroactively mine civilian electronic communications. In previous years the Congress has been given a motto (29c3's was "Not My Department"). This time it was decided there would be no slogan since the community had been left "speechless" by the extent of post-Snowden surveillance revelations.
Our own talk (YouTube video above) was entitled "Policing the Romantic Crowd". We looked at 1819's cutting-edge technology – the velocipede – which arrived in Britain in Spring that year. This German invention offered early adopters exciting mechanical, two-wheeled personal transportation as a viable and cheaper alternative to a horse. But observers ranging from the poet John Keats to popular journals like the Tickler and Gentleman's Magazine worried about military and policing applications in respect of crowd control, particularly in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in the Summer of 1819 (on 16 August, a paramilitary force of troops mounted on real horses brutally dispersed a crowd of political activists in Manchester).
Between the first draft of our talk and the final version, all three elements of our title came together spectacularly in London. Students protesting against police presence on UK university campuses carried book-shields, including one depicting Romantic author Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The weekend before the Congress, Hamburg was itself also the scene of large protests, this time against the planned development of the radical Rote Flora theatre, and asylum-seeker politics. We were able to draw both events into our discussion.
As well as a dual historical-contemporary focus, we sought to bring together different knowledge domains. We looked at Romantic theories of how information propagated within and across crowds, comparing these to modern computer vision techniques, such as the Social Force Model. We also considered sub-domains of surveillance including event tracking and crowd detection, and talked about predictive policing and "plausible spacetime trajectories". Romantic authors and painters, we suggested, already modelled the psychological impacts of constructing "plausible" pasts for individuals, using Haydon's painting (first image above) of a crowd scene in which Keats's face can be detected.
From the Industrial Revolution and before, technology such as 1819's modish velocipede – which like modern drones were recognized as having "good" and "bad" applications – has focused, or proxied, wider ethical debates about the shape of a future society. We see this technoethical processing in the now unknown Tickler, just as we find it in Mary Shelley's famous novel Frankenstein (1817). In the light of the new information that has emerged during 30c3, it is valuable to remind ourselves where many of our assumptions about technological application, surveillance, privacy and public space have come from. (See ZDF's Hyperworld blog for an excellent summary of our talk in this respect.)
All the talks at 30c3 can be watched on CCC's YouTube channel. Link to photo stream. Our interview (in German) with Die Sondersendung on Romanticism, technology and ethics can be heard here.
After talking about Romantic crowds at the Congress, we joined "the push" (Romantic slang for a crowd) of people watching the New Year's fireworks along Hamburg's heaving harbour.
Only a few days till the 30th Chaos Computer Congress in Hamburg #30C3, where I'll be talking with @matusound on Romantic literature, public space/high-density environments, visual analysis and surveillance – "Policing the Romantic Crowd" for short. (See Violet Blue's ZDNet blog on the CCC's history and line-up.)
With kinetic protests in Hamburg over the weekend (7,000 in the streets protesting against plans to carry out evictions at squatted theatre Rote Flora, a rallying point for activists), and student demonstrations this month in London (#copsoffcampus), it's timely to explore what the Romantics' understanding of crowds – the "push", in Romantic slang – has to contribute to current debates about politics and public space.
The Romantic era was an age of crowds – from revolutionary Parisian mobs to the enormous 60,000-300,000-strong gatherings in London and Manchester in the Summer and Autumn of 1819 protesting against the price of bread, corrupt politicians and lack of parliamentary representation. What animated crowds? How was information transmitted across them? What was the legal status of the individual in the "push"? And how did art and literature model the psychological impacts of surveilled public space? Recent events serve as a salutary reminder of how these urgent modalities of Romantic inquiry underly some of the most significant C21 ethical, legal and social debates.
Our talk – in the Ethics, Society and Politics track – sets out to bring together different knowledge domains. Where else can you hear about velocipedes, Frankenstein's creature, and a quantum Keats in two crowds at once?
Like all talks at #30C3 – including Glen Greenwald's much-anticipated keynote, Jacob Appelbaum's and Julian Assange's "Sysadmins of the World, Unite!", and Natalie Silvanovich's talk on reverse engineering Tamagotchis – ours will be live-streamed.
Here's our "Romantic Hackers" talk from last year's congress, #29C3, to be getting on with till 5.30pm on 27 December. Looking forward to blogging about the conference on our return!
Psychobilly music is a mash-up of punk, goth and rockabilly. Its exponents, fans of such bands as Demented Are Go, Creepshow and Hellfreaks, sport brightly coloured extended quiffs - or wedges - often combining impeccable rock n'roll attire with zombie makeup. 1950s Sci-Fi iconography (think B-movie posters) and tattoos also feature heavily. And psychobilly - via complex and very entertaining routes of transmission - can be considered one of Romanticism's late, and very much undead, cultural forms.
While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) isn't a "zombie novel" per se, it develops several motifs that inform psychobilly, and the book looms large in the genre's collective unconscious. Throw in Romantic dandies and gothic romance more generally, and you're practically there. I wouldn't be fulfilling my Romantic responsibilities if I didn't immerse myself in the form. So here's my take on the style through alter ego, Elixir Chimera and the Pulpits (all words found on the same page of Frankenstein) ...
Coleridge's great cradle poem, "Frost at Midnight", was composed in Nether Stowey in 1798 while the poet was struggling with the social and psychological pressures of living under state surveillance. The poem describes a seasonal February frost, but alludes also to a wider political frost that Pitt's repressive government was laying across the country. The poem's reference to the Frost performing its "secret ministry" is as chilling today - newly chilling - as it was in the midst of the Romantic period's own war on terror ("terror" then signified by the French Revolution and its anti-monarchist sympathizers).
In today's Click On Wales (23.9.13) published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA), I discuss a new chill affecting political discussion, particularly where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) - or drones - are concerned. You can read the full piece here.
Hampshire Field. Photo: Peter Jordan
Surveillance was one of the Romantic age’s master themes. Some of the period’s most best-loved works meditate on the pernicious social effects of overintrusive prying. Keats’s ode “To Autumn” – usually read as a portrayal of bucolic rural idyll – catches a group of underpaid labourers in the act of evading their foreman’s eye by lying between the deep furrows (“Who hath not seen thee”, indeed?). Similarly Coleridge’s much anthologized “Frost at Midnight”, ostensibly a touching cradle song to the poet’s infant son, captures the uneasy spirit of the watchful 1790s with its chilling description of the frost as a “secret ministry”, conjuring Prime Minister Pitt’s network of spies, in whose crosshairs Coleridge had recently found himself along with confrere, William Wordsworth.
Or if the secret ministry of frostJames Gillray, "Smelling out a Rat" (1790)
Again, in Gillray’s 1790 caricature “Smelling out a Rat” (right), which turns the Tory Edmund Burke into a giagantic snooping nose.
Even Fuseli’s 1781 painting “The Nightmare” (below) – which seemingly depicts the contents of the female sleeper’s febrile imagination – is arguably as concerned with surveillance as it is with erotic fantasy. The crouching incubus and grotesquely phallic horse that peeks through the pleated velvet curtains of that most private space, the sleeper’s bedroom, do double service, hinting at the fetishistic nature of compulsive information gathering.
Fuseli, "The Nightmare" (1781)
To draw a parallel with contemporary political events, when Germany’s foreign minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger recently referred in Der Spiegel to revelations that the UK’s GCHQ, in tandem with the US’s NSA – part of the “Five Eyes” alliance – were using PRISM to spy on the private data of millions of Germans as a “nightmare” (Alptraum), she was closer to Fuseli’s apprehension of surveillance as an always potentially creepy, demeaning act than perhaps she realized.
Illustration from Frankenstein
Returning for the moment to other towering Romantic works that ruminate on issues of surveillance and privacy, we might consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1817), itself inspired by William Godwin’s similarly spy-preoccupied novel, Caleb Williams (1794). In both stories, a father-figure – Victor Frankenstein and Falkland, respectively – nurtures, abandons then finally swears vengeance on the son. A psychologized patrifilial struggle ensues, locking father and son in a cycle of flight and pursuit ending in destruction. Both novels abound with unsettling scenes of secretive reconnoitre, voyeurism and espionage – a grim fascination, whose aberrant energies Shelley and Godwin leave the reader in no doubt about.
Millais, "The Eve of St Agnes"
Keats also muses on the unhealthy practice of watching from the shadows to observe private moments of unsuspecting others. In his psychologically fissured work The Eve of St Agnes, the scoptophiliac Porphyro watches Madeline first disrobe then lie down in bed and sleep. The “love scene” that ensues disturbed the poem’s original audiences, as well it might – Porphyro’s controlling, remote passions extend to him violating Madeline while she is asleep.
It's little wonder the greatest writers, painters, journalists and political orators of the Romantic period wrote – openly, at first, then, as dissent became more dangerous, in disguised form – about the expansion, and increasing sophistication, of the surveillance state. In 1791, Jeremy Bentham gave the world his plan of the Panopticon, a model of deep “inspective force” whereby large groups of people could be surveilled efficiently, employing a single inspector. The mere knowledge, Bentham realized, that someone might be watching them was sufficient to induce individuals to self-police. Not only would people comport themeselves to the parameters of state-approved norms, but they would inform on others who refused to conform. Coleridge wrote powerfully in 1795 about how the effect of Pitt’s “system of spies” was beginning to unravel society’s “beautiful fabric of love” (see an earlier blog). As Pitt’s own War on Terror – terror being the spectre of the French Revolution – ramped up, a series of repressive acts were passed that had the effect of pushing the free press underground. Simply to voice dissent at Pitt’s policies on the Napoleonic Wars, on the introduction of paper money, on the rise of bankers, was to risk the charge of sedition, which was used broadly and in comparable contexts to today’s assertion from some quarters that whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have engaged in “aiding and abetting the enemy”.John Thelwall addressing a crowd (Thomas Rowlandson)
Romantic figures who persisted in making themselves thorns in the side of State found themselves targets of smear campaigns, or worse. Political speaker John Thelwall was charged with Treason (a crime punishable by hanging, drawing and quatering - he defended himself in court, and won); poet Percy Shelley appears to have been the target of an assassination attempt during a visit to Wales; and journalist Leigh Hunt was imprisoned for two years for insulting the Prince Regent. Not surprisingly, opposition to Pitt’s and Lord Liverpool’s regimes quickly assume subtler forms (as discussed in this recent lecture).
Hansel and Gretel return home
To get back to the title of this blog: while the Romantic period didn’t invent the family drama, it did invest it with strikingly modern freight. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, can be read as a novel that explores the peril of parents who refuse to let their children mature, who endeavour to keep them in an arrested state of development – and, equally, of children who cling to their parents. As already noted, things end badly. This week, Julian Assange called the agon of Obama’s surveillance apparatus and figures such as Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Jacob Appelbaum (all of whom in their twenties) a generational war.
Edward Snowden is one of us. Bradley Manning is one of us … They are the generation that grew up on the internet, and were shaped by it. One day, their generation will run the NSA, the CIA and the FBI. And by trying to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the US government is taking on a generation, and that is a battle it is going to lose. This isn’t how to fix things. (Wikileaks statement, 22 June 2013)
We might wish to be wary of casting governments as parents and citizens as children – it’s a conveniently puerelizing rhetoric favoured by monarchs and heads of religious institutions through history. But the idea does pull a current quandry into bold relief. Most of us, I suspect, would recoil from the idea of parents who, in the service of keeping their offspring safe, demand to know everything about them, to the extent of bugging their bedrooms, reading their private email, scrutinizing their photos and keeping a log of every page they’ve visited on the internet. Equally, we tend to feel sorry for adults unable to leave the cocooning family home to begin independent existences of their own, free from cloying parental oversight. Both are skewed relationships.Gustaf Tenggren, 1923 illustration for Grimms' Tales
Fairy tales encode these conflicting and competing maturational/ countermaturational urges. In fact, they seem to have evolved with the express purpose of helping us move successfully through adolescence to emerge as full citizens. (Think “Hansel and Gretel” – actually, a failed narrative in this respect, on all sides: the mother and father kick out the kids, but the mother, figured as the witch, tries to return them to her womb, the oven, and even though the children kill the witch, they return to their father at the end).
It's possible that both the NSA, GCHQ and affiliated organizations – occupying the headlines in many countries this week – who wish to keep populations safe at the cost of their mature, private lives, and those who seem to be indifferent to the threat of arrested development, are equally at risk in terms of healthy social outlook.
On 23 May, Jayne, Sid and I presented our recent work on Shakespeare and sustainability at the Telegraph Hay Festival. Thanks are due to INSPIRE/ASLE-UKI, whose 2013 essay competition on the theme of literature and sustainability this research won. The event, which was great fun, was chaired by Jane Davidson, Director of INSPIRE. Adeline Johns-Putra, Chair of ASLE-UKI, joined in the panel discussion. Here's a link to the video. Thanks to IBERS and BBSRC for Excellence with Impact support. Longer version of video with panel discussion.
Happy Face Spider (Theridion grallator)
Yesterday evening I spoke at Aberystwyth University’s Bioblitz. Over 200 participants spent the day, and much of the night, dashing around collecting as many specimens as they could find. It was an inspiring sight. My co-presenter, John Warren, one of the day's organizers along with Pippa Moore, capped his amazing talk by showing slides of the Happy Face Spider, native to Hawaii. I challenge anyone to gaze on this little surfer dude and not smile.
The theme of our talk was: “What have bugs ever done for us?”. My brief was to look at the cultural dimensions. I found myself thinking about how Romantic science did much to establish modern taxonomies of the natural world, and also about ways in which Romantic poets alerted us to the wonders of what we now term biodiversity.
The history of collecting and curating biodiversity is relatively recent. Early examples are to be found in Renaissance "Cabinets of Curiosity". A foundational volume of work was Thomas Muffet’s Theatre of Insects (1634). Systematic categorization of biodiversity, however, really gathered momentum as a Romantic enthusiasm. The most famous naturalist of the eighteenth century was the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), known as the father of modern taxonomy and also of modern ecology. Britain had its own celebrities, naturalists William Kirby and William Spence, whose work on insects was groundbreaking. But we shouldn't discount the Romantic poets' own contribution alongside these towering figures of early entomology to describing the natural world.
We’d be forgiven for assuming the Romantics were primarily interested in birds (think Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s skylark). But the Romantic poets were fascinated by nature in all its forms. Keats’s 1816 sonnet on “The Grasshopper and the Cricket” is especially intriguing in this regard, since it imagines nature silenced of all bird song and invites us to attune our ears instead to what is left – the chirruping of the resilient Omocestus viridulus (common green grasshopper):
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,(Omocestus viridulus)
I’ve always thought there's something wonderfully subversive about Keats’s grasshoppers, who pass their song, their brittle communiqués, around an older network of intelligence – rural hedgerows. When the flashy birds have retreated in the political heat, the grasshoppers continue their conspiracies undaunted. Despite wide surveillance and a repressive political regime that had silenced many radical voices, the insects guarantee that, as Keats puts it in line 1, “The poetry of earth is never dead”.
If he liked grasshoppers, Keats was less impressed by gadflies. During his walking tour of Scotland in 1817, one stung him through his breeches. Keats was spurred to pen some doggerel lines on the insect, imagining it as an instrument of revenge to unleash on those he disapproved of: a local Scottish politician who’d managed to secure the support of Wordsworth, rival poets and ladies who read novels. Here’s a flavour of the bawdy whole:
Horse botfly (Gasterophilus intestinalis)
By gadfly, Keats probably means the horsefly species,Tabanidae. However, the reference to "breeding" a wort is suggestive, and may refer to another family of insects often called gadflies, Oestridae, whose members lay their eggs under the skin of cattle, and in some cases humans, leading to painful skin conditions.
The leading british naturalists of the Romantic period, the Williamses Kirby and Spence, have this to say about gadflies, classified as Oestrus L. in their two-volume An Introduction to Entomology; Or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects, 2nd ed (1816):
The Gad-fly (Oestrus L.) you have, doubtless, often heard of, and how sorely it annoys our cattle and other quadrupeds; but I suspect have no notion that there is a species appropriated to man: Oestrus Hominis … Even the gad-fly of the ox, leaving its proper food, has been known to ovi-posit in the jaw of a woman, and the bots produced from the eggs finally caused her death. (Vol 1, p. 137)
In their second volume, published the year of Keats's walking tour, Kirby and Spence turned their attention to the music of insects that had so fascinated Keats. Why did flying insects buzz? The pair cited Shelver’s experiments:
Upon cutting off the wings of a fly … he found the sound continued. He next cut off the poisers – the buzzing went on. This experiment was repeated eighteen times with the same result. Lastly, when he took of the winglets, either wholly or partially, the buzzing ceased. (Vol. 2, p. 382)
As for grasshoppers, Kirby’s and Spence’s explanation of that insect’s song was also anatomical rather than poetic:
Applying its posterior shank to the thigh, the animal rubs it briskly against the elytrum, doing this alternately with the right and left legs, which causes the regular breaks in the sound.Insect food stall, Bangkok
Keats loathed Newton for "unweaving the rainbow" with mathematics. He might also have despaired at Kirby's and Spence's dissection of the grasshopper's song as anatomically correct, but somehow prosaically beside the point.
Yesterday evening’s Bioblitz asked us to consider “What good are bugs?” Lots is, of course, the answer. Even Keats’s nemesis the gadfly has its place in the food chain, providing nourishment for house martins, swallows and swifts, which swoop low over the fields picking these slow flying prey out of the air. But beyond that, it's likely we’ll all be eating insects as the earth’s population continues to grow to a projected 9 billion by 2050. It takes 10 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of meat from a cow. The conversion factor of insects is much better: a ratio of about 1.5 to 1. The reason for this is that so much feed given to livestock goes towards producing heat; since insects are cold blooded, this doesn't apply. The latest sustainability thinking is that we’ll be gradually replacing meat at our tables with feasts of protein-laden insects.
Kirby and Spence, writing some twenty years after Thomas Malthus published his apocalyptic theory of expodentially increasing population growth in 1798, foresaw this in a chapter entitled “Direct Benefits Derived from Insects”. Spiny, spindly, buzzing, crawling ... insects, they informed their readers, were “endowed with highly nutritive properties”, and anyone who remained squeamish about eating them should consider the following:
Insects used as food, generally speaking, live on vegetable substances, and are consequently much more select and cleanly in their diet than the swine or the duck, which form a favourite part of ours. (Vol. 1, p. 300)
Food for thought, thought for food.