Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

I’ve just had the good fortune to be able to spend three months on long service and holiday leave and have taken the opportunity to undertake research and work on organising systems. It has been a process that has been worth its weight in gold. My goal has been to set systems in place that will allow me more space and energy to happily devote to intellectual and research pursuits in an evermore fragmented, distracted and frenzied world.

A quick rundown of some of what I have been reading of late.

I’ve just finished reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
Newport also published a companion volume last year in 2020 – The Time Block planner which handily has a 13 week schedule – perfect for a 13 week semester’s planning!

Newport, who is a Professor of Computer Science, writes from his experience as an academic. This means that although he seeks to extrapolate his reflections to the corporate sector – one can very comfortably apply his ideas in a university setting – something that is a bit less self-evident when it comes to much other management self-help literature.

Another very useful read has been Marie Kondo’s work on material organisation and our relations with the non-human material world. Her work interestingly resonates with unexpected philsophical complexities. I have previously cited a scholarly article on the application of her method earlier on this blog.

Another read has been Peter Walsh, Let it go – quite good – particularly on downsizing aged relatives’ households.

Berlin blogger Anuschka Rees’ book, The Curated Closet, on organising your wardrobe, is next on my ‘to read’ shelf. It has had very good reviews and a quick skim through the copy I’ve bought gives the impression of a good practical read with detailed concrete exercises. It is absolutely essential, of course, to look one’s best – let the wardrobe do the talking to counteract any impression of exhausted decreptitude!

Also on my ‘to read’ shelf is Cal Newport’s A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. I’m not entirely sure that this book will offer any tips I don’t know of already, but one thing I do like about Newport’s work is his capacity to formulate tried and true techniques from a slightly different angle to solid practical effect. I will of course reserve judgement until I’ve read it.

An interesting call for papers

The Fan Studies Network

In 2021, the Pokemon franchise celebrates the 25th anniversary of its debut in Japan and the fifth anniversary of its popular worldwide AR cellphone game Pokemon Go. In fact, Pokemon is arguably experiencing something of a resurgence and renaissance within the current cultural moment. When a pop-up Pokemon Centre store was opened in London in 2018 to mark the release of Sword and Shield, queues for entering the retail space frequently had to be closed due to demand whilst product lines regularly sold out on a daily basis. In 2019, when the long-running cartoon’s main character Ash Ketchum finally won a Pokemon tournament, major news sites humorously deemed this victory a newsworthy event (Bissett 2019). More recently, a revival in Pokemon card collecting has left retail shelves bare and scalpers running rampant whilst mint-condition ‘graded’ cards have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction (Koebler 2021). Meanwhile, the…

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I find Marie Kondo’s work and method fascinating. What I find particularly interesting in her method is its invitation to people to develop a more respectful, attentive and less instrumental relationship with the non-human as well as a recognitions of the agency of the non-human (in Bruno Latour’s terms).
This open access empirical study locates her impact within the context of sustainability studies.

Chamberlin, Lucy, and Åsa Callmer. “Spark Joy and Slow Consumption: An Empirical Study of the Impact of the KonMari Method on Acquisition and Wellbeing.” Journal of Sustainability Research 3, no. 1 (2021).
https://doi.org/10.20900/jsr20210007
Open access

ABSTRACT
In the context of resisting throwaway culture and aiming for a sufficiency-based circular economy, it is vital that consumption is slowed down—both in terms of reduced acquisition and reduction of the volumes of material resources moving through the system. To date it has been difficult to engage mainstream consumers with sustainable consumption practices, including sufficiency, but we suggest that the recent growth in popularity of decluttering, self-care and other wellbeing movements, exemplified here by Marie Kondo’s globally successful method for tidying up, may help. We review the topics of sufficiency and wellbeing, the potential of material interaction or ritualised reflection for behavioural transformation, our interpretation of consumption “moments” and the KonMari decluttering method before introducing the empirical study which took place in Sweden and the UK and Ireland. Participants were recruited through Facebook groups, with around 300 surveyed and 12 interviewed in each geography, and the interviews were qualitatively coded and analysed. Findings were surprisingly similar, highlighting a significant shift reported by participants in their approach to consumption following their introduction to and practice of the method, in particular a more reflective and restrained approach with regard to the acquisition of new things. Taking into account initial increases in disposal, the method of reporting findings and dangers of rebound, we cannot conclude that KonMari is a straightforward route to reduced consumption. Nevertheless for those who have embraced the ritual and created a more desirable home environment by discovering what “sparks joy” for them, it seems that a change in the meaning of material acquisition or possession and a slowing down of consumption through a reduction in shopping can be an unintended result.

KEYWORDS: sufficiency; sustainable consumption; slowing consumption; decluttering; circular economy; KonMari; Marie Kondo; wellbeing; reflection

I have found that towards the end of his career, Foucault offered particularly clear and useful definitions of a number of concepts. I should add the caveat perhaps, that Foucault often redefined and refined concepts at different points in his writings. I like this passage which defines the differences in the way philosophical and spiritual systems approach the truth:

We will call, if you like, “philosophy” the form of thought that asks, not of course what is true and what is false, but what determines that there is and can be truth and falsehood and whether or not we can separate the true and the false. We will call “philosophy” the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth. If we call this “philosophy,” then I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth.
Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell, English series ed. Arnold I. Davidson (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p.15

An interesting reflection by Rob Kitchen on the relationship between academic and fiction writing and storytelling on the Transforming Society blog. He says:

The usual approach to writing an academic article or book is to produce a factual, discursive narrative that weaves together theories, observations and findings, contextualising the contentions made with respect to the existing literature.

[…]

In contrast, storytelling is inherently a more engaging and accessible register for communicating ideas and providing a critical lens to reflect society.

[…]

For example, science fiction uses extrapolation and speculation to explore possible futures given present trends. In particular, science fiction employs the tactics of estrangement (pushing a reader outside of what they comfortably know) and defamiliarisation (making the familiar strange) as a way of creating a distancing mirror and prompting critical reflection on society, now and to come. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a long history of academics drawing on the imaginaries of science fiction in their analyses, and also science fiction writers using academic ideas in their stories – a relationship examined in the book Lost in space I co-edited with James Kneale.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have referred to my interest in television and film science fiction as a different way of conducting philosophical reflection. Much current science fiction is highly disappointing on this score – the mainstreaming of the genre has led to the proliferation of films and series which simply don’t include that essential reflective element. But exceptions to this new rule remain: I have just finished watching what is probably the best recent entry in my own personal pantheon of philosophical science fiction, namely the 2015-2018 television series, 12 Monkeys.

This time travel series begins with a pandemic in 2017, and watching the series during the current global health crisis creates a complexity of rich resonances that the creators could not have foreseen. The first season is a little hard to push through, but the series really takes off from season 2 onwards, a perception widely shared in the fan and critical reception. It is to the credit of the Syfy channel that it allowed the series to get off the ground without simply ruthlessly cancelling it. This incidentally has been the fate of a number of promising science fiction series. One that particularly leaps to mind, for me at least, is the 2002 Canadian series Odyssey 5, another time travel series. It seems this was cancelled, in spite of good audience ratings, when a new executive who had little interest in science fiction took over the production company .

12 Monkeys reflects on the nature of time, choice, fate, family vs the broader social contract, friendship, the paradoxical nature of action as well as other concepts. One particularly striking feature of the series is how well it is plotted and organised. This is a real rarity when it comes to television series which often lurch from one ad hoc storyline to the next, most often due to a whole range of external production factors, including subsets of fan reception. This generally has disastrous consequences for consistent and innovative story, characterisation and character development.

Several rave reviews have been written about the wonderful – and complex – ending to the series which as one reviewer says, while tying things up in a very satisfying manner, still allows further room for reflection and debate.

The other recent TV series I found of philosophical interest was the more uneven 2011-2016 entry Person of Interest. This series dealt with ideas around surveillance and power the complexities of our relationships with the digital world- Foucauldian resonances of course!

Quick note for Australian readers: 12 Monkeys is currently available to stream for free on SBS on demand.

Just posting this here for future reference. The feeling of place has been a subject of long fascination for me and I particularly like the situationist notion of drifting through and paying attention to the subtle shifts in feeling of urban and other landscapes – the notion of dérive. Here’s Guy Debord on the subject:

The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected. In any case they are never envisaged as depending on causes that can be uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account. People are quite aware that some neighborhoods are gloomy and others pleasant. But they generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiances, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke. The slightest demystified investigation reveals that the qualitatively or quantitatively different influences of diverse urban decors cannot be determined solely on the basis of the historical period or architectural style, much less on the basis of housing conditions.
Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Les Lèvres Nues #6 (September 1955). Translated by Ken Knabb

Debord, Guy. Introduction to a critique of urban geography. Praxis (e) press, 2008.

I have just come across this fascinating journal which published its first issue in 2015. Shades of Jorge Luis Borges… You can read some interesting findings on the effects of lockdown in the May 2020 issue

Journal of Imaginary Research

A key aim of our journal/zine is to encourage academic colleagues to embrace writing simply for enjoyment, as an act of care, or as a reflective act. We also hope that reading and writing our imagined works, will bring an enjoyable diversion into your work lives.
[…]

We publish imaginary research abstracts, and all our volumes are available as free downloads here. What do we mean imaginary research abstracts? We mean short works of fiction, that take a format that is familiar to us as researchers and academics. An abstract is the summary of an academic paper, that gives us a succinct overview of the research that has been done, and the new outcomes or ideas that the research has generated. We publish imagined research abstracts as works of fiction firstly because writing for enjoyment is a good thing to encourage. We spend a lot of time trying to reduce our anxiety about writing, and so writing imaginatively is a good way to reshape our relationship with writing into something creative and enjoyable. Secondly, writing fiction in a familiar format, helps us to reflect on how we can creatively communicate our other research projects, and how we can find the joy of creativity within the grind of productivity. Creativity is a property of all writers and the privilege of all researchers. It allows us to dream and hope. The imaginary abstracts we have published in Volumes 1-5 and our summer 2020 Special Issue were written by real academic staff, research staff, and research students.

This looks like a really interesting work…

Federico Italiano (ed.), The Dark Side of Translation – Routledge, 2020

We tend to consider translation as something good, virtuous and bright, but it can also function as an instrument of concealment, silencing and misdirection—as something that darkens and obscures. Propaganda, misinformation, narratives of trauma and imagery of the enemy—to mention just a few of the negative phenomena that shape our lives—show patterns of communication in which translation either functions as a weapon or constitutes a space of conflict. But what does this dark side of translation look like? How does it work?

Ground-breaking in its theoretical conception and pioneering in its thematic approach, this book unites international scholars from a range of disciplines including philosophy, translation studies, literary theory, ecocriticism, game studies, history and political science. With examples that illustrate complex theoretical and philosophical issues, this book also has a major focus on the translational dimension of ecology and climate change.

Transdisciplinary and topical, this book is key reading for researchers, scholars and advanced students of translation studies, literature and related areas.

Table of Contents
Contributors

Acknowledgments

The dark side: an introduction
Federico Italiano

Part I: (Post-)colonial translations and hegemonic practices

1. Beyond a taste for the dark side: the apparatus of area and the modern regime of translation under Pax Americana
Jon Solomon

2. The Language of the hegemon: migration and the violence of translation
Monika Mokre

Part II: The Holocaust and the translator’s ambiguity

3. Primo Levi’s grey zone and the ambiguity of translation in Nazi concentration camps
Michaela Wolf

4. Translating the Uncanny, Uncanny Translation
Christoph Leitgeb

Part III: The translation of climate change discourses and the ecology of knowledge

5. Shady dealings: translation, climate and knowledge
Michael Cronin

6. Climate change and the dark side of translating science into popular culture
Alexa Weik von Mossner

7. Darkness, obscurity, opacity: ecology in translation
Daniel Graziadei

Part IV: Translation as zombification

8. Zombie history: the undead in translation
Gudrun Rath

9. ‘MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!’: translating political anxieties into zombie language in digital games
Eugen Pfister

With thanks to Progressive Geographies for this info

Smith, Zadie. “Fascinated to presume: In defense of fiction.The New York Review of Books 24 (2019).

A really wonderful philosophical reflection by Zadie Smith on the reasons for writing and reading fiction and for an engagement with and inclusion of the diversity of human experience.

A few extracts that I found particularly helpful. I would also apply these ideas to non-fiction as well.

[…] a book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free. Between reader and book, there is only the continual risk of wrongness, word by word, sentence by sentence. The Internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.

The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. This principle permits the category of fiction, but really only to the extent that we acknowledge and confess that personal experience is inviolate and nontransferable. It concedes that personal experience may be displayed, very carefully, to the unlike-us, to the stranger, even to the enemy—but insists it can never truly be shared by them. This rule also pertains in the opposite direction: the experience of the unlike-us can never be co-opted, ventriloquized, or otherwise “stolen” by us. (As the philosopher Anthony Appiah has noted, these ideas of cultural ownership share some DNA with the late-capitalist concept of brand integrity.) Only those who are like us are like us. Only those who are like us can understand us—or should even try. Which entire philosophical edifice depends on visibility and legibility, that is, on the sense that we can be certain of who is and isn’t “like us” simply by looking at them and/or listening to what they have to say.

Fiction was suspicious of any theory of the self that appeared to be largely founded on what can be seen with the human eye, that is, those parts of our selves that are material, manifest, and clearly visible in a crowd. Fiction—at least the kind that was any good—was full of doubt, self-doubt above all. It had grave doubts about the nature of the self.

While looking for resources for the creative writing course I am running this semester, I came across some fantastic sets of rules put together by a number of well-known authors at The Guardian‘s request. The lists are introduced as follows: “Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts”

Ten rules for writing fiction – part one

Ten rules for writing fiction – part two

Authors include: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson.

Quite a roll call! The rules are, of course, as diverse as the authors’ works. The additional research I have been doing for my course has been inspiring me to consider revisiting early ambitions to write fiction before I was diverted into the byways of the academic writing genre.

Many of the often highly entertaining rules on the list are naturally variations on the bread and butter rules for all those who write and ones I am all too familiar with, although possibly more honoured in the breach than the observance. The rules I most connected in with were Michael Moorcock’s – although I am no big fan of his fiction.

One of my difficulties has always been how to devise a plot. Moorcock suggests in his second rule: “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.” This kind of reworking of another source is something I have always found fascinating in general – but hadn’t thought to actually apply it systematically to my own attempts at fiction.

I like Moorcock’s 7th rule as well: “For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.”. Here is a link to this formula for general edification, appropriately posted in the Creative Writing section on the ‘Fandom’ site.

I did like Colm Tóibín’s rules – which apply to any kind of writing – particularly these:

1 Finish everything you start.
2 Get on with it.
3 Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
4 Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
9 No going to London.
10 No going anywhere else either.

It just goes to show that writers have long been familiar with the concept of lockdown. Having said all this, my fiction writing projects are probably not for the immediate future in a university environment that is in meltdown at present. But let’s not venture onto that sad territory today!

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