Ina Linge, Tom Smith and Monalesia Earle discuss a recent workshop held at the IMLR on ‘Sexuality in Popular Culture’:
On 15 February we organised a workshop on ‘Sexuality in Popular Culture’ at the School of Advanced Study in London. To us, this felt like a particularly topical and urgent point for discussion. Today, equal rights campaigns and queer communities across the world are experiencing unprecedented advances, and yet shockwaves from violence, war and political upheavals can be felt across the geographical and political spectrum both within and outside the queer community. Popular culture and media play an essential role in defining attitudes to gender and sexuality, but can also challenge assumptions and conventions. Our afternoon of workshops aimed to take a closer look at how sexuality is mediated through various forms of popular culture, including music, film and graphic narrative.
I kicked off with a workshop on the representation of LGBT people in popular film and TV. Today, sexual and gender diversity features on popular TV and film much more than even a decade ago. As someone who researches the history of sexuality, I am particularly interested in films and TV shows that explore the long history of gender and sexual diversity. I showed film clips from two contemporary examples, the film The Danish Girl (2015) and the TV series Transparent (2014-present). I was particularly excited to discuss these alongside a much older film called Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), a German silent film from 1919, one of the first gay rights films ever to be made. Film offers such a rich medium to explore that the discussion immediately got off the ground. Participants were interested to see that science is often represented as a form of authority that can validate gender and sexual identity. It was great to be able to see the similarities between the contemporary and historical material, released almost 100 years apart!
I’ve been listening to Hamilton for months and it’s struck me: popular music can be a powerful way of redefining ourselves, our identities and histories. My workshop explored this from a queer perspective. We discussed ‘queer icons’ and how certain tracks or songs define our identities. The themes of confidence and performance kept coming up, but also the outsider perspective that so many queer icons present in their music. We asked how queer icons unsettle more mainstream ideas of gay icons, and how this translates into musical form? For some of us, it was four-on-the-floor beats and glossy electronic pop; for others, the defiant, grungy guitar sounds of punk; and to my delight, Hamilton’s playful fusion of rap, hip-hop and Broadway came up too! It’s sparked a project for me on identities in the contemporary German techno scene, so watch this space!
The great thing about the Sexuality in Popular Culture event was being able to talk about comics. I mean, who in their right mind doesn’t think comics can change the world, or at least how we look at it? I enjoyed the chance to get delegates to draw a comic strip of themselves in ways that would challenge popular (and often stereotyped) notions of who they are. Some people framed (no pun intended) their sexuality in the context of ethnicity, race, spirituality, beliefs about the larger world in which they live, and also in terms of the increasingly conservative politics that threaten our basic freedoms. There was a lot of creativity in the drawings that I saw from the delegates, which made me smile and has given me plenty of new trope-busting ideas!
We ended the afternoon with drinks to the strains of our playlist from Tom’s event, drawing our own comics under Monalesia’s expert guidance. It was great to welcome so many undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers to Senate House for the event, and even better that we ended up chatting, debating and discussing each other’s views. Lectures and seminars are all very well, but we all found this sort of collaborative exchange of ideas much more productive for our work (and fantastic fun into the bargain!). Thanks to the IMLR and the SAS for their support, and here’s hoping we can bring more pop culture events to Senate House in the near future! For now, though, how about checking out our playlist from the event.
Dr Claire Launchbury reports from a recent conference in Estonia exploring transcultural memory studies.
I recently attended a conference in Tallin University, Transcultural Memorial Forms: Contemporary Remembrance of War, Displacement and Political Rupture, which additionally marked the inauguration of a new research network on Memory Studies, bringing together colleagues predominantly from the Nordic and Baltic regions where the discipline is thriving. This network showcases the different borderlines and geographical areas of collaboration that are available to this part of Northern Europe. Even down to the food, Estonia’s position on the Scandinavian-Baltic frontier and neighbouring Russia leads to different combinations: Nordic cured fish, Russian dumplings, Armenian coleslaw with olives and pomegranates all appear on the same menu. The exotic sea resort is Odessa. Traces of former Soviet architecture co-exist with a number of large shopping malls with all the usual brands. A picture-postcard old town with museums of medieval torture, ecclesiastical history also throbs with the merry antics of the Helsinki Finns taking a booze cruise or the budget airline stag partiers. These passing observations reinforced several of the issues raised at the conference with its focus on transcultural forms.
Professor Ann Rigney
A fascinating and packed programme included keynotes by Michael Rothberg, Samuel Goetz Chair of Jewish Studies, UCLA and Ann Rigney, University of Utrecht, and a screening of Common Groundand a talk with filmmaker, Kristina Norman. Papers explored a diverse range of cultural and memorial production, from northern comedy to Althusser (and that was in just one paper) as well as providing a welcome opportunity to discuss the issues at stake in contemporary memory studies.
My panel on memorial forms showcased memorial projects such as the Museum on Wheels commemorating the lost Jews of Poland and their reception in different parts of the county in a paper by Aleksandra Kubica (KCL). Neringa Latvyte-Gustaitiene (Vilnius) examined the palimpsestic nature of Lithuanian memorials to the Jewish victim of the ‘Shoah par balles’ or the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ between 1941 and 1944. There are 250 sites of mass killing in Lithuania and the passage from Soviet power to contemporary Europe has left many conflicting, competing and problematic traces which have an urgency to them that Western Europe might have a tendency to neglect. Indeed, this highly unsteady transition of memory was a subject returned to often at the conference.
Ernest Morgan, Palestine Railways, & a Police Constable in the aftermath of a train derailment in 1937
My own paper ‘How am I supposed to talk to you, or with you or about you?’ explored the novel Gate of the Sunby Lebanese writer, Elias Khoury, through the lens of disruptive empathy, a term coined by Amos Goldberg and Bachir Bachir to think through co-remembering the Shoah and the Nakba of 1948. In addition to this I explored the potential of the text as a productive borderspace using Bracha Ettinger’s radical concept she terms the Matrixial. She uses this to argue for the possibility of co-wit(h)nessing, instead of being separated from the other, cut, split, castrated, the uterine model of the matrixial holds open the opportunity for connection and compassion. In this way, I explored different instances of seemingly impossible coexistences at events which are narrated in the novel. I reflected on the Arab revolt of 1936-39 which intersects with the experience of my great-grandfather being on board sabotaged trains as he worked for Palestine Railways, the problems of borders and their crossing at Allenby or Qaalandia, the checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, my own experience in 2015; the time in late 1975 when the PLO protected and fed the Jewish population of Wadi Abu Jamil in Beirut, however cynical the geopolitics, and, finally, a sculpture by Ginane Makki Bacho made from Israeli shells that destroyed her apartment and studio in 1982. A sculpture she named ‘uterus’.
Uterus, by Ginane Makki Bacho, 1983
In these volatile political times, considering different networks, of memory, solidarity, compassion; the other memoryscapes which we might share but nevertheless not pay sufficient attention to, offers, I like to hope, a sense of renewed dialogue and through that understanding. I am very grateful to conference organisers, Eneken Laanes and Hanna Meretoja for their intellectual leadership, organisation and warm welcome and to the School of Advanced Study, University of London, conference grant fund for supporting my participation.
Elias Khoury , Gate of the Sun [Bab el Shams] translated by H. Davies (London: Picador, 2007);
Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg (2014) ‘Deliberating the Holocaust and the Nakba: Disruptive Empathy and Binationalism in Israel/Palestine’ Journal of Genocide Research, 16.1, 77-99;
Bracha Ettinger (2006), The Matrixial Borderspace, with foreword by Judith Butler, introduction by Griselda Pollock and afterword by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press).
Dr Claire Launchbury, Centre for Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research