Category Archives: Conference

Tweeting CA14

It is really hard to deal with Jealousy.

I am fairly busy in my personal life; working as usual, trying to help organise a beer festival, looking for work, volunteering & generally attempting to keep my shit together.
I did not, however, go to the Classical Association conference this year. I knew I wouldn’t/couldn’t afford to last August when I didn’t send in an abstract but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the twang of regret.

Every day that passes I feel my academic life and credentials slip further away. In part it is because I haven’t been keeping up with my writing (soon I promise), but in part it is because I haven’t kept up with changes…

But…. Thank the daemons of the internet for Twitter. Without it I could not have followed panels of research at the biggest UK conference of its kind and found new things to investigate.  Without it I would be totally cut off waiting for the open access journals to show up on Google and research to be made available through JSTOR from several years ago. Twitter gave me instant access to ideas and to people.
I know that (for many good reasons) people are nervous about the implications for their research, reputation and finances with regard to the broadcasting of their ideas online and I also know that the potential for misrepresentation in such a limited medium is very high but I can’t help feeling that the opportunities far outweigh the risks.

So, yes, I am still horrendously jealous that I couldn’t go and absorb information and ideas first hand. I feel lost without that spark and push of novelty but I am grateful that even when the money is far too tight and even if the social anxiety is far too crippling I don’t have to rot away because there are so many people generous enough to publish their interpretations in a way that reaches into my home and lets me think!

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SFF 7

Just a few more little bits and pieces to finish up..
If you have followed this far you cannot be truly surprised that my memory and notes for this stage in the proceedings are truly failing. Sorry to the speakers..
My final event of the conference was the screen & media panel – a slightly odd pairing that covered representations of Promethean figures and re-workings of the Roman Empire both over multiple genres.

The first paper was delivered via Skype, a brave move that was only slightly hampered by technical issues. In it Jarrid Looney, who is currently finishing up his doctoral thesis, offered a broad ranging summary of the uses of the Prometheus myth – you can find the paper itself (or at least a version of it) on Academia.edu (here). I found Jarrid and his topic engaging – although perhaps the paper itself felt a bit too broad-reaching for a conference it offered me the opportunity to rethink the links between modern examples of uses of the name. He argued persuasively that Prometheus made a useful metaphor for some kind of catalyst for change in both positive & negative ways depending on whether he was a gift-giver or defying the Gods, or something else. In particular I was drawn to the way that Looney was able to connect multiple examples to the original myth via Shelley’s Frankenstein and its anxieties about technology and hubris.  I would have liked a little more of a chance to hear him talk about the possible reasons both for this theme and also for why some traditions more deliberately link themselves back to individual parts of the classical myths than others… always a tricky topic.

The second paper from Dan Goad was about how Ancient Rome influenced particular depictions of Empire in fantastica. He started by talking about the Romulans in Star Trek and contrasted them with the Trevinter Imperium from the Dragon Age computer games. It would be fair to say that Romulans-Rome as a comparison is neither new nor subtle and that it has been made extensively and openly. Goad focused on the way that the Roman aspects of the Romulans were largely connected to their militarism and interest in political intrigue – and how that in turn was a large part of Romulan self-identity. I was much more interested in how that contrasted with the Trevinter Imperium specifically because the Imperium is a kind of collapsed or collapsing Rome with Trouble on its borders. He suggests that Rome makes a useful model within Dragon Age because of the way that it can be shown to continue to have influence even after it no longer has physical power – this of course is a powerful idea for Reception scholars and delightful to see it being used in models of Rome.
Unsurprisingly Goad concluded by emphasising the multiplicity of images of Rome and the way that its scale makes it a fertile ground for modelling all kinds of things.. including Empire.

It seemed a fair note to end the proceedings on and left plenty of thoughts for the future.

SFF 6

So.. I haven’t forgotten that I promised you Warhammer

I chose to head to this topic not as a gamer but as the friend and relation of gamers. As such I started from a position of understanding some of the structure, a little of the specific world-building practices and very little of the details.
It was fabulous. [Don’t get me wrong I’m not about to set up a 40k game but…] The first speaker, Alexander McAuley treated us to a paper on the notion of a Virgilian Divus Imperator in the 40k universe. His premise revolved around the methods of presentation of a God-Emperor in both Virgil and Warhammer – specifically an (Augustan) Emperor’s role as a figurehead that creates order amongst chaos. The Warhammer Emperor rules enigmatically over a system of provinces and cultic practice that mimics an image of an Augustus who is defined by his major battle and transformation into supreme leader. McAuley suggested that just as the eventual leadership of Augustus is understood to underpin the whole of the progression of the Aeneid even where it is not explicit so the Emperor’s rule is a ‘necessary’ implicit in all the other actions of the 40k story. He also pointed out similarities in the deification process and somewhat pre-empted the subsequent paper by suggesting parallels between the Horus Heresy (prequels) and the Octavian-Antony Civil War.

[This reading of Virgil managed (for me) to reiterate the points made by Rea about our discomfort with the violence and anger shown by Aeneas at the end of the poem and what we give up for ‘divine’ order- although I’m still not sure whether conclusions can be drawn from that]

The second paper was by a brilliantly passionate Luke Pitcher who took several of these ideas and developed them further in a paper entitled “The Promise of Progress? The Problem of the Roman Past in Warhammer 40k“.
Pitcher was particularly interested in the way that the figures of Julius and Augustus Caesar appear to have been blended together in order to give a more fitting legend to the figure of Roboute Guilliman (son of the God-Emperor and Primarch of the Ultramarines – in themselves an interestingly  Romanised fighting force). Guilliman’s backstory relies on both some of the Divus Imperator imagery discussed in McAuley’s paper and a story of avenging his foster father during a civil war….
One of the interesting facets of Pitcher’s talk was his use of the fact that in the Warhammer canon much of the material about the activities of the God-Emperor and his children was created after the initial world-building despite the fact they happen earlier in the temporal scope of the universe and as such the development of the mythos are appropriate metaphors for reception generally. Including the tension surrounding the idea that looking too much to the past can lead to a kind of stasis… He also touched on the issues relating to multi-authoring within the corpus (before less formalised fanfic is even considered) and the constraints that are potentially placed on interpretations of actions by other writers and notions of canon. He suggested that classical elements in the stories allowed writers to draw on their own existing experiences of interpreting a real shared past as they handled the stories as well as ensuring that they were using a common pot of material.

Although this was a slightly shorter panel than some of the others it provoked some quite lively discussion at the end and over coffee. Particularly of note was the role of fanfic and the way that understanding and corpus is developed through this process of multiple authoring but that because the Warhammer universe uses historical background rather than mythological the approaches of the writers varies somewhat from that discussed by Amanda Potter with relation to Dr. Who earlier in the conference.

The panel was followed by the final plenary of the conference- Edith Hall talking about Xenophon’s Anabasis in Space.
It is worth confessing up front that I have never read the Anabasis (in English let alone Greek) and as such my knowledge of it goes no deeper than the brief precis that Dr Hall offered by way of introduction. Fortunately, Dr Hall confidently took the audience through the imagery, structural nuances and tonal subtleties of Xenophon’s work that the writers of SF she picked out were interested in.
Hall highlighted how through translations of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth the imagery of soldiers/explorers reaching a somehow recognisable sea  (Thalatta! Thalatta!)  despite the ‘alien’ nature of the landscape they have been struggling through became a staple feature of Science Fiction and she chose to discuss 3 of the more extensive reworkings which cover a variety of styles: Andre Norton’s Star Guard, Weber and Ringo’s March Up Country & Kearney’s Ten Thousand.

The militaristic and ethnographic features of Xenophon’s work allow it to to be reworked in multiple modern genres and the strongly moral overtones appeal to a lot of writers. In Xenophon, not only are there  conflicting political ideologies between warring states but there are  also competing approaches amongst the ten thousand and this makes it possible to use the story to emphasise different aspects of any journey. More importantly, Hall also talked about the importance of the idea that Xenophon’s return is, despite having elements of both, not just an Odyssean journey home nor does it follow the Iphegenia in Tauris story arc  (she digressed slightly to show how Iph in Taur influenced Trader Horn, Road to… and ultimately Star Wars stories). What in many respects makes Xenophon’s narrative more potentially interesting for writers are the aspects of failure and loss around the initial endeavour and perhaps more importantly his own internal conflict about the notion of returning home.  If returning home is not easy or perhaps not desirable then one’s attitude to new territory is subtly shifted towards its potentials for a new start…

Hall was very clear in her preference for Norton’s version of the tale over the others that she had selected. Although (and I am surmising without having read any of them) Norton’s is almost certainly the most political and literary of the three I could not help but feel that in making such a personal aesthetic choice Hall didn’t offer her audience quite the depth of comparative analysis  she is capable of. On the other hand she made a lovely plea for more authors to attempt engagement with the ancient text, a very good case for using Xenophon as an inspiration and appeared to have been able to use the modern texts to help her find new interpretations of the Anabasis.
The paper was pleasingly thought-provoking for me, in that it engaged with a series of texts that stylistically I know very little about and brought them more into my world-view but it was not quite the end of the conference….

SFF 5

Ok, like readers trying to follow my commentary, I was by Monday morning somewhat tired and jaded which meant checking out of the hotel and lugging my bags up the hill took me a little longer than planned and I was several minutes late for the first paper of the morning.
On this basis I apologise that I think I missed some of the nuances that the speaker was trying to suggest.

When I arrived Leimar Garcia-Siino was giving a very slickly competent talk on “The Resurgence of Mythology in Young Adult Fantasy” which I struggled rather spectacularly to follow. I recall only 2 key points: firstly that the Percy Jackson novels are representative of a broader trend towards re-appropriating mythology as an emotional and academically didactic tool in story-telling for young adults and secondly that, furthermore, our ongoing mythological consciousness creates a playful metanarrative which both reinforces and ultimately reinvents the mythological framework. I also remember thinking that if I was more awake it would have made an interesting (and far more theoretical) counterpoint to Schrackmann’s reading of Riordan partially because she looked at similar aspects of the conflict between ancient conceptions of heroism and modern values.
Overall, the paper was among the more theory heavy that I listened to and although the speaker had some interesting points to make about how we can utilise imagery whilst re-writing context I think I’d need to re-read it with some coffee to hand…

Next I dashed out to Tom Garvey’s paper on Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. This paper reminded me a little of Brand’s paper on Watchmen in that it initially seemed strongly demonstrative in style (i.e. we were treated to a thorough explanation of why certain things should be considered classical references or allusions). However, this paper explored very different ground to most of the others that I heard at the conference because the speaker actively aimed to discuss the use of the text in a pedagogic setting. Specifically Garvey considered ways that Stephenson contrasts methods of teaching and learning within the book (and explicitly uses classical material both as exemplar and as methodology) and asked students to apply that to their own experiences and also suggested ways of reading Stephenson’s commenatry/critique of classicising education in contrast to his Eastern-philosophical leanings.
In Garvey’s exposition, Stephenson’s book  is a useful example of how embedded classical culture can be identified and played with for an audience prepared to deal with self-analysis – what Reception scholar can’t get behind that?

After the Break: Warhammer 40K…

SFF 4(?)

Aaaargh sorry for the exceptionally long delay.

Still on Day 2 but post lunch
Session 13: Divine Updates – Myths of the Classical World in Popular Literature.
This panel was all by academics from the University of Zurich, I’m not sure I quite caught a unifying theme to the papers but each of them offered me a whole load of food for thought.

The first was by Meret Fehlmann on the re-imagining of classical myth (and religion) in the novels of Robert Graves and Elizabeth Hand.
I haven’t read anything by Hand and I haven’t read the novels by Graves that Fehlmann discussed (though perhaps unsurprisingly I have read his Greek Myths & I, Claudius) but I am quite conscious of the fact that his interpretation of pre-historic Goddess worship has been influential so I was interested to see how she traced his ideas and reactions to them. Fehlmann demonstrated 2 points: firstly how Graves developed his ideas about the cult of the mother Goddess from his version of the Golden Fleece into his book 7 Days in New Crete to suggest a kind of utopian re-balancing of society and secondly how Hand re-wrote those ideas about the cult and ultimately rejected their usefulness.
Graves’ ideas about both the importance of women in cultic scenarios and the notion of the necessity of destruction in society have their basis in a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropological enquiries, including those of Jane Ellen Harrison. The ideas are played out across swathes of pagan and feminist literature but were fairly quickly rejected by scholars and then ultimately by those groups too. It is interesting to see the literary positions that demonstrate the trends but unsatisfying to consider how much more there could be done on tracing lines of influence… My brain was so buzzing with the possibility of showing how JEH influenced 70’s lesbian pagan feminism I was quite distracted.

Next up.. a Paper on the Watchmen graphic novel/comic from Scott Brand

This paper served as a gazetteer of almost every classical allusion the speaker could find. Naturally there was an interesting discussion on the impact of using Juvenal (quis custodiet..) as the central theme of the novel (albeit mediated through American politics) and some focus on the Promethean elements of the characters. However, to my taste the paper as a whole was a little light on analysis (although it is only fair to note that this was not his normal research topic) but instead offered up some interesting possibilities for further analysis as well as illustrating how classical material can serve as ornamental short-hand and foreshadowing. I would particularly like to see someone with greater skill than I pick apart the interplay between the Greek, Roman and Egyptian identities and images of the character of Ozymandias.

The 3rd paper of the panel entitled “Where’s the glory in repeating what others have done? Mediating the Ancient and the Modern in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series” was from Petra Schrackmann.

This rather fascinating paper took great care to show how the novels actively re-write ancient mythology in order to make it more relevant to modern children. Schrackmann especially argued that by juxtaposing the modern and the mythological Riordan was able to critique both and that he used the books to create a modern mythos that especially highlights issues with the education system as well as providing a pathway to the growth of personal identity. It is clear that the series shares some of its central themes with many other books for its target age-range, specifically the notion of the power of knowledge and learning to negotiate independence through issues of agency but the speaker nicely highlighted why the often fatalistic Greek myths could still be used fruitfully.

This paper was followed rather well thematically by the final paper of the panel by Aleta-Amiree Von Holzen on Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles. I have to confess that not only have I not read these ‘middle grade’ stories, I hadn’t even heard of them before the paper. Nonetheless the speaker competently outlined the key plot points before explaining some of the ways that the author took some of the same basic premises of the Percy Jackson series but created a different feeling in order to offer thoughts on the nature and purpose of power. The paper suggested that Ursu’s modernising of the myths sometimes inserts a slightly comic tone into the stories but the disregard of humanity shown by the Gods has a lot in common with the  ancient tragedies. Von Holzen also drew out the importance of the Promethean myth to the Chronicles’ consideration of free-will and the role of the Gods in a modern world – a classical connection that (as well as being discussed indirectly in a later paper) surely ought to be brought out more in modern writing.

In summary, despite (or perhaps because of) the fairly diverse directions of these modern mythological re-tellings/re-purposing it was clear that writers have been very conscious of the difficulties of using such a different cultural medium as ancient myth in their own work but also that they can use that to their advantage.

Right, better stop there before this gets any longer.
Monday morning next (Nick Lowe’s plenary will I think act a as kind of conclusion to the whole conference)

SFF & Classics (3)

So still on Day 2 but now with extra coffee.
The Whedonverse:
The first two papers of the panel focused on Firefly/Serenity and the 3rd compared Angel to the Southern Vampire (Sookie Stackhouse) Mysteries and all 3 looked at classical influences from slightly different angles.

The first paper, by Janice Siegel, was on the Cyclopean properties of the Reavers in Firefly. Siegel wanted to draw attention to the way that 3 aspects of ancient monsters re-appear in the form of the Reavers- namely rape, cannibalism/anthropophagy & the desecration of corpses. She made it clear that she did not believe that Whedon was directly referencing the monsters of the Odyssey when the Reavers were conceived but instead wanted to draw attention to the fact that the same social anxieties crop up now as then when we attempt to consider what makes Us civilised & Them monstrous. Nonetheless, she notes some important ideas that comparing the approaches brings up  – firstly and most obviously Rape is considered much more linked with violence and thus horrific in our culture than in antiquity; secondly cannibalism involves a kind of loss of humanity but often this is represented as a subversion of the dominant culture and finally that this is irreversibly tied to the need for a cultural agreement on the treatment of the dead (eating corpses- emphasises the monstrosity of the lack of respect) which holds as much true for us as it did the ancient Greeks. Siegel used a variety of different examples of parallels between the Odyssey and Serenity which made for compelling listening and was particularly intrigued by the suggestion by a member of the audience that in fact because of their communitarian aspect the Reavers were rather more like Laestrygonians than Cyclopes. A point which didn’t change the key contrast the comparison brought out that what particularly differentiates the Odyssean monsters from the Reavers is in the Odyssey, things which appear cultured or safe are often revealed to be in fact monsters whereas the Reavers which appear so monstrous are in fact “human”.
[One extra thing the Siegel dropped in which is also worth thinking some more on is the similarities in personality between Mal & Odysseus, including the similar types of trickery to escape]

The 2nd paper by Jennifer Ann Rea was entitled “You can’t stop the signal/signum: ‘Utopian’ Living in Whedon’s Serenity and Vergil’s Aeneid“. I must confess that my memories of it are a little hazy which is odd given that I felt fairly confident that I knew both “texts” quite well. After re-reading the storified tweets, I do remember the gist of the argument about how both make their audiences consider when violence is justified, what means can be used to create the desired (utopian) society and when the price for a ‘pax romana’ is too high. The discussion hinged on the ambiguity of the end of the Aeneid in comparison to the somewhat more openly didactic (albeit unresolved) elements of Serentity. I think there are some really interesting ideas about the ‘messages’ in the texts but fear that the breadth of research on the Aeneid makes us more likely to pick our favourite theory and then apply it to Serenity rather than trying to see whether responses from the audiences to Serenity can suggest new approaches to the Aeneid…. That or I wasn’t in the mood for politics.

The final paper of this panel was from Juliette Harrisson and moved away from Firefly/Serenity and onto contrasting oracles in Angel and Sookie Stackhouse. Juliette began by offering a little bit of context on the vampire genre and the way that vampires can be used to create a link between the past and the present. She highlighted the fact that modern vampire mythos tends not to offer classical (esp. not Greek) origins for its vampires (we have some from Confederate USA, a few from WW1 and some Egyptians & Vikings) but in 1819 Polidori’s Vampyre was heavily invested in the Romanticism associated with ancient Greece and contemporary Greek struggles. The key point of the vampire then is the blend of the exotic with familiar enough. Harrisson then mentioned some of the issues surrounding use of magic vs. religion in modern fiction and related that neatly to the (fictional) role of oracles as access to higher power without necessarily invoking any particular religious scheme and their particular use for dramatic foreshadowing. After comparing these uses to the ancient views of oracles, she moved on to her specific examples.
In the Buffyverse, generic old and magical was generally represented by  (bad) Latin and the really ancient tended to be Near Eastern/Egyptian which left little space for representations of classical Greece. Nonetheless, the Oracles in Angel look and feel Greek and are consulted in order to answer a question in very classical fashion (interestingly they are also able to turn back time before they are conveniently killed to prevent repeated use of this deus ex machina). In the Southern Vampire Novels there are fewer classical allusions but they are slightly more unusual – the rampant Maenad, Eric’s Roman vampire maker and the ‘Pythoness’ (“the [?] oracle Alexander consulted”). This oracle’s access to higher power is more uncertain but her role as judge of the Vampire Queen (authority over authority) is certainly out of respect for both her extreme age and her reputation as an oracle when she was turned.
Thus Juliette argued that the Oracles offer an interesting and different connection to the ancient world and allow the worlds they inhabit a means to touch some kind of ancient tradition, authority and higher power separate to that of the Vampires themselves. Is the lesson that we don’t yet have any other non-christian models for authority be it in politics or our future?

Overall, the panel reflected a number of ways that modern social and political tastes can be reflected and echoed in well-known classical examples – not a surprise to Reception scholars but nonetheless it was interesting to see new connections.

Next on my list a panel on Myths in Popular literature