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42 new Fellows have been elected by the British Academy

An Oxford University historian has been announced as the new President of the British Academy.

Professor Sir David Cannadine will be its thirtieth President. He will take up office in July 2017 for a four year term, succeeding Lord Nicholas Stern.

Professor Cannadine is a modern British historian who was elected a Fellow of the Academy in 1999. He is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, a Visiting Professor of History at Oxford University, and the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Professor Cannadine said: 'I am hugely thrilled and honoured to be following Nick Stern as the next President of the British Academy. In more ways than one, these are challenging times, for the Academy, the people it represents and the values it embodies.'

At its Annual General Meeting (14 July 2016), the Academy also elected 42 distinguished UK academics as Fellows, in recognition of their outstanding contribution to research.

Among those are eight academics who have an affiliation with the University of Oxford.

Justice Kate O’Regan, a former judge in the Constitutional Court of South Africa and Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford, has also been awarded an Honorary Fellowship.

The new Oxford Fellows are:

Professor Stephen Broadberry
Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford

Professor Patricia Clavin
Professor of International History, University of Oxford; Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford

Professor Judith Freedman
Pinsent Masons Professor of Taxation Law and Associate Dean for Development, University of Oxford; Director of Legal Research, Centre for Business Taxation; Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford

Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach
Professor of Music, University of Oxford

Mr Michael Macdonald
Research Associate, Faculty of Oriental Studies and Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford; Honorary Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford

Professor Catherine Morgan
Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford; Professor of Classics and Archaeology, University of Oxford

Professor Duncan Snidal
Professor of International Relations, University of Oxford; Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford

Professor Fiona Williams OBE
Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Leeds; Research Associate, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford; Honorary Professor, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia

Debbie R Flickr

New research networks to study comics

Matt Pickles | 11 Jul 2016

A new research network about comics and graphic novels has been set up by The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH).

Called ‘Comics and Graphic Novels: The Politics of Form’, the network will look at questions like why comics are not deemed ‘academic’ and whether traditional critical approaches to literature can be applied to comics.

Dr Dominic Davies, a British Academic Postdoctoral Fellow in the English Faculty, has founded the network. He answers our questions about comics:

Have comics been overlooked in academia? Why do you think this might be?

Yes, comics definitely have been overlooked by many academics. This is in part because, by their very nature, they don’t fit easily into the disciplinary structures that we have today. Are they art? Of course, they certainly are, but because they’re usually collected together in strip or book form, circulated in newspapers or sold in bookshops, rather than hung in museums or galleries, it means they’ve often don’t get the attention of art historians and art theorists.

Conversely, are they literature? Many comics look like books, and there are lots of self-labelled comics short stories and ‘graphic novels’. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, and most of them contain text that drives the narrative forward. But they are, also, fundamentally, groupings of sequential images as well as words. The field of literary studies might have the tools to deconstruct comics’ narrative dimensions, but how can literary academics presume to analyse their visual materials? This is one reason that, in its early incarnations at least, comics studies has mostly been located in media studies departments, sometimes even film studies departments.

However, probably the real reason for the slow uptake of comics by academia is that comics have traditionally been seen as a ‘low’ cultural form, one that is filled with coarse language, silly jokes and subversive sentiments and thus not worthy of critical attention. This is especially the case when they are contrasted with the notion of literature, say, as a ‘high’ cultural form with moral worth. This division still haunts comics, even as they have been embraced by academics in recent years, and causes much self-reflexive debate. It was only with the publications of longer comics such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour, or Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which move away from conventional superhero stories and tackle complex and serious issues (Spiegelman’s comic is about his father’s time in Auschwitz, for example) that academia started to take them seriously.

So these longer, more obviously ‘serious’ comics, have gained the form recognition in academic circles, and even today academics still tend to focus on them.

Are comics taught in schools and universities? If not, should they be?

Comics mostly aren’t taught in schools. In the U.S., throughout the latter half of the twentieth century when comics production really began to surge, comics were seen not as a medium to help children with their studies, but as distractions—and definitely not something to be studied. This prejudice lingers in education syllabuses today. But there are always exceptions—a comic about anti-apartheid activism is read in schools in Cape Town to educate students about South Africa’s history, for example. And we are seeing comics-only modules cropping up in higher education now.

But this is in large part dependent on whether there is an academic in an English Literature department who happens to have an interest in comics, and the energy to build and offer these modules. One good example is Dr Paul Williams, who has set up a comics-only module at the University of Exeter, and who is coming to give a seminar at our TORCH Network.

As to whether or not comics should be taught in schools and universities, I think the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The form is so rich, it does so many things that literature or art, as separate mediums, cannot. Indeed, in recent years, there’s been a surge in the kinds of stories that comics are being used to tell—there are now sub-genres within the field, such as autobiographics (autobiographical comics) and comics journalism—and in the popularity of comics, as more and more people find stories they can relate to.

Is there a difference between ‘comics’ and ‘graphic novels’?

That depends on who you ask. As comics have been deemed worthy of academic attention, the term ‘graphic novel’ has become more widely used. This is definitely related to the issue of ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of culture I mentioned above. The term ‘comics’ is still associated with short strips in newspapers, or superheroes, and these still aren’t really taken seriously. The term ‘graphic novel’ has come to be used by academics to refer to the longer form comic, usually published all in one go as a book – and that is somehow a ‘higher’ cultural form.

It is the term ‘graphic novel’ that high street bookshops such as Waterstones and Blackwell’s use to categorise the comics they sell, and again I think this is related to the idea about what is ‘serious’ literature and worthy of being read by the kinds of people who frequent those stores. While the distinction between the terms ‘comic’ and ‘graphic novel’ has a certain usefulness, there’s a great deal of academic debate about its implicit politics. Graphic novels are still comics, and owe their existence to long histories and rich traditions that extend back into the twentieth century and earlier. Their relabelling as ‘graphic novels’ dismisses this history. Some critics even see the term as being cynically deployed just to make comics more palatable to middle class readerships, academics, and university English departments.

There are numerous other labels that can be used to describe the comics form. I prefer to use the term ‘long-form comics’ rather than ‘graphic novels’ when talking about book-length comics, because it means that we don’t forget the form’s long and valuable history. But it’s important to remember that even under the umbrella term ‘comics’ is a huge diversity of different kinds of reading experience, some of which bear little resemblance to one another.

Discussions around terminologies and definitions have always been at the centre of academic criticism on comics, and these debates are still ongoing, so there’s still no straightforward answer to this question. This Network will include seminars about ‘comics’ and ‘graphic novels’, but will remain self-aware and open to thinking about how these terms are used and what the implications of this usage might be.

Can you apply traditional critical theories to the comic form?

Comics can be analysed with the critical theories that art historians might use, or with other tools from the broader field of visual cultures, such as W.J.T. Mitchell’s work on ‘picture theory’. But since they’re also narratives, literary criticism’s numerous theories such as narratology and discourse, not to mention other fields such as feminist or postcolonial criticism, have a role to play here.

Though comics haven’t had the attention that they deserve from academia, the relatively few critics who have written monographs on them and, in the occasional case, devoted their entire careers to them, have come up with some really sophisticated theories specifically designed for reading comics.

And comics are inherently interdisciplinary, so the tools needed to read them are also interdisciplinary. So it’s really important that our network creates a space for conversations to take place across the traditional disciplinary divides. We’re trying to bring literary critics into dialogue with visual cultures scholars.

And given that the comics and graphic novels we’ll be discussing in the seminars cover such a range of topics, it’s also really important that we welcome historians, geographers, and politics students into the conversation as well. There are also comics being produced in a number of different languages, and so we have committee members from modern languages departments.

How can people get involved and what can we look forward to?

Because the history of comics criticism has always been practiced as much by artists themselves (Will Eisner, Scott McCloud) as it has by academics, we are going to alternate visiting academic speakers with visiting artists to learn more about how actual practitioners go about writing and drawing their comics. So in Michaelmas Term 2016, we have Dr Helen Iball from the University of Leeds talking about autobiographical comics, and Dr Charlotta Salmi from the University of Birmingham presenting some of her recent research on protest and graphic novels in the Middle East.

But we also have some artists coming to present their work and offer their reflections, such as Karrie Fransman, who did a TEDx talk on comics quite recently, and Samir Harb, a geography PhD student at the University of Manchester who is also a published comics artist.

The seminar will run every two weeks throughout term time, and each of these speakers and artists will circulate some comics for participants to read in advance. It’s really important that the Network gets people to actually start reading some comics as well as simply talking and hearing about them.

In addition to the bi-weekly seminars we’ll also have one-off events, in collaboration with other TORCH Networks or other seminar groups based at the university. For example, Jennifer Howell, author of The Algerian War in French-Language Comics (2015), is coming to give a one-off seminar in November 2016.

All will be welcome to attend any of the seminars and talks we’ll be putting on, and we’ll be advertising each event through TORCH, the English Faculty, and various other mailing lists and outlets. In addition, we are currently building up a mailing list of our own, to which you can subscribe by emailing dominic.davies@ell.ox.ac.uk or comics@torch.ox.ac.uk. We’ll also be active on social media, so people will soon be able to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, and we’ll feature regular blog posts about comics-related topics on the TORCH website as well.

Ben Jonson

In a year when all eyes are on Shakespeare, a new exhibition at the Bodleian Library will explore the life of his friend and rival, Benjamin Jonson.

Jonson (1572-1637) was one of the 17th century’s most influential literary figures, regarded by many in his lifetime as the greatest of all English authors. He remains best known for his satirical comedies Every Man In His Humour, The Alchemist and Volpone.

He led an eventful life, working as a bricklayer and a soldier before becoming a playwright, and has gained a reputation as something of a curmudgeon. He was arrested and tortured for the political content of his work and was suspected of conspiring in the Gunpowder Plot – but even so ended up writing masques for the court of King James I.

The exhibition, named O rare Ben Jonson! and curated by Daniel Starza Smith of the Faculty of English and Nadine Akkerman of Leiden University, celebrates the 400th anniversary of the publication of his Workes.

As well as the Workes, an impressive example of early modern printing, the exhibition will feature sketches and texts for court masques which Jonson worked on, poetry written by Jonson for his friends, and the design for Jonson’s monument in Westminster Abbey – contrary in death as in life, Jonson was buried vertically and upside-down.

'Without Jonson’s Workes we might not have Shakespeare’s First Folio,' says Dr Starza Smith. 'It was very unusual for an author’s collected works to have been published during his own lifetime – that was an accolade reserved for Classical authors.

'Jonson published his own works in the folio format and helped to establish the idea that contemporary drama is suitable for this kind of publication and worthy of praise.'

Also on display are copies of Jonson’s tragic and satirical plays, both offering veiled commentary on the politics of his time. Jonson had a strong sense of what it meant to be a public poet and felt an obligation to confront authority and criticise immorality.

Jonson’s friend William Drummond called him “a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others”, and his criticism extended to other writers and public figures.

'At one point, Jonson visited Drummond, who got him drunk and wrote down all his gossip about the people they knew, including Shakespeare,' says Dr Starza Smith. 'In fact, it’s mainly due to Jonson that we have an idea of Shakespeare as a person at all.'

Jonson and Shakespeare were good friends as well as rivals: not only did Jonson tell Drummond that he “loved” Shakespeare, he wrote a poem introducing the First Folio, saying of Shakespeare ‘Thou art alive still while thy book doth live’.

The exhibition O rare Ben Jonson! runs until 28th August.

Bod queue

Hundreds of Tolkien fans, scholars and members of the public flocked to the Weston Library today (23 June) to see a recently-discovered map of Middle-earth.

The exhibition was supposed to be for one day only - but due to popular demand it has now been extended for another day, from 9am-5pm tomorrow (24 June).

As a queue snaked around the Blackwell Hall in the Weston Library and Bodleian staff, the members of staff behind the cafe called it "the biggest queue we have ever seen here".

The map, which is annotated by JRR Tolkien, was acquired by the Libraries earlier this year. Visitors can see Tolkien’s copious notes and markings on the map, which reveal his vision of the creatures, topography and heraldry of his fantasy world where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place.

The map went unseen for decades until October 2015 when Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford offered it for sale. It had previously belonged to Pauline Baynes (1922 – 2008), the acclaimed illustrator who was the only artist approved by Tolkien to illustrate his works during his lifetime. The map was a working document that Tolkien and Baynes both annotated in 1969 when Baynes was commissioned to produce a poster map of Middle-earth.

At the time, The Lord of the Rings had never been illustrated so Tolkien was keen to ensure that Middle-earth was accurately depicted. His copious annotations can be seen in green ink or pencil on the map, most notably his comments equating key places in Middle-earth with real world cities, for example that ‘Hobbiton is assumed to be approx. at [the] latitude of Oxford.’

He also specified the colours of the ships to be painted on the poster map and the designs on their sails as well as notes about where animals should appear, writing ‘Elephants appear in the Great battle outside Minas Tirith.’

The map has joined the Bodleian’s Tolkien archive, the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts and drawings in the world. It was purchased with assistance from the Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Bodleian, and the display coincides with the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the Bodleian.

Versailles

A ten-part BBC drama focusing on the court of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles is underway.

The Daily Telegraph calls it "the BBC's new steamy period drama", though its co-creator David Wolstencroft has higher ambitions for the programme.

'Sometimes it takes a different context to shine a light on history,' he says.

Dr Alison Oliver, research editor at the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford University, gives Arts Blog a scholarly take on the new series:

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby?

The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles…

Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on.

Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon.

The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

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