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A gavel on a background of hearts

Professor Jonathan Herring’s new book, Law and the Relational Self, imagines how we could create laws that foster caring relationships, instead of breaking them apart.

Professor Herring is not your average law professor. His background is typical: studied Law at Hertford College, trained as a solicitor, did his BCL, then later went into education. But it’s not every solicitor or professor who ends up specialising in relationships.

He wrote a book called How to Argue, which was featured in newspapers as a guide to navigating those tricky conflicts in relationships. Late last year he hit the papers again, referenced as an argument expert in pieces about discussing Brexit and how to avoid doing the same at Christmas.

Jonathan Herring headshot

(He also gave a very entertaining talk on Can Law Be Fun, which is worth your time once you’ve finished reading this.)

He’s also written some more classic law texts, including Criminal Law: Texts, Cases and Materials and Family Law.

His most recent book almost seems to mix these two areas, looking at how law could move from protecting individual rights, to protecting and nurturing relationships.

Perhaps the first thing to consider when we look at this new book is what exactly is meant by ‘relational self’. Professor Herring elaborates: ‘The standard view of the self is individual.  Our bodies, beliefs, jobs and possessions define who we are. The relational understanding instead argues that our identities emerge from our relationships.’

It’s a bit like the old John Donne quote “No man is an island”. We’re all part of a larger whole, and the things that make us us are the things or people that we care about. If we try to define ourselves separate to that, then we come up short.

He continues: ‘If you are ask a person to describe themselves, then they are likely to use relational terms: they are someone's sister; they belong to this religious group; or they support this football team. The things that give our life meaning are not things that are unique to us, but our relationships.’

Well, what does this mean for the law? Professor Herring explains that the standard model of law is currently about individual rights: ‘For many lawyers, the most important legal rights are those of autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy. But these rights are about keeping people away from you. They are about preserving the individual as separate from others.’

The law, as it stands, protects independence. It sees your rights as something to be protected from other people. You use the law to look after your interests, perhaps at the expense of others.  Law and the Relational Self argues for a version of the law that looks at what’s best for people together.

‘A good law will be one that promotes caring relationships between people.’ He explains. ‘So a successful society, I argue, is not one where people are left free to pursue their own goals as "billiard balls in suits". Rather, it’s one where there are flourishing caring relationships.’

Law and the Relational Self book cover

He cites law relating to children as a good example of this. The law currently enshrines the welfare of the child alone as the criteria by which judges should make decisions. This sounds sensible enough until you think about the relationships at play. If what seems best for a child isn’t best for their relationship with their caregiver, it actually isn’t going to be very good for the child after all.

We imagine we can think about the interests of children as separate from their parents, but that is a fiction … It would be better to ask what order will promote good caring relationships between the child and their carers.’

Or we can look at contract law. Effectively, it sets up an “us vs them”, with little obligation to consider what is fair for ‘them’. Whereas Jonathan argues that ‘a contract law designed to promote caring relationship would put obligations on contracting parties to look out for each other.’

A lot of the ideas in the book are informed by his previous work, but it was becoming a parent that crystalised all those ideas into the concept for Law and the Relational Self. Not, as you might expect, because of how a child requires care of its relationships to thrive (that one was a given). Instead, what struck him was how much emotional support children give to their parents.

He describes the experience, saying: ‘Parenthood vividly showed me how false vision the ideal of the "autonomous self-determining free man" is. That seems to be the dream that the law seeks to preserve, but to me it now looks like a nightmare. All the things in my life that give me joy are things that undermine my autonomy. But those are all good things. And I think is true for most people.’

This vulnerability is at the core of the book. We define ourselves by our relationships, and our relationships make us vulnerable, so it follows that…

‘Being vulnerable is an essential characteristic of being human. We might think that as adults we are able to "look after ourselves", but we rely on farmers and shops for food. We rely on friends for meaning and our mental health. We need a whole array of people, from doctors to sewerage workers, to maintain our wellbeing.

‘The strange thing is that society often presents it as a bad thing to be vulnerable and to need care. Carers are some of the most undervalued workers in our economy, when they should be celebrated.’

Professor Herring also highlights how that vulnerability means we sometimes need support from the law when something goes wrong: ‘The importance of care also shows how harmful abuse within an intimate relationship is. If intimate relationships define who we are and, indeed, are key to our survival, then abuse with in them is a "crime against the soul." One of the great strengths of relational theories is that it can highlight the particular evils of domestic abuse.’

A lot of what he says about the book seems to be a question of how the law reflects what we value. To change the focus of the law, would thus give us better building blocks to support a society of caring relationships.

What would such a legal system look like and what would it say about our values? Professor Herring says: ‘At the moment, whether one listens to debates about the impact of Brexit or the arguments among politicians, it would be thought that economic productivity is the mark of a successful society. 

‘But what if our schooling, our labour market, our health care system, our political decisions were shaped around asking ‘what will promote good caring relationships?’ This would have huge ramifications for employment practices, tax systems, benefits payments. Being a carer would be an accepted part of being a citizen. The legal and political system would be built around that as a norm rather than, as it is at the moment, being seen as a problem if a worker is a carer.’

In the end, Law and the Relational Self is a book about what we decide important and how we reinforce that. It should be a great read for anyone with in interest in law and how it shapes us.

Jonathan sums it up by saying: ‘We know that making money is not what is important in life.  We know our lives are not just "ours" to live as we like, but are made up of responsibilities which constrain our freedom, but that we choose because they are of huge importance and value.  We know that what is important is our interactions with others, the smile, the touch, the kiss, the giggle together.  That is what matters, not the high sounds principles of autonomy and freedom which dominate the law.’

Someone types at a keyboard

As shopping surged over Christmas and now into the January sales, it has been one of the busiest times of the year online. Yes, Santa, the high street, and Amazon have all been doing overtime … and so, each year, does cybercrime. (You may, indeed, have caught the recent credit card hack over at Macy’s.)

So what can we do about cybercrime? To answer that, you need to understand it. Enter Dr Jonathan Lusthaus, Director of The Human Cybercriminal Project in the Department of Sociology, at the University of Oxford. Dr Lusthaus has spent the last seven years researching the hidden details of cybercrime. His book on the subject, Industry of Anonymity, is published by Harvard University Press. He’s also written on the subject for range of periodicals including The New York Times and The New Statesman, and been interviewed by the Financial Times’s Tech Tonic podcast and the a16z podcast..

In those years of research, he interviewed almost 250 people. These included law enforcement agents, security professionals and former cybercriminals. Speaking about the people he met, he remarked on how normal this new kind of criminal seems to be: ‘I was able to interview a number of former cybercriminals from a range of countries. There are a lot of interesting characters out there, but ultimately they are just people like the rest of us. Many of the former offenders I spoke to were intelligent and engaging.’

What drove him to find out so much about this world? Originally, he was planning to research religious violence, but found himself fascinated by cybercrime after a talk on the topic from the journalist Misha Glenny. With the subject becoming a growing obsession, he kept researching, doing his doctorate on the subject under the supervision of Federico Varese, a leading authority on organised crime.

A picture emerged of an industry that was strangely distant from traditional organised crime. Many cybercrime ventures seemed to function much like other online businesses, only they happened to be illegal. Out of several surprises that Dr Lusthaus uncovered, he recounts one of the most eye-opening as: ‘What surprised me most about the cybercrime world was how many of the offenders know each other in person. When I began this research almost a decade ago, I assumed this would be almost a purely virtual phenomenon. But the more I dug into it, the more I found cybercriminals who met online and then met up in person, or groups of people who knew each other in person already and then started to work together on an online scam. Sometimes this can be very much embedded in local communities and environments. This offline and local dimension is particularly fascinating and something that Federico Varese and I are continuing to investigate.’

Maybe it’s that knowing each other in person builds trust? Or perhaps it just makes it easier to organise if you’re not doing it all online? Indeed, in some cases, Dr Lusthaus found that some cybercriminals went so far as to invest in office space. They would even organise themselves along corporate hierarchies, with managers, specialist roles, and marketing teams. It turns out that in the cybercrime marketplace you still need someone to advertise your services.

If the way cybercrime can flourish seems oddly entrepreneurial to you, then you’re starting to identify one of what Dr Lusthaus sees as the key factors behind it. Some of the areas that tend to become cybercrime hubs are places with very strong technical education, but not enough jobs to support all the resulting talent. Lacking employment opportunities or legal avenues for start-up investment, some people turn to cybercrime as a quick way to use their skills to make ends meet.

But not all cybercrime hotspots are the same. There’s a lot of variation tied to the resources and skills available in each area, which then feed into local criminal specialities: ‘The former Soviet Union is one well-known hub for cybercrime. It is known for the most technical types of cybercrime, like malware production. Other key hubs include Romania, Nigeria and Brazil. These often become associated with different kinds of cybercrime. For example, some would say Romanian offenders are famous for "online auction fraud", which involves selling fictitious products online.

‘Nigerian fraudsters have entered so many people's lives through those (sometimes far-fetched) emails offering strangers part of some fortune if only they can provide a small amount of money to unlock it. This is known as "advance fee fraud". More recently, these offenders have evolved and now engage in other scams like impersonating CEOs and other company officers to authorise fraudulent transactions. Of course, we also can't forget about the West, which has a lot of cybercrime offenders engaged in the money side of cybercrime, "cashing out" virtual gains into physical or monetary ones.’

So, what can we do to combat cybercrime in these areas? Various experts, including Dr Lusthaus, have suggested it’s not a problem we can arrest away. Instead, it may be an issue we can invest away:

‘While we lack data and rigorous study on this, I suspect a number of future cybercrime offenders could be diverted into legitimate work. The UK's National Crime Agency is leading the way globally with cybercrime prevention programs. But the real need is to internationalise diversion programs beyond the West and target them to the hubs that produce the most effective cybercriminals, like Eastern Europe. This means creating more opportunities in places where very capable individuals are being pulled into cybercrime because there aren't enough good jobs to support them. The private sector can potentially play a huge role here.’

If you want to learn more about cybercrime, you can find the details of Dr Lusthaus’s book and various articles on the Harvard University Press site. But if there’s one key thing you should know about cybercrime, he thinks it should be this one: ‘Cybercrime is not as shadowy as people think. It's important not to view cybercriminals as exotic. Mystifying them makes it harder to develop solutions. I think approaching cybercrime in "human" terms is really important to addressing the problem in a more holistic way. It is not just a technical challenge.’

A mural of a baker giving out bread

The Ashmolean's 2019 exhibition explored ancient Pompeii. The exhibition has closed, but conservators continue to uncover the hidden histories of 37 previously untouched objects.

After a fascinating morning in the Ashmolean’s conservation labs, I find myself wandering through the Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition. Viewing the many wonderful exhibits with a renewed wonder for the conservation work that’s gone into them, my eye is drawn to a statue of Apollo towards the end.

It’s a gorgeous bronze piece, but this time that’s not the principle reason for my interest. The label tells me that it was later adapted for use as a tray holder during meals. For a moment, I ponder what the famously capricious deity would make of having his statue modified in such a way.

But for the most part, I’m caught by how it found a second life at the banquet table.

This is perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my visit to the labs. The Ashmolean was given 37 items from the Pompeii Archaeological Park’s archive. None of these had been outside Pompeii or seen significant conservation work before. As such, this represents a unique collaboration. And each object, especially those which have seen lots of practical use, tells a story.

Image from the conservation labs

Conservation Manager Alexandra Baldwin was kind enough to talk me through the various techniques used to analyse and conserve these objects. This is how they fight back to keep items in the best state possible. It’s also how they tease out the details that help us map each object’s journey.

Spread out on the tables in the lab are various copper pots, bowls, jugs and other vessels. Alexandra tells me that finds like these are quite rare. Due to the intrinsic value of metal, such items wouldn’t be thrown away, but sold second hand, repaired, reused and eventually melted down and remade.

But it’s exactly this long and varied lifespan that makes these objects so interesting.

There are two places you tend to find metal objects like this. The first is sites of ritual deposition, like burials. The second is places that have been struck by sudden catastrophe.

It’s only in those sites of catastrophe like Pompeii and Herculaneum that we find items that were still in use. So each nugget of information uncovered about these objects – from dents to organic residue to location found – tells a bit more of a story.

Take, for example, one of the especially fine pieces they’ve restored for the exhibition: a copper bowl with an intricate ram’s head handle and delicate silver inlay. To my untrained eye, the handle carving especially is gorgeous. This ‘patera’ was likely used for ritual hand-washing.

Slowly and painstakingly, Alexandra clearing away the detritus of the years with the help of delicate surgeon’s tools and binocular microscope. Alexandra and colleague Stephanie Ward (Objects Conservator) told me that as the fine details emerged, it became clear this was one of the finest pieces they’d seen.

Which is actually a little odd, given all these objects were excavated from one of Pompeii’s backstreet taverns. Hardly the venue you’d expect to find a well-crafted piece like this.

Looking over the maps of Pompeii, Alexandra pointed out landmarks like main roads, temples and the amphitheatre. It’s just round the corner from this site of various state-sponsored games and gladiatorial matches that the tavern is located. With a spacious garden, even including a small vineyard, it seems like it would have been a very pleasant location to pass an afternoon eating with friends. Given most ordinary Pompeiians wouldn’t have had their own full kitchens, take-away and dining out would have been a pretty regular part of their diets. So, how did such a fine piece end up in a run-of-the-mill eatery?

Further analysis (including x-rays) revealed the dents and damage the bowl had sustained. You might expect a bowl from Pompeii to be a bit worse for wear, but these were marks from before the eruption of Vesuvius. Given this clue, it seemed that this piece had probably been previously owned by a noble household, then damaged and sold on. Eventually, it made its way to this downhill tavern to be used by a multitude of regular citizens.

When the objects arrived in Oxford in several bright blue packing crates, the conservation team thought it would be a relatively straightforward job. They certainly weren’t expecting the various surprises and discoveries that their analysis would reveal about the many ordinary lives these objects touched.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was a bowl which, due to its shape, would usually be assumed to be used for ceremonial hand-washing. But during the cleaning process, Conservator Miriam Orsini found strange shapes embodied in the bottom. They looked, perhaps, like insects. None of the conservation team were insect experts, but thankfully the University of Oxford museums are filled with a wide variety of experts.

An entomologist from the Natural History Museum was called in: they identified the remains as common fly larvae and rove beetles.

The bowl on which these remains were found.

Insects like these wouldn’t have been interested as water; they’re attracted to protein. So the team could determine that this bowl would have been used for raw meat or fish. Perhaps a scrap bowl or a mixing bowl of some kind? Another example of something that likely served multiple uses over time, each of which unearths another piece of lives that – if not for Pompeii – we’d know very little about.

Walking around the exhibition after seeing the labs, this sense of exhibits as holding secret stories felt incredibly pronounced. A lot of them feel full of personality. There’s the branded murals and fish sauce bottles from one of Pompeii’s nouveau riche fish sauce (‘garum’) barons, clearly keen to show off his humble beginnings. Devotive offerings found in kitchen shrines (close to the hearth that was the centre of the home) also seem to whisper about ancient hopes and prayers.

Amidst the case that contains many of the newly conserved items, we can also see one jar left in the state in which it was excavated. It’s crusted with pumice that grows off the rim like a rocky fungus, and coated with a light blue sheen of volcanic-formed Lapili. It’s a stark contrast to the other pieces, delicately restored to their distinctive copper-tarnished surfaces.

A pot, left un-restored displaying rocky deposits and lazuli patina

A video nearby illustrates some of the work in the labs that I was privileged to have explained to me. We see, for example, how x-rays revealed the various repairs the vessels had undergone. Some had clearly been fixed up by skilled craftspeople with thin copper strips, riveted on. Others had crude repairs of melted lead poured over cracks. Again and again, these vessels were used and re-used, a constant part of the practical lives of Pompeiians.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that they’re being used here, again, as part of an exhibition that highlights the relationship between a people and their food.

And there’s still more analysis underway. Many of the objects still had traces of organic material (partly thanks to the copper they’re made out of, which kills bacteria). In another collaboration, the Oxford Archaeology and Chemistry departments are currently working together to find out what that can tell us.

Once the exhibition ends (after the last day tomorrow, 11 January), still more work will be done with x-ray and other techniques. It seems this partnership with the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, with funding for the conservation work supported by the Stockman Family Foundation and the Helen Roll Charity, has more secrets to uncover.

Coming up next for the conservation labs at the Ashmolean will be some work on their Ancient Near East collection. Among other techniques, this project will use hyperspectral imaging to uncover more about ancient objects from sites such as Ur and Nimrud. While it’s too early to say what will be discovered, they are hoping that such analysis could (for example) tell us more about the pigments and colours which would have decorated ivory and carved figures, and stone reliefs, bringing a bit of colour back into history…

Gaz Coombes
Just in time for Christmas...
 
An EP has been released of a collaboration between an internationally-known musician and students, professors and alumni of the Faculty of Music.
 
The EP is a live recording of Gaz Coombes' charity concert at the Sheldonian Theatre earlier this year. All proceeds from the record release will be donated to local charities.

The concert in May 2019 saw Gaz and his band perform a bespoke set with the 42-piece ‘Hot Fruit Orchestra’, made up of students, professors and alumni of the Oxford University Faculty of Music. The Hot Fruit Orchestra was a ‘scratch orchestra’ – none of the musicians had played together before.
 
Speaking of the collaboration, Gaz said: "It was such a seat of the pants performance on the night, but that's how I like it...that's when strange and magic things happen. We only had a couple of run throughs on the day with arranger Luke Lewis, the orchestra. I felt we were all playing on instinct, propelling each other forward. In that setting, with the lights and orchestra, It kind of felt like Christmas...in May."

The response from the players and the audience was equally as enthusiastic. Professor Gascia Ouzounian, who performed at the concert, said: "This was an extraordinary opportunity for students and staff from the Faculty of Music to play alongside Gaz Coombes, one of the world’s finest singer-songwriters, in the Sheldonian, an historic building, with gorgeous orchestral arrangements by composer Luke Lewis.
 
"The concert not only raised funds for two very worthwhile causes, but it did so in style: every person in the hall felt the power and beauty of Gaz’s music, which he played to perfection and which was taken to new heights through Luke’s imaginative arrangements. A memorable night."

DPhil student and performer Patrick Brennan said: "I really enjoyed the fusion that took place in the Sheldonian that evening - the chance to play my violin at an orchestral desk, but accompanied by guitars, drums, synthesisers, and of course Gaz Coombes’ sensational vocals."
 
The concert celebrated the 350th anniversary of the iconic Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christopher Wren, and raised £7,500 for two local charities: The Young Women’s Music Project and Yellow Submarine. 

The venue was provided for free as part of the Sheldonian Theatre Curators' 350th Anniversary Community Engagement Scheme - a way of allowing the community and different groups of people to access the historic building. 
 
The Sheldonian Live EP, mixed by the Faculty of Music’s Studio Manager, Dan Hulme, gives audiences the chance to hear much loved songs with a new aesthetic. The EP is available to stream and download on all major digital platforms and is out on vinyl this Friday through Caroline International. 

Track listing for ‘Sheldonian Live EP’:
1) The Girl Who Fell To Earth (Sheldonian Live)
2) The Oaks (Sheldonian Live)
3) Walk The Walk (Sheldonian Live)
4) Slow Motion Life (Sheldonian Live)
silence bodleian

Convocation House hosted a rather unique hour-long concert last month. It included works from Joseph Haydn, Arvo Part, Nils Frahm, Philip Glass and Peteris Vasks. The most singular thing about it? Four of the pieces were completely silent…

The concert was the brain child of the Silence Hub, a research group in The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). The trio at the Hub's heart are Professor Kate McLoughlin of the Faculty of English, Dr Willem Kuyken, Ritblat Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science, and Dr Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci of the Faculty of History.

The event they organised brought members of the SCANJ string quartet together with cellist Jacqueline Josephine. As Professor Kate McLoughlin said afterwards, 'I hoped to put on a unique programme in which the audience would be confronted by performances of silence by people who are used to playing in public.'

'They usually perform music, of course,' she added.

The performers rose to the challenge of performing the silent pieces alongside more traditional music (though the pieces chosen were still quiet, contemplative or contained meaningful pauses). One attendee, Sarah Bedford, said: 'Particularly notable were the parts where the musicians did not "play" anything, and yet were performing the piece and sat with full attention on performing through the silence.'

Sarah was also complimentary of Dr Kuyken’s contribution in guiding the audience through the event. As Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science, he was well equipped to use his expertise to foster that sense of peace and contemplation. Sarah added this was especially helpful as 'having the questions from the research team like "what words does 'silence' conjure up for you?" meant that you were able to mull that over in the quietness, rather than letting your thoughts wander to other things.'

Feedback was gathered from the audience, with about two thirds responding positively. Professor McLoughlin hoped the event would 'create an event of silence, quietness and peacefulness that would help people enter a calm, reflective mood'. And many did report a sense of tranquillity that came with the event.

A debrief was also held the day after with a few audience members. Dr Suzan Meryem Rosita Kalayci said this was her favourite part. 'The conversations that emerge are really valuable,' she said. 'One audience member said something about silence being an unoccupied space, a threshold of some sort. That struck a chord with me.'

Each member of the Silence Hub approaches the concept of silence from a different angle. Dr Kalayci has studied the role of silence in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean. Her research informs some of the Hub's future activities, with the Hilary Term featuring events on the theme Silence & Syria.

'I have lived in Syria for many years, so the theme is very close to my heart,' she said. 'There is a lot to be said, especially about our silence on the war in Syria. I think silence is a very powerful tool of protest because, like a full stop at the end of a sentence, it offers the chance of a new thought.'

There are already plans in development for an essay competition for young adults in Arabic, English and Kurdish; a pop-up library with books about Syria and talks by writers from Syria; a book of collected essays about Syria; and a collaboration with the artist Erkan Özgen.

The Syria events will also include poetry readings, relating to Professor McLoughlin’s work on the role of silence in literature, which also links into silence in conflict. Her last book was 'about the figure of the war veteran in literature and culture - what philosophical ideas he stands for in literary works - and the last chapter was about veterans who can't or won't speak about the wars they have been in.'

By interspersing poetry with contemplative silence, the readings should raise questions about some of Professor McLoughlin's key ideas that she’s also exploring in a book about silence in literature: 'First, what are we talking about when we talk about silence (in other words, what does silence mean)? And second, why is silence so powerful?'

For more details of news and future events, keep an eye on the Silence Hub’s website.