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Treachery, the archive, and the database
Caroline Bassett

Drawing on the Harvey Matusow Archive at the University of Sussex, this chapter undertakes a medium-theoretical analysis of the life of Matusow, a Communist Party member, a McCarthyite informer, and a man who recanted. In later life Matusow, who understood the destructive power of lists and databases, became a vocal opponent of computers and of the database society, founding an anti-computing league to fight against the tyranny of the automated sort and the automated cache. At one point he claimed as many league members as there were computers in England. Drawing on documents from the archive, this chapter tells an anti-computing story with medium transformation, mediatization, and the politics of automated identity and witnessing at its heart. It plays into the present as an early iteration of database anxiety, and haunts partly because it foreshadows the dangerous mixture of ignorance, incompetence, and authoritarian malice that characterized dealings around the Snowden events.

in Anti-computing
Abstract only
Liam Stanley

Chapter 1 starts with the initial post-crash austerity era. The chapter provides a rereading of this period through nationalisation. In doing so, it shows that although austerity was justified through a ‘negative’ and economically dubious story of Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility, it was also justified through a ‘positive’ story of national renewal. To ‘live within means’ was also an implicit promise to restore the nation after a debt-fuelled moral decline. This was framed as restoring some of the values associated with Britain’s supposed historical glories and national values, thereby making the state more congruent with the nation.

in Britain alone
Open Access (free)
Arendt, automation, and the cybercultural revolution
Caroline Bassett

The first Cybercultural Conference was held in New York in the mid-1960s and took as its subject cybernation and the evolving society. Focusing on cybernation and calls for the end of wage holding, it drew heavily on a report exploring the Triple Revolution of automation, weaponry, and rights. It brought together individuals from the liberal and radical left, unions and civil rights groupings, the new tech industry – and Hannah Arendt, who was a speaker at the conference.

Arendt’s intervention set out arguments developed in her major work On the Human Condition to a committed audience with its own entrenched positions, at the moment of the cybernation scare. Against the cybernation optimists, she argued that the coming leisure society would not produce cultural flourishing but introduce a form of life characterized by deadly and endless passivity. This chapter considers Arendt’s paper, asks how it relates to other positions emerging at the conference, including those that demanded that attention be paid to the politics of transition, and uses it to refocus issues concerning media technologies as they arise in Arendt’s thinking more generally.

An exploration of the stakes of the early cybernation debates, and of Arendt’s position within them, opens up questions of computation, leisure, and the end of work, finding new salience today as political questions around automation accelerate.

in Anti-computing
Abstract only
Liam Stanley

Chapter 2 asks why the glories and values around the Second World War were such a prominent source of inspiration in the initial austerity period. The chapter shows how the nation was mobilised – as in, the informal boundaries of Britishness were made clear, and then people were compelled into policing those boundaries – around a nostalgic and disciplined vision of Britain. This entailed political conflict: rounding on those who refuse to commit to that vision and living within one’s means by adequately suppressing their appetites for food, sex, and shopping.

in Britain alone
Two Cultures and a hat
Caroline Bassett

The Two Cultures debate produced a furore in the modernizing era of the early to mid-1960s. The scientist C.P. Snow’s diagnosis of a cleavage that should be healed between the sciences and the arts is still widely invoked. Less well remembered is that his protagonist F.R. Leavis also argued for the benefits of one culture; not the one arising out of a capitulation to technologically administered utilitarianism, but the culture he discerned within a tradition of community, largely lost in everyday life, but held in the English language and in its literature.

This chapter engages with Leavis’ arguments. The mode of radical liberalism Leavis espoused in the journal Scrutiny in the early to mid-20th century produced a response to technology far from technological optimism, but also distanced from Marxist critiques of technocratic rationality. This radicalism is hopelessly tarnished by the chauvinistic nationalism that framed and constrained it, which became increasingly marked in later years. However, Francis Mulhern, amongst others, has convincingly argued for a more nuanced reading of Leavis and the ‘moment of scrutiny’, and this prompts a re-reading of Leavis’ thinking around the specifically technological and a reappraisal of the position he took at the time of the Two Cultures debate.

The combinatory force of an attachment to nation, a distrust of technocratic forms of knowledge and its claims to universality, and a moment of technological expansion, has been felt in disturbing ways in recent years – notably around the new chauvinism of the Right.

in Anti-computing
Science fiction, singularity, and the flesh
Caroline Bassett

This chapter explores singularity as a posited artificial intelligence future, with particular focus on the rise of various forms of post-human or anti-human being and native artificial intelligences, engaging with writings from three waves of science fiction, each of which judges various forms of life.

Science fiction has long dealt in artificial intelligence, singularity, and the computational. Claiming a privileged relationship to the technological future, it explores, invents, and/or speculates on possible forms of life. Further, it can care about these lives in particularly intense ways, making it ideal grounds for exploring claims for and prospects for emerging forms of artificial being.

Recognizing the tendency of utopian and dystopian accounts to reverse their charge, this chapter avoids polemical accounts (of artificial intelligence ‘life’ as simply for the good or as evil, for instance). The chapter explores aspects of the anti-computational, and considers judgements made on new forms of life, through the more ambiguous explorations of fictional future being in works by Gibson, Piercy, Mieville, and Rajaniemi spanning from the 1980s to the contemporary moment.

in Anti-computing
Liam Stanley

Chapter 6 analyses the Johnson government’s nationalising vision for post-Brexit Britain. By ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’ and ‘getting Brexit done’, the Johnson government promised national renewal. The chapter shows how post-EU nationalisation differs from post-imperial nationalisation: not as inward-looking in terms of global capitalism, as policies such as freeports show, and more divisive through stoking culture wars issues over the moral character of the nation.

in Britain alone
Abstract only
Liam Stanley

Chapter 3 uses the recent ‘hostile environment’ changes to the NHS as an exemplar of nationalisation to explore how and why the formal and informal boundaries of British nationhood have been drawn inward. In doing so, the chapter tells the story of post-imperial and post-war British nationhood, its relationship to race and immigration, and the role of the NHS – and how these became problematised in the context of austerity and scarcity.

in Britain alone
Poetic History (In memory of William Mark Ormrod, 1957–2020)
David R. Carlson

The article presents a previously unpublished long version of an Anglo-Latin poem on Henry IV’s executions of Archbishop Richard Scrope and others at York in 1405. It is argued that the poem was not part of the well-known hagiography of Scrope that grew quickly up for funding rebuilding programmes at York Minster, also exemplified in the paper; rather, it is a poetic contribution to the contemporary secular historiography of the York Rebellion against the Lancastrian regime, implicating the archbishop in active leadership of it.

Bulletin of the John Rylands Library
The Testimony of Late Seventeenth-Century Library Auction Catalogues
Lawrence Rabone

In this article on book circulation, I survey twelve English library auction catalogues from the period 1676–97, in order to show how interest in the writings of the Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (1604–57) continued after his death. I do this by identifying the circulation of his works in Puritan personal libraries. I focus particularly on the library auction catalogues of leading Puritans, notably Lazarus Seaman, Thomas Manton, Stephen Charnock and John Owen. I also show that of all Menasseh’s books, De resurrectione mortuorum libri III was the one most frequently owned by Puritan divines. This article demonstrates how books helped to catalyse the boundary-crossing nature of the Jewish–Christian encounter in seventeenth-century England.

Bulletin of the John Rylands Library