According to the United Nations, philosophy is ‘the study of the nature of reality and existence, of what is possible to know, and of right and wrong behaviour. It is one of the most important fields of human thought as it aspires to get at the very meaning of life.’ Today we are celebrating World Philosophy Day by sharing a post written by Francesca Bellazzi, a PhD student on the ERC-funded MetaScience Project*, which delves into marvellous mysteries and the unity of science…
‘But what vast gaps there were, what blank spaces, she thought leaning back in her chair, in her knowledge! How little she knew about anything. Take this cup for instance; she held it out in front of her. What was it made of? Atoms? And what were atoms, and how did they stick together? The smooth hard surface of the china with its red flowers seemed to her for a second a marvellous mystery.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Years)
So reflects Eleanor in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. How can this china with red flowers be made of atoms that somehow stick together? Many solutions to this marvellous mystery have been offered, and these are the kinds of questions that the MetaScience philosophy project addresses.
The world, like the cup, seems to be composed of different levels, one clustered beneath the other. Different disciplines study these different levels. Each of them focusses on a specific level of inquiry: physics at the physical one, chemistry at the chemical one, economics at the economical one, and so forth. However, how these levels relate to each other is not obvious. They are not isolated clusters such that the things happening in the ‘biological’ and ‘physical’ clusters are completely independent from each other, nor do they seem easily reducible to the one unique level of physical particles.
In light of this, two extremes have been debated within philosophy. Some philosophers are in favour of what is known as ‘strict identity-based reductionism’, arguing that phenomena at the higher level – such as biological phenomena – are strictly identical to phenomena at the physical level. Such a view might lead to ‘eliminativism’, which essentially says that if all higher-level entities are identical to their lower-level components, then we should stop speaking or even worrying about the higher-level stuff. The only fundamental level is then the physical one, and all the sciences have to be reduced to that. However, this is now an ‘old dream’ – the world is way too complex to be pinned down by identity relations.
Against this reductive dream stand those that argue for the disunity of science. Often called ‘pluralism’, this position argues that the physical, chemical, biological and social realms can all equally understand the world on their own. However, this route also appears too extreme, as it disregards important interactions between levels and the growing exchanges between disciplines.
In the MetaScience project we are investigating how to achieve the unity of the sciences by saving the unity of the world itself without being an identity reductionist. Our project studies how the different levels can interact via a variety of dependency relations, such as ‘multiple realisation’ and ‘multiple determination’. Multiple realisation means that a higher level can be realised by different lower-level phenomena. An example is colour, where different microphysical phenomena can realise the same shade. Different surfaces (composed of different microphysical particles) can reflect the same wavelength. Multiple determination goes the other way around: the same lower level can determine different higher-level properties, such as moonlight proteins that play different functions in different environments. Our aim is to use these – and other – dependency relations to find out whether the sciences can be effectively unified.
Let us try now to be a bit more concrete and go back to the china cup: how can its smooth surface be composed of atoms?
The strict reductionist would say that the cup is nothing more than the result of physical stuff interacting with each other following the laws of physics. The pluralist, on the other hand, would say that any of chemistry, physics or psychology can give us an equally valid story about the cup. However, both options seem to take the wrong direction. There is no 1:1 correspondence between the colour red of the flowers and some underlying microphysical phenomena; as we saw earlier, colour is an instance of multiple realisation. However, there are some relations between the colour level and the microphysical one; these are not self-isolated clusters.
Possibly, the truth lies in the middle. Pursuing philosophical enquiry, MetaScience studies the possibility that within one cup, all sorts of different properties can be found and that this is not mysterious. One and the same china cup can be described by different disciplines that consider different properties: its material composition can be studied by chemistry, its solidity by physics, its geometrical form by mathematics, its colour by the interaction between optics and neurophysiology, its function by psychology and sociology. Nevertheless, this does not imply that this single cup is nothing but atoms or that the different descriptions of the cup are self-standing and detached. Rather, it means that the existent cup is only one and yet is complex. It is composed of many levels studied by different disciplines that all help to understand how the compositional parts of the cup are related. The mystery might be solved without taking away the marvellous. Thanks to the interaction between sciences and philosophy, we are able to formulate a unified view of the one china cup with its red flowers.
by Francesca Bellazzi,
PhD Student in the ERC-funded Project MetaScience (771509)
*The MetaScience project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 771509).
Pumpkins have been carved. Costumes are being donned. Scary films are being watched from behind cushions and hands. Yes, Halloween is upon us once again, so we decided to delve into the past to find out more about the fascinating history of witchcraft. We’re joined (virtually!) by Dr Will Pooley, a social and cultural historian who gives us some interesting (and at times gruesome) insights. Read on, if you dare…
Trigger warning: the following interview contains mentions of violence and abuse.
Hi Will, thanks for joining us for this Halloween special. To many people, the word ‘research’ conjures up images of labs, safety goggles and petri dishes (all of which are important, of course!), but your area of research is quite different altogether and rather niche – can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s true, I don’t spend a lot of time in a laboratory! My research is on modern histories of witchcraft. I focus on France, and on criminal trial records and newspaper accounts that deal with cases where people really did fear witches.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice these cases, but what I’ve been trying to do is get up close and personal with modern sorcery. Rather than just reading newspaper accounts – which often get things muddled up – I’ve spent a lot of time in regional archives taking advantage of the expertise and help of archivists who have worked to preserve the witness statements, medical reports, and other documents from nineteenth- and twentieth-century trials. I want to know what ordinary people thought and believed about witches, and the harms they believed that witchcraft caused.
That sounds fascinating! What do you think it is about witchcraft that people find so intriguing and has led to witch ‘stereotypes’ being so solidly linked to Halloween?
My colleague here at Bristol, Professor Ronald Hutton, recently wrote a wonderful book called The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present which really delves into why it is that so many societies around the world share a concept of the witch: a malevolent living human being who causes harm through supernatural means. One of the things I take from Professor Hutton’s work, as well as the equally brilliant book by Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History, is that the stereotypes we have of ‘the witch’ do have a history.
A lot of people in Europe and North America will immediately picture similar images in their mind’s eye when you mention a witch: probably a woman, old, ugly, with a pointy nose, pointy hat, cat, broomstick, and cauldron. Of course, that is a cartoon image, but one of the things that the very long history of witchcraft around the world confirms is that witches have been thought of in many ways. Many societies have feared female witches, but others, such as early-modern Iceland, believed most witches were men. In some periods and regions, including the Democratic Republic of Congo today, it is children whose witchcraft has been most feared.
As for the link with Halloween, I have to confess I am no expert! What I would say is that while the connection between Halloween and the spirits of the dead is a longstanding one in western Christianity, witchcraft has – as far as I know – not been as intimately connected with Halloween. In my own research, I find that witches and witchcraft aren’t really tied to Halloween specifically. In fact, conflicts over witchcraft were probably more likely to bubble over during Carnival and other celebrations, when spirits were running high, and the wine, beer, or cider had been flowing!
Many people will have heard of seventeenth-century cases, such as the Salem witch trials in North America or the Pendle witches in Lancashire, but they may not be as familiar with the more recent history of witchcraft on which your research is focussed – what was it about this particular time period that sparked your curiosity?
I do find that a lot of people – even a lot of historians – are surprised when I say that I work on ‘modern witchcraft’, and that I mean fear of malevolent witches in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in France.
In fact, a range of researchers have been working on this for many years. The historical field has really been led by Professor Owen Davies, who has written about a range of British, French, American and global examples. But as far back as the 1950s, the anthropologist Marcelle Bouteiller showed that fear of witches was very much still alive in France.
I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious and the supernatural, and I originally wanted to do my PhD on this topic. I’m glad I didn’t (great advice from my supervisor Professor David Hopkin!) because there is far too much material for a PhD. In fact, I know of close to 1,000 criminal trials or police investigations into cases involving witchcraft in France between 1790 and 1940, and there must have been a great deal more. Perhaps these cases are not as prevalent as during the most intense periods of witch-hunting in the early modern period, but they aren’t that rare! There are some villages and towns in western France where it seems as if there were witchcraft cases every few years in the nineteenth century…
How did perceptions of witches change following the decriminalisation of witchcraft in France?
So, witchcraft was effectively decriminalised in France in 1682, and definitively excluded from the new penal code in 1791. After that point, there were no grounds to prosecute people suspected of harmful magic for that magic alone.
How did this change perceptions of witches? Well I’ll give two contradictory answers – the truth is probably somewhere between the two!
The first is that it didn’t change perceptions that much. Many witches continued to be suspected of the same misdeeds: they caused illnesses in humans and animals, especially afflicting young infants, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and dairy cows. The stereotypes of the witch remained stable in many ways, too. Normandy had been a region of male witchcraft in the early modern trials and continued to be so in the nineteenth century. In fact, so many of the cases I have found are from Normandy and the west of France – where witches were also predominantly thought to be men – that male witches dominate my research, much to many people’s surprise. But other regions with fewer cases, such as the Occitan-speaking regions of southern France, preserved the patterns of female witchcraft they had displayed during the witch trials.
On the other hand, there are really important changes in how witches were perceived and dealt with. I’ll mention just three. First, the Catholic Church generally tried to distance itself from questions of witchcraft. That didn’t stop some local priests from getting involved in witchcraft disputes, but the general effect it had on perceptions of witches was dramatic. Where the early modern trials were often focused on uncovering evidence of a pact with Satan, the modern cases have lost this drive. The Devil does not feature in most of them at all.
The second change in perception is connected to French colonialism and imperialism. From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries there was a progressive racialisation of thinking about ‘witchcraft’. Journalists and researchers did not find it convenient to dwell on the ‘superstitions’ of the French population, and preferred to associate belief in witchcraft with the colonised populations of north and central Africa, the Caribbean, Madagascar, and Indo-China. One of the most depressing examples concerns Hégésippe Jean Légitimus (1868-1944). As a representative of Guadeloupe, Légitimus was only the second black man elected to the French National Assembly, and the first in over a hundred years. But his time in Paris was dogged by tabloid coverage of accusations of ‘witchcraft’ in Guadeloupe directed against Légitimus and other socialists.
The final thing to say about new perceptions is just how easily witchcraft in France – as elsewhere across the globe – adapts to new situations and problems. In addition to bewitched cows, French men and women complained of enchanted automobiles and bicycles. They described feelings of bewitchment in terms of electricity, images seen at the cinema, and in the language of up-to-date psychiatric and medical theories, such as neurasthenia. It’s very easy to slip into the same language that newspapers at the time used to describe people who feared witches, which assumes that these people lived in rural areas. But the truth is, there were witchcraft disputes in all of the large cities, and even rural witchcraft cases often involved individuals who worked in nearby industrial centres, in mines, or factories.
What is the most common misconception people have about the history of witches and witchcraft?
The biggest mistake people make is to think that the history of witchcraft is over! The ways that we – including historians! – talk about the early modern trials as a ‘craze’ or a ‘panic’ imply that our ancestors briefly lost their reason, before cooler heads restored order. There’s actually a lot of work by historians now that questions this story of the progressive rationalisation and secularisation of criminal justice and elite culture.
It’s not the area I research myself, but I think one good way to put this story of progress into perspective is to ask: how many countries today have laws against witchcraft? Violent persecution of witches today is such a great problem that the United Nations Human Rights Committee and UNICEF have both been working on measures to combat the harms justified by fear of witches. Closer to home, the Metropolitan Police in London have a special unit devoted to cases of child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs.
I think it’s really important to be careful about the continuing racialisation of these harms in the media and by the authorities. UN agencies focus their attention on cases in sub-Saharan Africa, and a lot of the coverage of the cases in the UK has concerned immigrants, as in the terrible child abuse case in Haringey at the turn of the millennium. But from what I know of contemporary French cases, it would be hasty to assume that witchcraft disputes in Europe today are limited to immigrant groups. In Brive-la-Gaillarde in 2016, for instance, an old woman was badly assaulted by her family members for witchcraft. Many people who do know something about ‘modern witchcraft’ will assume that I research Wiccans and other modern pagans. But I’m more focused on the fact that, sadly, fear of witches and violence connected to sorcery have not gone away in Europe even today, although the scale may have greatly decreased.
Why is your research specifically – and arts and humanities research more generally – so important?
I’ve been very influenced by other historians who argue that history performs a similar function for society as literature does: it allows us to imagine how different things could be. And the advantage that history has over literature in this respect is that we know this is not just an imaginative possibility: I research events and processes that really did take place. The past contains vast and varied different ways of organising societies and culture.
It might seem that the topic of my research is something of a depressing one to choose from this point of view. Who wants to update their sense of progress by discovering that belief in witches has continued to cause serious harms into the present day in Europe? But I would say that we do have responsibilities to come to terms with that, and to adapt our own self-understanding to recognise that – perhaps – fear of witches runs so deep in our culture, or even in some more fundamental layer of the human mind, that it cannot simply be educated away in science lessons or religious studies. A suitably scary thought for Halloween?
But I don’t think it has to be understood in a purely negative light. Conflicts, and especially the most violent ones, glow in the darkness of our knowledge of the past. It’s much easier to find evidence, for example, where fears of witches led to tragic results. And that isn’t always what happened. It’s harder work, but I am very interested by cases where tensions were defused through the interventions of clergy, or healers, or local officials, or community leaders of some kind.
I know many historians are uneasy about learning ‘lessons’ from the past, but I do think it’s worth thinking about how some communities and authorities have succeeded not in eradicating the fear of witches, but in mitigating and alleviating the harms these fears can cause.
You know people for whom witchcraft is a real force in the world, even if you do not realise it. The problem is not how to persuade them they are wrong about this, but how to prevent a situation in which a belief like this could cause harm. I still have some faith in arts and humanities research to address real problems like this!
The United Nations (UN) designates 27 October as the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, a day to acknowledge the importance of audiovisual content and raise awareness of the need to preserve it. A priceless heritage, audiovisual archives tell stories about people from across the globe, and act as a valuable source of knowledge reflecting the cultural, social and linguistic diversity of our communities. As the UN states, ‘Conserving this heritage and ensuring it remains accessible to the public and future generations is a vital goal for all memory institutions, as well as the public at large.’
To find out more about the challenges and rewards of archiving audiovisual content, we asked Audiovisual Digitisation Officer Nigel Bryant to tell us about his work at the University.
A few days ago I spotted this tweet by @martinianpaul: “We have books from 600 years ago we can still read; we have discs and tapes from 30 years ago we can’t. Should we be worried? #obsolescense.” The answer is, of course, yes.
The majority of audiovisual formats have a finite life and for many, particularly magnetic tapes, that life is coming to an end. Add to this the scarcity of obsolescent equipment required to play back these formats, engineers with the skill to maintain the equipment, and operators with the experience of working with them, and you have what some might describe as a ‘perfect storm’.
In my role as Audiovisual Digitisation Officer, I work across the University’s Special Collections and Theatre Collection on archive projects funded by the Wellcome Trust that include significant quantities of AV material. The most prevalent format is the videotape – from the familiar domestic VHS to professional broadcast standards like Digital Betacam.
My aim is twofold:
to transform the magnetically stored information (i.e. picture, sound, timecodes and other ancillary information) from these tapes into digital files so that they can be easily accessed and viewed
to preserve the endangered content of these tapes in a stable lossless form (i.e. at the highest possible quality). There will come a time when the physical medium is unplayable, so the digital file will be the only preserved master copy of the original contents
I worked recently on the audiovisual archive of visual artist Franko B, which is held by the Theatre Collection as part of its extensive range of Live Art material. In addition to live performances of Franko’s work, due to his habit of carrying a digital video camera with him at all times, the collection includes home movies which give a fascinating insight into his life, loves and inspirations.
The fact that this material was filmed largely on Mini DV tape means that, with the correct equipment and software, I can make an exact copy of the digital information stored on the tape in a digital file. As well as picture and sound that match the original tape with no quality loss, the resulting file can capture metadata such as dates, timecodes, and even the original settings from the camera used to film the material.
It’s a highly rewarding process to be able to preserve audiovisual material for posterity, but one that doesn’t come without its challenges. Nearly all tapes have their own quirks; for instance, Mini DV tape is thin/fragile and prone to digital dropout errors, while VHS tapes (due to their domestic nature) can suffer the effects of poor storage such as physical damage and mould. In addition to this, there is the general loss over time of the magnetic signal from tape and temperamental playback machines that can decide to suddenly stop working overnight. Luckily, there is a very supportive community online with discussion groups like AVhackers and OldVTRS which are an invaluable source of information and tips.
I’m currently working on the Wildfilm History archive for Special Collections. The audiovisual material contains a wide selection of the most important wildlife films of the last hundred years or so, along with filmed oral histories of pioneering wildlife filmmakers. Bringing such a wealth of material together from a range of broadcasters and filmmakers will provide a valuable source for research related to the environment, zoology, botany, film making and broadcasting. Interacting with nature through viewing it on film has been proven to have positive effects on our mental health, so that’s another bonus of this collection.
Two 16mm films made by Dr Harry Lillie, Naval surgeon and early anti-whaling activist, were a particularly exciting discovery. ‘They Have No Say’ (1964) and ‘Trappers’ Trails’ (1952) are very early examples of anti-vivisection and anti-fur trapping on film and could potentially be unique holdings as they do not exist in the British Film Institute’s (BFI) collection or elsewhere. As we don’t yet possess the equipment to digitise celluloid film, both have been recently digitised to archival standards by a specialist external supplier and will be available for researchers to view in the near future.
We only have a short window of time – perhaps 10-20 years – to ensure the survival of the contents of magnetic tape-based media collections. Celluloid film and audio tape both have national initiatives run by the BFI and British Library to preserve those portions of the UK’s cultural heritage. Videotape is the last of the major AV formats to be afforded this special treatment, making its preservation particularly important and urgent. As the title of an ongoing series of international symposia on digital audiovisual preservation rightly states, there is ‘No Time to Wait’.
National Poetry Day is celebrated every year in October, encouraging people to discover, share and enjoy poetry in all its forms. To celebrate, we caught up with Dr William Wootten and Craig Savage of the Bristol Poetry Institute.
Why do you think observances such as National Poetry Day are important?
Craig: Poetry and public days of observance in England have been connected since John Dryden was appointed to the first poet laureateship. But long before that, from Demodocus in Ancient Greece, to the Courtly poets like Ben Jonson that preceded Dryden, poetry was aligned with moments of public ceremony, both momentous and solemn. National Poetry Day catches something of that, as well as what Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, said recently about the Bristol City Poet, that ‘Journalists capture facts but poets have the ability to speak to a city’s soul’ – the sense being that poetry has a role in offering a deeper understanding, a concentrated parsing, if you will, of current affairs. Which is not to say that poetry can’t also be private or intimate but to acknowledge poetry’s public face.
What role does the Bristol Poetry Institute play within the University and in the wider Bristol community?
Craig: Put simply, the Bristol Poetry Institute exists to be a voice for poetry. This may be the research, practice (in its widest sense), or reading of poetry, or any other aspect of poetry that engages communities, introduces poetry to a wider constituency, or encourages thinking about poetry. It’s our goal to collaborate and engage with our university and city communities on matters of poetry.
Some people took to new creative endeavours during lockdown, from baking and crochet to song-writing or learning a musical instrument – what advice would you give someone wanting to give poetry a try?
William: You wouldn’t start song-writing without listening to and loving a host of songs first, so I’d suggest starting out by reading and listening to as much poetry as possible, maybe learning some of your favourites by heart. Then, I would approach it as you would all the other creative endeavours you mention – as a craft. Try writing in different forms and styles, especially, but not exclusively, those used by poets you particularly like, and give yourself technical challenges. See if you can write something someone else might enjoy, but don’t fret about getting published. Philip Larkin once advised: ‘Supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn’t make Wimbledon? First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God.’
Who is your favourite poet and why?
William: Different poets suit different moods and different times in one’s life, and I’ve had crazes for all manner of poets over the years, so I won’t nominate an overall favourite. This year’s craze, though, is the early twentieth-century Italian poet Guido Gozzano. Gozzano’s best poems combine beauty and melancholy in a way that can be oddly reminiscent of Walter de la Mare, whose poems I happen to be editing. They also sound modern and intimate while employing traditional forms, a combination I often like to aim for when writing poems myself.
Craig: Controversially: Bob Dylan. Because, for me, poetry is meant to be performed, to have an audience, to be a popular art, to understand the demotic language, to be as much a thing of the body as the mind, and to draw through its breath the tradition in which it exists. To me, Dylan is our Homer, our Shakespeare; the figure of the 20th and 21st century that, like those great artists I mention, reaches across high and low culture to the widest possible audience, to tell, with great range and intensity, some of the truth.
What poem do you feel could help people find solace in these strange times?
William: There’s lots of poetry being written explicitly addressing lockdown and the corona virus, for instance the poetry at https://poetryandcovid.com/. But in poetry as in life, it is nature and love that tend to solace most:
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joy and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
That’s the close to William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, a poem and a poet to turn to in a crisis.
This year marks the 250thanniversary of the death of Thomas Chatterton, a Bristol-born poet who died at just 17. What impact did Chatterton have on Bristol, and what’s the most intriguing fact you’ve learned about his short life?
Craig: Chatterton embodied for the Romantics that collision of prodigious talent and prodigious tragedy that has come to represent the Romantic Poet and the Romantic genre in general. I’m not a Romantic scholar but I would guess that Chatterton’s Bristol association must have added significance, for Wordsworth and Coleridge, to their publication of Lyrical Ballads in Bristol in 1798 – which is to say that Chatterton laid the groundwork for Bristol’s incredible Romantic heritage. It’s not a fact, but the most intriguing thing I’ve learned about Chatterton is his connection to St. Mary Redcliffe and the fantastic opportunities that site offers to engage with the history of Chatterton in Bristol. One great way to do this, especially around National Poetry Day, is to download the Romantic Bristol app from our website. The app, developed by our colleagues Professor Ralph Pite and Dr Rebecca Hutcheon, maps out, for example, a self-guided walking tour around Redcliffe of Bristol’s Chatterton heritage.
For anyone interested in finding out more, how can they get involved with the Institute?
Craig: We regularly offer poetry events. For National Poetry Day we have Poetry Karaoke and then, in November, we have our Annual Reading, which will feature American poet Claudia Rankine and Bristol’s former City Poet Vanessa Kisuule. Aside from our events, we’re keen to hear from those working with poetry – schools, community organisations, poets, poetry academics – and to engage in a dialogue with them about how we might collaborate.
Today, 9 August, marks the United Nations’ International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, raising awareness of the needs of indigenous people across the globe.
Dr Camilla Morelli, a lecturer in social anthropology here at the University of Bristol, has been working with indigenous communities in Amazonian Peru for over a decade. Here we learn more about her most recent piece of research.
Amazonimations– co-producing animated films with indigenous people in Amazonia
Amazonimations is a collection of three animated films produced collaboratively with the indigenous Matses people of the Amazon rainforest. The films are the outcome of a research project (funded by the British Academy) that brought together academic research, art and animation with the objective of using collaborative film production as a means through which people living at the margins of technological and economic inclusion can find forms of self-representation and gain a sense of wider recognition.
Like many other indigenous societies, Matses people had no contact with outsiders until fairly recently, and they are now dealing with the challenges of urbanisation, socioeconomic change, and the impact of globalised media and markets. Amidst the difficulties they face, a key issue is the feeling of being largely unheard and cut out from wider society; their goal, as they phrased it, is for the world to know who they are. In each animated short, a different generation of Matses tells a story: the elderly talk about the traditional ritual of ‘acate’, an intoxicating substance that is said to create a connection between people and the forest; Matses children tell a story about rainforest animals and spirits; and young Matses who migrated from the forest to the city discuss their experiences of adjusting to urban life.
This work is quintessentially collaborative – the films have been scripted, narrated and illustrated by Matses people themselves, and the overall goal of this is to disseminate the animations widely in order to raise awareness about threatened indigenous lives and their precarious futures. Learn more about the Matses people and their culture by watching Amazonimations on Vimeo.
We’d like to wish all members of the LGBT+ community a very Happy Pride Month! We caught up with Dr Jamie Lawson, a queer anthropologist whose major research interest is in sex and sexuality, to find out more about his research, Pride, and the path to equality for all.
What was it that first drew you into the exciting world of anthropology?
It was a lucky accident really – I got very bored at school, so come university application time I felt a strong urge to study something new. Archaeology and Anthropology was the first thing in the UCAS course book that fit the bill. I fell in love with anthropology quite quickly, though – I enjoy the freedom of the discipline, and felt a strong pull towards an intellectual tradition that resists being pinned down. It’s a big, sprawling subject with as many definitions and angles as there are practitioners, which is what you might expect from a discipline that’s focussed on understanding people; we’re complicated things, after all. There’s a very thin line between anthropology and activism as well – I think I always found the political engagement of the discipline really exciting.
What was it about sexual minorities and human sexuality in particular that led you to pursue a research career in this area?
I developed an interest in sex and sexuality towards the end of my undergraduate degree, and followed it through to master’s and eventually PhD level. Initially I adopted an evolutionary perspective on the topic, but found that a little too heteronormative for my tastes, and have drifted over the years towards a more phenomenological position, focussed on queer identities and subcultures. This led me to my recent work on the puppy play community. It’s no coincidence that over the same time, I became properly politically engaged with my identity as a gay man, and got involved with activist work, including organising the first Pride up in Durham, and eventually writing my book. I think it’s important to challenge the dominant structures of society which act to marginalise and oppress anyone who doesn’t fit in with the trans- and homophobic, racist and patriarchal norms.
You were involved in the Art of Relationships project at the Open University, which was designed to explore the power of art to engage members of the public with social science research – can you tell us more about that?
That was a lot of fun. The project involved screening a set of short films that had been made to communicate research findings from a large, nationwide project on love and relationships called ‘Enduring Love’. In order to evaluate the impact those films had, I ran a reflexive group exercise called a visual matrix (based on a social dreaming matrix, for anyone who has encountered one of those). The method is designed to tap into group-level, collective ideas and feelings rather than individual, to see what the audience collectively had taken from the films. A visual matrix is a wonderfully egalitarian method which breaks down the distinction, to some extent, between researcher and informants. We used it to see what sorts of ideas had made their way from the films to the audience, to see if it was possible to communicate research findings through art (in this case, films).
June is Pride month here in the UK – what does Pride mean to you?
This is a favourite question to ask queer people around Pride time – I’m never really sure how to answer it. Pride is about visibility, community and celebration, sure, but we should never forget that it was born out of anger. The rights that the LGBTQ+ community has fought for and gained, the space it carved out for itself – that was all the result of anger, focussed against oppression. Pride this year comes at a scary time – the world is in the grip of a pandemic, and the hard right have risen in political power. The protests that are currently sweeping the world as a result of systemic racism and anti-Black violence in the United States are also an expression of anger, deeply and collectively felt. My hope is that we can all come together around that anger and push back against those who want to strip minorities of their rights and turn us against each other. I am a very angry queer, and very proud of that anger.
Last year you released your first book – Rainbow Revolutions: Power, Pride and Protest in the Fight for Queer Rights – which is aimed at children aged 12 and over. What inspired you to write specifically for this age group?
The opportunity landed squarely in my lap. I was approached by the publisher off the back of some consulting work I had done for them on another project, and they asked if I would like to write a book on queer history for children. I said yes almost immediately. The mainstream, cishet world does everything it can to stop queer people feeling connected with each other, including dismissing the idea of there being such a thing as queer history. Being disconnected from your own history makes growing up queer a very isolating thing – you feel lost, untethered in a society that only begrudgingly makes space for you. Knowing that you have ancestors, traditions, that you belong to a group of people who learned lessons collectively and had an impact on the world, that’s empowering and important. I wrote the book for young queers, hoping I might help them feel a little bit less lost.
What is the key message you hope young people will take away from your book, and what impact do you hope it will have?
I wanted the readers of Rainbow Revolutions to understand that queer rights were fought for and won – not given – and that the community has a history of its own , and perhaps most importantly that Black and trans voices inside the LGBTQ+ community have been some of the most important and most powerful we’ve had. As trans people are having their rights stripped away and their lives endangered around the world, and as the Black Lives Matter protests sweep the globe, it’s hugely important that the readers of my book understand how connected we all are, and that none of us are free until all of us are free. I tried to reinforce an idea that collective action – that visibility en masse – is key to liberation and safety. Most of all I wanted them to know that they are not alone.
What societal changes do you think are required to get to a point where we can ensure young members of the LGBT+ community are fully supported, included, and safe from discrimination?
That’s a big question, and there are a lot of moving parts, but if I could wave a magic wand and make one big change (and if I knew there were others out there with their own magic wands) I would disconnect the idea of sex from the idea of reproduction. The idea that “sex is for making babies” is at the absolute core of the oppression of queer people, and the oppression of women (queer or not), around the world. It’s dangerous most of all because it feels like such a self-evident fact, and is so deeply embedded in Western cultures. Alongside that, I’d make white people around the world turn to face the evils of colonialism, and engage with our collective responsibility to dismantle the structures that supported it, of which trans- and homophobia are important components. Big aims, both, but I have to believe they’re possible.
What more do you think could be done as a Faculty – and more widely across the University – to support the LGBT+ community and ensure equality for all?
I think the higher education sector is starting to shift in really interesting and quite radical directions, and that’s what we need here: radical change. If we don’t make active decisions to disrupt colonialist, oppressive structures then they persist. I think the pandemic has forced us to start to think properly about what universities could and should be and how they could and should work, and to confront difficult facts about access and inclusion. Finding new ways to imagine the University will be key to equality for staff and students alike.