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Monday, 9 July 2018

Finding Meaning in Life

 I’m a Philosopher of Religion. I’ve always been interested in how people make or find meaning in life, and one of the most significant ways in which people make meaningful lives is through adopting forms of religious belief or practice.

That is not to say that religion is always a Good Thing: the final chapter of the book I wrote with my brother Brian Clack in 2008 on the Philosophy of Religion considering the relationship between Religion and Terrorism, and sadly this connection has not diminished in the years that followed its publication.

 But perhaps this connection should not surprise us: after all, religion is a human phenomenon, and thus it reflects the kaleidoscope of positions open to human beings. We might note that societies committed to atheism have not been averse to dealing cruelly with their citizens. I am interested in the way in which religion can add something creative and positive to life, and in an age where human experience is increasingly being shaped by information technologies and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, it is not a bad thing to think about the ways in which human beings might create meaningful lives from reflection on their place in the cosmos.

The Philosophy of Religion: A Critical Introduction, Beverley Clack and  Brian R. Dr Clack
I’m particularly interested in how psychoanalysis has helped us explore the strangeness of the connections human beings make as they seek to make sense of their place in the world. My most recent book was on Freud, and I explored his ideas explicitly against the backdrop of psychotherapeutic practice.

Freud on the Couch: A Critical Introduction to the Father of Psychoanalysis, Beverley Clack
My next book is on failure. I’ve become fascinated by how a dominant cultural narrative of what makes for a successful life has meant we are more miserable and anxious than ever. To be a success - so the story goes - demands attaining status, money and possessions. By exploring the shadow side of success - failure - it is possible to arrive at a different way of thinking about the meaning of life. I’m particularly interested in the way in which death has increasingly been constructed as a form of failure, when in fact it tells us something significant about the role loss and vulnerability play in determining human existence. We are not godlike creatures, separate from each other and the world. We need each other, and reflecting on loss and failure shows just how dependent we are. Instead of greeting the fact that loss and death are fundamental aspects of life with shame, we might instead allow these realities to shape better ways of living that ground us in an appreciation of this mutable world. And my book closes with suggestions about how we might do this!

Beverley Clack is Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at Oxford Brookes University

Monday, 25 June 2018

Problematising Anglo-American relations

President Reagan meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the oval office, 16 November 1988

My research focuses on contemporary American history in a broader context. In particular, it examines the transfer of political ideas and policies between the United Kingdom and the United States and how an issue in one country affects policy making elsewhere. In short, my research revolves around the interaction between domestic politics, foreign policy and policymaking. It has resulted in two books.
The first focused on Anglo-American policy transfer between the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, debunking common myths about the similarities between Reaganism and Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan: A Very Political Special Relationship, Palgrave, 2012). The second examined the role of U.S. presidents in the Northern Ireland conflict and is a significant contribution to the emerging scholarship about American influence on the Anglo-Irish process and Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ (The Politics of Diplomacy: U.S. Presidents and the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1967-98, Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Why did you not just choose to study the History of one country?
I do not believe that events and issues can be studied simply through the history of one country. The politics and policy making of countries do not occur in isolation from developments elsewhere and the writing of history should reflect this. Therefore, despite my primary focus being the history of the United States, my research considers America in a global context.

What are the highlights of doing your research?
My research has allowed me to visit plenty of interesting places and meet fascinating people. I conduct research in a variety of American, British and Irish archives, including numerous presidential libraries. My favourite presidential library is probably the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (partially because it has the best canteen), although I would recommend that anyone with an interest in American history should try to visit any presidential library if they can! I was fortunate to be able to conduct over thirty interviews with key protagonists – including: Mr Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, former UK Foreign Secretary; Lord (Charles) Powell, leading adviser to Margaret Thatcher; Mr Edwin Meese, a leading figure in the Reagan administration; and, Lord (Neil) Kinnock, former Labour Party leader – and I am regularly able to consult the most recently available archival material. Researching in archives often leads to all sorts of surprises. I have read documents that detail the Reagan administration’s excitement about a visit by Michael Jackson to the White House and Bill Clinton’s offer to babysit Leo Blair, youngest son of Tony and Cherie, after his presidency ended in 2001.

Do you compare history to current affairs?
The subject matter of my research certainly lends itself to comparisons with current events in both Britain and the United States. I have blogged on ‘Cultural Thinking’ about the regularly asserted comparison between the Reagan-Thatcher relationship with the emergence and relationship of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In addition to making anecdotal comparisons in my teaching between history and the present, I have contributed to American and British news coverage about the politics in both countries.

What do people think about your research?
My research had led to very exciting opportunities. For instance, in 2012-13 I was the Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor of British History at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where I also curated an exhibit, based on my research on Reagan and Thatcher, at the college’s National Winston Churchill Museum). In November 2014 I was interviewed about the Reagan-Thatcher relationship on the BBC News Channel. I was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo in May 2016. My books have been positively reviewed by my peers and I am a regular contributor to academic journals, collections of essays and conferences. Many people find it interesting that what I study is considered to be ‘History’ given that it happened in living memory – including my own!

Dr James Cooper is Senior Lecturer in History at Oxford Brookes University

Monday, 11 June 2018

The naturalistic philosopher

I’m a philosopher interested in the human mind: what exactly are minds, how do they work and how do they develop? These questions have been at the core of my academic life since I started studying for an MPhil way back in the early 1990s. Back in those days I was rather sniffy about the relevance of science to what I thought of as distinctly philosophical questions. However, under the influence of philosophers such as Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett I went ‘naturalistic’ coming to see philosophy as being continuous with science. Hence, I became an enthusiast for cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of the mind that unites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. Several years later this interest manifested itself in the publication of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive Science (published in 2015 by Polity) in which I wrestle with some of the biggest questions about the mind from an empirically informed perspective.

The Philosophy of Cognitive Science, Mark Cain
Being a naturalistic philosopher of mind has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I do seem to be interested in questions which most intelligent and curious non-philosophers can relate to and see as important and interesting. I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my local book store and look in the popular science section that is stuffed with books about the mind and brain popularising, the kind of research that I reflect upon on a daily basis. As a philosopher I can’t overemphasise what a relief it is not to be regarded as some kind of crank engaged in a pointless endeavour. On the minus side, I have to remain on top of a rapidly expanding literature that straddles several demanding disciplines. This sometimes makes me feel ignorant and overwhelmed but I’ve found that running miles and miles every week along trails in the Chiltern Hills helps keep me positive.

I’m currently writing a book for Routledge entitled Innateness and the Cognitive Mind. Here I will address the question of which aspects of the mature human mind are learned and which are innate, arguing that much more is innate than is often thought. If the trail running helps keep my anxiety levels down this book should be completed by the end of the year.

Dr Mark Cain is Reader and Programme Lead for Philosophy at Oxford Brookes University.

Monday, 4 June 2018

#Drugscapes, Experts: Prohibition of NPS Unlikely to Have Reduced Harms

Photo by Matthew Payne, on Upslash.
Restrictive UK drug laws have not made people who use drugs safer and have not
significantly inhibited the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS, formerly known as
‘legal highs’) and other more traditional illicit drugs, according to experts. Researchers and
practitioners taking part in Oxford Brookes Criminology’s ‘Drugscapes’ seminar, on the 22nd
of May, and assessing the impact of the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA) 2016, the last
significant piece of drugs legislation introduced and meant to criminalise all NPS, suggested
that more efficient prevention, education and harm-reduction measures might provide a more useful trajectory for drug policy rather than a dominant focus on law enforcement.

The very grouping of emerging synthetic compounds under the ‘NPS’ category has coincided
with a return from evidence-based policy to prohibition-geared approaches, as Dr Caroline
Chatwin, Reader in Criminology at the University of Kent, observed. ‘Blanket bans’ such as
the PSA illustrate the precautionary principle – faced with a ‘hare and hound’ game of ever-
faster innovation cycles in unregulated production and global supply chains, lacking reliable
data on the myriad compounds making their way to consumers, governments choose to equate all substances used for their psychoactive qualities with a presumed (and oftentimes
unproven) harm potential. Blaine Stothard, independent consultant and co-editor of the
academic journal Drugs and Alcohol Today, referred to this as more reflex without reflection,
another missed opportunity for fresh thinking on the matter.

But, as history shows, prohibition does not mean abstinence. Survey data presented by Dr
Lisa Lione, Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Hertfordshire, indicated an
15 per cent increase in awareness of NPS for UK users and a 24 per cent percent increase in
use for (predominantly young and well-educated) male respondents, from 2015 to 2017. Dr
Paolo DeLuca, Reader in Addiction at King’s College London, pointed out that even if the
PSA was initially successful in closing down online shops selling NPS (only about a quarter
of UK-registered websites remained open after the PSA coming into force), it is not known to
what extent these have moved into the hidden web, as the general availability of NPS through
cryptomarkets seemed to grow in the months following the ban.

Further on, it is at times the most vulnerable in society who suffer from reconfigurations in
supply. Beccy Rawnsley, policy coordinator for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership
(LEAP UK), argued that the PSA pushed NPS such as synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists
(SCRAs or ‘Spice’) from ‘head shops’ onto the streets, enabling organised crime to expand
profits. Hardeep Matharu, writer and researcher for Volteface UK, also underlined this
displacement effect in terms of a “law of unintended consequences”. Rough sleepers have
been most affected by SCRA use and media clichés of ‘Spice zombies’ have only added to the
stigma they face, also making it harder for drug workers to deliver sensible information
among exaggerations and toxic pop culture tropes, as Professor Shane Blackman from
Canterbury Christ University emphasized.

Dr Emma Wincup, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leeds, pointed out
that even if the UK government’s 2017 drug strategy focuses on vulnerable populations such
as young people, prison inmates or the homeless, without a deeper understanding of both the
lived experiences and the structural (socio-economic) causes of vulnerability, as wells as its
intersections with substance abuse, it is unlikely to inspire significant change. Lack of life
opportunities, for example, is why many young people are easily recruited by crime gangs in,
or sent to, small town areas to sell heroin or crack cocaine – what the press have been
reporting as the ‘county lines’ phenomenon. DCI Darran Hill, of the Thames Valley Police
Serious and Organised Crime division, stated that without community engagement and
prevention, “arresting our way out of the problem” is a false premise.

Academics and drug workers mentioned that even if the Act was successful in closing down
head shops and discouraging some potential users to try NPS without criminalising those who already did, it was also confusing for police, frontline treatment staff and the general public in its vague terminology – see the competing interpretations around the legal status of nitrous oxide under the PSA, for example. The focus on policing and supply did not leave much room for harm-reduction programmes either. From sustained investment and political support for statutory drug prevention programmes in schools to more radical thinking around how legal markets of recreational drugs might be regulated, forward-looking rather than backward policy inspired by unattainable moral ideals and sound bites (e.g. that of ‘the drug-free world’) seems like the only viable direction.

Dr Liviu Alexandrescu, Lecturer in Criminology at Oxford Brookes University

Thursday, 31 May 2018

World-Class Pride

This Oxford Pride, School of Philosophy, History & Culture doctoral student Ross Brooks highlights Oxford’s place in British queer history and heritage.

‘I never knew there was so much in it!’ This was how Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon at the time, began his foreword to the first edition of my LGBTQ+ city guide Queer Oxford which I produced as an extra-curricular project when I was a History undergraduate at Brookes back in 2006. As it happened, nobody involved with the project back then knew just how much there was ‘in it’. Since that time, I have unearthed a considerable amount of additional material relating to the local LGBTQ+ experience stretching back to the fourteenth century. For example, for five weeks in the late summer of 1394, a transvestite prostitute named John Rykener worked in Oxford as an embroideress under the name of Eleanor. Later, Rykener confessed to police interrogators that during his stay here he had often ‘practiced the abominable vice’ with three scholars.

Since returning to Brookes for the MA in History (History of Medicine) in 2016, and now studying at doctoral level, I have been able to explore further the local queer experience and utilise opportunities to communicate just how much Oxford has to offer to our understanding and appreciation of LGBTQ+ history and heritage.

It is a very exciting time to revisit Oxford’s rich queer history. Whilst some may be aware that Oscar Wilde studied at Magdalen College from 1874 to 1878, or that Evelyn Waugh’s classic 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited was largely based on his experiences at Hertford College between 1922 and 1924, the depth and breadth of the local LGBTQ+ experience is really only now finding its place in broader narratives of British queer history and beyond. Significant in this regard were last year’s commemorative events marking 60 years since the 1957 Wolfenden Report which recommended partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts, and 50 years since the recommendation was enacted by the Sexual Offences Act 1967. High-profile events such as the National Trust’s momentous ‘Prejudice & Pride’ project and Historic England’s equally momentous ‘Pride of Place’ project broadened perceptions of British queer history beyond the major UK cities to an unprecedented extent. Also contributing to this important work is a major AHRC-funded project entitled ‘Queer beyond London’, a collaboration between Birkbeck College, University of London and Leeds Beckett University. Although the project focuses on four UK localities—Brighton, Leeds, Manchester, and Plymouth—an international conference entitled ‘Queer Localities’ at Birkbeck last autumn explored many and varied intersections between sexuality and locality on a global scale.

© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
Cyril Arapoff’s gloriously homoerotic images of nude and semi-nude young men are unique in British queer history. They offer unprecedented insights into the queer dynamics of 1930s Oxford.
Notably, Oxford was the only locality to be the subject of a whole panel. Beth Asbury discussed the development of her ground-breaking ‘Out in Oxford’ trail of Oxford’s gardens, libraries, and museums. George Townsend discussed his research on the infamous Parson’s Pleasure, a secluded spot in central Oxford on the banks of the Cherwell which was, until 1992, set aside for male nudism. My paper discussed a set of gloriously homoerotic photographs taken by the Russian émigré photographer Cyril Arapoff (1898-1976) who was resident in Oxford (Headington) during the 1930s. These beguiling nude and semi-nude images of handsome young men present a unique opportunity to glimpse the otherwise hidden homoerotics that were facilitated by the (still predominantly male) university culture of Oxford at this time but which are otherwise poorly documented. An investigation of Arapoff’s homoerotic images reveals much about his young male subjects, including the spaces they inhabited, the networks they created, and their interconnections to London’s vibrantly queer dance and theatre scene.

© Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council
In February I again presented Arapoff’s photographs at the sparkling Party at the Pitt: An LGBT History Month Celebrationat Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, to great effect. As with Oxford’s queer history more generally, the audiences for this fascinating material transcend dogmatic academic / non-academic boundaries. Embracing this, key moments in Oxford’s LGBTQ+ history will soon form the substance of a new, updated edition of Queer Oxford. Produced to accompany the forthcoming ‘No Offence’ exhibition at the Ashmolean, the new project will constitute an interactive city trail which will highlight some of the most significant people, places, and objects that have long since established Oxford as one of the world’s queerest localities. The trail will be available both in printed form as a part of a new mobile app that is being developed by TORCH, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Web and the Mobile Applications Team at Oxford University and funded by the IT Innovation Fund and which will provide a platform for sharing Oxford’s diverse voices, stories, research, and collections with members of both Oxford’s universities, locals, and visitors.

LGBTQ+ history is coming of age. Local voices and local stories, past and present, from many localities across the country are contributing to a transformation in perceptions of British queer history and heritage which both enhance and challenge those better-established historical narratives that have been pieced together from studies of the major British cities. Queer Oxford will continue to help capture and promote those voices and stories from the city that that Wilde called ‘the capital of romance’ and help find their place in the national, and international, picture.

Ross Brooks pursued his BA (Hons) degree at Brookes between 2006 and 2010. He returned to Brookes to study the Masters in History (History of Medicine) in 2016 and is now in the first year of his doctoral thesis which he is pursuing within the Centre for Medical Humanities. Entitled Evolution’s Closet: The New Biology and Homosexuality in Britain, 1885-1967, Ross’s project is fully funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Follow Ross on Twitter @rossb_oxford and, for more on Oxford’s LGBTQ+ history, @Queer_Oxford.

Monday, 28 May 2018

The labyrinthine meanings of race

I've researched the history of eugenics for more than a decade, particularly in East-Central Europe and published a number of books on the topic. I have also researched the history of East-Central Europe more broadly, focusing on nationalism, fascism and biopolitics. I’m really interested at the moment in a global history of race and racism. This emerged from a 3rd year module that I taught last year when I was emboldened by my students to delve deeper into the labyrinthine meanings of race.

I have always been interested in the history of race, particularly in terms of its complicated relationship with philosophy, culture, science and politics. Historians must attend to specific historical traditions, but at the same time suggest the need for a new cultural and moral framework suitable for dealing with questions of collective, minority and individual identity in an increasingly polarised and divided world. In my teaching, I try to dispel the fears and insecurities our students may have when talking about race and racism in our society and in their communities. Tellingly, race as we now know it, in the twenty-first century, has not changed significantly by comparison to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when it first emerged as a tool to interpret human difference. It is becoming clear that, despite historians deconstructing racism, racial narratives have proved to be enduring.

I am known nationally and internationally as a specialist in the field of racial studies and eugenics in East-Central Europe, a field I spearheaded through my publications, research networks and student supervision. More recently I began looking at broader geographical areas. In this work, I re-conceptualise the history of nation and race by exploring the plurality of global racial heritages that are forgotten or misplaced. In my latest book entitled Historicizing Race (Bloomsbury 2018), I suggest that a more nuanced historical and critical perspective on race is needed in order to understand its growing appeal to contemporary sensibilities. After all, Brexit has highlighted the broader crisis of national and collective identity which Britain and Europe at large are experiencing at the moment. In its current personification, racism is expressed in a political vocabulary that utilises strategies of coping with an identity, which allegedly is under threat. In this respect, we need to understand the appeal of race within its historical context, as many of the images used by politicians today are often recycled historical narratives, so popular in 1920s and 1930s, and, indeed, in the nineteenth century. 

Dr Marius Turda is Reader in 20th Century Central and Eastern European Biomedicine at Oxford Brookes University

Thursday, 24 May 2018

News from New Orleans: The Renaissance Society of America Conference 2018

The Renaissance Society of America organises the largest annual international conference in the field of Renaissance studies, bringing together historians working across disciplines on the period 1300-1700. Held in New Orleans this year, the conference offered a stimulating blend of new research in the field, networking events, book fairs and museum visits. I hold an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) with Oxford Brookes and the National Gallery, where I study the relationship between painting and other media in the work of the Venetian artist, Carlo Crivelli (c.1430-c.1494). With generous support from Brookes, I was able to attend the conference and present some ideas I had been exploring recently in my research.

My panel, organised by Ashley Elston and Madeline Rislow, was entitled ‘Hybridity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art’. In my paper, I discussed various ways in which Crivelli asks the viewer to compare painting to other media, such as metalwork, sculpture and textiles, as a way of challenging our expectations of what a painting is. He does this, for example, by borrowing the materials and techniques of metalwork, painting sculptural creations that would be impossible in stone, or drawing on the aesthetic qualities of tapestries. Painting’s ability to encompass many arts, and indeed to surpass them, was a way not only of championing this materially-humble medium, but also of suggesting an analogy with divine creation, an idea that was posed by the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa in a sermon delivered in 1440. By showing the same painted detail in paint, and then in raised gesso, rope, wood or glass, Crivelli encourages the viewer to meditate upon matter transformed at the hand of the painter, and by extension, at the hand of God, who made Christ incarnate. The question asked by a member of the audience – how does Crivelli’s play on materials differ from Andrea Mantegna’s? – has reminded me of how useful it is to juxtapose Crivelli’s practice with that of his Paduan colleague. For although both are interested in the possibilities of painting and the paragone, or comparison, with sculpture, Crivelli takes his analogies in new directions by incorporating elements in relief.

It was interesting to situate my own work alongside that of other speakers, especially Ashley Elston, who discussed the interaction between painting and sculpture in early modern Italian art. Ashley presented many examples in which painting and sculpture are interdependent, raising questions about the sacred dimension of media, as well as the validity of our modern categories for works of art. The range of papers in my panel demonstrated that hybridity in art can be not only medial, but also temporal, stylistic and even experiential, brought about by circumstances such as the restoration of objects through time, the wide-ranging sources of itinerant artists, and the multivalent roles of single objects.

Other panels I attended led me to conclude that current research trends in the field of Italian Renaissance art are characterised by a focus on the agency of the object and the viewer, as well as materials and their meanings. This was especially evident in the sessions entitled ‘New Approaches to Italian Quattrocento Sculpture’, in which issues such as framing devices, theories of relief and the slippery boundaries between creating idols and representations, were addressed. It was interesting that many of the questions raised in these sessions could be applied just as easily to sculpture as they could to painting. It also suggested that there might be an interested audience for my own research on Carlo Crivelli, which applies a range of methodologies, including technical, theoretical and contextual, which are traditionally treated separately. This approach opens new possibilities for research into objects and artists that do not fit neatly within the confines of our current art-historical categories, or for which little documentary evidence exists.

The three-day conference also offered many chances to meet others active in the field. I met Tim McCall from Villanova University, who works on the representation of clothing in Italian Renaissance painting, and who discussed Crivelli’s attentiveness to the materials and logics of contemporary fashion in a previous paper at RSA. McCall’s consideration of how Crivelli gives a sense of the contingent, changeable nature of fabric, its texture and colour, as it is experience in actuality, has informed my own work on the relationship between reality and fiction in Crivelli’s paintings. I also met scholars from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) in Washington, where I will be moving from September for 8 months to work at the National Gallery of Art. It was great to catch up with friends and colleagues from the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute, as well as my Brookes supervisor, Marika Leino, and to support one another by attending each others’ panels.

As well as a chance to build professional contacts, and the experience of presenting my research at a large, international conference, my attendance at RSA has led to an invitation from the organisers of my panel to contribute a chapter to the volume they are editing on the subject of hybridity. This publication, which I will write in the Autumn, will allow me to develop some of the themes I touched upon in my paper, including the comparison with Mantegna’s practice. Over the Summer I will be focusing on writing up my PhD, starting with the artistic and devotional context of Crivelli’s multi-media polyptych for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, now in the National Gallery. The research leads and ideas that RSA gave me will undoubtedly enrich my PhD in new ways.

Amanda Hilliam, PhD student in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture