University of Cambridge Contemporary Research Group

Author: Kasia Boddy (Page 1 of 3)

‘We Are Hopelessly Hooked’, Jacob Weisberg on our use of digital media

Photograph by Eric Pickersgill from his series ‘Removed,’ in which he shows his subjects’ attachment to their cell phones and other handheld devices by asking them to ‘hold their stare and posture’ as he removes the devices from their hands and then takes their portrait
Eric Pickersgill/

Photograph by Eric Pickersgill from his series ‘Removed,’ in which he shows his subjects’ attachment to their cell phones and other handheld devices by asking them to ‘hold their stare and posture’ as he removes the devices from their hands and then takes their portrait


“As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them,Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day—an average of every 4.3 minutes—according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.


Read the full article in the New York Review of Books


Lichen Beacons is a collaborative installation by Tom Hall, Drew Milne and Barry Byford involving slow immersive portable sound, images and poetry. It was first shown in the UK as Lichen Ohms Seriatim in Corpus Christi College Chapel in October, as part of the 2015 Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Music, Composition & Sound: Tom Hall
Image, Text & Voice: Drew Milne
Raspberry Pi Code: Barry Byford


Lichens, poetics and the digital environment

Lichens have for some time been recognised as pollution monitors, and as beacons of environmental health. Digital photography and the ability to look at lichens on digital screens have transformed the awareness and representation of lichens. The 2015 Cambridge Festival of Ideas focused on art, power and resistance, providing a context for this installation. The world of lichens offers multiple resistances to human perceptions and aesthetics, suggesting different modalities of time, and a slower, calmer sense of sound and motion. Lichen Ohms Seriatim offered a site-responsive installation involving spoken word texts, music, and photographs conveyed through a dialogue between Bluetooth beacons and Raspberry Pis with screens and headphones.


18 Nov: ‘Film as Art and Activism: the Case of Recent Palestine Solidarity Cinema’

Shohini Chaudhuri (University of Essex): 18 November

‘Film as Art and Activism: the Case of Recent Palestine Solidarity Cinema

5.15pm, English Faculty Building, GR05

All welcome!
University Lecturer in Film
Department of Italian
Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
Corpus Christi College
University of Cambridge

CFP: PhD Symposium on Questions of Scale in Contemporary Literature and Criticism

The beginning of the twenty-first century can be characterized as an era of scalar instability. Climate change, globalization, and developments in the life sciences have made it necessary to envisage a scale beyond the human, disrupting the anthropocentrism of Western literary and critical frameworks (Ray Brassier). The concept of the Anthropocene, which marks the inscription of human activities onto the Earth’s ecosystem, requires us to “scale up our imagination of the human” as it blurs the distinction between human and natural history (Dipesh Chakrabarty). While impending ecological disaster challenges our customary experience of time and space, technological innovations in communication, transportation, and economics have significantly accelerated the pace of life and condensed spatial distances (David Harvey’s “time-space compression”). At the same time, advances in our understanding of genetics and neurobiology have changed our perception of the body and the brain as coherent, contained systems, prompting us to consider them instead in terms of interactions between microscopic cellular components (Nikolas Rose).
The fluctuations in scale prompted by a consideration of the “spatiotemporal vastness and numerousness of the nonhuman world” (Mark McGurl) have also marked contemporary literature and criticism. Take, for example, the current manifestation of the “finance novel,” which arose in response to the volatility of the globalized economy. Works such as Robert Harris’s The Fear Index dramatize how the acceleration of time and condensing of space that the high-frequency algorithms of the financial system facilitate leave humans radically exposed to the variations of the market (Arne De Boever). Moreover, “neuro-novels”—novels that engage explicitly with the intricacies of neurological conditions, such as Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker–are symptomatic of the ways in which the insights of modern medical science have shifted our understanding of the self away from history and society to a cellular level (Marco Roth). Furthermore, the extension of time scales in works such as Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, Bruno Latour’sGaia, and Alice Oswald’s A Sleepwalk on the Severn is emblematic of a new consciousness of humankind as a geological agent. In their respective considerations of “the impact of nonhuman otherness on human life” (Pieter Vermeulen), these various works challenge the anthropocentrism of traditional literary forms.

We invite paper proposals from PhD students that address questions of scale in contemporary literature and criticism. Possible questions for discussion include, but are not limited to:

  • In what ways has the scalar instability of the twenty-first century prompted new modes of artistic, theoretical, and philosophical inquiry (e.g., cli-fi, neuro-lit, the finance novel, posthumanism, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, and vibrant materialism)?
  • How does it affect established critical methodologies that have tended to be oblivious to questions of scale and non-human agency, such as ecocriticism and trauma and memory studies?
  • Which narrative techniques and literary practices are most suited to exploring the impact of what Richard Grusin has dubbed the “nonhuman turn,” that is, the tendency towards a decentring of the human that unites a wide variety of contemporary theoretical and philosophical approaches?
  • How do extremities of scale disrupt notions of autonomous subjectivity that continue to dominate Western political and critical frameworks? How can a biopolitical perspective, which deconstructs the concept of the proprietary body, help us to examine this?
  • How can literature help us to explore the implications for human agency that the Anthropocene presents?
  • How can an engagement with questions of scale open a dialogue between science and literary scholarship?

Practical Information


Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Ghent University, Blandijnberg 2, 9000 Gent, Belgium

23rd-25th March 2016

None (optional: symposium dinner €40)

A 300-word abstract for a 15-minute paper (including title, presenter’s name, institutional affiliation, and any technology requests), a description of your PhD research project (one paragraph), and a short CV (max. one page) as a single Word document to both Holly Brown (holly[dot]brown[at]ugent[dot]be) and Prof. Stef Craps (stef[dot]craps[at]ugent[dot]be)

Deadline for submission of applications:
11 December 2015

Notification of acceptance:
18 December 2015

Deadline for submission of paper drafts:
15 February 2016

Number of places:
Max. 18

18 Nov: Pascale Aebischer on Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio


Prof. Pascale Aebischer from the University of Exeter will be speaking
on 'Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1978-86)'. All welcome.

There will be a free film showing of 'Caravaggio' on Monday the 16th for
any who have not seen the film (or have and wish to rewatch it!) in
preparation for the seminar. This will be held at 7pm in GR05, in the
English Faculty.

The seminar itself will be on the 18th November, in the English Faculty
Boardroom, 4.30-6.00.

After the seminar, please feel free to join us for drinks and dinner.


Queer Cultures Research Seminar:


Dennis Cooper’s gif fiction

Zac’s Control Panel is a collection of famed experimental author Dennis Cooper’s short, transmutational works employing and ‘misplacing’ animated gifs. As in his highly acclaimed and popular novel Zac’s Haunted House, Cooper uses the gif as a language-like material to reposition, in the case of these new works, forms considered literary (the short story, flash fiction, the poem) and nondenominational (the documentary, the reenactment) into complex, poetic, claptrap visual literary mediums.’

Reviewing it earlier this year for Bookforum Paige Bailey writes:

‘You could call Zac’s Haunted House many things: net art, a glorified Tumblr, a visual novel, a mood board, or a dark night of the Internet’s soul. ….Even now, to call a series of gifs a novel—a form arguably premised on the deft wielding of language—is a bold move. Gifs are often regarded as shallow, and they are essentially gestural rather than linguistic, a kind of visual shorthand, pointing to a mass of material that is supposed to speak for itself. Animated gifs disregard genre, pedigree, or distinctions between high and low culture, and are at once contemporary and primal. They are more than quick bursts of looped movement, and may actually do something quite deep in their sheer breadth—namely, capture our ephemeral cultural memory. They are easily shared, easily understood, and yet more gifs doesn’t necessarily clarify or enlighten. Instead, they overwhelm. But even if Cooper’s raw material for his new work is inherently unnovelistic, he constructs a narrative by way of recurring motifs and juxtapositions, as in a stretch of chapter one where five gifs of pouring water are stacked one on top of each other with a gif of a flailing boy on a floor on the receiving end of the stream, or a passage of chapter two that is predominately composed of scenes of falling or mishaps reminiscent of ‘FAIL’ memes that end in another splash of water. By harnessing a way of communicating that prizes brevity and the hook and lure of bright novelty, Cooper constructs a mise en scene of the type the characters that tend to populate his novels might make. Here, he has used the ready-mades at hand‑or at click—and what’s crowding up to our hands now are jpegs and gifs begging to be pinched, zoomed, dragged, copied, or trashed.’

See also Petra Cortright’s HELL_TREE (2012)



‘What Counts as Contemporary Fiction? Scale, Value, and Field’ – JAMES ENGLISH


‘Scholars of contemporary fiction face special challenges in making the turn toward digitized corpora and empirical method. Their field is one of exceptionally large and uncertain scale, subject to ongoing transformation and dispute, and shrouded in copyright. I will present one possible way forward, based on my work for a special issue of Modern Language Quarterly on “Scale & Value” that I’m co-editing with Ted Underwood. My project uses quantitative relationships among mid-sized, hand-made datasets to map the field of Anglophone fiction from 1960 to the present. Some significant findings of this research concern a shift in the typical time-setting of the novel and a concomitant change in the relationship between literary commerce and literary prestige.’


Jim English’s books included The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value(2005) and The Global Future of English Studies (2012). A past editor of Postmodern Culture, he co-edited with Rita Felski a special 2010 issue of New Literary History on “New Sociologies of Literature.”


You might also be interested in Mark Algee-Hewitt and Mark McGurl’s pamphlet for the Stanford Lit Lab, published in January 2015:  ‘Between Canon and Corpus: Six Perspectives on 20th-Century Novels’.

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