Professor Meena Dhanda on Dr Ambedkar, Religion, and Morality

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits and The Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK invited Professor Meena Dhanda of CTTR as a guest speaker at the 128th birth commemoration of Dr Ambedkar at the House of Lords on Tuesday 7 May 2019. The following is the text of the speech delivered by Professor Dhanda.

 

Professor Dhanda (2nd from right) addressing All-Party Parliamentary Group

Dr Ambedkar on Religion and Morality

Honourable Chair, Reverend Lord Richard Harries, distinguished guests and fellow admirers of an exemplary human being: Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a superb jurist, an untiring champion of social justice, an uncompromising seeker of truth, a kind soul who taught us to follow the great Buddha in acknowledging the various causes of suffering and dedicate our lives to uprooting them. We are here to remember Dr Ambedkar’s contributions and it is my task today to share the essence of his thoughts on religion and morality.

Babasaheb extolled moral uprightness. As he writes in The Buddha and his Dhamma, Dhamma is first and foremost morality. Religion on the other hand, especially when ritualistically followed, he took to task for the hypocrisies it generated and the inertia it induced. He challenged the supposedly unchanging and supposedly infallible command of Religion with a capital R. He wrote: ‘Every religion preaches morality but morality is not the root of religion. It is a wagon attached to it. It is attached and detached as the occasion arises’ (Ambedkar 1957, p.322). In contrast ‘Morality is Dhamma and Dhamma is Morality’. Dhamma is social, essentially so. In Dhamma the need for morality does not arise from the ‘sanction of God’ but directly from the need for man to love man. ‘The purpose of Religion is to explain the origin of the world. The purpose of Dhamma is to reconstruct the world’ (Ibid.).

Rather than the rituals and sacrifices embedded in Religions, Ambedkar considers morality itself as ‘sacred’. The reason he gives for making morality itself ‘sacred’ is that there is a social need to protect what he calls “the best”. The best, however, he does not equate with the fittest. The best may actually be the weak, the ones who are in need of protection. Therefore, Morality as Dhamma, must impose restraints on the fittest to stop them from infringing on the rights of the weak.

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Ian James Kidd on Pathophobia

Guest blogger, Dr  Ian James Kidd, will deliver a CTTR-sponsored Faculty of Arts Public Lecture, ‘Pathophobia, Illness, and Vices’, on Wednesday, 10 April, 4-6 p.m., MK405 George Wallis Building.

Pathophobia as the social oppression of ill persons

Everyone knows that being chronically ill is awful – the pain, loss of functions, and the trials of treatment and recovery are hugely physically, psychologically, and emotionally difficult. A less obvious source of the awfulness of illness is the awful treatment to which chronically ill persons are typically subjected. If one read through the testimonies and narrative written by ill person, one finds constant descriptions of morally awful treatment – of hostile stares and glares, of intrusive questions, of thoughtless remarks, of insensitive comments, of a horrible lack of care and concern. The American feminist, Audre Lorde, summarised this very nicely in her Cancer Journals, written during her experience of breast cancer as a woman of colour. Their main theme is what she called her ‘fury at the outside world’s viciousness, the stupid, brutal lack of consciousness or concern that passes for the way things are’.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (1980)

What Lorde is describing are experiences of what I’ve labelled pathophobia – the variety of morally objectionable forms of treatment to which somatically ill persons are subjected. Pathophobia can involve ways of thinking and talking about illness and ways of interacting with ill persons that either cause them harms, or express various failings or vices. Subjection to pathophobia can harm chronically ill persons in all sorts of ways. It can cause anger, bitterness, frustration, and resentment, of the sort described by Lorde, and worsen feelings of low self-esteem, social alienation, and loss of agency. Such bad consequences are especially bad since they come on top of the various bad effects of illness, such as pain and diminished mobility. But pathophobia can also express certain failings, such as what Lorde described at a ‘stupid, brutal lack of consciousness or concern’.

The ultimate value of the concept of pathophobia is that it might help us to reduce the incidence and severity of the offending sorts of behaviour. By naming these behaviours, we take a first step towards understanding their sources and wrongness, which in turn helps us to do something about them. (Compare it with the concept of sexual harassment, which was developed in the Sixties by women as a means of identifying and describing the variety of discriminatory behaviours to which they were subjected.) We already have concepts like ableism and sanism, of course, but these relate to morally awful treatment of persons with disabilities and mental health conditions. Although they overlap with pathophobia, they are not specific to chronic somatic illness, while the sociological concept of ‘stigma’ describes a source of pathophobia, rather than the wider phenomenon itself.

In my talk at Wolverhampton, I’ll introduce the concept of pathophobia and give you a set of examples from some influential pathographies, such as Kathlyn Conway’s Ordinary Life and Porochista Khakpour’s recent memoir, Sick. Such first-persons narratives offer lucid descriptions of the everyday experiences of pathophobia that scar the lived experiences of people with chronic somatic illnesses. I also suggest we can make sense of the moral wrongs of pathophobia by thinking in terms of clusters of pathophobic vices – negative character traits and dispositions such as banality, coldness, callousness, negligence, selfishness, and cold-heartedness. Such vices are a pervasive feature of narrative accounts of pathophobia, in the form of cruel actions, insensitive questioning, and tactless comments.

Hopefully, the concept of pathophobia can help us to mitigate such morally awful treatment of somatically ill persons.

Dr Ian James Kidd is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, University of Nottingham. His research interests range from, in his own words ‘epistemic virtue and and vice in education, moral and spiritual exemplarity in ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the philosophical significance of illness’. For more information, see: https://www.ianjameskidd.weebly.com

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Karina van Dalen-Oskam on Computers and Literature

Guest blogger, Professor Karina van Dalen-Oskam, will deliver a CTTR-sponsored Faculty of Arts Public Lecture, ‘The Riddle of Literary Quality’, on Wednesday, 13 March, 6-7 p.m., MK405 George Wallis Building – further information here.

Can computers and literature work together?  Yes, they can!

To many it seems scary: algorithms that do things we thought only humans could do. Agreed, some things can be done better by machines than by humans. Calculating business profits in a split second, performing repetitive actions for days on end, for instance.  When strict rules and regulations apply, a machine will perform flawlessly, whereas a human may easily be distracted and occasionally make a mistake or change her mind the next day although dealing with a similar case as the day before. But surely humans can not be beaten when things are more complicated and difficult to describe in executable and simple steps. Making ethical decisions, for instance. Or discussing the aesthetic pleasure an art object yields. Aren’t they?

Sir Kazuo, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature

Well, I am finalizing a research project that started in 2012 and that has such a scary new approach to literature: The Riddle of Literary Quality. The aim of the project is to see whether we can measure all kinds of stylistic features of contemporary novels and find out which features help the novel to be perceived as highly literary and which features will diminish an author’s chances for the Nobel Prize. Does the amount of direct speech in a novel influence the reader’s perception of literariness? And what about the use of cliché expressions, or the length and complexity of sentences, to mention only some of the issues that Andreas van Cranenburgh has dealt with in his dissertation.

My team and I make use of digital texts and of software that can deal with the intricacies of language on a huge scale. The computer can read many more novels than we could ever do in a lifetime of continuous reading, and it can find patterns that are too massive and complex for human eyes. It can, for example, measure the mean sentence length and the number of verbs in thousands of novels, and visualize the distribution of the results in helpful graphs. The kind of patterns that then become visible have never been interesting to us before. But when we see, for example, how a simple and perhaps boring thing such as sentence length tends to be longer in novels that are marketed as literary fiction than in novels labelled Suspense or Chicklit, this may change our ideas about how literary value is attributed and how literary and other texts may be analyzed in the future – or even how they will be written.

So why is this approach so interesting? First of all: the scale. Until now, we were happy to close-read a couple of novels again and again and develop an interpretation based on this very small corpus. At the end of the day, however, we always had to admit: further research will have to be done to find out whether this observation or pattern is uniquely found in this text, this oeuvre, this genre, this time period, this… whatever. And here is what will change with the advent of the digital age. We can still develop a hypothesis when we are close-reading one or more novels. But now we actually have the opportunity to check many of these hypotheses. By writing and applying software that will read and analyze  on a large scale.

And the fun is: We are in charge. We choose what to select for analysis, how to model our questions, and how to evaluate the results and come to certain interpretations and conclusions. And we will have to be open to surprises: we will regularly meet with outcomes that we did not expect, and which will set us off in totally new directions for follow-up research. Results may suggest different routes towards places we didn’t even know existed. That’s quite adventurous!

So can we measure literary quality? Yes, we can – partly. I will show how in my lecture on 13 March.

Prof. dr Karina van Dalen-Oskam is Head of the Department of Literary Studies of Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands and Professor in Computational Literary Studies at the University of Amsterdam. For more information, see: https://www.wlv.ac.uk/about-us/news-and-events/calendar/?view=fulltext&id=d.en.3834442

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James Machin on Weird Fiction

Weird fiction is a slippery term for a slippery category of writing. It is most closely associated with H. P. Lovecraft, and Weird Tales magazine during its 1920s/30s heyday. The delirious mixture of Gothic horror, science fiction, and fantasy to be found within the cheaply-manufactured pages of Weird Tales gave the term traction as a catch-all for writing that belonged to any of those genres, slipped between them, or bodged them together into strange new combinations. This version of weird fiction—as a marker for genre hybridity or impurity—was the one subsequently redeployed at the turn of the millennium as ‘New Weird’ and applied to the restless genre-bending experimentalism of writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville.

With his ‘old weird’, Lovecraft certainly paved the way for this ‘New Weird’: as a convinced atheist, he had no time for ghosts, werewolves, and vampires; spooks which, regardless of the thrills provided along the way, ultimately only confirm a reassuring Judeo-Christian worldview of the ultimate conquest of evil by divine beneficence. In his most celebrated stories, Lovecraft dispensed with the supernatural altogether and replaced it with science-fictional antagonists: alien lifeforms that are utterly incomprehensible and as indifferent to the futile narcissism of the human species as the cold vacuum of the sidereal space.

However, this understanding of weird fiction does not really reflect Lovecraft’s own application of the term. In his canon-forming 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft clearly conceives of the weird as a mode, rather than a genre. It is a register of writing that engages primarily with the horrific, but rather than a horror inspired by gore or violence (revulsion), it is a horror precipitated by existential crisis; it manifests itself in an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” and the revelation of “outer, unknown forces” pressing at the threshold of the quotidian. The Welsh writer Arthur Machen, a key influence on Lovecraft, complained that in his own work he “translated awe, or awfulness, into evil”, but this belies the potency of his writing’s weird ambiguity: weird fiction, as Miéville has argued, can be seen as just such a “radicalized sublime backwash”. According to this version of weird fiction, it primarily concerns itself with destabilizing revelations of the adumbral numinous.

Regardless of its specific meaning (if it has one) and various applications, why does the term weird fiction continue to have such traction? Well, for one thing, it is useful. Continue reading

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Public Lecture: 5 February 2019, Anne White on Polish Migration

Professor Anne White from University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) will be visiting City Campus on Tuesday 5th February 2019, 6 p.m.-8 p.m.  MK045 to deliver a public lecture, ‘The impact of migration on Poland: EU Mobilitiy and Social Change’. The lecture is free, no tickets are required, and all are welcome.

Conventional wisdom and scholarship on migration tend to see the impact of migration on sending countries in terms of loss. Contemporary scholars focus more helpfully on how migration creates ties between specific countries. Because the impact of migration on sending countries is usually studied in connection with development policy, researchers devote most of their attention rather narrowly to the collective impact of so-called diasporas. A more comprehensive and non-normative analysis may take as its starting point existing social trends in countries of origin, and explore how they may be reinforced or counteracted by migration-related influences. It’s usually assumed that migration impact – in the sense of improved housing and standards of living – happens mostly in the lives of rural and small-town labour migrants and their families. Social change in the sense of changing habits, attitudes and lifestyles happens most visibly among educated people in big cities. However, it would be false to assume that these are two separate processes. Migration blends with other globalisation and Europeanisation influences to shape the lives of individuals in Warsaw and Wrocław, just as in Polish small towns and villages.

About the Speaker: Professor Anne White researches social change in Poland; and Polish migration. Her most recent book, co-authored with I. Grabowska, P. Kaczmarczyk and K. Slany, is The Impact of Migration on Poland: EU Mobility and Social Change (UCL Press, 2018: free pdf) and she has published monographs on, among other topics, declining regime control over citizens’ leisure time in Poland, Hungary and the USSR (1953-87); social movements under Gorbachev; and small-town Russia in the 1990s (with particular focus on livelihood strategies and identities. She also runs the Polish Migration Website.

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Professor Sebastian Groes on Information Overload, the Brain and Evolution (Part II)

Part I: Can your head ever be full?

Part II: Can we retrain our brains too?

In the digital age our brains process an incredible amount of information. This causes concern. We suffer from fatigue and sleeplessness, and from new diseases such as infostress and data addiction. We’re all becoming information rich and knowledge poor. But, though information overload can be dangerous, it might also trigger new steps in our evolution.

Multitasking, a hip skill in the 1980s, has been derided recently, for instance by Theo Compernolle’s BrainChains (2015). We are told that we work much more efficiently if we focus on one task at a time. A related concept is ‘chunking’. This is the ability to hold a multiplicity of sets of abstract data in one’s memory and retrieve it as meaningful information. The average person is able to hold 7 pieces of information in their mind.  This is probably because the brain itself is a multitasker. Neurons participate in more than one set of activity, so that the brain processes work in parallel to one another. In Bruce Hood’s words: ‘Our brains really do multitask using the same hardware.’  But this hardware is not limitless, and can get tired, as we saw in the first part of this blog.

Can we train the brain to work on more than 7 pieces of information? Can we teach the brain to work faster? Can we make our brain adapt to more and more demanding situations?

Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2014) has something to say about these questions. The novel chronicles the transformation of the twenty-something Mae Holland after she is employed by a Google-like internet company, the Circle. The Circle creates a closed system of communications in which everything is known, from the weather condition to the location of children. This is supposed to re-order the world democratically, though it also sees the demise of privacy and individualism.

Holland learns to chunk when she is handling various sets of information on several computer screens. She pushes the limits of her brain, which brain adapts, bringing her performance to superhuman levels.

Eggers’ dystopia presents this as harmful development. As working on more than one stream of information is extremely demanding on the mind, this inhibits Holland’s long-term memory. Soon she forgets her family, friends and the world beyond the Circle. Holland transforms from a modest young woman who cares about her struggling family into a cold, overambitious corporate monster who rejects love and family. She becomes hyper-rational, but sacrifices her humanity. Continue reading

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Research Seminar, 5 December 2018: Jessica George on H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction

Jessica George (Independent scholar) will be presenting her paper, ‘”[T]hey were men!”: H.  P. Lovecraft, Anthropocentrism, and the Alien’, at 5.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 December 2018, followed by an expert response from James Machin (Royal College of Art). The event will take place in the University of Wolverhampton’s George Wallis Building, MK 204.

Abstract
Recent criticism on weird fiction has emphasised the ways in which the weird decentres the human and reveals the inadequacy of human methods of understanding. The weird may not be able to present an entirely inhuman worldview, but it undercuts anthropocentrism, approaching what Eugene Thacker calls the ‘world-without-us’, the vision of a world defined by the absence of humanity. Such approaches yield productive readings, but have often tended to elide the extent to which weird fiction engages obsessively with the nature and status of humanity itself, confronting and reinscribing both the species anxiety that emerged in the wake of the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, and attitudes to race and species deeply imbued with Euro-American imperialism. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), the best-known exponent of weird fiction,  deals at length with anxieties around human origins and the potential future of the human species, and this talk will use this text to explore how the weird tale can simultaneously undermine anthropocentrism and retrench hierarchical conceptions of human superiority.

About the Speakers
Jessica George received her PhD from Cardiff University and is now a writer and academic, specialising in Weird fiction, literature and science in the long 19th century, Gothic authorship and fandom, and Welsh writing in English.

 

Jame Machin received his PhD from Birkbeck, University of London, and is now Visiting Lecturer at the Royal College of Art. He is the author of Weird Fiction in Britain 1880-1939 (Palgrave 2018), the first study of the emergence of  ‘weird fiction’ from Victorian supernatural literature, and is editor of the forthcoming anthology, Faunus: The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen (MIT Press 2019).

 

 

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Olfactory Fictions: Smell, Culture and Literature in Modernity

The University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Transnational and Transcultural Research and The Memory Network present a public talk by Professor Sebastian Groes from the School of Humanities, 14 November 2018, 5.30-6.30 pm, Wolverhampton Art Museum. All are welcome. To book a place for this free event, click here.

The human nose sticks out through a hole in paper isolated

“We live in a sanitised culture whereby the drive for hygiene – including the masking of smells and the artificial scenting of spaces and bodies – results in a loss of smell awareness.

“This is worrying: our relationship to ourselves, other people and the world depends on our sense of smell. Recent science has shown that there is a strong relationship between olfaction and depression.

“Writer Italo Calvino warned against the loss of smell: ‘the noseless man of the future’ will lose emotions and have a reduced ability to make sense of life altogether. Olfactory Fictions offers literature as a critical perspective on the ways in which our changing sense of smell impacts on human experience and behaviour.”

 

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Professor Sebastian Groes on Information Overload, the Brain and Evolution

Part I: Can your head ever be full?

In the digital age our brains process an incredible amount of information. This causes concern. We suffer from fatigue and sleeplessness, and from new diseases such as infostress and data addiction. We’re all becoming information rich and knowledge poor. But, though information overload can be dangerous, it might also trigger new steps in our evolution.

Teju Cole’s Open City (2012): ‘He motioned to his head. In fact, I’m full.’

In the digital age we contend with an incredible amount of information. Many of us, especially in the wealthy west, engage in many forms of communication: we get up and go to sleep reading and writing emails, and we’re never not plugged into social media. The nature of labour has also shifted from physical activity to brainy stuff. People worry about cognitive overstimulation. We suffer from fatigue and sleeplessness, and from new diseases such as infostress and data addiction. We’re distracted and unable to make rational decisions, fear social exclusion and identity loss. Our memory is detrimentally affected because our brain no longer has the time to properly soak up information. As quantity on triumphs over quality, we are all becoming increasingly information rich and knowledge poor.

In his book Future Shock (1970), Alvin Toffler argues that our rationality and our ability to make decisions are undermined by overload: ‘When the individual is plunged into a fast and irregularly changing situation, or a novelty-loaded context, however, his predictive accuracy plummets. He can no longer make the reasonably correct assessments on which rational behaviour is dependent.’

Information overload is nothing new. Ann Blair’s study of 16th- and 17th-century scholarship, Too Much To Know (2011) and Katherine E. Ellison’s work on the 18th-century society suggest that ‘[e]very age has been an information age’. In The Victorian Internet (1998), Tom Standage shows that in the nineteenth century the telegraph and the stock ticker drove people insane. In Little Dorrit (1855-57), Dickens made fun of the growing bureaucracy of England’s imperial project with the Circumlocution Office.

The problem is that our brains are basically still the same as those of Stone Age people living 10, 000 years ago. There is a huge mismatch between the tasks that we want to do, and the brain’s limited capacity.

Continue reading

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Research Seminar: Extremities and Obsessions in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 24 Sept. 2018

We welcome ERASMUS exchange staff, Professor Ludmilla Kostova and Dr Yarmila Daskalova, University of Sts Cyril and Methodius, Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria, to Wolverhampton, and invite all to a research seminar on ‘Extremities and Obsessions in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Monday, 24 September 2018, 14.00 – 16.00, Arena Theatre Seminar Room.

Dr Daskalova will contribute a paper on Haunting Romanticisms: Day-Dreaming and Obsessive Imagery in the Works of Edgar Allen Poe and Peyo Yavorov, followed by Professor Kostova’s “A dainty morsel for the executioner”: Terrorism and Femininity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Popular Fiction.

All are welcome.

About the Speakers:

Ludmilla K. Kostova is Professor of British literature and cultural studies at St. Cyril and St. Methodius University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. She has published on eighteenth-century, romantic and modern British literature and as well as on travel writing and representations of intercultural encounters. Her books include Tales of the Periphery: the Balkans in Nineteenth-Century British Writing (St. Cyril and St. Methodius University Press, 1997) and Travel Writing and Ethics. Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2013).

Yarmilla Daskalova is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sts Cyril and Methodius, Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. Her research areas include British, Irish, and American Studies; romanticism and post-romanticism; and comparative literature. Her publications include studies of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and W. B. Yeats, often alongside Bulgarian novelists and poets, such as Emil Andreev, Svetlozar Igov, Marina Tsvetaeva, and P. K. Yavarov.

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