Real names, nom de plumes and Narcissus

narcissus

Narcissism is the lake which every creator traverses a tightrope over when managing their public image. More than ever, the realities of self-promotion in the twenty-first century make it almost inevitable that every author, videographer, podcaster and journalist, whether fully independent or associated with a larger organisation, runs the risk of being labelled an “attention-seeker”. Continuously promoting one’s own work, trying to insert oneself into any public debate or discussion, relentlessly directing potential readers towards the servers hosting your own domain, carries with it a strong personal involvement in the labours of publicity. By definition it instinctively appears “unprofessional” to be doing it by oneself and without the work of a PR and advertising machine or an established media outlet promoting your work. As per the dreadful case of the self-establishing “media commentator”, “lawyer” “theologian”, unmasked fraud and extremist Mo Ansar who “tweeted himself into existence”, there hangs a question of moral legitimacy over which authors should be considered worth listening to, particularly when their relevance to a conversation is one asserted solely by themselves.

Unpublished and unsigned writers, indie journalists and anyone without the backing of an institution runs an operation wide open to accusations of being one of another random voice in the street simply being amplified by an unusual desire for attention. Without the gatekeepers of editors and content managers, blogs and online platforms remain the open entrance into the world of ideas for every unchecked, unconsidered and unconsidered opinion as well as opinions which might have some value. Everyone reckons something and the blogger is assumed to be just another reckoner who has decided to aggressively assert their reckonings into public discourse without consultation or approval by the established gatekeepers. Complicating this is the question of anonymity and online personas (names like ‘Guido Fawkes’, ‘Popehat’ and ‘Armoured Skeptic’) versus named and identifiable writing under a legal name, with the middle juncture being a recognisable pseudonym – a pen name with a public face, accountable for the content published under it but without projecting the creator’s personal details into the public domain.

Publishing under one’s own name carries not only the risks associated with personality cult and narcissism accusations but the pressing concern of security. If you have a fairly unique and uncommon name as part of your public persona, it can be particularly difficult to conceal yourself from the troll underworld as many politicians and political commentators in the 2010s have learned the hard way. But why should an author seek to hide themselves with a bland or search-result-buriable pseudonym?

These jumbled thoughts were part of my reasoning as I have recently been trying to revamp HistoryJack and get it to the right part of the runway for taxiing in advance of takeoff. Soon I will be publishing an extremely long article, one fitting the length of an academic journal entry but one I expect is too journalistic and everyday-speech laden to pass any peer review. Though in the age of @RealPeerReview, one must always wonder and shudder at the thought of what is possible.

The conclusion of my recent work to make HistoryJack ready for a much wider audience is the question of whether to use my own name. I have a professional life mostly separate from writing and no desire to see it or anything else interrupted and interfered with by trolls and the legions of the damned, raining frogs and all. Likewise, the pitfalls of Narcissus made a pseudonym the more appealing – to deny my own name any glory resulting from the blog and give all the credit to a partly fictive online persona would gel more closely with the current consensus. Maximise security and minimise unwanted personal attention – what could be wrong with that? Hence, for a while, I briefly adopted a nom de plume of ‘Jack S. Willis’. Taking some ancestral maiden names and some minor tweaks on my own, I thought this would be my means to get everything written here out into the world without any annexation by or of my ordinary life.

However, for a variety of reasons, the pendulum has swung towards full disclosure and the roll of the dice on my own name. I am fortunate and more recently quite grateful to be the one and only Jack Staples-Butler in the world; registers for every English-speaking country I have been able to locate online record nobody else sharing that full name. My previous writing for Nouse, The Yorker, OpinionPanel and my broadcasting work for University Radio York was all done under my own name. Of course, this was all edited and run through the gatekeepers – nothing risky or troublesome for future professional prospects. However, what explanation could I give to any satisfaction as to why I had chosen to do all this under my own name but then fled under the cover of Mr. Willis when it came to my own original content?

The confusion in the end was too much. After making the appropriate adjustments to my personal records and putting up as many security barriers as can reasonably be expected – in reality, it is not trolls but the automated data-harvesting plagues which are the main threat – I have set everything back to my own name. From henceforth, I will be writing and publishing the HistoryJack Blog under my own name and tweeting under the Twitter account I first set up in July 2012, @jstaplesbutler. Everything I write will be done with the sincerity of a willingness to defend it from all critics and if necessary before a court – though I tentatively say that the possibility of this remains extremely remote. The New York Times test for writing and blogging, that you should consider whether you would want to see your writing printed on the front page of the Times under your own name with your profile photo next to it, is one I would happily take.

Provided they would remunerate.

… – Jack

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A major post coming soon…

There will soon, on HistoryJack.com or possibly another medium which will be linked to here, be a long-form article of 8,000 words in length on a subject of immense importance which has until now escaped the attention it should be getting.

It will be published in the New Year for 2017.

For now, enjoy an image of the White Mountain National Forest region of New Hampshire taken at the end of summer.

… – Jack

Revival, Redirection and Writing What Exactly?

HistoryJack as a blog has been noticeably silent for the past year save for the occasional reblog and a drip-drip of Twitter activity. Whilst the primary reason for this diversion away from regular updates has been the completion of my undergraduate studies, there has been a secondary concern pressing against the existence of the blog itself; namely, the benefits or purpose of continuing to maintain a blog in my own name on an academic subject. In fact, I now write under a slight pseudonym partly for the excitement and anticipation of one day joining the illustrious list of pseudonymous authors, but for the more practical security concerns raised by the realities of modern publishing. Expanding this blog into more regular and opinionated political writing has been a prospect considered with great trepidation. Online abuse and trolling has become more prominent throughout 2015 and 2016 and even a leading theme in the UK Labour Leadership contest and even the U.S. Presidential Election. Now everyone, whether controversial or not, has the potential to become a new Salman Rushdie, Jyllands Posten or Charlie Hebdo.

 

One article published this week in the American conservative magazine National Review details the horrific and systematic campaign of intimidation, abuse and harassment suffered by the columnist David French at the hands of Trump supporters displeased with his opposition to the candidate. His detailing of the terror launched against him and many other writers from within the conservative opposition to Trump makes for stomach-churning reading. The work was done by hundreds of different accounts and IP addresses, attackers combing the Internet to rake up the personal information of victims and invade their lives before deluging them with abuse; this ranged from fantastical obscenities like portraying French’s children in gas chambers, to credible threats of murder citing home addresses and breaching telephone lines during private conversations. This reflects the experiences of seemingly every writer, commentator and public figure who isn’t a True Believer of the anti-establishment, anti-mainstream, anti-everything ascendancy on the political right and left in the Western Hemisphere.

 

Having witnessed many authors and public figures I admire and follow being driven to secrecy, pseudonyms or even offline altogether, the purpose of running this blog became more questionable. Writing is the harvest of thought, whether of ripened or poisoned fruits, and abandoning it for future security considerations alone would be a betrayal of those who persist in the face of the tsunami of hate and violence. While I remain in what Richard J. Evans called the “decent obscurity” of the historian, a sheltered existence of academic spats not reaching public consciousness, keeping the blog going would seem self-evidently safe and justified. However, renewing the license for this domain name was a decision taken with some apprehension. Refocusing the blog away from academic history and towards current affairs was a plan I had envisaged should I decide to give the archives and conferences a heave-ho in favour of something else. As it happens, since my last major activity, I have been pursuing a legal career and gave strong consideration to retiring HistoryJack to the archives and keep any future political and cultural writing to larger, more impersonal forums such as Medium, eventually graduating to editorialised platforms like the brilliant Little Atoms or the likes of New Humanist, Left Foot Forward or Standpoint. This is done in the awareness of the tightrope that writers in the digital age walk between the necessity of being an self-publicising, self-proclaimer of importance and relevance on the one side, and the self-inventing fraudulence of “tweeting oneself into existence” on the other. Any successful writer must, whilst walking that delicate balance of humility and self-publicity, be an attention-seeker towards their work and a successful articulator of why their voice should be heard – how else would new writers get a foothold in commentary and reviews? But the aggressive, social media-based self-marketing now expected of any would-be author of note makes it difficult to follow The Cash and Walk the Line.

 

A good rule of thumb to start with would be to avoid involving oneself in, or deliberately starting conflicts by Twitter handle, the unpublished and unknown opinionator punching to the weight of professional journalists, academics and broadcasters and demanding to be let into their world with their musings on an equal footing. This is not to disregard the work of amateur bloggers and writers who can produce major criticisms and improvements on the work of the professionals; some of the greatest works of human insight were produced by autodidacts and non-scholars like Eric Hoffer. Long-read critiques and discussions are quite different to charging into existing discussion spheres demanding recognition; with the right commitment of energy and intellectual dexterity, a previously obscure author can produce work of praiseworthy quality and relevance.

 

One of my own favourite everyman commentators, a non-scholar with a knack for producing incisive and original content is the podcaster Godless Spellchecker, an office worker named Stephen Knight who makes no pretences to theological or historical grandiosity. He recognises as a given that he does not possess the professional standing or qualifications to challenge religious leaders to public debates, insist indignantly that the Journal of Contemporary History publish an article detailing his thoughts on global jihadism or demand a platform on BBC’s Hard Talk. Instead, GSpellchecker plumbs the depths of pseudo-scholars, quacks, frauds, woo peddlers and Internet wisdom warlocks whom professional journalists have neither the time nor the wherewithal to devote resources and column-inches to refuting and debunking. He fights the intellectual battles that need to be fought, against the avalanche of pseudo-knowledge defined by Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. It takes little work for a self-proclaimed expert or ‘journalist’ to pump garbage stories about chemical trails, miracle cancer cures or the melting point of steel beams into the online atmosphere – and much time-consuming work to refute it satisfactorily for the general public. GSpellchecker excels at this, and does so with wit. One post from November 2015 in particular highlights with brevity how diluted and easily applicable professional and honorific titles have been made by the digital age:

“Now anyone can slap ‘Journalist’ or ‘Social Commentator’ in their Twitter bio and away they go. It may even earn you an invite to the telly studio as a talking head if you build a significant following.”

Consider ‘the curious case of Mo Ansar’. As LBC’s Iain Dale stated, “He invented himself as a rent-a-quote commentator”. Or even within the professional ranks of established media figures, the lamentable case of Johann Hari, the once-vaunted Independent columnist and young Orwell Prize winner whose exposure for plagiarism overshadowed additional troubling evidence of intellectually dishonest practices. It was not just the taking and driving away of other writers’ work, it was the systematic self-promotion by sockpuppets, Wikipedia editing and manipulation of his own public image, along with harassment of critics, that makes him a cautionary example. The pitfall from the tightrope faced by any new author is to avoid following in the footsteps of the Ansars and Haris, whose elevation from authorial obscurity to fame and relevance in little time seemed to preclude any question as to why they were being made to, as Nick Cohen put it, “seem one of the essential writers of our times”. As a counter-example of an author genuinely engaging in a field outside their immediate specialism, the thriller and espionage novelist Jeremy Duns has a splendid sideline in exposing plagiarism, fraud, sock-puppetry and abuse by authors and other public figures in his spare time and has written extensively and quite bravely on Ansar, Hari and many others whose desire for a place in the history books led them and their readers into the discursive abyss.

 

In every online dispute or argument  between an established author and a new critic, or a political figure and an angry upcoming cultural theorist, rests an unsolved dilemma regarding equality of opportunity or outcome in the selection of ‘real’ writers and critics. Just who should be taken seriously and listened to? When does an online commenter become a respected and panel appearance-worthy commentator? It is rather similar to an unanswerable question of what constitutes fame and the status of a celebrity or ‘real’ celebrity. Who is a ‘real’ writer fit to be part of a public discussion? There being no objective standard or any litmus test measurable in metrics, we are left with the perennial uncertainty of the fairness as to inviting on one proponent of a perspective over another. At the very least, certain conduct should preclude one from a serious role in mainstream culture, not least the abuse and cyber-terrorism which has driven respected authors into hiding and behind walls of personal protection.

 

All of this should be on the mind of any author in the English-speaking world setting out to establish themselves. Presumptively dragging individuals you do not know into contrived Twitter rows, lassoing different figures together in arguments started by yourself, as Ansar frequently did (and still does) is not a decent way to ‘burst onto the scene’ as a writer or anything else. The wells of discussion and notification alerts have been poisoned enough long before a new writer sets out to create a buzz by compulsively tweeting their own thoughts, comments and hit-pieces to politicians and columnists on an hourly basis.

 

With all this in mind, anyone reading this blog should expect to see more direct critiques appearing soon and any inevitable response from critics appearing in the comment sections. My plans for the next few months of posting are still under wraps however, considering the cautionary position outlined above which I hope will help me steer the blog through the choppy waters of ‘new author’ status. There will be critiques and responses to the works of others and a long-read of sorts is currently planned which, if it gained wide attention, will attract harsh criticism in its own right for its treatment of the contemporary Corbyn-supporting British Left. I plan also to take part in public debates on various topics, taking HistoryJack on the road as a home for ideas rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. These will include expositions of thought on some quite controversial topics including the present culture wars taking place mainly on campuses and in the publishing industry over safe spaces, trigger warnings and the ‘social justice’ culture which broadly encompasses the new authoritarian discourse on the political left across the Western Hemisphere. All works in progress which I hope will reflect the value of caution briefly outlined above.

 

This is the first of what I hope will be many posts here reflecting an active role in political and cultural writing. One day I hope to expand to writing for larger and more widely circulated publications and platforms but it will be a long road to walk before I can go a few rounds with writers like James Bloodworth, author of the fantastic new tome on British social division, The Myth of Meritocracy and a prolific chronicler of the many moral catastrophes which have blighted the left in recent years, not least the foreign affairs of Jeremy Corbyn. May this blog be tempered by humility and a perpetual err to the side of caution.

 

Lest I or anyone involved in contributing to HistoryJack becomes another self-inventing ‘essential writer of our times’, or fall into dismal and indecent obscurity, may we return to Freud’s less apocryphal and more truthful aphorism; “The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.”

ITN vs LM revisited and undergraduate thoughts on the British Library

Ordering the copies of texts and materials held by the British Library (BL) can be an exciting experience for new scholars and I would suppose any scholar who loves the nuts-and-bolts side of their work. Collection times at the humanities reading rooms can feel like Christmas if you have found that one juicy text or pile of texts that you have wanted to get your hands on for some time. Fresh discoveries and the unexpected find can be an exhilerating source of anticipation.

That was the mood which struck as I discovered that the BL held among its collections the back issues of the now-defunct Living Marxism (known after 1997 as LM). This magazine will form one of the cornerstones of my History Undergraduate Dissertation; if we imagine a basic four-column structural plan, the temple of the Dissertation is supported at one side by the work of Deborah Lipstadt and Richard J. Evans and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy and on the other by the writings of David Irving and Living Marxism. Perhaps the analogy is fudged; the Dissertation is, after all, the subject-container for content which involves the discussion of this literature. That would make Irving and LM the sacrificial offerings. Or the Scriptures. Henceforth theological and ecclesiastical analogies shall be withdrawn from circulation.

And withdrawn from circulation was LM following the successful suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) against the small magazine in 1997 following the publication in LM 97 of allegations that ITN journalists had exaggerated, misrepresented or even staged atrocities during the Bosnian War in 1992. The case lit up the world of literary London in the late 1990s and attracted much fanfare, much of the support which LM received coming from writers and journalists who defended the publication on free-speech grounds. By LM 105, the campaign to raise war-fighting funds for the magazine’s defence had adopted this line. The editors and publishers fought the legal battle in the public domain by asserting a resolute commitment to their rights to publish the work of Thomas Deichmann, a German writer and electrical engineer whom Nick Cohen described as a “power-worshipping fruitcake” and a “crank”. The back of LM‘s print editions adopted a fundraising campaign logo in the shape of barbed-wire (central to the original Deichmann article in LM 97 alleging misrepresentation in the ITN report) which had been ‘redacted’ in the censor’s black pen.

This information is now in my possession thanks to the archiving practices of the BL. I am uncertain how they procured their copies of LM, possibly deposited at the time of the magazine’s publication or donated after LM folded in 2000. But my initial fears that the Dissertation would have to rely entirely on second-hand accounts of the magazine’s contents, like ferreting through Eusebius to find quotations of lost ancient works, have been allayed. When I first read Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, one of the most widely-read and compelling accounts of the intellectual and moral crisis of the post-1989 political Left in the Western world, I pondered where Cohen had got hold of his sources for the discussion of the LM trial. The magazine which ITN sued was at its peak reaching a readership of around 10,000. Aside from copies tucked away in the attics and personal collections of bibliophiles or the magazine’s former staff, I would not have been surprised if no physical traces of the publication readily existed. I seriously doubted that physical copies would be procurable, not least for an undergraduate student researching for a dissertation.

However, thanks to the BL, I was able to take a look at the records for the entire back catalogue of LM, requesting and collecting their copies of issues LM 97 and LM 105 for my first source reading. They have the dubious honour of being the first pieces of primary sources to enter my notes for the Dissertation, which is still awaiting final formal proposal and approval by the Department of History. Honour is something which really belongs to the BL; preserving the physical copies of the weird and the bizarre for posterity should be the archivist’s bread-and-butter. I felt proud to be handling the copies of this quite ignominious publication knowing the work that must have gone into keeping it safely stored in the BL’s possession. For this reason and much else besides, I sincerely hope that the BL does not cave to the pressure of critics and boot out undergraduate researchers by raising the membership age back up to 21. It would be a terrible blow to my new plans for the Dissertation and I have no doubt would adversely affect the plans of many others – even if, as many older academics plead, “we want out British Library back!”.

‘Back in the Nineties, I was in a very famous libel case…’ – the Dissertation post!

HistoryJack is what else but a student of History. Following several consultations with members of the Faculty of the Department of History at the University of York and many months of deliberation, I decided yesterday on a definitive topic for my undergraduate Dissertation. It is something I found to be both original and intellectually demanding but one that would provide myself with something that combined many of my existing interests.

The subject will be a comparative study of genocide denial in British libel cases of the 1990s. Wait, come back!

Whilst reading into the relationship between academic historians, independent enthusiasts and the murky swampland of cranks, cooks, crackpots and quacks (readers of a scientific bent will be familiar with the interplay between creationist and Spirit Science quackademics and actual scientists), I stumbled upon a fascinating factoid and what might be one of the bizarrest coincidences in British legal history. In the late 1990s; in fact, from the years 1997 to the Spring of 2000 to be precise, two libel cases were contested concurrently in the Royal Couts of Justice, Queens Bench Division – both of which concerned accusations of genocide denial and defamation of character.

The first case, best known to historians, was Irving v Penguin Books, the infamous suit filed by the far-right military historian David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers for Lipstadt’s claim that Irving was a “dangerous” promulgator of racist pseudo-history and a prolific Holocaust denier. The case involved the expert witness testimony of Richard J. Evans, Professor of History at Cambridge and author of the now celebrated text In Defence of History, published 1997. Despite becoming known as ‘the Irving trial’ in the press, the civil case was brought against Lipstadt and Penguin by an Irving as claimant. English libel law then (and still) placed the burden of proof on the defendant and Lipstadt was forced into a costly legal battle against an author whose work had been published to popular and bestselling acclaim in previous decades. The outcome of a case, championed as a vindication of History and its methods, resulted in Irving’s professional discrediting as an author as well as bankruptcy from the award of legal costs to the defendants. Irving’s name became synonymous with Holocaust denial and he has not been granted a column or contract by a respectable newspaper or publishing-house since.

The second case remains less well-known among historians specifically but famous among journalists and the London intelligentsia; the suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy against the publishers of LM, a magazine formerly known as Living Marxism. The magazine had printed allegations in 1997 that an ITN report on the Bosnian war broadcast in 1992 had fabricated evidence of atrocities committed by Serb forces, particularly the subsequently infamous scenes of starving concentration camp inmates in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The case, as did the Penguin trial, dragged on for three years and LM became a cause celebre for many on the intellectual Left, as well as several libertarians and conservatives who had opposed intervention in the Balkans and regarded LM‘s right to print the accusations as a free speech issue. Reputations were dragged through the mud of the docks in cross-examination and ITN won a resounding victory; the magazine folded but subsequently reformed under new imprints. Bosnian genocide denial has only become more contentious as former leaders of Serbian forces and political movements were tried for war crimes and genocide throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Even Noam Chomsky entered the lasting affray in 2005 and one of the most common tropes for Serb nationalists and their supporters who deny that genocide in the Balkans took place are rehashes of the original claims made by LM.

So what would this have to do with history? The libel trials provide, not least for their simultaneous occurrence, a tremendous insight into the relaitonship between historians, the public, the press and everybody else. The Irving trial was an instance of historians becoming agents of causation; Evans’ expert testimony led to Irving and his claims being completely discredited, with press and public confidence in History restored to new heights. Historians became actors and participants in major events in British legal history. Postmodernism and the narrative question were thrown into focus once more as the rationale for LM and Irving’s claims was invoked as a defeater for the claims of postmodernist conceptions of History. Denial of historical crimes against humanity and the spectre of organised racial hatred seeped into public consciousness again as the supporters of both denying parties were exposed as propogating intellectual fraud in the guise of radical scholarship and ‘dissent’.

The exact angle I wish to take with this study is not entirely settled upon yet. However, the trials were major subjects in polemical writing and reportage by one of my favourite and most-cited authors, Nick Cohen, and Richard Evans was one of the most influential forces in my decision to pursue History as an A-Level student. It would be an appropriate culmination of my study to turn the analytical focus onto the career of an historian who set the hare running to begin with.

Intellectual, social and legal history in a time very far removed from our own – the 1990s!

Here is to a year with some of my favourite writers and some of the darkest hours that modern history has had to confront.

Catch me on BBC’s The Big Questions (‘Do we have free will?’) on Sunday 18th April!

EDIT (23/04/2015): Here is the link to the episode on BBC iPlayer. It will be removed within the next week so catch HistoryJack’s appearance at 29.30!

One for the watchers of the blog and for anyone interested in philosophy, theology, economics or sociology – that is, subjects that would still be excorbiantly costly to study under Nigel Farage’s vision of a tuition-free STEM subject Britain.

On Sunday 18th April 2015, BBC One will broadcast an edition of The Big Questions, a flagship daytime discussion programme, which I was privileged to take part in as an audience member. The single question posed for the programme was “Do we have free will?” Though not one of the main panelists whose name and profession gets listed in a purple banner at the bottom of the screen, I was thrilled to be seated right behind the author and campaigner Owen Jones. Whatever you make of his debut polemic Chavs and his latest book The Establishment, let alone his firebrand populist leftism, Jones is a prolific figure in contemporary political commentary and someone who I have no doubt will rack up many footnotes in the history of the 2010s. Getting to make his personal acquaintance was a great honour if only to meet a person who serves as a rare case of sincerity and commitment to principles that do not step into fanaticism.

The episode was recorded at the Manor C of E school in Nether Poppleton, York, the previous Sunday (11th April). The discussion was preceeded by an unrecorded warm-up wherein Owen Jones and his sparring partner Deidre Bounds, an entrepeneur, produced some high-quality informal debate. It was unfortunate that this dummy question concerning inequality and the economy was mainly for the calibration of cameras and getting the audience in the right mindset. The debate which followed saw less talk about business and taxation and more on matters theological.

Expecting the quesiton to receive answers from the religious and naturalistic sperspectives followed by migrations into economics, class and social relations and eventually into neuroscience. This outline, intentionally or not, corresponded with great chronos to the history of philosophy – from Aristotelianism and religious debate through the Enlightenment and social theorists of the Industrial Revolution through to modern theories of society and the demystifying process of science.

However, the Age of Reason came quite late in the discussion; the Dickensian arguments about the condition of the poor and the best way to resolve social distress barely got a word in and we were fortunate that the word ‘neuroscience’ received mention at all. The programme was, true to its Sunday brief, a meaty religious argument through and through. Livening up proceedings were the presences of a Calvinist civil servant, Mike Petit at one end of the set contrasted with Catholic Voices member and commentator Peter D. Williams. Arguments about pre-destination and the proper place of reason were the dominant markers of discourse for much of the programme. What made things all the more fascinating as an historian was the consideration that had this discussion occurred some three to four hundred years previously, the use of pikes and pyres to settle points of clash would have been a plausible outcome.

I was very lucky to get a point in when the cameras were turned to the audience. At one point I even heard Nicky Campbell say that I had “got the ball rolling!” with what I hoped was my best line on the coherence or otherwise of theological conceptions of free will. This comes in about halfway through the debate but only when the programme is broadcast will I be able to leave an exact time-stamp.

The episode will be available on BBC iPlayer tomorrow after broadcast if you wish to catch up. Watch out for an enthralling debate between some great minds in the front row and some not-too-shabby ones in the rears!

– HistoryJack

Artsy history: pre-Raphaelites as the original ‘fan art’ people?

The_Young_Lord_Hamlet

The Young Lord Hamlet by Phillip H Calderon (1868).

The author’s ignorance of historical matters artistic will show through as the light of the Last Judgement over Patmos, but one subject that came to mind today was the issue of ‘fan art’ and its precursors or prototypes in the History of Art. It would be easy to reduce fan art to an invention of the digital natives, or at the very least a product of twentieth century mass culture and mass communications. Drawing one’s own conceptions of images from cinema or television is a hobby of any child raised with a visual medium as a major influence alongside those of creative disciplines. For me, that meant drawing my own reimaginings of the Death Star Attack and the Batte of Endor with felt tip pens. The freedom to extrapolate an existing license or canon of ltierature, film, television or otherwise and add one’s own spin has been the impulse behind the world of fan fiction and Live Action Role-Playing in vast subcultures of ‘fandom’, as well as the titular subject of fan art.

However, is fan art something which came into existence only with mass culture and the age of comic books and the cinema screen? Fandom as a social force existed before the movie camera; the hounding of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle following his decision to send Sherlock Holmes falling to his death is known well enough, though authors long before Doyle had legions of devoted followers. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther became famous for the wrong reasons after a wave of copycat suicides were attributed to young men in depsondency deciding to emulate the character in dress, philosophy and self-destruction. This behaviour was subsequently named the ‘Werther effect’ in 1974 by the American sociologist David Phillips. Modern studies have challenged the extent to which media reporting and the power of suggestion influence the overall rate of suicides, as well as the number of suicides causally linked to the novel itself in the late 1700s, but the power that Goethe’s novel held over some of its fans was one approaching religious fervour. Among those who did not follow Werther’s pistol-based solution to rejection, the character remained an endearing hero for the bitter and unrequited. Antecedent to the bard Morrissey, doth thou not concur?

Fandoms are understudied social movements; the impact they can have on cultural evolution in the long term can be immense. Arnold Schwarzenegger would unlikely have risen to the public prominence which allowed him to sweep into the California Governor’s mansion had it not been for truck driver and future Terminator creator-director James Cameron’s obsession with emulating 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, resulting in his aggressive advance through the film industry. The enduring devotional power of fandoms to have killed-off characters resurrected or entire series returned to publication and airtime (think the original Sherlock Holmes and his current Cumberbatchian iterations as well as Futurama and Family Guy) is a force to be reckoned with that historians have paid relatively little attention to cf. labour movements, permanently rising middle classes and social activist groups. Something for the future, perhaps.

But away from this and to the matter of fan art. If fandoms existed before the term itself entered the lexicon and before ‘fans’ would even self-identify as such, could their artisitc proclivities have done so likewise? This is an area that, were the author an art historian, it would be consuming a great deal of my time in the library. We know the famous trope, established most prominently by journalist and full-time science-denying crackpot Christopher Booker of there being only five, six or seven at the most core stories that are adapted and retold across every culture. There may be some weight in it – the Hero Archetype of Joseph Campbell generally holds up under scrutiny at the very least. But the fact remains that the adaptive storytelling practices of humankind have made it possible for Shakespeare and Milton to retell older chronicle-histories, ballads and folklore as dramatic catastrophes and centuries later have their theatrical versions reshaped and retold by Hollywood and Broadway. Humans of every generation adapt the fictions and histories of old for their own purposes. Among the reinvention is the adding, subtracting and division of characters. Entire scenes are invented and when juxtaposed with the source material, the process can be consternating. Dramatic license can quite literally be a license to kill (entire dynasties who actually lived) and a license to conjure. Shakespeare worked from adaptation and invention, though his deployment of familiar characters from earlier works and the use of earlier dramatic structures (medieval morality plays influenced the presentation of the monstrous Duke of Gloucester in Richard III and his soliloquies) draws the lines for a brutal fisticuffs over whether the he undertook ‘fan fiction’ of a kind.

What merits consideration is the place of art in all of this. Shakespeare, who “departs from his source materials repeatedly” (in relation to Coriolanus in the linked accessible example) was not above inventing entire scenes that existed not in the historical or dramatic sources from which he worked. In the dramatic cases it was probably beneficial; though no copyright laws as modernity knows them existed at the time, originality and innovation are why we study Shakespeare and not the poems of Rupert Brooke with such intensity. So what of the artistic depictions of dramatic works? The inspirations for portraiture and draughtsmanship found in the works of Shakespeare himsef provide one of the most illuminating examples.

Now to the titular matter. It should be worth pointing out that this idea came to me whilst looking through the vast interconnecting fandoms on dedicated social networking platforms for, among other things, the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, SherlockStar Trek and the plethora of popular works that encapsulate the attentive fantasy and focus of the Millennial generation. Of course fandoms for these and countless other works existed before the age of the online fan forum but modernity gifts such ease of access to the inner workings of fan minds. Fan art, particularly the representation of imagined scenes from established canons, ranks hugely in popularity in fan communities. Imagined backstories, uncanonical actions by characters and the meeting of impossibly separated individuals, whether by crossover or resurrection from the canonical dead, are standard fare in the genre. It is difficult to believe, given the long pedigree of adaptive and creative license taken in literature and drama for centuries before the advent of modern communications, that this genre of artistic expression was itself merely a by-product of digital modernity.

The one exceedingly good example of this wroking thesis aforementioned is the 1868 painting by Phillip H. Calderon, The Young Lord Hamlet. The traditional depiction of scenes from the stage play are dispensed with in favour of something radically different. Hamlet is seen playing with Yorick the jester as a child, as family look on. Happier times. This memory or something resembling it is merely alluded to in the ‘gravedigger scene’ of Act V, Scene 1 in the play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and not even indirectly depicted besides the reference made by Hamlet’s speech:

“… he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is!”

Could Calderon’s work be among the first examples of truly imaginative ‘fan art’? Taking an unstaged scene, drawing the entire foundations of a painting from one stanza in the tragedy would not be out of place among Tumblr pages dedicated to the unknown histories of various Doctor Who villains, the lovelorn youth of Professor Snape or imaginings of Luke Skywalker’s boyhood on Tatooine. Is the Calderon imagining of Yorick and Hamlet among the first of its kind? Nestled among the work of the Pre-Rafaelites of the later nineteenth century could be the starting-point of devotional fan art extending beyond the parameters of canonical authority.

With the help of fellow postulators on Reddit, I have located the works of John William Waterhouse in a similar context. An artist in the post-Pre-Raphaelite vogue (they ought to have found better prefixes and placeholders for their clubhouse name), Waterhouse was immensely fond of classical and mythic subjects, especially women. Among his forays into myth-making with historical characters are his The Remorse of Nero After the Murder of his Mother in addition to his Shakespearean portraiture which includes a consistent fondness for Ophelia.

This midnight rambling has gotten to the ghost of a point. Was there a genus of the modern fan-art phenomenon within the pre-Rafaelite movement? Did it begin even earlier? Again, there has been comparably little historical study of this when one considers the energy expended upon textual criticism of the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Middleton or the career-bending controversies thrown up over two centuries of the Stratfordian Question (like creationism and climate change denial, most scholarly effort has been sunk into rebutting the curve-arrow claims of cranks and crankhood, fired from the high parapets of quackdemia). Nor has there been much social history done on the issue of fandoms, again treated mainly by sociologists in their contemporary contexts.

Treat this, as you like it, as a placemark for future research. The question of what constitutes ‘fan art’ and whether a chronology can be developed based on the work of the pre-Rafaelites will be of interest to the author for some time to come!