Category Archives: Pop culture

The Zotero Quest

Those who know a little about role-playing games (RPG) may be familiar with the concept of ‘levelling up’. When your character acquires a certain quantity of experience (all experience is quantitative in these games), they pass from their current level to the one above, becoming – in a variety of ways – more powerful.

In some ways, the life of a PhD student is a bit like an RPG. And not just because of the peculiarities of our habitat. As you complete the various quests that constitute your research (find and read all your sources; write a conference paper, an article, a chapter, a thesis, a book…), you acquire experience and, ultimately, level up.

Of course, there are some events during a doctorate (as in an RPG) that earn you more experience than others. In a game like <i>Final Fantasty</i>, for instance, one earns a great deal more experience from defeating a story-specific enemy – known as a ‘boss’ – than from scything your way through all of his or her underlings.

There are many candidates for the academic equivalent of a boss. My supervisor, much as I’m fond of him, has occasionally played this role (albeit without the tentacles), asking me a difficult question, which, once answered, unlocks new power for my research. Alternatively, and perhaps more plausibly, one might consider job interviews, journal submissions or conference presentation as boss battles. Or maybe I’m just too combative a speaker.

I’m also wandering from my original aim. You see, I have just had a level up moment. It involves footnotes, a word I only use here, after a long and exciting exposition, in the hope that it won’t make you stop reading.

The chapters of my thesis have between 150 and 200 of what the French call “notes de bas de page” each. Inserting all of them was a long and painful process, but it would have been far longer and far more painful if I had not been using Zotero to store my bibliographical data. Like a particularly potent piece of equipment, this program has made my forays into the dungeons at the foot of each page of my thesis much easier. And yet, as I discovered recently, I had been wielding it ineptly.

Take a look at this.

bad notes

Although these footnotes follow the MHRA style guide to the letter, they are not good footnotes. Numbers 126, 128 and 130 all refer to one edition of Shakespeare’s plays, while notes 129 and 131 refer to another. This information will be quite useful to my reader, but to make it appear I would have to complete the oddest quest my PhD has set me yet.

Enter Zotero’s Visual CSL editor. With this tool, once can rewrite the ontologies of a style. It takes some time to work out how it functions (although a lot less time than reading the code itself), but, once you have it, you can create your own, modified style guides.

good notes


While I am, perhaps, a bit too proud of these footnotes now, there is a larger point to be made here too. Changing the format of these lines entailed acquiring a far better understanding of how Zotero worked, and how to modify it. On top of this, it also taught me about the ontology of citation: the immensely clever system that has the capacity to enclose all other systems of reference.

I’d say that makes me, roughly, a level 28 researcher.


Orphan Black and General Sensibility

Have you been watching Orphan Black? I have, and enjoying it immensely as a way to get away from writing up my PhD. Unfortunately, though, the fact that my thesis is all about performance makes it pretty much impossible to ignore my research completely when watching a TV series. Especially this one. I can’t help but use eighteenth-century methods to reflect on the program’s plot, its mise en scène, or, in the case of Orphan Black, how it depends so heavily on its lead actress (and now producer too) Tatiana Maslany.

A bit of background is in order here, so prepare yourself for a few spoilers. Orphan Black is set in contemporary North America, with one difference: human cloning was achieved several decades back, and then – with key aspects of the research mysteriously lost – hushed up. All is well until, one day, a woman called Sarah Manning comes across what appears to be her identical twin (but is really her clone) in a train station. From there, a complex series of events unfold, in which Sarah meets (at time of writing) ten other clones, and, together, they try and work out who they are and where they came from.

Maslany in the role of: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima and Rachel.

All the clones are played by Tatiana Maslany. Yet all of them are distinct characters: Sarah is former con artist, Cosima a geek, Alison a soccer mom, Helena a trained assassin, and so on. Maslany’s ability to transform from one person to the other is extraordinary, and has won her numerous acting awards.

What interests me, however, in my own little eighteenth-century way, is how this ability to transform has, to a certain extent, hidden Maslany herself. When watching Orphan Black, unless you try very hard indeed, you do not see the same actress in each of the parts. Televisual trickery sometimes helps with this: by combining several takes, it is possible for multiple clones to meet and talk (and, in one extraordinary season finale, dance) together. Yet even when there is no post-production help, the most critical of viewers will be hard pressed to say that Sarah, Cosima, Alison and all the others are visibly the same person.

Maslany’s ability to enter into each of these roles so completely that it is so hard to see the same actress behind them all is proof of something that was once called “general sensibility”. John Hill coins this term in the 1755 volume of The Actor.

Hill argued that “any particular turn of mind, far from qualifying a person for playing, is rather a disadvantage”. For him, an aspiring actor must instead possess a “ductility of mind”, a “general sensibility”. In other words, “It were best that the heart of the player had no reigning passion of its own” but rather a “ready sensibility of all”. In these circumstances, the actor would disappear into the role assigned to them, as Maslany does in Orphan Black.

Interestingly, Hill is pushed to theorise “general sensibility” as a way of understanding why performances by star actors of his time, like David Garrick and Spranger Barry, sometimes fell short of their full effect, because, as he puts it, “whether we see Mr Garrick in Richard or in Osmyn, still [we see] Mr Garrick”. Only an actress, Susannah Cibber, possesses the full general sensibility that means we do not identify the player from the play.

Perhaps Cibber is an ancestor of Maslany. If not by blood, than at least by intellectual tradition. There is certainly much more to say about Orphan Black with regard to early modern acting theory. For example: the TV series has (spoiler) a series of male clones too, but they – unlike the women – are far less varied. Perhaps the showrunners couldn’t find an actor with enough “general sensibility”?

Another question. If Maslany becomes more famous, will she lose the power to transform? Hill attributes Garrick’s visibility in to a lack of “general sensibility”, but more modern approaches might call this phenomenon a downside of theatrical celebrity. Isn’t an actor’s art also dependent on the eye of the beholder?

And one more thing to finish with. Hill suggests that “general sensibility” entails having “no reigning passion” of one’s own. I feel Maslany might take issue with this: is she really an unfeeling person, oddly characterless when not in front of the cameras? I doubt she’d say so. And then, to step once more into the world of Orphan Black, can we justly distinguish Cosima from Sarah, Helena from Alison, in terms of a “reigning passion”? If so, then where did it come from, given that the characters are all clones of each other? An important, submerged, implication of the premise of this series as a whole, but one that soon appears after a little reflection, is that we are not mere slaves to our genetics, but rather infinitely variable, if not – perhaps – to the extent of Tatiana Maslany and her “general sensibility”.


This post is so far out of the Christmas spirit that I’ve decided to put this warning at the head of it. Apologies. Continue only if you’re feeling Scroogish.

Continuing my sideline of reading whatever roughly contemporary anecdotal accounts of acting and performance I find in secondhand bookshops (e.g. Sher’s, and Brook’s), I’ve just finished volume two of Actors Talk About Acting. It was first published in 1961, and contains seven interviews with the luminaries of the American theatre of that time: Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, José Ferrer, Maureen Stapleton, Katharine Cornell, Paul Muni and Anne Bancroft. I enjoyed going through it, and shall try and get hold of volume one. Continue reading Monsters

Millennium Actress (Sennen Joyû)

Without a doubt, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Satoshi Kon’s 2001 masterpiece is one of my favourite animated films. The story is relatively simple: we watch a film journalist, Genya Tachibana, and his unnamed cameraman interview the famous retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara about her life whilst a series of earthquakes shake the building. The interview concludes when the actress collapses and is rushed to hospital. Before that, she has recounted something extraordinary. As a young girl in the 1930s, Chiyoko saved the life of a Japanese revolutionary on the run from the police by sheltering him in the storehouse of a shop. In the brief time they spend together, the future actress falls desperately in love with the revolutionary, who is also a painter, and leaves behind him a portrait of her on a wall and a key to the box he carries, which contains, in his words, “the most important thing in the world”. The man then leaves, and Chiyoko despairs of ever seeing him again, so she decides to become an actress, which will allow her to travel the country and continue her search.

The rest of the tale concerns the films of Chiyoko Fujiwara, many of which devotion to a lost love so that when the young woman acts reality and fiction coincide. Unsurprisingly (if you were an eighteenth-century theatre critic like John Hill), such performance based on true emotion captures the hearts of everyone and Chiyoko fast becomes a star. Yet she never gives up her quest: thrown in jail by some policemen, she catches a glimpse of a man who might be her painter in another room; receiving news much later whilst filming in the midst of another earthquake that her true love was from Hokkaido, she rushes north but finds no trace of him.

There’s much to say about this film, especially its way of dancing between fact and fiction. What I want to bring out here now, though, is how the whole piece is structured by desire. We’ve already heard of Chiyoko’s impossible love, but it soon becomes clear that the journalist, Tachibana, is also in love. Tachibana at first begins to appear in Chiyoko’s reminiscences of her films; he then also surfaces in her memories of life in the studio, as a lowly intern: each time, it becomes more and more evident that he is obsessed with her, selflessly devoting his efforts to help her own goals even if their realisation would put an end to all his dreams. At the beginnning of his interview with Chiyoko, Tachibana hands her the painter’s key, which she lost thirty years ago, only for him, devoted still, to return it to her.

Desire is layered over desire, and impossible love furthers impossible love. In the final scene, Chiyoko, dying on her hospitable bed, blurs into her role as a spacewoman, departing (as ever) in search of someone. At the moment she does so, she says something like, “in reality, I always preferred the chase”: Tachibana is distraught, but the film ends with Chiyoko, as an astronaut, serenely entering warp speed.

Tachibana’s responses made me think of a very peculiar passage in an eighteenth-century art of acting. In it, the author (John Hill, who keeps cropping up at the moment) is trying to distinguish between different kinds of theatrical illusion. His point is that the illusion only ever really works when there is a true emotion behind it, but the argument he deploys involves comparing the disinterested audience (who need true emotion from the actors to be deceived) and the infatuated suitor of an actress (who is easily tricked by her faking of affection). I’ll finish by quoting the passage in question, but it does raise one interesting question about this film: was Chiyoko such a great actress, not because she was mixing reality and fiction, but because we, like Tachibana, had fallen under the spell, become infatuated and so lost the ability to separate out the true?

Here’s the Hill:

It will be natural to set up the common arts of women in private life, against this general necessity of feeling upon the stage. If an actress, it will be said, can feign a passion for the man who supports her, of which she feels nothing, why cannot she dissemble with us as well upon the stage? Certainly there are some who do this in private, and why may not they deceive a disintereseted audience, who can impose upon the man that devotes his life and fortune to them? For that reason, because an audience is disinterested. The lover is desirous to believe the lady is fond of him; and therefore he is easily made ot receive the pretence of such a fondness: but an audience are unbiased; they look with eyes of impartiality; they will not allow what does not exist; and will exclaim against that pretence for robbing them of their shillings, which the lover would receive as the price of his whole fortune. The lover is willing, and the audience are also willing to be deluded; but when the passion of the one makes everything pass upon him, the others, having their eyes open, expect some colour or resemblance in what they are to receive for the present as reality.

I’m sorry if that’s a bit long: having just typed it up, it strikes me that Millennium Actresss is a powerful riposte to Hill. Chiyoko is in love (so her performance has a foundation in reality) but Tachibana is also infatuated (so, for example, helps Chiyoko recreate the scenes of her youth, even when she is too elderly to perform them well). The question, then, is whether the audience sees through the journalist’s eyes or not.

The Game

Warning: spoilers

I watched Ender’s Game last night, and, with only a vague memory of the novel by Orson Scott Card on which it is based, was newly struck by all the moral questions raised by the story. One or two of them – as with most things these days – seemed to connect with a few of the larger themes of my PhD, so I decided to write this post.

Ender’s Game tells the story of Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, who is part of a cohort of children being trained to lead the Earth’s fleet of spaceships against the Formic menace. Fifty years ago, the Formic (a race, as their name indicates, of ant-like aliens) attacked earth but were repulsed thanks to the heroics of one Mazer Rackham. Now mankind, fearing a return of their fast-rebuilding enemy, is launching a final attack on the Formic homeworld in order to protect the future of the Earth. The plot can be divided into two sections: those moments spent in ‘battle school’ orbiting earth where Ender and the other children learn basic military strategy and Ender marks himself out as a leader; and, then, after some hesitation, Ender’s journey to ‘command school’, not far from the Formic homeworld, where he leads a team through simulated attacks against the aliens.

The twist of the story, however, is that, following Ender’s triumph in the last simulation when he fires a superweapon that erases all life from the planet below, all these simulated combats were in fact real battles. Ender’s game was actually reality, and, eager to show his strategic daring, the child prodigy has both committed genocide and sacrificed many thousands of human lives to do so. Despite knowing that this twist was coming, it still shocked me, while the film’s coda – in which Ender discovers one last Formic and promises to protect the creature – does little to assuage the horror.

This got me thinking. Right at the beginning of the film, and during an important interlude between ‘battle school’ and ‘command school’, Ender explains his tactical brilliance in the following terms:

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.

What is so terrible about the ruse of claiming that Ender is playing a simulation, therefore, is that it prevents any meaningful contact between the child and his enemy, no matter how much he feels connected to him. The coda tries to redress this, and makes us realise that Ender was indeed slowly building up a rapport with the aliens all along, but this only confirms the ugly logic of it all. The sentiment that when you understand someone well enough to defeat him, you also love him should – one feels – be an argument for pacifism, for restraint based on sympathy. What the imposition of false make-believe has done is to remove that restraint so that the child ends up killing the enemy he has begun to understand and love.

Behind all this, there is the shape of an argument one often hears about video games and other immersive entertainments: that they create arenas of suspended morality, and so corrupt those who spend time in them. This brings me to the PhD, and an antitheatrical argument that has circulated for eons, which runs along similar lines, namely that the theatre exposes its audiences to experiences and ideas that they would never otherwise have had. If some of these ideas are dangerous, then the theatre, for all the safety of theatrical illusion, can still have a corrupting influence on those who watch or, perhaps even more so, on those who act out, night after night, the blinding of Gloucester, the murder of Banquo or any other such scene.

Against this, there is an argument that the theatre promotes sympathy and connection, stretches the emotional fibre of an audience (and an actor) forced to confront extreme situations, and so makes them stronger. What, I suppose, therefore, is ultimately so disturbing about Ender’s Game is how the simulation is used to close down the possibility of emotional development. The suggestion that it is all make-believe makes it easier to do something terrible. The game, the play, for a moment at least, suspended morality as much as it suspended disbelief.

BONUS: Coda on Shakespeare

This has just made me think of Hamlet. Does Laertes need the fencing match in order to kill Hamlet? The standard reading is that Laertes is furious and would attack the prince anywhere, but is restrained by Claudius into making it look like a fencing accident with the use of a sharpened, poisoned rapier. That said, could it not be that the structure, the game, of such a match helps Laertes to commit murder? After all, he has only to convince himself that it is, as it appears, no different from all the sportive bouts we know he has been having as part of his education in France. This would mean that, like Hamlet, Laertes too needs help to kill. Further, it would fit with other moments in the play. After all, even Hamlet, a bit earlier in the plot, seems to have tried to turn fiction to the real-life end of strengthening his resolve by staging the Murder of Gonzago to ascertain Claudius’s guilt…

Benedict Cumberbatch

I heard the other day that Benedict Cumberbatch (aka. Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, and Smaug) is going to be playing Hamlet in London towards the end of 2014. There is much excitement about this, on a par with that surrounding David Tennant’s Hamlet with the RSC in 2009.

This way of talking about somebody‘s Hamlet made me think of something Charles Lamb wrote about the unavoidable limits of performing Shakespeare on the stage:

[…] such is the instantaneous nature of the impressions which we take in at the eye and ear at a playhouse, compared with the slow apprehension oftentimes of the understanding in reading, that we are apt not only to sink the play-writer in the consideration which we pay to the actor, but even to identify in our minds in a perverse manner, the actor with the character which he represents.

On the surface, it looks like the tendencies Lamb describes here are still very much alive today. We’re not going to see Cumberbatch in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but rather just to see Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. We go to see the character connected with the famous actor, and not the play, the complete expression of Shakespeare’s mind. Do we remember who, for example, played Ophelia to Tennant’s Hamlet? Or do we know the Claudius to Cumberbatch’s prince?

There’s another way of thinking about this though. Cumberbatch doing Hamlet is so important because it can be taken as a claim for his acting powers: he is of sufficient status and skill so as to be ready to undertaken one of the greatest plays in the English language. Would as many people be as eager to go see Cumberbatch’s Dr Faustus as his Hamlet? Perhaps not. Seen from this angle, then, the play and its playwright are just as important to the creation of the event as the choice of actor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Leaving Lamb behind us, the phrase ‘Cumberbatch’s Hamlet’ also brings up another issue. How much can the person who is directing this production of Hamlet change the text, move a scene, encourage a particularly stylised way of presenting emotion? The audience, after all, have not come to see the director’s Hamlet but Cumberbatch’s acting of it. On top of this, they will want Cumberbatch’s Hamlet to be a coherent whole so as to be able to talk about this actor’s version of the dane, and to compare it with other actors’ takes on the character, such as David Tennant’s, Jude Law’s, or Laurence Olivier’s. If this Hamlet is Cumberbatch’s, that is to say, above all the property of the actor (just as eighteenth-century actors literally owned the text of their parts), then the director can only do so much: his audience’s expect a Hamlet to emerge coherently from the play, not several possible Hamlets.

Comparing this to eighteenth-century thought and expectation about, say, Garrick’s Hamlet, we find some differences. Lamb may have been right to criticise Garrick and others for associating “in a perverse manner” his name with the character he played, but this association did not result in the kind of pressure for an actor to give his single, coherent Hamlet to the world that Cumberbatch must feel. Rather, eighteenth-century audiences valued the rapid changes of emotion, the swings between the melancholy and the manic that Garrick’s sprightly form was so good at, and remember not so much the whole man as presented bit by bit the length of the play, but rather the particularly striking moment: when Garrick’s Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (immortalised in Fielding‘s Tom Jones) or when, frustrated with Gertrude, the young prince knocks over a chair (an inherited piece of stage business captured in many paintings and engravings).

I wonder if, come autumn 2014, we could still watch Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in such a way, praising specific moments of virtuoso performance and caring less for any overall impression of the character…