Category Archives: Academe

Coming Down the Mountain

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

Comin’ down the mountain
One of many children
Everybody has
Their own opinion

‘Mountain Song’, Jane’s Addiction

I stood on the precipitous summit, a heart-stopping pinnacle, 13,435 ft up, looking down over the rainforest fastness of Borneo, exuding its mist like a tropical collective unconscious – the intoxicating, dangerously wild dreams of the jungle. It was 1996 and I was 25 and I had just climbed the highest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th most prominent in the world, topographically. It was an exhilarating experience, but even then I knew my achievement was relative. For me it was a ‘peak experience’, a personal high, whileas in mountaineering terms, it’s a cake-walk. Thousands of people climb Kinabalu every year. That doesn’t make it easy – it is an interminable slog, one that requires overnighting halfway up to make it possible to reach the summit for dawn. Even if packs are carried by porters or left at base-camp, the steep trek through the sticky heat leaves one dripping sweat until you get higher up – and then the air starts to get thin. But this isn’t Everest base-camp (which at 17, 598 ft is 4000+ ft more). Still, it felt like an effort – and the final ascent, across the plateau to the ironically-named Low’s Peak, is out of this world.

I was reminded of this incredible experience by my recent Viva (Monday, 29th October) and its immediate aftermath. It is a truism, but a wise one, that the most dangerous part of climbing a mountain is the descent – for that is when over-confidence, and fatigue, can kick in. There have been waves of euphoria over the last few days – each time the reality hits me – but also, at times, an emptiness and malaise. This is not surprising – I’ve been pushing myself, hard, for days, weeks, months, years. I’ve handed in my thesis and passed my viva. Apart from some minor revisions, the show is over. And so no wonder it feels like the post-gig blues, the ‘adrenal-out’ as my partner calls it. The endorphins have been discharged and you are left with a serotonin low. It is hard to find the motivation to do anything. Yet life continues – marking, teaching, preparation for dayschools, filling in application forms, etc. I should allow myself a few days to recover. It has been an intense time, and I do feel completely wiped out. It hit me last night at a Halloween gathering – when I found myself struggling to stay awake. Maybe by next week I’ll start to feel myself again. For the PhD isn’t over yet. It is akin to the last day of my Pennine Way hike. 13 miles in I had reached the highest point of Windy Gyle, but there was still 12.5 miles (and several summits) to go. This was the hardest part of the hike as culminative fatigue set in (from 17 days of 15 mile hikes in a heatwave). I had to really draw upon inner reserves – but I had been building towards this for over two weeks, and I was ready. Also, I knew I didn’t have to hold anything back, for the next day I would be jumping on a train and heading south. A few blisters and aching limbs wasn’t going to kill me – but it was still painful, as my feet really reached ‘peak blister’. I had to ration my water carefully in the heat, but after training up for half-marathons I knew I could go for 6 miles without a sip. Just as well. My dwindling supply of jelly beans saved the day. The combination of exhaustion, heat, pain, adrenalin and mild euphoria at the prospect of reaching the end made me slightly bosky, and at one point I ran down the steep paths of the Cheviots, with my full pack on, singing my heart out to a song that I had kept in reserve for a final boost. I would have looked quite a sight, running down the mountain. It was a crazy, reckless thing to do, which could have easily led to an accident – but … I lived to tell the tale. As I reached Kirk Yetholm my fellow hikers (all of whom had split the 25 miler by either getting picked up and dropped off by the guest house in Byrness, or bothying it, unlike Muggsy here) burst into cheers and applause, as I came hobbling into sight. Wainwright advised not to expect anyone to care when you walked into the bar at the Borders Hotel, but here I was, getting the hard-won respect of a dozen or so Pennine Wayfarers. And similarly, these last three days I have had the pleasure of receiving heartfelt congratulations from many dear friends – which has meant a great deal. One undertakes these things alone, and to achieve them is a long, lonely effort – with the odd, deeply appreciated bit of supervision or support along the way – so this sense of acknowledgment feels like an important stage of re-assimilation into the community. One has had the vision upon the mountain. Now it is time to reincorporate it (and oneself) into the tribe. Time to chop wood, fetch water. Each day, a slow descent back to the Plain of Being where the existential challenge of life continues.





The Old Ones Speak

Aberfoyle graveyard by Kevan Manwaring.jpg

Aberfoyle churchyard. Photograph by Kevan Manwaring (2014)

Tonight is Halloween, or Samhain in Gaelic (‘Summer’s End’) – traditionally a time to honour the ancestors. For me, coming a couple of days after my PhD viva, it is overwhelmed by the emotional aftermath of that intense experience and the euphoria of passing (with minor revisions). I am still getting my head around the prospect of becoming a Doctor, which becomes official once I graduate but since fellow academics (my examiners, my referees, including Professor Ronald Hutton) are already calling me ‘Dr Manwaring’ it is feels like the change of status has already occurred and the minor revisions, a formality. The project that enabled me to achieve this long-term (6 year) goal is, when you drill down into it, all about the ancestors. My protagonist, Janey McEttrick, is a musician based near Asheville, North Carolina. She plays in a jobbing rock band and works part-time in a vintage record store (a hauntological nod there). She is spinning wheels, or perhaps worse – on the slippery slope of alcohol and drug-addiction. For she is in denial of her gifts, her heritage: for she is descended from a long-line of singer-seers, gifted, troubled women: the McEttrick Women. Through extensive research I sought to bring alive the voices of nine generations of these women, stretching back three hundred years to the time of the Rev. Robert Kirk, Episcopalian minister and author of the sui generis monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691/1815). Only by coming to terms with who she is can Janey finally find peace – in doing so she will discover her own authentic voice, as she aligns with her remarkable lineage and heritage. To do this she has to travel to the old country, Scotland, and release the trapped spirit of the Reverend, who according to popular belief in the Aberfoyle area, was ‘taken’ by the Good People, and remains trapped there as punishment for revealing their secrets – a folkloric Edward Snowden, permanently held in limbo beyond the pale of loved ones and the soil of his soul. This is a process sometimes called ‘ancestral clearing’ – a form of karmic irrigation which will free up the blocked energies of her blood-line (‘blockage’ or ‘usurpation’ being key criteria of the Sublime). This convoluted tale colonised my imagination for around 6 years. I didn’t choose it; it chose me. One day, Janey walked into my head, picked up her guitar and started playing – and she refused to leave until I told her story, and the story of her kin. The ‘old ones’ wanted to speak, to be heard. In their the story of the McEttrick Women I’ve told the story of many families, who experienced the dislocation of the Clearances (Highland; Lowland) and the Famine, forced into permanent exile, their soul-songs becoming cianalas, songs of longing piquant with sehnsucht.  It has taken me a substantial part of my life and considerable time, energy and effort – in short, sacrifice – to ‘sing’ this song of longing on behalf of these marginalised voices. Now, I feel I am finally being released – free to sing other songs. My own wish now is for these subaltern voices to be heard by as many people as possible, and so I seek the best possible home for my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, so that the work of Kirk and the lives of the McEttrick Women lives on.

Much of the transmedia elements of the novel and my research are accessible to all via my website:

Eye of the Viva

Diary of a Viva Ninja: The Viva Voce


And so the Day of Judgement finally came… Yesterday I underwent my Viva Voce at the University of Leicester in the dark (actually, bright, but Brutalist) tower of the Attenborough Building. I felt like Childe Harold, or Frodo approaching Mount Doom, as I walked across the chilly park with my partner, Chantelle, who kindly drove me up the 90 miles up the Fosseway for the big day (which meant I didn’t arrive on campus frozen to the bone and wiped out from a 2-3 hr ride on a freezing morning in late October). We went and had lunch and then I spent the final hour getting ‘into the zone’ (and trying to stay calm) in a quieter ‘break out’ space. 30 minutes before the Viva I made my way to the 13th floor (!) and waited outside, playing a ‘lucky’ song, to give myself a final boost before going in. The sun broke through and the view across the city towards the first hills of the Pennines in the north was breathtaking. It was suitably vertiginous – I had come so far and here I was, at the ‘summit’. This was akin to reaching Windy Gyle earlier in the summer, on the last day of the Pennine Way – the highest point of the 25 mile final slog. Having ‘walked it through’ in that way helped me to pace myself. This maybe the summit, but it wasn’t necessarily going to be the end … but everything led to this moment. Awaiting to go in was intense – my fate awaited beyond those doors. I paced up and down in the corridor, trying to stay cool. Then, the panel arrived (they hadn’t been waiting behind the closed door as I’d thought) and I awkwardly shook their hands as they squeezed past. Then I was invited inside and offered a choice of seats. I went for a ‘comfy’ chair, as it faced the window. I was worried it would make me slouch, but I spent most of the session literally on the edge of my seat. The Chair, Professor Martin Stannard, got the proceedings underway by explaining how things were going to run. The last time I had visited him (my second supervisor) it was for a chat over wine and mince pies – I different experience today! I was glad to have my water bottle (or rather my partner’s, as I’d left mine in the car), as my mouth kept going dry! I wasn’t the only nervous one in the room though, and this showed in the initial questions – which, rather than being easy ice-breakers and warm-ups, went straight for the jugular. I had to defend my thesis straight away, but fortunately I was prepared. All my hard work over the last couple of months had paid off. Critically, it was my plegian approach in the last few days that served me well – if I had been ‘fixed’ in my thinking and expectations about the viva, and the order and style of questioning, I might have been seriously thrown by those initial broadsides. But by adopting a playful attitude to the whole process – rendering my thesis as a Fantasy map; imagining it as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; or a Hero’s Journey – I had been able to gain a useful perspective on the thesis, seeing it as an artefact almost separate from myself, an artefact that could be discussed in a critical dialogue without it seeming like a personal attack. Nonetheless, the level of questioning was intense pretty much throughout (although the internal did provide some encouraging comments on the overall quality of the writing). I had to defend my thesis with everything I had. My External was actually a Grimdark author (he introduced himself as such), which I knew, having done my research – and it felt like he played the role of antagonist in a full-bloodied way, because he was coming from an ostensibly diametrically opposed position. Rather than seeing this as a problem I saw it as a ‘fantastic’ opportunity for a vigorous critical debate. If two scholars with opposing ideas cannot engage in such a debate and see it as part of the healthy cut-and-thrust of academic enquiry then ideas will remain unchallenged, or develop. In many ways, the External was the ‘perfect’ person to interrogate my thesis of an ‘ethical aesthetics of Fantasy’: Goldendark. We locked horns, but it led to a lively discussion. I defended myself with everything I had – and if I hadn’t my ‘minor’ revisions may have been ‘majors’, so I have a lot to thank for External’s unrelenting interrogation, something Montaigne put perfectly:

I will love the man who can pluck out my feathers – I mean by the perspicacity of his judgement and by his sheer ability to the force and beauty of the topics.’ 

It actually felt strangely good to be challenged this way, by someone who had taken the time and effort to read my whole thesis (135,000 words). To have that level of critical scrutiny actually was edifying – I have put so much into my novel and commentary that to have two top academics read it closely and engage with me in such a thorough dialogue … felt reciprocal of some of that effort.

By standing my ground it seemed I started to earn his grudging respect – as though he was some stern Samurai master toughening up his apprentice. And by acknowledging his points and actually conceding on some of them, it made the debate ‘porous’. It is important not to go into the Viva with a ‘fixed’ mind, but a flexible one, able to dance in the vortex of academic enquiry – withstanding the intense energies by having a mercurial wit, unwavering confidence, and willingness to step back from one’s labour of love and scrutinise it from every angle while still believing in it.

By the end of the viva it felt like we all had found common ground. There were things that needed modifying in the thesis, but most of these were ‘quick fixes’ – the odd sentence or paragraph here or there. It felt like I had wrestled the thesis back from something disastrous by a spirited defence.

After nearly two gruelling hours I was asked to give the panel fifteen minutes to discuss – and so I waited nearby. Those fifteen minutes were the longest and most stressful. I then knew what it felt like to be Schrödinger’s cat. I was neither ‘alive’ nor ‘dead’, academically-speaking, but in some indeterminate state. I gazed out over the city and savoured the late afternoon sunlight catching the trees in the cemetery: and I thought this is Goldendark – the cusp between dystopia and utopia, between triumph and disaster, between immanence and annihilation: the ‘burning edge, the frazzle’, as Gary Snyder called it.

Feeling frazzled, I went back inside and listened to the decision…. I had passed with minors! I whooped with joy, and, after calming down a little, listened to the feedback from the Internal, who listed what I needed to do. It all sounded completely manageable – edits that could be done in a month or two. I had suddenly … a future. The next few months had not existed until that point. I had not been able to perceive beyond the event horizon of the Viva. My life had been in limbo. But now, I had a plan. The revisions would be written up and sent to me in the next few days. For now, all that was left to do was shake hands, be congratulated, and go and break the news to my patiently waiting partner. There was a lot of celebrating to do!

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

With enormous thanks to my fantastic supervisor, Dr Harry Whitehead; to Professor Martin Stannard, Dr Jonathan Taylor and Dr Christopher Dows; to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, my ‘mock’ examiners’; and most of all to Chantelle Smith, for her support. 

PS I hope future PhD candidates find this blog useful.

Choose Your Own (Viva) Adventure, cont.

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 32

More ergodic displacement activity…

YOU have embarked on a quest to become an Academic of Phire-Top Mountain. You have entered the Chamber of Testing, and are engaged in a perilous Duel of Wits and Cunning with Level-7 Academic-mages. Hold onto your Pouch of Vulnerability… 

Page 11

The External offers you an ‘icebreaker’ – something about you favourite part of the research. Do you…

  1. Talk about your long-distance walks?
  2. Your illustrations?
  3. Or discuss imagining it being finally over with?


Page 14

See the source image
After the ‘warm-up’ the examiners lay in with some tough questions. Do you…

  1. Start to hyper-ventilate?
  2. Feel like you’re trapped in some recurring nightmare?
  3. Use a LUCK point to enhance your SKILL and impress them with an eloquent answer?

Page 21

The examiners really start to drill down into the detail, referring to specific parts of your thesis. You feel your labour of love is being mercilessly torn apart. Do you…

  1. Visualise your place of calm?
  2. See it as an opportunity to engage in a critical dialogue?
  3. Decide to play the Tragedian, and recite a soliloquy from Hamlet?


To be continued…

Choose Your Own (Viva) Adventure

An Ergodic Displacement Activity by Kevan Manwaring

(Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 31)

The Warlock of Firetop Mountai cover.jpg

YOU have heard talk of the fabled treasure of Phire-top Mountain in your village local, The Knackered Nag. Going slowly blind drinking pint after pint of Old Bastard every night along with the rest of the reprobates who frequented that unsalubrious hostelry seemed less of an enticing career option when you caught wind of a noisome conversation between two broken vagabonds, gibbering about the dreaded Thesis-Beast and its endless revisions, the Ordeal-by-Viva and the feared Academics of Phire-top Mountain: They Who Guard The Treasure Which None May Look Upon Without Going Mad! Not having anything really to do for the next few years, you decide to set off and win this treasure…

Page 1
See the source image

After many terrible ordeals, diversions, redrafts, cancelled trains, interminable conference papers, word-blindness, back-ache, RSI, piles, and overdrafts you finally make it to the threshold of the Room of Testing, atop Phire-top Mountain (Room 1309). Armed with your trusty Shield of Deflection, Potion of Answering, Mirror of Critical Scrutiny, and Water-bottle of Procrastination, you cross the threshold. In the small room rammed to the ginnels with musty tomes, a midden of coffee cups and muffin wrappers, and empty wine bottles there sit three Level 7 Academics of the Arcane School of  Obscurity. In front of them is an empty chair. Do you…

  1. Say hello and enter the room?
  2. Run screaming from the tower back to your village?
  3. Use a Dazzle Spell from your Phone of Mobility to temporarily blind them while you snatch away their notes and make a run for it?

Page 34

See the source image

One of the Level 7 Academics introduces herself as ‘Ye Chair’, and then introduces her colleagues – one she calls an ‘Internal’ and the other, an ‘External’, although this pays no correlation to the arrangement of their bodily organs. They ask you to take a seat. Do you…

  1. Grab the empty chair and run from the room?
  2. Take the opportunity to show off your breakdance routine?
  3. Sit down?


Page 21

See the source image

The internal asks you ‘Can you give us a summary of your project?’ Do you…

  1. Provide a snappy 5-10 minute introduction to your Quest to Quell the Thesis-Beast?
  2. Provide a 30-60 minute blow-by-blow account of Your Interminable Quest?
  3. Start explaining the Secret of the Ninety-Nine Worlds?

To be continued!

(With apologies to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson – & the illustrators whose fab work I have shamelessly snaffled from the internet  – and gratitude for many happy hours of rolling the dice and turning the pages…)

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg




PhD Thesis as Fantasy Map

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 30

Phd Thesis as Fantasy Map by Kevan Manwaring

PhD Thesis as a Fantasy Map by Kevan Manwaring 2018

As Diane Wynne-Jones says in her witty Tough Guide to Fantasy Land: ‘no Tour is complete without a Map. Further you must not expect to be left off from visiting every damn’ place shown on it.’ (2004: 131)  Because of the cliché of a map in Fantasy I deliberately resisted including one in the novel, but I thought it would be a fun way to summarize my thesis – in a pictographic (or rather cartographic) form. By spending an hour or two doing it I benefitted from the fugue space of drawing – an effective way of preventing the brain from overheating. I spent every day of last month doing a pencil sketch (see Sketchtember) and last year I undertook Inktober, but this year I have to be careful about what I take on. Now is a time for consolidating, not dispersing my energies – but I’ve missed doing my daily sketch. It was an effective counter-balance to the linguistically-intense computer-based work I do on the computer. Undertaking this ‘cartographic thesis’, I amused myself with little jokes, such as the ‘Sea of Citations’ and the ‘Arctic Circle of Criticism’, and yet thinking about these things in a visual way helped to show their influence on my project. As with many Fantasy maps, the Secondary World depicted often bears an uncanny resemblance to this world — the wobbly continental blobs a kind of Mappa Mundi: this Earth transmogrified through the writer’s imagination. And so I consciously riffed on this, finding satisfying ‘rhymes’ between my Thesis-world and Earth-world, such as the ‘subduction zone of published works’ – ever increasing and ever undermining the inevitably limited scope of the project.  To see the creative component as a kind of ‘New World’ and the critical as the ‘Old World’ was also helpful. One optimistically expansive, the other, enmeshed in the complexity of critical discourse, the geopolitics and psychogeography of the academic field and one’s subject specialism. And of course, at the edges of the map dragons lurk – waiting to challenge the more idealistic Shangri-Las of my argument.   I would recommend having a go at this for any large-scale project you happen to be working on. It can be an effective way of summarizing and presenting your research, and anticipating potential ‘conflict zones’. Plus, it was great fun.

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Wynne-Jones, D. (2004) The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. London: Gollancz.

Over the Hills and Far Away

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 29

One of the best things you can do to prepare is feel some wind in your hair…


Today I did a usual cross-section of prepping — practising answers; reading an article; a chapter or two; a browse through my notes, and so on — but by far the best thing I did was to go for a run. At this late stage (less than a week to go) one needs to prioritize peace of mind, a good diet, exercise, and rest. It is not the time to be cramming in any more theory, for one risks muddying the waters. The odd short online lecture or interview can be effective at just maintaining a ‘Viva-fit’ mind, but that is all. Put everything in order – your notes, your outfit, your travel arrangements, etc. And go for a walk, or in my case, a hill-run. Anything – to get you out of the house, out of your bubble. To avoid ‘spinning wheels’, as I started to feel was happening. One can risk over preparing and getting oneself into a near panic state, or state of exhaustion. Some time-out is far more effective. You’ve done your prep, you know your thesis, you’ve made it this far. So, take five.

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Finding the Flaw in the Gem

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 28

Imperfections in your ‘flawless’ thesis. The more you look, the more you’ll see… 

A random tweet today from a fellow writer, Chrissy Derbyshire, apparently exhorting readers to ‘Don’t Torture the Ducklings’ (in fact, a reference to a Halloween-themed movie … obviously!) led to a brief, silly exchange in which I mentioned Arthur Quiller-Couch’s famous (and often incorrectly attributed advice) to ‘Murder your darlings’. After playing around with this and coming up with an amusing variant in my head (‘murder your ducklings’), I went on to read a provocative article by the novelist John Crowley, resisting Q’s ubiquitous (in writers’ workshops) advice: Spare the Darling. Although I think Crowley’s counter-intuitive and quasi-heretical critique of this hoary workshop wisdom is of some merit for its resistance to the often unquestioned ‘norms’ of pedagogic tradition, I wouldn’t throw the baby (or the rubber duck) out with the bathwater yet. In advocating editorial rigour it has clear benefit – most pieces of creative writing could do with editing. Students are sometimes afraid of editing, as though the editing would somehow ‘kill’ the spirit of the fragile, beautiful thing they have created; but I have yet to come across an over-edited piece of student work in nearly twenty years of teaching. We could always go further – as Lindsay Clarke advocates (2001: pp256-260),

‘hunting down those moments that unintentionally tip the reader out of the dream.’ (p258)

Of course, during the 4 years of my PhD I have had intensive feedback and gone through several drafts of the novel and commentary. This year in particular has seen exhaustive micro-editing (to the point of near-nausea and ‘word-blindness’: when I could no longer see the words for the trees, as it were). Yet even with several pairs of sharp eyes scrutinising the text it is inevitable that things slip through (especially when dealing with a complicated MS of 135000 words). Thus it is essential to go through it again, after submission. Today I made a list of corrections, and also a list of weaknesses (with responses), to pre-empt the revisions I will inevitably get back from my examiners. This will show you have critical awareness. Not that’s it’s advisory to point out weaknesses, but … if they come up in the Viva, you won’t be wrong-footed. Indeed by having a list of corrections handy you will show you have the mistake on your radar.  It hasn’t slipped through the net, only the submission date. Anticipating the revisions that may be suggested will make a ‘pass with minor/or major revisions’ seem less of a blow. You will have an idea of what is expected and will be able to crack on with it. Such corrections often take less time than you think. It is the mindset which is difficult to inhabit. One may feel resentful at having to go back through the work again after you have slaved over it for years. But that is the price of quality. And your PhD.

So enjoy murdering those ducklings!

VivaNinjadoodlebyKevan Manwaring.jpeg

Clarke, L., ‘Going the Last Inch’, in Bell, J. & Magrs, P., eds. (2001) The Creative Writing Coursebook. London: Macmillan.

Crowley, J. (2014) ‘Spare the Darling’, Harper’s Magazine. New York, NY. November. pp 4, 6-7.

Reaching for the Moon

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 27

Apollo 17 on launchpad.jpg

Giving it your best shot… 

And so, one week to go. A rather sobering thought, but I’m trying to not let it paralyze me with fear! The best thing I did today was to go for a wee stroll along the canal in the lovely autumnal sun. It is critical in this last week not to overtax oneself. Review notes and so forth, but rest and pleasant distraction is just as important.

This morning I finished editing a novel I’ve been working on for the last four months after I received a positive reply from a publisher. It has been good to work on something creative amidst all this intense preparations (and teaching). Writing reminds me of who I am, and why I am doing this. I have been sustained by my dreams, and engaging with one’s craft on a daily basis has got to be one of the best ways to prepare anyway – it stops the whole thing becoming abstract. Furthermore, this current novel, like The Knowing – A Fantasy; and Black Box, the science fiction one I ‘knocked out’ in 4 months last year after winning a national SF novel competition (Literature Work’s One Giant Write), means I’ve had 3 serious opportunities to explore my Goldendark ethical aesthetics.  Weighing in at 135000; 82000 and 93000 respectively, they collectively total 320,000 words. Three novels (plus a 20,000 word Critical Commentary; collection of poetry; anthology of folk tales; plus several articles, conference papers and commissions) is not bad going for 4 years’ work. I have used the opportunity to really step up as a writer. As my supervisor commented, I’ve put 200% into this. I’ve done this first and foremost to develop as a writer. I’ve wanted to push myself, try new forms, and really raise my game. I’ve not held back. There have been many byproducts and benefits along the way, but let’s hope my efforts pay off next week. I’ve given it everything I have – and in this life that is the best we can do.

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The Hour of Parleying is Dangerous

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 26


The Parley, Frederick Remington, oil on canvas (1898)

In his collection of reflective essays, Montaigne, writing contemporaneously with the Siege of Mussidan (April 1569) which was taking place 20 miles from his estate, discusses unfortunate examples of generals exploiting the protocols of Jus In Bello: in particular the long tradition of the ‘parley’, when representatives from opposing forces meet to discuss terms. Montaigne quotes several infamous episodes where the parley was used to invade and seize the castle or town behind the backs of the general engaged in dialogue. Well, if we can for the moment ignore the ignoble behaviour of world leaders who tear-up peace treaties or murder anyone who disagrees with them, irregardless of international opprobrium, as we’ve seen this week, then I would like to, briefly, repurpose the notion of ‘parleying’ for my insignificant, imminent PhD Viva. This may seem like an insensitive trivialisation, but I would argue that it is in the microcosm of our daily lives that the battle for truth, conscionable values and civilised behaviour is fought and won.

In my up-and-coming Viva I have discovered that my external examiner) a highly accomplished academic) writes what is unapologetically ‘Grimdark’ science fiction. Now, on the surface, this is diametrically opposed to my concept of Goldendark: an ‘ethical aesthetics of Fantasy’ which I posit in my thesis. Initially, this discovery caused me concern: would such an obvious fault-line make my external antagonistic? But on reflection, and discussion with supervisor, I realise it is an opportunity for a lively critical debate. It is so easy in an age of Tribalism to stay within a cohort of like-minded people who reiterate your interests, belief system and values. If anyone posts something we strongly disagree with on social media we can mute, block or unfriend them with a painless, anonymous ‘click’ of a button.  This is far easier than having their ‘toxic’ views poisoning your cosy digital bubble, and in truth there is something about so-called information communication technology which often seems to me to be opposite of communication: it simplifies, polarises, and distorts, reducing the complexities of our lives to little jpegs, gifs, soundbites or reactive statements. It is hard to sustain any kind of intelligent discourse in the echo-chamber of social media (exceptions do occur, but so often it just becomes a shouting match). However, within the ‘held space’ of the Viva dialectical discourse is not only possible, but actively encouraged. It is the raison d’etre of it, in many ways. One is expected to engage in a critical debate, defending one’s thesis. And so, the opportunity to meet with a writer and academic on the ‘other side of the fence’ should be seen as a positive. In truth I don’t see Goldendark and Grimdark as antagonistic concepts (as they may first appear) but as modalities existing within a healthily diverse ‘biome’ of contemporary writing in science fiction and fantasy.  What Goldendark is resistant to is any kind of cultural hegemony, one that makes Grimdark (or its Godparent, Neoliberalism) the only game in town. Considering that Grimdark originated from wargaming (Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000) the notion of conflictual play, in which opposing forces are roleplayed by contained within a lively, ludic framework, should allow for a healthy cut-and-thrust without the actual drawing of blood! One can disagree with someone without actually disliking them, or being able to converse with them. As long as the tone of the conversation is respectful, mutually curious, with each party being able to consider the other person’s point of view, there is no reason to see the prospect of such a potential dialogue as threatening. It is just shooting the breeze. One’s viewpoint may even be modified as a result. After all, this is how ideas develop, and the academy (and civilisation) advances.

So, to modify Montaigne’s titular dictum: the hour of parleying is dangerous, but it is also essential.

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