A Reflection: Liz Stainforth – Reciprocal Dialogues
On the 22nd of January, Dr Liz Stainforth from the University of Leeds gave a lecture at the Centre for Digital Cultures at the University of Birmingham. Liz is an interdisciplinary researcher; whose current work encompasses the field of Digital Heritage Cultures, the politics and ethics of technologies, media and memory studies, and theories of utopia. During the talk she focused on three projects, all of which explored the genre of science fiction and imaginative literature, while also being products of collaborative practice—the results of reciprocal dialogues between researchers.
The first project Liz discussed was ‘J.G. Ballard’s Invisible Library’. Produced with Mike Bonsall, and with thanks to David Pringle (who found many of the original items), this project was birthed from the tantalizing prospect of uncovering the author J.G. Ballard’s lost archive of papers and ephemera. Over the course of his career, Ballard produced an archive of ephemera from things as banal as receipts and technical manuals to glossy magazines and textual objects from popular culture. He did this as a response to his observation that contemporary society consisted of an amalgamation of invisible literature. For Ballard, the consequence of this invisible literature was a reality which, although convincing, was little more than a series of fictions that consumer society both produced and took for granted. As a means of navigating this surreal environment, Ballard prolifically collected this invisible literature, drawing on them in works which would act as guides such as Vaughan’s questionnaires in Crash (1973), and ‘Princess Margaret’s Facelift’ in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Unfortunately, Ballard’s proclivity for collecting these scrap and ephemeral materials wasn’t accompanied by a desire to store them securely, the writer instead opting to amass the items in his coal shed. In such a damp and cold environment, it didn’t take long for this ‘potent compost for the imagination’ to turn into literal compost, leaving Ballard with no choice but to throw the whole thing away. All was not lost however, as Ballard’s frequent references to other texts within his fiction provided a glimpse into what this not ‘invisible library’ might have consisted of. Turning towards digitization, Liz and Mike have made the dream of restoring Ballard’s archive possible through the production of a list of reference materials in his work. Currently over six hundred words long, this list can be found over at Digital Ballard, and is open for submissions from the most diligent readers of Ballard’s work!
From lost literature, to lost futures, the second project Liz talked about was ‘Computing Utopia’. This was an article about economic science fiction completed with Jo Lindsay Walton. Computing Utopia was the product of a collaboration that spiralled out of an acquaintance made while Liz was a postdoctoral researcher with IASH at the University of Edinburgh. In this article, both Liz and Jo consider the imaginative possibilities that computational economies in science fiction give life to. Primarily, they focus on Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), and Matthew De Abaitua’s If Then (2015). Another significant text they consider, and the one that Liz detailed in her lecture, is Synco (2008), which was written by Chilean science fiction author Jorge Baradit. Liz explored the implications of this alternative history, in which the Project Cybersyn wasn’t destroyed, but instead becomes the basis for the first cybernetic state. Liz explained that Project Cybersyn was the result of a collaboration between Stafford Beer and the Chilean government. Sympathetic to Chile’s democratic socialism, Beer wanted to develop a system that could regulate production in a way that differed from a Soviet or even totalitarian system of top-down command and control. Liz detailed how, towards the end of the novel, Cybersyn becomes an autonomous entity, which she argued was illustrative of the project’s inherent fragility. This was because even though Chile thought that the socialist philosophy could be directly incorporated into Cybersyn, as a technological solution it was in fact always ‘between a model and the thing itself’—hence bereft of the purity underlying the ideological vision. Liz suggested that Synco, as well as the other works she and Jo explore in ‘Computing Utopia’, demonstrate that historical outcomes condition our understanding of historical events, implying that it is impossible for the historical application of technologies to have played differently. However, Liz argues that this shouldn’t mean that we resign to the idea that things couldn’t be different if we turned once again to the lost possibilities of these technologies, as long as we maintain a critical vigilance toward what history teaches us about the consequences of these otherwise utopian ambitions and their applications.
The final project Liz discussed was the ‘Transcultural Fantastic’, produced with Ingo Cornils and Sarah Dodd. This project considers both cultures of reading and the cultural differences that underlie relations with the text. Liz, Ingo, and Sarah all argue that speculative fiction is often limited to an Anglophone and metropolitan understanding of the fantastic. Hence, they assert that ‘a broader understanding of the Transcultural Fantastic is more important than ever.’ With a key focus on the materiality of the text, Liz explained how this collaborative research project has so far demonstrated that different countries and cultures often more highly value different aspects of literature. For instance, she explained that in Uganda the oral quality of literature was held in higher esteem than any other quality, whereas to contrast, in Bangladesh the visual element of a text is often regarded as, if not more, important than the text itself. Liz also explained how cultural assumptions underlying the designation and understanding of different genres often had ethical implications on how these texts were understood through translation. For instance, many Chinese fiction books about martial arts are branded as science fiction for the Anglophone marketplace. This has consequences on how these texts are received, leading to an assimilation of their uniqueness as artefacts of a cultural identity, under the pretence that they conform to specific genre tropes.
Liz concluded her session by opening the floor, asking members of the audience to discuss their own projects with her. This contributed towards the overall spirit of Liz’s lecture, which was a testament to the importance of collaborative associations for academic research, and the unexpected brilliance that can emerge as a result.