Splintered Memories Conference Report

Audience and Participants of Splintered Memories, in the Keynes Library, the 29th March, holding Boycott Senate House leaflets.

Splintered Memories: Life in the Glasshouse was a one day single stream impromptu conference on the 29th of March, organised by the London Science Fiction Research Community, and held in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck, from 10.30am until 5pm. 

The content of the event cannot easily be separated from its genesis. Originally all the papers at Splintered Memories were to be given at Memories of the Future, a two day multi-stream conference held at Senate House on the 29-30th of March, on the topic of the relationship of memory to the future (or how cultural and social memory of the past produces the future). The speakers had been invited to participate on behalf of the Memories of the Future conference by the LSFRC organising committee and were due to speak at different times throughout the two day event. 

However, it came to our attention (the LSFRC organising committee) that there is an ongoing boycott of Senate House events called by the IWGB (the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain– the union who represents outsourced workers at Senate House), in support of the long campaign for outsourced workers to be employed directly by the University with full access to sick pay, holiday pay, and a fair wage. After communication with the organisers of Memories of the Future, we decided to pull out of the conference in order to respect the boycott and give our unequivocal support to the outsourced workers at Senate House. 

We swiftly organised a separate event, Splintered Memories, in part to honour the invite we had given to our speakers, and also to incorporate an institutional critique and a consideration of labour into the theme of memory and its relationship to the future. As one speaker, Amy Butt, aptly argued: What memories do particular institutions choose to project and what invisible labour is used in order to produce it? In addition, as IWGB legal case worker Jordi Lopez asked: What different futures could be built if we listened to the memories of struggle of those who reproduce institutional spaces?

The morning began with a panel titled ‘Science Fictional Consciousness: Transcendence, Imaginaries’. Llew Watkins opened with a paper exploring the notion of consciousness and memory in the Dzogchen Buddhist tradition, through an analysis of Final Fantasy VII (1997) and the 1983 French graphic novel, Samaris. Sasha Myserson followed with a paper on the protean music genre, Vaporwave, arguing that the music is not simply an ironic parody of 1990s nostalgia, but a mode through which capitalist desires might be redirected in a post-capitalist society. Finally, Rachel Claire Hill explored the use of Space Age utopianism by the New Space Industries in order to legitimise their projects centered on growth, profit, and the privatisation of space, whilst denuding the originals of their utopian content.  

We then broke for an hour lunch (food was not provided), and returned for the second panel ‘Science Fictional Remembering: Nostalgia, Ruins’. Asami Nakamura spoke of the function of nostalgia in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), arguing that nostalgia is not redemptive in the novel but is used as a tool to naturalise social violence through mythologising memories. Next Dan Byrne-Smith explored the retro-futuristic adverts of the comic series Bitch Planet (2014-2017 by artist Kelly Sue DeConnick, and artist Valentine De Landro), showing how the speculative design of the work allowed for the emergence of the not-yet utopian impulse described by Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope (1954-1959). It should be noted that Dan’s piece was not so much spoken as performed, with the content of the presentation projected while Dan accompanied its movement on a synth and sound mixer. To finish Amy Butt spoke about the concept of maintenance in relation to the presentation of cultural artifacts in museums, through a number of sf novels including We (Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924), The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard, 1962), The Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895), and The Wanderground (Sally Miller Gearhart, 1979). 

During the question and answer session at the end of the panel, around twenty people joined us, swelling the Keynes Library to capacity. The group was part of a number of people who were due to speak at the Memories of the Future event, but had refused to cross the picket line at Senate House. In the tea break Jordi Lopez, an IWBG legal case worker, spoke to the conference about the Boycott Senate House campaign, eloquently linking the theme of the conference to the long history and memory of struggle of precarious and migrant workers in the Bloomsbury area, and specifically at Senate House. The final panel was due to have a single person speaking, Kate Meakin, as the other speaker unfortunately had to pull out. However, the absence of a second speaker allowed us the opportunity to invite two of the academics who had boycotted the Memories of the Future to give their papers as well.

And so we began the final session of the day (‘Invaders Must Live: The Time(s) and Memory of Activism’) with a talk from Kate Meakin about the erasure of African American and Native American women in recent protests for reproductive rights that appropriated the handmaid costume from the Handmaid’s Tale (both the original novel by Margaret Atwood (1985) and the recent televisions series). Next Alice Atkinson Philips spoke about the appropriation of sculpture as memorial in two public sculptures in Australia (Der Rufer by Gerhard Marcks in Perth and Youngsters by Caroline Rothwell in Sydney), highlighting public art’s role as site of political conflict and meaning production. Finally, Sean Seeger spoke about the 2017 novel The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavich, arguing that the narrative critiques techno-capitalism from a complex ecological position that Seeger names Neo-Romanticism.

We were due to have a roundtable to finish but instead decided to invite all the participants and audience members to join a circle to discuss the day, with particular attention to university labour and memory. We spoke of the memory of precarity and punitive responses to labour movements in the Bloomsbury area, the increasingly fractured and precarious nature of contemporary academic jobs, and the links between intellectual critique and the application (or more often non-application) of those ideas and critiques to the institutions from which they are produced.

At five, the day ended, and we went together to the Fitzroy Tavern for a drink. I was personally greatly moved and encouraged by the day. I had thought that the conference would simply be a set of panels, transferred from one space to another. Instead, in a large part thanks to those academics who refused to cross the picket line and the self-consciousness of our speakers, the day became one of reflection, anger, and solidarity, finally breaking through the blindness of the academy to its own production, and hopefully the beginning of a new political consciousness and radicalism within the academic community.

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