Thursday, 25 May 2017

Professor Beverley Clack on the philosophy of religion

I’m a Philosopher of Religion. I’ve always been interested in how people make or find meaning in life, and one of the most significant ways in which people make meaningful lives is through adopting forms of religious belief or practice.

That is not to say that religion is always a Good Thing: the final chapter of the book I wrote with my brother Brian Clack in 2008 on the Philosophy of Religion considering the relationship between Religion and Terrorism, and sadly this connection has not diminished in the years that followed its publication.

But perhaps this connection should not surprise us: after all, religion is a human phenomenon, and thus it reflects the kaleidoscope of positions open to human beings. We might note that societies committed to atheism have not been averse to dealing cruelly with their citizens. I am interested in the way in which religion can add something creative and positive to life, and in an age where human experience is increasingly being shaped by information technologies and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, it is not a bad thing to think about the ways in which human beings might create meaningful lives from reflection on their place in the cosmos.

I’m particularly interested in how psychoanalysis has helped us explore the strangeness of the connections human beings make as they seek to make sense of their place in the world. My most recent book was on Freud, and I explored his ideas explicitly against the backdrop of psychotherapeutic practice. 

My next book is on failure. I’ve become fascinated by how a dominant cultural narrative of what makes for a successful life has meant we are more miserable and anxious than ever. To be a success - so the story goes - demands attaining status, money and possessions. By exploring the shadow side of success - failure - it is possible to arrive at a different way of thinking about the meaning of life. I’m particularly interested in the way in which death has increasingly been constructed as a form of failure, when in fact it tells us something significant about the role loss and vulnerability play in determining human existence. We are not godlike creatures, separate from each other and the world. We need each other, and reflecting on loss and failure shows just how dependent we are. Instead of greeting the fact that loss and death are fundamental aspects of life with shame, we might instead allow these realities to shape better ways of living that ground us in an appreciation of this mutable world. And my book closes with suggestions about how we might do this!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Dr Mark Cain on the human mind

I’m a philosopher interested in the human mind: what exactly are minds, how do they work and how do they develop? These questions have been at the core of my academic life since I started studying for an MPhil way back in the early 1990s. Back in those days I was rather sniffy about the relevance of science to what I thought of as distinctly philosophical questions. However, under the influence of philosophers such as Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett I went ‘naturalistic’ coming to see philosophy as being continuous with science. Hence, I became an enthusiast for cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of the mind that unites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. Several years later this interest manifested itself in the publication of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive Science (published in 2015 by Polity) in which I wrestle with some of the biggest questions about the mind from an empirically informed perspective. 

Being a naturalistic philosopher of mind has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I do seem to be interested in questions which most intelligent and curious non-philosophers can relate to and see as important and interesting. I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my local book store and look in the popular science section that is stuffed with books about the mind and brain popularising, the kind of research that I reflect upon on a daily basis. As a philosopher I can’t overemphasise what a relief it is not to be regarded as some kind of crank engaged in a pointless endeavour. On the minus side, I have to remain on top of a rapidly expanding literature that straddles several demanding disciplines. This sometimes makes me feel ignorant and overwhelmed but I’ve found that running miles and miles every week along trails in the Chiltern Hills helps keep me positive. 

I’m currently writing a book for Routledge entitled Innateness and the Cognitive Mind. Here I will address the question of which aspects of the mature human mind are learned and which are innate, arguing that much more is innate than is often thought. If the trail running helps keep my anxiety levels down this book should be completed by the end of the year.

Details of my published books can be found here.

Dr Marika Leino on Renaissance plaquettes

What can you tell us about your research?
I started my career at Christie’s auction house in London, in the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department, and quickly learned that research could mean many different things. Sometimes it was a means of establishing authorship (or a route to the realisation that it was impossible to place a sculpture within the oeuvre of a particular artist, or even a school); at times an interesting ‘human interest angle’ was needed to give early modern sculpture a relevance to contemporary buyers; but more and more I came to an understanding that for me research allowed for a way of exploring how works of art, and Renaissance sculptures in particular, were appreciated in their original social and cultural contexts.

It is precisely from this perspective that my book, Fashion, Devotion and Contemplation: The Status and Functions of Italian Renaissance Plaquettes (Peter Lang, 2013), explored the many functions ofa category of objects labelled in the 19th century as ‘plaquettes’ - small, seemingly uniform, mainly bronze reliefs – concluding that they were in fact produced as a multitude of different object types – hat badges, sword pommels, sides of caskets and also collectors’ pieces to be held in the hand, discussed with cultured friends, and admired for their artistry and design. Very quickly, however, these original contexts were lost, the reliefs were divorced from their intended uses, and stored in cabinets of curiosity, and later museums, as a homonymous category, the plaquette. This disparity between initial function and later display has continued to fascinate me.

A selection of plaquettes from the V & A, London.

I am currently perplexed by inscriptions, which are hidden underneath the bases of a group of Italian fifteenth-century portrait busts. These inscriptions are written in Roman letters, carefully carved into the marble, stating the name of the sitter, the sculptor and the age of the sitter or the date of the work, and on occasion the profession of the sitter and the location. The busts were made for wealthy Florentine men, by foremost sculptors of their period; Mino da Fiesole, Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino, between 1453 and 1468. My aim is to investigate the possible reasons for these concealed words, which can only been seen by lifting the busts off their bases, not an inconsiderable feat, as I was lucky to discover when the V&A bust of Giovanni Chellini, by Antonio Rossellino, was taken down for me – it took three men to lift it off its support and a hydraulic lift to place it back again! An analysis of the motivation for these clandestine inscriptions will be conducted through an examination of the busts themselves, by researching links between the sitters, as well as those between the sculptors, who all lived and worked in and around Florence and Rome. Many of the men portrayed were interested in ideas relating to humanism and antiquity, and so a key area of investigation will be the relationship between the inscriptions on the busts and contemporary notions of memory and posterity.

 Antonio Rossellino, Bust of Giovanni Chellini, marble, 1456, V&A, London.

How does your research influence your teaching?

Apart from the obvious links in subject matter – I teach straight art-historical courses which relate to my research on Renaissance sculpture and painting – I am increasingly interested in conveying to students the importance of thinking about original intended display and reception alongside current museum and gallery presentation. To this end, I, along with my colleagues Christiana Payne and Elizabeth Darling, developed a second year undergraduate module, Curatorial Practice, aimed at increasing curatorial awareness in our undergraduate students. This module not only allows us to consider the fascinating journeys objects have made from their original intended contexts to becoming ‘art’ in museums - altarpieces which are no longer worshipped in the churches they were made for; portraits which have lost their identity; fountain figures which have been dry for years – but has also give us, staff and students alike, the opportunity to consider how our research can shape the way in which works of art are appreciated and understood now. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Dr David Maguire discusses his research on the culture of male incarceration

What can you tell us about your research?

I am interested in the classed, gendered and criminal journeys of (young) men from deindustrialised regions and impoverished neighbourhoods in the UK. More specifically my research explores how boys and young men construct masculinity across various sites of exclusion, such as deprived housing estates, under resourced and ‘failing’ schools, residential children’s or ‘care’ homes and prisons. A major concern of this research is to explore if and how constructing or ‘doing’ masculinity across these sites leads many to contribute to their own economic exclusion, imprisonment and continued disadvantage. The most important aspect of my work is to uncover how these sites of exclusion play an active role in reinforcing and recreating the same masculinities they exclude, abandon and incarcerate.

Why did you choose this research?
I came to academic research and teaching relatively late. Before this I spent almost two decades working in heavily deprived areas or housing estates, with marginalised groups and those described as ‘hard to reach’. During this time I worked in schools and exclusion centres, with homeless populations, those involved in gang or serious youth violence, with male prisoners in both young offender institutions (YOI) and adult prisons.

During this period I was constantly struck by how for many of the young men it was ‘doing masculinity’ across impoverished spaces that led incrementally to more extreme exclusion, with every shift culminating in costly and more marginalised masculine performances. I understood then the significance of class, gender and place and wanted to explore this more.      

What makes your research different?
Many criminologists agree gender is the best predictor of crime and that men are by a huge margin the sex responsible for violent, sexual and other serious offences. It follows that in most industrialised societies, prison populations remain relatively static at over 90% male. Data from a range of sources for England and Wales shows that 90% of the male prison population is predominantly made up of undereducated, underemployed, young men from the poorest neighborhoods. Despite men featuring so heavily in crime and prison statistics there is relatively little qualitative scholarship exploring the links between masculinity and crime and even less focusing on ‘doing masculinity’ in UK prisons. Most of the important research on prison and prisoners tends of focus on ‘lifer’ or long-term prisoners. With a focus on gender and the interplay between masculinity, education, and crime among short-term ‘revolving door’ prisoners, this research adds to addressing a deficit in knowledge. Importantly through this work I reveal some of the process behind the substantial overrepresentation of poor and undereducated men as prisoners

How do you feel about being part of the team developing the new criminology course here at Oxford Brookes and will your input be informed by your research and work experiences?

I am very excited to be in at the start of this new criminology course. As a subject area criminology is growing at an incredible rate and is increasingly being seen as a pathway to rewarding careers across criminal justice agencies and in other sectors. The enthusiasm for this course in the department, coupled with the openness to draw from existing modules and expert knowledge across the faculty, sets a solid foundation to develop what will be an intellectually engaging and highly regarded criminology pathway.

The most exciting feature for me in terms of the lecturing role is the encouragement and expectation that my teaching will be both research led and informed by my extensive practical experiences. My research interests (gender/masculinity, boys ‘underachievement’, resistance to and rejection from changing workplaces, crime and imprisonment) straddle key contemporary criminological issues. I am equally enthused by the opportunity to draw on and share the extensive academic and practical knowledge from departmental colleagues.   Our associated networks will play a significant role in relating real world issues to core criminological themes and perspectives, which will offer a great experience for our students.