Sinking my teeth into summer

I have spent most of last winter thinking that I had – as I inevitably would – reached a point in my academic ‘career’ for which I just was not cut out,  not smart/competent/fast enough. After a (ludicrously long) training, it seemed, I had picked the wrong job after all. Here’s the thing though…after two months of forcing myself to take more time (actual point on my to-do list: do not immediately respond to emails) it turns out that maybe I was … just tired?dav

I’ve been enjoying my visiting fellowship (and indeed the wonderful company of the researchers at the University of the Aegean) : it’s been fantastically productive, academically, in many ways. However, here are the ‘achievements’ of the past two months I want to remember:

-) for two months, I’ve eaten almost exclusively things grown, produced or caught in my immediate surroundings (with the exception, ironically, of water)

-) I’ve met fantastic people, colleagues and students alike, who do research on top of some exceptionally demanding (and often voluntary) work with the refugees arriving on Lesvos (check out the Refugee Observatory, it is amazing)

-) I’ve forced myself to think visually, for a change …this means I not only managed to rethink some of my research, but also that I now have a record of the writing I’ve done in these two months. It won’t win the Turner prize, but ‘things-I’ve-done’ lists are vastly more motivating than ‘to-do’ lists








-) I have walked a total of about 500 kilometres – leaving me with far more freckles, and far fewer worries to lay awake with at night


-) I’ve produced what may be the most frivolous piece of ‘outreach’ ever (admit it, though, you too crave the experience of being insulted by a 19th-century over-privileged selfdeclared ‘wit’. And now you can!)


(any volunteers for reading/commenting?)

-) I’ve written an article I’ve been wanting to write for about two years, not because I had to, not because others were counting on my contribution, not because the project lives or dies by it, but because I think it needed to be written (of course, now I’m terrified to send it to the journal, but at least it exists)




-) I have expressed myself by pointing and waving so often now that I’m almost fluent. English may be forcing its way into all kinds of interactions (‘international’ or otherwise) but it doesn’t have to. (Neither is there any need to be proficient in any language to procure delicious shrimps, I may add).


and most importantly:

-) I have consistently only worked for about eight hours a day!


(lesson learned? probably not…but it’s worth a try, right?)


Sounds that stretch time

There’s always something slightly unsettling about a new place to live (and sleep): the stairs creaking in a way you don’t recognize, the sound of traffic just a bit too close or too far, the neighbours still too unpredictable.

After three years in Helsinki, living in the center of a Greek city (albeit a tiny one) is above all very loud: in Mytilini, conflicts are addressed by passionate shouting in public, transport is mostly a case of revving motorbikes, and as insulation is rather inferior to that in Finland, I know far more about the tourists in the apartment next to mine than I strictly needed or wanted to.

The sounds that dominate my life here, though, are not human at all: at home, my life is punctuated by the church bells (of three different churches, although the one closest to the window certainly is the most impactful), and ‘outside’ I’m inevitably pulled to the sea. They’re very different sounds, but they’re both extremely repetitive – boringly so, often.

And yet, there’s something about having one’s life dictated by a communal bell. As Alain Corbin noted, for centuries, church bells could create ‘imagined’ communities on a far more visceral level than print paper later would on a much grander scale: those of us who rise at its sound, regardless of how new or otherwise ‘foreign’ we are to the city, know that we live here together. (It is no surprise that one of the current authorities on the anthropology of bells, my brilliant colleague Panayotis Panopoulos, is doing his work here on Lesvos)

All this is well-established (and boringly obvious to anyone with an interest in soundscapes or soundstudies), but it seems I had underestimated the effect of the cyclical nature of these sounds. As a historian, I am constantly looking for ‘change’: time appears, essentially (and somewhat stereotypically) as an arrow: not as a sign of constant progress of course, but nevertheless largely linear, moving ‘on’, wherever that may be. It has been pointed out that these images of ‘historical’ time are rooted in narrow notions of particular (mostly modern, mostly male, mostly able, mostly ‘individual’) experiences of one’s life and lifespan: ‘crip’ time does not pass so smoothly, women’s time has its cycles, African futures change when they are not imagined as ‘postcolonial’.

And so I listen to the sea, and to the bells … and I wonder what history without modern, linear, time would sound like.

Shrill and unrelatable

Of all contributions to the discussion, Lytton’s was admittedly the most interesting. Had the manner or even the pronunciation of the words been as good as the matter, it might have proved also the most effective…More than once his voice literally so ran away with him that, when calmness would have been far more effective, his tones rose to a high point of noisy declamation, as if he would arouse the flagging attention by a trumpet blast of vociferous sound. (Newcastle G&T Mercury, 1854)


Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Our wonderful CALLIOPE research assistant, Clarice Bland, is currently writing about one of my favourite Victorians, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. As you can see, contemporary observers were not quite so impressed with him as I am. I don’t want to give away too much of her research – you’ll just have to wait until it’s published and all will be revealed – but I was reminded of Bulwer-Lytton as I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful piece on ‘unconscious bias’ in politics on the Literary Hub earlier.

As Solnit notes, our experience of presidents (and of politicians more broadly) so far has been almost exclusively of white men “which makes ‘who seems presidential?’ a tautological ouroboros chomping hard on its tail”. Anybody who looks the slightest bit different is almost immediately disqualified: women don’t get to sound intelligent without raising suspicion, POC are ignored until a white hero picks up their ideas and makes them sound more palatable – neither, it seems, can be ‘relatable’.

A look at nineteenth-century politics quickly shows that, indeed “Unconscious Bias has always been in the race and Unconscious Bias’ best buddy, Institutional Discrimination, has always helped him along”: not quite sounding right to the ears of a (white, male) journalist had repercussions in 1854 as it has now, and style seems to have trumped substance for quite a while, too (it may also be noted that Bulwer-Lytton’s physical features were often described at length by journalists, who seemed more interested in his beard than his speeches.)


Sen. Kamala Harris questioning John Sessions in 2017 – a performance that was swiftly called ‘hysterical’ by Jason Miller

More optimistically, though, we can also note that while unconscious bias is always ‘there’, it is not beyond change. We’ve seen that, of course, in recent history, with the election of a Black president (albeit one who was then immediately questioned for being both not ‘American’ and not ‘Black’ enough. Nina Eidsheim has pointed to opinions that Obama ‘sounds white’ as yet another instance of bias).

Looking further back, though, we can also see how unconscious bias changes not only in content, but also in who gets to wield it. Bulwer-Lytton’s performances in parliament in the 1850’s were ludicrous to journalists’ ears not because he didn’t belong in politics (he very much did) but because he presented an elite identity and performances of privilege that were starting to become obsolete. His speaking style was one that belonged to the 18th century: aristocratic, full of artifice and heightened passion, almost musical in its exaggerated prosody. British politics may have looked back at the 18th century as the golden age of oratory, but their intuitive reaction to its actual sounds was laughter rather than admiration.


“Lagrange carried away by a sudden, unprepared impulse of eloquence”, H. Daumier ridiculing an overly impassioned speech (Daumier Register)

That is perhaps especially the case because the prime audience for political speeches would increasingly consist of reporters: not the speakers’ peers, but self-made men who made their living by being smart and doing long hours of clerical work, part of a new middle class that hadn’t been born into money but didn’t have to do hard physical labour either. It is no wonder that an eccentric baron living a life of leisure and inherited privilege was not ‘relatable’ to these men and their readers, who likely also belonged to a new class of ‘professionals’.

And whilst journalists were, and are, important players in deciding how politics is represented (and, consequently, how and which unconscious bias comes into play for different public figures), they do not get to decide what counts as a relatable style or as a charismatic performance on their own. Understandings of what constitutes convincing speech, or a good performance, is a culturally and collectively constructed matter – it is influenced by the styles that circulate elsewhere, in the streets, on stage, in fiction, in classrooms.

Nineteenth-century ideas on convincing political speech were partly dependent on the new norms of performance that were being established in the West-End, for example, where both politicians and journalists would together constitute the audience of a performance. If we want ‘who seems presidential?’ to become a more diverse field, maybe we should just put more intelligent female and Black characters on youtube (or judge politicians on what they do, rather than their ‘charisma’, but what are the chances?)

Zeg niet ‘Zwarte Piet’, maar zeg ‘hoera, het is weer bijna Sinterklaas!’

Naar goede (nu ja) jaarlijkse gewoonte, een Sinterklaaspost! (eerdere invullingen van deze oude, en dus nu onveranderlijke traditie: hier, hier, en hier).

Wie niet wil doorgaan voor een geitenwollen sok, zatte nonkel, zeur in de leraarskamer of (o horror) gast in een praatprogramma: een lijstje in heuse pedante-schoolmeester-stijl, inclusief nutteloze weetjes om de volgende ontsporende discussie te voeden vermijden

Zeg niet

‘Zwarte Piet was er altijd al. Ze moeten onze tradities niet zomaar komen afpakken!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik heb zelf alleen maar goede herinneringen aan Zwarte Piet, en ik zou graag hebben dat mijn (klein)kinderen ook zo’n fijne feesten kunnen beleven’


Alleen wie denkt dat de geschiedenis begint en eindigt bij zijn/haar eigen leven, kan denken dat Zwarte Piet voor eeuwig en altijd is. Dat het om een ‘eeuwenlange’ traditie gaat, klopt gewoon niet. Hoewel het moeilijk is de verschijning van Zwarte Piet exact te dateren, weten we wel dat het beeld van de ‘Moorse’ knecht in Nederland pas gangbaar werd in de negentiende eeuw, en in Vlaanderen zelfs pas in de twintigste.

Sint Nicolaas

Sint Nicolaas, rijdend op een ezel en bijgestaan door…de bakker!

Vindt u het toch belangrijk om alleen hele oude tradities te vieren? Dan moeten we misschien opnieuw meer naar heiligenverhalen luisteren (het verhaal van Nicolaas die zeelieden redt is erg spannend, en dat van de kleine baby-Nicolaas die moeders borst weigert om te vasten valt misschien ook wel te vieren). Stoute kinderen verlaten wellicht beter het land voor een uiterst traditioneel, eeuwenoud feest…die zouden dan immers met rammelende kettingen (en geweld) bang gemaakt moeten worden.





Zeg niet

‘Zwarte Piet is racisme!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik zou graag hebben dat alle kinderen kunnen deelnemen aan een fijn Sinterklaasfeest. Zwarte Piet reflecteert pijnlijke clichés van kolonialisme en racialisering, dat vind ik geen goed voorbeeld voor kinderen, en is kwetsend voor wie niet blank is’.


Belgen en Nederlanders met een (veelal) Congolese en Surinaamse achtergrond  wijzen al sinds de jaren ’60 beleefd op het kwetsende karakter van de vormgeving en praktijk van Zwarte Piet. Dat hun blanke medeburgers daar pas nu – nu de slogans simplistisch en luider worden –  op reageren, getuigt van weinig luisterbereidheid of empathie (en inderdaad ook van een latent racisme). Daarmee wordt de slogan desondanks niet zomaar correct.

Volgens Van Dale (en wie zijn wij om die in twijfel te trekken) is racisme

1.theorie die de superioriteit van een bep. ras verkondigt

2. discriminatie op grond van iemands rasZP

Nu hebben we Zwarte Piet natuurlijk ook met z’n allen uitgevonden (in tegenstelling tot Sinterklaas is Piet niet gebaseerd op een historische figuur), maar daarom moeten we hem ook niet meteen tot een theorie uitroepen. Piet belichaamt heel wat raciale stereotiepen, maar ‘verkondigt’ bijzonder weinig … behalve in de jaren ’90 dan. Toen werd hij blijkbaar bang van ‘de winter’.



Zeg niet

‘Je kan hier niets meer zeggen zonder voor racist uitgemaakt te worden!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik zie zelf niet wat er kwetsend is aan Zwarte Piet. Kan iemand me dat uitleggen?’


Hoe ongemakkelijk het ook is, het beeld van Zwarte Piet zoals we dat nu kennen, dankt zijn bestaan wel degelijk aan het koloniale verleden, en niet aan de schoorsteen. De eerste beelden van de ‘Moorse knecht’ waren gericht op kinderen die zelf waarschijnlijk nooit iemand met Afrikaanse trekken te zien kregen, en het is dus misschien niet zo verwonderlijk dat Zwarte Piet vooral een collectie van uitvergrote, stereotiepe trekken is geworden. Met andere woorden: Zwarte Piet was nooit ‘echt’ een verbeelding van een zwarte slaaf (daar konden die kindertjes zich weinig bij voorstellen), maar gebruikte wel exact dezelfde beeldtaal die gebruikt werd om echte Afrikanen te kleineren en ridiculiseren.

Of beter: Piet is niet echt gebaseerd op een historisch figuur, maar verschijnt wel in een periode waarin ‘Moorse’ jongetjes als een soort modieus accessoire van de hoge burgerij werden afgebeeld.


Zeg niet

‘Hoe moet ik dat nu weer aan mijn kinderen gaan uitleggen?!’

Maar zeg

‘Dat ga ik aan mijn kinderen uitleggen!’


Uw kinderen weten vast al allerlei dingen waar wij geen weet van hadden. Waarom dan ook niet een beetje correcte informatie over de Sint meegeven? Wie het gevoel heeft te weinig kennis (of te weinig leuke verhalen) over Sinterklaas te hebben, kan zijn licht opsteken bij het Meertensinstituut (waar al jaren onderzoek wordt gedaan naar de traditie van Sinterklaas). En wie wel eens een echt traditioneel oud Sinterklaaslied wil zingen, kan terecht bij de Liederenbank.

All the world’s a stage … except the kitchen

Why can’t cooks act? Or rather, as I have been wondering lately, why was the figure of the ‘cuisinière‘ used quite so often to denote a lack of suitability for the theatre? Having gone through thousands of pithy descriptions of young hopefuls presenting themselves for the cours de déclamation, it has become clear that the most scathing comment one could direct at a would-be ingenue would be to call her a cuisinière. One would think that, at a time when Escoffier was naming his dishes after operatic characters and diva’s, there would be more love to share between the stage and the kitchen.

Of course, the imaginary cuisinières who appear in my sources were not imagined as chefs, they are domestic staff – and to assert that a young woman appears as a “cuisinière qui joue la comédie” could just be a class-based insult. Others were dismissively referred to as “une bonne” or even a “pauvre ouvrière”.


Description of a young woman seeking admission to the declamation class – the (mis)spelling mimicks (and mocks) what was called ‘grasseyement’, a fairly common pronunciation fault among french speakers but often linked to regional or class-based ‘accents’

There’s more at play, though…the figure of the cuisinière also seems to have evoked a particular (and unflattering) image of certain physical characteristics. They remain sadly – or perhaps luckily – unnamed in my exambooks, but the young woman who was described as having ‘a good physique for a cook’ was unlikely to take it as a compliment.


The aspiring actress with a “jolie physique pour une cuisinière” may not have had much to be happy about, but was possibly still better off than her predecessors, who inspired the examiner to simply exclaim “why?” and “ox tail”. A certain obsession with food and recipes seems to suggest itself.

Perhaps it was just an association with the domestic sphere of the kitchen – and therefore the lack of glamour – that made the cuisinière such a stock image for what another examiner called a “physique anti-théatrale”. The better one appeared to be (or the better one fitted the stereotypical image of) one, the less likely one could become the other.



On the Parisian stage, one could either be domestic, or a goddess, but clearly not both.



Do you have what it took…

… to make it into the Conservatoire Nationale in the 1870’s?

Judging from the notes left in the archives, appearing in front of the jury must have been a harrowing experience. And whilst it cannot (and probably shouldn’t) be recreated, I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the joy of being cynically assigned a place. So I’ve created this handy flowchart:


Scientific Babel?

As we are gearing up towards our symposium “Writing Voice and Speaking Text” (which features some excellent speakers and topics, so do come along), I am increasingly turning towards the bible.

Not for solace (yet), but for some inspiration. As Michael Gordin has documented so beautifully in his book on the development of shared languages of science – and the eventual rise and dominance of English – our expectation as scientists to be able to talk to each other easily has risen considerably in the last century. (Our tolerance for those who don’t speak the lingua franca clearly and fluently has consequently plummeted as well).

There are advantages to clarity, of course, and I’m pretty sure all our speakers are fluent in global English, but I am rather partial to a bit of chaos and am therefore probably taking just a bit too much pleasure in the knowledge that their wildly different disciplinary backgrounds will cause some mayhem.

If the book of Genesis is to be trusted, however, that just shows how god-like I am in my approach to scholarship.


The Tower of Babelkunsthistorisches-museum

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:1-9 New International Version (NIV)

Did Demosthenes lose his marbles?

As people subjected to hearing me talk about my research often point out to me, the methods to ‘cure’ stammering of the past tend to border on the weird. It can be hard to explain why certain practices would have seemed logical in the nineteenth century (does boxing and joining the military result in fluent speech? It seems unlikely, and yet contemporary sources seem convinced this worked).marbles

By far the best-known ‘weird’ practice is that of putting marbles in your mouth to ‘exercise’ the jaw muscles and tongue. It was, for example, featured in The King’s Speech as an old-fashioned, cruel (and ultimately useless) method.


The method supposedly goes back to famous Greek orator Demosthenes, whose first public speech caused him such embarrassment, that he secluded himself in rigorous training before he dared appear before an audience again. Part of his self-help regime reportedly consisted of ‘shouting against the waves’ and filling his mouth with marbles. And because Demosthenes eventually became famous for his oratory, he grew into a veritable poster-boy for ‘cures’ for speech impediments.


Demosthenes practicing oratory (1870). J.J. A. Lecomte

It’s unlikely that Demosthenes’ impediment (if indeed he ever had one) was a stutter, but he somehow got connected to that particular ailment nevertheless – and scientistis and quacks throughout the nineteenth century just couldn’t get enough of him. Which is why he now also features in my contribution to the latest issue of Persona Studies, dealing with the practices of ‘modern’ purveyors of stammering cures. Everything you wanted to know about Demosthenes marbles you can find here (better not try it at home, though).


Everyone’s a critic

The “interest of the University”, it transpires from my current readings, is to “produce useful men” (and by current, I mean around the turn of the 20th century). I have no thoughts to offer on whether we manage to do so at present day universities, but I certainly have some questions about practices of the past. One of the ways to “produce” these elusive creatures in the late nineteenth century was to offer opportunities to get some practice in what might become a profession later on. Debating societies were therefore believed to produce “embryo politicians”, and one would assume that the young men reporting on these debates would therefore be “embryo political journalists”.

That only seems to hold true for some of them, though. Reading through these reports, it’s hard to tell how many authors are involved (no reporters are named) but I’d suggest that a number of the fledgling journalists were aiming to engage in a genteel profession that was gaining popularity in the nineteenth century: that of the critic.

The most prevalent among them, attempting to produce the most established form of critique at the time- seem to have aimed to be concert critics. They alerted the readers to “voices like trombones” that were “out of tune”, described how speakers were like “soloists” being drowned out “by the orchestra” when interrupted by the crowd, and overall managed beautifully to compare a debate to a symphony.

As to the debate, it begain pianissimo, then led through a crescendo, to fff. Then came a diminuendo and a pretty little staccato passage from Mr. Malim, that was a relief after a long spell of Maestoso

Others seem to have thought of the start of a debate as embarking on an adventure. At first I thought they were aiming for a military career, as the start of the debating season was presented as “launching our oratorical fleet”. But it turns out that they are more interested in the sea itself, a bit like precursors to a TripAdvisor comment, offering opinions on comfort and sea views were none are needed.

Mr. MacDonnell’s sentences remind us of the waves of the sea. They rise to a point, break in indignation, and then ripple gently up the floor of the House in clauses, each more insignificant than the last, until one wonders whether there is not such a phenomenon in acoustics as perpetual sound.


And then there’s the last category, who went to report on debates but actually wanted to be restaurant critics, a rather new and fashionable thing to be at the time. Or maybe this reporter writing in the Granta in the summer of 1895 was just very, very hungry.

The debates in the Summer Term are never well attended. This is partly because speakers do not adapt themselves to the meteorological conditions. Beefsteak is excellent in winter; also plum pudding; but in summer one’s soul (I speak after the manner of Autolycus) delights in the stimulating coquetry of curry, or in the cool thirst-assuaging lettuce.

This is an allegory. In the summer an audience wants but little, but likes that little good, flavoursome, spicy, and piquant. Lay this to heart, ye that shall speak. Leave the heavy solids for the long witner evenings, when slumber is easy and healthy.


The (in)imitable human voice

“But how can you study vocal sounds if there aren’t any recordings of these people?”. It is perhaps the most often repeated question I hear about my research. It’s a fair enough question of course: none of the documents I use are ‘acoustic’. But it’s also a very ‘modern’ question, more relevant to the present than to the past I’m trying to understand. So used have we become to acoustic recording and replay that we have entirely forgotten that sound can live outside our increasingly sophisticated machinery. We’ve also forgotten that for centuries ‘accuracy’ in repeating sound was not synonymous with ‘high fidelity’, but a matter of ethics and trust.

The anxiety that sound is ‘lost’ is, in fact, a product of the technology to preserve it. Although people must have missed the sound of their loved ones’ voices when they passed or moved away, it was the introduction of the gramophone and telephone that allowed them to really articulate this particular loss. It’s a classic salesman’s trick, really, tell people they have a problem so you can sell them the solution.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, as the gramophone and telephone were still taking shape, most people were perfectly happy to ‘record’ sound on paper: by writing down words or musical notes, by describing sounds through flowery metaphors, or -another invention- by using shorthand, which was known as a ‘phonographic’ method. It is only as acoustic recording became available that transcribers, clerks and journalists began to think they were failing to capture sound – and speech in particular – with sufficient accuracy.


In 1893, the reporter describing the debates at the Cambridge Union lamented that “it is impossible to reproduce mr. Binning on paper. A phonograph is needed to catch the accent”. After several years describing debaters’ voices and pronunciation with great creativity and evocativeness, the impossibility of this task suddenly became clear. Of course, the reporters of the Granta did not have a phonograph at their disposal – the invention was not sufficiently well spread for that – and so they went on describing and transcribing the acoustic features of the debate with great skill. But occasionally the phrase “one cannot reproduce his voice without a phonograph” reappears … ironically making my job much harder. Because voices that “cannot be reproduced” (and therefore aren’t transcribed or described) are indeed lost to history. Voices that have been reproduced on paper, however inaccurately or incompletely, do find their way into the historical record. For better or for worse, as speakers who will now be forever know for their voice “like a boiling kettle huffing and puffing steam” can attest.