Supervisors, Secret Executions and Ziggurats

The head of a convicted Argentinian criminal c1890. Courtesy of

Before I begin this blog, I have a question for you. What is a Ziggurat? Okay then, what about phronesis?

No, me neither (if you did know and are angry at my flagrant assumption that you are as ignorant as me then I’d save yourself some time and go elsewhere – I don’t want to disappoint you further – although if you are interested in even less intelligent thought than this, I have done some comedy sketches you may like!).

I ask because my PhD supervisor has asked me these questions in passing during some of our bi weekly one hour meetings, as ‘tests of my general knowledge’. Tests I spectacularly failed. The interesting thing for me though, is how I adapt to ‘failure’ now. Back in the heady days of being ‘young’ I would have covered up the fact I wasn’t aware, for fear of showing myself to be a fraud – not worthy of academia. But, now I am confidently asserting that acknowledging your own ignorance is one of the most helpful tools for learning (I’ll work on a catchier title).

One of the great things that the PhD process is teaching me is just how little I know and this is never more apparent than in a one hour meeting with an expert – albeit a very nice one. It’s this lack of knowledge that makes a regular hourly meeting, such a great opportunity to pick someones brains and expand your thoughts on what you’ve read. A great supervisor can give your initial reading, insights and childish musings, a bit more of a concrete structure and make suggestions for where to take your thoughts next. It’s a bit like how Michael Sandel makes students poorly expressed opinions sound erudite in his summation, on his brilliant Public Philosopher series on Radio 4. Anyway, I digress.

Accepting your blind spots and knowledge gaps in any subject also allows you to look to the wider academic community for help. So far in the two months of my study I have come across many helpful people only too willing to help and offer advice. The key is to ask for it. I have been amazed how a polite email will open doors to academics and experts in fields that you fear are completely unapproachable. It is these encounters that have led to the most interesting discoveries so far in my research.

The simple nub of this now increasingly laborious point, is that sometimes you get guided down fascinating avenues you hadn’t thought of and in the pursuit of filling these gaps in your knowledge, you often make very unexpected and interesting findings.

Having already rambled for too long, I will just briefly mention some of the interesting discoveries I’ve made.

Whilst visiting the  Sunderland Antiquarian Society, after a politely worded introductory email, I came across a report on the execution of Jacob Frederik Ehlert (1839). The report itself was interesting, but it is what happened to the body afterwards that is most intriguing. The head of the condemned was used by the Newcastle Phrenological Society. A now discredited pseudo science, Phrenology was a scientific practice in which the study of both the size and shape of the brain were used as indicators of personality traits. It is fascinating for my study as it shows the interest science was taking in the ‘mind’ of the condemned, French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that the transition in punishment in the period could be seen as one from the punishment of the body to the punishment of the mind, through imprisonment. This will be an area of investigation that will now inform my study, that I could never have foreseen.

A Meeting of the Newcastle Phrenological Society Courtesy of  National Trust, Cragside; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A Meeting of the Newcastle Phrenological Society
Courtesy of The National Trust, Cragside; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The second area of unexpected interest came from a study of the modern Japanese execution. An area that my Professor had pointed me towards. I was fascinated by the secrecy of the process. China is widely known for its high rate of largely unreported executions, but Japan appears to have slipped under the wider cultural radar on execution practice, which is astonishing given that,

The secrecy and silence that surround Japan’s death penalty are taken to extremes not seen in other nations.

D.Johnson, Where the State Kills in Secret: Capital Punishment in Japan. Punishment and Society (2006) p. 253

The condemned are kept in a constant state of fear, with no published execution date. They  find out when they will be executed on the morning of the act. More shockingly, families of both the condemned and the victim are often not informed pre or post execution. Even the press receive the report, on average, two weeks after the event and sometimes the condemned person is not even named.¹ This may seem barbaric to people these days, but to many leading thinkers in c18th and c19th England it would’ve appeared to be the perfect execution, as its very private nature allowed for no irreverence from an attendant crowd and also its hidden nature was believed to create a greater fear.

A murder behind the scenes, if the poet knows how to manage it, will affect the audience with greater terror than if it was acted before their eyes

The Works of Henry Fielding, Esq With the Life of the Author…(W. Strahan, J. Rivington and Sons, Jan 1783) p.383


1). Where the State Kills in Secret: Capital Punishment in Japan, David Johnson., Punishment and Society (July 2006, Vol.8 no.3) p.253


Distraction 1: Tony Law and Simon Munnery are two comedians that I really like and I managed to catch them at Jesterval Comedy Festival in Gateshead. Both were doing ‘work in progress’ shows for Edinburgh, but Munnery’s was particularly fascinating. He had decided to title the show ‘Simon Munnery sings Kierkergaard’. What unfolded was an incredibly ramshackle, but occasionally genius attempt to mine comedy from a dissection of the works of the famously difficult Danish Philosopher.I hope the large exodus of people mid show, some haranguing his set, did not put him off as I think given a bit more touring this will be an exceptional show. Also, if anyone wants to start a comedian led festival of ideas, a sort of TED meets Edinburgh fringe then please let me help. I already have a crappy name – ‘A Funny Idea’.

Distraction 2: Another joy of studying is that reading fiction, becomes like a forbidden treat. Having lost the reading bug over the last few years, I have now got it back with a vengeance and was lucky enough to stumble upon, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisnero. It is a brilliant book, with a radical structure. It is told in tiny, two page character vignettes that subtly weave together to create the life of a girl in a small Mexican village. I read it in the space of an evening and it was one of the best books I’ve read in years.


2 thoughts on “Supervisors, Secret Executions and Ziggurats

  1. Pingback: Holidays, Hiroshima, Hangings and a little humour | lastdyingwords

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