Conferences, Criminal Corpses and the Power of Communication

In my previous entry, I explained my long absence from blogging but I forgot one key thing – Why I had taken it back up. In truth, it was motivated by a fascinating meeting that is a testament to the power of blogging (of which, more another week). There are many debates about the benefits and pitfalls of blogging, particularly in the academic sphere. One thing that is often lost in these is just how important being found online can be. In my own personal experience, all of the most exciting opportunities in my three years of study have been as a direct result of blogging. The most exciting of which I want to announce today. After three years of study, I will be organising my own conference next year! Please come.

1868 conference website homepage
Conference website homepage.

Conferences are a funny thing. In the first months of your PhD you can’t imagine ever presenting in front of a group of your peers and esteemed colleagues in your field. The idea that you might have something that is even remotely relevant to say to experts in the field seems impossible. Then slowly you get the courage up to submit an abstract to a call for papers (cfp) and next thing you know you are accepted to give a twenty minute talk in front of people whose work you’ve long admired. That’s when a new more intense level of self-doubt and fear kicks in. However, as is always the case in life, enough preparation and practice means that you will be fine and, who knows, may even enjoy it! For anyone thinking of attending one, here’s a few pros and cons of the conference experience, based on my relatively limited experience.

First the cons:

  • You are not paid to speak, in fact you more often than not have to pay to attend (plus the travel) which can make for an expensive way to put yourself under a lot of stress!
  • The food is invariably terrible*
  • The coffee is worse
  • The windows will be closed and the rooms will have no air conditioning
  • The computers that you are hoping to load your Powerpoint presentation on to will invariably not recognise the file and then require a technician to be called, who will proceed (after taking 30 minutes to arrive) to suggest switching it off and on again.

*On the food, the only places in my life where half dead triangular sandwiches and plastic bowls of crisps constituted a lunch were at primary school parties, wakes and academic events. Someone needs to do a study on the correlation between the progression of knowledge and the simultaneous regression in food intake.

The Pros:

  • You get to meet the leaders in your field and hopefully get their thoughts on your work
  • You have an excuse to visit new places (my particular highlight was Ghent).
  • You get to test your ideas and defend them (good practice for the viva at the end of your PhD.
  • You get to meet people who will become good friends. I met my Co-conference organisers (Clare Sandford-Couch and Helen Rutherford) at a Crime Historians conference in Edinburgh. They were talking about an execution in Newcastle and had read this blog. We have since given papers together, planned events and are now sorting this conference. So, you never know what communication and conferences will bring.

Our conference will be a one-day event that marks 150 years since the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act, which put an end to public execution in England and Scotland. This is a fascinating moment in our history for many reasons. The Act itself has often been understood as the jewel in the crown of a wider ‘civilizing’ moment. The ‘civilizing’ process was first identified by Sociologist Norbert Elias and refers to an observable growth, over many centuries, in the formation of manners. Despite Elias’ work only making fleeting references to execution, scholars like Pieter Spierenburg adopted Elias’ model to highlight an observable, centuries long, growing abhorrence to public violence across of which measures like the 1868 act were the zenith.

However, in spite of the act and its apparently ‘civilizing’ intentions, execution continued unabated and hidden behind prison walls for another century. Indeed, leading scholar of the gallows, Vic Gatrell noted that whilst ‘we cannot deny that 1868 was a civilizing moment…none of this, however, means that 1868 marks a humane moment in British history.’ Indeed, one could just as readily argue (as this blog has numerous times before) that what the act really achieved was the removal of any agency of the condemned and effectively transferred the criminal body into the hands of the state in both life and death. The last dying words, speeches and behaviour of the executed criminal that had been so powerful were now shorn of an audience and thus any latent agency. Similarly, decades before the act it was legislated that the body of the condemned would remain buried behind the prison walls, no longer released to relatives and loved ones.

As I write this the Tyne & Wear Archives Twitter account has brought up a fascinating example of a convicts last dying words in Newcastle on this very day in 1786.

So, I hope you can see now why the 1868 Act will be a fascinating and contentious launchpoint for a conference. To add to this it is being hosted at the breathtaking Lit and Phil Society building in Newcastle (a favourite haunt of mine) and, as regular readers know, the original home of the Newcastle phrenologists so enamoured of the gallows.

Fantastic Literary and Philosophical Society

So, I hope to see you all there next year. For details see the website

Distraction 1: QuacksScreen Shot 2017-08-30 at 10.04.36

The BBC’s new nineteenth-century medical comedy Quacks is well worth a watch. Although not side splittingly funny, it is a neat portrayal of the period (set in the 1840’s), with excellent performances and it brilliantly punctures the pomposity of the pioneering surgeons of the day. The second episode opens with a hanging (on which I am blogging soon) and it cleverly encapsulates all the key elements of the experience. A spectator is robbed, the crowd are part rabbulous mob part appauled onlookers and there is a rush for the body as soon as it has been ‘dropped’. Well worth a watch.

Distraction 2: Jay Z – The Story of OJ. *NSFW*

A friend put me on to this remarkable song and video. I only have a fleeting knowledge of Jay Z’s work, despite being a hip hop fan (more a Dre or Murs man) but of the limited songs I have encountered they always grab my attention. This however, is a particularly remarkable song and even more remarkable video. I don’t want to explain it too much as it is the sparse simplicity of the message that makes it so powerful. All I will say is that it is a devastating assessment of the plight of black people, particularly in America, and in the context of this blog the ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’ of which Billie Holiday sung so powerfully are painfully present.


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