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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Essays on Literature and Culture

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This page contains essays on literary criticism, culture, and travel. I also have an extensive reviews section on this website.

Please note that if you do use any of the ideas from these essays in your own work, you should cite this website correctly - remember, plagiarism is theft!

General Essays

Video Games as Successful Art

Can video games be classed as art? The question is a challenging one, cutting to the heart of what we think art is and what it should do. In this essay I offer one definition of "art" that seems to fit very well with video games, as well as with literature and paintings. In this case, art is defined as a work which makes full use of the opportunities for expression that are available to it. Video games have available to them multiple media for expression (audio-visual, simulation, gameplay satisfaction), and this definition of art suggests that video games must satisfy a wider range of criteria for "success" than other creative forms. On the other hand, this definition also means that we can still treat older games, which fully exploited the hardware of their own generation, as being artful in their own way.

The Value of an English PhD

This essay discusses the economic and social value of having a PhD in English Literature (but also in the Arts and Humanities generally). It proposes that questions about the value of an English PhD can be deflected by making PhD research more publically accessible.

The Cartoon Controversy: Free Speech at a Moral Price

The idea that freedom of speech is always an absolute right in Western democracies is wrong. Whilst people in most cases in Western democracies have a legal right to speak their minds, the legal protection afforded to freedom of speech is sometimes merely coincidental to the morality of speech acts.

The Language Barrier

How a trip across Eastern Europe revealed the remarkable robustness of language.

The Political Art of Criticism and Quarks

In order to justify its exercise, literary criticism has had to "get political," as well as maintaining a vaguer, aesthetic objective. Increasingly, cutting-edge science seems to have a hazy ambition to discover the complete nature of the universe. The lack of immediate, real-world, practical developments from this process means that science also must now have political objectives to justify the continued investment placed in it.

Signatures of Faith

The shape of a signature, its style and form, does not matter when it is applied to a legally binding document such as a CV. Why, then, are we so concerned with the identity and style of other confirmatory signatures: religious visions, statements of faith, the names of authors of fiction and drama?

Auschwitz: The Ultimate Ambiguity

The myths of history are encapsulated in iconic images or events, as is evidenced in our continual repetition of the Holocaust as the moral paradigm for human evil. But Auschwitz, the iconic concentration camp of the Holocaust, prevents any simple images from being formed. It raises questions about our modes of memorialising, rather than providing ultimate meanings for immoral human actions.

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Travel Writing

Scotland Trip 2009

This is an account of a road trip from Northumberland to Scotland, taking in the Farne Islands, Loch Lomond and the Isle of Mull.

  • Wooler As we eat, we are reminded that we are in border country when a local woman berates a Scottish tourist, albeit good-naturedly. "Look at all the swords on a map round here, aye," she says in a Northumberland accent, which is slightly less sing-song than inner city Geordie. "We won them all, all of 'em."...
  • The Farne Islands Unwittingly, even as they preen and pretend to stardom, the puffins do actually play an important role on the global stage. Like all the nesting birds on the Farnes, puffins provide key indicators of climate change...
  • Falkirk We drive from Wooler to Falkirk, to see the famous wheel. This seems somewhat misnamed, as its main part is not straightforwardly round, but resembles a pair of vampiric, steel incisors...
  • Loch Lomond We rest our muddy feet amidst the shuffles of several coach parties of pensioners. Everything is set up for them at the hotel. Over tinny speakers, bagpipes play "O Flower of Scotland" and, bizarrely, that old Scottish classic "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf."...
  • The Isle of Mull In spite of our defeated wildlife voyeurism, Mull remains remarkably wild, and that it seems almost unfair that a place of such natural beauty should be permitted to remain part of an industrial nation which has played no small role in wreaking environmental havoc elsewhere...
  • New Lanark With the gradual adaptation of the river to man's uses over time, power and beauty can go together. But that long period allows people's perceptions of the natural and the artificial to change, and to blur into one another, so that the mill and the power station seem somehow appropriate, where once they must have been condemned as an eyesore...
  • Postscript I think of ourselves, trying to avoid flying but nevertheless burning a thousand miles of petrol on our trip, wondering at the beauty of the environment from our steel shell, and in the process doing a little to destroy it...

East of Europe

For two months in 2004, I travelled by train through Eastern Europe, through countries which were about to accede to the European Union. Sadly, I never completed the entire journal, but a few chapters or sections are coherent enough to reproduce online now.

  • Accelerating Away: Prague At either end of Prague's King Charles bridge, two clock-towers mark the hour, in synchrony and at the correct moment as they have done for the five hundred years since their construction. But in the centre of the span, below the eyes of a statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, court priest of Wenceslas IV, time is speeding up...
  • Krakow Glowny, Krakow's central station, leads its new arrivals through the inverse of the idiosyncratic process with which Prague dismisses. Beneath the recently-renovated platforms, its modern display boards and florescent streets, with their burger bars and tobacco shops, could locate it anywhere in the West. However, when one climbs from the new underground to the elegant old station building, the remnants of Soviet public transport are still there...
  • Bratislava Heading into town from the outskirts, Bratislava seemed unpromising; rows of tower blocks marched in formation, channelling the tram through a concrete gorge which let little light in, and little dust escape. We stepped off, however, outside the lovely Primacialny palace, and passed under a graffitied underpass to a different place...
  • The Left-Behinds: Hungary Somehow, Hungary has skipped a stage in its economic development. Silver coloured electrical goods, luxury items, fashionable clothes have become the important indicators of wealth, ahead of a large home, a car, a good diet. We spoke to a drunk who, like all serious alcoholics, had the air of an informed and absent-minded intellectual, serious and humorous, thoroughly unthreatening, at peace in the vapour of vodka. He had, he informed us, lost a child when still a baby and, now divorced, he lived alone in a one-bedroom flat with, its centrepiece, a widescreen TV in the living room...
  • Into Asia: Turkey, Part One We had barely marked the surface on our first day in Turkey, as we skimmed through, bypassing Istanbul and crossing the plains and water of the Marmara region in a windowed whirl of speedlines. Only by tracing a line on our tourist map � its bright, primary colours and cartoonish architectural icons over-simplifying the unique complexities of each terrain and region � with a finger did we get a physical feeling of having passed into a new continent...
  • Into Asia: Turkey, Part Two This load-bearing axis of a city, heavy and huge with the weight of 12 million inhabitants and centuries of historical importance - Constantine's city with two names, capital of two religious Empires, about which whirl two seas, two continents and two cultures - was grinding to a halt, gritted with the mechanics of commuting. Chaotic pinballs of cars, coaches and trucks, bounced between lanes, almost collided but then, like opposing magnets, bounced away from each other with a sharp honk or a squeal of brakes...

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Literary Criticism

The Unscience Fiction of China Mi�ville's The City and The City

China Mi�ville's The City and the City is about two opposing city-states that coexist, not simply side by side but physically overlapping one another. Yet as well as the architectural blurring within the novel, The City and the City also embodies a generic blurring that means the novel relates uncertainly to our own reality. Drawing on cyberpunk, noir, postmodernism, and above all science fiction, the novel marks the maturity of a genre of dystopian science fiction that can be traced back to Nineteen Eighty Four. However, unlike Orwell's novel, but like other more recent fictions about state power such as Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, the absence of technology as an explanation for the events of The City and the City makes it an incisive political critique. (First Published Online: October 10, 2012)

Science as Writing, Writing as Science: Addressing the Boundaries of Literary Criticism and Fiction

This essay considers the values and limitations of reading scientific texts as literary narratives, and the importance of fictional writing in relation to real-world science. By using literary theory to interpret both varities of text, it evidences that literary criticism's powerful flexibility derives precisely from its not being bound to operate within the rigorous methodologies of scientific practice. Thus it reinforces Sokal's argument against scientistic, post-modern forms of theory. (First Published Online: December 10, 2006)

Online Text Databases and the Literary Canon

Although academic text archives make a wide range of texts readily available to scholars, and they can an disguise the categorical markers found in their physical counterparts, eliminating many of the paratextual features which position a work within a particular tradition of authorship and readership and enabling the new reader to approach with fewer preconceptions. However, because of the audience for whom the databases are compiled, electronic texts are still also anteriorly positioned within canonical traditions and, broadly, they reflect rather than affect existing literary-critical prejudices. (First Published Online: March 9, 2005)

What Lies Within: Parentheses and Ambiguity in Poetry of the Twentieth Century

Parentheses in poetry are rarely commented upon in their own right. However, they can be crucial syntactical indicators of a hyperactive mental state in their author, who is unable to maintain his or her expression along a single argumentative train. As a kind of sotto voce private space, they express doubt about the validity of those thoughts expressed outside the brackets, and contribute to a poem's general ambiguity. This is especially true because making a vocal performance of specifically a curved bracket is impossible. The curved bracket, when performed, becomes identical to other forms of parenthetical expression such as the comma or the line break. It loses its emphasis of being a different space and may alter the meaning of the poem as a whole. (First Published Online: 2003)

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This page was published on June 15, 2008 | Keywords: essays, literary criticism, writing, book reviews

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