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Five Minutes for the Humanities

A view from Elizabeth Forrest, Editorial Assistant for Language & Linguistics and Psychology at Palgrave Macmillan

Recently I attended the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition in London. The display movingly brings together a variety of artefacts of grassroots protest ranging from an unassuming teacup used in the Suffragette campaign to the extravagant Tiki Love Truck created to protest the death penalty. Amongst the subversive, often profoundly ordinary items collected there, the group of objects that had the greatest impact on me were the riot shields painted to resemble books: book blocs. Notable examples include To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, and Moby Dick. Originally used in 2010 by Italian students protesting cuts to education, book blocs were quickly adopted by campaign movements across the globe, and are now a regular feature of public protests.

What struck me most about the book blocs certainly wasn’t the cover designs (mostly basic and rushed—the kind our design team at Palgrave would shudder at). It was the invocation of a story to make a statement. Think of Atticus Finch claiming that ‘Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand’. Stories are a means by which we can share our experiences, and this should result in what George Eliot called an ‘extension of our sympathies’. The protesters found solidarity with the authors of the works they chose to depict, and used this to appeal to the sympathies of the powers that be.

Why is this relevant to the Humanities? Well, the Humanities are concerned with constructing and analysing narratives, whether cultural, literary, historical, philosophical—the list goes on. Narratives are important. They help us make sense of experiences and events and give them a logic. Sometimes the logic fails, but narratives can articulate the frustration and anger, which is why they are naturally coupled with acts of protest. I wish to include in the term ‘narrative’ not just works of fiction but any sequencing of events or experiences such as anecdotes, visual art or performance that evoke a plot, even academic accounts. Ultimately narratives help us express, explore, challenge what it is to be part of humanity, and this is what the Humanities are all about.

The book blocs are an interesting choice of armoury; they suggest that books can be weapons. There is something powerful about a group of people appropriating a story as their own. They are joining their voices with the voice of the artist to speak out about a particular cause and bring about change. The Humanities empower us to be critics of the narrative of our society, as well as contributors to it, by amplifying voices previously ignored, asking the difficult questions, and challenging perceptions. Whether it be channelled through protest or another means, the Humanities help us to play our part in authoring change in society.