16. October 2014 · Comments Off on What I’ve Learned So Far: and Why We’re Working to Buy Blake’s Cottage · Categories: Society News

When I became involved with the Blake Society, I had just started work on my PhD dissertation. I saw the Society as an academic organization, one where I might be able to give talks, and connect with other academics who were working on Blake, and who might help me develop my career as a professional academic.

That was six years ago, and boy, did I have a lot to learn. Here are two of the realizations that have been most important for me, and which I have gained from working with the Blake Society:
1. The university (and academics) cannot be the only audience for research, or scholarship, or whatever you want to call the work that university faculty do. This is for two reasons: first, because universities cannot survive with an inbred audience of other academics; and secondly, because too much of traditional academic scholarship shuts out the possibility of experiential learning and knowledge. And without experiential learning, the university becomes a moribund, and less vital place. I have learned this because of the Blake Society’s membership, which is a mixture of both academics, and those who are staunchly non-academic.
2. There can be new forms of knowledge production besides the lecture and the scholarly monograph. Once, monographs and essays were the bedrock of academic conversation. In holding onto them, we have forgotten that social conversation was the very point of their existence. Much of academia is already figuring out that there *must* be new forms of scholarly work: the current costs of publishing are prohibitively expensive, and that the audiences for books are hardly large enough to sustain those costs.
I bring this up because programming for the Blake Society actively eschews the standard lecture format in favour of more interactive events: walks, workshops, conversations. This summer Michael Phillips visited to show people how Blake’s own printmaking set-up may have worked; two years ago, we arranged for a tutorial in theatrical voicework, in order to support the creation of audio recordings of much of Blake’s body of work. Already, we are thinking about the best ways to use the Felpham Cottage.
Finding new sorts of events and knowledge production is not simple work. Easy to dismiss much academic writing as tangled, dry, and needlessly difficult; equally easy to say that it has to be dumbed down and sensationalized, because that is all that public audiences want, or can handle. Neither of these easy conclusions are true. Creating events and making spaces for knowledge production and discovery is difficult work. It requires organizers to think carefully about numerous variables: socioeconomic conditions that effect how much time people will have for events; whether to plan an event with a fee that will be more exalted, but less accessible to those who cannot afford it. (Regular attendees of Blake Society events know that the majority of our events are free). To be an innovative creator of content requires both imagination and the willingness to imagine the different conditions of people’s lives, and to think: how can I best intervene? What can I bring into reality that will make a change?
This is the spirit with which we are working to acquire Blake’s cottage, which brings me to a third thing I’ve learned from working with the Blake Society: you must become alert and aware of what exists, and what does not. In short: you must learn to see what isn’t there. At least, not there yet. There are tributes to Blake: a room in the Tate where his images hang on the wall; there is the Paolozzi statue inspired by Blake’s Newton that stands in the courtyard of the British Library. But these tributes are static monuments. They are not designed to intervene in people’s lives. They are still treasures, but we — I and my Blake Society collaborators — believe that there is something missing: a tribute to Blake that can also be a locus of activity and energy. We have learned to see this space, though as yet, it is not there. Or rather, it is partly there: the Cottage exists, but what will it become?
We cannot sit back and wait, and assume that the Cottage will somehow fall into our laps. Nor can we assume that if we do nothing, the energetic space that we imagine will somehow emerge by accident. If we do not strive now, it may never happen — at least, not in our lifetimes.
There is a saying, often attributed to Scottish writer Alasdair Gray, but actually from Canadian poet Dennis Leigh: “work as if you were living in the early days of a better country.” When I think about this saying, I do two things: first, I imagine what it would be like to suddenly find myself in a new and unfamiliar civilization, a place where all the systems that order my daily routines were not already in place — and where *I* had to cooperate with others in order to develop them. The second thing I do is harder (at least, for me): I remember that the familiarity that characterizes my everyday life is an illusion. I *am* in a new country — made new by virtue of the sun rising — and it can be a better country if I am willing to act to make it one. It would be easier not to do this work: to simply focus on the plentiful rules that the world has given me; to put my head down and focus on my academic work, like a good junior scholar: publish one essay by the end of the year, finish a book proposal by next spring, another article by summer, etc.
I choose not to simply put my head down. I choose to open my eyes, and see what must be done, what can be done.
I feel a little cowed when I allow myself to think like this, to see the world with my imagination turned on. I am so small, and so often, powerless. However: it is when I allow myself to think in this way that I also begin to fully understand the final stanza of Blake’s “Jerusalem”:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
As long as “Jerusalem” is sung at sporting events, in church services, and at the last night of the Proms, the idea of Jerusalem will stay alive. But it has not yet been built. Buying the Cottage at Felpham is us taking a stand, to make progress in building it. Will you join us, and join in our work of making an active space for imagination and the discovery of new forms of knowledge?
–Paige Morgan

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