I confess: I am @CAConf2015. And yes, I’m afraid I am already married.
As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, I’ve spent the last few days at the UK Classical Association conference, which we were hosting in Bristol; not just introducing speakers and chairing a few sessions, but also running the official conference Twitter feed. This has been a rather strange experience (though not completely new, as I did something similar for the Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition last year for the Blackwell-Bristol lectures, and will probably be doing it again at the end of this month). The thinking is presumably that I know the system and style and so can be left to get on with it, but actually I wonder if giving the job to someone new to the whole thing might not be better – it doesn’t need or want someone with experience and confidence, and someone new to the whole thing and hence nervously feeling their way might find it easier to hit the right note, rather than someone like me having to un-learn some habits. Yes, I use Twitter in a relatively formal, work-related capacity, and so what I say there is pretty edited and filtered compared with many, but compared with what’s expected of the official voice of an institution or event, it feels like Hunter S. Thompson-esque stream of consciousness.
For the most part, I think I struck a reasonable balance; official tweets about the range of panels on offer and about major events and news, plus re-tweeting interesting remarks of others, and switching to my own account for live-tweeting specific panels and papers. This seemed to work; I resisted the temptation to start arguments with myself, and only once sent out a tweet on the wrong account (it can’t be seen for the official feed to favour one approach to the classical world over another…). The official account not only broadcast, it reunited a lost shawl with its owner, answered queries, and even generated one of the questions in the discussion of the first plenary lecture (of course, it helped that I was chairing it…)
Where things got a little more complicated was during the presidential address from P.J. Rhodes, on Ktema Es Aiei (A Possession for All Time), a survey of what Thucydides is all about and how this shows the continuing health and significance of the Classics. I can now say from direct experience how hard it is to offer sober, sensible little summaries of key points in a lecture when you really want to be heckling (electronically), developing counter-arguments and exchanging the internet equivalent of eye-rolls with friends elsewhere in the audience. There was a fair amount of switching between ipad and phone to operate accounts more or less simultaneously, before I decided that this was just too complicated.
It wasn’t personal; in his opening account of all the people who’d got Thucydides wrong by querying his reliability and/or ignoring questions of composition (Marxists, postmodernists, reception studies…), Peter quite explicitly excepted me and the Bristol Thucydides project – though one can only speculate whether this was because he was standing in the lion’s den, so to speak… Rather, it was the argument itself. No one sensible doubts that the Peloponnesian War did take place (Pow! Take that, postmodernists!). People tend to over-interpret Thucydides (In your face, W.R. Connor!). Thucydides tells us that the speeches are as close as possible to what was actually said, so that’s all right (Begone, foul spectre of epistemological uncertainty!). Let’s not get caught up in the ‘moral bleakness’ that the IR theorists somehow find in the text, but celebrate the enduring significance of classics. Okay then.
There have been many different Thucydideses, and in every case they are promoted, with absolute sincerity, as the Thucydides. It’s that sort of text (P.J. Rhodes: Oh no it isn’t!), complex and ambiguous, hinting at the great authorial intelligence behind it but leaving a vast gap into which we project our own desires for a particular sort of Thucydides. Peter is as welcome to do that as anyone. My objection is that this version of the Real Thucydides is so…dull. Not an artful reporter or the most politic historiographer that ever writ, but a diligent gatherer and transmitter of historical information who occasionally misses stuff out or gets it in the wrong order, without any deeper or darker purpose, because he’s only human.
It’s quite difficult to understand why such a Thucydides would have fascinated readers like Hobbes, von Ranke, Nietzsche, Toynbee, Aron, Strauss etc. It’s not that they thought he was perfect, or necessarily right – but they certainly thought he was interesting, and not just as a more-or-less reliable source of information about a period of Greek history. I’m reminded of the distinction offered by Wilhelm Roscher between the ‘historical artisan’ who simply collects material and organises it, and the true, scientific historian who then goes on to understand it and present his/her understanding. For Roscher, of course, Thucydides exemplifies the latter; it did seem as if Rhodes was trying to present Thucydides as the former – and in a positive spirit, ‘rescuing’ him from all the readers who try to find more significance and intelligence in his text than is really there.
Another line from Roscher: Thucydides is too important to be left to the philologists. I wish I’d remembered that one during last night’s tweeting…