Apologies for the lack of posts recently; partly, the usual effects of the beginning of term crossed with a series of cold/flu bugs, and partly because I’ve spent the last week as guest tweeter for the @WeTheHumanities account, attempting to demonstrate the continuing vitality of the humanities. I’m not sure what it may mean that the comments which got the greatest level of response were those focused on artisan foodstuffs, followed by complaints about the difficulty of combining domestic chores and the academic life, while carefully crafted provocations about the possible limitations of the sorts of knowledge our disciplines can produce, compared with the apparently solid and practical findings of the sciences and social sciences, apparently fell on deaf ears – or, people just didn’t want to go there.
Still, I benefitted from thinking through some of these issues, and I’m delighted to announce that I’ve developed a completely new approach to the ‘impact’ of my Thucydides research. This is an area that has often made me feel rather uneasy; is it possible both to question the crude, instrumentalist use of Thucydides (as I spend much of my time, not only here but in print, doing) and at the same time to try to devise uses of Thucydides that are sufficiently crude and instrumentalist to generate the sorts of evidence that could conceivably constitute an Impact Case Study? Yes, I’m doing my best to come up with ways of using the Melian Dialogue (or, as my wife’s iPad calls it. Amelia’s Dialogue) as a way of getting people to think through complex issues of power, justice, inequality etc. rather than as a source of pat answers on those topics – and I’m all too aware of how little interest there may be in this. But I have suddenly seen the way forward, recognising the simple need to turn things inside out.
As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, there has been increased interest in Thucydides in recent years in China, with even Premier Xi making comments on the subject. In fact, it might be better to describe this as unwilling interest, forced to respond to questions about the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’, the alleged inevitability of war between the US and China and so forth. This must be very, very annoying, if not rather mystifying. Reading through this morning’s newspaper reports of the forthcoming state visit to London, it suddenly came to me: could China’s new friendly attitude towards the UK be due not just to our desperation for their money to invest in nuclear power stations and the like, but also to the relative absence of Thucydides from British public discourse, so that Xi does not have to spend any time batting away such questions? And, if so, how far can this blog’s tireless efforts in questioning reductive Thucydides quotes, not to mention regularly attacking the bloody Thucydides trap, claim some of the credit for this?
I have been quite concerned – on the rare occasions when I manage to think about Impact for more than five minutes without my brain sliding off it – about the shortage of evidence to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of my research, beyond the visitor stats for this blog (which apparently don’t count unless I survey you all about how reading this has changed your view of the world). But what if the lack of evidence is actually evidence of impact – the less that Thucydides features in UK public discourse about international affairs, despite all the pressure from his prominence in US discussions, the clearer the case for my impact on that discourse, rooting out all the misquotations and misappropriations? And all I need to do is carry on writing this blog, and hoping that British journalists continue to resist the influence of people like Graham Allison and Malcolm Turnbull, and their dangerous belief that Thucydides has the answers to everything. That’s not the way to build bridges with the Chinese…