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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

The Pubic Untellectual

Perhaps it was A.J.P. Taylor’s fault. Certainly, if he imagined a ‘public intellectual’, it was Taylor who came to mind – not because he’d ever actually experienced Taylor in that role, but an impressionable age he had read an obituary or tribute that stressed Taylor’s activities in taking academic history to a wider audience, and their consequences for his career. He had drawn from this two things, one more obviously erroneous than the other: firstly, that in any conflict between history as the exclusive preserve of an elite and history as something for everyone, the latter position was clearly noble and correct; secondly, that, having established one’s academic credentials, it was enough then to be willing to take these to a wider audience for the opportunities to do so to materialise. The possibilities that Taylor had energetically sought out such opportunities, and benefited from being enormously well connected and having the prestige of an Oxford position if never the Regius chair, or simply that times had changed and there was now no shortage of historians willing to take their work to a wider audience and pronounce on the issues of the day, genuinely had not occurred to him until much later. (more…)

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Scene: The Secret Headquarters. A group of heavy-set, anonymous-looking men in suits, wearing mirrored sunglasses indoors, are seated around a table. Editorial Board member 1: So what did we learn? Editorial Board member 2: I don’t know, sir. Editorial Board member 1: I don’t f***** know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. Editorial Board member 2: No, sir. Editorial Member 1: I’m f***** if I know what we did. Editorial Board member 2: Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say.

Okay, that’s just gratuitous snark, and I like Burn Before Reading. The thing about the Peter Singer Does Apuleius affair is that there are many different things that different people ought to consider not doing again, of varying degrees of wider interest. (more…)

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Homer’s Iliad: perhaps the most grotesquely over-valued work of human culture after Shakespeare; entire books pass by without even the implied presence of a horse pulling a chariot, and the famous critique of the manufacture of artficial animals for destructive ends turns out not even to be in the poem. Marginally relieved by its embrace of the principle that superior healthy beings should end the lives of others. (more…)

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Recent end-of-year discussions of the experience of online teaching, combined with contemplation of what next year might be like, reminded me that I meant to post a summary of the best of autocaptioning. Maybe this can be a permanent replacement for the annual festival of exam errors that some academics are so fond of celebrating; these are so much stupider, and create far more work… (more…)

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I am feeling tired and useless and miserable, and my nose hurts. The latter is due to being swiped by Olga, who took exception to being removed from the study windowsill where she was happily watching birds; the rest is seriously over-determined, but at least one contributing factor is the effort of trying to take on board the feedback on my latest bit of jazz composition. All this term we’ve been working on a piece based, however loosely, on rhythm changes [note for non-jazz people: the basic structure of George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, which formed the basis for numerous other compositions, especially in the bebop era, and interminable jam sessions]. I’ve been struggling to develop something that doesn’t just sound like a pastiche of Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington – there simply don’t seem to be many models for more contemporary rhythm changes, apart from Thelonius Monk, and if you follow that you just sound like second-rate Monk – but had written something that I thought was actually interesting and with a strong melody line. So it was a little disheartening – getting close attention from the tutor is always a double-edged sword – to be told that, while the rhythm is interesting and the bass line is good, and the melody has a good rhythm, my note choices are much too nice and safe, and by implication boring. (more…)

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About twenty years ago, I would guess, I started writing Theories, Models and Concepts in Ancient History. I had two main motives – or three, if you count the fact that I was supposed to be writing a book about ancient trade and had absolutely no idea what to say about it. Firstly, I wanted to write it for my students; I’d by now been teaching an ‘Approaches to Ancient History’ course for five years, which I’d stealthily reorientated in directions that suited my interests and intellectual commitments, and I was somewhat conscious of the lack of accessible introductory reading. Writing a suitable book myself seemed preferable to changing the module topics back to the previous version – and it offered the possibility of a kind of primitive flipped classroom, insofar as if everyone read the relevant sections of the book we could focus on debates, issues and freeform discussion, rather than having to devote lots of class time to covering the basics of the topic. (more…)

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Rat Trap

No, UK universities have not been taken over and corrupted by Chinese money and persuaded to orientate their research programmes; otherwise, surely there would be more evidence of serious investigation of the Tacitus Trap, one of the three critical traps that Xi Jinping warned China against back in 2014 (together with the Thucydides Trap and the depressingly mundane Middle Income Trap – was there no Aristotelian remark about the importance of the mesoi that could have been repurposed? Okay, no alliteration…). Critical voices in China have objected that the Tacitus Trap is not actually a Western concept (the relevant Wikipedia entry cites only Chinese sources); surely this would be a great opportunity to improve the authority of the idea by making it a valid debate in Western political theory? Especially as current events seem so relevant… (more…)

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There’s a long-standing tradition of setting up a contrast between Thucydides and other classical historians, usually to make a point about the ‘true’ nature of historiography. Most commonly, the foil is Herodotus, in a zero-sum game where only one can be the real Founder of History: T as critical, objective, sober, realistic etc. versus some bloke who just wrote down a load of tall tales he picked up in bars down by the Halicarnassus docks, or H as the broad-minded anthropologist of cultural difference versus a narrow, reductivist and chauvinist view of human beings (shout-out to the late great Marshall Sahlins). But there are other possibilities; in the sixteenth century, for example, T might be set against Tacitus on political grounds, for his praise of the enlightened rule of Pericles as opposed to the dangerous hostility to monarchy evident in the Roman, while nineteenth-century critical historians frequently bolstered T’s reputation as one of them by giving Livy a good kicking as the epitome of aimless chronicling of events. (more…)

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What are conferences actually for? There were plenty of reasons for asking this question even before the pandemic, above all because of concern about the environmental impact of lots of academics merrily jetting round the world, and various people have been getting quite excited that, if nothing else, the plague might have broken us of the habit, or at least made us familiar with alternative approaches. I remain in the ‘undecided’ camp, at least as far as real-existing online conferences are concerned (I’ve participated in three in the last month). (more…)

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My secret is out: someone in the jazz composition group happens to have an interest in Greek tragedy, came across one of my old appearances on In Our Time and mentioned this on the group chat. By an unfortunate coincidence we were doing modal composition this week, and suddenly I was threatened with explaining the origins of Dorian, Mixolydian etc., and that could lead into further discussion of Plato’s ideas about different harmoniai and their effects on the soul, and the relation between ancient Greek musical theory and what we now understand as modes… Derailment threatened – however conscious I am of the risks of taking over the conversation, could I really formulate a short answer to such a question? Thankfully someone else asked a question that derailed the class in a completely different direction, rather more music-related if somewhat esoteric, and I was off the hook. (more…)

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