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Posts Tagged ‘power’

Partly because I am a basically shy, socially insecure and rather unspontaneous person, I remember having tremendous problems as a young postgraduate student in navigating the transition from regarding academics with awe and addressing them with reverence to, well, still regarding them with awe and reverence but being treated by them in a more informal, egalitarian manner. In particular, I recall the very gradual development of letters between me and my supervisor, with his signature moving from “Peter G” to “Peter” to “P”, and me trying to come up with ways to avoid having to address him as anything for fear of arousing divine wrath through my presumption. (more…)

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I’ve been contemplating possible historical analogies for the role of Head of Department (or Head of Subject or Subject Lead, the titles now in use in my own faculty) in a context where all the control of financial matters, and a lot of control of everything else, resides at a higher level of the organisation. The position is temporary, a matter of a couple of years (even fewer, if I can provoke my colleagues into launching a coup), rather than permanent; it is supposedly meritocratic, but more likely depends on a mixture of seniority, status and vulnerability to moral pressure (there may be people who really want this sort of job, but mostly it appears to get assigned to those who accept that they have some sort of duty and/or haven’t come up with a good enough excuse to avoid it). More or less no power that I’ve been able to identify, but not purely ceremonial; on the contrary, a fair amount of responsibility: to represent the department to higher authority, to defend it against wacky schemes and exciting initiatives, and at the same time to try to cajole colleagues into obeying the dictats that can’t simply be ignored, sometimes trying to translate them into a language that’s more acceptable or accessible to academics… (more…)

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lorrie mooreI discovered my all-time favourite short story writer, Lorrie Moore, entirely as a result of a quote on the cover of her first collection, Self-Help. I just googled the book to find an image (see left), and was struck by the fact that every other edition has appeared with tasteful and sophisticated covers, whereas the one in my local bookshop… Dear god, that is so 80s. Would I ever have bought such a thing if it hadn’t come with an endorsement from one of my favourite novelists, Alison Lurie (incidentally, if you haven’t read The Truth About Lorin Jones, it’s a perfect exposition of the unreliability and subjectivity of the past, and the dubious motives of those who investigate it)? “Lorrie Moore’s wry poetic stories of love and loss make me want to laugh and cry at the same time”.

This is more than the sober judgement of a reviewer (though for all I know the quote was taken from a review), and far more than the “You listened to Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently. Want to try Crippled Black Phoenix?” algorithms of Spotify and its ilk. It builds on the sense of a shared sensibility with a writer whose books I love; it’s not suggesting that this new work is the same as or even similar to books I already know I like, but rather that someone whom, in a sense, I feel I know through her writing, thought this was the sort of book I might like. There is, I suppose, a sort of implicit claim to authority, that this is someone whose critical judgements ought to be taken seriously, but it’s grounded in Lurie’s own achievements (contrast the way that many reviews are cited by the newspaper or magazine rather than the reviewer; what matters here is the authoritative imprimatur of the publication), and leaves it open to the casual browser to feel that if Lurie likes it then it’s definitely not for them – in the way that I would never buy a book if I thought there was any risk that Jeremy Clarkson or Toby Young liked it, even if they hadn’t actually supplied a quote for the cover.

All of which leads me to wonder about the increasing prevalence of pre-publication blurbs on academic books; not the old practice of quoting from suitably positive reviews when the paperback edition appears, but – since so many books are published simultaneously in hardback and paperback these days – the quotes that come from people who’ve been sent the proofs to read so their glowing testimonials can be used for the initial publicity campaign. Am I the only person who finds this all slightly odd?

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Since it’s Christmas, and I’ve had a few, a true confession or two: my highest professional ambition is to appear as a special guest on The Muppet Show, followed by being a performer on Strictly Come Dancing, followed by getting to do Desert Island Discs. I’m enough of a realist to realise that Top of the Pops is now beyond my reach, unless I can manage a guest spot with the wonderful Trwbador. (Yes, I know it’s also been cancelled. So’s The Muppet Show. In my fantasy, they’d bring it back so I could appear on it. They’d also bring Katya back to Strictly in the event that I get to dance on it, so I could have her as my partner. It’s a daydream, for goodness’ sake). (more…)

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There is a persistent tendency among readers of Thucydides to complain about other people’s readings of Thucydides. Sometimes these are ridiculously wishy-washy and overly complex, severing the text from any connection to reality and any hope of it making a useful contribution to the world, sometimes these are absurdly simple and reductionist, denying the complexity of Thucydides’ thought and the complexity of the world in equal measure; what they have in common is that they’re all dramatically inferior to my reading. A key question for the study of Thukydidismus is the capacity of Thucydides’ text to be interpreted in such dramatically different and contradictory ways, and the malleability of Thucydides himself, able to recruited as a supporter by any number of different ideological projects. The final group of papers from the conference all engaged in different ways with this question. (more…)

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The list of topics on which Thucydides is believed to have something useful to say never gets any shorter; last week, an online columnist on economic matters for the Daily Telegraph, who’s been consistently critical of the German stance towards Greece, posted a large chunk of the Melian Dialogue (what else?) with the words “I have nothing further to add. Draw your own conclusions.” (weblink; many thanks to Dan Tompkins for this).

My initial reaction to the idea that Thucydides might be a useful authority on sovereign debt and the problems of the Eurozone was faint incredulity. For all the protestations of Wilhelm Roscher, the nineteenth-century ‘Thucydides of political economy’, that he had learnt as much about economic matters from him as from any modern theorist, there is simply nothing in the History that remotely resembles economic thought; Roscher is right to claim that ‘in all eight books of his work, as far as I can see there is no error of political economy to be found’ – because nothing at all is said on the subject. It’s like the anecdote. recorded by Reinhart Koselleck, in which the Prussian minister for finance is persuaded to change his policy with this line: ‘Privy Councillor, do you not remember that Thucydides tells of the evils that followed from the circulation of too much paper money in Athens?’ Only the most deluded believer in Thucydides’ absolute authority, whose knowledge of the actual text was shaky in the extreme, would fall for it. (more…)

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