Talking In Our Time

What academics mostly do is spin yarns. Sometimes these develop into technical tapestries, as hard to unpick as the punchline is (we hope) world-shaking. Much of the time, we are chipping away at the knowledge edifice, trying to make a difference. We receive no training in communicating research intelligibly outside the academy, yet making our research into stories that resonate as widely and powerfully as possible is as central to modern universities as it is to their faculty and students. Despite the rhetorics of ivory-towers and ivied quads, our world is no more (nor less) exclusive than any comparable trade. Ideas are our currency, and this means that we tend to speak to whoever will listen.

Some academics (micro-)blog, many of us teach and write books and papers, explain what we do to diverse audiences (including friends, or people at bus-stops…) and like everyone, we try to adapt our discourse appropriately to match the context. Many of us also travel nationally and internationally to explore how we fit into and can make a difference to new and bigger conversations. But these activities are all within our comfort-zones.

Donkey: legs talked right off!

Donkey: legs talked right off!

The crunch comes when, as it did for me this summer, someone wants to change the medium and for instance, put academics together for live broadcast debate to an unseen audience. In my case, this was to be on the radio. You’d think that a person well-used to standing up in front of large audiences, and delighted to talk the hind legs off herds of donkeys, would still find this uncomplicatedly delightful. In fact, it quite daunted me in ways I hadn’t expected.

The “call” was in fact an email. Would I be interested in talking about reception of Alexander the Great with some fellow academics as part of an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time”. Of course I was interested! But the dynamics of this kind of “conversation” are inevitably very different to a chat between colleagues, or to a typical academic lecture, workshop, or seminar. This was brought home to me vividly when I had my first conversation with the production team, charming folk who quizzed me in detail (as they worked out how the episode might develop) about all sorts of aspects of Alexander’s story that I’d not considered for some time.

The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth

The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth

This build-up was exciting and perturbing in almost equal measures. Answering questions about Alexander’s extraordinary career, and reimagining my own analyses in the light of thirteen years (since first publishing a book about Roman reception of Alexander), was all rather exhilarating. But stories started to drift in from friends and colleagues about the terrible “freeze” that can overcome the most fluent of speakers when in the studio, about the unintentional gaffes that “live” recording can crystallise, and by the time I’d been warned about not “tapping on the table”, or “rustling”, or making repetitive noises, I was beginning to imagine myself as the unfortunate Lina with her pearls, in “Singing in the Rain”.

One question I asked in the build-up was “why Alexander, now?” While the BBC programme team had no particular agenda for the timing of this episode (and perhaps the “In Our Time” shtick requires a sense of timelessness in scheduling topics), nevertheless the turmoil in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, new urgency to questions of ethnicity and its relationship to selfhood, nationality, and to geopolitical ideals and realities, all seem to echo some of the radical population shifts and the fallout from grand ideological schemes that were an inevitable consequence of Alexander’s campaigns. Not to mention the vexed question of Alexander as poster-boy for a new brand of charisma-driven personality politics.

The trip to Broadcasting House was set for the Thursday of Freshers’ Week, so I hustled from the mock “graduation” ceremony and prize-giving that we staged for Birmingham’s Liberal Arts and Sciences first years (celebrating their successful completion of the four-year degree in two packed days…), through Birmingham’s brand newly (re-)opened Grand Central/New Street Station, and onto the fast train to London.

London, and the Thames, feature emblematically on the doors to the RIBA (Portland Place)

London, and the Thames, feature emblematically on the doors to the RIBA (Portland Place)

We’re so close to London that I often wonder why I go so infrequently, and enjoying a quiet supper in a bar near my hotel there was a slightly naughty sense of being unexpectedly released temporarily into the wild.

I met up with my fellow guests at 10.00 the next morning at the iconic, Art Deco entrance to what I still think of as the authentic (i.e. ’30s) Broadcasting House, opposite John Nash’s exquisite All Souls Church, Langham Place. Classical academia is a small world, and I knew both the other guests (hello, Paul, Rachel), so the pre-mic green-room coffee stop (sadly, like every theatrical “green room” I’ve been in, it was not at all green) was a bit of a catchup session. Melvyn Bragg, our host, made his appearance once we had taken the correct seats (inevitably, I first of all sat in the wrong seat) in a large, evocatively old-school, recording studio.

The programme has a manner all its own, and each guest gets a chance to answer one or two questions first, setting the scene, before the conversation (though still fairly tightly structured) is opened out. We agreed to raise our hands if we wanted to interject, which did occasionally make me want to shout “Miss! me, Miss!” But I resisted. I think that if I get invited back (or ever take part in a comparable show) I’ll be a bit more forceful about waving that hand. The crux of Alexander the Great, an issue that the team were clearly aware of but couldn’t resolve, is that there is way, way too much juicy, salacious, intriguing, perplexing material to cover. My own area of specialisation really didn’t get much of a look-in because exploring even the big opening questions relating to what Alexander did and how we know about, or interpret it, could have filled a whole series.

At the BBC, ready to broadcast!

At the BBC, ready to broadcast!

There’s a fun bit at the end of each show where guests record some more relaxed conversation on the theme, for the podcast, and I was aching to talk about the weird seepage between art and life characterising 20thC actors role-playing Alexander (it was not long after their off-kilter Alexander pilot that William Shatner would be inspiring viewers “to boldly go”…and Adam West would be saving Gotham; while Richard Burton’s personal life resounded to the issues of sex, drink, and identity-crisis that characterise hostile Roman reception of Alexander), and Alexander’s big-screen monopolisation by actors from edges of corporate states (Burton: Wales; Sean Connery: Scotland) or with postcolonial reverb (Colin Farrell: Ireland).

I’d also hoped to be able to interject a little more on how buffeted by 20thC ideologies Alexander’s afterimage became. For instance, Hitler had a series of eight Dutch tapestries depicting great episodes in Alexander’s life, based on a sequence created by Charles le Brun for Louis XIV of France) moved from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, to add epic grandeur to his office in the Chancellery, Berlin.

Classical motifs abound, near the BBC. Here, one might almost be stepping into a Greek temple...

Classical motifs abound, near the BBC. Here, one might almost be stepping into a Greek temple…

Alexander’s emblematic potential for modelling Aryan identity and showing how to impose radical cultural shifts across diverse populations would also reverberate contrastingly through the idea of “universal brotherhood” which he supposedly took as the ideological centrepiece for his eastern empire-building. This idea of a “brotherhood of man” started to come into focus as world power dynamics shifted through the 1930s, and was given a positive, optimistic airing by William W. Tarn, in his Raleigh Lecture on History (delivered to the British Academy in 1933, and restated in an article in the American Journal of Philology, in 1939. see Ernst Badian’s 1958 restatement of the issues, and analysis). Tarn’s Alexander, like Hitler’s, was a visionary, but for Tarn, Alexander’s political dream took on a soteriological quality that his charismatic good-looks and early death helped to shore up.

If airtime had allowed, I think I’d have liked to end with an interrogation of how that “visionary”, age-defying, charismatic man-of-the-people Alexander continued to permeate western understanding of power — imperial, intellectual, scientific, sexual — right through the 20thC. To my mind, the ubiquity of tropes relating back to Roman stories of Alexander the inquisitive, boundary-pushing hero with feet of clay can help all of us to pose questions of ourselves about how exactly we understand what identity is, whether individual, collective, or comparative, and how the assumptions we make connect us to past societies and give definition to what we consider to be characteristic of humane values and aspirations.

My London day ended with a research-related trip to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA: very handy for the BBC, and like the Wellcome Collection, a wonderful resource for interdisciplinary enthusiasms), and a little Classical eye-candy appreciation (en route back to London Euston, and home).

Evaluating Europe — the Second Years’ Brussels trip

One of the perks of my role as Dean is that I was in a position to develop and participate in our new annual trip for second year Liberal Arts and Sciences students, taking the group to the heart of Europe: Brussels. This built on their first and second year core modules, studying the nature of modernity and crises facing humanity, and helped us all as a group to think hard about recent and forthcoming flash-points relating to European and UK politics.

We are fortunate at the University of Birmingham to have close research and development ties with continental Europe, and the University has an office in Brussels giving us a base for engaging with policy developments across the Union. To get our second years in the mood, the big questions we posed for the trip were:

  • When you hear “Brussels”, what does it represent? Does this change over the course of the trip?
  • What in Brussels’ historic relationship to European power-dynamics might have led to its primacy in the EU? This might touch on politics but also, think about Brussels and the development of the Modern in art and architecture.
  • What characterises contemporary Brussels? How does it differ from, or seem similar to, other capitals?
  • To what extent has the city been swallowed by its EU role?
  • What can “European” signify, and how well does Brussels as a lived city and living community fit in with those implications?
  • How much is homogeneity OR multiculturalism a defining feature of perceptions of the EU?
  • What is your understanding of decision/policy making processes in the EU? How might you propose to enhance them? What would be a better organisational executive structure?

A challenging set of discussion points, but they did keep reverberating right through our three-day visit.

The early start was bracing (a coach from Birmingham at 7am), but by the time we were all gathered at International Departures in London’s St. Pancras Station, there was a fantastic buzz. The energy was increased by our guest academic Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, an expert in policy, faith, and communities.

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Brussels has a compact centre, and our hotel was a pleasant walk from the Gare du Midi. The first evening was exploratory, and once we had settled in, the students somehow found a new lease of life and decided to explore (as students later put it: ‘It was really interesting to see other parts of Brussels outside the standard tourist hot spots’, and ‘Having already been struck by the apparent beauty and diversity of the city, we had the chance to delve deeper’).

At Schaerbeek's School no. 1 Brussels, by Henri Jacobs

At Schaerbeek’s School no. 1, Brussels, by Henri Jacobs

Day 1, beginning to work (Monday)

We started early the next morning, with a coach-tour introducing the role of socialism and political change in the development of the Art Nouveau movement (students commented: ‘I really enjoyed the Art Nouveau Bus tour…thanks to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide, the tour was both engaging and informative’, and ‘learning that the fundamentals behind designing buildings can be synonymous with the core principles in a culture to reflect the important values of learning, community and appreciation of beauty, was inspiring’). Visits to key buildings included Schaerbeek School No.1, where our guide spoke compellingly about the interplay between social modelling and educational values underpinning some of the most interesting architectural projects.

Taking a breather, at the Cathedral.

Taking a breather, at the Cathedral.

Story-telling!

Story-telling!

The afternoon took us back out into the heart of old Brussels, where over the course of two-hours, our walking-tour guide introduced us to the backstory by way of which Brussels continued to punch above its weight in shaping the forces of change long before European union was dreamed of. One student commented, ‘every building was different from the next and had a unique character/story behind it. There wasn’t just one amazing piece of architecture, but many.’

We time-travelled from the medieval core of the early city, right through to the urban planning revolution of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century urban quarters, taking in history, art, and politics en route.

w4CcyN2Myg8TxJOT3ZeOVY452M36dhsSQtJqnVwnXM4Jagbir and I hosted a dinner for the students that evening, in a charming Brussels restaurant where moules (mussels) were just one menu highlight. It was wonderful, after an action-packed year, to spend some time just talking to the students and reflecting on our collective achievements. Plus, the chocolate pudding was outstanding (and I did take the opportunity to do some chocolate-shopping; well, it would have been a waste not to!).

Day 2, making policy

Tuesday morning saw us negotiate the Brussels metro in order to get to our first EU appointment, a presentation and Q&A at the Commission.

EU Commission, Brussels

EU Commission, Brussels

Shepherding the group through the unexpected intricacies of the metro was more bracing than I had imagined, but we made it on time and with good humour intact. Our guide, Simon Pascoe, was from the civil service team working day-to-day with the College of Commissioners to transform their work into directives ready for the EU Parliament and Council. It was fascinating to gain insight into the processes, the stress points, the trade-offs, the enthusiasm, and the difficulties that make up the Commission’s work. Simon stressed just how crucial the continuous feed-through of new minds and new ideas is, and encouraged the students to consider applying for Commission internships.

Ready to move and shake in Europe! At the Commission.

Ready to move and shake in Europe! At the Commission.

We left with many new questions (always a good sign).

The EU Parliament runs a challenging, frustrating (in a productive way), illuminating role-playing exercise, at the Parlamentarium. We arrived for 2pm, and after 2.5 hours of mock politicking our new political factions had managed to agree the progress of one directive. I managed only to shout once, and one student was so compelling in speaking for his party’s position that two students voted across party lines (hence the shouting). Jagbir’s take on this is lovely: ‘when having to negotiate on the legislation passions ran high, and we all learnt that this involved a lot of horse-trading; everyone entered into this negotiation with dynamism and enthusiasm, and in some instances when students were defending their positions you could see young MEPs in the making’.

Personally, I was exhilarated (ok, exhausted) by the high-pressure tempo of the exercise, dealing with lobbyists, managing a party office and phone-line, being called upon to react when a major natural disaster struck, having to stand (literally) under the spotlight during briefings… As one student commented, ‘the Parlamentarium also helped to reinforce the information we were given during the EU commission trip the same morning. It was really fun and interactive!’

Jagbir summed the role-play up eloquently: ‘Students received two directives from the Commission to move through the process and liaise with the Council. All were then divided into four different parties, with defined manifestos. Using their manifestos they had to negotiate their position with the other parties, in order to reach an agreement.  Through this process they learnt the complicated nature of legislation, lobbying and political positions.  For example through the various lobbying videos they learnt the importance of listening to the viewpoints of the people for and against legislations and learn and understand peoples’ concerns. What was clear to the academics was that they were utilizing a number of skills needed to make learned information useful in the real world: self-awareness, problem solving, communication, initiative and teamwork’.

We all agreed that we wanted to visit the EU history exhibition, which told the story of European union through an intriguing and unexpected medium — photos from significant moments in European history which taken collectively encouraged viewers to reflect on how and why union was the right solution. The ideological takeaway was for the most part delivered with subtlety and panache, and although over the course of the day there were striking moments of media geared to just one (positive) EU message, visitors were continually challenged to think hard about the pros and cons.

Our last night’s dinner was a little more subdued — everyone was tired. But the students took the chance to explore Brussels’ nightlife when Jagbir and I headed back to the hotel. Counting them all back onto the Eurostar on Day 3 made me feel very proud of the intellectual effort they had put in, the energy they had expended, and the real sense of drawing intellectual and academic strands together at the close of a busy year. As one student summed up: ‘Everywhere we looked something interesting was waiting, it really made me think how we don’t pay enough attention to things in daily life and I really want to be more aware of simple things’.

Coda

When I asked Jagbir to reflect on the trip, her comments were illuminating: ‘I was particularly impressed with how the students engaged with our visit to the EU parliament and the role play activity. That activity showcased and made real the role of MEPs in the European Parliament, and until this point most of our students had only read or heard about what MEPs do.  This activity allowed them to experience first-hand how intense and complex this position is and the immense responsibility attached to it…this visit highlighted for the students, but also the academics, the intersection between politics at the EU level and our daily life in our respective countries’.

Jagbir’s expertise, the students’ enthusiasm, and my interest in getting everyone thinking about how transdisciplinarity can deliver really original insights, mean that we are now planning some provocative events addressing the UK in Europe, the EU referendum, and other big world events for 2016 and 2017. I expect we’ll blog about that over the coming months!

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Classicising modernity

I wrote this post after attending a University of Birmingham talk last week 🙂

Rome and all that...

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a provocative and thoughtful discussion of the relationship between classical Greek tragedy and the development fascism in Italy, Germany, and Greece. The speaker was my wonderful colleague Eleftheria Ioannidou, and the occasion, our fortnightly Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology research seminar (all are welcome!).

The full title of the paper (‘Classicising modernity: Performances of Greek tragedy and the cultural poetics of fascism’) helped to unpack some core issues economically, in particular, how fascism and the idea of ‘the modern’ were rooted in complex understanding of ‘Greek’ (or ‘Classical’) and ‘tragedy’.

We were challenged, as an audience, to reflect on whether and how one can explore aesthetics of fascism and its culture without forming a value-judgement embedded in grand ideological narratives (and the sweep of 20th/21st century history). It was especially useful, for me, to be asked to think hard about the origins…

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News from Japan

I posted this on The Conversation:

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to call a snap election for December 14 comes after what has been a rather bad week for him. Japan has slipped back into recession for the first time since 2012 and Abe has seen his popularity ratings drop below 50% for the first time.

Abe clearly believes he needs to act fast if he is to survive this crisis and avoid falling victim to the factional politics that are so often the cause of leadership upheavals. He doesn’t have to hold an election for another two years so in calling this vote, he is aiming to maximise his remaining popularity, bolster support for Abenomics and prevent a political ousting.

Japanese prime ministers are not renowned for their staying power. Factional politics feature prominently in the day-to-day running of the country and internal jostling is intensified in periods of coalition government. Abe leads a coalition government made up of his Liberal Democratic Party and its partner party, the Komeito – so he has experienced this jostling for some time.

He and his party are likely to win a majority in this December election though. The LDP currently occupies 294 out of the 480 seats of the Lower House and starts the campaign in a strong position.

The key for Abe is to ensure that the LDP’s majority is large enough to give him room for manoeuvre. The Komeito currently only holds 31 seats, while the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has 54 seats. Abe needs to urgently reduce the political tensions around him if he is to succeed in his economic reform agenda.

The prime minister is a man with a mission. He is strongly committed to consolidating his economic reforms, based around quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform. A newly secured mandate from the electorate would give him the space to pursue his plans.

He has other goals aside from Abenomics. The disaster at Fukushima led to the closure of Japan’s nuclear reactors, and Abe is striving to have them restarted, in order to reduce the high costs of energy to Japanese consumers. Since the 2011 disaster, electricity prices have increased by dramatically and Japan remains vulnerable to external energy providers.

On the political front, Abe is keen to overturn a half century of a particularly Japanese form of pacifism. He wants to enable the country’s well-equipped Self Defense Forces to become an internationally accepted army, navy and air force. Instead of existing to defend Japan, the force would be deployable elsewhere too.

This is linked to Japan’s sense of insecurity in the region, particularly when it comes to the rise of China. Bolstering the military reconfirms Japan’s ongoing commitment to its security treaty with the United States.

Abe also wants to sign the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would establish a free trade agreement among the states around the Pacific Ocean. Japanese farmers, who have always represented a powerful political lobby in Japan, estimate that up to 90% of Japanese agriculture could be severely affected by the TPP, and Abe will have his work cut out to convince them of its value.

Without a resounding mandate for the next two years, Abe will struggle to meet these goals. He stands out as a bold leader and the electorate has supported his ambitions so far. But while he is not necessarily risking his position with the snap election, he is gambling on his ability to push through the big changes he has been seeking since the start of his premiership.

Julie