Since my first degree was in the Western Classics, I have always been fascinated by its relatively recent origins, the myths it tells about itself, and its fate.

After claiming the scene in the German states, in France, and elsewhere, Classics finally arrived in that imperial latecomer, the British Empire. Understood as a ‘liberal education’, Classics provided the core of the educational curriculum in elite schools. With the bourgeoisie newly wealthy and increasingly powerful, new markers of class identity were needed to distinguish itself from both the moribund aristocracy and working class:

It is hardly coincidental that it is just at this time that several of the decaying provincial grammar schools were revived as public schools – that is, as boarding schools with a nonlocal clientele. Rugby in the 1780s, Shrewsbury the following decade, were the leaders of an expanding group. It was in these schools that the sons of prosperous bourgeois fathers learned how to read and write Latin and Greek, to lose their regional accents and to behave as gentlemen. The curriculum was almost totally dominated by classics: in the lower forms, grammar learning took up much of the time, together with mechanical exercises in verse composition (Stray 1996, 79).

Indeed, the sign that one had been to such a school was an intimate knowledge of the Classics, down to the skill of composing verse or prose in the classical languages. Such knowledge indicated one’s class status and thereby ensured one a key position in the imperial administration. This persisted even when the patronage system of appointments was abolished with the reforms of the Indian Civil Service in the 1850s, for the examination questions were geared to favour those with a classical education.

The genius in this whole system was that classical study was presented as non-utilitarian, necessary for the formation of the whole person, cultured and erudite – unlike the workers who apprenticed for a trade. The calling of Classics was meant to be greater than any worldly concern (so it was presented to me when I began its study). Nonetheless, it was precisely that approach to the world of politics and commerce that rendered one eminently worthy for leadership in that world. This was marked by a hegemonic vocabulary, saturated with classical languages and texts. The ability to engage in classical repartee, to appreciate the subtlety of a classical allusion, to put down those with no or limited knowledge of the Classics by such means, provided a distinct ruling class code.

As Thomas Gainsford stated from the pulpit: ‘the study of Greek literature … not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but not infrequently leads to positions of considerable emolument’.

I can now claim a significant achievement: I am the stingiest traveller at the University of Newcastle. Even those who pride themselves on budget travel are astounded: bicycles, couch surfing, youth hostels, minus star hotels, the leftover food shelves, conference freebees, basic supplies that last months, one small backpack, one change of clothes, getting in the shower with your clothes on to wash them, public (God forbid) transport …

All of which makes me ponder what I would do as a Vice-Chancellor – with some bite. Let me see:

* All must travel in the same fashion, for otherwise it will not be approved.

* Reduction – and in a few cases elevation – of wages to the average level in Australia: $70,000 per year (holy shit, that’s way beyond what they pay me). Given that most VCs are given about $1,000,000, that would immediately open up 13 new positions in that case alone. This would also negate those motivated by greed in search of jobs.

* Reduction of workload by 50%

* Increase of staff by 100%

* Average wage for all eligible PhD and masters students

And that’s just the beginning …

Must put together an application and find some willing institution, since this would be immense fun.

My first degree was in Classics. I studied it in a small department that was, like many Classics departments, it was under threat by university ‘bean counters’, the finance people who felt that classes of two or three students were a waste of money. Fortunately, we had an eccentric (and gay) professor in charge of the department. He pretended he had an English accent, drank way too much, gave lectures in his academic gown and shorts, and rode a bicycle. We called him ‘Godfrey’. But he was an astute politician and knew how to work the university system to ensure the survival of Classics.

We studied ancient Greek and Latin – their languages, literatures, cultures and histories. But it was Greek that was regarded as the basis, the founding culture, and that Latin was presented as secondary, borrowing from the Greeks. Again and again, we were reminded by our lecturers that Greek, and Latin tagging along, is the basis of Western ones such as English. We also studied Sanskrit. Or rather, Godfrey taught some of us Sanskrit. Late at night, four of us would gather for lectures – a gay mathematics teacher, a foreman at the steel works and an ageing hippie. We would chain smoke, drink the cheap sherry that Godfrey provided, laugh at his antics, and learn some Sanskrit. After all, is not Sanskrit one of the classical languages according to the (dubious) Indo-European hypothesis?

The problem for Classics in this university environment was that the discipline was (and continues) to be under threat. We asked: how can they threaten to close down the study of the basis of Western culture? If we forget our origins, will we not be the poorer? But we never questioned why these classical languages and texts – especially the Greek ones – were assumed to be that basis. That was precisely the problem, for the idea that the roots of the West may be found in ancient Greece is pure myth, albeit a convenient one, that dates back a little over two hundred years.

For the rest of the story, you’ll have to make your way to Suzhou for the Renmin University Summer Institute of Christian Culture …

This one comes up from time to time, but I have pondering it today while grouting my tiles – as you do. It is not uncommon these days for someone to be or have become somewhat hostile to theology. It is a pseudo-science, he or she asserts, studying objects that are figments of the imagination. It usually doesn’t get to the point of assuming that theology, or indeed religion, is the cause of all the world’s ills (like the ‘new old atheists’). But it may appear as consistent attacks on theology, dismissals, efforts to prove its inconsistencies, or simply disdain.

Now it becomes interesting. It is also not uncommon these days for such a person to apply for a theological position, whether in a divinity school in the USA, a theological faculty at a European university, or even a theological college.

Should they apply? Should such applications be accepted? Should they be offered a position?

It is not a matter of religious belief, which is a red herring in this context. Rather, it concerns the discipline itself. Would any interview panel seriously consider an application for a sociology position, or history, or linguistics, by someone who held these respective discipline in complete disdain?

Dan Oudshoorn has a long post on what boils down to the old problem of hypocrisy, the connection between what one says and how one lives. His targets in particular are the ‘tenured radicals’ of academia, and his favoured examples are those who hold to Marxist theory but not a Marxist ‘lifestyle’ (I wish Dan had chosen another word here, since ‘lifestyle’ has that foul odour of bourgeois ‘freedom of choice’). He compares them with biblical scholars who assume some normative claims from the Bible and yet steer clear of any collective religious involvement with marginalised people.

This fault line turns up in all sorts of places. For example, as one self-professed Marxist said to me a couple of years ago, standing at the front door of a sprawling mansion in the US northeast, ‘why can’t a Marxist be rich?’ By contrast, there was the grizzled and scarred front-line activist, with a long goatee and shaved head, beer-gut and cigarette propped in one ear, who said to me at a left congress, ‘if you’re not an activist, you’re not a f&*cking Marxist’.

I don’t want to deal with all of the points Dan raises, but rather focus on two or three. To begin with, the problem he addresses is not an anomaly but crucial to the self-definition of academia. One needs to take the mythical ‘step back’ and analyse a situation from a ‘critical’ distance. This move goes back to the time when the academic disciplines hived off from theology and sought to establish for themselves an independent basis. In this situation, ‘objective’ meant ‘free from theological dominance’. Eventually biblical studies and theology themselves tried the same trick, ending up with ‘secular’ biblical criticism and ‘scientific’ theology. What is usually missed in this standard account is that it was part of the process by which the bourgeoisie came to class dominance. One of the signal marks of that rise was the shift from the church as the dominant cultural power to education, which became a distinct zone outside church control and under bourgeois control. So those who hold to objective, secular, critical, scientific approaches, especially on matters religious, are enthusiastic ideologues of the bourgeois project.

But that means Marxist intellectuals and others are a little caught, especially if they are involved in some way in the educational system. The structural criteria by which that system operates are fundamentally bourgeois and yet the position they espouse seeks, to invoke Lenin, to ‘smash’ the bourgeois system. Yet this is not unique to Marxists, as Dan observes in passing, for it applies to any praxis-oriented approach, that is an approach that has an explicit and (more or less) radical political dimension to it. You are left with three options: buy into the system as it is, opt to be an activist, or live a contradictory life in which both are in some way held together. The pressures towards the first are immense. Journals that have the title ‘socialist’ in them are regarded as less-than-academic. Activists routinely are denied promotion and influence. Anyone who writes from a committed position is derided as ‘ideological’ or out to ‘save the world’. Or, on the theological side, academics continue to sneer at theology as a pseudo-discipline – as though they are still living the crude battles of half a millennium ago.

The solution? I will never forget a moment at a left conference, in the midst of a heated discussion about ‘what is to be done?’, about the integration or ‘merger’ (Kautsky) of intellectuals and the global proletariat. One person stood up and simply said, ‘does anyone here know how to dismantle and reassemble a rifle?’

A new page where I give my own perspective on what’s happening at the University of Newcastle, the place that, for some reason that is beyond me, wants to keep on employing me … even though they read this blog.

With the widely reported news that Osama Bin Laden has finally been killed by some US assassination unit, it is worth reflecting on why universities and intelligence agencies should be immensely thankful to Mr Bin Laden.

To begin with, the ‘intelligence’ agencies have never had it better: massive injections of government funds, plenty of positions to fill, lots of new equipment on which to peruse facebook, twitter and what have you.

As for universities, the massive increase in courses, programs, research centres, grants, articles, books and academics focusing on ‘terrorism’, Islam, extremism, and so forth would not have happened without Bin Laden. In Australia, graduation ceremonies are full of  international students receiving degrees in ‘counter-terrorism’. Intellectuals with fIagging careers have suddenly found a new lease of energy and, even better, shitloads of cash to figure out how to ‘secure’ Australia. All but one area remains untapped: the discipline of pro-terrorism studies, with a core program called ‘How to be a terrorist’.

So I propose that both ‘intelligence’ agencies and universities institute an annual ‘Osama Bin Laden’ day, saluting the man who inaugurated a golden era of funding, research and teaching in an area previously barely acknowledged.

In the face of continued unrest among the students during the last years of the tsarist autocracy in Russia, especially students who supported the communists, the autocracy deployed a well-tried response. As Lenin comments in 1901:

Decades of experience have taught the government that it is surrounded by inflammable material and that a mere spark, a mere protest against the students’s detention cell, may start a conflagration. This being the case, it is clear that the punishment had to be an exemplary one: Draft hundreds of students into the army! “Put the drill sergeant in place of Voltaire!” (Lenin, Collected Wors, vol. 4, pp. 415-26).

Makes one wonder why the government in the UK hasn’t tried that one. Then again, they probably don’t read much.

For those of you thinking of going to the Maramureş, up in the mountains of northern Romania this October (looks like I’m going to be there). Check out the brilliant website:

The North University of Baia Mare, the Faculty of Letters, Department for Foreign Languages

Second Call for Paper

The Third International Anniversary Conference

From Francis Bacon to William Golding: Utopias and Dystopias of Today and of Yore

October 20th – 23rd 2011

We are celebrating 450 years since Francis Bacon’s birth, and 100 years since William Golding’s by launching an invitation to an interdisciplinary fathoming of the depths of the human attraction toward utopias and dystopias. Whether they use the Baconian method ‘invented’ by the 1st (and last) Viscount Saint Alban, or the allegorical treatment of places and characters of the British dystopian poet and novelist, there are hundreds of writers, poets, artists, philosophers and critics that have added new facets and interpretations to the dreams or nightmares of humanity concerning their social organization, political hazards, humanist and religious values, as well as future heavens or apocalypses.

From the New Atlantis to Oleanna, Shangri-La, Xanadu or Shambala, many such Arcadian sites have been imagined by humanity to place their utopian visions. Dystopias are envisaged horrid places of Amalgamation, of the human being living in a Limbo, or in such places like Kazohinia, Kallocain, the future Zanzibar, the Metropole, the Terraplane, Metro 2033, or Grandoria. Since Foucault we also speak of Heterotopias, which are so fashionable in popular culture, especially with such complex and mixed symbols as those present in museums, theme parks, malls, holiday resorts, gated communities, wellness hotels and festival markets…. . Ecotopias, which started in the Hippie Movement with tones of primitivism and eco-anarchism are ‘sweetened’ by such contemporary dreams as the green skyscrapers, or the hovering cities…..

We invite contributions from academics in the domains of philology, philosophy, theology, psychology, and the arts to tackle any aspect of the above, in a conference that will combine paper presentations with cultural events, and with our tribute to the great two personalities that we are celebrating. Theme theatre performances, as well as art exhibitions, movies and musical events will come to add new insights into the vast domain, as well as into the lives and work of Bacon and Golding. We are only suggesting a few guidelines for panel discussions, but we are open to other suggestions, as well, for papers presented either in English or in Romanian:

-         the rhetoric of utopian and dystopian writings;

-         recurrent themes in literary and philosophical debates on utopias and dystopias;

-         genres of utopian and dystopian literary creations;

-         postmodern thinking and Foucault’s concept of heterotopia;

-         ecotopias and New Age; environmentalist interpretations of the future;

-         Bacon and his vision of a New Atlantis;

-         William Golding’s dystopian vision on the ‘civilized’ human being;

-         social and religious utopias and dystopias;

-         transformation, evolution or devolution of utopian thinking during the centuries….

Keynote speakers:

Professor Ian Buchanan, Cardiff University

Professor Roland Boer, Newcastle University

Professor George Achim, North University


Scientific Committee:

Prof. Ana Olos, North University (British, American and Canadian studies)

Professor Adrian Otoiu, North University (British, American and Canadian studies)

Professor George Achim, North University (Romanian and European studies)

Professor Petru Dunca, North University (Philosophy and Theology)

Professor Rodica Turcanu, North University (Germanic Cultural studies and  linguistics)


Publication committee and reviewers:

Professor Ian Buchanan, Cardiff University

Professor Roland Boer, Newcastle University

Professor Danny Robinson, Bloomsburg University

Professor Petre Dunca, North University

As we would like to encourage a true interdisciplinary participation, with papers delivered both in English and Romanian, we will decide upon sections after the scientific committee has selected the most interesting propositions. Therefore, please fill in the registration form below, and send it to the organizing committee to the following address: baconandgolding@gmail.com by April 25, 2011. For further queries please refer to our website http://baconandgolding.ubm.ro or contact Mrs. Ligia Tomoiaga, at tomoiagaligia@gmail.com

All participants will have 15 minutes for paper presentation and 10 minutes for discussions. Please bring papers in electronic version with you: Time New Roman, 12, with endnotes, APA style.

For those who would like to participate, but who for reasons of distance and cost cannot be present in person, we offer the possibility of video conferencing.

The conference registration fee is € 50 and it covers participation costs, coffee breaks, lunches and conference portfolio. Participation through video conference is € 30 .

We are currently discussing the possibility of publishing our proceedings in an ISBN volume, with Cambridge Scholars Publishing, for papers written in English. The costs will be announced at the conference. Papers will be considered for publication by three independent reviewers. The other papers will be published in a bilingual volume (with ISBN) at the North University Publishing House.

In the universities, at least. I hear of whole departments, whether academic or administrative, in which every member is seeking work elsewhere and in which no position is filled should someone go.

Reminds me of Engels’s observation almost 160 years ago, in 1842:

England is by nature a poor country which, apart from its geographical position, her iron and coal mines and some lush pasture-land, has no fertility or other natural riches (MECW 2: 371).

The iron and coal mines are pretty much closed, and the last vestige of the fertility of ideas is draining away. As someone put it, during the time of the empire the ruling class perfected the art of fucking up a whole spate of other cultures and societies, so it was only a matter of time before that class, with no-one else to do over, turned in on England itself – like a parasite that runs out of hosts and begins feeding on itself.

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