Monday, 3 October 2011

What did the Romans ever do for bloggers?

I'm currently reading Stephen Greenblatt's new book, The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began. I always enjoy new historicist work, though I'm not entirely convinced that anecdotes or unnoticed events can be made to bear the weight of era-defining cultural change (don't write in: I know it's more complicated than that). The event in this book is the rediscovery in 1417 of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, a Roman text which discards God for an atomic vision of the universe (and much else besides).

I'm also suspicious of Greenblatt's sympathy for the Renaissance scholars' view that the period between the fall of Rome and their own period was one of cultural and social misery. I actually resent the term 'medieval' as cringeworthy, implying as it does that nothing much happened in-between the Romans and the Renaissance. But I digress…

Anyway, this hugely erudite book has a lot to say about literary and book culture in the Roman and early Renaissance periods, and no doubt I'll be presenting you with further choice tidbits in the near future. But one section caught my eye - Greenblatt's opposition between the isolated, individualist scholarship of the ecclesiastical scriptors and theologians, and the conversational academia of the Roman philosophers.

Ancient Greeks and Romans did not share our idealization of isolated geniuses, working alone to think through the knottiest problems… this vision of proper intellectual pursuits rested on a profound shift in cultural prestige, one that began with the early Christian hermits who deliberately withdrew from whatever it was that pagans valued… the dominant cultural image that they fashioned - or that was fashioned around them - was of radical isolation.
Not so the Greeks and Romans… their poets and philosophers must have periodically pulled away from the noise and business of the world in order to accomplish what they did. But the image that they projected was social… philosophers depicted themselves engaged in long conversation, often stretching out over several days. The pulling away… was figured not as a retreat to a solitary cell but as a quiet exchange of words among friends in a garden… the activity of choice, for cultivated Romans, as for the Greeks before them, was discourse. 

Greenblatt goes on to quote Cicero recalling the way in which long, thoughtful conversations between his friends, adherents to different philosophical schools, helped him determine his own position, though never definitively:
'inconclusiveness' was 'a strategy of civilised openness among friends. The exchange itself, not its final conclusions, carries much of the meaning. The discussion itself is what most matters, the fact that we can reason together easily, with a blend of wit and seriousness, never descending into gossip or slander, and always allowing room for alternative views. "The one who engages in conversation", Cicero wrote, "should not debar others from participating in it, as if he were entering upon a private monopoly; but, as in other things, so in a general conversation he should think it not unfair for each to have his turn"'.
I think we've a lot to learn from this, as students, academics and - yes - as bloggers, academic or not. The vision of the classroom as a civilised, open-minded conversation is one of vanishing perfection: the cultural context, the architecture, the class-sizes, the timings, the curriculum, the cash-up-front nature of modern education renders the easy-going examination of ideas more and more difficult in all but a few élite institutions, and their version is a self-conscious revival. I'm always looking for this exchange of ideas, but reality intervenes: too much teaching cuts down on my preparation time, students tired from holding down jobs aren't ready for the hard work, while others text or surf their way through class. But as an ideal, it's unbeatable.

This Roman model (building on the Greek Symposium, which had wine at its heart) is also very attractive. For academics, our careers are built (or not) on the output of scholarly papers published in obscure and expensive journals, destined to be read by the ten or twenty people in the world who share our specific interests. We make a cult of working on research in silent libraries or home offices, emerging blinking into the light with an article: our culture is clearly and explicitly modelled on those of the monks, constrained to unquestioning silence and obedience by - in their case -  the whip and - in our's - the REF and the whims of a know-nothing, care-less government.

Perhaps it's time to consciously shift our models. Certainly in the arts, we should work more collaboratively, as scientists do all the time. I'm convinced that we should share our ideas much more publicly and much more freely, in economic and social terms. Rather than being monks in cells, we should be Romans, inviting all interested parties to the conversation and becoming far less precious about individual genius and ownership. One outlet is the web: a blog is a perfect site for reaching out to colleagues and interested parties, for sharing ideas and testing work in progress. The peer-reviewed article or chapter is excellent as a filter and mark of esteem, but it's also an exclusive and limiting space. The speed and accessibility of the blog are hugely advantageous… as long as we heed Cicero's words and maintain what Greenblatt calls the 'civilised openness of friends'.

All this applies, of course, to non-academic blogging and my own brand of somewhere-in-between, which is why I'd love to get more comments and debate going. Join me!

1 comment:

Music for Deckchairs said...

Hi Vole
Can't resist this call to arms, of course, but I do find myself wondering whether there's also an issue that blogging exists in a co-dependent relationship to academic publishing, allowing some of us to let off steam while achieving very little in changing the esteem settings of higher education, and education generally. If you didn't blog, what would happen to that surplus energy?