New York visit; “Countryside, The Future”; Will Allen on farming; tempora cum causis (18)

Ancient. This week I was in New York visiting the Classics department at NYU. On Thursday (5th March 2020), I talked about my primary research interest at the moment, Cicero and the Latin poets. Big shoutout to the NYU Classics grad students who invited me and are doing very important work right now to make the field more inclusive. Handout to the talk below:

While in New York, as well as stopping in at ISAW, I headed over to the Guggenheim, which is currently showing a very interesting exhibit, “Countryside, The Future” by AMO/Rem Koolhaas. This is an installation which looks at the earth from a global perspective and underlines the necessity that human beings living right now closely examine our relationship with the ecosystems into which we have inserted ourselves. It’s an ambitious and important project which turns the interior of a major art museum in one of the most monumental and complex cities on the planet into a microcosm of what’s happening outside of cities right now around the world.

A careful observer will find a number of classical referents throughout this exhibit. The invocation of the Roman concept of otium (i.e. time off from duty) in the countryside, paired with the contemporary ancient Chinese idea of xiaoyao (“blissful repose”), represents, for the creators of this exhibit, moments of human history where reverence for the creative and contemplative spaces of the countryside facilitated respect for its rhythms and boundaries. In the modern era, they suggest, these ideas of restful contemplation have developed into intensely rapacious spatial practices, where the natural world is cannibalized under a commodified idea of “wellness.” The inclusion of ancient testimonia in this exhibit does something that Classicists often fail to do — namely, to situate our understanding of antiquity in broader movements of not only textual transmission, but environmental processes. Naturally, there’s a sense of urgency to this exhibit. (And I experienced it through a further layer of complexity — walking around with hundreds of other people while holding within me anxiety surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.)

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Modern. So here’s a question which I find myself struggling to answer. Are academics allowed to “be themselves”? An unspoken aspect of scholarly training is that, in addition to developing the various skills and deepening your research interests, you are also expected to internalize certain social practices and academic ways of being. I have already written about how much I despise the “professor” trope in pop culture — one that, sadly, is consciously reenacted by some flesh and blood professors, who present themselves to the world with horn-rimmed glasses and elbow patches despite the fact that they are 35 years old. Listen. It’s not actually the aesthetic that I have a problem with. It’s the fact that this is a costume which we feel that we have to put on to do our jobs properly, to be taken seriously as scholars, even to be identified as scholars.

The trouble, of course, is that if you don’t look and sound a very particular way, it’s impossible to bridge that gap. I’m a younger woman and even if I put on some elbow patched tweed, it would still never be enough for some people to ascribe intellectual power to me. This happens to women, of course, and it happens if you’re not white, if you deviate in any way from perceived gender norms, etc. etc. (Actually, this brings up an old New York memory. I was walking in Central Park when an English woman, who turned out to be an academic, asked me directions which I, of course, couldn’t give. When she realized I was visiting too, she asked if I was a student. “No,” I said, “I’m a Classics professor. I gave a lecture at Columbia last night.”)

And obviously the academic “costume” goes far beyond dress — it includes what your interests are, how you talk, and, basically, everything about how you interface with the world. Okay, so. Given that there is no physical way that I can present myself in the form which is considered authoritative, my question is this: will people want to hear from me in the way that it is natural for me to communicate? I have come from my own particular circumstances, had my own particular experiences, and all of these things, of course, have an impact on my intellectual powers. So to some extent denying what comes natural to me in order to constrict myself into a very confined space, one which I could never fully occupy anyway, is not just a moral problem but also an intellectual one. Scholarship wants — or it should want — intellectual plurality. This makes the work more interesting, and, frankly, it makes it better. But it’s going to be hard to achieve this if we keep constricting ourselves into these artificial shapes in order to be identified as a scholar in the first place. It’s going to be hard, but we — all of us — have to do some work to widen our field of vision, and put effort into consciously ascribing authority to those whose faces, bodies, and voices do not look or sound like the models of the past.


Excerpt. Will Allen, The Good Food Revolution (p18): “Farming had taught me to have trust in the unseen. You plant for a harvest that you hope will arrive but that is never guaranteed. The opening of Will’s Roadside Farm Market required a similar kind of faith. I hoped it would be rewarded. Yet farming had also taught me to expect the unexpected. Two days of heavy rains could wash away a crop that you had worked on for weeks. A cruel drought could choke your plants, and they would come up stunted or withered. I didn’t know yet what would become of my dream.”

Daily life. A different writing perspective than usual.