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Notes from a temporary Utopia

Written by Greg Woolf |

ICS Director Prof. Greg Woolf shares some thoughts on the Institute’s ongoing work in the era of physical distancing.

 

Fans of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels might remember his idea of entire civilizations, at an advanced point in their development, choosing to ‘sublime’. The Sublimed abandoned their physical and material existence to inhabit remote dimensions from which they might occasionally intervene, in a disembodied way, in the universe they had left behind.

Brew with a view. Image credit Greg Woolf.

The ICS itself relinquished its physical form on 20th March 2020 when Senate House was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Physically we are scattered from Ireland and Scotland to Scandinavia and Canada, with a cluster of bodies in and around London. Virtually, however, we are everywhere and nowhere. But like Banks’ Sublimed we are still very much involved.

Our abrupt removal to cyberspace has made us reflect on what the Institute can and cannot do, from our new utopia, in the classical sense of “no-space”. This is the first sudden change in our operations in quite a while. Like most institutions – especially in Higher Education and particularly in the UK – our role has developed incrementally over the two generations of our existence. Since its creation in 1953 by the Hellenic and Roman Societies in concert with the University of London, the Institute has altered as its three parents have evolved. Over the same time both the nature of Classics and of British universities has quietly been transformed. When we were founded, less than 5% of the UK population went to university. Today the figure is over 50%. Classical subjects are now taught in more British universities than ever before. Classical studies today is itself far more capacious than it was in the 1950s, socially, intellectually and pedagogically. In its current manifestation our subject remains highly successful, whether measured by the number of school leavers who want to study it, or by the quality and impact of our research on the wider public. But classical studies is not the same as it was, and that is a good thing. As we interrogate our disciplinary entanglement with the politics of class, imperialism and race, classical studies will change even more in the future, perhaps even finding a new name and identity for itself in the process. The ICS will change along with this.

Right now the ICS is a part of a School of Advanced Study, founded in 1995. We have a national mission, funded currently by Research England, to serve the entire UK research community in classics and (with our sister institutes) in the humanities more widely. Perhaps Utopia is not a bad place from which to do that? The rents are cheaper here, and as a Sublimed Entity we are equally close to everyone. These last few months we have carried on many of the things we did before. Grants for conferences and public engagement activities continue to be disbursed. Our publications are more widely read than ever, and more of them than ever before are now available through Open Access.

Necessity has shown us the potential of technologies that already existed. Our librarians now carry out searches of our specialist databases on behalf of remote readers. They have also been providing directions to the many materials available for free in digital form. All the SAS libraries have been discovering new ways to serve readers at a distance. Those of us who teach have become used to doing so over all sorts of technologies. The training courses we are currently running – on line of course – were oversubscribed to nearly 500 %. We are exploring new ways to hold workshops on line, beginning with one entitled Towards a more Inclusive Classics. I recently chaired a PhD viva in which the candidate, examiners and supervisors were distributed across four countries.

Next term most of our seminar series will take place online. This will be odd at first, but already some advantages are apparent. We will be inviting more speakers from overseas. Sound quality should be better – we really should have been using microphones already to make our seminars more accessible. Almost none of our seminars were recorded or livestreamed (The Digital Classicist showed us the way). Now most will be, so that those who need or wish to can listen to them later. We are becoming asynchronous as well as utopian. Events – once a tightly time-tabled series of face to face meetings in one or another nook or cranny of Senate House – will become a cloud of potential attractions. Attending will be more like sampling Netflix than committing to a weekly routine.

The Sublimed in Iain M. Banks’ novels had made a one-way journey. Once gone, they stayed gone. Our Utopia will be temporary, although we do not yet know exactly when we shall come back to earth, or under which constraints we shall be when we return. My guess is that some new habits will be hard to break. Committees, which often consumed much of the day for non-London members, are now much easier to attend virtually especially for those with busy home-lives and/or hectic work schedules. Perhaps more readers too will get used to mailing requests for PDFs and other materials rather than trekking in to Bloomsbury. The viewing figures for the Digital Classicist show us we can reach much larger audiences if we livestream and record seminars. Perhaps a little bit of Utopia is here to stay.

But we are not ready to give up entirely on a physical home. Many of the collections in our Library are stubbornly physical. Journal runs that go back decades, yellowing epigraphic corpora, the masses of glossy exhibition catalogues and excavation reports will all demand that readers attend in person. Classicists are fundamentally a textual community and as long as enough of our texts are physically located somewhere, we will need to visit them. The same is even more true of the material traces of the past which play a greater and greater part in our teaching, learning and research.

Monkeys grooming

And besides we still have a physical need to be together. My colleague Barry Smith, who directs the Institute of Philosophy, is fond of saying that we are not ‘socially distancing’ but rather ‘physically distancing’. He is right, of course, and in some ways we are currently being very social. The number of people I interact with each week through one medium or another remains high. These meetings do much more than exchange information and make collective decisions. In local and national meetings (see how difficult it is to shake pre-utopian expressions?) I watch colleagues laugh, express frustration, give each other encouragement and reassurance, share anxieties and generally care for each other. Even virtually we are continuing the social grooming that we normally do in and around committees, exam boards, and seminars. Humans can no more gather without doing this, than we can walk into a room without immediately noting who is present, who is talking to whom, and who are keeping apart. Our ancestors did all this in different settings. But we are not fully acclimatised to our new disembodied environment. Our social faculties are inhibited by the difficulties of picking up on the subtleties of body-language. In larger meetings in particular it is now more difficult to read the room, to notice when people lean in, or lean back, to spot the microgestures of agreement and dissent, of collusion and distancing. No-space is still an imperfect social space. It has proved difficult to have a meeting of minds when our bodies are so far apart.

Before COVID, the ICS was a place of serendipity. Researchers in London on other business, would often take the chance for a few hours or even a few days at the ICS, catching a seminar or looking something up in the library. Conversations over coffee piggy-backed on chance encounters between colleagues. Students might meet casually with experts in their fields, authors with editors, former colleagues would reconnect. Sometimes this led to collaborations, more often we just tried out ideas on each other, asked advice, and did that social grooming that all communities need once in a while.

It has turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined to bump into colleagues accidentally on the internet, or to collar just one person for a few minutes after a meeting. At our last Advisory Council we were discussing the ICS seminars, how to make them more accessible and how to involve more people. The question of networking came up. Seminars are valued, at least in part, as meeting places, occasions when we come together, when new members are introduced into the group, when e-mail pals make closer connections face to face. It seems paradoxical that at time when our communication as a virtual community is literally managed mostly through actual networks, we are noticing more than ever the limits of the virtual and the downsides of the Sublime. It has been interesting spending some time in Utopia, but it has made me realise more clearly the value of our non-virtual existence. I am looking forward to coming back to earth.

by Greg Woolf